Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2013 Aaron’s 499 at Talladega

Key MomentNASCAR used all of the tools at their disposal to restart the race and run it to the advertised distance of 499 miles, plus a few more, rather than calling it when the red flag flew for rain on lap 124. That threw out a ho-hum finish, turned it wild and gave the Davids a chance to beat up on Goliath.

In a Nutshell – Talladega once again proved that restrictor plates are the great equalizer as Front Row Motorsports pulled off the improbable. With car owner Bob Jenkins entering the race with just two top-five finishes in 403 career starts, David Ragan and David Gilliland ended the day 1-2, as if they were born contenders while several Sprint Cup superstars spent the night scratching their heads.

Dramatic Moment – During the green-white-checkered finish, Ragan and Gilliland made a powerful move up the center of the three-wide racing on the backstretch to surprise Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth as the two were jockeying for the lead. It was perhaps the biggest moment at any plate track since Phoenix Racing pulled the same feat, winning with an unheralded Brad Keselowski in 2009 while Edwards flipped across the line behind him.

What They’ll be Talking About Around the Water Cooler

Front Row Motorsports won their first race in 406 combined starts. Not only is it their only win, but the final lap was just the 102nd led in the history of the organization. The best result for the team, prior to Sunday this season was a 20th at Richmond for Mr. Ragan. I think he likes this one a whole lot better…

Underdogs, on Sunday had their day, but where does it rank in the 21st Century? Only a handful of victories seem to match FRM’s miracle finish: Phoenix Racing’s aforementioned Talladega trophy, in 2009 with Keselowski and the Wood Brothers’ Daytona 500 triumph with a 20-year-old Trevor Bayne in 2011. Note the other two came on plate tracks, one of the few places nowadays all 43 cars are truly created equal.

Ryan Newman called out NASCAR after spending his final moments on the track underneath Kurt Busch’s car during the second “Big One” of the race. Newman did not mince words. “First of all, to my family and friends, I’m doing this interview to let everybody know that I’m all right,” he said. “They can build safer racecars, they can build SAFER walls, but they can’t get their heads out of their asses far enough to keep them on the racetrack, and that is pretty disappointing. I wanted to make sure I got that point across. Y’all can figure out who ‘they’ is but that is no way to end a race. Our car was much better than that. It was poor. Poor judgment in restarting the race, you got what you wanted, but poor judgment running in the dark, running in the rain. That’s it, thank you.” With NASCAR’s recent stand on Denny Hamlin’s rant against the sanctioning body, it will be interesting to see if they decide to remove any money from Newman’s bank account. A few years ago, following some choice words at ‘Dega the driver was indeed issued one of those old “secret fines” before the sport was forced by near rebellion to make them public.

Speaking of NASCAR’s struggle with consistency, how ironic was it that they chose to show the 2013 Daytona 500 during the rain delay on FOX? Just Saturday, the caution flag flew with the leaders a couple of hundred yards from the finish line and ripped the win from Kasey Kahne’s hand. The 500 replay showed a wreck exiting turn 2 on the final lap, yet the caution flag still wasn’t in the air as Jimmie Johnson passed under the flagstand to take the checkers. It makes it hard for competitors to understand what the playing field is when the boundaries change every time out.

Keselowski is complaining that Ragan lined up in the wrong lane for the final restart, forcing Keselowski to the bottom lane which he believes put him at a disadvantage. The beef seems to come right before the green, on the backstretch where some random passing behind the pace car caused Keselowski and Ragan to swap positions before NASCAR took control and ordered a last-minute swap. In reality, it might have been Scott Speed out of line; which one of the three was in front of who is clearly debatable, at the time of caution as shown in the 2:42 mark of this clip. My take? Keselowski needs to take a deep breath, relax and realize a change of lanes was no perfect guarantee of future success. You have to wonder, considering the Penske Racing problems with their appeal if the reigning champ simply needed an outlet upon which to vent.

