Biggest Winners and Losers from NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at Talladega
500 miles at Talladega Superspeedway is always a measure in handling nail-biting action, avoiding nearly inevitable big crash and trying to balance concerns of gaining or losing points in the standings while striving for the best finish possible.
It's nothing short of a three-plus hour tour of teeth-clinching action while the sun slowly drops behind the front stretch grandstands as the checkered flag nears.
Sunday's Camping World RV Sales 500 was much the same, with side-by-side racing, race strategy and points implications all on the line. Find out who emerged from NASCAR's largest track feeling the best and who didn't as the season winds to its nearing conclusion.
Winner: Jamie McMurray
Some drivers just have a knack for NASCAR's restrictor-plate style racing, and Jamie McMurray proved again Sunday that he's certainly in the upper-echelon of series drivers boasting those skills.
McMurray led the final 15 laps of Sunday's race to score his fourth career win on a restrictor-plate track. The win, which marked the seventh of McMurray's career, was sealed from a charging Dale Earnhardt Jr. being stymied by a caution flag for Austin Dillon's big, aerial crash on the final lap.
McMurray went to Victory Lane for the first time since 2010 and become the second straight driver to win in the Sprint Cup Series who wasn't Chase for the Sprint Cup-eligible. The win also was a nice way for McMurray to make up for a race he lost at the track a year ago when he spun while jockeying for the lead late in the race.
Loser: Austin Dillon
It certainly wasn't his fault—wrecks happen on the last lap of many restrictor plate races—and it certainly wasn't the way he intended it, but for Austin Dillon to miss out on a sure-fire Top-5 finish thanks to his last lap wild crash had to be disappointing.
Dillon was back in Tony Stewart's No. 14 Sunday and was the key cog in Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s run back to the front late in the race. Dillon, officially running for NASCAR's Rookie of the Year award in 2014, had made a great call to latch to Earnhardt's bumper and help push him through the pack as the laps clicked away.
Dillon was setting up to be the pivotal piece in Earnhardt's attempt to pass the leader McMurray on the final lap when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. got close enough to get Dillon loose exiting Turn 2. Dillon spun sideways in front of the field and avoided everyone except Casey Mears, who plowed into Dillon's trunk sending the No. 14 into a wild pirouette before it landed on its wheels.
Dillon was credited with 26th.
Winner: Front Row Motorsports
There was a lot more champagne spraying and a lot more celebration after the last race at Talladega Superspeedway for Front Row Motorsports, but Sunday's finish of sixth (David Ragan) and seventh (David Gilliland) was about as good as the small team could hope for in its return to the site where it finished 1-2 in the spring.
Ragan and Gilliland drive cars that lack the same feats of engineering, testing and other research done by high budget teams. On tracks where setup, handling and car design are so imperative, they fight from a distinct disadvantage. At Talladega, where the restrictor plates keep nearly every car grouped together, the chances of success are higher.
With the pair of top-10 finishes, the two drivers moved into a strong position to finish the year inside the top-30 in points.
Loser: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. didn't win again at a restrictor plate track, and worse yet, could again almost reach out and touch the distance he needed to cover in order to finally get a win.
Earnhardt Jr. was making his move to pass Jamie McMurray on the race's final lap when Austin Dillon's crash behind him forced a caution flag and froze the field. He was credited with second place, the eighth of his career at Daytona or Talladega and second of the season at the tracks after he watched Jimmie Johnson take the Daytona 500 victory in February.
Earnhardt remains winless on the season.
Winner: Jimmie Johnson
When you've been at or near the top for so long like Jimmie Johnson has, the hope for Talladega Superspeedway to play spoiler in his the five-time champion's drive for a sixth seems nearly palpable across the sport. The feeling—as evidenced by the number of stories written about how Talladega can (and often does) wreak havoc on any teams best-laid plans—is less about seeing Johnson fail and more about seeing the unexpected.
But Johnson had none of that during Sunday's race even as he motored to a somewhat disappointing 13th-place finish. Johnson led a race-high 47 laps and managed to walk away with the series points lead when Matt Kenseth wound up 20th. Only Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch pulled closer among drivers with a reasonable shot at unseating Johnson from his new, familiar throne.
Loser: Late Race Action
Yes, the race finished under the yellow flag. Yes, the finish was in doubt until the final lap. And yes, Sunday's race was an overall thriller at Talladega Superspeedway with tight racing and plenty of hard-nosed racing for the lead.
But the final 10 laps lacked the same punch as most of Sunday's race, and it's not entirely clear why.
Jamie McMurray grabbed the lead when he darted away from an ailing Jeff Gordon, sending Gordon to the back of the pack when the inside line of cars lost gusto and made a beeline for the top groove. The race would then finish with nearly every driver in the top-10 being extra patient and racing single-file at least until the white flag. Even rookies like Austin Dillon and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.—with no Chase to worry about—didn't fan out until it was too late.
Were the cars losing grip at the end of the fuel run? Were drivers too scared to lose points to actually fight for the win? Was the high line really that dominant?
Whatever it was, it provided a bit of an anti-climactic finish to an otherwise entertaining day.
Winner: Safe, Daring Racing
On the flipside of the otherwise forgetful finish was a lot of racing in Sunday's race that had to keep viewers glued to the action both at home and at the track.
Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. both moved to the front early in the race after Matt Kenseth had led a number of laps and seemed to work in tango in an effort to keep Kenseth—Johnson's chief rival in the title fight—from leading the most laps of Sunday's race. That effort alone led to some daring moves to the lead and delicate moments when cars behind them would get a run and try to pass.
There was also some noteworthy saves—rookies Austin Dillon and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. both had moments where pushes from trailing cars nearly sent their cars careening into the backstretch wall—that kept minor incidents from triggering the much-discussed and all-too-typical "Big One" crash. Instead, drivers sorted things out and displayed some serious skill in racing three- and four-wide without incident for much of the day.
Loser: Jeff Gordon
With next week's race at Martinsville Speedway often being a display of Jimmie Johnson's short track prowess and Matt Kenseth looking decidedly strong there in the spring, Sunday at Talladega may have marked Jeff Gordon's last, best chance to close the championship gap enough to be player in the season's final four races.
It looked like Gordon had a chance to do just that with about 20 laps left as he raced three-wide with several different pairs of drivers just behind a duel for the lead featuring Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards. But Gordon wound up getting lost in the mix on the inside line and fell back quickly as the outside line developed into a single-file freight train.
Gordon rallied to 14th after dropping nearly four seconds behind in 25th with just a few laps to go, but it still ended with Johnson gaining ground and Kenseth finishing just six spots behind.