Talladega: Is Kevin Harvick a Genius?

Mike Helton

Mike Helton

What in the Hell actually happened yesterday in that slice of unique America, perhaps more accurately a Principality, called Talladega? Forgive me, I don’t have the prose, thought process or word-smithing ability of our Ron Bottano, but I’m clueless as to why NASCAR allowed Harvick to stay out on that track in a green/white checker situation.

Let me be clear, I don’t think NASCAR manipulated the situation, far worse, they let the bear grow too big. It got away from them somehow. Have they now become a corporation where everyone involved is the smartest guy in the room?

That’s probably closer to the truth. Unless my tiny little South Carolina cracker brain is finally failing me like a pair of jumper cables at a redneck funeral, cars must be capable of maintaining a safe racing speed. I believe there is a minimum speed established for that, they must keep up with the pace car, unfortunately they seemed to throw that rule right out of the window when it came to Kevin Harvick.

Knowing that he could advance to the next round in the Chase elimination process, Harvick could be accused of deliberately crashing Trevor Bayne on the only Green/White checker opportunity that NASCAR would allow under their special Talladega rule. He has been accused of just that by everyone from the drivers to multitudes of Dale Earnhardt Jr fans.

Is Harvick really that smart? Yes he is.

Is Harvick really that smart? Yes he is.

The best read on the incident and aftermath may be by Bob Pockrass. Read it.

I’ve no reason to elaborate on what Bob wrote, but the whole incident does make you wonder just how easy it is to implement a rule or regulation only to run into the rabbit hole of “Unintended Consequences”. Did NASCAR really sit down and think this race, it’s ‘special’ rules and what permutations of consequence it might have?

It doesn’t look as if they did or they didn’t count on a driver at Harvick’s level being clever enough to pull of a frozen field scenario. I’m not saying Harvick crashed intentionally, but he’s is certainly intelligent enough to have figured it out without being outed on the radio. He is most definitely smart enough to have done so. That doesn’t mean he did. But if I were him, I would have.

I would have to say that whether he did it on purpose or not, it was incumbent on NASCAR to have forced him to the back of the line knowing that he could not accelerate and was a moving chicane in a field of wolves ready to drop the hammer.

If he did it on purpose then he’s a genius to have called that play alone in the car.

To me the big question is: Why would NASCAR allow the field to approach a start at 30 to 35 MPH? That pace car should have been pacing the field at 50 to 55 MPH on a track that size and on a green/white finish.

They didn’t, Harvick did, NASCAR lost a lot of credibility.

No one really came out a winner on Sunday.

NASCAR: Earnhardt Jr. Gears Up for Dega Dance

 

Earnhardt Jr knows the restrictor plate racing dance. Expect him to come prepared.

Earnhardt Jr knows the restrictor plate racing dance. Expect him to come prepared.

With Joey Logano having put the squeeze on the rest of the field with back-to-back victories, seven spots are open for advancement to the Eliminator 8 Round of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup and will be decided on the massive high banks of Talladega Superspeedway this Sunday.

With all the unpredictability of a restrictor plate race, the CampingWorld.com 500 is shaping up to be the wildest race of the year. Since a driver who loses the draft can fall from front to the rear in a single lap, many liken the odds to roulette with 43 numbers on the wheel, instead of the traditional 38.

With only 18 points separating the top eight contenders, the seven remaining spots to advance will likely not be known until checkered flag flies, assuming that half the field has not already been collected in the “big one”.

Four drivers, namely Kyle Busch, Ryan Newman, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth, will control their own destiny only with a win.

However, among active drivers, no one has wheeled around the hallowed banks of Talladega with more folklore than Earnhardt Jr. At Dega, the No. 88 Chevrolet driver owns the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ best driver rating (92.8) and second-best average running position (14.0).

Of Junior’s 25 career victories, ten have come on restrictor plate tracks of Daytona and Talladega, where the top speed of cars is limited for safety. This year, Earnhardt Jr. has been thoroughly dominant on plate tracks, having finished 1st and 3rd at Daytona, while winning at Talladega back in May and leading over 60% of the race.

