NASCAR: Talladega Turmoil Produces Playoff Perfection

TALLADEGA, AL - OCTOBER 15: Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Miller Lite Ford, celebrates in victory lane after winning the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Alabama 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on October 15, 2017 in Talladega, Alabama. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

TALLADEGA, AL: Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Miller Lite Ford, celebrates in victory lane after winning the Alabama 500 (Photo: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

If high speed racing in clustered three-wide packs is truly an acquired taste, then I’m craving more.  Sunday’s racing at Talladega Superspeedway was nothing short of the finest that such super long ovals with high-banked corners can deliver in NASCAR.

The Alabama 500 was certainly inspiring, with a packed house and the best TV ratings for a Talladega race in five years.

Fans were loud and boisterous, although devotees of Dale Earnhardt Jr. likely left frustrated that he couldn’t snag a checkered flag in his final appearance at the track, despite starting from the pole.

If there was any solace, Earnhardt Jr was running for the prize at the end, and that passionate energy was apparent as he survived multiple near misses, like a cat with nine lives.

Even more promising, a rising star named Chase Elliott garnered significant cheers when he drove the Hendrick Motorsports #24 Chevrolet to the front, and the dash to the finish line with Penske driver Brad Keselowski sweeping to the bottom in front of Ryan Newman to steal the victory on the final lap propelled fans into a frenzy as well.

Inevitably, the last restrictor-plate race of the season was a wreckfest that featured multiple red flags and the elimination of more than one-half of the cars prior to the conclusion of the race.  Such chaos ensures there will always be cynics who demand that Talladega “bulldoze the banks” and bring back normalcy to racing.

Yet, crashes serve to remind us of the fundamental risk in motorsports, with drivers on the edge of the competitive scalpel.  As the adage goes, we don’t want to see drivers injured, but we can’t look away from a spectacular pileup.

Oct 15, 2017; Talladega, AL, USA; A pack of 17 drivers wreck in turn three during the Alabama 500 at Talladega Superspeedway. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

A pack of drivers wreck in turn 3 during the Alabama 500. (Photo: John David Mercer/USA TODAY)

So what qualities make these superspeedway races so appealing?

First, driver skill was evident throughout the race.  No doubt there is randomness to such racing, but all forms of competitive sport feature a certain amount of luck.  However, superspeedway races require a mental toughness and spatial awareness that taxes the drivers’ focus.  Situational awareness is critical in knowing when to make the right move and at what time.

Hard racing, side by side and in close quarters, was on display throughout the day.  Drivers could not afford to hang back with three stages of playoff points in play.  The tension in the pack was evident, and required a fine balance of patience and aggressiveness, like a game of high stakes poker.

More prominently, playoff stress escalated tremendously.  At the halfway point of the ten race NASCAR playoffs, Talladega injected sorely needed buzz into a championship chase that seemed on autopilot, with an inexorable march of four Toyota teammates originally anointed to reach the Championship final at Homestead-Miami in November.

With Brad Keselowski’s win, Ford broke up the Toyota juggernaut that had won the all the playoff races to this point.

Crucially, for the Kansas Speedway elimination next weekend, former Champions Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, and Jimmie Johnson are on the brink of elimination unless they deliver the goods.

With two victories in the 1st playoff round, Busch looked primed to punch his ticket to the Championship.  Now, two poor back-to-back finishes has jeopardized his quest.  Nothing wrong with that.  Being on the brink of elimination often showcases the true mettle of Champion contenders in overcoming adversity and proving their pedigree.

Superspeedway races resemble a marathon sprint, challenging both the driver’s and team’s mental stamina and physical endurance.  Sunday’s race featured almost four hours of racing, as well as compression on pit crews to repair damage quickly and get back on the field of play.  Many drivers, including Jimmie Johnson and Joey Logano, soldiered on despite damage to their vehicles early in the race, with Logano netting a 4th place finish for his efforts.

Conversely, risk and reward are on full display.  Jamie McMurray, driver of the Chip Ganassi #1 Chevy, made an ill-advised dart for pit road to refuel, eerily like being on the interstate while crossing three lanes of traffic without a turn signal, and paid the price.  Now, the Chip Ganassi playoff contender sits at the bottom of the standings, desperately needing a win at Kansas Speedway to avoid elimination.

TALLADEGA, AL - OCTOBER 15: Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Mountain Dew Chevrolet, waves to the crowd on his driver introduction lap prior to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Alabama 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on October 15, 2017 in Talladega, Alabama. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Mountain Dew Chevrolet, bids farewell to his legion of fans at Talladega Superspeedway prior to the race. (Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Most satisfying, in the post-race conversation, the sport’s fan base is not griping about aero push, the leader running away from the field, or the advantage of the Toyota powerplant.  Instead, fans are chattering about the actual competition on the track, the drama of the playoffs, and the final lap sequence to the checkered flag.

Genuinely, I ‘m now a superspeedway convert, captivated by the lore of these tracks’  legacy in NASCAR.  Liking such races may be heretical for racing purist.  The action is pure mayhem at times.  Yet, Talladega is a great equalizer, putting the emphasis more on the driver and the choices made with the wheel, rather than the mechanics of the car.  For drivers, somebody will surely be mad at you at the end of the race, and that’s ok.

