Five things to watch in Sunday’s Sprint Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway

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TALLADEGA, Ala. – David Ragan’s uniquely eventful season could take its most interesting turn yet Sunday.

Ragan will close out his nine-race stint in place of injured Kyle Busch in Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 18 Toyota with Sunday’s Geico 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, and it’s prompted some curiosity about a scenario that Ragan already has experienced at the 2.66-mile oval known for unexpected endings and bizarre twists.

What if Ragan, who conquered Talladega in 2013, wins in his final start for JGR before moving to Michael Waltrip Racing’s No. 55 Toyota to finish out the 2015 season?

Start with the obvious – Ragan would become eligible for a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, regardless of whose car he is piloting. Though his MWR team technically wouldn’t be in the Chase (unless he were to win in that car), it still would reap the PR benefits of having a driver compete for a championship in one of its Camrys.

But so would JGR.

A win for the No. 18 by Ragan would catapult the car into the owner’s championship, creating the possibility for the first split driver-owners title in NASCAR’s premier series since 1963. In that season, Joe Weatherly won his final driver title, and Wood Brothers Racing took the owners championship.

There has been only one other split title in Cup – Lee Petty (driver) and Herb Thomas (owner) finished the 1954 season as respective champions – but it’s been a common occurrence in the Xfinity Series, where JGR and Team Penske rotate drivers through top-caliber cars and Sprint Cup drivers can’t earn points. The past three seasons have featured split driver-owner champions on the Xfinity circuit.

Since the inception of the Chase in 2004, the field for the playoff (which started at 10 drivers, expanded to 12 in 2007 and grew to 16 last year) has featured no deviation between the eligible contenders and the cars they drive full time. The drivers competing for the title are mirrored by their teams vying for the owners championships.

But there always has been the possibility of “parallel” Chases for the driver and owner championship in which a driver might be racing for a title even though the car isn’t eligible.

And it’s more than semantics. There are millions at stake for each share of the championship. The championship driver and team roughly split the point fund money doled out by NASCAR and Sprint for winning the title. Last year, Kevin Harvick received a bonus check for nearly $5 million, bringing his total season winnings to $12.7 million.

When Chase Elliott won the Xfinity title last season, he picked up a bonus of nearly $1 million, and Team Penske (whose No. 22 Ford won the owners championship) earned a similar haul in bonus money.

In a season that perhaps has become best known for a spinning carousel of replacements for drivers sidelined by injuries and suspensions, it would seem fitting to have Ragan win before he hops into his third car in three months.

The Unadilla, Ga., native probably has a better shot at it than when delivered Front Row Motorsports’ underfunded No. 34 Ford to victory lane here in May 2013. That was the second of Ragan’s two career Sprint Cup wins at restrictor-plate tracks (he also won at Daytona International Speedway in July 2011), and he seems confident again.

“Man, I feel great,” he said after qualifying ninth Saturday. “I feel like we’ve got a car that can win this race. There are obviously a lot of really good cars, a lot of really good drivers, but at the end of the day, we’ve just got to execute. We’ve got to be perfect on pit road – no mistakes –and just have to be in contention.”

Other storylines to watch Sunday:

Strange bedfellows: Alliances often used to determine the outcome of restrictor-plate races before they even began as drivers, teams and manufacturers made deals to work together exclusively in the draft.

But that’s faded over the past two years with the Gen 6 car, which doesn’t allow partnerships so easily because it’s more difficult to maneuver.

The latest proof was Matt Kenseth pushing rival Brad Keselowski to a victory last October. After shoving Keselowski after the race a week earlier at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Kenseth would have preferred to help any other driver, but he said he had no choice – which has become common.

“It was so much easier to pass guys in the past and team up with people and make things happen, so you could pick and choose,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said Saturday. “You could say, ‘I don’t want to work with that guy. He’s going somewhere, but oh, he’s a Ford. I’m going to get over here with this Chevy, and we’re going to team-up and I’ll see him later. In another lap or two, we’ll go by him’. Today, you’ve got to take whatever you can get. Every significant run is so rare, that you might not like the guy, but you’ve got to do it and help people you don’t want to help.

