NASCAR at Talladega 2014: Winners and Losers from the Aaron's 499
In one of the least entertaining restrictor-plate races in recent memory, Denny Hamlin won the 45th annual Aaron’s 499 at Talladega Superspeedway, his first career win at the 2.66-mile track.
Despite having all the necessary ingredients for what should have been an exciting and thrilling race (a big wreck, several smaller ones and cars three and four wide in large packs), Sunday’s restrictor-plate race was a forgettable affair.
Greg Biffle, who led the most laps (58), finished second, and Clint Bowyer, whose season is still trying to get off the ground, finished third.
Hamlin admitted that the victory was an acknowledgement of sorts that he had matured as a race car driver.
“When you drive as aggressively as I drove early in my career on superspeedways, I was either wrecking or finishing in the top three, and it was usually wrecking,” said Hamlin in a post-race interview. “I think the way I’m doing things now lends itself to being a little bit more consistent on these types of race tracks. Early in my career I was always the one trying to make holes (in the pack), and that got me in trouble.”
With the win, the FedEx-sponsored driver became the eighth different Sprint Cup winner this season and locked the 33-year-old Virginian into the 2014 Chase.
Winner: AJ Allmendinger
AJ Allmendinger drives for a single-car team (JTG Daugherty Racing) with an alliance with Richard Childress Racing. That means that every weekend, Allmendinger plays the role of David to the rest of the Sprint Cup series’ many Goliaths.
So it's the races at Talladega and Daytona, where the playing field is leveled and a team like Allmendinger’s has a real chance at winning, that usually gets circled on the team's calendar.
Allmendinger did everything right on Sunday, including working in the draft with everyone. Up to a point.
“I kept waiting for everybody to kind of calm down and single file out,” said Allmendinger. “I went to the back at one point, like everybody is going to calm down and it never happened. About 50 (laps) to go I was like ‘alright I guess it’s time to get crazy with everybody.'
“I hope the fans enjoyed it.”
It’s likely that Allmendinger and his team won’t make the Chase this year on points, although his top-five finish Sunday moved him up two places, to 15th, in driver points. A win is likely the route this Californian will take to get into postseason play.
He nearly pulled it off this weekend. He’ll get a couple of more chances at the two road course races later this season at Sonoma and Watkins Glen. Last season, he won the only two NASCAR Nationwide Series races he competed in—both of them on road courses (Elkhart Lake and Mid-Ohio).
Given his history and how he’s turned his career around, Allmendinger is a driver worth watching and somebody everyone can cheer for.
Loser: Brad Keselowski
Somewhere in the midst of all the smoke (above) is the No. 2 Miller Lite Ford of Brad Keselowski.
The Team Penske driver had the distinction of having had his name mentioned the most by his fellow competitors. And it usually wasn’t in a flattering way.
Early in the race, Keselowski misjudged where his Fusion was in relation to Danica Patrick’s right front fender while both drivers were traveling at nearly 200 miles per hour. Keselowski moved in front of Patrick, resulting in the Penske driver spinning out and taking a few other drivers with him.
“I’m not really sure what happened,” said Keselowski in an interview after emerging from the infield care center where he had been checked out following the incident with Patrick. “I made an aggressive move to take the lead and the next thing I knew I was spinning, so I’m not really sure. Obviously, there was some kind of contact, but I don’t know what happened.”
With 50 laps remaining and while several laps down, Keselowski once again found himself in the middle of the action, running up front with the race leaders.
This time, the Michigan-born Keselowski just lost control of his car. The result was the day’s proverbial “Big One” involving 14 cars including himself.
Six-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, who is, as of today, still winless, was not too complimentary to Keselowski.
“I wasn’t so thrilled that a car six laps down crashed the field, that aspect of it,” said Johnson in a post-race interview. “But I get it. You’re trying to get your laps back. But I didn’t have any big run-in with him except for unfortunately being caught up in that wreck.”
Six-time Talladega race winner Jeff Gordon was also a victim of Keselowski’s second wreck.
