Race Weekend Central

The Underdog House: One Driver’s Loss Is an Underdog’s Gain at Talladega

Top Dog: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

“Just keep swimming, just keep swimming, swimming, swimming.”

Now, let’s alter one of the more recognizable lines from Finding Nemo to fit the Geico 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday (April 21).

“Just keep saving, just keep saving …”

Fuel conservation was the name of the game for much of the NASCAR Cup Series race at Talladega, with drivers saving as much fuel as possible to take less fuel on pit stops, thus giving them more track position.

But on the final lap of the race, the real Talladega stood up with the Big One striking late and a block gone wrong. Sliding through the smoke was perhaps the most prominent superspeedway racer among underdogs, Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

See also
Stock Car Scoop: The Best Talladega Race of NASCAR's Next Gen Era?

A fourth-place result gave Stenhouse a finish he badly needed in a season where not much has gone right.

With the first two stages going caution-free, Stenhouse was quiet for the most part. He cracked the top 10 during stage one before sliding to 27th by the end of the stage.

In stage two, Stenhouse put himself in the hunt, and when green flag pit stops cycled through, he was in the mix for stage points. The Olive Branch, Miss. native finished two spots short of a stage point in 12th.

As the laps wound down in the final stage, the No. 47 methodically climbed the leaderboard and was not near two accidents that set up the final push to the finish.

Where Stenhouse was coming to the white flag sums up Talladega in a nutshell.

The 36-year-old was in a drag race between 13th and 14th entering the tri-oval on the final lap. In a flash, Michael McDowell attempted a block, went around, and the seas parted around Stenhouse to allow him to capture a top five.

It was absolute heads-up driving from the veteran, who grabbed his first top 10 since Atlanta Motor Speedway and first top five since the 2023 Bristol Motor Speedway dirt race.

Entering the race, JTG Daugherty Racing’s lone driver had endured six consecutive finishes outside the top 20. The site of his first career Cup win may have been just what the doctor ordered to get his season back on track.

How Does It Compare?

Not surprisingly, Talladega is notorious for strong underdog runs, so Stenhouse’s finish had some stiff competition. However, when compared to the Talladega races since 2021, Stenhouse was right on par. His run matched a fourth-place run by Corey LaJoie in last fall’s race while topping a sixth-place result by Erik Jones in the spring event.

Three performances were hard for Stenhouse’s to top. McDowell finished third in the fall race of 2022, and Ross Chastain‘s brief run on The Underdog House included a win in the 2022 spring event. Prior to that, Bubba Wallace snatched both his and 23XI Racing’s first win in a rain-shortened event the 2021 fall race.

Notable Underdog Runs

If I had to give a driver of the weekend award, it would go to Anthony Alfredo. The NASCAR Xfinity Series regular drives for Our Motorsports in that series, an underdog team in its own right. However, in the Cup race, Alfredo was truly the underdog.

Alfredo made his second start of the season with Beard Motorsports, with which he also competed in the Daytona 500. Beard has one full-time employee, and you will typically see the team only at superspeedway races. But when it does show up, it comes ready to make some noise.

A day after matching his career-best Xfinity finish in third, Alfredo lived up to his “Fast Pasta” nickname at several points throughout the race. He cracked the top 15 in stage one, and in stage two, he put the No. 62 out in front for four laps. Despite losing the draft and falling a lap down later in the stage, Alfredo recovered and positioned himself in the top 20 on the final lap. When the Big One struck in the tri-oval, Alfredo slipped through to finish sixth, his best career finish in 40 Cup starts.

Alfredo’s top 10 was the second of his career and marked a strong day for the little team that could. Alfredo’s four laps out front were the first laps a driver has led for Beard since Brendan Gaughan led five in the 2019 spring Talladega race. Beard has also now netted a top 10 in over 20% of the races it has entered since debuting at the Cup level in 2017.

While McDowell suffered heartbreak on the final lap, it wasn’t a complete loss for Front Row Motorsports. Todd Gilliland continued to grow his superspeedway confidence, finishing eighth. Gilliland ran toward the front for much of the day, even contributing to FRM running 1-2 at one point during the race.

The 23-year-old was just ahead of a wreck on lap 134, but he couldn’t avoid the Big One at the end. Gilliland’s bright red car was turned into the wall, yet he was able to bring a junked car to the line to finish eighth. Despite not leading any laps, Gilliland continues to assert himself as a consistent threat on superspeedways, earning his first top 10 of the season and third at Talladega.