Next year, NASCAR’s playoffs will be spicier with a mile long concrete monster (Dover International Speedway), Talladega Superspeedway, and Kansas Speedway comprising the 2nd Round elimination segment, along with the twist of the newfangled Charlotte road course concluding the 1st round playoff eliminator.  For enthusiasts desiring a shift away from the dominance of tedious 1.5-mile ovals, such an assortment will surely ramp the drama meter in 2018.  Count me in!

By Ron Bottano (@rbottano)

Share your take: Does Talladega deserve a place in the Playoffs? Take our Twitter poll at @racingunplugged

Johnson Lassos Keselowski Possibly Crushing Chase Hopes

Johnson stalked Keselowski like a boss, perhaps blocking him from the Chase.

Johnson stalked Keselowski like a boss, perhaps blocking him from the Chase.

During Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway, we were treated to a superb showdown between Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski, two former NASCAR Sprint Cup Champions putting on a relentless driving clinic over the final 18 laps.

Johnson, driver of the Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet No. 48, took the lead with four laps remaining from Team Penske’s Keselowski, who started from the pole and dominated throughout on his way to leading 312 of 334 laps.

For Keselowski, a victory would have punched his ticket to the Championship 4 final at Homestead-Miami Speedway in two weeks. Before the pass by Johnson, Keselowski seemed to do everything right, having punished the rest of the field on dominating restarts as well as long green flag runs.

But Johnson had other plans in chasing down Keselowski, keeping his Chase playoff record perfect, by ensuring he has now won at least one race in NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup for the 12th consecutive season. His fifth victory of the season was also his record career sixth at Texas.

Both Johnson and Keselowski demonstrated how to race hard but clean, with Johnson patiently stalking Keselowski over the final 18 laps after a restart, smoothly moving around his line at the end to get a big run off the corner and make a slide job in front of Keselowski to take the lead.

Keselowski dominated at Texas this weekend only to be passed by Johnson just a few laps from the flag.

Keselowski dominated at Texas this weekend only to be passed by Johnson just a few laps from the flag.

Johnson commended Keselowski for their “mean yet clean” racing.

“Honestly, I race people how they race me,” Johnson explained. “Brad’s always raced me clean and hard. He did that again today. We both showed each other that same respect. What’s gone on between other drivers the last few weeks has no bearing on myself. You really handle your own situation. How people treat you, how respectfully they race you. We just had a good, hard race today.”

More astonishing was the grandstand reaction from the fans, with many more cheers than jeers for the six-time Champion as Johnson burned it down on the front straight for his post-race celebration. In prior Championship seasons, when Johnson was routinely closing out competitors under the old Chase playoff format, the chant was often “anybody but the No. 48.”

Screen Shot 2015-11-09 at Monday, November 9, 2015  10.05.13 AM (2)Even Joe Gibbs Racing driver Matt Kenseth, having a little extra time on his hands due to his suspension last week, jumped in on Twitter to reinforce the point. 

From a Chase perspective, the net impact of Johnson’s victory is that both of the Team Penske drivers sit substantially below the cut line with Keselowski in sixth and Joey Logano in eighth position with only three remaining spots heading to the penultimate race at Phoenix International Raceway next weekend.

This modernized Chase playoff format was altered last season to reward winning, as proven by Jeff Gordon punching his ticket to the Homestead Championship final as a result of last weekend’s victory at Martinsville Speedway. Yet, we are still left to speculate if something is missing from this Chase playoff system, given that several of the most dominant drivers this season have already been eliminated or are on the verge of elimination heading to Phoenix:

  • Texas winner Johnson has now won five races this season, but was already eliminated in the first Chase Challenger round at Dover due to a failure of a $15 rear axle seal that forced Johnson to take his No. 48 to the garage and resulted in a 41st place finish
  • Matt Kenseth, also a five-time winner this season, was eliminated two weeks ago, after an accident at Charlotte in the second Chase Contender round put Kenseth in a must-win situation at either Talladega or Kansas, a race where he mounted a feisty battle that fell just short
  • And then there is Joey Logano, Team Penske driver of the No. 22 Ford, having collected six wins this season, the most of any other driver. After experiencing a massive tire failure only eight laps into the Texas race, Logano now finds himself at the bottom of the remaining eight drivers in the Chase Eliminator round and in a must-win situation heading to Phoenix International Raceway, given that he is 63 points outside of the top four cut-off

So the three most prominent winners this season, assuming that Logano fails to win at Phoenix, are destined to miss the Homestead Championship final and are left to wonder what might have been.

With the extinguishing of each driver’s Championship quest, this new Chase format has validated just how critical all ten races are in the Chase – particularly in this contemporary round by round elimination format.

By Ron Bottano. Follow me on Twitter @rbottano and @motorsportsunplugged


NASCAR at Michigan May Be Very Different From The Past

I would not be surprised to see a lot of car failures this weekend, specific to heat relation as it pertains to the aero package and its kind of cause and effects.

I would not be surprised to see a lot of car failures this weekend, specific to heat relation as it pertains to the aero package and its kind of cause and effects.

