Given that he was the leader on the last lap, it looked very unlikely that Brad Keselowski would be able to repeat his famous Talladega victory from 2009, achieved by wrecking Carl Edwards on the run to the flag. But on this occasion, conventional wisdom didn't prevail and Kyle Busch was unable to make the decisive pass which would have given him his second win in succession. As it was, Keselowski made it to victory lane for the second time this season, with Busch forced to settle for second.
“I had this whole plan if I ever got in that situation where I was leading,” the driver of the Blue Deuce said. “I thought about it and thought about it – dreamed about what to do – and sure enough, going into (Turn) 3, it was just me and Busch. And I knew the move I wanted to pull.
“I went into Turn 3 high and pulled down off of Kyle and broke the tandem up. That allowed me to drive untouched to the checkered flag. It wasn’t easy to convince myself to do that, but it was the right move. I’m glad it worked.”
Combined with his win earlier this year at Bristol, Keselowski is now a shoe-in for the Chase through the wildcard system – even if by some miracle he fails to make the automatic top-10 qualification spots. Team-owner Roger Penske, who has never won the elite NASCAR championship as an owner despite his multiple successes in Indycar, now believes Keselowski is in with a shot at the title.
“He’s been a tremendous asset to the team,” said Penske. “You can see when he comes in the shop, he’s spending a lot of time. I wouldn’t trade him for anybody right now. He’s the real package. What we’re trying to do is give him everything we can to make him a winner.
“Obviously, one of the goals in my life is to sit up on that (Awards Banquet) stage in New York or Las Vegas, and I think he’s the guy that can make it happen this year hopefully.”
The same could be said of Busch, who has impressed with his maturity this year after a fraught 2011 season saw him deliberately wreck Ron Hornaday at Texas and finish rock bottom in the Chase. Crew-chef Dave Rogers has certainly noted a change in his driver, who unlike last year has not allowed the pressure of bad results to get him down.
“I’m really proud of Kyle for keeping us in the hunt all race, and keeping the car clean. There’s not a scratch on it,” Rogers said.
“I don’t think we were as racy as our fans are used to seeing Kyle race, but that’s just what you have to do. With the hole in the nose as small as it is, you can’t get out there and be aggressive. You saw several times guys would get up there and get aggressive and then have to fall to the back [to cool their engines].
“Kyle did a really good job of keeping us mid-pack or so and moving slowly forward, keeping our temps down and saving our motor for the very end.”
Even so, loosing the win was a bitter pill to swallow for Busch; especially considering the manner he lost the Nationwide race on Saturday. At the final restart, Busch had pulled away from Joe Nemecheck and Austin Dillon, and appeared to have the measure of drafting partners Cole Whitt and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. However Busch was unable to shake loose Joey Logano in the no. 18 Gamestop Toyota, who executed a perfect pass on the run to the flag to steal victory from under the nose of the Monster Energy Kyle Busch Motorsports no. 54. His failure to replicate Logano's move on Keselowski in Cup clearly upset Busch after the race.
“Unfortunately, I must have screwed something up, because we got to Turn 3 and came unhooked,” Busch said. “We just gave the win away there. I’m not sure exactly what happened. We definitely need to go back and figure out what it was.
“I got unhooked. I hated that happened. I thought we had a shot to win that thing. All day the car was up front. I can’t say enough about these guys [on the No. 18 team] and Joe Gibbs Racing. Everything they did with this M&M’s Camry, it was fun to drive.”
After their strong form at Daytona in February, Roush-Fenway Racing were expected to contend at the Alabama superspeedway, and duly led away at the final restart on lap 193, with current points-leader Greg Biffle pushing the eventual Daytona winner Matt Kenseth. But whereas the pack proved unable to catch them under the lights in Florida, here they jumped too early, and like in a cycle race, the peloton quickly caught up to the breakaway and overhauled them. Kenseth would eventually recover to third, ahead of Kasey Kahne and Biffle.
“I think we had the winning car, we just didn't have the winning driver,” Kenseth said. “That last restart Greg and I got together like we did at Daytona and Greg was really pushing me fast. We got in front of the 2 [Keselowski] and Kyle and as soon as we became clear it wasn't long after that that I looked back and we were separated and those guys were outside of him.
“With nobody behind him he lost his speed and with me not paying enough attention during that to keep us hooked up it cost us a shot at the win, it cost Greg a shot at the win. I didn't do a good job of managing that they way he was.”
There were the usual obligatory pileups at Talladega, although none of the ferocity seen in the Nationwide race, which saw Eric McClure admitted to hospital. The first multi-car wreck occurred on lap 142, when Aric Almirola suddenly slowed, causing a chain-reaction behind as Edwards hooked Dave Blaney into Juan Pablo Montoya, leaving Landon Cassill, Logano and Terry Labonte with nowhere to go. Martin Truex Jr. almost made it through, but clipped Cassill and ricocheted into Jeff Gordon, sending the no.24 hard into the fence, and meaning Hendrick Motorsports' 200th victory celebrations will have to go on ice for another week at least.
