Talladega Superspeedway

Ryan: Even without plates, Talladega still served up a spectacular show

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Better plate than never?

That was a major question entering this year’s Daytona 500 — and particularly after a pair of lackluster races at Talladega Superspeedway last season.

The 2019 season opener marked the last superspeedway race before horsepower-sapping restrictor plates permanently were removed and replaced by the (similarly shaped) tapered spacers used to choke down engines at the rest of the tracks on the circuit.

The plates defined some of the most indelible moments, both tragic and triumphant, in NASCAR over the past three decades

So what would the post-plate era look like in NASCAR?

The 26 Hours of Talladega provided a definitive answer: A lot like most of everything that transpired on the biggest, fastest tracks in NASCAR for the previous 31 years.

Incessant chaos, crushed sheet metal and costly errors.

In other words, insanity on four wheels (as Marcos Ambrose infamously dubbed it) for 500 miles at a time.

It’s the bedrock upon which superspeedway racing happily has rested for three decades in the interest of entertainment (and, ostensibly, safety in ensuring speeds are manageable enough to prevent cars from sailing over catchfences with disturbing regularity at Daytona and Talladega).

After an off-year in 2018, NASCAR found its sweet spot in Sweet Home Alabama this season.

The most arbitrary form of racing delivered by NASCAR’s premier series again felt as predictably unpredictable as it ever had since the restrictor-plate era began in 1988. There were colossal crashes, double-crossing duplicity and razor-tight finishes.

That was great for fans. It wasn’t necessarily good for Cup drivers.

Of course, it rarely is in the finicky and violent environs of Dega, which was unusually tame last year with only two wrecks of at least a half-dozen cars across 1,013 miles (this year, there were three times as many).

The knock on plate racing in 2018 was the lack of driveability. It’s hard to make passes when cars aren’t stable at 200 mph-plus in the draft.

That put the leader at a huge advantage of being able to tow lines at will and control the front of the pack in a decidedly un-Talladega-esque manner. It was most evident last October when Stewart-Haas Racing led 155 of 188 laps with cars that (stunningly) were built for handling instead of speed.

NASCAR addressed this by raising spoilers to 9 inches with the advent of the spacers. That didn’t do much for handling, but it did punch a bigger hole in the air that caused massive acceleration in the draft and eradicated the “aero bubble” barrier that drivers said made it difficult for trailing cars to pass last year.

So the ability to catch the leader improved … even though handling didn’t nearly as much (look no further than Joey Logano’s in-car camera, which was a furious blur of hands manhandling the steering wheel on every shot).

That was a recipe for the return of the huge wrecks that felt like Dega of yesteryear. Holes in the draft vanished much more quickly, and blocking became futile as drivers scrambled (and often failed) to adapt to the higher closing rates.

If there was a theme, it was that misjudgment on blocking and bumping made the racing much more treacherous – particularly in the rain-shortened July 7 wreckfest at Daytona and the extravaganza Sunday-Monday.

As analyst Dale Earnhardt Jr. noted in the NBC broadcast, though the bumpers don’t line up as well with the Gen 6 as in the previous iteration (which spawned the nefarious tandem drafting), the bump-drafting has become even more aggressive in the era of stage points and playoff berths tied to wins.

With bigger runs coming from every direction, an increased susceptibility to being passed and cars just as unstable when in a pack, the lead no longer was the place to be at Talladega.

There were more lead changes Sunday-Monday (46, up from 38 in the April 28 race) than the combined total (40) for both 2018 races. There were 22,214 green-flag passes (59 per lap) at Talladega in 2019, up from 13,294 last year (35 per lap).

A NASCAR without restrictor plates?

Talladega still served up the action for fans — on a silver platter strewn with twisted sheet metal, of course.


The situations weren’t entirely analogous, but NASCAR’s non-call on the final lap Monday was reminiscent of its controversial non-call on Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s winning pass of Matt Kenseth in the April 6, 2003 race at Talladega. In both instances, officials claimed the spirit of the yellow-line rule wasn’t violated even though the letter clearly was.

