At the climax of a race dominated by drafting, pack-racing and water temperature spikes, Joey Logano managed to slingshot his way past Kyle Busch in the final metres of the final lap to emerge as the winner of the NASCAR Nationwide Series Aaron's 312 race at Talladega Superspeedway. It came during the second green-white-chequered attempt at a finish, following a previous red flag for a serious multi-car wreck that saw Eric McClure airlifted to hospital.
Earlier - when the race initially got underway following a brief delay for some track drying after a two minute drive-by shower had swept through the area - the action had quickly fallen into a mix of two-car and pack-drafting techniques, with Joey Logano immediately getting behind Elliott Sadler and propelling him to the front. But very soon their advantage expired and they were sucked back into the pack once more, and even when two cars shot off into a huge lead out front - such as James Buescher and Dale Earnhardt Jr. did from lap 8 - all it took was one slightly shaky moment while swapping running order and they were quickly sucked back into the pack for the whole process to begin once again.
Even early on, everyone was nervously eyeing their water temperature gauges, with Kevin Harvick falling like a stone from a brief turn in the lead when his own readings spiked into the dangerous 260/270 degree range forcing him to ease off dramatically to allow the water to cool down again. Perhaps in the circumstances, then, it was no surprise to see the #70 of Johanna Long suffer engine problems which laid oil down on the track and brought out the first caution on lap 21, conveniently timed to allow everyone to pit under caution and generally cool their cars down for a few minutes before the restart on lap 26.
Having led briefly before the caution, Kyle Busch took the green flag; but he was lacking his former drafting partner, his brother Kurt, who had been hit with a penalty after his refueller was unable to extract the gas tank from the #1 in time as it pulled away from the pit box. That left Kurt at the back of the field, and subsequently in his drive to push back to the front he gave a slight tap on the back fender of the #11 driven by Brian Scott on lap 29, sending it into a spin that sparked a multi-car accident. Kurt Busch's car was itself caught out, getting a side-on-side impact from Morgan Shepherd on its way back down from hitting the wall.
That meant a second caution, with those worst affected by the wreck - Scott, Shepherd, Josh Richards and Jason Bowles - coming onto pit road first, together with Kurt Busch who has seemingly escaped relatively lightly. Others were soon also on pit road for more routine tyre-and-fuel stops, but Austin Dillon was left wishing he hadn't when John Wes Townley pulled into his pit box immediately in front of Dillon's as the series rookie was pulling out, resulting in impact and a delay pulling the cars apart before Dillon was ushered on his way.
Racing resumed on lap 35 with Dale Earnhardt Jr., Justin Allgaier, Danica Patrick and Joey Logano at the front, although that changed the minute the green flag came out and once again drafting rules applied after a brief period of single file traffic. Logano and Sadler emerged as two of the strongest cars, at least until Sadler slightly misjudged his push on the #18 and sent Logano flying up the track in a scary moment, after which the two inevitably drifted backwards for a while as they picked up the pieces and reconnected.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was looking the strongest of all, breezing to the front even without visible means of support. Kurt Busch was also now back near the front having reconnected with his brother, and Kevin Harvick was over his early temperature issues and schooling his young Richard Childress Racing stablemate Austin Dillon the finer art of superspeedway racing.
Green flag pit stops were looming, when Mike Wallace tapped the back of Brad Sweet and sent the #38 into a hard hit on the wall on lap 62. That produced another episode of multi-car pinball catching out Eric McClure and Jon Wes Townley heading into turn 1 and narrowly avoiding sucking in reigning champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. as well. Inevitably, this all resulted in the third caution of the night and meant that the impending pit stops were all able to happen under yellow after all.
At the restart, Earnhardt Jr. was still the man on form and this time opted to push Cole Whitt to the front of the race. It was a short-lived alliance and Earnhardt would later return to the front with Joe Nemechek's assistance, and there was also a turn in the lead for Earnhardt's team mate Danica Patrick, making her only the second female driver to lead a lap at Taladega.
Once again, green flag pit stops were looming - the last of the race - when the fourth caution came out on lap 82, this time for Josh Richards spinning after having a tyre fail on him. It came too late to save Kurt Busch's race, however, after the #1 had to head for pit road a few laps earlier with a massively overheated engine that had all-but steamed off its water reservoir in the process. And it was also too late to stop Timmy Hill from having to call it a day altogether in the #41, after a bout of intestinal flu combined with the soaring Alabama afternoon temperatures had left him dehydrated and too dizzy to be able to continue to drive safely at these speeds any longer. Blake Koch stepped into the car for the remaining 33 laps of the race.
The race resumed on lap 87 following pit stops under yellow; Kevin Harvick led at the green but the battle for the lead was soon three- and even four-wide until finally Logano (pushed by Sadler again) eased ahead of Kyle Busch. However, Sadler soon had major overheating problems and dropped well back down the running order, leaving Busch at the head of a single-file line of traffic that included Dale Earnhardt Jr., Joe Nemechek and Austin Dillon, all of whom seemed content to allow Busch to take the strain as the stalking horse out in front.
The procession was briefly interrupted by the Dodge duo of Brad Keselowski and Sam Hornish Jr. making a drafting play for the lead and blasting ahead, only to immediately break formation and hence drafting momentum the moment they got in front. Kyle Busch led the single file right through the middle of them, the leaders' car body language oozing disdain for such juvenile antics by the Dodge brothers.
