Friday 5: How to race teammates at Talladega is question with no clear answer

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Ryan Blaney eased up the track to block the charging car as the Cup field came to the checkered flag last June at Talladega Superspeedway.

When that car behind dived low, Blaney, who was leading, cut down two lanes to stop its rush on the frontstretch.

The trailing car then moved alongside Blaney’s No. 12 Ford. Blaney drifted up the track to side draft but made contact, sending the car into the wall within sight of the finish line. Blaney won the race.

The car Blaney dueled with was that of Erik Jones, who was driving for Joe Gibbs Racing at the time.

But what would Blaney have done if that had been one of his Team Penske teammates?

“That’s a good question,” Blaney said.

The question has become more relevant as the series heads to Talladega Superspeedway for Sunday’s race (2 p.m. ET on Fox).

Teammates could play a key for Team Penske this weekend. The organization has won eight of the last 13 Talladega races. Blaney has two wins, Brad Keselowski three and Joey Logano three in that stretch. Although Keselowski’s last Talladega victory came in 2017, his five career wins there are the most among active drivers.

Talladega also marks the first superspeedway race since the Daytona 500, which saw Logano and Keselowski wreck as they raced for the lead on the final lap. The incident cost Team Penske a chance to win and destroyed three cars (Austin Cindric also was collected in the fiery eight-car crash).

Car owner Roger Penske talked to Keselowski and Logano individually about that incident afterward and spoke with his four drivers (Keselowski, Logano, Blaney and Matt DiBenedetto of Wood Brothers Racing) this week to avoid a repeat of the Daytona 500 finish.

Keselowski said that Penske “talked through some different scenarios. I don’t think there’s any perfect answers, but there is good spirit, and I’m looking forward to this weekend.”

Still, Blaney can’t say if he would race his teammates much differently than he did Jones last year in a similar scenario.

“Until you’re in that situation, you don’t really know what you’re going to do and what the circumstances are,” Blaney said. “The deal with me and (Jones) last year, yeah, we made contact coming to the line. Trying to side draft and making contact and just a wild end of the race.

“I don’t know. I don’t know if that is (a teammate), I don’t know what I do. You’re trying just to block any lane you can. That’s a tough one.”

A common philosophy among teammates at Daytona and Talladega is that they try to help each other until the final laps and then focus on winning.

“Everybody has their own definition,” Keselowski said of how to race teammates. “I know it’s not fun for anyone at Team Penske to have two cars, first and second and another one (13th at the time of the crash), so three cars in the top (15) in the biggest race of the year, and all three of them come back on a hook. That’s probably not what anybody would say is acceptable, but I think there is a spirit of ‘Hey, we should all be trying to win the race for sure.’ ”

Asked if nothing changes, Keselowski said: “I don’t think so, but I don’t know if I have a great answer to that.”

2. Looking ahead, not back

The last time Cup raced at Talladega, Matt DiBenedetto led on the final lap but crossed the finish line second, again just coming short of his first career series win.

NASCAR penalized DiBenedetto after the race for forcing William Byron below the yellow line on that final lap. DiBenedetto was dropped to 21st in the results. He was placed ahead of Chris Buescher, who was penalized for forcing Chase Elliott below the yellow line on the last lap. DiBenedetto and Buescher were the last two cars scored on the lead lap.

As NASCAR returns to Talladega and DiBenedetto has had time to reflect on that finish, is it time for the yellow line rule to go away?

“You would think I would be strongly opinionated about it, but honestly, I am not,” DiBenedetto said. “I don’t know that there is a perfect solution. It is a tough call, a tough situation.

“If you say ‘Screw the yellow line’ and run wherever, you may encounter other problems where people are way down the apron and it is just wild and makes the racing worse. I don’t really have a solution or a good answer. It is just kind of part of it and those are the rules. We just have to be aware of it.

“That was the risk I took last year when I went to make that block. It was a split-second (move), less than a quarter of a car length too late, and I got penalized. It is out of my control, and it just was what it was.”

NBC Sports analysts Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Dale Jarrett both said after last year’s race that NASCAR should abolish the penalty for going below the yellow line.

“Nobody really wants to see the races come down to these types of decisions,” Earnhardt said then. “I don’t think it’s going to crash more cars than we crashed today.

