NASCAR at Talladega 2016: Winners and Losers from the GEICO 500

Brendan O'Meara@@BrendanOMearaFeatured ColumnistMay 1, 2016

NASCAR at Talladega 2016: Winners and Losers from the GEICO 500

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    If you’re Talladega Superspeedway, you like big crashes; it's what you do. And if you want to save 15 percent or more on…ah, you get it.

    Man…

    I was just released from the infield care center following the GEICO 500 and found that Brad Keselowski won the first of two races at Talladega Superspeedway.

    "I don't know how to explain it," Fox's Darrell Waltrip said after the race.

    Explain what? The eight wrecks? The 33 cars involved? The most lead changes and the most leaders we've seen all year?

    This race would have had Charles Darwin stroking his long, gray beard. And maybe next year a better sponsor for the race may be a leading garbage-disposal manufacturer.

    The GEICO 500 was an entertaining and, at times, a downright scary race to watch. It felt like at any given time someone would suffer a serious injury.

    AJ Allmendinger went down on the ground. Danica Patrick put her hands on her knees. Chris Buescher flipped 3 ½ times. Matt Kenseth showed what his car looked like under its kilt.

    Take two aspirin and read this week's winners and losers from Talladega.

Loser: Amelia

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    It's time for some rebranding of the No. 88 restrictor-plate car.

    A year ago this car was unstoppable at the superspeedways.

    This year has seen an average finish of what, 35?

    That's so un-Junior-like and the most Earnhardt-iest track in NASCAR.

    NASCAR's most popular driver never could get a handle on his car—a car named Amelia. It failed him at Daytona and, boy, did it fail him at Talladega.

    "I think trying to put the nose between the No. 19 and the No. 14 is a lot of air coming off those cars, and it just pinned the nose," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said during the Fox broadcast. "We were real tight. The splitter was on the ground. We took some rounds off the back, and that made the car too loose."

    All right.

    Fixed that car.

    Got back on the track.

    Next thing you know, Carl Edwards' right-front tire tapped out like a UFC fighter and plowed Junior's car into the wall. He then tapped out.

    Interview No. 2 ensued.

    "We were just out there riding around," he said. "Something broke in the 19, and he hit us. We were just out there chilling out, having fun."

    Fun, you know, like when you're steering wheel pops off during a caution. That could have been a disaster.

    "It came off," said Junior. "I had it on there. Luckily it was under caution. I grabbed the shaft and steered the car that way. I about ripped the skin off my hand, but I wasn't going to let it hit the wall. That was a freak deal."

    Let's load up the hauler and get out. Get out of Alabama.

Winner: Tony Stewart Goes to the Bullpen

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    It took about 50 laps before Tony Stewart handed the reins to the No. 14 car to Ty Dillon.

    When Fox approached Stewart after his prescribed exit from the car, he expressed that he could have finished the race and added, "It sucks, to be honest. I know why we have to do it, but it still sucks. If I didn't break my back, I wouldn't have to do it. The change went pretty smooth. No drama there."

    By the time the race was through, Stewart must have thanked his lucky stars he wasn't subjected to that slaughterhouse.

    "It's almost like he had a crystal ball," said Fox's Darrell Waltrip. "Tony must have known something."

    Well, it's like 3-5 odds that there will be at least one Big One and, had Stewart played this race out, there was a good chance he'd be on his way to another surgery the way these drivers were hitting walls and flipping like burgers.

    Dillon kept the car clean and finished an amazing seventh.

    Smoke tweeted during the race, "After watching today, you can understand why the Dr's wanted me to get out at the first caution. They definitely were right. Exciting race."

    He then added a "thumbs up" emoji. Nailed it.

    What Dillon did was keep that car alive in points. It needs to be in the top 30 and it needs a win by Richmond.

    Again, Dillon kept it alive—a middle reliever in this long game of ball.

Loser: The Big One Again, Again, Again, Again

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    I know this is kind of a prudish thing to say when writing about NASCAR, like going to a burlesque house and complaining about the sheer sexuality of it all, but the crashes at Talladega got...I don't know...frightening toward the end.

    Take what Fox's Jeff Gordon said after the race:

    "There's a reason why this is one of the fan favorites. The racing is wild and crazy. The wrecks are big, wild and crazy. Thank goodness for safety precautions NASCAR has implemented. Everyone has walked away from these horrific-looking wrecks."

    On the driver side, it's not their favorite type of racing, but, boy, is it entertaining. We're up here trying to catch our breath.

    Even Danica Patrick, who hit the wall about as hard as anyone, added that the driving may be a little too aggressive at Talladega. She said:

    "These races are just I get running close and I get pushing, but [Michael McDowell] was drilling me. There's a high likelihood that he could take himself out doing that. I'm all about bumping and pushing and being close, but I think when you hit people with a certain amount of momentum it's a problem. I can't remember what started it, but I know I got drilled from behind and turned sideways and hello wall."

    That's the nature of plate racing, especially at a track like Talladega.

    Nothing can be done. It's all in the driver's hands, and once a tone is set—like basketball referees letting certain calls go—Pandora's Box is open and you have to roll with it.

    Maybe the fans won, but I'd wager that many grew a bit fearful toward the end as well that this would keep escalating to a point of regret.

Winner: The Pole-Sitter

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    Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    Chase Elliott, so far, has swept the plate poles this year.

