TALLADEGA, Ala — What a storybook weekend this was at the Talladega Superspeedway. Saturday saw a pair of first time winners with Tate Fogleman earning a wild victory in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race in which he only led the final lap. He had one career lap led entering the day.
A few hours later, he shared victory lane with another first time winner – Brandon Brown. For the family owned team, that win went a long way towards their future in the sport.
Then, in the rain marred YellaWood 500, we’d get a third first time winner of the race weekend. Bubba Wallace past Kurt Busch with drafting help for the lead on Lap 112 and a few laps later, William Byron and other crashed on the backstretch. The reason for the accident was that the intensity was picking up more and more due to rain in the area. Since we were already past the halfway point, the next rain shower would likely end it.
Drivers began pushing and shoving and when you do that, mayhem happens.
As the caution laps ensued, rain began falling. NASCAR red flagged the race on Lap 117 out of 188 and after their best efforts to dry the 2.66-mile Alabama superspeedway, the race was called with three laps left in the second stage.
Wallace, earns his maiden NASCAR Cup Series win which in turn also gives Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan their first victory as car owners on the 23XI Racing team. While it’s not a way that they had hoped they’d earn it, a win is a win and Wallace becomes the first African American in nearly six decades to earn a win in NASCAR’s premiere series.
What an outcome and place for this to happen too. Just one year ago, in the midst of all the social injustice initiatives, a rope was found in the garage area tied in a noose. That garage stall happened to be Wallace’s. NASCAR was alerted to it and after an investigation, the FBI was brought in to further figure this out.
After a near 24 hour investigation on the case, they found the noose to have been there since last year and that it was bad luck that it happened to be in the same stall that Wallace was using.
See, while some folks blamed Wallace for this incident, it wasn’t his fault in the slightest. NASCAR’s garage stalls are determined by points and by points, Wallace was assigned that garage stall. That rope was already there prior to this weekend and with the garage stalls new for 2019, it was a recent noose but not one tied in 2020.
And yes, it was a noose. The report shows it. So do the pictures. It was tied in a noose. Fact.
Without knowing how or why it was there, NASCAR showed solidarity and support for Wallace in a wonderful display of activism. It was an emotional scene here last June.
Now, the Alabama native is victorious on this same track.
On Sept. 16, his crew chief was moved full time in house. Mike Wheeler was promoted to Director of Competition, a role he has held since 23XI Racing’s inception, along with crew chief of the No. 23 Toyota Camry. By doing so, he couldn’t fully turn his focus on either. So, they felt it was best to just let him be the competition director and move Bootie Barker as the new crew chief.
Barker, had never won a Cup race until Monday.
This was the sixth time that a non-playoff driver won the NASCAR Cup Series’ playoff race at Talladega. It first occurred in 2005 with Dale Jarrett. It happened again a year later (2006) with Brian Vickers. Then we saw it twice in 2009 and again in 2013 with Jamie McMurray as well as 2011 with Clint Bowyer. None of them are in Cup anymore. Wallace is the only one left.
Plus, just twice has a non playoff driver won the fifth race of the playoffs and both of them were in Charlotte, not Talladega. McMurray (2010) and Brad Keselowski in 2013. With Wallace winning, that streak remains alive too.
Furthermore, since 1995, we’ve really only seen what you could consider six and maybe now seven “fluke” winners at the Talladega Superspeedway in general. That’s seven in the last 54 races on the 2.66-mile high banked oval. Even out of those seven, a few aren’t all that flukish after all.
Bobby Hamilton’s win was. Vickers’ win in ’06 would fall under that category as well. Brad Keselowski’s win in 2009 would too considering the circumstances then, but he’d later become one of the greats on superspeedway’s, so looking back on it, it’s not as much as a fluke now as it was then. David Ragan’s win in 2013 would be one, but that’s about it. You could throw Ricky Stenhouse Jr’s win in 2017 as one but he’d win later in Daytona that season too. Same for Aric Almirola’s in 2018 as both of his wins have come on superspeedway’s.
Wallace has been good on superspeedway tracks so I don’t necessarily consider this one much of a fluke after all.
Just seven times since 1995 has a driver earned their first or second career wins at Talladega.
What about Daytona? It’s quite the opposite actually.
They’ve had more fluke winners than Talladega in recent years. Just look at their recent winners in fact.
