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)

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To Be Sure, Talladega Race Lived Up To Its Billing

Clint Bowyer won for the first time this season in a typical, unpredictable Talladega race. The win was especially rewarding for Bowyer, whose six-season tenure with Richard Childress Racing comes to an end after this season. Bowyer presented Childress with his 100th victory as a team owner.

The Good Sam Club 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, the sixth race in the 10-event Chase, was characterized as the “wild card” event of the “playoffs.”

That’s because of the typical unpredictability of the race. With high speeds and two-car “dance partner” drafting that is a part of the 2.66-mile Talladega track and its sister, Daytona, it’s almost impossible to pinpoint what is going to happen – much less an outcome.

Championship contenders could have poor finishes, or fall by the wayside, for many reasons – all related to the complexities of restrictor-plate racing. A driver in the lead on the last lap could very well find himself outside the top 10 by the time he got to the finish line. An unheralded, even unknown, competitor could find the means to win – consider young Trevor Bayne, who took the victory in the Daytona 500.

The Good Sam Club 500 lived up to its billing. It was indeed a “wild card” race.

The winner was certainly not unheralded or unknown. But he was unexpected. It’s very likely few, in any, predicted he would triumph at Talladega.

But that’s exactly what Clint Bowyer did. He won for the first time this season – his last victory came in this race in 2010 – he became the first Chase non-qualifier to win in the “playoff.” He earned the distinction of providing the 100th Cup series victory for Richard Childress Racing.

Ironically, it came five races before Bowyer’s tenure with Childress comes to an end. Largely because of a lack of sponsorship, Bowyer will move over to Michael Waltrip Racing next season and RCR may well be reduced from four teams to three.

As for the Chase contenders, overall, they fared worse at Talladega than in any other race since the title hunt began at Chicagoland on Sept. 19.

Only three of them finished among the top 10. Two placed 11th-20th and a whopping seven were 25th or worse.

Replacing them at the head of the pack were such drivers as Jeff Burton (second), Dave Blaney (third, his best finish of the season), Brian Vickers (5th), Kasey Kahne (6th), Waltrip (9th) and Martin Truex Jr. (10th).

Really, now, who could have predicted that?

And who could have predicted that the Chase leaders, those drivers atop the standings when the Talladega event began, would experience mediocre to dismal results?

Carl Edwards, No. 1 in the standings, finished 11th, his first run outside the top 10 since the Chase began. Kevin Harvick, who was hot on Edwards’ heels prior to the race, experienced on-track misfortune and wound up 32nd. Matt Kenseth, third when the green flag fell, could do no better than 18th.

Resurgence for Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch came to an end as they saw momentum die with finishes of 26th and 33rd, respectively.

For all of that, Edwards not only retains his lead in the point standings, he now has largest margin in the first six races of the Chase – largely because he finished ahead of all but two of his rivals.

Edwards now has a 14-point margin over the new runnerup, Kenseth. He’s 18 points ahead of Brad Keselowski, who ran fourth at Talladega, and 19 over Tony Stewart, who finished seventh and was a victory contender for a large portion of the race.

Harvick came into Talladega No. 2 in points, just five behind Edwards with steady Chase performances. But he was involved in a multicar accident after 107 of 188 laps and was forced to report to the garage area for repairs, including a broken oil line. He finished nine laps down and is now fifth in points, 26 in arrears.

Kyle Busch, 33rd at Talladega after his involvement in a multicar wreck, is presently sixth in points, 40 behind Edwards. Johnson’s bid to win a sixth consecutive title took a serious hit with his 26th-place finish, which puts him seventh in points and 50 out of the lead. Kurt Busch wound up 36th at Talladega, also the victim of a wreck, and he’s eighth in points, 52 down.

The remainder of the top 12 in points has, for the most part, been removed from championship consideration. They are Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman.

“I don’t know that I have ever been so excited about 11th place,” said a relieved Edwards. “This race was one that was nerve-racking for everyone but we came in here with a small points lead and so it was a huge day for us.

“I cannot believe how much Greg (Biffle, Roush Fenway Racing teammate) helped us today. I owe him a lot. Greg stuck with me all day. On the last lap he was driving my car from back there. It is good to get a good finish and even though it is not a win, it is a big battle in the war and a huge day for us.”

Edwards wisely added that although he’s boosted his points lead, competitively, he couldn’t let up.

“We’d have to have a 100-point lead to take a breath,” he said. “Anything can happen. I’m proud of our team, where we’ve come from, how far we’ve come in the last 18 months. We’re doing well.

“But I’m a little nervous about Matt, honestly, because I know how good he is and how good his team is. Having him in second doesn’t make me breathe easier, competitive-wise.”

Despite Edwards’ surge in the Chase, the most compelling Talladega tale was Bowyer’s victory.

The Emporia, Kan., native, who has spent all of his six full Sprint Cup seasons with Childress, finished among the top 10 in points in three of the last four seasons.

But he was 14th when the Chase began this year. And as the season wound down, it became clear that all attempts to secure a sponsorship package that would allow him to remain with Childress were going to fail.

