Posted: 11:47 am Monday, May 8th, 2017

Race Capsule: Stenhouse Jr. brings down the big house at Talladega 

By Doug "Fireball" Turnbull

Talladega Superspeedway always has a wildcard lurking in its shadows. The track lends itself to surprise winners, big crashes, close finishes, and the bizarre. Sunday’s GEICO 500 had all of that – an extremely competitive and dramatic overtime affair that awarded pole-sitter Ricky Stenhouse Jr. his long-awaited first-career win. On a weekend where the crowd begged for soon-to-be retired Dale Earnhardt Jr. grab his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series-leading seventh ‘Dega win, the track had plans to coronate a new victor.

 

Flag-to-flag: Stenhouse Jr. first spoiled Junior Nation’s weekend fairytale by knocking Dale Earnhardt Jr. (finished 22nd) from the pole position on Saturday: Earnhardt Jr. was second-to-last to qualify and the lesser-known Junior timed in last. Then the fifth-year driver led the first 13 laps of the race, but had to give it up to remove trash from his grille – an oft-occurrence for leaders at Talladega.

Brad Keselowski (7th) swapped the lead with several others and eventually led the final 24 laps of Stage 1 to win it. Joe Gibbs Racing deployed a similar strategy to what they shakily tried in the Daytona 500, pitting before the end of the stage to try and gain track position when everyone else went to pit road. Denny Hamlin (11th) did this and it worked, but Matt Kenseth (24th) and Daniel Suarez (19th) committed to pitting right as pit road closed and had to start the next segment from the tail of the field. This point became moot for Kenseth, when he cut a tire after his stop and fell a lap down.

Hamlin led all but 14 laps of Stage 2 and won it, but no leader in this race ever seemed to have the race fully in control. No driver was able to dominate from the lead spot as Keselowski has in the past. And the pack often stayed two and three-wide, never getting completely single-file. The intensity stayed pegged.

Kenseth deployed the same strategy after Stage 2 that he did for Stage 1 – and this time it worked. After getting a free pass during the Stage, he led the field the first four laps of Stage 3, then a scrum of Hamlin, Keselowski, Kevin Harvick (23rd), Jimmie Johnson (8th), and last week’s Richmond winner Joey Logano (32nd) swapped the lead, especially during a green flag pit sequence that saw the likes of Kyle Busch (3rd), Hamlin, and about 10 others in the lead pack pit early. Logano, Harvick and others pitted several laps later.

This split the pack in two, but the late-pitters eventually caught the other pack that Busch led and the shuffling brought disaster on lap 170.

Chase Elliott (30th) was running in the top 5 with A.J. Allmendinger (31st), Harvick, and Earnhardt Jr. in tow. Allmendinger got a run on Elliott in Turn 2, just as Elliott moved a third of a lane up. Allmendinger hit Elliott at an angle, turning the No. 24 Hooter’s Chevy in front of the field and collecting 18 cars. Elliott got airborne and both hit Allmendinger and rode the wall, which sent Allmendiner’s No. 47 on its roof. Contenders Harvick, Logano, Trevor Bayne (37th), Martin Truex Jr. (35th), and Erik Jones (33rd) also significant damage and only Harvick continued on, but out of contention.

After a nearly half-hour red flag, the race resumed for six more laps on lap 174. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (22nd) had fought his way back into the top 5, but had to pit under green for a vibration caused by the glue buildup on a lugnut working several loose on a wheel. He got the free pass a few laps later when Landon Cassill’s (29th) car lost a transmission and stopped on the backstretch before he could get to pit road, forcing another yellow flag. The ensuing lap 182 green flag commenced for a five-lap run, but Clint Bowyer (14th) turned Ryan Newman (25th) hard, driver’s side-first, into the backstretch wall on lap 187, forcing NASCAR Overtime.

Through all of this melee, Kyle Busch had led for 39-straight laps, in a strong No. 18 Toyota. Seeking his first win since last July, Busch had seen wins taken away because of late cautions or blown tires all season-long. Busch got a good start on the lap 190 restart, but 2nd-place Stenhouse Jr. got behind him, then shot down low and pulled even with him, as they came to the white flag.

The two, who famously tangled at the end of stage at Martinsville a month ago, drag raced for the final lap, with Stenhouse holding the advantage most of the time. Then as Stenhouse Jr. vigorously blocked all three charging lines behind him, Jamie McMurray (2nd) got a run and got ever-so-close to getting the win. But in the end, Stenhouse Jr. got his first win in his 158th start and broke a three-year Roush-Fenway Racing winless drought.

Top 10: Stenhouse Jr.; McMurray (almost got first win since Talladega in fall 2013); Ky. Busch (can’t blame this loss on Goodyear); Aric Almirola (Saturday’s Xfinity Series winner); Kasey Kahne (second top 5 of season); Ku. Busch (rebounded from damage in The Big One); Keselowski (got crash damage, but stayed competitive); Johnson (stayed in the top 5 late, but got shuffled at the end); Paul Menard (only other top 10 this season was in the Daytona 500); David Ragan (despite heavy damage in The Big One, got best finish of season).

The points: Larson still holds a hefty lead over Truex Jr. by 54 points, thanks to an insane average finish of 7th this season. Keselowski is seven points behind Truex Jr. and Elliott is 14 behind Keselowski. 40 points separate Ryan Blaney in 13th from rookie Jones in 20th, with Bayne, Almirola, Kahne, and Kenseth in between. Ku. Busch and Newman are also in that mix, but each has a playoff win to clinch them a spot in the 16-driver playoffs. Earnhardt Jr.’s continued misfortunes leave him 25th in the points, 67 behind Bayne in 16th. He pretty much will need a win to assure a playoff berth in his final season.