Here’s how the rule was presented in the drivers meeting at Talladega: “Drivers, this is your warning. Race above the double-yellow line. If in NASCAR’s judgment, you go below the double-yellow line to improve your position, you will be black-flagged. If in NASCAR’s judgment, you force someone below the double-yellow line in an effort to stop someone from passing you, you may be black-flagged.”

It’s indisputable that, just like Earnhardt did in passing Kenseth 16 years ago, Ryan Blaney went below the yellow line before taking the lead for good Monday from Ryan Newman. It’s possible that contact with Newman caused Blaney to dip below the boundary, and that seems to be NASCAR’s explanation in why no call was made.

But it also seems like the rule demands that (as it did in 2003) a penalty should have been called on either Blaney or Newman. NASCAR can rule that “in its judgment,” Blaney didn’t intentionally go below the yellow-line to improve his position … but if that’s the case, it means he had to have been forced there, right?

Regardless, NASCAR officials say they are happy with the language of the rule.

Given that it affords them tremendous leeway to turn every yellow-line pass into a ball and strike call, it’s easy to see why.


As many have noted, manufacturer alliances at Daytona and Talladega were invented long before the 21st century. In the 1990s, Chevrolet and Ford drivers regularly worked together – when possible — to try to ensure their makes won the race.

But there were some glaring differences about the tempest that sprung forth last weekend and sparked major disgruntlement among fans and media.

Chevrolet’s decision to call an in-race meeting at Garage Suite 3 in full public view was ill-advised, at best. The references afterward to shilling Corvettes and watching PowerPoints were too clever by a factor of maybe 100, and they also were indicative of why the optics were problematic.

Chevy’s extremely disciplined approach felt too corporate, and it seemed micromanaged to the point of making Michael Scott blush. Chastising drivers for racing three wide instead of single file while still in Stage 1 is hardly palatable to anyone in NASCAR, which has an appealing undercurrent of cutthroat intensity (especially at Daytona and Talladega).

It’s understandable why Jim Campbell demanded his Chevy drivers stay on script. The heat from GM headquarters in Detroit surely was unbearable after Hendrick Motorsports essentially helped Toyota win the Daytona 500. And Ford and Toyota drivers surely were given virtually the same marching orders at Talladega – just much more discreetly.

That might be the right line to choose next time.


The focus on manufacturer alliances wasn’t all bad, though.

It forced some good discussions on awkward topics into the open, and it raised important issues about how much influence manufacturers and teams should have in effectively determining race winners. If younger drivers for midpack teams essentially are told to subjugate themselves for the greater good (or risk being stripped of perks), is that a just sacrifice at a track that might offer their best opportunity at winning all year?

That conversation got shoved to the forefront by the weekend’s manufacturer debate. And it was nice that none of it actually mattered at the conclusion of a race that featured a passel of unheralded underdogs vying for the checkered flag.

It also could be indirectly good for NASCAR while continuing to court new manufacturers to enter with its next generation engine (which probably won’t happen until 2023). With the overall decline in the corporate sponsorship spend over the past decade, there are few entities investing as much in stock-car racing as the automakers.

At least they got good bang for their bucks at Talladega, particularly if you ascribe to the idea that there is no such thing as bad publicity.


Ryan Blaney still isn’t a favorite to reach the Championship 4 this season, but Monday might be remembered as a turning point if the No. 12 driver eventually wins a Cup title.

Ryan Blaney receives congratulations from teammate Joey Logano (Photo by Jeff Robinson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images).

There is enormous pressure on the 25-year-old to perform at Team Penske, which has been enjoying a worldwide results bonanza well beyond NASCAR that is impressive even for this storied organization. Never mind championship teammates Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, Blaney also is competing against winners of the Indianapolis 500, Bathurst 1000 and Rolex 24. If he makes the playoffs but still goes winless this year, it gets noticed more than it would at a less successful team.