Some lame duck drivers waddle toward the end of a season. Bowyer has clearly not done that.

To win at Talladega, Bowyer hooked up in the draft behind leader and teammate Burton when the race restarted from its ninth, and final, caution period with just two laps to go.

The two were well ahead of the pack when Bowyer made his move, pulling to the inside of Burton on the last lap. Burton retaliated, the two bumped, but Bowyer held on to win by a half-car length in yet another Talladega race decided by a last-lap pass.

“Trust me, I was prepared to push Jeff to the win no matter what the cost was if we would have had people breathing down or necks,” Bowyer said. “It just wasn’t meant to be for him. He’s been a great teammate and I’ve learned a lot from him. He’s already won a lot of races. I think he’s won like 20 or so. I’ve only won five.

“You owe it to your team and to your sponsors to go out and win the race.”

Bowyer quickly admitted he wanted to win to reward the efforts of his team and to indicate he wasn’t going to be the typical lame duck.

“It’s just so important to me to be able to cap off such a good relationship with Richard,” he said. “Everybody at RCR, it’s like family over there. It meant a lot for me to be able to win before we end this deal.

“The stars were lined up today with having the hundredth anniversary of Chevrolet on my race car. If I won the race, it was going to be Richard’s hundredth win.

“I’m excited that it was.”


The Tale Of The First Closest-Ever NASCAR Finish In 2003

As you no doubt know by now, Jimmie Johnson’s .002-second victory over Clint Bowyer in the Aaron’s 499 at Talladega Superspeedway tied the record for the closest finish in NASCAR history.

The mark was originally established in the Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 at Darlington Raceway on March 18, 2003.

That race didn’t end with a gaggle of eight cars running in 2×2 drafts – heck, that style of racing is about as far removed from Darlington as it can be.

The final laps at the crusty old track consisted of two cars beating and banging on each other as their drivers desperately fought for an advantage – however small it might be.

At the checkered flag, Ricky Craven, driving a Pontiac and Kurt Busch, in a Ford, seemed to cross the finish line glued together. Few could tell who had won. Many thought it was a dead heat.

But television replays clearly showed that Craven, on the inside, had crossed the finish line ahead of Busch by fractions of an inch – or .002-second.

At the time it stood alone as the closest finish in NASCAR’s long history.

It remains the closest in Darlington’s history, which is littered with memorable finishes, achieved by some of NASCAR’s greatest drivers.

The historic Craven-Busch outcome was just one milestone reached at Darlington in the spring of 2003. The Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 was the speedway’s 100th NASCAR Winston Cup Series race.

Terry Labonte made his 750th career start, Bill Elliott his 700th, Kyle Petty his 650th, Dale Jarrett his 500th and for Jeff Burton, it was start No. 300.

Neither Craven nor Busch were anywhere near such longevity. Craven began racing full-time in Cup competition in 1995 with team owner Larry Hedrick, with whom he won the rookie of the year title.

Busch came onto the scene in 2000 as a Jack Roush protégé. He won four races in 2002 and was considered a rising star.

By 2003, Craven, on the other hand, was racing on borrowed time – although he didn’t know it.

In 1997, Craven, a Maine native, caught a huge break. He signed on with Hendrick Motorsports. In the season’s first race, the Daytona 500, Craven finished third behind winner Jeff Gordon and runnerup Labonte – both teammates.

It was a one-two-three Hendrick sweep.

For Craven, things looked very promising, indeed.

But fate dealt him a cruel blow.

During practice for the inaugural Interstate Batteries 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, Craven crashed hard into the wall. He sustained a concussion and missed the next two races.

He returned to win the Winston Open at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May.

But the side effects of his injury would not go away. They grew so severe in 1998 that Craven was re-evaluated and declared a victim of post-concussion syndrome.

He missed most of the season. When he did return he competed in just four more races for Hendrick before he was released.

For the next couple of seasons Craven raced, unspectacularly, for second-tier teams.

Since most organizations wouldn’t take a chance on a driver who had suffered a head injury, with lingering effects, it would not have been a great surprise if Craven’s career had simply melted away.

But in 2001 he caught another break. He was signed to replace Scott Pruett at Cal Wells Motorsports. Craven latched on with a new team, but one with potential.

That potential was realized in the Old Dominion 500 at Martinsville Speedway on Oct. 15 of that year. In an intense battle with Dale Jarrett, Craven emerged the victor in, yes, an extremely close finish.

It was Craven’s first career Cup victory – very popular among fellow competitors and fans – and an emotional one for him. His career had been resurrected.

Craven, or anyone else for that matter, could not have known what was to happen two years later.

At Darlington it all came down to the final three laps.

Busch was the leader. Craven latched on to his rear bumper and went low in the fourth turn in an attempt to pass. He couldn’t.

On the next lap, Craven drew alongside Busch out of the fourth turn and the two raced down the frontstretch side-by-side.

Craven took the lead in the first turn by crowding Busch to the outside. Busch tapped the right rear of Craven’s Pontiac and took the lead as the white flag flew.