Of the 31 races in his career at Talladega, Earnhardt Jr. has shown superb results, including collecting 6 wins, 11 top 5’s and 15 top 10’s. The dilemma, however, is that Junior is in a position where he must win, and all those top 5’s and top 10’s amount to nothing, given his need to advance in the playoffs.

Will Jimmie Johnson help his Hendrick teammate or not?

Will Jimmie Johnson help his Hendrick teammate or not?

Earnhardt Jr., however, has become a cerebral driver who understands that Talladega is a high-stakes dance that requires making the right moves. Drivers at the end are usually mentally spent, needing to constantly analyze which packs are running best, and determining when to race your guts out and when to be patient, all while being constantly surrounded by 42 other cars.

With his father’s teachings and his own sage experience, Earnhardt Jr. understands this rhythm of Talladega and how to make the right moves. “At Talladega, you give more mentally than you do physically,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “In a restrictor-plate race, you need to make decisions with confidence and make them quickly. If you have any kind of hesitation, someone makes that decision for you and takes away that opportunity.”

Moreover, Earnhardt Jr. asserts that he is bringing back his “monster” of a car to Talladega, the same car which won both Talladega in May and Daytona in July. “We’ll have the same car we won with earlier this year,” says Earnhardt Jr. “It’s got great speed and we feel confident. It helps when your car is that that dominant.”

Inherently, Talladega remains unpredictable. Normally, in the NASCAR playoffs, Chase contenders win between 80% and 85% of the races. Conversely at Talladega, Chasers only have won 55% of the races.

However, Chasers still typically finish strong, even if they do not win. In the three restrictor plate races earlier this year, Chasers claimed 7 of the top 10 positions in the finishing order on average.

But calling your shot? That takes it to another level of absurdity, given that one untimely bump or one poor pit stop will likely ruin a driver’s day.

For Earnhardt Jr., the secret sauce may lie with his Hendrick Motorsports’ teammate Jimmie Johnson, who has already been eliminated from Championship contention. While not having collected a plate win this year, Jimmie has finished 5th, 2nd, and 2nd in this season’s three plate races.

Clearly, Johnson knows what it takes to run up front and has worked with Junior successfully in the past. Now that Johnson has already been eliminated in the Chase, he surely has inspiration to help his Hendrick teammate. At the same time, Johnson wouldn’t mind winning at Talledega this weekend himself.

One thing is for sure: Should Earnhardt Jr. win, Dega’s grandstands will be raucously rocking out. Many celebrants may just point to the sky, remembering his iconic father, who won ten races at Talladega, more than any other track in his iconic career, believing that the Redneck Jesus was drafting alongside his son.

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

Jimmie Johnson Is A Greedy SOB

If you aren't greedy, self centered and ruthless....you aren't a professional racing driver.

If you aren’t greedy, self centered and ruthless….you aren’t a professional racing driver.

Jimmie Johnson is one greedy SOB. He’s a professional racing driver, what else would anyone expect him to be? It’s one of the integral ingredients of being an inveterate competitor. He should be applauded, not scorned.

Jimmie Johnson is no different than an ultra successful businessman, which he is, or an Olympic competitor. He’s not going to give anything away that might intrude on his chances at winning the Sprint Cup Chase.

Would he, at some tracks, give Earnhardt a break to get as many Hendrick cars locked into the Chase as possible? Maybe. But the idea that he gave the win at Talladega to Dale Earnhardt, Jr is absurd. Maybe not to the great unwashed, but to someone who knows what to look for, it’s not probable.

Jimmie Johnson was in the same position as everyone else in the ‘Great Talladega Conga Line’ of 2015 otherwise known as a race. Calling it a race is loosely defined if you care to watch it again on your DVR.

If Johnson had been foolish enough to try and slingshot Earnhardt, he would have been hung out to dry like many others were. Sometimes you need to take the most you can get and live to fight another day. Johnson did just that, he has a win and is putting money into his insurance policy of points.