NASCAR is now moving into the ‘who gets in and gets knocked out’ territory with very few races left to make the coveted Chase. Each and every race from this point forward will tell a story, whether that story is Ford being on a back-foot, save Penske, or the changes being made involving the draft, drag and down-force.

Michigan is getting more play than I’ve seen in years due to the higher rear spoilers along with their forward facing lip, known as a wickerbill. I simply can’t recall a time when both the drivers and manufacturers were talking about these changes as much as they are now.

There’s a reason: The teams and drivers don’t really know what to expect.

Are the cars going to draft to the fans expectations or washout in the corners due to the heat that Michigan is expecting.

Brad Keselowski, when asked about the heat factor, replied: “I think the heat is gonna be even worse this weekend. There’s a large amount of concern across both the teams and drivers, really all members, for this rules package coming up to Michigan specific to the fact that even though the track is wider and bigger, the significance of the draft is gonna be even more important, so you’re gonna have to stay in line as much as possible.

Chad Knaus inspects the larger rear spoiler and forward lip on the #48 car.

Chad Knaus inspects the larger rear spoiler and forward lip on the #48 car.

As you stay in line the car gets less and less air because that’s essentially how the draft works and the speeds at Michigan are higher than they are at Indianapolis, which means the parts, specifically the drivetrain are gonna be even hotter. I know the team is very, very concerned about the drivetrain, everything from the engine all the way back to the axles because they’re really not made for these temperatures.

I would not be surprised to see a lot of car failures this weekend, specific to heat relation as it pertains to the aero package and its kind of cause and effects. And inside the car I would not be surprised to see a lot of hot and worn out drivers after the race.”

With more heat the engines don’t make the most horsepower and that means carrying as much speed through the corners as possible while hoping the down-force takes over to keep the car planted.

The Michigan track has, in the past, been a multi-groove surface that the Cup cars could take advantage of, maybe not so much this weekend. The cars need to get out of the draft to employ the down-force when approaching a corner.

Keselowski was also asked whether the cars would handle differently than they had at Indianapolis: ” I don’t expect it to be much different as far as the way the cars handle behind each other. Perhaps the only difference could be between the two tracks is Michigan has a much wider groove in theory and the potential to run different lanes in the corners.

The way the aerodynamics work specific to this high draft package certainly you want to be in line down the straightaway to get the maximum effect of the loss of drag, but you kind of want to be staggered in the corners to try to keep your down-force in the corner when you need it to keep the car going through the corners as fast as possible.”

Will the racing be ‘racier’ at Michigan than it has been in the past? We think so. If it’s hot, slick and unbearable in the cars you’re bound to have some things go right and the potential of a whole lot of things going wrong.

The bottom line is it’s the same for everyone, but someone has to stick their neck out if they hope to make or displace someone for the Chase berths that are in bubble territory.

It should be an interesting weekend, especially for the auto manufacturers.

NASCAR Fans: The Auto Club Race Was Great, Stop Whining

Busch wasn't happy with the final pit call, but has to meter himself.

Busch wasn’t happy with the final pit call, but has to meter himself.

I’ve heard all of the whining and complaining that the Auto Club Speedway race wasn’t exciting. Horsecrap. That race used to be the one thing besides two Quaaludes that were guaranteed to put you to sleep.

What I saw was the first time I have EVER been able to watch the California race from start to finish. The cars are harder to drive and the best drivers are doing just that: Driving them.

At Charlotte, there will be even less down-force, which should complete the changes for the season. But, the changes so far have made all of the non superspeedway races more exciting and, yes, the Auto Club race much more interesting.

To be fair they strung out, as you should expect at a minimally banked, non-plate, two mile track, but by nowhere near the margins from last year or the year before.

Complaining about Keselowski? He, or rather Paul Wolfe, out smarted everyone else and won, that’s all that counts. Just call Keselowski and Wolfe Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook.

It was the Busch and Harvick show all weekend and the two really, deep down, viscerally believed they would be their two car show at the end. They spent the entire race setting up for it. Keselowski’s chief knew it was their chance to go for it. They had nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Harvick made a snap pit call and left his box with two tires.

Harvick made a snap pit call and left his box with two tires.

Everyone counted Keselowski out of it but that is where he shines, he comes from the back, his crew chief makes a brilliant four tire call and he has all the grip he needs to spank Harvick and Busch.

Busch was really the big loser as four tires would have delivered a win, no doubt in my mind. Harvick, on the other hand could afford to roll the dice and go for two tires, against his crew chiefs wishes. It was a fairly dangerous move to simply allow the front tire changer to clear his nose and floor it.

The jack man could have had the jack going under when he left his box which would have been a disaster, but give him credit for trying. Harvick is a fox who knows how to make calls on his own. He needs to be cautious that his prowess doesn’t run smack into Rodney Childers calls in the future, it could cost him a championship.

As for Busch, he drove one hell of a race. For a guy that seems to have the social skills of a Honey Badger, he drives like one as well. Totally focused and hell-bent on winning. He should have won, but he didn’t. His crew chief counted on it being he and Harvick dueling it out in the Octagon, but BK snuck up on them both.