NASCAR is definitely going to be under fire this coming week over both races this weekend running late into the evening. They always claim that they won’t start a race if they don’t think the entire length of the advertised distance can be completed. Well, due to the rain, the Nationwide Series race was cut short by 10 laps before the green-white-checkered added three laps to the modified total. Both series faced such finishes but NASCAR announced the rules would be changed and, instead of the customary three attempts, only one try would be made to complete these events. While it didn’t matter in the end, it was also the end to marathon days that make you wonder how many fans kept the television on for all of it.

Darrell Waltrip has added a few words to the lexicon of racing over the years. The incessant Boogity, boogity, boogity. The restrictor plate centric “coopetition.” This weekend’s latest addition sprang from Juan Pablo Montoya’s failure to fire after the red flag. DW enlightened all of us that the No. 42 was having electronical problems.

The Hindenburg Award for Foul Fortune

Take your pick, as most anyone who was caught up in the “Big Ones” at Talladega can fall into this category. That would include Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Kahne, Kevin Harvick, Brian Vickers, Jamie McMurray, Greg Biffle, Marcos Ambrose, Jeff Burton, David Stremme, Kurt Busch, David Reutimann, Casey Mears, Speed, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Clint Bowyer, Newman, JJ Yeley, Danica Patrick, Bobby Labonte, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Michael Waltrip. Of this group, only Speed, Truex, and Waltrip were able to recover, scoring top-10 finishes with Waltrip coming home a surprising fourth.

Kenseth led 142 laps on Sunday before being shuffled out on the final lap. That means Kenseth has led 228 laps in the two restrictor plate races this season and has a 37th and eighth-place result to show for them.

On a day when one of the true underdog organizations in the sport scored their first win, Michael McDowell had an unfortunate right front failure which resulted in a 21st-place finish, one lap down that also ensured Kurt Busch and Newman would end the day with their cars in pieces.

Bayne didn’t even have the opportunity to be caught up in one of the Big Ones on Sunday as his engine done blowed up on lap 22. He wound up dead last.

Montoya was bitten by the bad luck bug again this week as, when the cars fired to life after the red flag, his did not. He was forced to the garage to have the computers diagnose the problem before his ECU was fixed to allow him back into the race, three laps back. He finished 25th.

Kurt Busch, like Mr. Newman wound up with a smile turned upside down as he experienced the first rollover of his stock car racing career. Busch described the moment as “lovely” while explaining there were only four races his mom didn’t attend each year: Daytona and Talladega. The fact his tire landed mere feet from crunching the driver of the No. 39 should give you enough of an answer as to why.

The “Seven Come for Eleven” Award for Fine Fortune

While Waltrip bounced off the wall during the second Big One of the day, he still managed to bring the No. 55 home in one piece for a fourth-place finish. Considering the carnage that happened around him, that was some very fine fortune indeed.

Regan Smith, once dreaming daily nightmares of a win lost at Talladega had himself a redemption weekend. He was awarded the victory in Saturday’s Nationwide race, based on that caution flag waving before notching a sixth-place finish in Sunday’s Aaron’s 499.

While Front Row Motorsports was claiming the win on Sunday, Leavine Family Racing scored their first top-10 finish when Speed crossed the line ninth once the checkered flag was in the air. Small steps.

Aric Almirola turned in his fourth straight top-10 finish of the season by running 10th at Talladega on Sunday. No one else in Sprint Cup can match that current streak.

Austin Dillon deserves an honorable mention here, despite competing in Saturday’s Nationwide Series race. He had a broken spark plug, lost a lap then spent 74 laps trying to regain it before a very late caution gave him one last chance. Before you could blink, he was leading the event, in the midst of a green-white-checkered finish and wound up with a surprise top 10 (10th).

