Unlikely Ragan win caps off damp and dark 'Dega weekend
The Scoop: David Ragan notched his 2nd career victory and the first win for Front Row Motorsports in Sunday's Aaron's 499. The Unadilla, Georgia driver surged from 8th to 1st in the final two laps, slam drafting leader Carl Edwards, pushing him loose, and then swinging into the lead with a push from teammate David Gilliland, who finished 2nd. Edwards was 3rd. This race was even more unpredictable than one could (cough) predict a Talladega race to be. Rain during the race seemed inevitable all weekend, but the sun burned off the clouds and warmed the air in the hour before the race. Once the green fell, clouds and wind kicked up and the threat of scattered showers prevailed all afternoon. On lap 44, Kasey Kahne jumped in front of a surging Kyle Busch in the outside lane. Busch couldn't stay off of him, they spun, and triggered a 16-car crash that eliminated several from contention. Matt Kenseth kept his No. 20 Toyota out front most of the race and seemed primed to keep that spot as rain began to fall. But rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr. started a surge on the outside line to take the lead and then his teammate Edwards had just nosed in front of him, when NASCAR threw the caution for rain with. Soon that yellow flag turned red on lap 125 and a heavier rain storm eventually pushed that stoppage to over 3.5 hours. When the race resumed, Kenseth and Edwards resumed the top two spots and the entire field rode in several single-file packs, until just before the final pit stops around lap 165. Michael McDowell's crash and caution bunched the field up for a lap 179 green flag, which triggered a nasty crash. J.J. Yeley spun, after contact with Stenhouse Jr. and collected Kurt Busch, sending him airborne. Busch's car landed on Ryan Newman's and the crash collected several others, including Danica Patrick. All three drivers were clearly angry in their post-crash comments to the media. With darkness setting in, NASCAR called for just one attempt at a green-white-checkered finish, meaning Matt Kenseth had two laps to seal the deal. But the pack had a mind of its own and Ragan eventually popped out of turn 4 with a big head of steam and took the checkered flag. Kenseth led a race-high 145 laps and finished 8th. Jimmie Johnson extended his points lead, finishing 4th. And Michael Waltrip, sporting both the race's title sponsor and Alabama Crimson Tide colors, finished 5th as part of his limited schedule.
140 Characters or Less: Ragan claims underdog win at Dega, in race marred by rain delays, darkness, and ugly wrecks. Front Row 1-2! Heartbreak for Edwards/Kenseth.
Handsome Boy Modeling School Stud of the Race: Matt Kenseth - Yes, most of the laps he led were when the field took it easy and raced single-file. But Kenseth also made some bold moves to keep that lead and take it and may have had a better shot at the win, if his teammates had not wrecked and been near the front to push him back there.
The Groovy Move: David Ragan - Easy to pick the winner here, but Ragan didn't just luck into this plate win. He muscled past Edwards and made all of the right moves in the last third of a lap to keep Edwards and the rest of the field at bay. Plate races give teams like Front Row Motorsports a better shot to win, but the drivers still have to make the moves to get in that position and Ragan certainly did that.
North Korean Missile Dud: Tony Stewart - He has a trophy case full of these awards already this disappointing season. The lap 44 crash sheared off the right rear of his car, rendering him uncompetitive the rest of the race. The Stewart-Haas Racing package at most tracks has been off this year, but this Talladega race was a good chance for all three SHR teams (Stewart, Patrick, and Newman) to gain their mojo - and some spots in the standings. All three wrecked. Stewart was the only one that completed the race, finishing five laps down in 27th. He is 22nd in points, just 17 markers ahead of Mark Martin - who has run two less races and has two more top 10s (three).