“It’s difficult because a lot of times you’re helping people get by people you like, or your teammates, even. But you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do because these opportunities are few. You’ve got to be in the top three all day long to expect to be in the top three at the end when it counts. If you get shuffled out, it’s so hard to pass these people with this kind of car. So, we sit there in two lines: the bottom and the middle, and you aren’t going to jump out there by yourself and go around them. So, you’ve sort of got to sit there in line and hopefully some dummy pulls out, and he gets shuffled back. Hopefully, that happens a lot, and you end up toward the front.”

Big Mac: It’s hard to call Jamie McMurray a dark horse considering that four of his seven victories in Sprint Cup have occurred on plate tracks. But as the lesser heralded driver at Chip Ganassi Racing (Kyle Larson was the consensus preseason pick as 2015’s breakthrough star), McMurray quietly is putting together one of the best seasons of his career. A fourth last week at Richmond International Raceway (on a gamble by rookie crew chief Matt McCall) was McMurray’s fourth top 10, which has him a solid ninth in the points standings.

Though he will start 27th Sunday, McMurray has been strong at Talladega since making his Sprint Cup debut here in October 2002 (in place of injured Sterling Marlin), and he is less than two years removed from his last win at the 2.66-mile oval (in October 2013). A win would qualify McMurray for the Chase for the Sprint Cup, one of the only voids on a resume that includes victories in the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400.

Dynamic duo: The past two plate races have been won by the Team Penske Fords of Keselowski and Joey Logano, who opened 2015 with a win in the Daytona 500. It isn’t by accident as Earnhardt and others have taken note of the prowess of the Penske drivers. Just as he did over 500 miles at Daytona International Speedway, Logano won Saturday’s Xfinity race at Talladega by making every right move in a 200-mph chess match where a mistake can drop a driver from first to 30th.

Faster horses: Hendrick Motorsports engines claimed five of the top six spots in qualifying, including a stunning gap of 0.3 seconds from pole-sitter Jeff Gordon to Hendrick teammate Kasey Kahne. Though NASCAR essentially equalizes what’s under the hood at a plate race, a significant edge can magnify the margin over the competition.

In his most impressive of six wins at Talladega, Gordon paced 139 of 194 laps and credited the engine for his dominance in the May 2005 race, in which he drove a Star Wars-sponsored Chevrolet. A decade later, a sequel could be brewing.

Matt DiBenedetto wins NASCAR Truck race at Talladega

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Matt DiBenedetto won Saturday’s 250-mile NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at Talladega Superspeedway on a day pockmarked by numerous accidents, including a major one at the finish.

As the field swept to the finish line in overtime, a multi-car crash developed as Corey Heim lost control of his truck in the trioval. Several trucks crashed approaching the finish as the caution flag flew.

NASCAR officials studied video of the final lap to determine that DiBenedetto was in front when the caution lights were turned on, although Bret Holmes appeared to beat him to the finish line by inches. When caution lights appear, the field is frozen at that point, so any position changes after the caution are irrelevant.

MORE: Talladega Truck results

MORE: Talladega Truck driver points

The last lap was the only one led by DiBenedetto, who has been racing in NASCAR national series since 2009 but scored his first win.

Following DiBenedetto, a non-playoff driver, at the finish were Ben Rhodes, Holmes, Ryan Preece and Christian Eckes.

With one race remaining in the Round of 8, Ty Majeski has locked in a spot in the final four at Phoenix. Chandler Smith, Zane Smith and Rhodes are above the cutline. Below the line are Stewart Friesen, Eckes, John Hunter Nemechek and Grant Enfinger.

MORE: Denny Hamlin says NASCAR needs leadership changes

A string of accidents left only two playoff drivers — Eckes and Rhodes — in the top 10 with 10 laps remaining.