The one takeaway from California is that these cars are moving in the right direction and the hard chargers are there at the end to go for the win. Isn’t that what all of you fans wanted? Let’s hold our deeply ingrained judgments about whether NASCAR did something right or wrong.

Well not really, they finally did something right and it’s hard for me to say but Brian France apologizing for the COT gave me some personal vindication after being eviscerated by others in the media for damning the car when it came out.

I’m looking forward to Charlotte and the remaining changes to see what we really have for the remainder of the season.

And bonus points for the first person who can tell me who Natty Bumppo is. You have ten seconds.


Team Penske: If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It

Joey Logano says that Team Penske may be smaller than others, but its internal harmony has helped bring success. Logano finished fourth in points last year.

Joey Logano says that Team Penske may be smaller than others, but its internal harmony has helped bring success. Logano finished fourth in points last year.

Given the way Team Penske performed last year, you really shouldn’t expect major changes for 2015. In fact, you should not expect any changes at all.

The team’s drivers, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, performed admirably. Both made the NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup. Logano was one of four drivers in the running for the championship at Homestead.

Logano completed the year fourth in points with five victories.

Keselowski fell short of the final four. But he did finish fifth with six wins. Combined, the Penske drivers won 11 Sprint Cup races in 2014.

That was just two victories short of the total compiled by Hendrick Motorsports’ four drivers, none of whom made it to the championship round at Homestead, by the way.

Penske scored more wins than Joe Gibbs Racing (eight) and Roush Fenway Racing (none).

Hendrick, a strong, winning organization for years, has been the team by which all others are measured.

And in 2014, Penske measured up pretty darn good.

Team owner Roger Penske said that last season was his team’s best ever. And he intends for things to get better.

“Teamwork paid off,” he said. “To me it’s going to be our foundation in 2015. Something that isn’t broken, let’s not fix it.”

Brad Keselowski admits that he drives extra hard at times, but if it means a victory, then he's going to keep on doing it.

Brad Keselowski admits that he drives extra hard at times, but if it means a victory, then he’s going to keep on doing it.

After his tenure at Gibbs, Logano hit his stride at Penske. Yes, he won three times in four years with Gibbs, but he has six wins in two years with Penske – not to mention a shot at the title.

Logano believes that his accomplishments may not have been reached without the rapport he has at Penske. That won’t be forgotten. Nor will some of his past on-track escapades.

“There’s no such thing as bygones being bygones in this sport,” Logano said. “Everyone seems to remember. Stuff carries over for a long time.

“There was a lot of drama last year but I don’t think it will affect 2015. Hopefully none of us are involved in it this year and we will just get to race.”

It’s fair to say most of the drama in 2014 centered on Keselowski, an outspoken competitor who isn’t afraid to take chances – particularly if they end up in victory.

“I made guys mad racing for the win,” Keselowski said. “It wasn’t racing for 20th. You get into a wreck racing for 20th, heck, that doesn’t make Sports Center.

“If you do it racing for the win or a championship then you are probably doing the right thing.

“When I get called for it, I see it as a compliment. That may not be the way others see it, but I do.”

Keselowski has seen first hand the changes at Penske. When he arrived six years ago, he said he saw three different teams operating under the same banner but sharing very little.

So it’s not difficult to understand why results varied. In 2010, Keselowski and teammate Sam Hornish Jr. did not win and ranked 25th or worse in points. Kurt Busch, with two wins, made the Chase.

“Now, the difference is we have all our teams working together closely,” Keselowski said. “We’ve earned more wins than we’ve had as a team in a long time.

“And we probably have the best relationships inside the company and I’m thrilled to be a part of that.”

This year, Ryan Blaney joins Penske as its principal XFINITY Series driver. He will compete in selected Sprint Cup events and race a limited schedule with the Wood Brothers, which has a technical alliance with Penske.

Although smaller than Hendrick, Gibbs or Roush Fenway, Penske has thrived. There’s a reason for that, according to Logano.

“We’re all on the same level,” he said. “You hear all the time how important it is to work really well together and for us, that is what is happening.

“And, yes, that is very important.”

If you say Keselowski and Logano will enter 2015 as title contenders, well, they won’t argue with you – nor will anyone else.

They have already proven their mettle.

“We have two or three of the best cars,” said Keselowski, an expectant father. “No, we aren’t the largest. But I think that is to our advantage.

“It was part of our success last year and it will be this year.”


Will Auto Manufacturers Run or Ruin NASCAR?

The SuperCharged Ford Eco-Boost engine. At the top of Ford's NASCAR wish list?

The TurboCharged V6 Ford Eco-Boost engine. Could a Super Charged Version be at the top of Ford’s NASCAR wish list?

Dodge taking an unceremonious hike from NASCAR wasn’t anything new, after all they had done it before only to return with strong teams and alliances. The problem is that was a long time ago and the times have changed.

Brad Keselowski, after being asked about more manufacturers coming to NASCAR, was recently quoted as saying: “Gosh, we need all the help we can get there.” Yes Brad you do, unfortunately that kind of help doesn’t appear to be anywhere on the global horizon.

Manufacturers don’t just jump into multi-million, sometimes billion, dollar commitments without a good marketing reason and no one has made the case for any of them to do so.