For the Coke Zero Sugar 400, three of the last five winners have earned their first career Cup victories. The other was just his second.
2020 – William Byron (1st career win in August’s Coke Zero Sugar 400)
2019 -Justin Haley (1st career win)
2018 – Erik Jones (1st career win)
2017 – Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (2nd career win)
2014 – Aric Almirola (1st career win)
2011 – David Ragan (1st career win)
For the Daytona 500, Denny Hamlin has won three of the last six years but the other three winners were Austin Dillon (2nd career win), Kurt Busch (1st career restrictor plate win) and Michael McDowell (1st career Cup win).
The fluke winners come at Daytona for whatever reason, but that hasn’t been the case for Talladega.
Still, in saying that, 9 of the last 17 superspeedway race winners in Cup competition have earned either their first or second career victories in them. But, 5 of the last 10 at Talladega and 7 of the last 11 at Daytona, saw drivers won their first or second superspeedway race on them too.
I also don’t consider Brandon Brown’s win all that flukish either. Yes, it was Brown’s first triumph in 114 career starts in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. Yes, he had led 30 career laps entering Saturday’s race and comes out with nearly a third of all laps led in one race.
It’s just not like the 28 year old is a terrible speedway racer though. He’s literally improved in all five of his Talladega starts. He was 25th in his lone Truck starts. He went from 15th to 11th to 9th to 7th in Xfinity Series competition entering Saturday. He was also sixth back in February at Daytona.
Now, he’s victorious. Brown, also made the playoffs a year ago on points, so he’s showing his promise. It’s just that he’s never won before. Until now.
Same for Wallace. He was runner-up in the 2018 Daytona 500. In the summer race there, he was 14th in 2018, 15th in 2019, fifth in 2020 and runner-up this past August. He has always been fast on his hometrack in Talladega too. It’s just the finishes never aligned with the speed.
Until now too.
Here are my main takeaways.
Penske Drivers Get Much Needed Top 5 Finishes, Rain Though Cost Them A Victory
Team Penske was reeling entering this weekend’s YellaWood 500 in Talladega. They held onto the final two spots into the Round of 8 and other than Ryan Blaney, the other two were struggling to contend for victories.
Joey Logano was +6 but had only two top five finishes in his last 14 starts on the season. Furthermore, he had just four in the last 21 races overall.
Brad Keselowski was +4 and had one top five in the last 11 and two in the last 19. While he did have three top 10’s in four playoff races this postseason, none were in the top five. Luckily, Talladega is a track that suits them well and they showed that in the rain shortened race.
Logano finished second in Stage 1 and Keselowski in third. In the race itself, they flip flopped with Keselowski second and Logano third. Keselowski had a top two in both races this year on this track with Logano scoring his first top five in his last five starts on it.
Talk about a great day for them as they now head to the second round cutoff race next Sunday in Charlotte being third and fourth respectively in points as Logano is +21 and Keselowski +20.
Still, despite the finishes, both felt like a win was in sights. They were waiting to make their move by Wallace but the rain fell too soon before they got a chance to.
“It was a good day for us, not the win. Gosh, if I would have known it was gonna rain right then I had a move I could have made and I was like, “No, we’ve got five laps in the stage left, I don’t want to burn that move yet,’ and then it rains, so I feel like I kind of let one slip away here,” Keselowski said. “All in all, it’s still a great day. We scored a lot of stage points, which is really positive and put ourselves in a good position next week to go to the Roval.”
“(Brad Keselowski) had a run on (Bubba Wallace) to take the lead and enough push from me to be able to kind of continue that and try to get the both of us clear. Hindsight is 20/20. He didn’t know that they were gonna crash on the backstretch and there is still five to go in the stage. It took probably three or four minutes after they crashed before it actually started raining, so it probably would have got to the end of the stage. It would have been kind of hard to decide when to make that move or not to. Overall, though, take that piece out of it and with the points we scored today it’s a big win, I think, for us. (Wallace) winning doesn’t hurt anybody because he’s a non-playoff contender, so no big deal there and able to score solid stage points. They had us second, but then changed us back to third, so I don’t know. We’ve got to kind of go back and see where we actually finished, but, either way, it was a good points day and puts us in a good spot.”
Ryan Blaney falls to sixth but is still +15. He was caught up in one of the crashes on Monday and finished 15th. He’s still had eight top sixes in his last 11 races now and going to a track where he won the inaugural race in 2018, was eighth in 2019 and fifth in 2020.
