Sunday’s YellaWood 500 a remarkably safe race but also wildly entertaining too, my take

TALLADEGA, Ala — Not all superspeedway races need to be crash fests. Sunday’s YellaWood 500 was one that had a lot of drivers, teams, fans and most others on high alert. This Next Gen was proving to be a dangerous model. So much so, NASCAR is hosting a private test at an Ohio race track this week to hope to figure out a fix to why drivers are feeling the effects of crashes more now than with this new cars’ predecessor.

With Alex Bowman sitting Sunday’s penultimate race of the Round of 12 out with concussion-like symptoms and joining Kurt Busch on the sidelines with a similar injury (Busch has been out since July 23), the danger aspect was being brought up more and more. Next up was Talladega. A track known more exhilarating finishes and frightening crashes.

Were we tempting fate?

There were even rumors of drivers having either a boycott or a high speed parade. Neither occurred. A good thing too. Because Sunday’s race was as thrilling as they come. A 500 mile, 188 lap event filled with action from green flag to checkered.

57 lead changes. 17 drivers had a turn out front. 33 of the 37 cars running. Just 6 cautions with only 1 for a multi-car accident.

Chase Elliott, the most vocal driver this weekend, prevailed over Ryan Blaney by just .046-seconds in thrilling photo finish.

“No one’s immune to it; it could be me next week,” Elliott said from the Talladega Superspeedway media center on Saturday morning. “It could be any of my peers or fellow competitors. I just hate to see us go backwards and I’m afraid that we have.

“You come off a week like we had at Texas and somebody getting injured and you’re coming into here, where odds are we’re probably all going to hit something at some point tomorrow and probably not lightly,” said Elliott. “Do you just not show up? Do you just not run? I don’t think that’s feasible to ask.

“I don’t feel like we should have ever been in this position to need to go forward. We should have gone forward with a new opportunity at a new car, in my opinion. You have all these years of experience and knowledge and time of racing and crashing these cars and teams working on them and building them, and it just blows me away that we can have something new in 2022 that offers all this technology and all this time and experience of so many just super talented people in this sport and we allow to go backward, especially with safety.

“I think it’s just super surprising to me that we allowed that to happen, but we did, and now it’s just about how do we go forward from here making sure we make the right choices to improve what we have and keep things like what happened to Alex this week from happening, and what happened to Kurt.

“We had time to test this car and crash it and do all the things we need to do to make sure some of these things aren’t happening that are happening now. We had a ton of time to do that, and this car was delayed an entire calendar year on top of that. You have to think, we had an extra year of time to work on it, and we’re still in this position. There’s no excuse for going backward. We have too many smart people, too much technology, too many years of crashing and racing at all these same racetracks to have some of these things that are going on that are. Test next week or no test next week, we should not be in the position that we are in. When you come out with a new product, you should take steps forward, not stay the same or go backward.

“There’s always an inherent risk in what we do and it’s always been that way. My frustration, as I’ve referenced here in the past few minutes, is I just hate that we put ourselves in the box that we’re in right now. It’s just disappointing that we’ve put ourselves here and we had the choice. We did this to ourselves as an industry and that just should have never been the case. We should not have put ourselves in the box that we’re in right now. So my disappointment lies in that, that we had years in time and opportunity to make this thing right before we put it on track and we didn’t. And now, we’re having to fix it and I just hate that we did that. Like I said, I think we’re smarter than that and I think there’s just a lot of men and women that work in this garage that know better and we shouldn’t have been here.”

Was team owner Rick Hendrick surprised by Elliott being so outspoken on Saturday?

“No. I think these guys are concerned,” Hendrick said Elliott’s comments a day prior. “He sees a teammate hurt. He saw Kurt hurt. He’s a young guy with a career ahead of him. Nobody wants to do something that they could fix and eliminate it.

“I think this has been on Chase’s mind. I’m proud of him. He doesn’t say much, but when he speaks, everybody knows he’s just not popping off, that he’s concerned.”

Points leader entering the day, Joey Logano, finished 27th. His gameplan was for chaos and he felt like he didn’t want to partake in any of it. To his dismay, carnage never happened.