Dodge left immediately after snagging a Sprint Cup Championship to the surprise of the racing world. They left global road racing last year in exactly the same manner. “Not with a bang, but a whimper”, to quote T.S. Eliot’s masterpiece, The Hollow Men.

Dodge is Fiat Chrysler, no longer an American company, but a multi-national company that sees more relevance in pouring huge, ridiculous amounts of money into Formula One, via Ferrari, in order to ride the Green Energy Train, truly one of the world’s great money pits. Noble cause, but hardly a short term answer in a waffling global economy. Hybrids sit on the sales lots of marquee manufacturers such as BMW in droves.

What sense does it make for Hyundai, VW or BMW to jump into NASCAR when the product they sell has no relation to the product that runs over 30 races per year with huge V8 engines that, save for the truck market and $70,000 and up luxury cars, aren’t used in the modern era? None.

The manufacturers that are in NASCAR now are there for the branding, but they would like to see that change. Branding is an exercise that matters to Mercedes, Ferrari and BMW, but to Ford? Hardly. Ford sells V6 and 4 cylinder engine cars and is moving towards the hybrid market with a vengeance.Brad-Keselowski1

Though no one will go on record, sources tell us that Ford is pressuring NASCAR to move into the V6 era, perhaps supercharged, thus moving away from V8 power. They simply don’t sell them.

According to Motorsports Unplugged Radio’s Bill Marlowe, a 20 year NASCAR engineer of numerous top teams: “They (NASCAR) have reduced the horsepower of the Cup cars for two reasons, the first is safety. The cars are going too fast and NASCAR has to mitigate the possibility that one of these cars could take off into the stands. No one will notice the difference between 210 MPH and 195 MPH. The second is that no one buys the big V8 engine cars from the domestic manufacturers today. They need relevance to the fans who would become buyers of their product.”

It appears as if NASCAR is taking a long view approach to what we may see in 5 or 10 years and that is a smaller power plant. Ford would love to see it’s Eco-Boost power plant utilized in a series that returns it to a “Win on Sunday to Sell on Monday” environment.

But is that change enough to attract other manufacturers? It hasn’t worked in Formula One so far. Only four manufacturers are willing to participate and Honda, the fourth, has yet to turn more than several laps before rolling to a stop.

It appears as if NASCAR’s efforts several years ago to standardize their chassis, the much hated COT, was an effort to manage (minimize) the manufacturers and their wishes to keep an identity recognizable to the fans, was a failure. The manufacturers have come back to the power table despite a marked improvement in the Gen 6 car. The drivetrains simply don’t match up with what they sell.

NASCAR seems to be unintentionally moving towards a Formula One scenario where the manufacturers have too much power. There simply doesn’t seem to be a balance that the two sides can reach without concessions from NASCAR over a period of time. Those concessions would have to be in the power plant department.

Would V6 engines with superchargers sooth both sides and more importantly, would that configuration be acceptable to the fans? Will the fans be accepting of high pitched screaming engines instead of the sound emitted from the V8’s we now here? Our sense is yes.

The current engines turn extraordinary RPM’s for push rod V8’s and emit a high pitched sound as it is, a v6 supercharged engine may be slightly higher pitched in sound, but not unappealing.

We sense that once that has taken place or some equivalent measure, then other non-traditional manufacturers will be looking harder at NASCAR as an American alternative.

Until then, it’s a tenuous relationship.

2014 Was A Solid, Successful Season For Team Penske

Brad Keselowski won six races in 2014 and was an integral part of Team Penske's successful season.

Brad Keselowski won six races in 2014 and was an integral part of Team Penske’s successful season.

The 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup season was the year of Team Penske.

The two-car Ford team was, in the end, the best in the sport. Its drivers, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, combined to win 11 races and ultimately finish fourth (Logano) and fifth (Keselowski) in the final point standings.

But that is hardly the full story.

For most of the season Hendrick Motorsports held sway. The four-car team was in front, or near the front, of the point standings for the majority of the season.

After Atlanta, one race before the start of the Chase for the Sprint Cup at Richmond, Hendrick teams claimed three of the top five in the point standings, with Jeff Gordon in first followed by Dale Earnhardt Jr. in second and Jimmie Johnson fifth.

The Hendrick foursome claimed 10 victories and, with all drivers in the Chase, there was little reason not to think that one of them would claim the title.

However, Logano was third in points and Keselowski fifth.

Keselowski dominated the last event before the Chase, at Richmond, which moved him to No 1 in points as the “playoffs” began.

Joey Logano, who won five races for Penske this year was, like Keselowski, ranked first in points more than once during the Chase.

Joey Logano, who won five races for Penske this year was, like Keselowski, ranked first in points more than once during the Chase.

He won again at Chicago and scored top-10 finishes at Loudon and Dover to be atop the standings after the first elimination round.

But guess what? In that first round Logano scored three top-five finishes, including a win at Loudon.

Penske was one-two in points with Keselowski in the lead. Hendrick drivers Johnson, Earnhardt Jr. and Gordon, were fourth, sixth and seventh, respectively.

As has been reported often, the end for three of the Hendrick teams came at Kansas, the first race of the second elimination round.