Behind Gilliland in ninth was Daniel Hemric, a driver who pieced together one of his most impressive runs at the Cup level. After starting 19th, Hemric stormed to the front to take the lead on lap 7. The Kaulig Racing driver led a career-high eight laps, but the Cirkul Chevrolet made a splash up front all day long. The ninth-place result is Hemric’s first top 10 of 2024 and matches his best Cup finish with Kaulig.

Closing out the top 10 was another driver with a much needed good result: Harrison Burton. The Wood Brothers Racing driver was finally rewarded for a strong superspeedway showing, challenging up front and looking like a legitimate contender. Burton was in the mix to win stage one as a part of a Ford line on top before finishing the stage in fourth.

After dropping back during the final stage, Burton was in 29th on the final when the tri-oval chaos erupted, but he committed to the middle and survived for the top 10. Burton also secured his first top 10 of the year and grabbed his first top 10 since Pocono Raceway last season.

See also
Michael McDowell Spins from Lead, Corey LaJoie Flips in Last-Lap Talladega Calamity

Spire Motorsports saw Carson Hocevar and LaJoie cross the line in 17th and 18th, respectively, but it was LaJoie who was the highlight of the nightmare Big One. As cars spun up the track and into each other, LaJoie’s No. 7 channeled its inner-Martin Truex Jr. at Richmond in 2005 and ended up on its side before performing a slow rollover after crossing the line. In spite of an early spin from leftover weepers and crossing the start/finish line on his side, LaJoie still landed his first top 20 since Atlanta.

Overall, one of the race’s themes was the amount of underdogs up front. While many of the top teams went into aggressive fuel-saving mode, the sport’s dark horses took full advantage. BJ McLeod kicked off things early by leading five laps, the most in a race by a Live Fast Motorsports driver. Collectively, underdogs led 45 of the 188 laps, putting the opportunities of superspeedway racing on full display.

What They’re Saying

Stenhouse (fourth) & Hemric (ninth):

Hocevar (17th) & Shane van Gisbergen (28th):

LaJoie (18th):

Jones (35th):

Who’s Really the Top Dog?

For the second time this season, Stenhouse stands above the rest of his underdog competitors with the gold. Alfredo put his name on the board for the first time, while Gilliland takes bronze.

2024 Underdog Medal Count

Gold: Jones (3x), Stenhouse (2x), Hocevar (2x), LaJoie, John Hunter Nemechek, AJ Allmendinger

Silver: Gilliland (3x), Allmendinger, Burton, Hocevar, Justin Haley, Zane Smith, Ty Dillon, Alfredo

Bronze: Stenhouse (2x), Nemechek (2x), LaJoie, Kaz Grala, van Gisbergen, Hocevar, Jones, Gilliland

Small Team Scheme of the Week

Kaulig brought a couple of beautiful Chevrolets to the track, with Wendy’s debuting on van Gisbergen’s No. 16 and Cirkul donning a new look on Hemric’s No. 31. I’ve got to go with the “Ride or Fry” car of van Gisbergen’s, as the blue flames finished off a mouth-watering scheme.

About the author

Luken Glover joined the Frontstretch team in 2020 as a contributor, furthering a love for racing that traces back to his earliest memories. Glover inherited his passion for racing from his grandfather, who used to help former NASCAR team owner Junie Donlavey in his Richmond, Va. garage. A 2023 graduate from the University of the Cumberlands, Glover is the author of "The Underdog House," contributes to commentary pieces, and does occasional at-track reporting. Additionally, Glover enjoys working in ministry, coaching basketball, playing sports, and karting.

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DoninAjax

SVG was going to get two really good results until he ran out of petrol on Saturday and got caught in the demo derby on Sunday. I have no idea why he would want to drive NA$CAR’s POS car when he could be in the Supercar series in a real “race” car. I’ve been watching the Supercar (real) races on REVTV. Red Bull is winning everywhere in every thing! The Mount Panorama circuit is incredible, fast and unforgiving.

RCFX1

Big money. He’ll take it a couple of years and then head back home.

DoninAjax

Check out the Bathurst 500 from Mount Panorama!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3_yWiqTi0G0

RCFX1

If Brad is in second with one to go, you won’t finish the race.

DoninAjax

The leader going into the last lap will never win Brian’s product at a restrictor plate track.

Echo

Brad didn’t dump Carl, he did it to himself, Brad had the space and didn’t lift. Who else do you think Brad dump to win a race. Name the driver and race.

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