NASCAR Cup Series

Playing it Safe Doesn’t Pay Off

During restrictor-plate races, it’s not uncommon to see a group of drivers linger in the back of the field, avoiding the sometimes three-wide racing near the front of the pack in order to make it to the finish. It is a risk drivers and teams routinely take, but surprisingly, the “play it safe” strategy usually doesn’t pay off.

It may seem like the logical thing to do, right? Trying to stay out of trouble and being in the right spot  during the closing stages of the race. Typically though, when the “Big One” happens during these races, it’s the drivers hanging around the back of field swept up in the wreck.

As the laps wind down,  drivers become anxious trying to find a way to work up closer to the front. They are looking for help, frantically trying to get in the lane that has the most momentum , but there is nowhere  to go. They wait until it’s too late to make their move and get stuck with a  middle-of-the-pack finish or worse.

The wrecks that happen at Daytona and Talladega are chain-reaction wrecks. That is the primary downfall of  pack racing.  When calamity strikes, there’s nowhere for the drivers to go, resulting in an expensive pile of twisted sheet metal and hurt feelings.

The competition in NASCAR today is tougher than ever, and it is even harder now to come from the back to the front if drivers wait too long.  At Daytona and Talladega, there really is no safe spot, but  staying out front is the place to be.

Take Brad Keselowski for example. The Penske driver won his first race at Daytona Saturday night, leading 115 of 160 laps. He had the  right plan and executed it to perfection. He stayed up front and was aggressive for the entire race.

The “Big One” took place on lap 90. The wreck took out 22 of the 40 cars, including Kevin Harvick, who was running in the back of the front pack. After the race, Harvick’s crew chief Rodney Childers tweeted his frustration with plate racing, lamenting the fact that the No. 4 team never showed their full hand.

“… it is hard to make ground, so you have to be aggressive when you start making ground,” Harvick said after the 22-car wreck. “Unfortunately, I was in the back of that front pack and ended up getting in the wreck.”

Emily Spink is a POPULAR SPEED Development Journalist.


The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of, its owners, management or staff. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.


Talladega Wild Card Shakes up Truck Series Championship Race

TALLADEGA, Ala. — Erik Jones was unable to win the Fred’s 250 at Talladega Superspeedway on Saturday but came away with something even more valuable — an even wider NASCAR Camping World Truck Series championship lead over Tyler Reddick and Matt Crafton.

From the moment he took over the top spot back in August, Jones suspected that the Alabama speedway could serve as a variable wild car race. So coming away with a fourth-place finish, especially when Reddick and Crafton both finished behind, was just as good as a win from a moral perspective.

“Coming in here, we just wanted to maintain and salvage just to keep our points lead where it was,” Jones said. “But to come out of here, and to extend the lead, that was a pretty big deal for us with four races to go.

“And at this point, obviously, there’s still a lot of racing left but we’ll be just fine if we can maintain it like we have all year.”

Jones entered the race with merely a four-point lead over defending champion Matt Crafton. Instead of Talladega sabotaging Jones, it bit Crafton. A multi-truck crash with four laps to go eliminated the two-time and defending champion and dropped him to third in the rankings behind Tyler Reddick, who finished third.

With four races remaining, Jones leads Reddick by 18 points and 23 over Crafton. As he has all season, Crafton still isn’t willing to talk about the championship implications of his misfortune, especially knowing that the equally combustible Martinsville is looming on the horizon.

“They’ve had their problems and I’ve had my problems,” Crafton said. “And if they have more problems, I’m not worried about it. We’re just going to go try to win the next four and see what happens.”

And even though Reddick didn’t gain on Jones, he felt just as relieved as the championship leader, having made it to the end of a plate race with an undamaged truck and a spot inside the top-5. That’s all he could ask for before chasing down Jones at Martinsville, Texas, Phoenix and Homestead.

“We survived from that aspect,” Reddick said. “It’s a shame we couldn’t gain more points than what we did, but we’re still right there to apply pressure on (Jones) if he ever does slip up.”