Never Fear, Underdogs Are Here: David Gilliland - Enough can't be said about how big a 1-2 finish is for a small team like Front Row Motorsports. The extra purse money allows the team to update their cars or buy more tires for races (sometimes they have to use slower scuff tires to save money). The exposure makes FRM more marketable to sponsors and the result brings momentum to everyone involved. Gilliland and crew chief Frank Kerr used pit strategy to get into the top 5 when the race went green after the long red flag period. He pretty much stayed in the top 10 the rest of the race, putting him in a position to push teammate Ragan to the win. We'll also give a nod to Scott Speed, who brought the No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Ford to 9th - that team's best-ever finish. That team is expecting to add a big sponsor soon, so things are looking good for that small outfit.
You Can Comeback, But You Can't Stay Here: Richard Petty Motorsports - Both Marcos Ambrose and Aric Almirola pitted, like, eleven-ty times to fix damage. Ambrose got roughed up in The Big One on lap 44 and Almirola got front grille damage that pegged his water and oil temps just a few laps from the end. But both crews hammered and taped their hearts out, almost netting Almirola the win and getting both drivers top 15 finishes. Honorable mention goes to Jeff Gordon had heavy damage in the lap 44 crash and fell off of the lead lap, but his crew patched him up and he ended the day 11th.
Wheel of Misfortune: Kurt Busch - The No. 78 ran near the front all day only to have yet another good finish ripped away after his scary crash near the race's end. Busch sits 20th in points, which isn't terrible for Furniture Row Racing, but does not reflect the team's and Busch's speed this season. If that team hadn't had multiple mechanical or tire problems in previous races, they and Busch would likely be in Chase contention.
Head Scratcher Crown: NASCAR - The call to wait a long time and dry the track was not completely wrong. But the call to try and run all 188 laps as the sun set and rain picked up was. Traffic at Talladega is dicey and drivers already hate the random and dangerous nature of the race. NASCAR champions safety and then tries too hard to make things that shouldn't go on happen. They should have sheared off 10 or 15 laps from the finish as soon as they told drivers to re-fire the engines. Very few would have minded that. Most fans had gone home. Watch Ryan Newman's scorching post-race comments about this. http://youtu.be/i0alLNxjdWQ
Ghost Driver: Jamie McMurray - Usually somewhat of a force in plate races, McMurray's No. 1 Chevy barely sniffed the front of the pack (led only two laps) and finished 23rd, one lap down, after damage from the last big crash of the day. McMurray has four plate wins in his career.
Georgia On My Mind: Unadilla's David Ragan won, notching his 2nd-career Cup win and 4th overall in NASCAR. He won at Talladega and Bristol in the Nationwide Series in 2009. Ragan's win came on his parents' 40th wedding anniversary. And his older brother Adam, who suffers from Down's Syndrome and is his biggest fan, unfortunately was back home preparing to sell cars at David Ragan Ford in Perry. His father, Ken, told me on pit road just before the race that his son had a good car - but didn't say much more than that. That strategy worked well.
Quick side note: Conyers' Chris Cockrum and his dad Lynn tell me they will be in the No. 07 SS/Greenlight Racing Toyota for the Charlotte Motor Speedway Truck race in two weeks. Advanced Communications Group and Accu-Tech will be on board for Cockrum's 2nd Truck race of the season. Best wishes to he and all the Georgia drivers in NASCAR.
Lug Note: Much has been made about Brad Keselowski's frustration over his being on the inside line (not the preferrable line) on the final restart and Ragan's lining up on the outside. From all accounts, NASCAR and Ragan seemed in the right on the issue and Keselowski either was misinformed or just very angry about his 15th place finish. Where Keselowski seems more in the wrong is that he went almost straight to Twitter to voice his complaints. It seems as if he lately is more interested in taking a stand against the sport's governing body and coming off as the "rebel" driver than actually giving the calculated, honest analysis on NASCAR that he is known and liked for. Keselowski's attitude is fresh and his being a champion and keeping that same demeanor is even more appealing. But Keselowski's choice to gripe unhinged about adversity is starting to come off the wrong way and will get him in trouble. I received plenty of feedback from Ragan fans bashing Keselowski for clouding Ragan's win. To be fair, Keselowski did give props to the Front Row team for the win and seemed more upset with NASCAR than with anything Ragan did.