“I had seen him for several laps driving over his head being pretty aggressive I guess trying to get his lap back,” said Gordon in a post-race interview. “I knew he was laps down, but he wasn’t doing anybody any favors, nor himself. Then ultimately that was a wreck.”
It goes without saying that Keselowski did not endear himself to any of his fellow competitors on Sunday.
Winner: Kasey Kahne
As the somewhat forgotten driver in the Hendrick Motorsports camp, Kasey Kahne did a first-rate job of reminding NASCAR fans that he indeed is still a hot commodity, capable of winning races.
Kahne was the highest-finishing Hendrick driver on a day when the organization’s two former Cup champions and Talladega winners had miserable days. The remaining driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., found himself the victim of a late-race pit stop that put him in poor track position.
Nevertheless, Kahne was unimpressed, yet very pleased with the results of his day.
“We had a really good car,” he said in a post-race interview. “The Farmers Insurance Chevy was fast, just didn’t get to the front when I needed to…with like 30 (laps) to go probably.
“It was kind of you either charge through and move people a little bit and aggressively do it or else you just wait. I chose to wait and we ended up wherever we ended up.”
It was his third top-10 finish of the season and a vast improvement over his previous restrictor-plate finish in 2014 (Daytona, 31st).
Loser: Tony Stewart
Note the rare smile on team owner Tony Stewart’s face (above). They're hard to come by these days.
The three-time Cup series champion is having a forgettable season. Ten races have gone by and Stewart has just two top-five finishes while his teammates, Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch, have both won races and secured a spot at the Chase table come September.
Stewart left Talladega Superspeedway, a track where he has one win and nine top-five finishes, with a 43rd-place finish, the worst of his career at this track and a DNF (did not finish).
Fortunately, his Stewart-Haas Racing stablemate, Harvick, finished seventh and Danica Patrick, despite finishing 22nd, had a remarkable afternoon. Patrick, whose final result was not indicative of her strong performance, led six laps, her first at Talladega.
Making Patrick a…
Winner: Danica Patrick
The Stewart-Haas Racing driver equaled her best finish of the season (22nd) since Fontana, where she finished 14th. She matched her result from Darlington.
Restrictor-plate racing and Patrick were meant for each other. Patrick said before the race that racing on plate tracks reminds her of her IndyCar days.
“I don’t know if the confidence level shifts a tremendous amount as much as the comfort level does," said Patrick in a pre-race media release. "Just being comfortable on these big speedways and comfortable with this pack-style racing that I was so used to in IndyCar on the ovals. Just having a feel for it. It is something that I probably caught on to quicker than anything in stock car racing. I guess I show up there and it’s just a little bit more comfortable."
Patrick has already shown her comfort level on plate tracks by winning the pole for last year's Daytona 500. She'll likely have a Sprint Cup win on her resume before long. And it will happen on a restrictor-plate track.
Loser: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
On the weekend it was announced that his team had secured a big-dollar, multiyear sponsorship package for him with Nationwide Insurance, Dale Earnhardt Jr. had one of his worst finishes at Talladega (26th).
Maybe his beard is like Samson's hair?
An Earnhardt signature, late-race charge to the front was thwarted by Michael McDowell, when the K-Love-sponsored driver moved up from the middle of the track to the top, right in front of the No. 88 car, thus slowing down Junior’s momentum.
“Anytime anyone jumps in front of you on the outside line you are not going to shove them out there, especially a car like that,” said Earnhardt Jr. in a post-race interview. “I wanted to help him but it just killed us. You have to have that track position at the end, and we just didn’t have it.”
A late-race pit stop placed Earnhardt Jr., a five-time Talladega winner, in poor track position with the laps winding down.
Still, his team has that race win in its pocket (Daytona), and the Steve Letarte-led squad isn’t about to let any race weekend put a spoiler on what has been a remarkable season.
“We already got a win and I’ve been in too many late-race wrecks,” said Earnhardt Jr. "There were three or four there we dodged pretty good. So, we’ve got a car in one piece. We’ll go to Daytona. You’ve just got to have the strategy right to where we’re up front at the end of these races and in the lead or around the top three or four there, inside the last fuel window, to have a shot at it.”