It was important that his 2019 breakthrough happened at Talladega after a string of plate failures the past few years. Blaney’s Fords led four of the past six races at Talladega but didn’t finish higher than 11th in any of them. He finished seventh in the 2018 Daytona 500 despite having the best car and leading a race-high 118 laps.

The confidence-booster of making every right move over the final two laps (including the bold decision to choose the outside for the lead on the final restart) should go a long way toward making Blaney feel his place is secure at one of racing’s greatest teams.

 

NBC Sports Power Rankings: Denny Hamlin returns to No. 1 after Talladega

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The chaos of Talladega has come and gone and with the dust settling the NBC Sports Power Rankings have a familiar face at the No. 1 spot.

Denny Hamlin is back at the top of the mountain after his third-place finish in a battered No. 11 Toyota.

Hamlin returns to the top spot after previously having a five-week reign there, which ended in September.

This week’s rankings have two different ties, including a three-way tie for seventh.

Here are the power rankings ahead of this weekend’s playoff elimination race at Kansas Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET Sunday on NBC).

1. Denny Hamlin (37 points): Third-place finish gives him three top fives in the last four races. He’s surging just like he did on the last lap before Ryan Blaney broke his momentum.

2. Ryan Blaney, (34 points): Followed in Kyle Larson‘s wake as a playoff driver earning his first win of the season in the playoffs. Has three tops 10s in the playoffs

3. Chase Elliott (26 points): Like Hamlin, bounced back from a wreck to finish in the top 10, but he’s still outside a transfer spot to the next round. Likely needs to win at Kansas to stay alive in these playoffs. He won there last fall.

(tie) 4. Joey Lognao (21 points): The 18 stage points he scored at Talladega created the gap he has over those outside a playoff spot. Kudos to his team for the repairs so he could finish the race.

(tie) 4. Kyle Larson (21 points): Despite a 39th-place finish at Talladega he has eight top 10s in the last 11 races and he’s already set for the next round.

6. Kevin Harvick (20 points): Even with a 17th-place finish at Talladega, he has 10 top 10s in the last 12 races. Don’t overlook him.

(tie) 7. Martin Truex Jr. (12 points): Steak of four straight top 10s ended at Talladega. Kansas provides a chance to start a new streak for this team, which has won two of the last four races on 1.5-mile tracks.

(tie) 7. Ryan Newman (12 points): Still showing some fight despite being eliminated from playoffs. Has three top fives (none in 2018) and 12 top 10s (nine in 2018).

(tie) 7. Kyle Busch (12 points): Has had a less than stellar playoff run so far, but a strong regular season has him in position to advance to the next round.

10. Brad Keselowski (9 points): His 25th-place finish was the first time in the last five races he’s placed worse than 11th.

Others receiving votes: Aric Almirola (5 points), William Byron (4 points), Alex Bowman (3 points), Michael McDowell (3 points) and Clint Bowyer (1 point)

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NASCAR executive explains yellow line rulings at Talladega

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Scott Miller, NASCAR’s senior vice president of competition, said the instances of vehicles going below the yellow line on the last lap of the Truck and Cup races at Talladega Superspeedway “were very, very different from one another,” with one being “a lot more blatant” than the other.

The first occurred Saturday in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series race, and saw Johnny Sauter‘s apparent win given to Spencer Boyd after Sauter forced Riley Herbst and his own truck below the yellow line as he defended the lead coming to the checkered flag. NASCAR dropped Sauter to the last car on the lead lap for the violation. He finished 14th.

On Monday, Ryan Blaney was briefly forced below the yellow line by Ryan Newman as they battled for the lead, but Newman did not go below the yellow line. Blaney nipped Newman at the finish line to win. NASCAR issued no penalty.

If NASCAR determines a driver forced another below the double yellow line in an effort to keep from being passed, they may be black flagged.