Had he dropped down, he had a rookie, Ryan Blaney, who may or may not have dropped down with him, not to mention Denny Hamlin. Take note that those cars were a Ford and Toyota respectively. His attachment to the manufacturer had to weigh in on his decision. He had no guarantee that the rookie wouldn’t crash him or drop further down with Hamlin to blow by both Johnson and Earnhardt. It simply wasn’t worth the risk.

I read with great amusement the number of fans, mostly Junior haters, who cried foul while espousing multiple conspiracy theories across Twitter and Facebook. It’s nonsense. Johnson would have taken that win if he thought he could have. No question in my mind.

Professional racing drivers are some of the most self-centered, egotistical athletes on the planet. They have to be. Johnson wouldn’t have 6 Championships if he didn’t fit directly into that mold. He may be a nice, vanilla even, type of personality for the cameras, but beneath that veneer lies the heart of a no holds barred UFC fighter. Win at all costs.

The difference is you have to pick your battles in order to win the war. Johnson and, not to forget Knaus, always seem to know what they have, what they’re capable of and then maximizing their package. It works.

The only thing on Johnson's mind is winning.

The only thing on Johnson’s mind is winning.

The Talladega race was an anomaly. It bore no resemblance to any other restrictor plate race I’ve ever seen. I, just like you, expected that with 3 laps to go multiple cars would drop down and go together to form two lines that had a head of steam. It didn’t happen. Why? I have no real answer other than everyone somehow, collectively decided that they would take what they could get without risking a huge crash.

Perhaps they felt that leaving Talladega unscathed or at least with as little points damage as possible was the best course of action. On the other hand, it may be that as a collective, at that moment when things usually heat up, everyone thought the same thing: ‘If I go for it, I’ll be thrown to the back so I’ll stay where I am. Not normal, but in that one moment, possible.

What I don’t find credible is that Johnson would pitch a win just to give it to Earnhardt.

Yes, Jimmie Johnson is one greedy SOB.

NASCAR Ditches “Ricky Bobby”, Welcomes Ryan Blaney

Ryan Blaney is but one of a fantastic crop of young new NASCAR drivers.

Ryan Blaney is but one of a fantastic crop of young new NASCAR drivers.

One thing is guaranteed in life. We all will get older and nobody gets out alive. After that obvious, yet morose, pronouncement there is light at the end of the tunnel, no not that light, young racing drivers coming up through the ranks and Ryan Blaney is one of those.

He’s part of the new crop of drivers that is helping NASCAR ditch the “Ricky Bobby” image and it’s a refreshing place for the Daytona group to find itself.

It’s too soon to say he’s a superstar, he isn’t, but he looks as if he will be joining the talent pool of elites along with several of his alumni.

Ryan Blaney is one of a crop of young drivers in NASCAR whose Fathers were regular competitors, in this case Dave Blaney is his Father. Blaney, the Father often had flashes of brilliance, but his son, Ryan, looks to be capable of surpassing his achievements.

It doesn’t hurt that the young Blaney was on Roger Penske’s radar and is now in the Penske stable. Yes, he drives under the Woods Brothers banner, but make no mistake, this is a Penske effort all the way.

The Woods Brothers are the oldest team still actively competing in NASCAR and with a storied history as well. But like most of the older teams, they fell on hard times against competitors the size of Hendrick. Penske intends to change that.

Ryan Blaney is a Penske driver, with a Penske crew, a Penske crew chief in Jeremy Bullins, Penske engineers and cars built by Penske. It’s a Woods Brothers effort similar to Stewart Haas, but totally run by the Captain.

Blaney has shown that he has the talent to adapt quickly, drive with intelligence, admit his mistakes and not repeat them. His performance at Talladega should confirm that. He found himself at the front in the closing laps of one of the most unusual finishes in that race’s history. It remained single file for an excruciating amount of time. No doubt Blaney would have preferred to have it end like the countless films he watched.

Don't let his youth fool you. Ryan Blaney may become one of NASCAR's elite drivers.

Don’t let his youth fool you. Ryan Blaney may become one of NASCAR’s elite drivers.

Blaney found himself having to depend on Denny Hamlin to make a move in the last few laps and he waited too late. That mistake aside, he’s presented himself as a driver who is more mature than his years.

