Each week NASCAR Editor David Morgan will break down who’s hot and who’s not after the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race weekend. Today, we break down the Alabama 500 at Talladega Superspeedway.
Brad Keselowski – With Ford having won the first three restrictor plate races of the season, Keselowski and the remainder of the Ford contingent came into Talladega with Sunday’s Alabama 500 circled as a prime opportunity to complete the season sweep and punch their ticket into the next round of the playoffs.
“We know we have to come to these races and make something happen because this is our opportunity, and we like to find more to be more competitive on the mile‑and‑a‑halfs, but that’s not the opportunity as it stands right now, so we’ll have to make the most of these,” said Keselowski.
And make something happen, he did.
Keselowski, who had scored four Talladega wins in his career prior to Sunday, was in top form throughout the day, which featured three red flags and pushed the race into overtime. Keselowski was able to keep his nose clean, but it was a push from his Team Penske teammate Joey Logano that propelled him into the lead on the last lap and allowed him to score his fifth win at the track.
Not only did the win give Ford their fifth straight at the track, Keselowski also grabbed an automatic advancement to the playoff semi-finals, keeping him safe from elimination next weekend at Kansas and keeping his hopes of a second title alive.
“This is still sinking in,” Keselowski added. “It is a special place to get to race and a special place when you win here. It was really a collaborative effort with the team and getting a real fast car and making the right moves as a driver and a lot of help from up above with staying out of those wrecks. It really takes all three and we had them all today.”
Denny Hamlin – While the majority of the playoff drivers found themselves getting caught up in one of Talladega’s many crashes on Sunday, there were just two that stayed out of the fray and persevered to the end: race winner Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin.
Hamlin, who entered the day with an 11 point advantage over the cut line, avoided trouble all day, leading two times for four laps and found himself in position for the win late, pushing leader Ryan Newman out front on the penultimate lap.
Though he got shuffled out and finished sixth when the checkered flag flew, the fact that he was one of the only playoff drivers still standing at the end of the race gives him some breathing room heading to Kansas, as he increases his points lead to 21 over the cut-off ahead of next week’s elimination race. This means that unless something drastic happens, Hamlin will more than likely be moving on to the Round of 8.
“You always want to win, I don’t care about the points,” said Hamlin. “Our FedEx Toyota team really did a good job all weekend. The three big wrecks that happened, they all started in front of us and somehow we got through every time so it was quite amazing. Still a good day overall, but wish we had a little more.
“There’s so few race cars out there, my chances were pretty good to win this thing especially given the circumstances we were the only ones with no damage. Just did everything I wanted to do for one lap, it’s just the last two I didn’t. It certainly could’ve been worse. There were guys around us that got caught up in wrecks and so that part of it was good for us, but you just want to have a shot to win and we had a shot to win and just didn’t quite have all everything just right. It was just there was so much battling going on with just a few cars. If you lost a run it would just take forever to try and get it back so we finished kind of back of the pack there.”
Non-Playoff Drivers – With only two playoff drivers still in the lead pack at the end of Sunday’s race, the non-playoff drivers had their opportunity to shine. Falling in behind race winner Keselowski, were drivers like Ryan Newman, Trevor Bayne, Joey Logano, and Aric Almirola, while the second half of the top-10 featured Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Kasey Kahne, Gray Gaulding, and David Ragan.
Some of those were career-bests, like Gaulding’s finish, which others were some of their best finishes of the season. Almirola’s finish was his best since returning from injury, Bayne posted his best finish of 2017, Newman scored his best finish at Talladega ever, and Earnhardt’s seventh place finish was his best restrictor plate result since his runner-up finish at the track in October 2015.
“We got lucky,” said Earnhardt, who started on pole and led seven laps. “That was just luck being in the right place at the right time and not getting swept up in any of those wrecks. We had one there that knocked the splitter down really bad on the right-front and that is why we couldn’t do anything at the end. The car was just dragging the ground and wouldn’t go, wouldn’t take off, so it was a little wounded out there at the end. Still got a decent finish and came out of here in one piece.