Updated Truck Series championship standings

  1. Erik Jones Ldr.
  2. Tyler Reddick -18
  3. Matt Crafton -23
  4. Johnny Sauter -55
  5. Timothy Peters -100




Spencer Gallagher Makes Peace with Disappointing ‘Dega Finish

TALLADEGA, Ala. — Spencer Gallagher has every reason to hate Talladega after a last lap crash ended his chance to win the Fred’s 250 Truck Series race on Saturday afternoon, but the way he sees it, that would only invite future troubles.

The Las Vegas native started the race in ninth but quickly worked his way towards the front, where he spent much of the afternoon. He found himself running second to Timothy Peters with two laps to go, with a massive push from John Wes Townley.

Together on the backstretch, they surged towards Peters, who promptly tossed a block to the outside line. Gallagher responded by immediately darting left but spun off the nose of Townley’s Truck, sending both contenders into the wall.

Even with over a lap and a half remaining, Gallagher felt like he had no other choice but to make his move then, or cause a massive crash.

“I had a really good run on old Timmy,” Gallagher said of Peters. “Johnny and I — Mr. Townley — we were going to freight-train him on the top and all of a sudden, he shot three lanes up.

“By my quick back of the napkin math, I was going to wreck the hell out of him if I didn’t do something. So I tried to turn down and underneath him and I got turned off the bumper by old Johnny Wow.”

The crash immediately ended the race, as NASCAR mandated only one attempt at a green-white-checkered finish, sending Peters to Victory Lane and leaving Gallagher to finish 18th. Despite obvious heartbreak on pit road, Gallagher reasoned the crash as a byproduct of restrictor plate racing.

“It’s Talladega man,” he said. “You can’t get mad at it. It’s like Bristol. It’s the Zen of the place. The madder you get, the more it punishes you.”




Gordon, Earnhardt Enter Talladega with High Hopes and Optimism

Brace yourself …

After the checkered flag drops on Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway, it’s entirely possible that there will be no Hendrick Motorsport drivers remaining in the Chase for the Championship for the start of the penultimate round.

That’s a heavy statement given the lofty expectations placed upon the Chevrolet megapower each and every season. Halfway through the playoffs and only Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. remain in the hunt for the organization.

Remarkably, six-time champion Jimmie Johnson was eliminated in the first round, while Kasey Kahne didn’t even crack the initial Field of 16.

Of the two, Gordon is in the best position, holding sixth on the Chase Grid with a seven-point cushion over ninth-place Kyle Busch. Meanwhile, Earnhardt faces a must-win predicament as he enters the final race of the Contender Round in 11th and having to make up 31 points on eighth-place Martin Truex Jr.

Once the 500 ends on Sunday, the bottom four drivers on the Chase Grid without a win will be eliminated from contention. Given the random and chaotic nature of restrictor plate racing, only Joey Logano (with wins at Charlotte and Kansas) is guaranteed to make the Eliminator 8.

While most of the remaining Chasers are hoping to merely survive and make it to the finish, Earnhardt and Gordon view the volatile wild card race with realistic expectations to win for the first time during the playoffs and both advance to the next round.

The Earnhardt name and Talladega are synonymous, with Dale Jr. winning in Alabama six times during the course of his career. Despite facing a tremendous amount of adversity this weekend, Earnhardt has said there is no other track he would rather face a do-or-die scenario.

“I wouldn’t rather be going anywhere else than Talladega for the next race if we need a win,” he said. “That is a good opportunity for us. Even over Daytona, I think we can go to Talladega and do the job.”

Adding to his confidence is that he’s won two of three restrictor plate races this season, including Talladega in May. He also won the July race at Daytona International Speedway.

Even though the results do not reflect it, Gordon and his 24 team have been one of the best on the superspeedways as well this season. He won the pole for the Daytona 500 in February and led the most laps (87) before getting caught up in a last lap crash.

It was a similar story for Gordon at Talladega in May as he led the third-most number of laps before crashing out late. He also finished sixth at Daytona in July and considers the plate package a strength for Hendrick Motorsports.

He knows he will have the car, but learned over the three prior superspeedway races that he will have to do a better job of aggressively protecting his position. If he doesn’t he expects to get shuffled to the back and be at risk for again getting bit by the Big One.