He’s been racing since he was a child and ran his first Late Model race at age 15. His starts for Tommy Baldwin racing and Brad Keselowski in the truck series put him front and center of the eyes of Tim Cindric and Roger Penske.

He’s running a limited Cup schedule while he’s both being evaluated and sponsorship money is being pursued by Penske.

All outward appearances of his temporary tenure in the Woods Brothers car say that this is a research and development team. Blown motors at Daytona and Texas would indicate that this is the mule team for testing new components.

I would imagine that Blaney relishes this position as at his age learning all of the strange nuances of how these cars handle, what they can take and how much driver input is needed in assessing the components. Valuable information to have when you take that next step up to the varsity team.

Will Penske add a third car? Many believe that he won’t, given the success that he’s having with Keselowski and Logano. But what to do with Blaney?

No one really knows just yet, but he may very well, albeit slowly, bring the Woods Brothers car into a different position than R & D. Ford Motor Company could easily help add that third car to Penske’s stable. Why?

Get out. It’s the Woods Brothers.

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.

 

 

Busch In The Hunt As Talladega Looms Next In Chase

Kyle Busch has had nothing but top-10 finishes so far in the Chase. As a result, he's moved up to second place in the point standings.

Kyle Busch has had nothing but top-10 finishes so far in the Chase. As a result, he’s moved up to second place in the point standings.

If Joey Logano, the points leader as the Chase for the Sprint Cup moves into the final race of the Contender Round at Talladega, happens to hear someone breathing down his neck, well, it’s Kyle Busch.

Logano, who drives for Team Penske, has been sensational in the Chase. He’s won twice and finished fourth three times in the five races held so far. His latest victory, at Kansas, moved him comfortably into the Eliminator Round.

But as good as Logano has been, Busch, who races for Joe Gibbs Racing, is nearly his equal.

Busch is second in points and he is only six behind Logano – a difference that can easily be made up in a single race.

In the Chase, Busch has not finished out of the top 10. His lowest finish has been 10th at Dover but in the last two weeks he’s taken third at Kansas and fifth at Charlotte.

Busch was ranked eighth in points with one victory when the Chase began. He’s gained six spots in five races.

Obviously, Busch likes the way things are going.

“It certainly feels good that we’re heading in the right direction at the right time of the year,” he said. “It’s all about peaking at the right time. Hopefully we haven’t peaked yet, and we still have a way to climb. I feel like we do, anyways.

“We haven’t won in the Chase. There’s opportunity there.

“Again, it’s just trying to get ourselves smarter each and every week about making the right decisions and unloading with the right setups in these cars.

Joey Logano, shown here leading Busch, is No. 1 in the standings but Busch is only six points behind after five Chase races.

Joey Logano, shown here leading Busch, is No. 1 in the standings but Busch is only six points behind after five Chase races.

Busch suggested that although he and his team are running well, they would have to be as good – or better – than several others if they hope to ultimately challenge for a championship.

“We certainly have been fighting really hard at Joe Gibbs Racing to get ourselves up to running with the level of competition that we’ve been seeing from our competitors,” Busch said. “Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano have really been the cars to beat this year.

“Looking at those four, you automatically punch those four all the way through to the end and those are the guys who are going to be racing for the championship.”

Right now, one would think that Busch might just be racing for the championship also. He and his team have displayed the caliber of performance it takes.

Busch, however, thinks more can be done.

“All the pieces are coming together and they’re all coming together at the right time, as I said,” Busch said. “You can do great things.

“For us, hopefully, there’s still a continuation of that here in the next five weeks. We’ll have to have it.”

The next race of the Contender Round is at Talladega, unquestionably the most challenging track in NASCAR. High speeds in the draft and very close-quarters racing – lap after lap – create a situation where a single mistake can create a massive accident.

And who knows who will be involved?

“Being a winner at Talladega doesn’t matter at all,” Busch said. “It’s such a crapshoot that you never really know who is going to win, what’s going to happen, and where the wreck is going to come from.

“The key there is to somehow stay out of trouble.

“If you can be a contender and stay in line on the bottom, you can make it a pretty easy and safe race.