The crowd was enraptured by the action. Fans, all out of their seats, were screaming.

Out of the fourth turn on the last lap, Craven slammed into the side of Busch’s Ford, which yanked the wheel out of the Roush driver’s hands.

They were locked side-by-side at the checkered flag. Sparks were flying.

Neither knew who had won the race – until Craven looked at the scoring tower and saw his car number on top.

Afterward, both Craven and Busch, who shared an emotional experience as they congratulated each other in victory lane, remarked that the finish was fun, exciting and one of which each was proud to be a part. They knew they had become fixtures in NASCAR history.

It was Craven’s last shining moment in racing.

Three-quarters of the way through the 2004 season he was replaced at Wells by Bobby Hamilton Jr.

His Cup career ended after 278 starts.

Busch, of course, has gone on to greater things.

But they remain, and always will, a part of NASCAR lore. They were the drivers who established the closest finish in NASCAR’s history.

Since that time, of course, it has been equaled – but then, never bettered.


Opinions Aside, The Aaron’s 499 Finish Is Now A Part Of NASCAR Lore

The finish of the Aaron’s 499 at Talladega Superspeedway will rank – heck it already has – as one of the best in NASCAR’s history.

Which means the race will be forever be a part of NASCAR lore. And why should it not be?

Jimmie Johnson nipped Clint Bowyer in a wild, four-car finish by .002-second, which was, again, the closest finish in NASCAR’s history since the introduction of electronic timing and scoring in 1993.

It tied Ricky Craven’s victory over Kurt Busch at Darlington in 2003, a race since pronounced by many, NASCAR included, as “One For The Ages.”

Reckon Johnson and Bowyer are now part of another “One For The Ages.”

But I suspect many might disagree.

See, Craven and Busch battled at Darlington, a crusty, old, unforgiving track where such things as aerodynamics and drafting manipulated by NASCAR legislation – all widely despised by some – play no role. A driver’s skill, it’s said, has always been more important to success at Darlington than it has at Talladega or Daytona, where achievement is simply about the proper negotiation of the draft.

This includes a productive association with a partner, something hardly required at Darlington, where it is man against man.

And when it’s man against man they say THAT is racing.

Fair enough – but that does not always apply to fundamental beating and banging. There’s more to it than that. Dealing with the draft is part of it.

I am certain many who follow NASCAR do not, and likely never will, accept the style of restrictor-plate racing that has evolved today at Daytona and Talladega. And you know what it is. Two cars hook up in the draft and try their best to remain that way and, eventually, get the better of all the others who have done the same thing.

Hence, those who do not approve of this type of racing won’t likely consider any finish at Daytona or Talladega – however exciting – as anything more than a product of the contrived circumstances created by NASCAR and its rules.

OK, that’s their opinion. Here’s another: balderdash.

What Johnson achieved at Talladega is still monumental and historic, just as much as what Craven did at Darlington.

Who cares about the so-called “contrived circumstances?” Johnson won at a track in which the conditions and rules, and all involved therein, applied to everyone, just as Craven did at Darlington. It would have been the same for either of them, or any other driver, if they had won at Richmond, Chicago, Sonoma, Atlanta – you name it. The style of racing at every NASCAR speedway is different and requires competitors and teams to adapt as best as possible – and that involves car preparation and on-track strategy and includes Talladega.

So let’s put what is now restrictor-plate racing at that speedway aside, shall we? It is simply another part of what competition, week in and out, is all about – and to which teams must adapt.

What we saw in the Aaron’s 499 was one of the most exciting and truly unpredictable finishes in NASCAR’s history.

In Turn 3 on the last lap, Johnson, who had pretty much been out of our attention for most of the race, was running in fifth place, pushed by teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., his constant companion throughout the race.

Ahead of Johnson were the cars of Clint Bowyer, Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin, Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards and Kevin Harvick.

At the checkered flag, Johnson, with Earnhardt Jr.’s help, found the low side of the track, just above the double yellow line, and won the race by a mere fraction of an inch over Bowyer.

It was so reminiscent of rookie Ron Bouchard’s victory at Talladega in 1981. Darrell Waltrip was leading on the last lap and battling Terry Labonte. Labonte had the high side of the track. Waltrip, in an effort to keep Labonte at bay, slid upwards to apply pressure. Neither he nor Labonte noticed Bouchard, then in third place, charge to the inside, following the gap left open to him

Bouchard, a native of Massachusetts, nipped both Waltrip and Labonte. It was an improbable victory and the only one of his NASCAR Cup career.

Johnson’s victory, his first of the season, ended his 15-race losing streak.

It was the 54th of his career, which ties him with Lee Petty for ninth on NASCAR’s all-time list.

His win was the eighth of the past 12 at Talladega that have been achieved with a last-lap pass.

Certainly, given the circumstances, Johnson’s victory was every bit as improbable as Bouchard’s.

And it was every bit as dramatic and exciting.

No matter what some might think of the style of racing at Talladega and the disdain they have for it, that changes nothing.

The Aaron’s 499 is now, and deservedly so, a part of NASCAR lore.


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