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McMurray wins as Dillon takes off at 'Dega

21 October 2013

Talladega has a bit of reputation in NASCAR: for unexpected winners, wild multi-car wrecks known as the 'Bog One', and generally the prospect of the form book turned upside down. Very much the sort of race for all of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Chase contenders to appear when it's time to head to Alabama for the final time of the season, since one way or another it could be the make or break of their championship campaign.

By its own standards, this year's autumn race at Talladega was a rather tame affair. There was still plenty of nail-biting three- and four-wide racing, of course, and then a spectacular climax which would provoke a stream of invective from even the most mild-mannered clergyman. But in between there were long spells of green flag racing and a lack of multi-car wrecks.

With qualifying rained off at Talladega Superspeedway on Saturday afternoon, Aric Almirola and Jeff Burton inherited the front row for the start of the Camping World RV Sales 500 based on their performances in Friday's practice sessions. However it only took ten laps for championship leader Matt Kenseth to work his way up from 12th place on the topsy-turvy grid and take the lead, laying down an early gauntlet for his rivals.

Not that Kenseth was able to keep the lead for a sustained spell - although the new Gen-6 cars had put an end to the loathed two-car drafting at restrictor plate events, it was still the case that when it came to competing at the 2.66-mile superspeedway, the draft was still everything - just that now it was best handled in pack formation like the good old days. There was still plenty of opportunity for two cars to link up and surge to the front, such as Greg Biffle and Joey Logano did for a spell with the help of team mates Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski; but equally there was the risk of dropping out of the draft and plummeting backwards in the blink of an eye until someone took pity and was kind enough to let the driver get back in line.

The first caution of the day came as early as lap 3 for oil on track from Tony Raines' expiring engine, but that was too early for a pit stop and so everyone stayed out. By the end of lap 40 the gas tanks were empty, but with no caution in prospect everyone came in for their first pit stops under green. There was bad news for Keselowski who was hit by a drive-thru penalty for speeding on pit lane; nor was it good for Kyle Busch, who overshot his pit stall and had to make another lap around the circuit to try again.

"You're supposed to come to pit road single file and I didn't," said Busch, explaining that he'd had to take evasive action to avoid running into the back of Jamie McMurray's #1 car. "When I did that it essentially blocked me out of my stall, so just had to go through the pits and try to come back around the next time and I think that's two or three years in a row we've done that here. It's not a surprise, but it'd be nice if we could not come down when everybody else is coming down and be so 'combobulated' and then have a clean pit road to enter on."

That put Busch as well as Keselowski at the back of the field and moreover out of touch with the pack, which meant that with every passing minute they were at increasing risk of going a lap down which finally happened some 20 laps later. Matt Kenseth was back out in front by this stage, but he was finding it harder and harder to hold off the Hendrick Motorsports pair of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson, who were clearly establishing themselves as the cream of the crop on Sunday afternoon and increasingly able to hoard the lead between them and shut out Kenseth and everyone else, come to that.

Not that everyone in the Hendrick stable was looking as strong: Kasey Kahne had dropped to the back and was now among those of his peers to have gone a lap down. Having Kahne as well as Keselowski around him made for an uncomfortable spell for Kyle Busch, who has has public spats with both drivers in the recent past with Keselowski publicly hinting that he would welcome a chance to spin Busch out of a race as a touch of payback for recent on-track incidents; Busch could ill afford that, as a poor finish this week would likely spell doom for his Cup title hopes. As it was, there was little that his Joe Gibbs Racing team mates could do: Denny Hamlin was dispatched to pair up with the #18 and do what it could to keep Busch in the position of first car a lap down - which would see him receive a free pass in the event of a caution - but it seemed like a remote possibility as the green flag run stretched to over 75 laps.

And then on lap 79, JGR's prayers were answered: Marcos Ambrose got loose and hit the side of Juan Pablo Montoya's #42, with Carl Edwards lucky not to run straight into the accident as well. Montoya's car was a wreck and he was out on the spot, and understandably not happy about it.