Kasey Kahne finished 22nd, Earnhardt Jr. 39th after mechanical problems and Johnson 40th after he was involved in a multicar accident.

Their chances for survival quickly took a big hit, something not unusual in the new Chase format.

Keselowski didn’t fare much better. He wound up 37th and after the race, he, Earnhardt Jr. and Johnson were at the bottom of the 12-man ranking. Only eight would move on.

But consider this: Logano won at Kansas, which meant he would safely advance to the next round. Penske teams won five   three of the first five Chase races and finished second in another.

However, while Logano was atop the standings Keselowski was scrambling for his life.

He had only two races to save himself – and that he did with a victory at Talladega. He advanced and was eighth among the competitors who did so.     Consider that Penske won four of six Chase races. At the same time Hendrick had only one winner -Gordon – and three of its drivers were no longer in the Chase.

In the end, it wasn’t to be for Penske. Hendrick won the next two races with Earnhardt Jr. and Johnson.

Going into the third round, at Phoenix – the one that would determine the championship finalists – Logano was first in points and Keselowski seventh and holding on. 

Keselowski didn’t make it to Homestead. Logano did and was second in points.

It evolved that Kevin Harvick won at Homestead, as he did at Phoenix, and became he 2014 champion.

Logano, in the hunt at Homestead for most of the day, was very disappointed in his final 16th-place finish.

“I screwed up and hit the wall early and we were able to recover then had the mistake on pit road which didn’t give us enough time to recover from that,” he said. “It is unfortunate.

Execution was our strong point all year and we just didn’t do it at Homestead. For that reason we finished fourth after I think we scored the most points this whole Chase.

“This was an awesome experience. This is the first time I have had a shot at winning a championship and the first time I won more than one race in a season. It has been a spectacular year.”

Keselowski, who wound up a solid third at Homestead, was philosophical about the season.

“The fastest car all season – Kevin (Harvick) – won the championship,” he said. “I think that is right. We had the most wins and finished seventh.

“You can argue every case for a championship scenario but the reality is that we all knew what it took to win going in and Kevin and his team did it.”

But it must be said that what Team Penske – Logano and Keselowski – did was very admirable.

Eleven victories in 2014 joined by 33 finishes among the top five and 42 among the top 10.

With four cars, twice as many, Hendrick earned 13 wins, 40 top-five finishes and 74 among the top 10.

In seven of the 10 races that made up the Chase, a Penske car was ranked No. 1 in points. A Hendrick car was atop the standings only once.

The highest Hendrick finisher for the season was Gordon, in sixth.

All of this might be, to you, nitpicking.

But I don’t think there is any argument that when it came to the Chase – the time that mattered – Penske was clearly superior.










Talladega: Every Lap Could Be Heaven Or Hell

It may be hard to believe, but three Cup Champions are on the bubble for elimination for the Championship under the new NASCAR rules at Talladega this weekend.

It may be hard to believe, but three Cup Champions are on the bubble for elimination for the Championship under the new NASCAR rules at Talladega this weekend.

By virtue of the storied Alabama mega-track´s existence as the sole restrictor plate race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Talladega’s fall date has been circled twice on many fans and teams calendars this year-and for good reason. Talladega is, after all, a track where fortune and dismal fate consistently collide with regularity at over 200 miles per hour, taking hopes and dreams of glory and leaving twisted sheet metal and bent emotions. After last weekend’s shenanigans following the closing laps of Charlotte, the inherent drama Talladega provides will only be exponentially multiplied. Heaven or Hell.

Adding to the normal blood pressure spike, four drivers are going to be eliminated from Championship contention following the 500 miler this weekend and, absent a miracle, those four are Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth. It almost seems heretical.

In a way, racing at Talladega has always been a race of nail biting decisions. Talladega’s wide racing surface makes handling and tire wear less an issue than at the high banks of Daytona and the use of horsepower-robbing restrictor plates virtually levels the field putting the race in the drivers’ hands. Or their minds.

Glorious victory or smoky demise depends on making the correct decisions at the correct time. Imagine a 200 mile an hour chess match against 42 other hungry opponents with the same goal: Victory Lane. Chase or not.

The "Big One" always looms, but it´s almost a guarantee this year at Talladega.

The “Big One” always looms, but it´s almost a guarantee this year at Talladega.

The first, and truly only, decision a driver can make before strapping into the race-car is strategy during the first half to 3/4 of the race. More specifically, the car must have some vital components intact to complete the event, so keeping the fenders intact and the toe (alignment) correct means avoiding the big one (unlike years past, the question now isn’t ‘when’ the big one occurs, but ‘how soon’). So the possibility of some teams ‘laying back’ towards the rear of the field is a distinct possibility, although a strategy that will be employed by very few, if at all.

In fact, the savvy and experienced drivers who can and need to win at Talladega know that most wrecks occur in the middle of the field, and will attempt to stay up front for the duration of the race.

Racing up front means clean air and fewer obstacles, so a vital decision is choosing who your dance partner is going to be. Jimmie Johnson and Earnhardt Jr. have proven to work well together at this track, and both have the same amount to gain or lose, so they will no doubt find each other early and attempt to stay together towards the front. They will both be early and strong contenders for this event, and they are two of the most capable and experienced drivers at this monster track.

