Who’s in the headline – It took 11 years but Dale Earnhardt Jr. finally won another Sprint Cup Series race at Talladega. After some spirited racing for much of the first part of the race, the last third turned into a mind-numbing parade with little to no action at all. Earnhardt pitted with a few other cars right before Austin Dillon done blowed up to bring out the final caution of the race, and inherited a front-row starting position for the final restart. He took the lead when the green flag flew and led a 36 car procession of lemmings to the checkered flag.
What happened – Jeff Gordon dominated qualifying, whipping the field by .3 seconds when the remainder of the final 12 in qualifying were only separated by .3 seconds. In the first round of qualifying, there were 21 drivers withing .3 behind Gordon. When the green flew, Gordon led the first three laps and 35 of the first 96, but wasn’t really a factor over the final 60 laps. Jimmie Johnson led twice for 50 laps, but didn’t take the point after the 103rd lap. Gordon, Johnson and Earnhardt were the only drivers to lead more than five consecutive laps. While 15 drivers exchanged the lead 27 times early, over the final 64 laps the only person to take the lead from Earnhardt was Tony Stewart for a mere one lap. Three other drivers led during the green-flag pit stops that occurred before the final caution but Earnhardt owned the last third of the race.
Why you should care – Talladega is Earnhardt territory. Dale Earnhardt Sr. had 10 victories at the track and Earnhardt Jr. was dominant in the early 2000s. Going 10 years without a victory in north central Alabama was a drought felt by all of Junior Nation. NASCAR didn’t throw a caution during a final-lap wreck, which angered some drivers. There was also another fire on pit road. NASCAR implemented new safety rules for crew members but it won’t surprise anyone if there is a new fueling system introduced in the not too distant future.
What your friends are talking about – NASCAR race control chose not to throw a caution on the final lap Sunday as Carl Edwards spun in turns 1 and 2 followed by Casey Mears, Gordon, Clint Bowyer, Michael Annett and Bobby Labonte all wrecked on the back straight. At Daytona in February, a similar number of cars wrecked and the caution flew immediately. In California this year, Greg Biffle wrecked at the start/finish line and they waited until the field was in turn two before they threw the caution. At Richmond, the field was going through a green-flag pit stop cycle and NASCAR tried hard not to throw the caution until the last three cars on the track that needed to pit pulled in, but eventually the yellow was thrown. Whether they throw the cautions immediately or wait doesn’t really matter, although safety should be the priority. The bottom line is they need to throw it at the same time all of the time.
In an announcement that nearly anyone who pays attention to the business of NASCAR saw coming for some time, the folks at GoDaddy are pulling the plug on their sponsorship of the No. 10 for next season. This year is the final year of Danica Patrick‘s contract with Stewart-Haas Racing. It will be surprising if another company or two doesn’t jump on board just because Patrick moves the needle with racing and non-racing fans alike. Debate the accomplishments all you want, but she is one of the most recognized female athletes on the planet. Someone is going to get on the hood of her car.
Rumblings in the garage are that Phil Parsons is about to sell the No. 98 team. After milking the cash cow of starting and parking for several years, the team has been running full races for the last couple seasons. Failing to qualify for the Daytona 500 had to put a strain on the financials of the organization. Motorsport.com reported that Parsons had reached an agreement with Jay Robinson to sell the organization. Parsons refused to comment at Talladega.
For the second week in a row, there was a pit-road fire thanks to spilled fuel during a pit stop. Ryan Newman‘s car/pit caught fire during a stop. It was quickly extinguished and no one was injured, unlike last weekend in Richmond where three pit crew members were taken to a local hospital for a pit road fire during the Xfinity Series race. Crew members were wearing full face helmets and fire retardant head socks this weekend, but you have to wonder how long it will be before we see an update to the fueling system that is utilized to refuel the cars during pit stops. The sanctioning body cannot be happy about campfires breaking out every week on pit lane.
During an interview this week, Kevin Harvick talked about the Cup Series schedule and the need to mix it up. He pointed out that the schedule is stale and stagnant and that the modern fan likes change. There are more racetracks that would be great to see on the schedule, but the logistics of hosting a Cup race are rather daunting. In addition, making a profit at these modern, massive venues is not easy on one race date per season. The idea of midweek races still holds value, and not having to implement all of the sponsor activation and hospitality that the weekend races require would make things easier for some small venues. It would also open the opportunity for more short-track races, which we all want to see.
Brian France spoke to the AP this week and intimated that shorter races are something that NASCAR is looking into France stated, “I think generally speaking, we want to see shorter events… not in every circumstance.”
He implied that the attention span of millenials is not what older fans have and that shorter races would also reduce the amount of time in the middle of events where drivers tend to ride around. Some people – the author of this piece included – are in the minority and think all races should be 500 miles. Unfortunately, that is not the writing on the wall and it looks like shorter races are coming. The question in that aspect is this: Are fans going to pay the same amount for tickets to see 100-200 fewer laps?
Gordon is going to driver the pace car for the Indianapolis 500. One of Indiana’s favorite adopted sons is going to “do the double” but only to pilot the pace car for the race. Gordon will not have the concerns of missing the drivers’ meeting or introductions since he isn’t committed to racing in the event.
Thoughts and prayers go out to Brad Smith after his scary wreck at Talladega in the ARCA race on Friday. Smith’s throttle hung after hitting the outside wall and then crashed hard into the inside wall. He suffered broken ankles and a laceration to his left foot. He was air lifted to the hospital, but we’re hearing that the surgery was successful.
