Posted: 11:24 am Monday, October 24th, 2016
By Doug "Fireball" Turnbull
Team Penske is clutch at Talladega Superspeedway. Joey Logano picked up right where teammate Brad Keselowski left off at the Alabama track, scoring a much-needed win in the Hellman’s 500 and advancing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Chase playoffs to the Round of Eight. Logano’s second win of the season was also his second-straight in the Talladega fall race. Bliss for Logano was depression for others with Chase title hopes. Here is how it unfolded.
Quick Shakedown: Martin Truex Jr. (finished 40th) entered Talladega 13 points to the good on the Chase bubble and started the race on the pole. NASCAR found a hollowed jack bolt on the No. 78 in pre-qualifying inspection Saturday, but said the explicitly illegal part would likely not cause a points penalty.
Brad Keselowski (38th), in almost certain need of a win to advance in the Chase at his best track led the first 11 laps, before Truex Jr. took two circuits up front. But Keselowski dominated the day, only ceding the lead briefly to the likes of Chase Elliott (12th) and Greg Biffle (15th) and a few others during pit sequences.
Truex Jr.’s Chase went up in smoke on lap 43 just after the first pit stops, as his engine let go and doomed him to a last place finish. Truex Jr.’s dream season will not end that way.
During those same pit stops, Logano somehow left his pit stall with the jack stuck under the car, meaning he had to serve a penalty. But the caution laps erased any deficit and let the team repair the car.
The next 67 laps were all green and Keselowski led most of them. Biffle, Jeffrey Earnhardt (34th), and Casey Mears (39th) got together on lap 115, ending Mears’ day. Earnhardt was driving a black, white, and red Starter-sponsored No. 83 Toyota for BK Racing, sporting a paint scheme similar to his late grandfather’s.
Then another big bomb dropped on lap 146, when Keselowski got debris on his grille for the third time in the race as the leader. The team orchestrated a plan with Ryan Blaney (11th) swapping the lead with Keselowski, to scrub off the debris. But as soon as the 2 car’s nose got clean yet again, the high water temperatures’ damage to the engine killed it. Keselowski’s day and Chase were done.
Elliott hung in the top 5 the first half of the race,even leading nine laps but once a green flag stop shuffled him back, he could not move forward. Passing in the pack was very difficult yet again at a plate race.
Keselowski’s demise left the race in the hands of Logano. Both Team Penske drivers masterfully switched lanes in front of the pack to keep surging lines at bay, their respective spotters giving them the perfect info on what each lane was doing. And they both skillfully side drafted their ways to the lead, Keselowski doing so almost at will. Once Logano got out front, he was unstoppable.
A lap 183 crash that saw Kasey Kahne (35th) spin loose and collect Jamie McMurray (19th) and Trevor Bayne (17th). Another one on lap 187 of the scheduled 188 laps saw Alex Bowman (36th) spin across Kurt Busch’s (4th) nose and into the grass, to setup NASCAR Overtime.
Logano had led the last couple of restarts and did so on this one, to score the 16th win of the year. He paced the final 45 laps of the 192-circuit race.
The Big One never happened, which brought into question the strategies Matt Kenseth (28th), Carl Edwards (29th), and Kyle Busch (30th) deployed all race. All three Joe Gibbs Racing drivers rode in the back of the pack in a straight line the entire race, hoping to preserve their sizable points cushions, avoid wrecks, and advance in the Chase. It worked, but they did not figure so many cars being in contention at the end of a relatively clean race.
Top 10: Logano (led 45 laps, advances in the Chase); Brian Scott (easily best finish of season and career); Denny Hamlin (recovered from pit road speeding penalty, led 12 laps); Kurt Busch (ran near front most of day); Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (very racy and aggressive at the front); Kyle Larson (see Stenhouse Jr. comment); Kevin Harvick (just racing for a flag and angered at being shuffled back on last lap); Aric Almirola (best finish of season, like his RPM teammate Scott); Austin Dillon (tied Hamlin for 8th in points, lost on tiebreaker, heartbreaker); A.J. Allmendinger (ran in back most of day, overcame a pit road speeding penalty on the first stops, surged at the end).
The points: The remaining eight Chase drivers all have 4,000 points each, as the Round of Eight begins.Truex Jr. leads Keselowski by 23 points and the other former Chase drivers that could finish as high as 5th in points.
RaceTweet: Keselowski and Logano both needed to win. Keselowski dominates, but Logano takes the checkers at Talladega. Elliott, Keselowski, Truex Jr., and Logano are out of the Chase.
Handsome Boy Modeling School Stud of the Race: Brad Keselowski – Not since Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Talladega glory days in the mid-2000s, has there been a driver with a strategy so dominant at the track as Keselowski. He led 90 laps, drove to the front easily when he got back in traffic, and pretty much had the race won without an engine failure. If Logano’s execution was very good, Keselowski’s and the No. 2 team’s was excellent (except in the debris removal department).