Carson Hocevar dropped out of the lead group with five laps to go when he lost a tire, prompting a caution flag and pushing the race into overtime.

The race was marred by a fiery crash in the early going as Jordan Anderson‘s truck exploded in flames while running in the top five in a tight draft.

Anderson steered the truck to the inside as flames fired up on both sides of the vehicle. The truck crashed into the inside wall even as Anderson climbed from the driver-side window. He was transported to an area hospital.

On Lap 35, Lawless Alan hit the wall hard after his right front tire blew. He was evaluated and released from the infield medical center.

Another dangerous situation developed on Lap 63 as numerous trucks pitted at the same time under green. As Hailie Deegan attempted to stop in her pit, one of the crew members lost control of a tire, and it rolled into traffic and onto the grass area separating pit road from the track. A Deegan crew member chased down the tire in the grass and later was ejected from the track by NASCAR officials for a safety violation.

On Lap 79, Enfinger’s truck blew a tire and slammed the wall, starting a crash that collected Tanner Gray, Johnny Sauter and Austin Wayne Self.

Stage 1 winner: John Hunter Nemechek

Stage 2 winner: Chandler Smith

Who had a good race: Matt DiBenedetto had been waiting a very long time for this winning moment. … Alabama driver Bret Holmes almost won in front of the home crowd. He finished third.

Who had a bad race: Jordan Anderson had one of the most frightening crashes of the season, bailing out of his flaming truck after it caught fire in the middle of a pack of drafting trucks. … Playoff drivers John Hunter Nemechek (finished 24th) and Grant Enfinger (29th) had rough outings.

Next: The Truck Series is off for three weeks before racing at Homestead-Miami Speedway Oct. 22. The series’ final race is scheduled Nov. 4 at Phoenix Raceway.

 

Denny Hamlin calls out NASCAR leadership for Next Gen concerns

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — Denny Hamlin cites “bad leadership” from NASCAR for creating a car that he says needs to be redesigned after two drivers have suffered concussion-like symptoms in crashes this year.

Hamlin and Kevin Harvick have been most outspoken about the safety of the car this year. Chase Elliott spoke up Saturday about how “disappointed” he is “that we put ourselves in the box that we’re in.” 

Hamlin said other drivers must join them in being heard.

“I know a lot of young guys are just happy to be here, but they ain’t going to be happy when their brains are scrambled for the rest of their lives,” Hamlin said Saturday at Talladega Superspeedway.

NASCAR had not offered a response to Hamlin’s comments as of Saturday afternoon.

Driver frustrations with the Next Gen car continue to grow, as Alex Bowman became the second driver to be forced to miss at least a race for concussion-like symptoms. 

Bowman crashed last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway and experienced headaches and other symptoms of a concussion earlier this week, according to Hendrick Motorsports President Jeff Andrews. 

Bowman went to a doctor on Thursday and the team announced that day Bowman would not race Sunday. No timetable for his return has been announced. Noah Gragson will drive Bowman’s car Sunday.

Kurt Busch, who drives for Hamlin’s 23XI Racing, continues to be out because of a head injury he suffered after he crashed July 23 at Pocono Raceway. Busch said this week that he is “hopeful” of racing this season.

Hamlin unleashed a torrent of criticisms Saturday about the car and series officials for an issue he said drivers brought up more than a year ago.

Asked how the sport got to this point with the car, Hamlin said: “Bad leadership.”

Asked how to avoid the same thing from happening, Hamlin said: “New leadership.”

As for the changes that need to be made in NASCAR leadership, Hamlin said: “I don’t know. You can start at the top and work your way down.”

NASCAR has a crash test scheduled next week on the rear clip and rear bumper of the car. That’s an improvement that could be made to the car for next season. A complaint about the car is how stiff the rear is and how rear-end impacts have felt more violent to drivers this season. The crash test is the first since a full car crash test last December. 