“Normally, guys are not content doing that, so that’s when it starts to get crazy.”

 

 

Dissing Hamlin Over a Caution Finish at Talladega Unfair

Denny Hamlin

Denny Hamlin

I, unlike countless sports writers and fans, am not a proponent of the green/white checker finishes that NASCAR implemented many moons ago in order to give the fans a show at the race finish.

After decades of having auto races legitimately end under a caution, NASCAR seemingly had no choice but to try something to re-engage its fan base. 

Has the GWC actually done that? Perhaps the fans are a little happier for it, but it’s not fair to the drivers who have fought all day long to get into that 1st position only to have it snatched for debris or for crashes on the penultimate lap.

It’s truly a sports version of a Catch-22. NASCAR was losing viewership for a myriad of reasons, most beyond their control, some completely their own doing. The COT comes to mind like walking into your bed room and finding Dracula hanging upside down.

Despite my disdain for that era, at least we’re now at the Gen 6 stage and better racing. Let’s face it, GWC or not, we have had 9 different winners in 10 races. On the surface that seems to be a winning combination.

In reality it’s creating a circus-like atmosphere out of what should be a normal procedure. If the caution flies on the next to last lap and they can’t clean it up, it should finish under caution. The drivers know where they are on that lap and have prepared for the likely or unlikely outcome. 

NASCAR isn’t alone in tweaking rules in order to spice up the show. Formula One has more viewers running from it than Chernobyl. Sound modifiers to make the new cars louder, creating cars with technology for the manufacturers to crow about and Draconian rules when it comes to passing. The fans aren’t so enamored. They’ve created a series with rules that make the EPA regulations look tame.

Jean Todt, President of the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA).

Jean Todt, President of the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA).

One question that’s been circulating this week is: “Does Denny Hamlin have what it takes to win a championship?” Of course he does. He’s not had the best luck when it comes to his physical condition, but mentally this is a tough guy and a highly skilled driver.

Hamlin was leading when the flag caution flag flew and that’s that. He wins.

The show that NASCAR had at one time, in terms of attendance and viewership, didn’t have these rules. In spite of that, the sport emerged at exactly the right time to move into the ‘Sports Darling’ category. It kept growing for a time. Those days are gone.

The social media movement, mobile devices, life in 140 characters, competing against other leisure time activities, the economy, you name it, they’ve had to face it, all the while the viewership kept creeping downward. I understand what they’re doing, but why?

Changing the points system around is one thing, but changing the way races are conducted with reference to finishes is taking a step towards ‘Professional Wrestling’. Pencil me in a new rule boys.

If you are in the lead when an untenable accident occurs with one lap to go, let it finish the way it was intended, under the caution. 

The winning driver deserves it.

 

 

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?

 

 

 

 

David Ragan And David Gilliland Slay Goliaths At a Wild Talladega

David Ragan shocked everyone with his victory in the Aaron’s 499 at Talladega Superspeedway. Ragan hooked up with teammate David Gilliland on the last lap and they swept the top two positions.

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.

The race’s second big, multicar crash occurred with just four laps to go and set up the dramatic green-white-checkered finish.

“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.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

High Speed,Pack Racing and ‘The Big One’ at Talladega: It’s Game On!

Over the years, the high speeds and tight racing at Talladega have led to multicar wrecks which have become known as “The Big One.” Most involved far more cars than shown here.

Whenever a Sprint Cup race at Talladega rolls around debates, controversies, opinions, and theories – pick your word – inevitably arise. And let me assure you they have done so for decades and will certainly continue in the years ahead.

What triggers all of this is a combination of things, but mostly, it’s about the speeds at Talladega, the type of racing demanded by the high-speed draft and the inherent dangers therein.

You all know what type of racing has been a part of Talladega from the time it was born in 1969.

It’s very fast, nose-to-tail competition in airtight packs that has thrilled most fans for decades.

It’s been praised and vilified. Many fans and drivers profess to hate it. And just as many like and support it.

Let me tell you this right away: Unless drastic changes are made to the 2.66-mile speedway, such as flattening its high banks, which is NOT going to happen – not today, not tomorrow and not ever – nothing is going to change much.