“We just wreck all the time so we thought, ‘Boy, we’ve got a big points lead, let’s just be smart and don’t wreck,’ and we’ll be able to get out of here with a top 10 assuming they would wreck because they always do,” Logano said after amassing 6 stage points on Sunday and going from+37 to +18. “That was the only time I’ve ever stayed in the back, ever, was today, and they didn’t wreck. We gave up a bunch of our points lead. We’re still plus-18, which is a decent spot to be, but the goal was to race for stage points and then drop to the back and wait for the crash. I hate racing that way. I’ve gotten beat many times from people that do that then I tried it, and it didn’t work.”

Team Penske elected for points in Stage 1. They had all 3 drivers in the top 5. Blaney was 1st, Austin Cindric 4th and Logano in 5th. For Stage 2, they fell to the back by design. It allowed Elliott to pass teammate Kyle Larson for the stage win in what mirrored the finish.

Did Elliott learn enough then to utilize on a push for the win 68 laps later?

TALLADEGA, ALABAMA – OCTOBER 02: Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet, takes the checkered flag to win the NASCAR Cup Series YellaWood 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on October 02, 2022 in Talladega, Alabama. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Elliott was riding in 5th at the time of the final caution that was displayed on Lap 181 when Daniel Hemric stalled on pit road. He maneuvered his way to the lead car on the top line coming to the white flag.

Ryan Blaney was leading the low line. Fellow Ford driver Michael McDowell was lined up behind him. Denny Hamlin was behind McDowell. Elliott had drafting help from a pair of Chevy’s behind him. Erik Jones was 3rd and Ross Chastain in 5th.

It was a drag race down the backstretch to where they were even in Turn 3. Blaney had enough of a push from McDowell to give him the advantage exiting Turn 4 but with a big push from Jones, Elliott’s drafting help produced more energy on the high lane which allowed Elliott to clip Blaney at the line for an automatic berth to the Round of 8.

“That’s unreal,” an overjoyed Elliott exclaimed in front of the Alabama race fans. “Moments like that, you have to really cherish. You guys are what makes this special to me. So thank you sincerely. I really appreciate it.

“These things are so, so hard to win. You got to enjoy ’em. Just appreciate everybody’s effort today. NAPA, Chevrolet, all of our partners that make this happen. Everybody at Hendrick Motorsports, the engine shop. The boss is here, so excited to celebrate with him. Get ready to go to the Roval and try to grab another one.”

Elliott credits Jones for the final push.

“It was a wild last couple laps,” said Elliott. “I wasn’t super crazy about being on the bottom. Fortunately, I got just clear enough off of two to slide up in front of Erik. He gave me some great shoves. Obviously a Team Chevy partner there.

“Yeah, just had a good enough run to get out front, then I was able to stay far enough in front of Ryan here at the line to get it done.

“That was all on him (Erik Jones). “He was able to give me a really good shove. I didn’t feel like I did anything special. I think just the timing of how he got connected, and the two guys on the bottom were also connected, so they weren’t aggressively side drafting us, trying to pull us apart.

“Yeah, it was just good time. He did a really good job. I think he deserves a ton of credit for that. Obviously I’m very thankful he was that committed to me for the last lap and a half.

“I have a lot of respect for Erik. I’ve raced with him long enough to trust him in that situation to not turn me around. We certainly pushed right to the limit (smiling). It was a handful, but that’s kind of what you have to do in those scenarios. I thought he balanced that well.

“I was certainly concerned. I saw the 34 come unconnected with the 12 there in turn four. I thought that was my opportunity, so I tried to get down and pull Ryan back as hard as I could, get away, try to get clear. I thought that was my safest place to be.

“Yeah, when they get side by side again, I was a little worried about getting out there too far. When they got side by side that brief period of time, I thought that was enough for me to make it. I knew it was probably going to be close. Ryan was going to have such a good run, I didn’t really know how I was going to block it. Tried to waste as much time as I could and hope I got to the line first.”