North Korean Missile Dud: Tony Stewart – Most know Stewart’s extreme disdain for Talladega racing, but seeing Stewart at least attempt to make a run for the win would have been entertaining for his large fan base. Stewart took the JGR strategy and ran in the back of the pack all day, finishing 32nd. Yawn.
You Can Comeback, But You Can’t Stay Here: Denny Hamlin – As Dillon surged near the end of the race, Hamlin and the No. 11 team’s heart fluttered. Hamlin had put himself in position to run up front, even after speeding on the first pit stop, but the unpredictability of the draft had him on thin ice. Then he made some moves and finished 3rd, tying tie Dillon in the standings. Hamlin won the tie on wins (three to Dillon’s zero).
Ghost Driver: Most any teammate of a driver that was low in the Chase standings – Yeah. The other JGR cars laid back to play the race safe, but also to make sure and not cost Hamlin any points. Hamlin pretty much said so after the race. Elliott’s Hendrick Motorsports stablemates Kahne, Alex Bowman, and Johnson knew their main job was to help the No. 24 win. Did we hear a peep from anyone from Richard Childress Racing, but Dillon? No.
Never Fear, Underdog is Here: Brian Scott – Scott drove into the top 5 after the final pit stops and wedged his way into 2nd and right on Logano’s bumper at the end. He has had the rookie season from hell, as has all of Richard Petty Motorsports. Scott’s 2nd and Almirola’s 8th are the first top 10s in all of 2016 for RPM. After the race, Scott stood by himself outside his No. 44 – the media attention surrounded the Chase drivers. Here is my interview with him.
Wheel of Misfortune: Martin Truex Jr. – The second half of 2016 has seen Truex Jr. shake the “hard luck” moniker. But the bad clutch at Charlotte, the malfunctioning fuel plate at Kansas, and the detonated engine at Talladega ended the Chase for the driver that has led the most laps this season and is tied for the series lead in wins. I watched a dejected No. 78 team start running back to the garage to fix their Bass Pro Shops Toyota, only to slow to a walk as they realized their day and their title ended.
Jimmie Johnson’s Golden Horseshoe: Joey Logano – As Truex Jr. blew up, Logano left pit road with his jack and had to slow dramatically on the track to keep it from tearing up the car. That and the subsequent “dragging equipment” penalty would have cost him a tough lap to make up. But Truex Jr.’s misfortune was Logano’s saving grace and kept him in position to pounce when Keselowski’s day ended. Another man’s trash, is another man’s treasure.
Head-Scratcher Crown of Thorns: Earlier when I said “Most any teammate…” regarding how drivers laid back to help their teammates stay or get in the Chase, I left room for one that didn’t. Harvick was running inside the top 5 and raced hard with Ku. Busch for position, appearing to almost make contact in the closing laps. Busch objected and slammed the side of Harvick’s car on the cool-down lap. When Harvick dismounted from his now-damaged car, he went and appeared to punch at Busch through the window while he was still in the cockpit. Busch said he was mad Harvick did not understand the call after the race (likely to let Busch go ahead to be safe in points). Harvick was mad his car got damaged.
With so much at stake and the intensity so high, the last thing Stewart-Haas Racing needs is its remaining Chase drivers having at it. Harvick already had a win, but said courtesy be damned and went for the best finish. But he could have also knocked Busch out of the Chase. Busch’s team should have told him post-race that he was good in points to keep him from showing that aggression to Harvick.
Georgia On My Mind: Chase Elliott did everything he could to try and win and just could not get any help at the end to move forward. He finished 12th and now is 12th in points, but could finish as high as 5th at season’s end.
David Ragan had SweetFrog Yogurt on board the No. 23 and was actually racy toward the end of the race. He got the free pass from about the 34th spot and then drove to 13th. The former Talladega winner finished 24th.
Reed Sorenson actually led Round 1 of qualifying and started the race 12th. But he pulled into the garage in the opening laps with a mechanical problem and returned to the race 11 laps down. Did the Premium Motorsports team really have trouble? Or did a bigger Toyota team give them incentive to assure a low finishing position? Sorenson finished 37th.
Saturday’s Camping World Truck Series Fred’s 250 was a disaster for the Georgia gang. Korbin Forrister actually led a practice session and timed into the race, but a lap 61 wreck sent both he and John Wes Townley (and about 10 others) out of the race. Forrister placed 27th, Townley (involved in two wrecks) 28th.
NCWTS RaceTweet: Grant Enfinger wins first-career Truck race at home track Talladega, as John Hunter Nemechek and Daniel Hemric drop out of the Chase.
Next: From giant, to paperclip – Both the Sprint Cup Series and Camping World Truck Series run the final short track race of the year at Martinsville Speedway. The NSCS Goody’s Fast Relief 200 is Sunday at 1 p.m. on NBCSN, MRN, and SiriusXM Radio Channel 90. The NCWTS Alpha Energy Solutions 200 is Saturday at 1 p.m.on FS1 and the same radio channels. These will be good.