MENCS RaceTweet: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is on the winner board, making the late pass at Talladega. Junior Nation disappointed again. Big One gets 18. #AirborneAJ

Handsome Boy Modeling School Stud of the Race: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – His win was not just some fluke. Stenhouse Jr. and his Roush-Yates horsepower won the pole and led laps early. Then he made a pro move on Ky. Busch to get the race win – the same kind of moxy he showed in bumping Busch to get a lap back at Martinsville. No one car was dominant in the GEICO 500, so Stenhouse Jr. gets the nod for wresting away the top spot when it counted.

North Korean Missile Dud: Dale Earnhardt Jr. – For all the pressure and hype a Talladega crowd puts on the No. 88 team, Earnhardt Jr. had very few glimpses up front  in the 95% of the race that unfolded before his misfortune. Over a dozen drivers took the lead and many did multiple times – Earnhardt Jr. never did. In fact, he didn’t sound all that confident in his ride during his pre-race, in-car FOX interview. But anyone has a chance at Talladega and on this day, Earnhardt Jr.’s misfortune was more to blame for his undoing than his performance. That’s the story of his 2017.

Never Fear, Underdog is Here: David Ragan – His day looked over when he got damage in the 18-car wreck. But crew chief Derrick Finley led the Front Row Motorsports crew to repair the No. 38 Camping World Ford over two tops and Ragan assured them everything was fixed. Then, instead of just hanging on for a good finish, Ragan shot through the field and placed 10th in a race that he led Front Row Motorsports to the promised land in in 2013.

Ghost Driver: Martin Truex Jr. – Despite the No. 78 team’s dominance this season, Truex Jr. never led a lap, though he finished 5th in the end of the first two stages. The big wreck eliminated him from the race.

You Don’t Have to Comeback, But You Can’t Stay Here: Kyle Larson – There’s a reason he’s the points leader. Larson hit the wall and cut a tire on lap 18 and then spend the rest of the day playing catch up. His team repaired the damage, but then battled alternator and battery issues the rest of the day, losing laps under caution twice. But Larson got the free pass after the lap 170 Big One and drove to a very respectable 12th-place finish.

Wheel of Misfortune: Ryan Blaney – This guy can’t catch a break. After power-steering issues torpedoed his Bristol race, he cut a tire and wrecked at Richmond, then got hooked by Stenhouse Jr. and crashed to a 39th-place finish at Talladega. Blaney also has had tire issues at Atlanta, Martinsville, and Phoenix, yet he has run in the top 10 in some point at almost every race this year. He was dominant at Texas, but faded after pit strategy caught him in traffic. Despite all this, he is still 13th in points, which shows how much stage points matter and how well he has the potential to run.

Jimmie Johnson’s Golden Horseshoe: A.J. Allmendinger – This has very little to do with luck and more to do with the safety of NASCAR racecars, but Allmendinger had a vicious, airborne crash and landed on his roof. He walked away. Thank goodness.

Head-Scratcher Crown of Thorns: Talladega drew a fantastic crowd Sunday, likely driven by Earnhardt Jr.’s retirement announcement. The weather was great and so was the racing. But seeing the crowd’s reaction at different times helped highlight a few insights into why NASCAR has had trouble drawing fans the last 10 years.

The biggest cheers from the crowd came not even from Dale Earnhardt Jr., but from the huge wreck in Turn 2. People went nuts for it, at least in my section of the grandstands. The huge pack racing is exciting not just for the closeness of the drivers, but for the likelihood that when something breaks out, there will be severe carnage. And there was.

NASCAR keeps adjusting the cars and tracks keep taking stabs – both are trying to make the racing better and create more passing and people like that. But people like wrecking even more. That’s why the “new” Bristol is not a hit, even though the racing action is great. This maybe is why the highly competitive Richmond race last Sunday only drew about 30,000 in the grandstands.

The real problem with NASCAR now versus in past decades is that the sport is refined beyond the scope that most fans enjoy. They not only want drivers with colorful personalities, blue collar-qualities, and edginess, but they want racing that way. And drivers these days really do not wreck very often at all. Confrontation drives ratings, which is why “Real Housewives…” shows draw big numbers, why “The Jerry Springer Show” was huge about 20 years ago, and why there are so many trolls on social media.

Whether media like me will admit or accept this or not, there simply is just not enough confrontation or carnage in the average race to draw fans like there used to be. How the sport rights that problem is a big question.

NXS RaceTweet: A late debris caution costs Allgaier the win and hands it to Aric Almirola at Talladega. #CupDrivers

Georgia On My Mind: Here’s the deal, every Georgia driver had a terrible race weekend, except for Ragan. Elliott wrecked. Sorenson blew a tire and was the first car in the garage. Brandon Jones, Ryan Sieg, Chris Cockrum…they all crashed in the NXS Race. Garrett Smithley’s pit strategy got him lapped at the end of the race and Mark Thompson blew an engine after 55 laps. Their finishes aren’t worth listing and the only one in championship contention right now in any series is Elliott.

Next: NASCAR returns from its short track and plate track sabbatical for a Mother’s Day weekend special at the casino and racetrack in Kansas City. The MENCS runs at 7:30 p.m. on FS1, MRN, and Sirius/XM. The Camping World Truck Series runs Friday night at 8:30 on the same channels. The NXS returns again in three weeks at Charlotte.

 

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