Hendrick Motorsports Drivers Having Rough Round of 12
Hendrick Motorsports is not having a very good second round of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs. In Las Vegas, they all royally screwed up their pit strategy in staying out of the pits following an early caution at the beginning of the second stage. It came back to bite them. While Chase Elliott rebounded to finish second, Kyle Larson only got back up to 10th. Alex Bowman and William Byron each finished outside the top 15.
Now at Talladega, we saw three crashes in the rain shortened event. An HMS car was involved in all three.
Kyle Larson was involved in the Lap 55 crash on the tri-oval which badly damaged his No. 5 Chevrolet. While they made the repairs in enough time to beat the caution clock and ran their laps to get cleared of any damage, he blew a right front tire a lap later and fell three laps down as a result. Larson, finished 37th. It was his fifth finish of 37th or worse in his last seven Talladega starts including being 40th, 40th and 37th respectively in his last three.
On Lap 97, Alex Bowman was leading the outside line but his teammate Elliott was pushing Ricky Stenhouse Jr. too hard and Stenhouse bumped Bowman hard as a result spinning his No. 48 Chevrolet into the outside wall as a result. He’d finish 38th for his fourth finish of 33rd or worse in his last five Talladega starts. He was 38th in the spring race too. Now he resides -52 in the standings with one race left in the round.
Then, the Lap 115 crash with William Byron forced him to a 36th place result. He’s been 23rd or worse in six of his last 11 starts on the season and is now facing a must win on the Charlotte ROVAL this Sunday. He’s -44 and has finished sixth in each of the last two races there.
Same for Bowman. He’s only had a pair of top five’s in his last 13 starts on the season but was fourth, second and eighth respectively on the ROVAL.
Larson is in a much better spot. He can thank the playoff points in the regular season for that. He entered the race +57 and exits +22 heading to a track he should thrive on. Larson, has won twice on road courses this year and should have won the Indy road course back in August.
We all questioned on how many cars HMS will get into the Championship 4 but now it appears at least one of them will get eliminated this round. There’s no shot of getting both in from the outside like we did in Bristol.
Hendrick though is the team to beat in Charlotte in the sense that they’ve won four of the last five on these types of tracks as well as eight of the last 10 in general.
Last 2 Cup Champions Hold Final 2 Spots To 3rd Round With 1 Race Left
Kyle Busch won the 2019 NASCAR Cup Series championship. Chase Elliott won the title a year later. Now, both are in danger of at least one of them not making it to the Round of 8 this time around. Both escaped Talladega but each also won the final two spots into the third round as well with just one race remaining in the Round of 12.
Busch, was only 27th when the checkered flag was displayed over the red. He lost a ton of points in the process in going from +35 to +9 heading into the Charlotte ROVAL. That has him in a tie for Elliott for seventh. Is he in danger of not making it on to the third round for the second straight year? He was 27th in this race last year with five of his last six Fall Talladega races being 26th or worse.
Elliott, went three straight years into the Round of 8 before his title last November. Will he get eliminated? He was only 18th on Monday and now has three of his final playoff finishes being 18th or worse.
But, Elliott unlike Busch, is probably looking forward to the ROVAL on Sunday. He’s won each of the last two years there and has six road course wins in the last 10 tries on them. In the races he didn’t win, he dominated at Daytona but a fluke caution for rain in the closing laps ruined his chances while leading back in February. He was second in Sonoma, second in Watkins Glen and fourth in Indy.
Busch meanwhile, has never finished better than 30th in three ROVAL starts. On road courses this year, he was 35th, 10th, 5th, 3rd, 4th and 20th though, so if he can stay out of trouble, he has a good chance of holding the four outside looking in off.
That’s because three of them really are facing must wins. Christopher Bell is -28, William Byron is -44 and Alex Bowman -52. The thing is, all three are more than capable of winning at Charlotte.
Bell, won in Daytona, was runner-up in Road America and had a top three car in Watkins Glen. Byron, has a pair of sixth place finishes in his last two ROVAL starts while Bowman was fourth, second and eighth there respectively himself.
Kevin Harvick (-9) is the only other driver who can make something happen and while he’s been ninth, third and 11th respectively at the ROVAL, he’s the only winless driver on the season left as he’s not won in over a year (38 races) to go along with being sixth, 37th, 22nd, 27th, 8th and 14th respectively on road courses this season.
