In his 300th Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series start, Brad Keselowski escaped Talladega with his fifth victory after a last lap pass over Ryan Newman. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. finished seventh after surviving madness filled with crashes and pit road woes in his final start in Alabama.
Attrition was the word as Brad Keselowski survived the battlefield and won the Alabama 500 at Talladega Superspeedway in Talladega, Alabama Sunday. Keselowski muscled his way in front of Ryan Newman on the outside of turn three and cleared him while driving sideways at the trioval for his fifth win at the 2.66-mile circuit.
It’s Keselowski’s third win of the season, advancing into the Round of 8. Keselowski also joined an elite list of drivers who won in their 300th Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series start that includes Hall of Famer Rusty Wallace and Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch.
For a majority of the race, Keselowski raced without radio communication as debris damaged his roof antenna. However, his No. 2 Miller Lite crew solved the problem and Keselowski soldiered on without a dent on his car and continued Ford’s dominance at the restrictor plate circuits.
Keselowski said it wasn’t fun racing without proper communication with his team and added his team was fortunate to avoid further carnage.
“I was getting about every other word, but man it’s so hard to tell what’s going on when you got cars three wide and four wide. You enter in the corner two wide, but then someone sneaks in and next thing you know, you’re three and four wide,” Keselowski said. “It’s just part of the pain and the privilege at Talladega, it’s little bit of both. It’s a privilege to run here to run here, it can get painful and today it wasn’t for us. We were very-very fortunate to get through those wrecks.”
The race was plagued with incidents at pit entry and three race stoppages which extended the total of red flags this season to 17.
On lap 26, playoff contender Jamie McMurray was the first of several drivers who were victims of the attrition Sunday. Erik Jones slammed into the back of McMurray after slowing down to pit, turning McMurray’s car around and was struck by Jeffrey Earnhardt, lifting his car before the two came to rest in the trioval.
McMurray was credited with a 37th place finish, trailing eighth-place driver Jimmie Johnson by 29 points entering Kansas.
In his first Cup start since June 14, 1992 at Pocono Raceway, Mark Thompson, 66, was also involved as his right front wheel was damaged, finishing 39th.
Then on lap 67, Jimmie Johnson sustained right rear fender damage after Ty Dillon ran into the seven-time champion. The tap veered Johnson’s car to the left and had a minor fender bender with Danica Patrick. All three continued the race.
The dreaded “Big One” struck on lap 172 after points leader Martin Truex, Jr. got into the back of David Ragan. Ragan’s car clipped Kurt Busch, sending his No. 41 Monster Energy Ford into the wall, collecting Johnson, Kyle Busch, spring winner Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. and 13 others.
After the debris, tire smoke and Kyle’s left front wheel flying across the track unfolded, the field was cut in half. Those drivers were forced to retire from the fight, notably Johnson who was parked by NASCAR after his No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet team fixed the battered car under the red flag.
Six laps later, another multi-car crash took place in the same corner, taking out Kevin Harvick and Ryan Blaney. Joey Logano was sandwiched by Blaney and Trevor Bayne, pinning Blaney into the wall before crashing into Bayne, triggering the accident.
Blaney slid through the grass and went back across the track where Brendan Gaughan rammed into Blaney’s left door while Harvick hit the opposite end of Blaney’s car. Blaney finished in 18th while Harvick finished two spots behind him.
After another stoppage, the race once again resumed with Daniel Suarez leading. The lead was short lived on lap 183 where the third and final red flag came out as Suarez lost control and hit by Chase Elliott in turn three.
Kyle Larson was unable to escape the madness as he was collected by Suarez and took a hard hit into the wall. Despite heavy impact, Larson was one of the few playoff drivers to finish while Elliott’s No. 24 NAPA Chevrolet was terminated, finishing 16th.
Pole sitter Dale Earnhardt, Jr. escaped each disaster and crossed the finish line in seventh, just short of ending his career at Talladega with his seventh win on the day his farther won his last Cup race 17 years ago.
Dale Jr. said his chances of getting a great run on the final restart was diminished after sustaining right front splitter damage during the last caution.
“The splitter was probably an inch and a half low, I go into the corner it sat on that splitter and it just got tight and slow. I couldn’t really push anybody or get any runs going and nobody wanted to push me because they could see I was struggling a little bit, so nobody wanted to go with us,” Dale Jr. said. “We got lucky. We missed a lot of wrecks there. There were some points in the race we showed what the car was capable of, but man it real hard to get up there and keep that track position. It was a challenge. These plate races get harder and harder to win.”
“It would’ve been nice to win. I thought I was going to be okay, but we got going on the restart and I went down into one and it was hitting on that splitter,” Dale Jr. added. “We were getting shoved from behind and weren’t going anywhere and they were just flying by us, there was nothing we couldn’t do.”
Keselowski—who drove for Dale Jr.’s Xfinity Series team from 2007-2009—drove a commemorative paint scheme resembling Keselowski’s white Navy Chevrolet with the hashtag #Cheers2DaleJr on his rear bumper.
In victory lane, Keselowski discussed what Dale Jr. meant to his NASCAR career after winning once again at the track the Earnhardt family has mastered over the past 30 years.
“I’m never going to win 10 races I don’t think like Dale (Sr.) did. Dale Jr. has dominated this place for so many years. I feel lucky to have a team and a car and certainly getting to drive for Dale Jr. for a little bit. He taught me a lot and I’m thankful for that,” Keselowski said. “Thankful to get to run this scheme to honor him and his team, JR Motorsports. Miller Lite let us do that and that was really nice to them.”
Behind race winner Keselowski was Newman, Bayne, Logano and Aric Almirola who finished in the top 5. Hamlin was the only other playoff driver to finish in the top 10 after coming home in sixth.
Kasey Kahne finished eighth, followed by a career-best ninth-place finish by BK Racing rookie driver Gray Gaulding. The 19-year-old Virginian accomplished this feat in his 26th Cup start and was the highest finishing rookie.
Ragan brought his No. 38 Front Row Motorsports home in 10th.
Ty Dillon, Paul Menard, Larson and Matt Kenseth were the last four to finish the race as 26 drivers failed to finish at Talladega.
Due to the high attrition, the playoff standings have tightened up. After Talladega, Kyle Busch, Kenseth, Stenhouse, Jr. and McMurray are the bottom four drivers going into the final race in the Round of 12 Oct. 22 at Kansas Speedway in Kansas City, Kansas.
Harvick is the defending fall winner as he’ll look for his second win of the season to clinch a spot in the next round. Harvick is 22 points to the good of making in the next round, needing a win to secure a spot in the Round of 8.
Keselowski added being locked in the next round will give him extra breathing space and be a step closer of winning his second Cup championship.
“There’s so much to be thankful for. To be able to win and advance into the next round of the playoffs and not have to deal with all of that is really special,” Keselowski said. “I’m gonna get to play a few more video games and lighten up because I don’t get to worry about Kansas as much which is good.”
“Right around the corner is Texas, Martinsville and Phoenix and those are three tough tracks,” Keselowski said. “Martinsville, we were able to win in the spring and we better go out there and win. We had a great test there, so long ways left to go but this is one win we really needed.”