“It’s been better than the last couple of trips here, the last couple of trips we had a lot of trouble in wrecks and hadn’t been able to come home with a decent finish. I would have loved to have won the race for all the fans that come out here. I know a lot of folks came to see this race just for the fact that it was my last plate race and trust me, I wanted to win it for all those folks more than myself, but just couldn’t get it done.”
Jamie McMurray – McMurray kicked off the Round of 12 with a stellar run at Charlotte and headed into Talladega looking to keep the momentum going. Unfortunately for him, the exact opposite happened as he was caught up in a crash on lap 27 to bring his day to an early end and put him in a must-win situation next week at Kansas.
As the Chevrolet drivers were making their way to pit road, McMurray attempted to make the move to the pits from the middle lane of the track, but happened to do so right in front of the oncoming cars of Erik Jones and Kyle Busch. Jones hit the rear of McMurray’s car, sending him spinning toward the outside wall in the tri-oval and into the path of Jeffrey Earnhardt. McMurray and Earnhardt made heavy contact and that would be the end of McMurray’s day, as he finished 37th.
He now sits 12th in points and has a 29 point margin to make up next week if he has any hopes of advancing.
“We wanted to pit a couple of laps earlier, and you’re somewhat dependent on the spotters to tell you when you’re going to pit,” said McMurray. “You assume everyone is working as a group. It was my fault. I assumed that they said the 18 was going to let me in, so I thought we were all going to pit. I didn’t even know where the 77 was. When I got on the brakes, I thought we were all coming to pit road as a group. I’ll take the blame for that. I just kind of assumed we were coming to pit road right there. Obviously not everyone was.
“There’s nothing you can do about it. It’s part of Talladega. We know you can come out of here with a lot of points and be a winner or you can be in the position we are right now. We’ll go to Kansas and do our best. I’m sure I won’t be the only Playoff driver disappointed today.”
Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. – As the winner of two of the three previous restrictor plate races, Stenhouse came into Talladega confident they could keep the momentum going by scoring the season sweep at the track or at the very least bring home a top-five finish to put themselves in a better points position heading to Kansas.
Though Stenhouse and his No. 17 team brought another fast hot rod that could be seen fighting for the lead for the majority of the day, their hopes of another Talladega win went up in smoke on lap 173, when he was caught up in a 16-car crash in Turn 3. The damage to his car would be too severe to repair and he would finish 26th on the day, dropping him 22 points under the cut line with one race to go in the Round of 12.
“We were running up the bottom and all of a sudden the 38 came down,” said Stenhouse. “I saw some stuff going on at the top and kind of right in front of me, but the 38 ended up parked right in front of us. I felt like we had a really good run coming up the bottom with the 48, trying to get some of our track position back that we had lost at the end of the second stage.
“Our Sunny D Ford was fast again. It felt like we had a car that was capable of getting up there and contending for the win, led some laps and it was a bummer we didn’t get into Victory Lane, but we’ll go onto Kansas next week and have some fun.”
Kyle Busch – After a terrible run at Charlotte last week erased the points cushion that Busch had built up over the season, Talladega just buried him even further. Busch entered the day with a 12 point advantage over the cut line, but the notoriously treacherous racing at the track would be his nemesis as the laps wound down.
As one of the 16 cars involved in the lap 173 crash, Busch would be scored 27th on the final rundown, dropping him from 12 points up to seven points down as the playoffs roll on to Kansas. With Kansas being a mile and a half track, Busch could very well race his way in, but he’ll definitely need some help to be able to advance.
“I’m fine,” said Busch. “I just didn’t know where the heck the 48 (Jimmie Johnson) came from with all of the headrests and all of that stuff I never saw him coming. I wish I would’ve obviously, I would’ve tried to dodge left and go to the apron and shoot down there. Looking at it, it looks like I could’ve missed it. Just never seen him coming, so unfortunately we got caught up in that mess. None of our own wrong doing. I thought when I cleared the 38 (David Ragan) I was home free of it and then had another one come up from the left side.
“Just hate it for my guys and everything going on with what our situation was today. We’ll just have to go on and go to Kansas now.”