“You have to be a little more aggressive,” Gordon said. “I watched Dale Jr. and a few other guys who protected their position when they’re up front aggressively. There’s a fine line that can get in trouble really easily as well.

“But I can tell you that it’s a lot harder when you get shuffled back to work your way toward the front than it used to be. People are smarter, cars are more equal, and the draft and aerodynamics are different than they used to be. It’s hard to make that work if you get behind. Hopefully we qualify up front.”

Even though it’s been a challenging season for both Gordon and Earnhardt, there is cause for optimism. Gordon looked like a sure fire bet to win at Martinsville in the spring, while Earnhardt is the defending winner at the Virginia paperclip short track.

Simply getting the final round before the Championship race and posting a good result to start that three-race stretch could be pivotal for their championship chances. Hendrick Motorsports is down, but don’t count them out, if Earnhardt and Gordon survive Talladega.

The deck and schedule is stacked in their favor.



NASCAR Cup Series

Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth Upset with No Caution, Driver Etiquette at Dega

TALLADEGA, Ala. — In an era of increased safety initiatives in NASCAR, Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth brought up yet another talking point in the form of how drivers navigate incidents, zooming by spun or otherwise wrecked cars at full speed on restrictor plate tracks.

That’s what happened to Carl Edwards on the final lap of the Sprint Cup race at Talladega on Sunday as he was spun out and slid sideways for several seconds with cars zipping by and racing to the finish with NASCAR officials opting not to throw a caution. While no one made contact with Edwards, the veteran contender was concerned that someone could have drilled him on his driver side door, injuring him in the process.

“NASCAR does such a good job of making these cars safe and these tracks safe but the biggest cause of injury is going to be one of us not checking up when a guy is sideways,” Edwards said. “I had my door facing the field and (Justin Allgaier) comes by at like 160 mph and that’s not the way I want to these guys to race around me.

“It’s frustrating.”

Kenseth was one of the drivers that let off the throttle to avoid hitting his teammate and was in disbelief that NASCAR didn’t throw a caution for the apparent safety hazard.

“I had to lift so I didn’t send Carl (Edwards) to the hospital and I’m just dumbfounded that NASCAR didn’t throw a caution,” Kenseth said. “We were driving past wrecked cars for half a lap at 180 mph – it was a crazy ending.”

Edwards says he plans to talk to his fellow drivers over the next couple days because he’s seen this happen several times over the past couple of years. A similar incident unfolded at the Daytona 500 when Jeff Gordon spun on the final lap and several drivers raced by him at full speed until NASCAR called for the caution.

Edwards was one of the drivers that lifted and said he did so with regards to driver safety. He wishes he had been afforded the same luxury on Sunday at Talladega.

“People will say its my job to stay in the throttle and go race but we’re all human beings out here, and when a guy is wrecking you can’t just lay into his door,” Edwards said. “That’s pretty dangerous.

“I can do all this complaining but no one ran into me. But, man, it’s tough.”

Ryan Blaney finished fourth on Sunday and said that it’s the natural reaction of a driver to speed up through an incident to avoid getting caught up in the ordeal.

“The only thing I can say about that is half of it is the guys want to get past the wreck as quick as possible,” Blaney said. “I think that’s half the reason why you see them wide-open is because they’re afraid of him coming back down the race track or coming up the race track.

“They don’t want to get collected in it.  I didn’t see how he spun, if he was right in the middle of the track or what, but I think that’s really most of the reason is guys just want to get by it and they don’t want to get caught up in it.”



NASCAR Cup Series

Talladega Big One Occurs on Lap 46 in the GEICO 500

TALLADEGA, Ala. — Trevor Bayne and Kurt Busch nearly came together while racing inside the top-10 on lap 46 of the Sprint Cup Series race at Talladega Superspeedway, igniting a massive crash that ultimately included 15 drivers.

Bayne had been riding between the top and middle grooves when Paul Menard got a massive run at the top of Turn 2. When Menard pulled even with Bayne, the air made his car unstable and Kurt Busch, riding behind, aero pushed Bayne around.