“It’s kind of frustrating to have to make the decisions. I know NASCAR doesn’t want to be put in this position, so let’s just get rid of it from here on out. Just let these guys race it out, at least in the last few laps. 

Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, said after the race that the rule won’t be changed.

“I mean, outside of putting a wall there, I don’t really know what more we can do,” he said. “I do sincerely believe we need the rule. You see all the real estate that’s around here. If we started having cars running 12 wide down the back straightaway, imagine what would happen when you get to Turn 3.

“I think it’s important that we continue to have a rule. You get out there in the heat of battle, things happen. It’s hard when there’s all that real estate down there, but you just can’t do it. I don’t think that we can eliminate it. I think it would be a mess. We kind of are where we are.”

3. Another rule to examine

One of the differences between the Xfinity and Cup race at Daytona and Talladega is that Xfinity drivers are warned not to lock bumpers in pushing another car. There is no such restriction in Cup.

But is it time to do away with the rule in the Xfinity Series? Would it be better to take that decision away from series officials — who penalize the car doing the pushing and the car being pushed — and not worry about the rule?

Daniel Hemric says there are legitimate reasons to have the rule.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” said the driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota in the Xfinity Series. “I can tell you from the driver’s seat on the Xfinity side, the cars cannot physically get to one another’s back bumpers as easily as you can in the Cup cars. The bubble seems way bigger in the Xfinity cars, so one, having a car that will even allow you to do it is tough. Then you can work really hard to get your car to do it through practice – which obviously we don’t have – and you can get those big runs and be able to get closer for sure.

“It propels energy forward. It can move a lane forward better, but then you run into the point where you have guys that can bust that bubble – well, if he’s shoving that guy forward, and (the driver being shoved has) to lift because he doesn’t want to hit the guy in front of him and get in trouble, then you see an accordion effect. That’s what happens when you see a guy get turned in the pack and crash.

“There’s that side of it, and then there’s the pure fact with the ride heights of these cars, obviously, everyone’s splitters are on the ground when we start the race. With the ride heights, the backs are so high and the fronts are so low that when you get to another guy, as soon as you do touch them, a lot of times it’s just shooting the back of his car up. So the ride heights are a thing that for sure makes it tough for the Xfinity cars, even when you break that bubble, to line up correctly.

4. Comparing to Cup drivers

Harrison Burton has run against Cup drivers in the Xfinity Series, can examine their data and study video of what makes them successful. So he has an idea of what to expect in his Cup debut Sunday at Talladega for Gaunt Brothers Racing.

Still, there are some things that the 20-year-old son of NBC Sports analyst Jeff Burton can only discover by racing against those drivers in a Cup race.

“I think the biggest thing that I want to try and take away from this isn’t analytical, it’s more decision-making based,” Harrison Burton said. “You look at guys. They decide to be aggressive at times, and they decide not to be at times.

“Sometimes, you think they have like a sixth sense. They know when the wreck is going to happen. Denny Hamlin is huge in that, (superspeedway) racing in particular. He knows when things are going to happen. He pulls out of the pack and they wreck. Then he’s racing for the win again. It’s crazy.”

Hamlin won last year’s Cup playoff race at Talladega. He has placed in the top five in the last six races at Daytona and Talladega. That ties Dale Earnhardt, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart and Cale Yarborough for the most consecutive top-five finishes on a superspeedway in Cup history.

Harrison Burton finished third at Daytona to open the Xfinity season, giving him top-five finishes in all three series starts there. He has not finished in the top 20 in a pair of Xfinity starts at Talladega.

5. Leader of the pack

After a quarter of the season, here is a look at how Cup teams rank in laps led:

1,108 – Joe Gibbs Racing (Denny Hamlin team leader at 694)

652 – Team Penske (Joey Logano team leader at 314)

601 – Hendrick Motorsports (Kyle Larson team leader at 379)

74 – Trackhouse Racing (Daniel Suarez team leader at 74)

57 – Roush Fenway Racing (Chris Buescher team leader at 57)

30 – 23XI Racing (Bubba Wallace team leader at 30)

18 – Stewart-Haas Racing (Kevin Harvick team leader at 17)

15 – Richard Childress Racing (Austin Dillon team leader at 8)

12 – Spire Motorsports (Corey LaJoie team leader at 12)

12 – Kaulig Racing (Kaz Grala team leader at 10)

Among the teams not in the top 10 in this category is Chip Ganassi Racing. The organization has led three laps this season, all by Kurt Busch.