The only driver able to really catch Busch or Elliott on points is Harvick and he’s not likely to do so. Harvick, has two finishes better than fourth all year.
I feel like the eight with how we stand now will remain that way when it’s all said and done on Sunday.
Why I’m Okay With Talladega Not Having Lights
After a very saturated weekend in Central Alabama, a lot of people are questioning why Talladega doesn’t have lights and as a result of that decision too, why the sanctioning body decided to end the race early on Saturday as well. Would lights have helped the Xfinity and Cup Series races to end at the scheduled distance instead of early?
A lot of other questions are being asked too.
Why aren’t there any lights?
Why not start the Xfinity race earlier?
Why end that said Xfinity race a few laps shy of the scheduled distance?
Why not wait a bit longer to start the Cup race on Sunday?
Lets dissect each.
In terms of why end the race early both days, while it wasn’t fully dark yet for either, the decision was the right one. When the second place finisher on Saturday, who’s also a playoff driver and needing a win to automatically advance to the next round gives a thumbs down, it makes this call even easier to take.
Same for Monday. More rain was on the way and even if there were lights, I doubt we would have got this race finished anyhow.
While I get this wasn’t the flashy ending with a last lap pass and pure chaos, one with a race car that’s supposed to look damaged like Tate Fogleman’s was according to the track president, it’s still a fitting one.
We saw an emotional first time winner form a smaller family run team on Saturday and a first time winner again on Monday.
Just because neither didn’t pass anyone on the last lap to make it happen doesn’t mean it wasn’t a thrilling ending.
I get that NASCAR’s officiating has been in question a lot lately. From the Loudon debacle to the end of the Indianapolis race to the questionable caution for “rain” in the Daytona road course to the exact opposite situation in COTA, to how they handled the caution in Kansas back in May for the rogue tire, to Saturday, I can see where questions come up. But, in this case, there’s nothing NASCAR could do differently.
Start the race earlier? Sure. Only if you run the Truck race on Friday. That’s not going to work though. Fox Sports isn’t going to want a playoff race on a late afternoon start on a Friday.
The Trucks race could move up an hour on Saturday, but the Xfinity Series race starting a 3:50 pm CT and the race being nearly 2 1/2 hours in length (2-hours, 27-minutes with counting red flags) for 113 scheduled laps, that should be plenty of time.
Move the Cup race up on Sunday? They couldn’t. Even if they did, it wouldn’t have started because the track wasn’t yet dry so that’s a moot point.
Add lights then? Why would the track take on that expense? That’s a lot of money to go out to light not only 2.66 miles of real estate but the surrounding areas too in order to get people out.
Plus, the two annual stops at both Daytona and Talladega aren’t being threatened to get at least one of them left off the schedule. These are four of the more highly watched races and best voted by the fans.
So, why add lights? I get that if you start a race after 3 pm ET and don’t have lights that you really should, but for Talladega’s case, why?
There’s 25 tracks on the current Cup schedule for 2022. 15 of them have lights. Out of those 15, only six of them will be used.
NASCAR is shifting to more day races again.
“I think from a fan perspective our fans, again, are accustomed to tuning in on Sunday afternoon and seeing NASCAR Cup Series racing,” Ben Kennedy said during the schedule unveiling. “For a fan going out there to the track, to have the biggest event of the weekend on that Sunday afternoon I think gives them something to look forward to and builds anticipation around the weekend.
“I would say a lot of our fans, myself included, are accustomed to turning racing on, NASCAR racing in particular, on Sunday afternoon. I think we all have that habit. Certainly helped us kind of drive the decision to move that there.”
In 2009 and 2010 we had 10 scheduled night races on the schedule. They were at Phoenix, Richmond (x2), Darlington, Charlotte (x2), Daytona, Chicago, Bristol and Atlanta. Next year, that number is down to six (Martinsville, Bristol (x2), Charlotte, Darlington and Daytona). Out of those 6, half will take place on a Sunday night at that. That’s down from 8 of 10 in 2010.
Plus, among the past tracks with lights, Phoenix, Richmond and Atlanta doesn’t use theirs anymore for Cup with both visits now being day races. Fontana is a day race. So will be Gateway. Chicago is also gone. The shift is clear. Lights are basically a backup plan now for tracks for the event rain pushes them to night to complete. Why add millions to a backup plan?