Another pair of drivers whose decisions could impact the Chase field on every lap of this event, are Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick, both of whom are locked into the Eliminator round of the Chase by way of victory in the Contender round. Much like the popular girls at a middle school dance, they are being and will be courted frequently by the rest of the Chase field.

"Roller Girl"

“Roller Girl”

Case in point: Logano may be Keselowski’s sole hope to consistently run up front, as Brad may find trouble keeping a partner with him to maneuver through the field after last week´s dust-up. The 22 doesn’t have to win, he just has to start to advance, so they will almost surely team up and stick together through the entirety of the event. Roger Penske, legendary team owner, might have “suggested” that already.

Harvick has the luxury of going with who he chooses and when he chooses. Harvick´s #4 has arguably been the best team week in and week out this season, and “Happy” has both the equipment and experience to find himself with more suitors than he can please. More like “Boogie Nights” than “Talladega Nights”. Whatever decisions these two drivers make have Chase implications on every level, on every lap.

However, just because the bottom four are carrying the most pressure heading into the Geico 500, that doesn’t mean that rest of the Chase field shouldn’t be concerned. Jeff Gordon has competed in, and won, many of these restrictor plate races. Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch know what it takes to get it done, as well. Those drivers, along with Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman know that each lap, each decision they make – and when they make them — could keep them in the Chase for the next 3 races, or suddenly place them on the outside looking in.

Think about, for a moment, the Talladega races we had in NASCAR before the Chase, where even a casual fan could tune into the race and know within a half a lap of watching how early or late in the race was. What fan, and even TV announcer has watched a particularly daring move and not said ‘No,no,no, that was way too soon’!!

Those days are long past. With every position important, every lap, the type of racing that was saved for the final laps of the race will now be the standard. The trick is to be aggressive, but not aggressively stupid. A fine line, which many drivers will either ignore or completely forget.

Decide well, and be rewarded.

Decide poorly, and Talladega will allow someone else to make the decision for you.



Keselowski Tightens Penske’s, And Ford’s, Grip On The Chase

With his victory in New Hampshire, Brad Keselowski won his third race of the season and assured himself, and Team Penske, of a spot in the Chase.

With his victory in New Hampshire, Brad Keselowski won his third race of the season and assured himself, and Team Penske, of a spot in the Chase.

A while back I made mention of the fact that while Hendrick Motorsports remains the most dominant team in NASCAR Sprint Cup racing, it had a challenger – Team Penske.

That’s truer now than it was just a couple of weeks ago.

Penske’s Brad Keselowski strengthened his team’s cause with his dominating victory in the Camping World RV Sales 301. It was his third of the season.

And the night before he won the Nationwide Series race which means he swept the races at New Hampshire.

He moved into third place in the point standings, behind the Hendrick duo of leader Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Keselowski is 38 points out of first place.

But, really, for now points don’t matter. Keselowski’s third win assures him a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Penske teammate Joey Logano pretty much has it made, too. While a crash forced him out of the race in New Hampshire and into 40th place, the two victories he has on the season are going to be more than enough to put him in the Chase.

Which means that both drivers for Penske will have a shot at the championship.

It can’t be said, yet, that all of Hendrick’s drivers will be in the 10-race “playoff.”

Oh, it’s certain that three of the four will make it. Jimmie Johnson, who finished 42nd at New Hampshire after a blown left tire led to a wreck, has three victories this season and is a shoo-in.

Keselowski won the Nationwide Series race the day before the Camping World RV Sales 301 Sprint Cup event, which gave him a sweep at New Hampshire.

Keselowski won the Nationwide Series race the day before the Camping World RV Sales 301 Sprint Cup event, which gave him a sweep at New Hampshire.

Earnhardt Jr. has two and Jeff Gordon one.

The only Hendrick man without a victory is Kasey Kahne. He is 17th in points and, most likely, if he doesn’t win over the next seven races – a tall order – he will be out of the Chase.

To be more specific here, Keselowski and Earnhardt Jr. are guaranteed Chase positions because they have multiple wins and are locked into the top 30 in points. It’s very likely others will get their guarantees very soon.

In fact, here’s how the Chas scenario looks, in order based on victories and point standings, after 19 of 26 races.

Keselowski, Johnson, Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards, Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, Aric Almirola, Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman, Clint Bower, Paul Menard and Kyle Lawson. Kenseth, Newman, Bowyer, Menard and Larson have no wins but are good enough in points – for now – to be included.

Keselowski’s New Hampshire win, in which he led 138 of 301 laps, marked the fourth straight victory for Ford this season.

It started with Edwards at Sonoma, followed by Keselowski’s victory at Kentucky, Almirola’s at Daytona and Keselowski again.

The last time Ford won four races in a row was in 2001, with Dale Jarrett, who earned three wins at Darlington, Texas and Martinsville, and Elliott Sadler, the winner at Bristol.

“Ford wants us to win, and they want to give us what we need to win,” said team owner Roger Penske. “I’d have to say that you couldn’t ask for a better weekend. 

“I’ve already gotten many emails from the top people at Ford.  They’re watching it every day.  Their dealers are watching it and to me that makes the difference.