For Hamlin, the rear is only a start to what needs to be done to the car.

“The car needs to be redesigned,” Hamlin said. “It needs a full redesign. It can still be called Next Gen, but it needs to be redesigned.

“It needs to be redesigned everywhere. Front, middle, rear, competition, the whole thing needs to be redesigned. We’ve got a tough Martinsville race coming up. It’s going to be tough. This thing is just going to get exposed about how bad it races. That’s just a part of it. Competition and safety, we’d like to have it all better, but certainly we just took a step back in safety and competition this year.”

Hamlin also knows it’s too late for a redesign for next year.

“If I were to run this and say, ‘All right, we’re going to have a new car,’ we’d already be done with testing right now for next year’s car,” Hamlin said. “We haven’t even begun. We’re just way too behind. This whole sport is behind.”

But Hamlin said it was “feasible” for NASCAR to do a redesign of the car.

“It’s just (that) NASCAR has to concede that they’re not capable and let the teams do it,” he said.

That’s not likely. NASCAR has a contract with the suppliers of each part and those deals, while they can be broken under certain circumstances, are multi-year deals. 

Hamlin said drivers brought up concerns about the car last year. There had been concerns about the car and how hard the impact felt after William Byron’s crash in testing at Auto Club Speedway in March 2020.

“We actually, as the drivers, didn’t do that docu-series last year because we didn’t feel comfortable with this Next Gen car and the lack of the safety testing that had been done before they started announcing that they were going to run it,” Hamlin said. “We threw up red flags over a year ago and they just didn’t respond. They just kept pushing this car has got to be on the track at all cost. At all cost.”

In an interview last month, John Probst, NASCAR senior vice president of Racing Innovation, told NBC Sports that he feels one misunderstanding with the car is the collaboration between NASCAR, teams and manufacturers.

“I think that sometimes when you read the driver quotes and the team feedback, crew chiefs are posting things on Twitter, it creates the sense of NASCAR vs. them vs. the world,” Probst said. 

“Really, it isn’t like that. I wish people could see how well we actually do work with the engineers on these teams, sorting through the problems.

“I feel like we work hand-in-hand with them, but a lot of times when it gets to the public eye, for whatever reason, or if it’s in the heat of the moment, it comes across as though ‘NASCAR is making us do this,’ or ‘This is the dumbest thing ever,’ but I think, in reality, that is so far from the truth.”

Jordan Anderson in fiery crash in Talladega Truck race

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NASCAR Camping World Truck Series driver Jordan Anderson was airlifted to an area hospital after being involved in a fiery crash during Saturday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway.

Anderson’s car caught fire in the middle of a pack of drafting trucks. Flames burst from three areas around the truck as Anderson tried to slow the vehicle and move onto the track apron. The truck hit the inside wall. Anderson climbed from the vehicle in a cloud of smoke as it came to a stop.

Anderson, 31 and a resident of Forest Acres, S.C., was transported to the infield medical center before being airlifted. NASCAR confirmed Anderson’s trip to the hospital.

Fox Sports reported that a team member said Anderson had burns.

Anderson is a part-time driver in the Truck Series. He has a top finish of 14th this season.

Starting lineup for Talladega Cup race: Christopher Bell wins pole

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Six playoff drivers will start in the top 10 for Sunday’s 500-mile NASCAR Cup Series playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway.

Christopher Bell won the pole for the race Saturday with a speed of 180.591 miles per hour. He was followed by Kyle Larson, Denny Hamlin, Aric Almirola and Chase Briscoe.

MORE: Talladega Cup starting lineup

MORE: Talladega Cup qualifying results

Playoff drivers starting in the top 10 are Bell, Larson, Hamlin, Briscoe, Ross Chastain (sixth) and William Byron (ninth).

Noah Gragson, who qualified seventh, is replacing Alex Bowman, who is sitting out the race with concussion-like symptoms.

Ryan Blaney, starting 19th, is the lowest playoff driver on the starting grid.