Miller made his comments on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive.”

Johnny Sauter went below the yellow line and forced Riley Herbst below it on the last lap of Saturday’s Truck Series race at Talladega. (Photo by David John Griffin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

“First of all, one guy won the race or appeared to have won the race by making that move and the other didn’t,” Miller said. “When you’re talking about Johnny’s situation, he drove all four of his wheels under the yellow line to force (Herbst) down there. It was obviously a lot more blatant in our opinion than what transpired on (Monday). Blaney was down there, Ryan (Newman) wasn’t down there, but certainly in our opinion drove him down there.

“We reserve the right to call a car that forces another down below the yellow line. We can kind of use our judgement to assess the situation.

“No two ones of those situations are the same. There’s some subjectivity in it, which isn’t the greatest thing for us. But I think we’re very happy with the calls that we made and feel like both of them were right.”

Miller was asked by SiriusXM NASCAR Radio whether the yellow line rule is one that will be addressed going forward.

“The language of the rule is fine,” Miller said. “There’s always going to be judgment unless we put a wall down there or grass there or something like that. Those things would have their own set of large problems associated with them. We’ve looked at the language many times and have landed on where we are to let us make the calls we feel like are necessary for certain situations.

“If we didn’t have the yellow line rule, there’s no telling what might ensue with all the skid paths and everything leading into the back straight being so wide. We would find guys getting to the other end having no place to go but the apron. We have to enforce the yellow line rule and we are where we are. We look at everything every time when we have to make a call, all of our rules, not only race procedures, but technical rules as well.

“We’re constantly trying to get better. … I mean the yellow line rule is not something that we enjoy by any stretch of the imagination. But we have to have it. If we didn’t, there’d be even more mayhem more than likely.”

Miller also addressed why no caution was thrown on the last lap when Parker Kligerman and Chris Buescher wrecked on the frontstretch as the field approached the start-finish line. Both drivers were turned nose-first into the outside wall in the tri-oval.

“When it feels like that it’s not hampering us from dispatching the safety equipment we’ll let things play out,” Miller said. “That’s kind of our criteria for judging that. Everybody wants to see a checkered flag finish and not a field freeze. We’ll do everything that we can safely to make that happen.”

Miller was also asked by SiriusXM NASCAR Radio about NASCAR’s view on manufacturer coordination during superspeedway races. It was put under the spotlight Sunday during the initial rain delay when all Chevrolet drivers, crew chiefs and competition directors met privately for about 25 minutes.

“That’s always going to be subjective, right?” Miller said. “You’re going to have a race and there’s going to be teammates working together and there’s going to be cars from different camps working together on the situation out there in the race. … I don’t know why it got publicized this weekend as much as it did. I think all of the manufacturers and all of the teams internally meet and try to come up with a little bit of strategy to stick with one another in the draft.

“It’s not something that we can really officiate effectively. We can ask them not to talk about it I would assume, but it’s not something we can really officiate. If something becomes extremely blatant and you have people stopping or doing crazy things, then obviously we have to look at that. But as far as going out there and working together in the draft, that’s something that’s going to change every single lap depending on who you’re around. So there’s really no way to officiate that.”

 

Hey Mom, Dad? Can I still drive in the Daytona 500?

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — Brendan Gaughan plans to run next year’s Daytona 500 but the 44-year-old admits that after flipping in Monday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway, he might need to get the permission of his parents.

“You might have to call Michael Gaughan or Paula Gaughan right now to ask that question because I think right now neither of them are very happy at the moment,” Gaughan said after emerging from the infield care center unscathed after his crash.

“In 22 years of NASCAR racing — I’ve flipped a ton in the desert — I’ve never flipped a stock car until now. So my mother and father might be a little upset. I’m 44, but I still have a mommy and a daddy. I think they’re probably a little hot right now but I’ll cool them down.”