"We were running two-wide so it was comfortable," said Montoya afterwards. "We started running three-wide and the spotter told me 'get out' and I backed up going into the tri-oval. The next thing I know, I just saw out the corner of my eye somebody coming towards me and that was it."

That enabled Busch to get his lap back albeit still in 24th place, as the rest of the field also got a chance to make their first stop of the day under yellow which allowed a little extra time for any set-up changes required. Kenseth lost the battle with Johnson at the restart, and it was soon clear that there was now something very wrong with the #20 and that the car was loose and simply not handling as it had in the earlier stages of the race. It was all Kenseth could do to keep from wrecking, and he slid backwards through the pack at an alarming rate, ironically being passed on the way by his born-again team mate Kyle Busch who was making the most of his second chance and moving forward at a rate of knots.

"It was really bizarre," Kenseth admitted. "Typically, handling is a non-issue here [but] we just got so loose I couldn't even hang on to it. I pretty much had to run in the back for two runs which was disappointing."

The team made big changes to address the problem under the next green-flag pit stop on lap 122, and while Kenseth initially ran at the front again, he soon started to fall back and reported that his handling problems were still far from resolved. "Something is really bad here," he radioed the team. "It feels like the right rear is flat the whole run."

Jamie McMurray led for a single lap during this pit stop cycle, his first time out on front all afternoon. With his Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing team mate Montoya packed in the garage with a wrecked car, it seemed that getting a point for leading was likely to be the only bright point of the day. In total, 20 drivers led one lap or more during the race with 52 lead changes in total, but first among equals were the Hendricks duo of Johnson and Earnhardt who combined led for 85 of the 188 laps, with Johnson himself pocketing the additional bonus point for most laps led with 47.

A curious calm descended over the race as the leaders stretched out to a single-file formation everyone was waiting for something to happen, but instead the laps just kept ticking down. No one made a move, and there were no big multi-car wrecks to shake things up before the time came for a final round of pit stops with just over 25 laps remaining. It was a relief for Kenseth, whose crew had another shot at fixing what ailed the #20 and this time did a good enough job to allow Kenseth to go out there and compete - although there was now too little time remaining for him to work his way back to the front with the leaders resuming their stubborn adherence to the single line for the remainder of the race.

"After the last pit stop it drove good again. It drove fine that last pit stop," explained Kenseth. "I kind of got stuck three-wide on the bottom and then we actually hung in by the lead for a long time.

"When they got me shuffled back to the very bottom somebody went outside three-wide to make me on the bottom and just you're no good down there," he added. "So I fell back, got back up to 10th or 12th on the outside and then I thought everybody would mix it up at the end and try to make a race out of it, but everybody stayed up on the top and pedalled it. That was my bad. I guess I should have just been happy with 10th, but I just have a hard time doing that," he added after being squeezed down to 20th place by the finish.

Even though the tension mounted, the lack of any action breaking out among the leaders in the closing laps raised a lot of eyebrows, with many drivers mystified about just why so many of the leaders had been so reticent to chase the race win.

"There was nobody going anywhere that was behind us trying to make moves, so it didn't make any sense to go down there and try to make a move yourself and just fade to the back," said Busch, who had recovered to run in the top five after his near-death experience in the first half of the race. "It's monkey see, monkey do. If they go down or start moving up and start coming forward, then you've got to pull down and start making your move, but they all kept going backwards."

"Nobody really wanted to race there at the end when we needed everybody to race," echoed Keselowski, who unlike Busch never did get the caution he needed to get back on the lead lap. "Any time you would go to make a move when it is all single file like that you just go right to the back and it just doesn't work. That is what it was. I can only drive my car though.

"I tried really hard to work with Joey there at the end and went down to make some moves to try to get some kind of position on the track and all we did was go backwards," he added. "You are better off to just stay single file."