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is exactly where we’ll see the No. 88 car come July in Daytona.
Winner: Greg Biffle
Biffle had one of the fastest cars during the race, leading the way for 58 laps. Biffle came up one caution flag shy of a win, leaving Talladega with a second-place finish.
"That final restart Clint gave us a huge, huge push and we had a huge run at the No. 11 car (race winner Hamlin)," said Biffle in the post-race press conference. "I was backing up off of him quite a bit on the backstretch and I got probably two-and-a-half, three cars away from him and they said, 'Caution is out.' I was setting up to go by him, but just never had the chance.
"I wish I had known we weren’t going to race all the way back, but it was a good day for us. The car was really fast, a lot of speed, and I’m just happy to come out of here with a clean car."
Sunday's runner-up finish is a high point in an otherwise unremarkable season for Biffle. Much has been written and said about this being a contract year for the Roush Fenway Racing driver. In reality, there isn't much to sell about Biffle, who has spent his entire Sprint Cup career having years that could best be described as "shoulda, coulda, woulda" years—in part due to his loyalty to Roush.
If there is the hint of another quality ride available next season, I would suggest Biffle take it. If not, he'll likely finish his career without the Sprint Cup championship he so desires.
Loser: Trevor Bayne
A too nice guy who lacks the serial killer instinct needed to be a successful Sprint Cup driver, Trevor Bayne’s name found itself on the lips of his fellow drivers and announcers in the Fox television booth on Sunday during the course of the Aaron’s 499.
Whether it be due to his being in the wrong place at the wrong time or just being in the way, Bayne’s 15 minutes of NASCAR fame—brought about by his chance win in the Daytona 500 and its accompanying feel-good story—are just about over.
Although Bayne, a part-time driver in the Sprint Cup series, did lead six laps, he ended up being involved in the race’s “Big One” on lap 138. He is credited with a 41st-place finish.
Winner: Paul Menard
The journeyman driver from Wisconsin scored his fourth top-10 finish of the 2014 season. He also was the highest-finishing Richard Childress Racing driver.
Menard is too easily dismissed as being “a rich kid” or “just another paying driver.” But many fans forget that he is also a Brickyard 400 winner (2011, his only Cup victory to date), and he has been racing at the Sprint Cup level for over a decade. Those aforementioned, non-flattering descriptions deserve to be buried.
Although he’s never made it to the Chase, Menard is one of those drivers who must be considered a dark horse for postseason play. His tenacity has given him finishes better than the car he’s been driving.
On Sunday, he ran up front with the leaders for the majority of the race’s 188 laps, leading 10 in the process.
With veteran crew chief Slugger Labbe in charge, this combination could strike gold on any weekend during the Sprint Cup season.
Loser: NASCAR Fans
Sunday’s Aaron’s 499 was not very good.
Yahoo! Sports called it a “thriller.”
Not even close.
Admittedly, it did have some of the excitement one might expect from a restrictor-plate race. Forty-eight lead changes among 23 drivers. OK, that’s pretty good stuff.
However, it didn’t have the kind of pizazz we’ve seen in past races at Talladega. No charges from the front to the back. No four-wide, down-below-the-yellow-line, forbidden territory attempted passes on the backstretch.
And definitely no slingshot pass for the lead coming off of Turn 4 on the final lap.
That last one unfortunately got robbed from us due to a caution flag.
I rarely find myself looking away from the track (if attending in person) or walking away from the television if watching at home while watching a restrictor-plate race. This is because I fear that I will miss something exciting happening on the race track. On Sunday, I found it easy to walk outside to enjoy the beautiful spring day here in eastern Pennsylvania, without fearing that I would miss anything important happening in Talladega.
I don’t know. Maybe it’s the Gen 6 restrictor-plate package, or maybe it is the “let’s get this over with and go home” attitude we hear all the time from drivers at restrictor-plate race tracks that is to blame.
Whatever it is, I hope that the racing under the lights in Daytona in July is a lot better than what I saw on Sunday.