“This is just one of the most bizarre years that this Dupont Chevrolet and Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet has ever gone through,” Gordon said. “I mean, it’s almost comical at this point.
“That was not fun. I didn’t like hitting the wall, but gosh, I thought I was clear. I was just kind of cruising by on the inside. It looked to me like somebody came down and got Martin [Truex Jr.], and that turned him into me. That’s just the way our season’s been going.”
“I think there were some cars running out of fuel,” concluded Cassill. “It's just a matter of time before they gather up a bunch of other cars. It's just what happens — it's the nature of the beast. You can benefit a lot from stuff like that and it can hurt you.
“Our car was pretty good,” the BK Racing man continued. “We seemed to run in the top-15 all day. We would have got a good finish out of it. It was going to get pretty wild there at the end.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was tipped by many to end his long winless streak at the Dega, the scene of his late father's 76th and final victory in 2000, when 'The Intimidator' picked up 17 spots in the last four laps to win. Despite spells at the front, it was a miracle that Earnhardt even made it to the finish, as he came within a whisker of T-boning Paul Menard on lap 184 after AJ Allmendinger instigated 'the big one.' Within a few seconds of the restart and with the pack at its most confined, Allmendinger attempted to block the Joe Gibbs Racing no.11 of Denny Hamlin, but only succeeded in spinning Menard's no. 27 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet broadside across the track. In his attempts to avoid Menard, Hamlin tangled with reigning champion Tony Stewart, who in turn was collected by the lapped car of Robert Richardson Jr.
“You have to give guys room,” Hamlin said pointedly at Allmendinger.
Also caught up in the mess were the returning Michael Waltrip and Kevin Harvick, the former having led 21 laps in his first appearance since Talladega last fall.
“We took off and the guy in front of me didn't go, I let off and I got clobbered, it's just chain reaction,” Waltrip said.
“I tell you I had a ball. I'm just really happy I got to experience it, was hoping for a better finish but I enjoyed myself.”
Clint Bowyer, David Ragan, Trevor Bayne, Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Burton rounded out the top 10. Ragan had looked like he could spring a surprise late on for Front Row Motorsports restarting sixth, but missed the golden opportunity to link up with fellow Ford man Marcos Ambrose at the restart. Nevertheless, sixth was the best result of the season for the Georgian, who despite winning at Daytona last July, was dumped by Roush when sponsorship failed to materialise, and served as a timely reminder of his talent.
“Good day for our @FrontRowNASCAR team. Nice to dodge the wrecks and have a solid run. We will work on this car and be faster in Daytona,” Ragan posted on Twitter.
While Ragan was elated, a frustrated Ambrose would plummet to fourteenth with no help on the outside groove.
“What a tough break, I chose what turned out to be the wrong lane on that final restart and we just drifted back in the pack,” the Tasmanian said. “I had been running the top groove all day, but once I got up in the high line on that last restart, I just lost the draft and there weren't enough laps for me to make it back to the front. We had a top-five car and it's a shame we weren't able to bring it home up front.”
One of the developing stories of the race was the form of Kurt Busch, whose homage to Ricky Bobby from the Will Ferrell movie Talladega Nights had looked set for a handsome reward. Busch, whose sponsor-less no.51 Phoenix Racing Chevrolet featured a special Ricky Bobby paint scheme, had been running second before he was spun out by Keselowski on lap 181.
“It was a good effort all day by the team,” said the elder Busch. “We were in position up front and where we needed to be. The 2 car (Keselowski) just got into us a little too hard there. I was going to change lanes and I’m sure he didn’t realize it. It’s pretty disappointing to come to one of the places we have circled on the schedule, run well all day and have it end like this but that’s part of it.”
The race was marred by several cases of the engine overheating, with Regan Smith blowing up as early as lap 16. After being eliminated in the early crash, Gordon was very outspoken about the need to address the cooling problems, an unfortunate side-effect of the new regulations designed to make tandem drafting obsolete.
“I think that we all knew coming in here that the opening on the grill and some of the things were probably not sufficient,” said Gordon.
“I think that would be nice next time we come back here to have a little concession for Talladega. In July, I don’t know what we are going to do in Daytona in July. There is just that fine line between getting the temperatures right and not being able to push.
“To me right now we are teetering on the side of having to be just a little too conservative. I’d like to be up there taking it three-wide, pushing cars and making some good exciting moves because I know we have a car that can be up front, but it’s just too risky at this point in the race.”
As ever, Stewart also had an opinion, although his sarcastic tone may get him in trouble with NASCAR.
“The racing was awesome,” said Stewart. “It’s fun to be able to race and have to watch the (temperature) gauges at the same time. It makes us as drivers have to do so much more. Being able to make yourself run on the apron and everything else to try to get clean air, it makes it fun.”
“I’m upset that we didn’t crash more cars,” he continued. “I feel like that’s what we’re here for. I feel bad if I don’t spend at least $150,000 in tore-up race cars going back to the shop so we definitely got to do a better job with that.
“I had a blast. It would have been a lot more fun if I could have got caught up in one more wreck. If I could have done that, it would have been perfect.”