21 October 2013
McMurray wins as Dillon takes off at 'Dega
Talladega can be the wild card of the Chase, but this year none of the frontrunners suffered a major knockout blow - even if it was still not the race that either Jimmie Johnson or Matt Kenseth had hoped for.
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.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
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