Gaughan was a victim in an 11-car crash that brought out the caution on Lap 183 of the 188-lap race when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Kyle Busch got together at the front of the field. The contact sent Busch up the track into Gaughan’s car and Brad Keselowski’s car. Gaughan’s car turned left, got hit by Kurt Busch and Matt DiBenedetto and rolled over once before landing on its wheels. Gaughan finished 27th.

Asked what he saw of Gaughan’s aerobatics, DiBenedetto said: “I was like, ‘Oh crap! He’s going upside down.’ My nose got into him and then I just saw him flip over me.”

Told he had nailed the landing, Gaughan joked: “No, they said the Russian judge, politics, he docked me a couple of points. He said I didn’t put them all down at the same time. Politics are nasty right now, so screw them.”

But the incident didn’t take away Gaughan’s love for racing at these tracks. He was making his fourth Cup start of the season. He’s run both Daytona and Talladega races this season.

“I was having a great time,” Gaughan said of before the wreck. “We were up front. I show up, what, four times a year and people think I’m crazy for loving this racing, but I love racing at Daytona and Talladega. I enjoy the crap out of this.

“When I come with the Beard family and the Chevrolet that they give me with that ECR engine that Richard (Childress) gives me and a little bit of help, we come to be here for the win. We had a chance to win. That’s all I can ask for.”

While Gaughan could joke about it, Ryan Newman, wasn’t happy to see a car get airborne even if contact played a role.

“Just happy that he got out of his race car,” Newman said of Gaughan. “It’s still disappointing to me to see that after 50 years we’re still flying race cars.”

Despite being 18 points above cutoff, Joey Logano in ‘not a very comfortable situation’

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Somehow, someway Joey Logano left Talladega Superspeedway Monday with an 11th-place finish

He also left the 2.66-mile track with two runner-up stage finishes and an 18-point advantage on the cutoff spot to advance to the Round of 8.

But his No. 22 Ford left looking like it had gone through the spin cycle at Martinsville Speedway and Bristol Motor Speedway all in one day.

It had instead survived involvement in an eight-car wreck at Talladega and thanks to the MacGyver-like skills of his Team Penske crew, finished ahead of eight other less fortunate playoff drivers.

“Everyone fought hard. My whole team fought hard today. I made everyone work,” Logano said after the race won by his teammate Ryan Blaney. “Things were going well, we had two second places in the stages. … And that’s really what gets us 18 points above the cutline right now. That was huge for us.”

A three-time Talladega winner, Logano entered the race tied with William Byron in points for the last transfer spot, but Byron owned the tiebreaker (best finish in this round). That was after a mechanical failure right before last week’s Dover race began and resulted in Logano finishing 25 laps off the lead.

As Logano said, things were going well for him Monday until he was involved in a crash with 24 laps left in the race, a wreck which “scared the crap out of me.”

“Just bam in the middle of the straightaway,” Logano said. “All things considered, the hood was blown up, I got hit in it felt like all the corners. The team did a good job. We lost one lap fixing our car. Then we got the lucky dog and got a few more (spots) before the end there. Proud of everyone to get what we can out of that. It’s what we needed to do. We’re 18 points ahead of where we were when we came into this on the cutline. That’s important. You want to be better than that, but considering the situation it was an OK day.”

Now Logano’s attention shifts to Kansas Speedway – where he’s won twice – for the second elimination race.

Logano doesn’t feel safe at all, even with the 18-point advantage. He’s ahead of Alex Bowman (-18 points), Chase Elliott (-22), Clint Bowyer (-24) and William Byron (-27).

“It helps,” Logano said. “Does it mean we’re in? Absolutely not. We’re far from it. We don’t have many cars behind (us). We’re the last car in. If one of those guys wins, we’re the first one out. So we just got to be mindful of that next week because there’s a lot of cars back there that have some speed and can possibly win. It’s not a very comfortable situation, but it’s better than where we were when we came in here. The way we control our destiny is go out there and win and bring a fast car next week.