Race Capsule: Keselowski clutch at crazy Talladega cutoff race
Flag to Flag: Brad Keselowski radioed his Team Penske crew after Sunday's GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway race and said he never cries, but this time he might come close. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (31st), Jimmie Johnson (24th), Kasey Kahne (12th), and Kyle Busch (40th) probably were close to crying for different reasons. In a win or go home scenario, Keselowski drove like a "Brad" out of hell in the closing laps, furiously blocking and switching lanes to win his 6th race of the season and clinching a coveted spot in the eight driver Eliminator Round for NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup playoffs. Johnson, Earnhardt Jr., Kahne, and Matt Kenseth (2nd) were all in similar Chase-clinching binds. Team 48 and Johnson went to work, leading easily the most laps in the race (84) and fighting viciously back for the top spot whenever a challenger, including teammate Earnhardt Jr. (who led the second-most laps with 31), would take it away. In a restrictor plate race, cars are almost virtually the same speed, but Johnson's was the best. His lead car could seemingly make moves ahead of the pack without any help. That should have been an ex-factor, but it wasn't. Danica Patrick (19th) lead several laps up until a green flag pit sequence that saw Kyle Larson (17th) spin and bring out a yellow on lap 176. That shuffled things a bit, as Ryan Newman (5th) took the point and led until a debris caution on lap 185 of the scheduled 188. Johnson, who started 2nd in the race and near the front on the restart on lap 180, led one lap during that point, but moved out of line to make a high move for the lead and had no drafting help. He dropped toward the back in the closing laps. Keselowski got shuffled back to 16th after the pit stops, but teammate and fellow Chaser Joey Logano (11th), who already had a spot secured in the next round of the Chase, shoved BK's No. 2 Ford toward the front in the high line. Then Keselowski led the field to green on the lap 188 restart, but things went south for another "win or go homer". Greg Biffle (25th) tagged Earnhardt Jr. in the left rear quarter panel and triggered a multi-car mess that heavily damaged Earnhardt Jr.'s machine. The No. 88 stayed on the lead lap, but had no chance of working back to the front on the last restart and got eliminated from the Chase. The second attempt at a green-white-checkered finish saw Keselowski lead the field to green, but Newman lead the white flag lap. Keselowski got two-wide with Newman and swung his car from the low groove up to block Newman, almost hitting him, but doing enough to win and advance. Kenseth, who pounced on Keselowski in the garage after on-track confrontations at Charlotte last week, got teased for "helping" Keselowski win, but said he had to make moves to ensure his best finish and getting out of line was only going to cost him. Kenseth had run near the back most of the day with fellow Chasers Denny Hamlin (18th and won the May race at Talladega), Carl Edwards (21st), Jeff Gordon (26th), and Ky. Busch. The safe strategy worked for all but Busch, who got caught in a crash, when J.J. Yeley (42nd) and Aric Almirola (39th) made contact and collected Busch and several others on lap 104 (more on this later). Kahne led 12 laps and seemed primed to secure the 8th spot in points, but Kenseth's good run and Keselowski's win vaulted them ahead of Kahne. Newman's top 5 helped him, but his car was too low in post-race inspection and a resulting penalty may or may not keep him from advancing. NASCAR makes that decision early this week. The top 10 were Keselowski, Kenseth (did just as much as Keselowski did to save his title hopes and did with Home Depot on board in its last race as primary sponsor of the No. 20 car), Bowyer (hung in back most of day and charged late), Landon Cassill (hung near the front of the pack much of the day), Newman, Travis Kvapil (don't you love 'Dega), Kurt Busch, Marcos Ambrose (charged late like Bowyer did), Kevin Harvick (got spun on pit road and fell a lap down just before the yellow on lap 176 - then got the free pass), and Casey Mears (good run in his primary sponsor's race). Most drivers that needed mediocre runs to advance at Talladega did. Bad luck bit Busch and Earnhardt Jr. Johnson and Kahne didn't have the magic that they've been missing most of the year. And Keselowski hit a grand slam in the bottom of the 9th to keep his quest for another ring alive. That was some intense racing, folks. That was Talladega.
RaceTweet: Brad K. clutch & wins must win Talladega race to advance. Rival Kenseth also clutch 2nd. 48 88 18 and 5 cut. A wow race!
Handsome Boy Modeling School Stud of the Race: Brad Keselowski - Had to win and did it, making sick, almost ill-advised moves to take and keep the top spot. The race looked to be boiling down to Johnson vs. Keselowski in the closing laps, until Johnson got shuffled back. With a championship that boils down to one race at Homestead, Keselowski showed yet again that he can come back from adversity (damage in Jamie McMurray's crash on lap 61 and lost track position from last pit stop) and not just get a top 5 - but a win - at a place where almost anyone can do it. Team owner Roger Penske threw out this stat in the post-race press conference: Keselowski's win makes 11 for Team Penske in the Cup Series, breaking their mark that Rusty Wallace set of 10 in 1993. The 2 team has six wins and the 22 of Logano has five. Oh yeah - and Keselowski started from the back after unapproved adjustments before this impound race.