Sadler was still running way back down the running order and attempting to draft with Mike Bliss, but that came to and end on lap 107 with ten to go when Bliss was suddenly hooked into a spin that brought out the fifth caution of the afternoon. Few of the cars made a dive for pit road with the race so near the climax: track position rather than fresh rubber was the order of the day. In the meantime the radio airwaves were buzzing with negotiations for drafting partners for one last dance with four laps to go at the restart, with Danica Patrick notably less than keen to be partnered with Sam Hornish Jr.
The restart came on lap 113 with four to go, and Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s play for the lead with Austin Dillon backfired with both of them losing ground, gifting a solid lead to Kyle Busch. But the yellow was out almost at once in any case, as a small moment for Jeffrey Earnhardt in the mid-pack caused ripples of reaction that ended up with Danny Efland and Mike Wallace spinning in turn 4 and miraculously not taking out anyone else in the process. Had Talladega avoided "the big one" for once? After all, all they had to do now was run a successful green-white-chequered (GWC) finish and the afternoon was done.
For the GWC restart, Kyle Busch exercised his option as race leader to take the outside line for the restart, which surprised many as the inside line was clearly the faster place to be. However, for Busch it came with a major setback: Kevin Harvick would have been right behind him, and Busch clearly didn't fancy being pushed anywhere by his old nemesis and instead switched so that he'd be backed up by Brad Keselowski instead, leaving Nemechek to deal with Harvick.
But that also evened out the speeds of the two lanes: Busch/Keselowski simply couldn't overcome the inside advantage that Nemechek/Harvick now had and the four cars were running just inches apart, no one able to make a decisive move and instead there was a blockage at the front. Michael Annett got a push and tried to take advantage down the middle of the four-pack, but this was a bad mistake: all he did was succeed in turning both Harvick and Keselowski inwards into one another, igniting a major accident that few behind them could manage to miss. Danica Patrick, Robert Richardson Jr., Blake Koch, Taylor Malsam and Jeffrey Earnhardt were among those to wreck: Patrick escaped with flat-spotted tyres and some fender damage, but several other cars were badly torn up.
"We were sitting there in fifth on that final restart and got a really good push from the #18 and we shot the middle," explained Annett. "Everyone is doing what they have to do at these races.
"The #33 came over to try to block us and we had such a run going that if I slammed on the brakes it was going to turn me so I just stayed in the gas and tried to shoot the whole," he continued. "When it closed it was too late to do anything. Unfortunately we tore up a bunch of race cars. Everybody is trying to get everything they can on those last two laps. It is just the way this racing is."
Worst affected of all was Eric McClure, who had been knocked through the infield and flown at high speed into a massive head-first impact against the inside wall. It looked bad, and it was: the car was mess, and there was oil and debris everywhere. Even if that hadn't triggered the red flag, then concerns for McClure's well-being most certainly would. Although described as awake and talking to safety crews, there was the worrying spectacle of the car's roof being peeled away safety workers to allow emergency access to the driver safety cell, and when he was extracted McClure was taken away on a stretcher to the ambulance and transferred via helicopter to the nearby UAB Medical Center. No further medical details were immediately available as to his condition.
After a lengthy delay for McClure's extraction and for repairs to the SAFER barrier, the race resumed some 20 minutes later with the next GWC attempt. For a heart-stopping few seconds it looked like this was going the way of the first, with Hornish getting knocked out of control. Hornish's car ploughed into the side of Nemechek and subsequently also squeezed Patrick into the wall, threatening to ignite a whole new round of wrecks. Somehow everyone managed to save their cars and all the drivers behind them avoided the drama too, leaving the race to take the white flag and start the final 2.666-mile rotation after all.
With most of his major rivals eliminated last time around, Kyle Busch had the lead: with Joey Logano's assistance he out-powered their only real opposition, Cole Whitt and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. working together on the outside. Now the only question was whether Logano - Busch's Cup series team mate at Joe Gibbs Racing - would let Kyle have the win or make his own play for victory lane.
It was most decidedly the latter. Logano held on until halfway through the final corner, and then pulled out and surged past the #54 in a lunge for the line that was timed to perfection, putting him across the line by just 0.034s ahead of the longtime race leader, as all four cars stretched across the width of the race track in their final sprint.
“He knows I'm going to make the move to make something happen here,” said Logano of the move on his Cup team mate. "I just got him right at the line. It's super exciting to win that way because you don't know you got him until the line."
“When you're in the tandem like that, there's not much the front car can do,” said Busch, admitting that in the end he knew that he was being set up to be a sitting duck. “I probably could have blocked Joey a little up the track, but the rear car has so much more momentum ready to go. If there was anything I could do, I would have done it.”
The drama didn't altogether end there, with Hornish and Patrick seen exchanging heated words once they got back to pit road and Hornish alleging that Patrick had turned him into the wall at high speed after the chequered flag in retaliation for him putting her into the wall during that last restart. Given the apparent similarity to the incident between Kyle Busch and Ron Hornaday in the Truck Series race last year at Texas that saw Busch expelled for an entire weekend and placed under probation for similar on-track relatliation, questions were soon flying about whether Patrick may face similar sanctions for her actions - especially coming so soon after the horrific crash for Eric McClure. However neither driver was summoned to meet with NASCAR officials, the officials seemingly happy that it was just an unfortunate incident.
It certainly seemed that after several races light on cautions and and incidents, Talladega had more than made up for things - in both good and bad ways, unfortunately.Full race results, championship positions,
starting positions and practice times available.