There was no contact but Bayne was turned right into the wall and the field had nowhere to go. Kasey Kahne was the first to pile in and calamity ensued.

The crash officially involved and otherwise damaged Bayne, Kahne, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Larson, Matt DiBenedetto, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Justin Allgaier, Greg Biffle, David Ragan, Landon Cassill, Joey Logano, Danica Patrick, Alex Bowman, Brendan Gaughan and Aric Almirola.

Bayne started the race in 26th but had quickly worked his way inside the top-10 and had even cracked the top-5 prior to the incident. He says there was nothing he could do once Menard flew by on the outside and unsettled the aerodynamics of his Roush Fenway Ford.

“I felt like we worked our way in the top five a couple times there, and had a good shot at running well in this thing,” Bayne said. “The air is so sensitive here. When you get too close to somebody it can just pull you right around and it’s as much as hitting somebody physically when you get down on their door that tight and it’s just going to happen.”

A dreadful first full-time season for Bayne got worse on Sunday as he entered the event 27th in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings. Bayne felt like it was a little to early to be racing as hard as they were at that stage of the race but ultimately chalked the incident up to the nuances of restrictor plate racing.

“It’s typical Talladega,” Bayne said. “Anytime you come out of the infield care center it seems like … it’s easy to get torn up here if you’re doing everything right or if you do something wrong. I didn’t feel like we had much in our control there today.

“Maybe I could have got down a little bit before Menard came by, but it all happened so fast. We just got really loose and that is going to happen here. I think handling is becoming an issue here at Talladega, so the cars are moving around a lot more.”

Larson insinuated that Bayne hasn’t been the safest driver to race with on restrictor plate tracks in recent seasons in an interview following the incident.

“I think I saw (Bayne) get loose up ahead, which is kind of been normal the last couple of years it seems like on superspeedways,” Larson said. “So, yeah, just got caught up I thought I was going to miss it there and then (Cassill ) slid across the track.  I tried turning back down the race track to avoid him and just got into him and started spinning and hitting the wall and stuff.

“It sucks because we haven’t really had very many good finishes this year and we have already had a couple of DNF’s (did not finish).  We have some work to do to get back up in the points and hopefully make the Chase later this year.”

Larson finished 42nd and fell to 24th in the championship standings.

Ragan, a former winner of the spring race at Talladega, was unable to finish the event in his final start for Joe Gibbs Racing before moving over to Michael Waltrip Racing and the No. 55 next weekend at Kansas Speedway. Ragan said the incident happened really fast and that he was unable to avoid the melee as a result.

“I just saw two cars sideways coming across the track in front of me,” Ragan said. “We were in the third lane and tried to get checked up. I thought we were really going to be fine and then someone from the inside spun across our nose and collected us to the outside wall.

“It’s just very unfortunate to tear up a lot of good race cars that early in a 500-mile race, but that’s what you have at Talladega. You have to take the good with the bad at a place like this.”



Home Tracks

Talladega Crashes Shake Up Championship Complexion

Talladega, Ala. — A chain of late race incidents changed the complexion of both the International Motorsports Hall of Fame 250 and the overall ARCA Racing Series championship standings following the first four races of the season.

The most notable incident of the day involved the defending ARCA championship winning team and its current driver, Austin Wayne Self, who entered the day second in the standings with his Mason Mitchell Motorsports entry.

Self got loose under Cody Coughlin on lap 53 and spun backwards in front of the entire field. Brad Smith, running mid-pack at the time, had nowhere to go but into the Self No. 98 Ford. The contact destroyed both cars and Smith slowly limped to a waiting stretcher after being cut from his car.

Initially, Smith was taken to infield car but was later airlifted to a local hospital and was on a stretcher and wearing an oxygen mask at the time of his exit from the speedway. No update has been provided by ARCA officials at press time other than he was taken to the hospital for further evaluation.

Self was able to walk away from his car but was noticeably gassed and dazed looking in the immediate aftermath of the ordeal. He took blame for the incident and sent Smith well wishes.