Who is mad – Gordon was truly dominant in qualifying on Saturday. He started the race in strong fashion as well but seemed to lose a little following a red flag for a big wreck on the back stretch on lap 48. He then received a pit road speeding penalty on lap 156 as he entered the pits for his final stop of the day. He couldn’t make any progress toward the front after starting at the tail end of the pack and was then caught up in a wreck on the final lap. That makes him two-for-two in plate races this season in wrecking (or being wrecked) on the final lap
Edwards and Matt Kenseth were both vocal about their displeasure with race control for not throwing a caution flag on the final lap. Edwards spun and came back up across the race track through traffic… traffic that was not slowing down since the yellow didn’t come out. He was afraid he could have been hurt if he had been T-boned by one of those cars. Kenseth agreed, stating he lifted to avoid sending Edwards to the hospital. Edwards likened it to Daytona when he lifted because Gordon was wrecking on the back straight and the caution had not yet been called, although it came out shortly after Edwards drove past. The Joe Gibbs Racing freshman is going to speak with other drivers this week, as he feels this is a serious safety concern.
Kasey Kahne was fast just like the rest of the Hendrick contingent at Talladega but he didn’t get to wait until the final lap to be caught in a wreck. Kahne was involved in the lap 48 ‘Big One’ and had to spend several laps behind the wall for repairs. As a result, he came home with a 34th-place finish. At this pace, 2015 is going to unfold much like 2014 for Kahne and he may be facing a late season win-to-get-in situation as he did last season to make the Chase.
Who is happy – Ryan Blaney is running a limited schedule for the Wood Brothers this season and had poor results in two of his first three starts thanks to engine failures. Blaney not only ran the distance on Sunday but he crossed the line in fourth place. He was in position to try and make a move on the final lap to win the race but Denny Hamlin beat him to the punch and caused the youngster to have to play catch up on his run to the finish line.
Paul Menard is getting used to his new crew chief Justin Alexander. He is still laying down his typical early season strong run, sitting in the top 12 in points. However, he only had one top 10 coming into this weekend. That run was also a top five at Fontana. Menard made some of the few moves of anyone on the final lap at Talladega and the result was a podium run. Menard is currently Chase eligible but he’s been here before. We’ll have to see where it shakes out as the ‘regular season’ winds down. For now, he’s got to be happy with his run at Talladega.
Sam Hornish Jr. is back in the Cup series after a couple of years away and he is trying to find success for Richard Petty Motorsports. To say it has been a challenge would be an understatement. Hornish has two finishes of 40th or worse and two more of 32nd or worse. Hornish held his track position and rolled through the final lap carnage to score a sixth-place finish, by far his best run of the season. Making the transition to a new team, not to mention one of the smaller teams in the series, is a challenge. A run like Talladega for Hornish and his team might swing the momentum in their direction.
When the checkered flag flew
Earnhardt Jr. scored the 24th victory of his Cup career in his 551st start. The win puts Earnhardt alone in 31st on the all-time wins list. The triumph is Earnhardt’s sixth of his career at Talladega Superspeedway. Earnhardt is tied with Gordon for most wins at Talladega among active drivers. They trail Earnhardt Sr. on the all-time win list at the track.
Johnson crossed the line in second for his fourth top-two run of 2015. It is also his fourth straight top-three run. Johnson’s runner-up is his fifth top-two run of his career at Talladega.
Menard’s third place run was his second career top-three at Talladega. As stated earlier, this is Menard’s first top-three of the season.
Matt DiBenedetto came home in 18th Sunday to win Rookie of the Race.
Harvick leads the points by 40 over Martin Truex Jr.
Harvick, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, Johnson, Hamlin, Kenseth, Kurt Busch and Earnhardt Jr. all have wins in 2015. Harvick and Johnson are locked into the Chase assuming they attempt the rest of the races or receive an exemption should they miss any events, thanks to multiple wins.
The drivers who are currently eligible for the Chase after 10 races without wins and their standing in points:
8, Martin Truex Jr.
9. Jamie McMurray
10. Kasey Kahne
11. Paul Menard
12. Aric Almirola
13. Jeff Gordon
14. Ryan Newman
15. Danica Patrick
16. Clint Bowyer
Takin’ it to the Bank
Cup winners this year have pocketed $4,400,567 in 10 races, while the last-place finisher has taken home $869,020.
In the Xfinity Series, that amount has been $722,297 for the winners and $152,204 for last place in nine races.
After three Truck races, the winner has $188,425 and the last loser has banked $30,813.
What is in the cooler
NASCAR, FOX and the folks at Talladega Superspeedway trumpet the edge of your seat action that is provided by the giant tri-oval in north central Alabama. Unfortunately, they forgot to tell the drivers about it. The first half of the race had plenty of two and three-wide action but the second half of the race was a snoozefest of epic proportions. Fortunately, there was only one ‘Big One’ during the event so most of the teams don’t have to rebuild racecars before the circuit heads to Daytona for the 5th of July. With that said, thanks to the fact that Earnhardt Jr. took the checkered flag first, we’ll give it two cans of Budweiser, because no other beer could possibly be rewarded at Talladega.
Where do you point your DVR for next week – After two short-track races and a trip to the longest oval on the circuit, we head back to a mile-and-a-half oval. The 11th stop on the schedule finds the series at Kansas Speedway. The race begins at 7:30 ET Saturday May 9th. It begins a stretch of back-to-back races on FOX Sports 1 as the All-Star Race and Sprint Showdown are on the cable network the following weekend. You can also listen to the action on MRN radio and SiriusXM NASCAR channel 90.
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.