"That was a lot more conservative race than I think anyone ever thought," added Logano. "We all were racing pretty hard too. There were a few times when it looked like there was going to be a big crash and there never was. In the end though nobody wanted to go. I was back there trying to make a move to go forward again but once they all went single file up against the wall you are SOL back there.

"You try to do anything you can to move up and there were a few guys back there that wanted to go but the bottom lane doesn't work because of these big shark fins on the side that doesn't let any air on the spoiler," he explained. "It hurts the bottom lane so much. You aren't able to slow down the guy on the top because the fin blocks the air on the spoiler and you can't slow them down. That is why the bottom lane doesn't work and it is never going to work until they change that."

That should have allowed Earnhardt and Johnson to seal the deal for Hendrick and for one of them to claim the win - but it didn't happen. The final round of pit stops shuffled them back down the running order and split them up, leaving them having to make contingency plans to strike on the last lap.

"I had a plan we were going to get a run down the back straightaway me and the #14 and whoever else wanted to go," said Earnhardt. "They got together behind me getting into their quarter panels and we just never really got a chance to see what we could do. We had our run formed in the middle of one and two and we were coming off of two with pretty good steam when they spun out behind me."

This week, the #14 was in the hands of young Austin Dillon: Tony Stewart's car had been handed to Mark Martin for the remainder of the season after Stewart himself was sidelined by injury in August, but the veteran racer hates restrictor plate racing and so Dillon got the nod for this week's event. With less than a lap to go to the flag, Dillon took off: and we mean took off in the vertical sense, after making contact with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in the Roush Fenway Racing #17 sent him spinning.

"I was trying to go for the win there," said Dillon. The #17 had a little bit of a run with the #27 [Paul Menard] and I tried to go with him and came back across and hooked me."

"That last lap there I was trying to hang back, time it right where Paul and I could either kind of get a run on the #14 and go to the inside and see if we could make something happen," added Stenhouse. "I just didn't time it quite right, and us and the #14 met right there in the middle and caused a crash. I am bummed that we caused that."

The #14 spun across the line of traffic, and then Casey Mears arrived at the scene and made contact - hard. "I was like, 'This is going to be bad,'" Dillon said. "They were full steam [coming right toward me] and I was surprised as many of them [missed me.] When it hit, it just boom and there was nothing you could do. You were just kind of watching in the air and hoping the next guy don't hit you when you come down."

It might not have been the traditional multi-car 'Big One', but what it lacked in numbers in made up for in appalling spectacle as the #14 was flipped clean up into the air by the contact. The view was quite something, according to Dillon.

"It was pretty wild," he said. "I was watching cars just going underneath - it was just like the cool roller-coaster ride that you had an overview ... You know that camera that zooms over the start-finish line? That's what it felt like with craziness going under you."

Amazingly, not only wasn't Dillon hurt by his daring act with the flying stock car, he was even able to drive the wrecked car back to pit road - although he admitted over the team radio that there wasn't much left that would be usable in the future: "It was fun. I brought you the wheel back. That's about it."

The yellows were out immediately as NASCAR reacted to what initially looked like a worryingly serious accident and send out the medical and safety teams to attend to Dillon - happily unneeded as it turned out. But the yellow meant that anyone with any plans for a last-minute move was well and truly thwarted.

So who did that leave out in front? Following the final round of pit stops, Kyle Busch had claimed the top spot and initially fought off a challenge from Carl Edwards, but then with 15 laps to go to the finish Jamie McMurray had found himself in clear air wondering where everyone had gone. The answer was that they were behind him, and he liked the view so much that he kept it right up to the moment that the yellows for Dillon's accident froze the field and finished the race.