It was Elliott’s 2nd Talladega win and just his 2nd top 5 since then. Blaney charged from 19th to finish 2nd in his No. 12 Ford for his 3rd top 2 result in his last 7 Talladega tries.

“Yeah, I definitely thought about it,” Blaney said of blocking Elliott’s final run. “The second lane was kind of the strongest, like, definitely the second half of the race. I thought about it. But when you go to the middle and you don’t have a Ford or teammate behind you, your chances of getting split are just so high.

“As much as I trust Chase, I don’t trust him not to take me three-wide and leave me in the middle. I just chose to stay down in front of Michael and he was awesome at pushing me the last restart, giving me great shots. Just a little bit too late.

“Maybe I could have faked the top, gone to the bottom on the front stretch. I don’t know if I would have got there anyway.

“Overall not a bad day. I’m probably going to replay in my head five different things I could have done different, but overall not a bad day. Appreciate Menards, Dutch Boy, Ford for what they do.”

Michael McDowell finished 3rd in his No. 34 Ford for his second third place result in his last 4 Talladega tries while Ross Chastain and Denny Hamlin rounded out the top 5.

“You always wish you get a redo,” McDowell said. “Unfortunately in motorsports you don’t get that. Good to be challenging for wins. When you come up short, it’s disappointing, for sure.

“But felt like the 12 and I were hooked up good, had a good run. Obviously when the 11 drug back off of me, that was probably my opportunity I needed to drag back off of the 12 a little bit sooner. Just kind of lost a little bit of that momentum, the energy. Just took a little bit too long to rebuild.

“It’s good to be close. It’s been a great season. Really proud of the season we’re having. Man, come up a car length short of Victory Lane, it’s tough for sure.”

For Hamlin he said there was nothing he could do. He was struck because you couldn’t make it 3 wide here this year with this car and make it work.

“Not much really,” Hamlin said on what more he needed today. “It’s so hard to pass. I know you’ve all heard that. It’s a train of two lines. You can’t run three-wide with this car. You got to just sit behind whoever is right there in front of you and hope you can push that line a little bit forward. Hopefully they switch the lanes, then you can leap forward.

“Yeah, that’s kind of what we got right now. I feel like we executed a pretty good day. Our goal going into the day was five stage points. If we got more than five in the first stage, we were going to punt in stage two, try to get a good finish. That’s what we did.

“Overall a good day. I was able to give Chase the push right there to get to the outside. I thought about should I go with him and force the 43 up. I always know I’ve got somebody coming with help behind me, McDowell.”

As far as why he didn’t go with him?

“Then I’d be in the middle,” Hamlin continued. “The risk wasn’t worth going back to 15th if I ended up getting stuck in the middle. To me, this is the three-race season that you have, you points race.”

Between photo finishes for both stages and a photo finish in all 3 races, this was a great weekend of how racing should be on superspeedway’s.

“It was tame in the sense there was no wreck, but I think that was the most racy race from start to finish,” Chase Briscoe said. “We barely ever ran single-file, and these cars it’s so hard to make up ground. It seems like track position is such a big deal and you’ve got guys pushing so hard, just trying to maintain the lane that they’re in. I guess from my side of things it was really racy because you’re never really riding around. You’ve got to go so hard all the time and shove the guy in front of you. We never really got single-file around the top, but I was surprised we didn’t see a wreck. I was figuring with how out of control these cars are when you get pushes from the back, especially the big ones we were having there towards the end I figured something was gonna happen. I’m glad there wasn’t anything happening, but it was kind of a surprise to me. I think this place is a little bit easier than Daytona as far as being able to kind of keep it under control, but I the teams have done a really good job of getting the cars to drive way better. I think we all learned a lot at Daytona as far as what we need to do to our race car to be able to be pushed. They’re still out of control being pushed. I didn’t feel like I was as out of control as I have been the first three races, but they’re still a handful to drive when somebody is shoving you. I was definitely surprised we didn’t see a big wreck.”

Elliott agreed.

“I thought it was a good show. Another close finish right there at the start/finish line. Not much more you can ask for really,” he notes.

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