Talladega Superspeedway has long since achieved a reputation as a track where we can most often expect everything from the unusual to the unforeseen – and, in some cases, the bizarre.
The list of examples is far to long to record here. Let’s just say they range from a well-documented Indian curse upon the land on which the track was built to the sabotage of many cars in the garage area and even some nut trying to steal the pace car in pre-race ceremonies.
We can add the Aaron’s 499 Sprint Cup race to the list.
It was not your usual NASCAR event, not by any means.
Because of rain that delayed competition for over three hours and 30 minutes, the race took about seven hours to complete.
There were two massive, multicar wrecks – a couple of the “Big Ones” for which Talladega has become well-known – not unexpected, to be honest.
But the finish is really what separates this Aaron’s 499 from its predecessors.
In a single green-white-checkered restart decreed by NASCAR as darkness enveloped the track, two teammates on the same “underdog” team that often is no match for the superpowers, shoved their way past their elite competition to sweep to a one-two finish.
David Ragan and David Gilliland, both of who drive for Bob Jenkins’ Front Row Motorsports, finished first and second, respectively.
It was a most unexpected performance by two drivers overshadowed by more established, and publicized, talent.
No one, and I mean no one, could have predicted this outcome.
It might be more emphatic to say flat-out that no one did.
Briefly, the unusual happened thusly:
Following the fifth caution of the race – caused by a 13-car accident on the backstretch of the 2.66-mile track – it evolved that the event was going to a green-white-checkered restart, three laps beyond its 188-lap distance.
Matt Kenseth, the powerhouse of the day with 142 laps led, was in front, ahead of staunch rivals Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson.
Edwards took the lead with one lap to go and then on the last lap, everyone watching the race was stunned as Ragan, pushed by Gilliland, powered into the lead and held it to the checkered flag.
“If it wasn’t for that final push from David Gilliland, I don’t know what to say,” said Ragan. “This is a true David vs. Goliath moment here for Front Row Motorsports and Ford.
“Wins are not easy, but this is special. It feels like I’ve never been here before.”
Ah, but he has. When he was driving for Roush Fenway Racing in 2011, Ragan won the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona in July.
Ragan joined Front Row Motorsports in 2012 and became a teammate to Gilliland, who came on board in 2010 and once raced for Robert Yates Racing.
Josh Wise became the team’s third driver last year. Over three seasons the trio managed just two top five finishes and four among the top 10.
So it’s obvious why they were regarded lightly and why the Ragan-Gilliland finish was so stunning.
Ragan admitted it was all unlikely but added that opportunity just opened up for him.
“I sure wouldn’t want to have to line up and have to do it again,” Ragan said. “When we took the green we were running 10th and the outside lane today had been a little bit better all day long, so I got a good restart.
“I don’t know what happened on that first lap, but coming around, when we took the white, I was pushing (Aric) Almirola. He jumped to the outside of Kenseth getting into turn one and I didn’t want to be on the top lane going down the back straightaway.
“The top lane hadn’t surged well enough down the back straightaway today, so Kenseth been the class of the field all day long.
“I saw him right in front of me, so I decided to stick with him.”
At that time, Ragan picked up the push from Gilliland, who had tucked in behind him. Ragan had no idea how Gilliland got there.
“(Carl) Edwards was in the lead and I guess didn’t see me coming quick enough or we had such a fast run I was able to get position on him,” Ragan said. “And I don’t know still today how David had such a good run. He was just pushing me unbelievably through three and four.
“I knew once I came out of turn four we had enough steam that I could have made my car wide enough that we were gonna make it back around to the start-finish line.
“So it’s a huge, huge deal for us to be sitting here right now and it makes it even more special to get a 1-2 finish. Can you believe that? That was a great finish.”
Edwards, who finished third, could have easily been frustrated over the results but said he wasn’t.
“I was definitely not,” he said. “David just got us. He just did it. Of course he raced me clean. It’s Talladega. As long as I’m not upside-down in the fence I think it was pretty clean.
“I don’t know how you define clean here, but he did his job. He raced me as hard as he could have raced me without wrecking me.
“I don’t think either one of us could have tried any harder without being wrecked and he got me, so he earned the win.”
Only 43 laps of the race were completed before the first multicar accident took place in the first turn.
Sixteen cars were involved and most were eliminated from the race – including those of Kyle Busch, Kasey Kahne, Brian Vickers (in relief of Denny Hamlin), Kevin Harvick and Greg Biffle.
At lap 124, rain began to pelt the speedway, which brought out the third caution period of the day and led to the lengthy red-flag period.
Later, when the field regrouped for a restart on lap 179 following the race’s fourth caution flag, just about everyone expected another “Big One.”
After all, it was a double-file restart with just nine laps remaining. Every driver would throw caution to the wind.
Sure enough on lap 184, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., on the outside, pressed into J.J. Yeley, which sent Yeley into Kurt Busch.
The melee was on. Busch got airborne and landed on the roof of Ryan Newman’s car as the field scattered along the backstretch.
“Typical Talladega,” said Newman. “Everyone’s got their head up their ass.”
The mishap set up the green-white-checkered and the dramatic, and most unexpected, finish.
“I tell you what makes it special is just the time and the effort that these guys put into these cars,” said Jenkins. “There are a lot of owners out there that get the best available driver they can get and they’re like a hired gun.
“But the thing that I think makes our team different than some of the rest is that we’re so close. More than anything we’re friends and I know I’ve got drivers that are capable of winning races. I’ve got guys at the shop that have the heart to win races.
“We just haven’t always had the resources, so the challenge for me is as we build cars is to make them better.
“Most of all, it’s just so satisfying to see that over the last nine years every year we’ve gotten a little bit better.
I felt the progress and I knew it was just a matter of time before we’d win one of these things.”