“There is a little bump on the tri-oval there and I think I just got into it a little bit hot and the car got tight,” Self said. “And I guess I lost it a little bit. It was obviously my fault… It’s definitely a bummer but we’re going to move on and forget about this one, go to the next one and work even harder.

“I just hope everyone is all right out there.”

Just a few laps after the race resumed, there was yet another incident and this one involved the championship leader and winner of three races this season — Grant Enfinger. The defending championship runner-up got touched from behind by Frank Kimmel and Enfinger went around and into the outside the retaining wall.

That deflected him back in front of traffic and into Will Kimmel — who has now had two really bad crashes in Alabama after crashing into the parking lot at Mobile International Speedway in March. Martinsville Speedway president Clay Campbell was also involved.

Enfinger and Frank Kimmel were both mired in the back of the field following issues earlier in the race and were trying to work their way back to the front of the field.

“We were trying to make a run back to the front,” Enfinger said. “I feel like we had the car to do it in. It’s disappointing.”

And then there was Tommy Hessert who entered the race fourth in the championship standings and the defending winner of the Talladega ARCA race. During his only pit stop on the afternoon, the Cunningham Motorsports crew were unable to get all the fuel into his No. 77 Dodge.

With the race going into overtime, Hessert ran out of fuel when taking the green and white and was relegated to 15th on a day he felt like he should have won.

“(There are) No words to describe how disappointing that was,” Hessert tweeted after the race. “Should have had it.”

Meanwhile, Josh Williams entered and ended the race third in the standings but may not enter the next race at Toldeo on May 17 due to funding. A last lap spin sent him from fifth-to-18th on a day where he too was poised to capitalize on the misfortunes of his fellow frontrunners.

As a result of the stereotypical Talladega crashing, the championship standings have condensed considerably.

  1. Grant Enfinger Ldr.
  2. Austin Wayne Self -95
  3. Josh Williams -155
  4. David Levine -185
  5. Tommy Hessert -200
  6. Thomas Praytor -245
  7. Kyle Weatherman -250
  8. Brandon Jones -260
  9. Sarah Cornett Ching -310
  10. Bobby Hamilton Jr. -315
Home Tracks

Blake Jones Earns First Career ARCA Victory at Talladega

TALLADEGA, Ala. — ARCA Racing Series presented by Menards rookie Blake Jones gave Cunningham Motorsports two straight wins at Talladega Superspeedway, taking the lead from teammate Tom Hessert on the final lap of the International Motorsports Hall of Fame 200 Friday night.

“This is a dream come true,” said the 18-year-old Jones. “To come here and win at Talladega in just my second restrictor plate track is unbelievable.”

Jones took the lead on the final restart of the race, surviving four cautions and a red flag to pull in front of his Cunningham Motorsports teammate when Hessert ran out of gas after taking the green and white flag together. Venturini Motorsports driver Cody Coughlin, in the No. 55 JEGS Toyota, was second after winning the Menards Pole Award while Cole Powell was third in the No. 58 Lira Motorsports Ford.

Brandon Jones, in the Tide-Menards Toyota, finished fourth with Russ Dugger trailing in fifth.

“We had been working on restarts all day trying to get a jump on him (Hessert),” Jones said. “I don’t know if we would have been able to get him on that one or not, but when he dropped down I just had to hang in there.”

Jones, driving the No. 22 Uncle Ray’s Potato Chips Dodge, will graduate high school in Tennessee next week. He said Crew Chief Paul Andrews played a big role in the win.

“I can’t think him enough for the car he gave me,” Jones said. “It’s just unreal.”

The race went 79 laps, three laps more than the advertised 76-lap distance when a caution came out for a Josh Williams spin just after Hessert had taken the white flag. The extra laps proved to be too much for Hessert, who ran out of gas.

Matt Kurzejewski finished sixth in the Costy’s Energy Service Chevrolet and Scott Sheldon seventh in the Allegiant Travel Chevrolet. Sarah Cornett-Ching placed a career-best eighth in the Chevrolet while Bo LeMastus also gained a career-best finish ninth in the Crosley-T&T Construction-Glad Performance Dodge. Tyler Audie finished a career-best 10th in the Audie Expo Toyota.