For years Talladega was easily the fastest track in NASCAR. And season after season, it got faster.

Make no mistake, Talladega, NASCAR and the fans loved it.

Locked in the high-speed draft, cars spent lap after lap racing in tight packs. It was gripping.

For years, there was plenty of passing. In the days of non-restricted racing it was easy for one car to slip past another. Nothing held it back.

Talladega routinely set records for lead changes.

Over the final laps drama built because of the “slingshot” pass – created when a car in second place could move to the inside of the leader and be literally sucked past by the pull of the wind in the draft.But there was something else.

In 1987 Bill Elliott, driving a Ford owned by Harry Melling, set a Talladega qualifying record of over 212 mph in the days before restrictor plates.

Racing at high speeds in tight packs created a situation where a single driver error or mechanical failure, however small, would trigger a massive accident.

Cars going so fast so crowded were simply racing on the edge of disaster.A multicar incident became so common that it was named “The Big One.”

Over Talladega’s 44-year history “The Big One” has become commonplace.

The prospect of such an incident has, among other things, made races at Talladega exciting, even mesmerizing, for many fans.

Many of them will never admit as such – but they like it anyway. And none of this is to say anyone wants to see a driver get hurt.

Talladega itself knows all about “The Big One.” It understands the mystique. You always catch a glimpse of one it the speedway’s television advertising.

As the years passed, non-restricted races at Talladega became increasingly more dangerous for drivers.

That came to light fully when cars cracked 200 mph with regularity. Speeds had always increased at the track but, in the 1980s, when they reached unheard of levels, Talladega races became more notorious.

Talladega became the epitome of speed. The speedway knew it and capitalized on it. It routinely publicized its races as the fastest and most exciting fans would see.

There was nothing like it in NASCAR, including races at Daytona.

In 1987, a pinnacle was reached – at least as far as speed was concerned. In a Ford with an unrestricted engine, Bill Elliott won the pole with a remarkable speed of 212.809 mph. That translates into a 44.99 seconds per lap around a 2.66-mile track – which for stock cars was, of course, unheard of.

But there was an uneasy undercurrent. Elliott was not alone at over 200 mph. Many drivers, during qualifying, also eclipsed it.

However, most took only a single lap. To a man, each said that was all their nerves could handle. They were unsure, and highly concerned, about how their cars would behave in the draft at such speeds.

That should have been a warning to NASCAR that things were not entirely copasetic and potential danger could arise.

Which it did, dramatically.

The 1987 Winston 500 was scheduled for May 3, 1987. It would be the race at which Elliott won the pole in excess of 212 mph.

On just the 21st lap Bobby Allison, racing at 200 mph in the routine tight pack, cut a tire, went airborne and slammed into the catch-fence along the front dogleg.

Pieces of the car flew everywhere, including into the grandstands where several spectators were hurt. It took nearly three hours under the red flag to repair the damage.

NASCAR immediately got the message. It knew it could not afford such a scenario in the future. If a car racing at over 200 mph got airborne and hurdled into the grandstands intact, huge legal ramifications would mean the end of stock car racing.

The sanctioning body enforced carburetor restrictor plates – its first real effort to slow cars down at Talladega.

Over the years, it has adopted several other safety measures, ranging from roof flaps (to prevent cars from getting airborne) to enlarged greenhouses, safer barriers and more.

Even the cars have been redesigned. Among other things, especially overall safety, this was done to keep speeds down and corral incidents at Talladega.

Has it all worked? No.

While pack racing at Talladega, and Daytona for that matter, has ranged from 30 cars or so to tandem drafts, incidents have continued. “The Big One” is still with us. We saw it last fall.

It’s likely it will never go away. It has remained despite NASCAR’s refinements the years.

And it must be said that slower speeds won’t necessarily rule out near disaster.

We saw proof of that this year in the Nationwide Series race at Daytona.

Racing at Talladega remains largely what it has always been – for better or worse, liked or reviled.

We’ll see evidence of that this weekend.

 

 

Print This Post Print This Post