After a confusing qualifying session set the starting field, here is what was surprising and not surprising in the 46th annual Geico 500 at Talladega Superspeedway.
Surprising: Even though it is the season, there were a surprising number of football references when the ‘Dega race was completed, from Brad Keselowski’s ‘Hail Mary’ win to Clint Bowyer’s third place gridiron game plan finish.
“We had to win the race,” the driver of the No. 2 Redd’s Wicked Apple Ale Ford said. “This would be the football equivalent of scoring two touchdowns with two minutes left in the game. That’s what we did and it’s just an incredible feeling.”
“The whole time I knew the odds were against us and to pull it off was something I don’t even know how to reflect upon.”
The driver of the No. 15 Pink Lemonade 5-Hour Energy Toyota was also in the football mode, pronouncing his game plan good.
“Well, my game plan worked,” Bowyer said. “It’s so hard to strategize around this. You can a little bit, but you still got to bob and weave and take it as it comes.”
“I was in a pocket where I felt it was safe,” Bowyer continued. “I went from about 25th and drove up to what was going to be third. That caution came out when we were all on pit road.”
“Still, third place is a good day for us.”
Not Surprising: Matt Kenseth demonstrated his role yet again as one of the most cerebral racers in the sport, using strategy and even his arch enemy from last week’s race, to secure his second place finish. Kenseth also punched his ticket to the next round of Chase competition.
“That was his (Brad Keselowski’s) only way in I think was to win that thing and I gave Kevin (Harvick) a huge push,” Matt Kenseth, driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota, said after the green-white-checkered finish. “I thought Kevin was going to go right around him and Brad went for the block.”
“I had to get a finish so instead of going with Kevin I went to the bottom,” Kenseth continued. “I thought maybe I would get a big enough run to get underneath Brad, but I just didn’t quite have the speed to do it.”
“Like I said, that’s where I felt I had to put my car for my best chance at the best finish. All those guys were pretty quick up there. Got a good restart, got a good run. It’s just how it turned out.”
Surprising: While there was not a ‘big one’ to be had at Talladega, there were some surprisingly deadly small ones in the Geico 500. Two Chase contenders, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kyle Busch experienced those small ones that unfortunately played into their lack of advancing to the next round of championship contention.
Junior was involved in a racing incident with Greg Biffle, finishing 31st in a race that he had to win to move on to compete for NASCAR’s biggest prize.
“We worked real hard all day long trying to run up front,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I knew we needed to be up front all day long. We got shuffled to the back. I made a move trying to get up front and it didn’t work out. So, we lost a lot of track position and never got it back.”
“The race is over, it’s time to go home,” the driver of the No. 88 Diet Mountain Dew Chevrolet said. “Well, we will just go try to win some more races before the year is out. That is all we have left.”
Kyle Busch experienced his own heartache in one of the ‘small ones’, which caused major damage to his car, forced him into a 40th place finish, and dashed his Cup hopes yet again.
“It’s a shame, everyone has been working really hard,” Dave Rogers, crew chief for the No. 18 M&Ms Halloween Toyota, said. “I felt like we got off to a slow start early in the season and we were advancing through the playoffs pretty well with hard work and good decisions and good teamwork.”
“I thought we were in a decent spot coming into the race and rode around in the back,” Rogers continued. “Kyle got checked up for the wreck and had everything saved up, but he got run over from behind.”
“There is no safe place in here. The truth is that if you’re out there on the race track at Talladega or Daytona, you have a pretty good chance that you’re going to get in a wreck and today was our day. It’s unfortunate, but that’s the way it is.”
Not Surprising: The one thing that makes Talladega unique is that even the ‘little’ teams have a chance at an upset victory. And one of them, Landon Cassill, in his No. 40 Carsforsale.com Chevrolet, took full advantage, finishing fourth and scoring his highest career finish.
“We wanted to win this race,” Cassill said. “We came here to win it. My team deserves it. Carsforsale.com deserves it.”
“We don’t have a lot to work with,” Cassill continued. “But what we do work with, we set out to run good at these four superspeedway races, and we proved that this year.”
“Fourth place is just amazing.”
Surprising: After so many races where rookie Kyle Larson not only almost won the race, but also finished as the highest rookie of the race, it was Austin Dillon’s turn to be the rookie star.
Dillon, in his No. 3 Dow Chevrolet finished 13th, ahead of Kyle Larson, driver of the No. 42 Energizer Chevrolet, who finished 17th.
Larson is still leading the Sunoco Rookie of the Race points, with 290 to Dillon’s 206, with just four races left to go in the season.
Not Surprising: He may have secured his place in the next round at Talladega, having squeaked by with just three points to spare, but Jeff Gordon had only one thing in mind at the end of the race.
“If I never have to come back to Talladega, I’ll be fine with that,” Gordon said. “I’m just mentally drained right now. It’s always tough racing here at Talladega trying to put yourself in position to win. But when you have that much on the line and you know that your championship hopes are right there in that final moment, it’s nerve racking.”
“I’m proud of this team for the job they did,” the driver of the No. 24 Axalta Chevrolet said after finishing 24th. “We had a great strategy. Unfortunately the caution hit us at the absolute worst time and put us behind there. We fought hard that last restart. The inside lane just didn’t go anywhere. I was just sitting there going backward and couldn’t do a thing.”
“I’m just glad we made it.”
Surprising: Even six-time champions sometimes cannot find a friend or catch a break in the draft. Jimmie Johnson led the most laps in the race at 84 but finished a disappointing 24th, ending his quest for his seventh championship.
“At the end, I guess on the next-to-last restart – assuming it would be the last restart – I was lined up in fourth,” the driver of the No. 48 Lowes Chevrolet, said. “I made my move, got to his outside, looked in the mirror and I had no friends.”
“It’s how plate racing goes,” Johnson continued. “If I knew there was a second green-white-checkered I probably would have stayed in line, but you just don’t know how those things are going to develop.”
“They gave me a great Lowe’s Chevrolet today and unfortunately we just didn’t get it done.”
Not Surprising: Terry Labonte, behind the wheel of the No. 32 C&J Energy Services Ford, finished the race in the 33rd spot and completed his 890th and final race at Talladega.
“After I came here the first time I didn’t know if I’d have the opportunity to come back a second time much less 61 times, but it’s been a lot of fun,” Labonte said. “Of course, you know it’s only about the third time I’ve said this is gonna be my last race, but this is really gonna be the last one.”
“It’s been fun.”
Surprising: What happened after the race may just have a critical impact on the Chase. Ryan Newman, who finished fifth, had his car go through post-race inspection only to fail, being too low on both sides at the rear.
NASCAR spokesman Kerry Tharp said a decision on any penalties would come either on Monday or Tuesday, with the chance for an early appeal by the team if the penalty warrants.
Not Surprising: Michael Waltrip finished the race in the similar fashion to his finishes on Dancing with the Stars with pro Emma Slater. Waltrip finished 16th in his No. 66 MyAFibStory.com Toyota for the team that bears his name.
“This was a good day,” Waltrip said. “We got a top-20. I just wasn’t as strong as I hoped. My car wouldn’t draft up as well as I envisioned it.”
“We kind of struggled.”
In spite of that Waltrip, @mw55, tweeted the following “I told @EmmaSlaterDance how wonderful @NASCAR fans are. Thanks. Y’all made her weekend very special. Cheers!”