It was a big point day for SCOTT Rookie Challenge point leader David Levine, who finished 11th in the Gary Yeomans-Ford Performance-TraqGear Ford. Buster Graham was 12th in the Louisiana Tech Ford. The top three drivers in the point standings entering the race – and four of the top five – had trouble during the race. Grant Enfinger crashed with 10 laps to go. Austin Wayne Self, who was second, crashed on lap 53, and Josh Williams finished 18th after the spin on lap 76. Hessert finished 15th.

Self and Brad Smith were involved in a crash that caused the first caution. Smith was transported to a local hospital for further evaluation after a hard hit into the Talladega safer barrier. Will Kimmel, Enfinger and Clay Campbell were involved in a late-race crash on the backstretch as well.

“We were trying to make a run back to the front,” Enfinger said. “I feel like we had the car to do it in. It’s disappointing.”

Powell climbed 18 spots, from 21st to third.

“Great run,” Powell said. “We didn’t start our day off like we wanted to, but we never gave up all day. I’m ecstatic about third place.”

Hessert led the most laps, 60, and Coughlin led 11 laps and Jones eight. The race took one hour and 40 minutes to complete.

The ARCA Racing Series next races at Toledo Speedway, the home track for the series. The Menards 200 presented by Federated Car Care will be May 17. The complete results from Talladega can be viewed below.

  1. Blake Jones/Sevierville TN           Uncle Ray’s Potato Chips Dodge
  2. Cody Coughlin/Delaware OH      JEGS Toyota
  3. Cole Powell/Mount Brydges Ontario       Gary Yeomans Ford
  4. Brandon Jones/Atlanta GA          Tide-Menards Toyota
  5. Russ Dugger/Owasso OK              Finney-Gosselin Racing Chevrolet
  6. Matt Kurzejewski/Mansfield PA               Costy’s Energy Service Chevrolet
  7. Scott Sheldon/Las Vegas NV       Allegiant Travel Chevrolet
  8. Sarah Cornett-Ching/Summerland BC Chevrolet
  9. Bo LeMastus/Louisville KY            Crosley Brands-T&T Constr-Glad Precision Dodge
  10. Tyler Audie/Orlando FL Audie Expo-NP Properties Toyota
  11. David Levine/Highland Park IL    Ford Performance-Traqgear-Gary Yeomans Ford
  12. Buster Graham/Lafayette LA      Louisiana Tech Ford
  13. Mark Thompson/Cartersville GA               Phoenix Air Toyota
  14. Frank Kimmel/Clarksville IN         101 Ranch Records-Menards Toyota
  15. Tom Hessert/Cherry Hill NJ          Barbera’s Autoland Dodge
  16. Terry Jones/Amherstburg Ontario           JAAR Excavating Toyota
  17. Ed Pompa/Ballston Spa NY           Milton CAT-Double H Ranch Chevrolet
  18. Josh Williams/Port Charlotte FL Southwest Florida Cable Construction Ford
  19. Chris Bailey/South Park PA          CA Bailey Excavating-Notch Gear Ford
  20. Thomas Praytor/Mobile AL          DK-LOK Ford
  21. Andy Seuss/Salisbury NC              O.B. Builders Chevrolet
  22. Bobby Hamilton Jr./Greenbrier TN           Nitroforce Industries Titan 1000 Dodge
  23. George Cushman/Waterville NY               Cushman Truck Repair Chevrolet
  24. Scott Edwards/Ormond Beach FL              Carter 2 Motorsports Dodge
  25. James Swanson/Clarksboro NJ  Kan Do Chevrolet
  26. Bobby Gerhart/Lebanon PA        Lucas Oil-MAV TV Chevrolet
  27. Barry Fitzgerald/Sykesville MD   Colonial Bus Ford
  28. Grant Enfinger/Fairhope AL Chevrolet
  29. Will Kimmel/Sellersburg IN          Kimmel Racing Ford
  30. Clay Campbell/Martinsville VA   Federated Auto Parts Chevrolet
  31. Brad Smith/Shelby Township MI      Ford
  32. Austin Wayne Self/Austin TX      AM Technical Solutions-Pirate Energy Ford
  33. Eric Caudell/Piedmont OK            Carter 2 Motorsports Dodge
  34. Josh White/Charleston WV         LRSolutions-Hixson Construction Chevrolet
  35. Tim Viens/Daytona Beach FL Ford

