Drivers always remember their first win. For Brad Keselowski, his first win in the 2009 Aaron’s 499 at Talladega will be one that him, Carl Edwards, and NASCAR as a whole will never forget. Eight years later, the sight of Edwards’ car taking flight toward the catchfence with the finish line in sight as Keselowski captured his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win is one that is still seared into the minds of NASCAR nation.
To this day, the finish is one that is always included in the rundown of the craziest finishes at the 2.66 mile superspeedway, which has provided more of its fair share of spectacular finishes and crashes over the years.
Entering the race, Keselowski, who had been driving in the NASCAR Xfinity Series for Dale Earnhardt Jr’s JR Motorsports team in the year and a half prior had gotten a few starts in the Cup Series in a fifth Hendrick Motorsports entry, but had yet to finish higher than 19th in his four starts between late 2008 and early 2009. Enter James Finch and his Phoenix Racing team, who entered Keselowski at Talladega in the No. 09 Chevrolet as both driver and owner would be looking for their first wins in NASCAR’s upper level.
In usual Talladega fashion, the action was cranked up to 11 from the drop of the green flag.
Juan Pablo Montoya led from the pole with Greg Biffle alongside and though Montoya was able to lead the opening laps, Dale Earnhardt Jr, who is always a fan favorite at Talladega, came to the front just five laps into the race after starting 11th.
Two laps later, the notorious Talladega “Big One” broke out after contact between Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth near the front of the field in Turn 3, sweeping a total of 14 cars into the crash by the time the melee was over, with big names like Kevin Harvick, Kasey Kahne, Kurt Busch, Clint Bowyer, and others all involved.
Over the next 168 laps, drivers would jockey for position with 55 lead changes among 24 different drivers, along with six cautions for either debris or crashes involving only one or two cars.
Though the “Big One” had taken place earlier in the race, there is always a chance of a second big wreck later in the race and wouldn’t you know it, that’s exactly what would happen heading down the backstretch with nine laps to go.
Contact with Montoya and Denny Hamlin mid-pack would trigger the 10-car wreck, which included Robby Gordon taking a hard hit into the inside wall that was luckily protected by a SAFER barrier.
“Man, it sucks racing here,” said Jimmie Johnson, one of the cars involved. “We had a great race car and the guys worked real hard to get this thing in order and very fast and then that close to the end, it gets tore up. Disappointed, it just looked like some guys were beat and didn’t have the position, so they tried to force their way in from the outside and went across somebody’s nose and started that wreck from my position.”
As a result of the crash, the leaders would line up for a four lap shootout for the win as Ryan Newman and Earnhardt, Jr. led the field back to green. With tandem racing being the restrictor plate style of racing that year, Newman and Earnhardt hooked up with Earnhardt pushing Newman away from the leaders to try and settle the race amongst themselves.
While Newman and Earnhardt were running 1-2, the tandem of Keselowski and Edwards had hooked up with two laps to go, charging from eighth and ninth at the start-finish line and powering past Newman and Earnhardt by the time they took the white flag.
The two different tandems stayed in formation until they got back around to the tri-oval with the checkered flag in sight. Keselowski went high, but Edwards threw the block, forcing Keselowski to dive back down low on Edwards and get his nose up to the rear quarter panel of Edwards’ car. Edwards attempted to throw the block again, but Keselowski stood his ground at the yellow line, causing contact between the two and sending Edwards spinning.
As Edwards’ Ford turned backwards, the rear tires lifted off the ground and carried him right into the path of Ryan Newman’s oncoming car. The resulting contact between Edwards and Newman sent Edwards car skyward and into the catchfence, which looked like an explosion when the car and fence collided, scattering pieces and parts of his car all over the track, but the fence held his car out of the grandstands and sent it back down onto the track, luckily avoiding contact with any other cars after coming to rest. Newman’s car sustained heavy damage to the hood and windshield due to the contact with Edwards car and the subsequent contact with the outside wall.
With Edwards and Newman crashing in their rear-view mirrors, Keselowski crossed the finish line for his first career win and first win for car owner James Finch, with Earnhardt, Jr. finishing second after avoiding both Edwards and Newman en route to the finish line. Keselowski led just one lap in the race, but it was the one that mattered the most.
Though his car was a mangled mess, Edwards emerged from his Ford that sat just shy of the finish and would jog across the finish line, just as Ricky Bobby had done in the film “Talladega Nights” five years previous.
Both Edwards and Newman would be okay after the crash, but a total of seven fans were injured as a result of debris that was able to make its way into the grandstands.
“Talladega is such a crapshoot,” said Keselowski. “You can’t expect anything. Can’t expect to win, can’t expect not to win. I knew that I had to get locked into somebody’s rear bumper if I was going to run up to the front, and even though you don’t know if it’s going to work out. Ryan was doing the same thing he was doing yesterday in the Nationwide race where he was not running wide open, he was just trying to hold Dale back there; and broke their momentum for a lap or two, and by the time they saw me coming it was too late. Carl and I were coming with a full head of steam and there was no stopping us. I’m sure he probably regrets that now, but I certainly don’t.”
“We made a run on him there, and I made him move up high hoping that he would block high; he did, as his momentum was still carrying him to the right, I came across him to the left knowing that he would not be able to maneuver as fast. I got under him, barely, but enough to have position on him. And it was up to him on whether he wanted to run me down or not, and he did, and I was not going to allow myself to be in that same spot as Regan was last year and I just held my ground.”
“I was here to win and I’ve got no other reason to be here than to win and put these guys in victory lane. Holding your line was the way to do it, and I’m sorry it caused a wreck and sorry for those that are hurt. But that’s just the situation with the rules and the way it is, and either way, it was a great show, and I hope the fans had fun with it. This is NASCAR racing at its finest. This was a great show. I really hope everyone enjoyed it, because I had fun. I found myself laughing in the race car halfway through the race, and I hope the fans were cheering and having fun, too.”
While Keselowski was celebrating his first win, Edwards was checked and released from the infield care center and did not mince words when asked for his thoughts on the crash and the finish.
“NASCAR just puts us in this box,” said Edwards. “Brad did a great job, congrats to him on the win, but they put us in this box and we’ll race like this until we kill somebody and then they’ll change it. I’m just glad nobody got hurt today. I’m glad the car didn’t go up into the grandstands and hurt somebody. Most of all, I’ve just got to thank Claritin and all of my guys. That was the smartest race I could run and I guess we ended up 23rd or something. Brad did his job. We were just racing hard and lucky nobody got hurt.”
“That’s what Brad is supposed to do. He’s assuming I know he’s inside. It was so quick; I didn’t know he was inside. We saw what happened to Regan Smith. You can’t go down below the yellow line or you’ll lose the race. He was winning and I was doing everything I could to keep him from winning. Man, just glad I’m alright.”