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Talladega Xfinity results: AJ Allmendinger edges Sam Mayer

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AJ Allmendinger, who had had several close calls in Xfinity Series superspeedway races, finally broke through to Victory Lane Saturday, edging Sam Mayer to win at Talladega Superspeedway.

Allmendinger’s margin of victory was .015 of a second. Mayer finished second by a few feet.

Following in the top five were Landon Cassill (Allmendinger’s Kaulig Racing teammate and his drafting partner at the end), Ryan Sieg and Josh Berry.

Noah Gragson, who had won four straight Xfinity races entering Saturday, was 10th. Austin Hill dominated the race but finished 14th.

MORE: Talladega Xfinity results

MORE: Talladega Xfinity driver points

AJ Allmendinger wins Xfinity race at Talladega Superspeedway

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Veteran driver AJ Allmendinger slipped past youngster Sam Mayer in the final seconds and won Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway.

As drivers in the lead pack scrambled for position approaching the finish line, Allmendinger moved to the outside and, getting a push from Kaulig Racing teammate Landon Cassill, edged Mayer by a few feet. The win ended frustration for Allmendinger on superspeedways.

Following Allmendinger, 40, at the finish were Mayer (who is 19 years old), Cassill, Ryan Sieg and Josh Berry.

Noah Gragson and Allmendinger have qualified for the next playoff round. The other six drivers above the cutline are Ty Gibbs, Austin Hill, Josh Berry, Justin Allgaier, Mayer and Sieg. Below the cutline are Daniel Hemric, Brandon Jones, Riley Herbst and Jeremy Clements.

MORE: Talladega Xfinity results

MORE: Talladega Xfinity driver points

“This is Talladega,” a wildly happy Allmendinger told NBC Sports. “Yes, I hate superspeedway racing, but it’s awesome to win in front of the Talladega crowd.”

Austin Hill dominated the race but dropped out of the lead to 14th place  in the closing five laps as drivers moved up and down the track in search of the best drafting line.

The first half of the race featured two and sometimes three drafting lines with a lot of movement and blocking near the front. In the final stage, the leaders ran lap after lap in single file, with Hill, Allmendinger and Gragson in the top three.

MORE: Safety key topic as drivers meet at Talladega

Hill led 60 laps and won the first two stages but finished 14th.

Gragson was in pursuit of a fifth straight Xfinity Series win. He finished 10th.

Remarkably for a Talladega race, the entire 38-car field finished. The race was the 1,300th in Xfinity history, marking only the third time the entire field had been running at the finish. The other two races were at Michigan in 1998 and Langley Speedway in Virginia in 1988.

Stage 1 winner: Austin Hill

Stage 2 winner: Austin Hill

Who had a good race: AJ Allmendinger got the “can’t win on superspeedways” monkey off his back with a great final lap. … Sam Mayer made all the right moves but was passed in the madness of the final run down the trioval. … Landon Cassill finished a strong third and gave Allmendinger, his teammate, the winning push.

Who had a bad race: The race had to be disappointing for Austin Hill, who ran the show for most of the afternoon, winning two stages and leading 60 laps, more than twice as many as any other driver. While blocking to try to maintain the lead late in the race, he fell to 14th. … Playoff driver Jeremy Clements finished a sour 20th and is 47 points below the cutline.

Next: The Xfinity Series’ next playoff race is scheduled Oct. 8 at 3 p.m. (ET) on the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval. The race will be broadcast by NBC.

Safety key topic in meeting for drivers at Talladega

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — Cup drivers met Friday with Jeff Burton, director of the Drivers Advisory Council, and discussed safety issues ahead of this weekend’s playoff race, which will be without two drivers due to concussion-like symptoms from crashes.

Alex Bowman and Kurt Busch will not race Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway. 

Busch suffered his head injury in a crash at Pocono in July. Bowman’s injury followed his crash last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway. Both were injured in accidents where the rear of the car hit the SAFER barrier first.

Two drivers injured in less than three months — and the series racing at a track where crashes are likely — raises tension in the Cup garage. 

Denny Hamlin blasted NASCAR on Saturday, saying it was “bad leadership” for not addressing safety concerns drivers had with the car. Hamlin also said that the Next Gen vehicle needs to be redesigned.