Power Rankings: The Fast Fifteen

NASCAR wanted to produce Game 7 moments with its new championship format and certainly received its biggest example yet at Talladega Superspeedway when Brad Keselowski staved off Chase elimination with a based loaded, bottom of the ninth home run-style victory on Sunday afternoon in northeastern Alabama.

The parity-ridden restrictor plate race was also the biggest opportunity yet for several teams to show some muscle and move up the power rankings before the final four-race stretch of the season.

The updated Fast 15 list can be viewed below:

1. Brad @Keselowski (LW: 15)

No team more exemplifies the spirit of the new Sprint Cup championship format than the 2012 champions who won at Talladega, against all odds, to advance to the penultimate round of the Chase for the Championship. After winning at Talladega, Keselowski and crew have to feel unbeatable heading into four of their best venues.

2. @KevinHarvick (LW: 2)

After winning at Charlotte last weekend, Kevin Harvick had little to lose in racing for the win at Talladega. He was near the front for a large portion of the GEICO 500 and ultimately finished ninth. You have to wonder what could have been if Harvick hadn’t of been spun on pit road in the closing laps of the race, eliminating all of his track position in the process. So it goes.

3. @JoeyLogano (LW: 1)

Logano did not win the race but he might have been the biggest winner at Talladega outside of teammate Brad Keselowski. In blocking for Keselowski and pushing him towards the win, Logano proved himself a team player in the eyes of bossman Roger Penske, an act that will likely keep him on the good side of the Captain’s Ship for a long time.

4. @RyanJNewman (LW: 7)

Equipped with the powerful Earnhardt Childress Racing engines, Newman was able to put his car wherever he needed to in the big pack on Sunday afternoon and was leading late before the Team Penske one-two punch ultimately knocked him out and back to fifth. Still, it was good enough to get him into the third round of the Chase for the Championship without a victory. He is an upset alert in the making.

5. @JeffGordonWeb (LW: 3)

Gordon had an absolute dreadful weekend at Talladega, failing to post a fast time in the disastrous qualifying format, a result that forced him to start at the tail-end of the field. Once there, he decided to ride in the back throughout the race, hoping to avoid the Big One and was unable to work his way to the front. The results nearly proved disastrous when he finished 26th and was the last driver to advance in the Chase by a mere three points over teammate Kasey Kahne.

6. @MattKenseth (LW: 10)

Oh the irony … Kenseth rode in the back all day, avoiding all the wrecks and quickly worked his way to the front when it mattered most, only to push new rival Brad Keselowski to the win on the final lap of the race. All this after the weekend began with the two working out of neighboring garage stalls one week after scuffling in the pit area at Charlotte last weekend.

7. @DennyHamlin (LW: 9)

This new championship format is really setting up well for Denny Hamlin and the No. 11 team. If Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson are the A+ players at Martinsville, Denny Hamlin is a A- with four wins and an average finish of 8.8. He’s also a former winner at Texas and has always been competitive at Phoenix. The sport is going to learn an awful lot about the moxie of Joe Gibbs Racing and their longest-tenured driver over the next month.

8. Carl Edwards (LW: 6)

Like Denny Hamlin up above, the next month shakes out pretty well for the Roush Fenway Racing ace. No longer confused for a lame duck, the soon to be departing Edwards has five wins at Texas and Phoenix and should he advance to Homestead — another two victories. Keep counting the No. 99 team out at your own peril.

9. @KyleLarsonRacin (LW: 5)

Following the hottest Chase to any driver in the history of the sport (despite being outside of the playoffs), the wacky randomness of Talladega ultimately brought Yung Money closer to Earth, gridding him 17th by the end of the race. His spin at the end of green flag pit stops late in the race ensured the wackiness that would ensue over the final 10 laps.