At the end of the day you can’t have a great car if you don’t have the best driver, and I can tell you that at New Hampshire there was nobody that could beat Brad.”

Keselowski was the 2012 champion but had a disappointing 2013 season in which he won only one race, finished 14th in points and failed to make it into the postseason.

Before that, Tony Stewart, the 2005 champion, was the last to miss the Chase the next year.

Well, for Keselowski, being out of the Chase isn’t going to happen this season – obviously.

“I think in a lot of ways we’re stronger than in 2012,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve had this much speed before. 

“We had tremendous speed at New Hampshire and I think there’s potential left, like I said, with different things.  So that’s all very encouraging to me.  I feel like I’m in a really strong rhythm right now. 

“I think some of last year’s struggles put me in a spot to work harder and become a better race car driver and I think we’re combining all those things.

“We’re seeing the fruits of that labor with, like I said, more to come.”

Indeed, there could be more to come for Keselowski and Penske. But it is the same for Hendrick.

The only thing we’re pretty certain of, at the moment, is that the two teams will have five drivers in the Chase.

Talladega Full Of Surprises And Might Have Another One

Brad Keselowski pulled off one of the most surprising victories in Talladega Superspeedway history when he won the Aaron's 499 in 2009.

Brad Keselowski pulled off one of the most surprising victories in Talladega Superspeedway history when he won the Aaron’s 499 in 2009.

If there is a NASCAR track with the greatest propensity to provide surprising, upset winners, it’s Talladega Superspeedway.

It has a long and interesting history of first-time winners, some of whom were raw rookies and others long-time veterans that were considered journeymen at best.

Of course, a sizable number of NASCAR greats, past and present, have been victorious at the giant, 2.66-mile track – some more than once.

And we don’t have to delve very deep into Talladega’s history to discover its tendency for surprise.

Last spring, in the Aaron’s 499, David Ragan and David Gilliland pulled off a one-two finish for Front Row Motorsports, a competent team but not a powerhouse.

Jamie McMurray won last fall for his first victory in three years. He’s now in his fifth season with Chip Ganassi Racing.

Perhaps the biggest shock in Talladega’s spring race came in 2009. Brad Keselowski was a distance behind the leaders when he hooked up with Carl Edwards in the draft.

As they sped toward the checkered flag Keselowski went inside and clipped Edwards, who was promptly hit by another driver and sent into the catch fence.

Keselowski led only the final lap. The story goes that his team owner, the personable but underfunded James Finch, had left the speedway and had to motor his way back to victory lane.

Keselowski captured the eye of another, more substantial team owner, Roger Penske, and won the championship in 2012.

Such victories are not rare at Talladega. They are plentiful. The numbers prove it.

There is an astonishing record for the fall race, known as the Talladega 500 and scheduled for Oct. 10 at part of the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

The first one was held in September of 1969. It was the inaugural event at the track built by Bill France Sr., the founder of NASCAR.

 David Ragan was another surprise winner at Talladega when he won the Aaron's 499 last season. Front Row Motorsports teammate David Gilliland finished second.

David Ragan was another surprise winner at Talladega when he won the Aaron’s 499 last season. Front Row Motorsports teammate David Gilliland finished second.

The days leading up to the race were controversial. Tires shredded at unusually high speeds. Drivers complained to France that it was too dangerous. They said they would boycott because of very unsafe conditions.

France, always known as a stubborn man determined to get his way, declared the track safe.

The drivers, including such greats as Richard Petty and David Pearson, left.

France formed a rag-tag field of cars from other, lesser divisions and the race was run.

The winner was Richard Brickhouse, who has hardly been heard from since.

Understand, all of this is a very, very abridged re-telling of the story.

But Brickhouse became the first of 18 different winners in 21 years of fall events at Talladega.

Some of the victorious drivers who were so totally unexpected that many would have bet they would not even finish, much less win.

James Hylton, perhaps NASCAR’s most well-known journeyman driver whose career spanned decades, won in 1972, largely because 32 of 50 starting cars ended up in the garage area.

Just a year later the late Dick Brooks was the winner – and, as hard as this may be to believe, he didn’t even have a ride until four days before the race.

Brooks occupied the seat in Jimmy Crawford’s Plymouth. He took the lead on lap 181 of 188, which was the 64th lead change of the race, and went on to win by 7.2 seconds over Buddy Baker.

When Lennie Pond won in 1978 to give himself and owner Harry Ranier their first victory, he won with an average speed of 174.700 mph – at the time the fastest 500-mile race ever run.

Ron Bouchard was a rookie racing for Jack Beebe when he slipped past Terry Labonte and Darrell Waltrip on the last lap to win in 1981.

Bobby Hillin Jr. was a mere 22 years old when he won in 1986 while driving for the Stavola Brothers. He was in the right place at the right time, ahead of a massive crash that took place on the last lap.
Drama is not reserved for the fall Talladega race.

Note that in the last 11 spring races there have been seven different winners.

All of this seems to be a very good indication that if we are going to see the eighth different winner of the 2014 season, well, odds are good it will happen this weekend.

Really, should we be all that surprised?





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