Burton, who also is an analyst for NBC Sports, said in an exclusive interview that Friday’s meeting was lengthy because there were several topics to discuss. Burton didn’t go into details on all the topics.

Safety was a key element of that meeting. Burton, whose role with the Drivers Advisory Council is to coordinate the group and communicate with NASCAR, discussed the cooperation level with NASCAR.

“We feel like we have cooperation with NASCAR,” he said. “We know the commitments from NASCAR. They’ve made real commitments to us. We want to see those commitments through. I believe that we will in regards to changes to the car. 

“We want to see that come to conclusion as soon as possible. They have made commitments to us and are showing us what is happening, communicating with us in regard to timing, and we want to see it come to conclusion, as they do. 

“Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get some changes done before last weekend. It just takes a long time to test stuff.”

NASCAR has a crash test scheduled next week on a new rear clip and rear bumper. Even if the test goes well, there’s not enough time for any such changes this season with five races left.

The frustration from drivers — and voiced by Hamlin and Kevin Harvick — has been that NASCAR was informed about issues with a stiffer car for more than a year. Some questions were raised after William Byron crashed in a test in March 2020 at Auto Club Speedway.

“William Byron busted his ass at (Auto Club) Speedway and that should have raised a red flag right off the bat,” Harvick said Saturday.

Hamlin said more drivers needed to speak up about concerns with the car.

“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.

Byron is looking for changes to be made.

“I want to have a long career, and I don’t want to have a series of concussions that make me either have to step way from the car or have to think about long-term things,” he said.

Chase Elliott also shared his frustrations Saturday.

“You come off a week like we had in Texas and somebody getting injured and then you come into here, where odds are we’re probably all going to hit something at some point (Sunday) and probably not lightly at that,” Elliot said.

So what do drivers do?

“Do you just not show up?” Elliott said. “Do you just not run? I don’t think that’s feasible to ask. There’s always an inherent risk in what we do and it’s always been that way. 

“My frustration is … I just hate that we put ourselves in the box that we’re in right now. It’s just disappointing that we’ve put ourselves here and we had a choice. We did this to ourselves as an industry. 

“That should have just never been the case. We should not have put ourselves in the box that we’re in right now. So my disappointment lies in that that we had years and time and opportunity to make this thing right before we put it on track and we didn’t, and now we’re having to fix it. 

“I just hate that we did that. I think we’re smarter than that. I think there’s just a lot of men and women that work in this garage that know better and we shouldn’t have been here.”

Burton told NBC Sports that drivers did not discuss in Friday’s meeting running single-file in Sunday’s race as a form of protest.

“It wouldn’t be surprising for me to see single-file (racing Sunday) because of what happened at Texas and what could happen next week (at the Charlotte Roval),” Burton said. “Drivers need a period of calmness. 

“There was not a discussion, a collaborated effort or any sort of thing of how you race (Sunday). That conversation did not come up in that meeting.”

Harvick said Saturday that he’ll continue to be vocal about safety issues.

“I’ll do whatever I have to do to make sure these guys are in a good spot,” Harvick said. “Whatever I have to do.”

Harvick later said: “I don’t think any of us want to be in this position. We have to have the safety we deserve to go out and put on a great show and be comfortable with that. 

“Obviously, we all have taken the risks of being race car drivers, but there’s no reason we should be in a worse position than we were last year.”

Harvick said it was a matter of trust.

“The reality of the situation is much different than what they’re looking at,” Harvick said of NASCAR officials. “I think that the trust level is obviously not where it needs to be from getting it fixed. I think they’re going to have to earn the trust level back of reacting quick enough to do the things that it takes. The drivers’ opinion, especially when it comes to safety side of things, has to be more important than the data or more important than the cost. Safety can’t be a budget item.”

Corey LaJoie, who is a member of the Drivers Advisory Council board, said that while challenges remain with the car, he sees the effort being made by NASCAR.

“Nothing happens quick in this deal when you have 38 teams and you have seven cars per team,” LaJoie told NBC Sports. “It has to be a well-thought-out process to implement the changes.

“It’s easy to get up in arms and prickly when we have guys like Alex and Kurt out. You don’t ever want that to happen. Every conversation I’m having is what we, as the Driver Council, is trying to communicate to NASCAR and NASCAR making proactive changes and moving timelines up aggressively to try to implement these changes.”

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: TalladeTalladega 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.