    At Daytona, he was out barely before the race started. At Talladega, Elliott led 27 laps, was as low as 30th and somehow kept his car spotless before zipping up to fourth place.

    "We were pretty lucky to get where we got to," Elliott said after the race. "I didn't do a good job in those prior two restarts. I never got in a good spot. We tried there at the end but just didn't have the momentum to get to those guys."

    Elliott is always hard on himself, and he needs to realize—as I'm sure he does privately—that he drove a heck of a race. Actually, he's been driving the heck out of that No. 24 car all season.

    He has six top 10s in his past nine races. He's well on his way to his first win and most certainly a berth in the Chase.

Loser: Kevin Harvick

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    Sean Gardner/Getty Images

    It wasn't really his fault, but Kevin Harvick's 15th-place finish kept his relative cold streak intact.

    In the past five races, dating back to Martinsville, Harvick recorded a 17th, a 10th and a 15th. How good is Harvick that those numbers look so bad?

    At Talladega, his shot at a top 10 went up in smoke.

    "What did you see?" asked a Fox reporter.

    "Landon Cassill trying to cause a wreck the last 40 laps, and he finally got one there at the end," said Harvick. "It was just unfortunate for us. We got shuffled out there. A pretty big wreck there at the end."

    Harvick's car got pinned and lifted into the fence and drew the final caution of the day. It didn't matter at that point, but it was par for the course this day at 'Dega.

    "All in all, it was an OK day," said Harvick. "We led some laps, got out front. We just got shuffled out when the No. 20 and I don't remember who else. We got racing back there where we didn't need to be racing. I guess we still finished. It's just torn up."

    It's only a matter of time before Harvick heats up again and records top fives like he did a year ago.

Winner: The Battered and Bruised Austin Dillon

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    Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

    Austin Dillon was involved in several incidents on the track at Talladega, yet he still had what it took at the end to manage a third-place finish in the GEICO 500.

    Maybe the word for the No. 3 car was perseverance.

    "Man, I don't know, probably the 15 pit stops we went through," Dillon said after the race. "What we've been really focused on going forward is trying not to panic, and no one panicked. They did their jobs. They fixed the car. And, man, what a run to the finish."

    The final restart saw Dillon benefit from Jamie McMurray giving him just the right amount of shove. Dillon said:

    Our car probably wasn't good enough to really win the race. It was good enough for the No. 1 to hook my bumper and push me through [Turns] 3 and 4, so I had that run off of [Turn] 4 and tried to use it.

    Those clean cars were just too good for us at the end.

    What a day for the Brothers Dillon. NASCAR has a replacement for the Busches when they hang up the fire suits.

    As for Dillon, he's one step closer to that first win. With three top fives, he's darn close.

Loser: The Feud

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    Greg McWilliams/Associated Press

    Matt Kenseth led 39 laps on the afternoon, but it was the finger pointed at Joey Logano that made the most news.

    After the race, Logano leaned against a fence. Kenseth walked past and pointed at Logano saying something to the effect, "I still don't like you."

    Logano was asked by a Fox reporter what Kenseth said.

    "Ah, not much," replied Logano. "Just...it's unfortunate. We had a pretty decent car..."

    If you can dodge a question, you can dodge a ball!

    "Not much," isn't nothing, this when the next race is at Kansas—the site of the tinder that sparked Kenseth's revenge.

    In the GEICO 500, Logano pitched Kenseth off the rails twice; the last time triggered a chain reaction that put Kenseth on his cap giving the entire racing community a shot of his chassis' undercarriage. Danica Patrick took a nice lick as well by the inside wall.

    "[Logano] ran me off the race track, and that got us behind," Kenseth said during the broadcast. "I thought we were done with that, but maybe we aren't. So he ran me off the track, and I was going straight and got ran into. Then you're just hanging on" (emphasis mine).

    Heeeeeere we go again.

    NASCAR will keep a very close eye on these two heading into Kansas. Kenseth referenced 2015's feud, and now he thinks Logano dug up the buried hatchet.

    This has "bad sequel" written all over it, and it needs to be nipped in the bud. Rivalries are one thing, but the way these two play in the sandbox, someone is bound to escalate this beyond what's acceptable.

Winner: Victory Lane Beer Bath

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    Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    Fox's Jamie Little was the victim of the Victory Lane beer bath (her words, the beer bath that is) when Keselowski exited his car (he was not the lone gunman of said beer).

    The win marked his fourth at Talladega and the second of the season. The No. 2 Ford was one of the rare cars that stayed out of trouble all day. Thirty-three cars crashed, some burned, but Kez stood tallest by the end of the 76th Hunger Games.

    "That's one of the tickets to staying out of wrecks at Talladega if you can stay out front you stand a good chance of not getting wrecked," Kez said during the Fox broadcast. "Daytona didn't go the way we wanted to go. We thought we were going to be better than that. We just didn't show the speed in the 500."

    But this 500? Yeah, he brought the speed, and he knew a thing or two about leading the draft.

    When he got out front, he knew how to maneuver from the outside all the way down to the inside. He used the cars behind him as a trampoline that bounced him to the front.

    "It's my fourth win here. I never thought I'd win four races at Talladega!" he said. "Two wins this year and we feel like we can get a lot more."

    This is big. This win proves he's the title contender in the Penske garage, and, more importantly, he honed his skills at a track that grants passage into the Eliminator Round of the Chase: Race 6 of 10 in the playoffs.

    You better believe he'll be there.