Dale Earnhardt Jr. started on the pole at Talladega. Most years, that is just par for the course. In this, his final season, it was a return down memory lane. Talladega is where anything can happen, where any lead lap car has a shot to win it, and a where one’s dreams can go up in flames, smoke, and mangled metal without notice.
Just ask Jamie McMurray. He went in clinging to the final berth into the next round of the Chase. Sometimes you make a mistake. Sometimes you decide to turn toward pit road way too high on the track, a place where those with no intention of turning in are still running at high speed. That is what McMurray did just 25 laps in, and got punted to the outside by Erik Jones, then t-boned by Jeffery Earnhardt. By the time Mark Thompson tore off the rear section of his car, the damage had already been done. Done, thy name is McMurray. Somebody needs a win next week.
Unfortunately for Junior, our leader was hitting the pits as that caution came out for the wreck behind him. Pit lane closed in front of his eyes. The penalty sent him, Kyle Larson, and Chase Elliott to the back. Totally unfair, totally unrealistic to expect a driver to react in time, I know, but them is the rules. Still, they had over 160 laps to make up the lost ground.
Earlier in the race, just 14 laps in, the Fords ducked onto pit road and packed themselves together. That paid off in the end of the opening segment, as Brad Keselowski was followed by Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. All but Logano were current Chasers who came in outside the eight berths for the next round of the playoffs. Sometimes a plan works to perfection.
After two stages, that Ford plan was still paying dividends. Blaney won the stage, with Keselowski right behind him. Jimmie Johnson had his rear folded by Ty Dillon at one point, but he was still running in the top 10. Same for Denny Hamlin, as an early pit for a loose wheel, came at the same time there was a debris caution. No harm, no foul. As for Junior, he was barely in our top 20 as a planned stop just before the end of the stage was waved off for some reason.
Sixty laps remaining, and like magic, Junior was back among the top three. How? He was born to a wizard who did magical things at Talladega, just as his son has done throughout his career. Along with the Legacy were young guns, Blaney and Elliott. Of course, with that many laps to go on this track, it meant nothing as to what might happen by the time they reached the end. It was down to sticking on the lead lap and seeing what fate was willing to deliver.
I said, “WHAT FATE WAS WILLING TO DELIVER.” Keselowski was not hearing much of anything due to a very intermittent radio that only worked on the front stretch. Under a caution caused by a bunch of also-rans at the back of the pack, they reached in to fix it. That left him starting just inside the top 30 with about 30 to go when they returned to green. Junior was sitting inside the top 15 in his final Talladega race.
Fifteen. Interesting number. By the time this thing ended, that was all that was left running. With 17 to go, Martin Truex Jr. touched David Ragan, who collected Kurt Busch, and all hell broke loose. Johnson was toast, along with Kyle Busch and Stenhouse, while Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth both got roughed up. They were just getting started.
With 11 laps remaining, Logano and Blaney touched, taking out Blaney, and roughing up Harvick even more, and more was yet to come. Down to six laps, our leaders were Daniel Suarez, Elliott, and Larson. Not for long. Suarez was leading up high when he came down in the corner but Elliott already had his nose there. Suarez got turned into Larson, then came back up to collect Elliott, and that ended the day for two of them while Larson was still able to continue, albeit with a ton of front-end damage.
Finally, we were down to just four laps, 15 cars, with about eight having any shot of winning. On the start, it was Ryan Newman among the survivors up front, but with a pair remaining Keselowski took over and there he was to stay. Trevor Bayne was third, Logano fourth, with Aric Almirola in fifth. Hamlin and Earnhardt were next, followed by Kasey Kahne, Gray Gaulding, and Ragan to round out our top 10. It might not have thrilled so-called “race” fans, but if extreme sports lights your fire, the Alabama 500 got you all warm and toasty Sunday afternoon.
Keselowski had a great day, and advances to the next round of the Chase, to join with Truex. Larson, Harvick, Hamlin, and Elliott are all fine, as long as they stay out of trouble in Kansas. Blaney and Johnson need to have good days, Kyle Busch and Kenseth will have to be even better, while Stenhouse and McMurray need to win to be in.
On Sunday, the television ratings went against the grain and actually went up. Do not expect that to occur again next week. After the thrills and spills of what we just witnessed, it would be an understatement to say that Kansas will not exactly present anything like what was seen at Talladega. Then again, history tells us that might suit the likes of someone like Jimmie Johnson just fine.