10. @JamieMcMurray (LW: 8)

It was quite the eventful day for Frosted Tips on Sunday who began the GEICO 500 by leaking his hair gel, or perhaps oil, all over the windshields of most of the competition. He was able to plug the hole, work his way to the front only to cut a tire in front of the field resulting in damage to both Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski. Considering where they finished the race, it’s likely safe to say no harm, no foul outside of his own result — a 35th-place finish.

11. @ClintBowyer (LW: NR)

It’s been a frustrating season for Bowyer who needed his third-place run on Sunday just to restore his good juju heading into the World Series where he is an avid Kansas City Royals fan.

12. @KaseyKahne (LW: 11)

The No. 5 team’s topsy-turvy run for a championship ended under frustrating circumstances on Sunday at Talladega. Kahne finished 12th in the GEICO 500 and had earned a top-8 in the points finish but was bumped to ninth due to 10th-place Keselowski winning the race. Kahne was left lamenting a missed opportunity from Kansas.

13. @DaleJr (LW: 13)

Earnhardt did everything he was supposed to do to win Talladega — his only path to advance in the Chase but the efforts came up just short, especially when he was turned by Greg Biffle late in the race. The magical run for he and departing crew chief Steve Letarte ended at Earnhardt’s most storied stomping ground.

14. @JimmieJohnson (LW: 14)

The six-time and defending champion also gave a last-ditch effort at Talladega all he had, leading the most laps in the process but was just bullied out of the lead by Team Penske and Ryan Newman late in the race. NASCAR will have a new champion by the end of the season.

15. @LandonCassill (LW: NR)

It took 147 starts but Landon Cassill finally has a top-10 in the Sprint Cup Series and it comes with it the distinction of his first top-5 as well. It’s only restrictor plate racing but someone please sign this guy to a major team because he’s a savvy smart driver who most proves it at Daytona and Talladega.


Weaver: New Chase Producing a Legitimate Champion

By Matt Weaver (TALLADEGA, Ala.) –The legitimacy of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion has come under continuous scrutiny ever since the advent of the Chase for the Championship but the events of Sunday afternoon at Talladega Superspeedway may have added much-needed credibility to the eventual champion in 2014.

The naysayers often proclaim that the champions of today are not comparable to those of yesteryear. Worst yet, others say that the playoff era titleholders are somehow a lesser breed because they have not always been the “best team.”

So this begs an obvious question: How do we define the best? Is the best team the one with the most wins or is it the one with the best average finish over 36 races?

The traditionalists would have the driver who accumulates the most points over 36 races crowned the champion but NASCAR has adopted several point payout systems that would have produced different results if applied over a full season. (1992, anyone?) The notion of a best team is completely subjective and not affected by a playoff in the least.

So perhaps the mark of a champion is earned when a team executes at the highest level and when the stakes are highest — like Brad Keselowski and the No. 2 team’s victory on Sunday at Talladega.

Despite the random feel of the Chase Grid, the new championship format requires that teams continually execute for the entirety of the format. There is no cruising for consistency. The format requires excellence, especially when a team endures bad luck like the No. 2 at Kansas and Charlotte over the past two weeks.

At this point, it was win or go home and the 2012 champions drove right into Victory Lane.

Eight drivers now remain in the 2014 Chase for the Championship. They are Keselowski, Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, Ryan Newman, Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon.

Each driver and team has utilized a different path to advance to the Eliminator Eight. The format is the best of both worlds — demanding victories and consistency — and allowing seemingly defeated drivers, like Keselowski, to rise above the ashes.

Despite a combined eight victories this season, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kasey Kahne and Kyle Busch were simply not the best this season. With all due respect, if they were, they would have answered the bell and risen to the occasion in the same vein that Keselowski did when it mattered the most.

The eventual champion is going to be the team that executes at Martinsville, Texas, Phoenix and Homestead. The best team is going to win one of the next three races and at Martinsville, and when it’s do or die in Miami, they are going to rise to the occasion and do what has to be done.

Because that’s what the best team does. That’s what a champion does.

So how do we define the best in the world? Right now, with only four races remaining, it looks an awful lot like Brad Keselowski.