North Korean Missile Dud: Jimmie Johnson - He should have been the stud, but instead got out-maneuvered in the final laps. Really, he did everything right and his decision to try and pass Keselowski on the high line wasn't a bad one. But no one wanted to follow "Six-Time" in that line and he was done. Nonetheless, all the things that normally click for Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus ended up unclicking at the end of the race Sunday - yet again. The magic was there for Johnson until that second-to-last restart. But unlike so many times past, Johnson just didn't get it done and is out of the Chase. The dud should have been Kenseth, who almost needed to win to make the Chase and rode in the back of the pack most of the day. But then his magic switch flipped.
You Can Comeback, But You Can't Stay Here: Kevin Harvick - His race was done when he got spun on pit road. Then the timely caution got him a free pass and he darn near won the race. Harvick already had a ticket for the Eliminator Round and showed his power yet again. He was almost "The Closer" for the second-straight week.
Ghost Driver: Michael Waltrip - Sure, he rebounded to a decent 16th-place finish, but Waltrip was non-existent most of the day. Making a rare start, why not try and carve to the front and mix things up? He almost got lapped, but pushed forward on the last restarts to finish ahead of three of the eight drivers who advanced in the Chase. Waltrip won the Talladega fall race in 2003.
Never Fear, Underdog is Here: Landon Cassill - The underfunded teams circle restrictor plate races - especially Talladega - as places they can run near the front or maybe win, for once. The Hillman Racing effort of No. 40 Cassill did just that. I took in the race just behind his pits and his entire crew was glued to Talladega's new bigger Sprint Vision screens. Sandra Hillman was jumping up and down and yelling in jubilation or frustration as Cassill would get near the front or pushed out of line. Eventually, this still-young driver will land a competitive ride. But for now, he can hang his hat on the fact that he continues to run better than he should. At Talladega, he made the best of an opportunity and hung with the big boys to finish 4th. Quasi-teammate Travis Kvapil finished 6th for Circle Sport Racing (and trust me, the No. 40 team was rooting for Cassill). A nod also goes also to young rookie Ryan Blaney in a third Team Penske car, who led 15 laps early and avoided a wreck to finish 22nd.
Wheel of Misfortune: Kyle Busch - Another championship chance gone. The No. 18 team's performance in the Chase has gotten better the last two seasons. Busch was in the thick of things early in last year's Chase, before bad luck at Kansas. This year, he made the first cut and had finished every Chase race in the top 10 - the last two in the top 5. He was very safe in the points, even running in back of the pack. But he had nowhere to go and got swept up in that lap 104 crash to finish 40th and just miss the 8th-in-points cutoff. The fact that only one other Chase driver (Earnhardt Jr.) got in a wreck further compounded Busch's bad luck. Terry Labonte also got a tinge of misfortune in his final career start, but got damage in the lap 104 crash also. He never could make up the lap he lost in the pits repairing the mess and placed the No. 32 GoFas Racing Ford 33rd. He definitely was crestfallen after the race when I talked to him, but took everything in that typical calm Labonte stride.
Head-Scratcher Crown of Thorns: Saturday's qualifying - Drivers waited until late in the new plate racing-revamped knockout qualifying to go out and make their best runs. Unfortunately for some, they waited too long. Chase drivers Hamlin, Harvick, Logano, Ky. Busch, and Gordon all went to make their laps as the session wound down. They didn't complete their first warm up lap, the lap at a plate track where the engines have not yet hit full speed, before the time ran out. So they couldn't make a second lap and had to use owner's points provisionals to make the race. Since several teams deep in points made the race on time and all of the provisional spots were taken by top teams, two full-time teams that waited to make their lap failed to make the race. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. from powerful Roush Fenway Racing and rookie Justin Allgaier from H. Scott Motosrports both missed the race. Reed Sorenson would have missed it also, but Joe Nemechek's time in the RAB Racing No. 29 Toyota got disallowed, so Sorenson made the race on speed. That Stenhouse Jr. and Allgaier missed the race was very unfortunate and you have to hate it for those teams. But what if eight or nine Chase drivers had made the same move and had to use provisionals? We could have had a Chase race that was missing a driver or two from the playoffs. That would have been nuts. I asked Matt Kenseth at the 2013 Sprint Media Tour last January if the then-new non-top 35 qualifying system made him nervous. A driver outside the top 6 in points is technically not locked in to any race. Kenseth just shrugged and said if his team was that slow, they didn't deserve to make the race anyway. We almost saw that Saturday. Almost.
Georgia On My Mind: Talladega was a perfect place for Georgia drivers to shine - and they came close. David Ragan and Reed Sorenson both ran in the top 15 for much of the day, with both being in the top 5 at the same time late in the going. But Ragan got shuffled back to 30th on the final restart. Sorenson hung in there and finished an impressive 14th at the flag. Sorenson gained 25 points on Ragan and passed him to hold a nine point lead for 33rd in points. The Nationwide Series was idle, but the Camping World Truck Series campaigned in Saturday's Fred's 250 at Talladega. Ryan Sieg returned to the NCWTS for the first time since early in the year and crashed on lap 11, finishing 33rd. John Wes Townley avoided the trouble to finish a solid 8th and is 12th in points. Timothy Peters scored the win, his first of the season.
NCWTS RaceTweet: Timothy Peters gets boost with first win of year. Boy, did Ben Kennedy take a wicked hit. Crafton still leads the points.