Race Capsule: Stenhouse Jr. brings down the big house at Talladega
Talladega Superspeedway always has a wildcard lurking in its shadows. The track lends itself to surprise winners, big crashes, close finishes, and the bizarre. Sunday's GEICO 500 had all of that - an extremely competitive and dramatic overtime affair that awarded pole-sitter Ricky Stenhouse Jr. his long-awaited
Flag-to-flag: Stenhouse Jr. first spoiled Junior Nation's weekend fairytale by knocking Dale Earnhardt Jr. (finished 22nd) from the pole position on Saturday: Earnhardt Jr. was second-to-last to qualify and the lesser-known Junior timed in last. Then the fifth-year driver led the first 13 laps of the
Brad Keselowski (7th) swapped the lead with several others and eventually led the final 24 laps of Stage 1 to win it. Joe Gibbs Racing deployed a similar strategy to what they shakily tried in the Daytona 500, pitting before the end of the stage to try and gain track position when everyone else went to pit road. Denny Hamlin (11th) did this and it worked, but Matt Kenseth (24th) and Daniel Suarez (19th) committed to
Hamlin led all but 14 laps of Stage 2 and won it, but no leader in this race ever seemed to have the race fully in control. No driver was able to dominate from the lead spot as Keselowski has in the past. And the pack often stayed two and three-wide, never getting completely single-file. The intensity stayed pegged.
Kenseth deployed the same strategy after Stage 2 that he did for Stage 1 - and this time it worked. After getting a free pass during the Stage, he led the field the first four laps of Stage 3, then a scrum of Hamlin, Keselowski, Kevin Harvick (23rd), Jimmie Johnson (8th), and last week's Richmond winner Joey Logano (32nd) swapped the lead, especially during a green flag pit sequence that saw the likes of Kyle Busch (3rd), Hamlin, and about 10 others in the lead pack pit early. Logano,
This split the pack in two, but the late-pitters eventually caught the other pack that Busch led and the shuffling brought disaster on lap 170.
Chase Elliott (30th) was running in the top 5 with A.J. Allmendinger (31st), Harvick, and Earnhardt Jr. in tow. Allmendinger got a run on Elliott in Turn 2, just as Elliott moved a third of a lane up. Allmendinger hit Elliott at an angle, turning the No. 24 Hooter's Chevy in front of the field and collecting 18 cars. Elliott got airborne and both hit Allmendinger and rode the wall, which sent
After a nearly half-hour red flag, the race resumed for six more laps on lap 174. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (22nd) had fought his way back into the top
Through all of this melee, Kyle Busch had led for 39-straight laps, in a strong No. 18 Toyota. Seeking his first win since last July, Busch had seen wins taken away because of late cautions or blown tires all
The two, who famously tangled at the end of
Top 10: Stenhouse Jr.; McMurray (almost got first win since Talladega in fall 2013); Ky. Busch (can't blame this loss on Goodyear); Aric Almirola (Saturday's Xfinity Series winner); Kasey Kahne (second top 5 of
The points: Larson still holds a hefty lead over Truex Jr. by 54 points, thanks to an insane average finish of 7th this season. Keselowski is seven points behind Truex Jr. and Elliott is 14 behind Keselowski. 40 points separate Ryan Blaney in 13th from rookie Jones in 20th, with Bayne, Almirola, Kahne, and Kenseth in between. Ku. Busch and Newman are also in that mix, but each has a playoff win to clinch them a spot in the 16-driver playoffs. Earnhardt Jr.'s continued misfortunes leave him 25th in the points, 67 behind Bayne in 16th. He pretty much will need a win to assure a playoff berth in his final season.
Handsome Boy Modeling School Stud of the Race: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. - His win was not just some fluke. Stenhouse Jr. and his Roush-Yates horsepower won the pole and led laps early. Then he made a pro move on Ky. Busch to get the race win - the same kind of
North Korean Missile Dud: Dale Earnhardt Jr. - For all the pressure and hype a Talladega crowd puts on the No. 88 team, Earnhardt Jr. had very few glimpses up
Never Fear, Underdog is Here: David Ragan - His day looked over when he got damage in the 18-car wreck. But crew chief Derrick Finley led the Front Row Motorsports crew to repair the No. 38 Camping World Ford over two tops and Ragan assured them everything was fixed. Then, instead of just hanging on for a good finish, Ragan shot
Ghost Driver: Martin Truex Jr. - Despite the No. 78 team's dominance this season, Truex Jr. never led a lap, though he finished 5th in the end of the first two stages. The big wreck eliminated him from the race.
You Don't Have to Comeback, But You Can't Stay Here: Kyle Larson - There's a reason he's the points leader. Larson hit the wall and cut a tire on lap 18 and then spend the rest of the day playing catch up. His team repaired the damage, but then battled alternator and battery issues the rest of the day, losing laps under caution twice. But Larson got the free pass after the lap 170 Big One and drove to a very respectable 12th-place finish.
Wheel of Misfortune: Ryan Blaney - This guy can't catch a break. After power-steering issues torpedoed his Bristol race, he cut a tire and wrecked at Richmond, then got hooked by Stenhouse Jr. and crashed to a 39th-place finish at Talladega. Blaney also has had tire issues at Atlanta, Martinsville, and Phoenix, yet he has run in the top 10
Jimmie Johnson's Golden Horseshoe: A.J. Allmendinger - This has very little to do with luck and more to do with the safety of NASCAR racecars, but Allmendinger had a vicious, airborne crash and landed on his roof. He walked away. Thank goodness.
Head-Scratcher Crown of Thorns: Talladega drew a fantastic crowd Sunday, likely driven by Earnhardt Jr.'s retirement announcement. The weather was great and so was the racing. But seeing the crowd's reaction at different times helped highlight a few insights into why NASCAR has had trouble drawing fans the last 10 years.
The biggest cheers from the crowd came not even from Dale Earnhardt Jr., but from the huge wreck in Turn 2. People went nuts for it, at least in my section of the grandstands. The huge pack racing is exciting not just for the closeness of the drivers, but for the likelihood that when something breaks out, there will be severe carnage. And there was.
NASCAR keeps adjusting the cars and tracks keep taking stabs - both are trying to make the racing better and create more passing and people like that. But people like wrecking even more. That's why the "new" Bristol is not a hit, even though the racing action is great. This maybe is why the highly competitive Richmond race last Sunday only drew about 30,000 in the grandstands.
The real problem with NASCAR now versus in past decades is that the sport is refined beyond the scope that most fans enjoy. They not only want drivers with colorful personalities, blue
Whether media like me will admit or accept this or not, there simply is just not enough confrontation or carnage in the average race to draw fans like there used to be. How the
NXS RaceTweet: A late debris caution costs Allgaier the win and hands it to Aric Almirola at Talladega. #CupDrivers
Georgia On My Mind: Here's the deal, every Georgia driver had a terrible race weekend, except for Ragan. Elliott wrecked. Sorenson blew a tire and was the first car in the garage. Brandon Jones, Ryan Sieg, Chris Cockrum...they all crashed in the NXS Race. Garrett Smithley's pit strategy got him
Next: NASCAR returns from its short track and plate track sabbatical for a Mother's Day weekend special at the casino and racetrack in Kansas City. The