Worth Noting

  • Six of the last seven Talladega races have ended with a last-lap pass. The track has seen 22 last-lap passes for the win in its history since opening in 1969.
  • This win was Ragan’s second of his career in 226 Cup series starts. That is 474 fewer starts than Labonte has in his career. Labonte celebrated his 700th Cup start this weekend at Talladega; he ran 20th, the same position Ragan finished in last Saturday night at Richmond.
  • Sunday marked Ragan’s second straight top-five and third straight top-10 result at Talladega.
  • Gilliland came home in second to score his second career top-5 result at Talladega.
  • Edwards (third) scored just his second top five at Talladega in his career. For those not paying attention, that’s the same number as Gilliland above.
  • Waltrip (fourth) scored his best NASCAR Cup Series finish since a runner-up performance at Loudon in July, 2008.
  • 30 lead changes during a 500-mile race at Talladega was the fewest since 2002, when there were 26 in a race that was won by Dale Earnhardt Jr.
  • A race has never been won by a polesitter who was awarded the pole when qualifying was rained out.

Top 10 finishers by manufacturer at Talladega

Ford – 5
Toyota – 3
Chevrolet – 2

What’s the Points?

Johnson continues to lead the Cup Series standings, losing just two points to Edwards, his closest pursuer. Thanks to Kahne’s early exit from the race on Sunday, Earnhardt Jr. climbed one position back to third. Bowyer and Keselowski also gained one spot each, even though they all lost ground to Johnson. At this point, Edwards is the only driver who is within one race of the top spot, and that is just barely as he is 41 points behind JJ.

Further back, Kahne resides in sixth, barely ahead of Almirola who made a four-spot gain on Sunday to jump into seventh in points. Menard, even though he struggled with a sour powerplant Sunday that resulted in a 26th-place finish, gained two spots in his own right, to eighth. Kyle Busch caused the first Big One (at least, that’s what he said in his post-wreck interview) but returned to the track and put in enough laps to come home 37th. That leaves him hanging on to ninth. Biffle was also turning laps in a wounded race car on Sunday, nursing it home to maintain a spot in the top 10 (just barely).

Kenseth’s strong run gained him two more positions in the standings to 11th. He is one point behind Biffle for the top 10 and, based on the way he’s been running this season, it won’t take more than a race or two for him to be solidly inside the Chase. Meanwhile, Hamlin jumped back into the seat for the start of the Talladega race before giving it up to Vickers. Unfortunately, the best laid plans went south quickly when the No. 11 was in the first Big One. When it was all said and done, Hamlin’s point total has him sitting in 31st position, 76 points behind Kurt Busch, who holds down the last spot in the top 20. He has 16 races before the Chase cutoff, which means he needs to score five points more than the person in 20th for all of those races to get inside the cutoff. Assuming he wins a couple of events, possibly three to win the Wild Card, it shouldn’t be hard for him to gain the 76 points.

Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans, with one being a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic) – While it was hardly 85 lead changes and three-wide all day, there was far more mixing it up at Talladega than many people thought there would be after the parade that was Daytona. Kenseth leading 142 laps put a bit of a damper on things, and a single-file parade out of the red flag was less than edge-of-the-seat competition. But average, at a plate race is nothing to sneeze at. We’ll give it three cans of Budweiser, this time around in honor of the folks in the infield at Talladega who posted pictures of Patrick and Travis Pastrana among the NASCAR celebs who shared time with the loyal fans on Saturday night.

Next Up — The series moves to one of the oldest speedways on the schedule in Darlington, S.C. The famous, egg-shaped oval that will leave just about all of the cars with a few layers of missing paint off their right side should provide some of the best racing of the season and, if history repeats itself, some frazzled emotions on pit lane. The race broadcast will be at 6:45 p.m. ET on Saturday night on FOX along with MRN radio.

About the author

What is it that Mike Neff doesn’t do? The writer, radio contributor and racetrack announcer coordinates the site’s local short track coverage, hitting up Saturday Night Specials across the country while tracking the sport’s future racing stars. The writer for our signature Cup post-race column, Thinkin’ Out Loud (Mondays) also sits down with Cup crew chiefs to talk shop every Friday with Tech Talk. Mike announces several shows each year for the Good Guys Rod and Custom Association. He also pops up everywhere from PRN Pit Reporters and the Press Box with Alan Smothers to SIRIUS XM Radio. He has announced at tracks all over the Southeast, starting at Millbridge Speedway. He's also announced at East Lincoln Speedway, Concord Speedway, Tri-County Speedway, Caraway Speedway, and Charlotte Motor Speedway.

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