By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
It was “Damage Inc.” on the final lap of Sunday’s GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama that ended in violent blows for several drivers, putting a damper on what was considered a thrilling 188-lap race.
The situation began to unravel once the red-flag was lifted due to a multi-car crash on Lap 182 that ended with Matt DiBenedetto plowing into the back end of Chris Buescher in Turn 2. This led to the race restarting with just four laps to go.
The chaos began to ensue when Erik Jones, who was battling with a very loose car, to the point of out of control, which came into fruition in Turn 3 with three laps to go after being in the middle of a three-wide battle with William Byron and Paul Menard. Jones escaped without impact and soldiered on to a 19th-place finish, as the field continued under green flag conditions.
Then coming to the white flag, Spring 2017 winner Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., who also lost control in the tri-oval, slammed the wall which took him out of the running. Like Jones, the caution wasn’t waved and the front pack kept racing.
Stenhouse attributed the downward shuffle that ultimately led to his crash as a result of Kurt Busch leaving him hung out to dry, with four laps to go while running second. Furthermore, he commented that with several drivers dealing with handful race cars, not much could’ve been done to save his No. 17 Fifth Third Bank Ford Mustang from crashing.
“I got a little loose off of (Turn) 2 and the No. 1 helped me get a little bit loose,” said Stenhouse. “I got shoved to the inside there and hung us out. I was then trying to get back in line and I never really could.”
At the tail end of the lead pack, all hell broke loose as contact between Byron and David Ragan triggered a multi-car crash on the backstretch, where Ragan’s No. 38 Shriners Hospitals for Children Ford got loose and slightly pinched Byron into the wall.
From there, Menard made wall contact and Byron was turned around after getting into Ragan again, sending the No. 24 Hertz Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 around and darted into the path of Ryan Blaney, Jeffrey Earnhardt and Kyle Larson.
The heavy contact disintegrated Byron’s front bumper and hood as both Earnhardt and Larson headed straight the inside retaining wall, where Larson’s right side of the No. 42 Clover Chevrolet started to lift and went nose first into the wall while airborne.
Larson was then tumbling end over end and once the series of side winders concluded, his wounded car landed back on its wheels and his nightmare season continues with his third DNF out of the last four races. He got out of his car and was later treated and released from the medical care center.
“Initially I thought I was going to hit the inside wall pretty hard. Right before I got there, it felt it lift and I was just hoping it would sit down. Then it started tumbling,” Larson on his tumble. “That was probably the longest flip I’ve ever had. I just didn’t know if it would ever stop.
“I knew I was flipping and was just hoping I wouldn’t get any closer to the catchfence. It was a little bit scary, but thankfully I’m all right. Thanks to the fab shop at Chip Ganassi Racing for building safe race cars. Like I said, it was scary, but I’m just thankful I’m okay.”
Meanwhile, Earnhardt also took a harsh lick into the SAFER Barriers, briefly lifting his car as the heavy blow dashed a promising debut with the brand-new XCI Racing team, where at one point, he was inside the top-10. While some concern about Earnhardt’s condition, he got out of his No. 81 iK9.com Toyota Camry unharmed and will be credited with a 22nd-place finish, and is now 0-for-76 in the top-10 category.
Ragan’s fate was sealed when his car also hit nose-first into the wall and the last of the three-car stable known as Front Row Motorsports was demolished as neither entry finished the race, which left him devastated as he felt it was his wrongdoing for getting loose.
“I was in the middle there after we took the white flag and I just got loose and wrecked the 24. I spun him out across my nose and he collected a few other cars. That last wreck was my fault,” Ragan on the multi-car crash. “I was pretty stupid to wreck like that when you are running 10th or 15th on the last lap. We didn’t have a shot to win.
“When you get three-wide there is just nowhere to go and everybody was pushing and shoving and my car just jumped sideways and when I corrected it I caught the 24’s left rear and spun him across my nose. That was unfortunate for our team. Our Mustang was fast all day and had a lot of fun out there but just made a stupid mistake there at the end.”
While Byron’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott went on to win his fourth-career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory, the 21-year-old heroically brought his disposable Camaro into the start/finish line in 21st, the final car on the lead lap. Blaney and Menard were also the only other ones to finish the race.
Ragan added that it’s simply the nature of Talladega, regardless of the new rule package, which saw a tremendous improvement in the qualify of competition. Especially, after the Lap 11 crash that took out his other FRM teammates, Matt Tifft and last-place finisher Michael McDowell, who now ties Joe Nemechek for most last-place finishes in Cup at 33.
“I thought it was pretty intense. I felt there were times guys raced really hard up front and sometimes when guys got single-file and rode. You are gonna have that in a 500-mile race,” Ragan explained. “You can’t race that hard for 500 miles without carnage. That first wreck set the tone and guys chilled out a little bit. The cars are going 200 mph and it is exciting and they are hard to race and ultimately you will make some mistakes out there.”
Millions of dollars in damages have left caliber teams and underfunded squads in shambles, and with the exception of XCI Racing (who are only running both Talladega races), they’ll all soldier onto “The Monster Mile,” and compete in the Gander RV 400 at Dover International Speedway May 5.