"It just seemed the top was the better place to get hung out than if you got hung out on the bottom, fortunately I was able to get myself in position," said McMurray in victory lane after the race, celebrating his first win in three years. He said he'd been aware of Earnhardt preparing for a last lap strike with the help of Dillon and Menard, and that he didn't know if he'd have been able to repel the assault if it has actually come off.

"You just have to make your car as wide as you can," he said. "Quite honestly, I don't know what I was going to do. With ten laps left to go I kind of thought that it wasn't reality yet, then with five to go I could tell he [Earnhardt] was being patient. Then when they could never get the bottom line to form I knew it was going to come down to the first three or four cars. It's unfortunate that the caution came out, but for me - I don't know how I was going to defend that."

Earnhardt finished in second place just ahead of Stenhouse and Menard, with Kyle Busch in fifth position ahead of Front Row Motorsports duo David Ragan and David Gilliland - who last time at Talladega in May had pulled off a shock one-two victory with Ragan clinching the win. This might not have been a repeat success of the same magnitude, but it showed that the spring race was no fluke.

"We set out what we wanted to do with our SaferCar.gov Ford," said Ragan. "We had a chance to win the race, took the white flag in seventh or eighth and kind of had a good plan but the caution came out. So we got a top 10 finish and that's a good thing for our Front Row Motorsports team."

Martin Truex Jr. finished in eighth ahead of half a dozen Chase contenders that included Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer, Greg Biffle, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon.

"We had a great race car and lead a lot of the race," said Johnson. "At the end there the #1 decided to run the top and took the bulk of cars with him. As that happened the middle lane that I was in quickly became the bottom lane and then quickly didn't exist.

"I dropped like a rock for a while and was able to get in the outside lane and start making some spots back and fortunately missed the big pile up on the back stretch," he added. "13th isn't the best finish, but with what we are trying to do and win a championship we beat the competition today and that is good."

With Kenseth finishing seven positions behind him, and with the help of that most laps led bonus point, Johnson inverts the positions at the top of the Chase standings and exits Talladega with a four point lead over Kenseth; behind the pair, Busch and Harvick share third place 29 points behind the new championship leader.

"It was just an incredibly disappointing day," said Kenseth, although he insisted that losing the points lead was of small importance. "I don't think it will affect my team. I think I have one of the greatest teams out here obviously and I feel like we can go everywhere else, and honestly we can race with anybody when we're at our best. Hopefully, we'll be at our best the next four weeks and we'll give them a run for their money."

"I feel that the races forward now are up to where the competitors go earn it," was Johnson's view. " You don't have this luck issue that can take place at plate tracks.

"I am happy to have the points lead and we went through a lot of work to get there. We were just getting one point at a time and we got a few more than normal today and were able to get the lead," he added. "We just go racing from here and that is the thing I am most excited for. Great race tracks, great race cars and it's just going to be a dogfight to the end."

In other words, Johnson - like everyone else in the Cup field - is mighty relieved that Talladega is in the books and out of the way for another Chase campaign. Perhaps that wariness about the king of superspeedway is why everyone was so cautious this weekend and why so relatively little happened and why the drivers held back until the last minute, preferring to put finishing ahead of a rash bid for glory.

Certainly Jamie McMurray wasn't complaining as he rejoiced at the end of a 109 winless streak in the Cup series, and it came at the end of a great weekend for the extended Ganassi organisation after Scott Dixon had claimed the IZOD IndyCar Series championship title for the squad the night before in California.

"It's important for the whole organization, Chip obviously winning the championship on the IndyCar side," said McMurray. "Winning, it's not just about me, it's about everybody within our whole group. Probably more so the #1 guys because they're the ones that are in victory lane, but it's so cool to see their faces in victory lane and know that when we go to Martinsville, you have confidence, everybody does.

"It's so big for us because Martinsville ‑ to me plate tracks are probably my best tracks, and Martinsville is probably my next best. I love getting to go there." Which he will be in just seven days time, as the seventh race of the Chase gets underway on Sunday afternoon on October 27.


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