Safety Applauded After A Weekend Full Of Hard Crashes
NASCAR has always tweaked their safety enhancements over the years and we’re seeing more and more how great they’ve been to be ahead of it. A prime example is just look at how the racing has been on superspeedway’s lately and the wrecks behind them.
Ryan Newman’s frightening Daytona 500 crash occurred in 2020. He’s still racing today. NASCAR adjusted pieces to the package in wake of that incident. They reduced the horsepower from the tapered spacer with the idea of slowing the cars down. They also wanted to reduce the amount of drag from the aero ducts too as well as some slip tape to minimize the tandem drafting that we’d see at the end of these races.
Those were the main changes.
It worked but was far from a finished product. When Joey Logano got airborne at Talladega back in the spring race, NASCAR went back to the drawing board and changed things again.
They slowed the cars down even more, made some more aero tweaks and off we went. Daytona was a success back in August but Talladega this weekend proved a true test on if these alterations really worked.
They made changes to the Xfinity package for Daytona and then some more for Talladega. They had a reduction of speed as well as different gearing.
By doing all these changes, it makes the racing even more aggressive. It’s harder to pass, so drivers with a fear of getting shuffled back, are more prone to block. That’s because the runs from behind aren’t so big anymore like they were before the Newman crash. It allows a lead driver to move to block a run from behind now.
In turn, side drafting becomes more prevalent to affect the air for the driver you’re racing against. Combine these factors, you’re really playing with fire. Eventually, something is going to give and someone is going to make a mistake.
Plus, with superspeedway racing being more of a lottery now-a-days with there being more than an 80% chance that you’re going to get collected in a crash, that if you are among the lucky ones not wrecked by time we get to the end, you almost have to be more aggressive in the sense that you absolutely have to capitalize on this rare opportunity. When else are you going to get this chance again.
Put all of that plus this weekend being a playoff race in a pot and shake it up and you get a lot of hard crashes around the 2.66-mile piece of real estate. But, in looking at the grand scheme of things and now that the superspeedway portion of the schedule is behind us, we can applaud NASCAR for these changes. Just look at some of the crashes this past week at the Talladega Superspeedway.
Sam Mayer was collected in an extremely hard crash on the final lap of the opening stage of Saturday’s race. The contact was so severe with the SAFER barrier that it broke the wall. We’d have to have a red flag for repairs to it.
Then, Noah Gragson was involved in an even harder hit as he took multiple hard licks to his No. 9 Chevrolet. Luckily, both drivers walked away.
Mayer, Gragson and even AJ Allmendinger, Myatt Snider and Harrison Burton all had bad angles with their impacts and everyone still walked away. We have to applaud Dale Earnhardt and NASCAR still for that.
Monday’s race saw a couple of heavy impacts as well where every driver walked away unharmed.
I wrote about this back in February. We saw a lot of hard crashes at Daytona and this was also the 20th anniversary of that tragic day in the 2001 Daytona 500. Since then, no other NASCAR driver in the national series has passed away in a race car.
That’s a credit to the safety this sport has taken since that Earnhardt crash on the final lap of the Feb. 18, 2001 Daytona 500. Just look at the replay from that crash and compare it to these crashes we saw on Saturday. The reason all these drivers are unscathed is due to that 2001 crash.
From SAFER barriers, to HANS devices to many other safety initiatives in this sport, we’re able to safely race these cars without dire consequences that we once had. While anything can happen at any given turn, NASCAR has made these cars as safe as they’ve ever been.
They’re always adapting and these drivers can thank them for that.
Despite the race being halted three laps before the stage ended, NASCAR still awarded stage points for Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Christopher Bell, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick. See, the race ended three laps shy of the Lap 120 stage break but all 10 drivers in the top 10 of that point still received the bonus points.
That was an additional nine points for Keselowski, eight for Logano, six for Bell, four for Hamlin and three for Harvick.
Wallace is the 12th driver to pick up his 1st career win at Talladega joining Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (2017), Brad Keselowski (2009), Brian Vickers (2006), Ken Schrader (1988), Phil Parsons (1988), Davey Allison (1987), Bobby Hillin Jr. (1986), Ron Bouchard (1981), Lennie Pond (1978), Dick Brooks (1973) and Richard Brickhouse (1969).