Through the Gears: The four things we learned at Talladega
Multi-car teams working together: it’s a modern NASCAR philosophy that began in the 1980s, failed miserably, and was redefined during the 1990s by Hendrick Motorsports. Built with Jeff Gordon, massaged by Terry Labonte and perfected by Jimmie Johnson, the organization has won 11 championships based on multiple cars sharing information, turning from rivals on the racetrack into individuals openly helping one another. It’s a motto of “one for all, all for one” that HMS has even employed through its engine and chassis-sharing partnerships with teams like Stewart-Haas Racing and Chip Ganassi’s two-car effort — both considered “strong allies” to aid their growing information library.
Yet here we are, with four races remaining in the Sprint Cup Series season and “one” refers to the number of Hendrick-owned cars still in contention for a title. Johnson? Gone. Dale Earnhardt Jr.? Toast (and facing a crew chief change in 2015, to boot). Kasey Kahne? Well, one could argue he should never have made the Chase in the first place. But considering the organization’s long history of success, along with wins in 11 of the season’s first 32 races, going 1-for-4 in this new playoff format has to be considered a minor shock. Johnson has a history of winning titles, knowing when to peak at the right time; Earnhardt, in his final season with Steve Letarte, appeared to be at his Hendrick peak. Now 40, one wonders if NASCAR’s most popular driver will have another season as good as this.
Brad Keselowski knows a thing or two about that teamwork. After all, he was brought up within Hendrick Motorsports, being groomed to one day fill a seat within its Cup roster. When he left for Penske Racing on his own timetable, he did things his own way but never forgot the power of sharing information. After handpicking his teammate, Joey Logano, Penske’s two-driver effort has become closer than ever, a formidable foe fighting organizations that have twice as many cars on the track (and, in theory twice the resources).
It was that Keselowski-Logano duo — knowing former was in trouble as the lap[s wound down at Talladega — that worked together over the frantic final laps. With the No. 2 team needing a win to make the Chase, there was Logano’s No. 22 fighting to hit Keselowski’s back bumper at every turn. Glued together every chance they got, their teamwork achieved the goal of getting both drivers into the final eight, as Keselowski earned the victory in a green-white-checker finish where even fierce rival Matt Kenseth — who would have loved to have turned him sideways instead of drafting with him — fell short at the finish line.
Where was Hendrick’s effort, whose drivers Johnson and Earnhardt combined to lead 115 of 194 laps? Twenty fourth and 31st, respectively. In the final 10 laps, and with both drivers needing a victory to advance, the modus operandi on the radio was “every man for himself.” Especially in Junior’s camp, where an outright refusal to work together left both men vulnerable before Greg Biffle did his part in finishing off Junior’s Chase the way his Kansas bump — while also accidental — left Johnson in the same boat. Hendrick had two teams, housed in the same shop acting as individuals. Meanwhile, Penske’s two produced perfect synergy.
Surely in the days to come we’ll talk about bad luck, bad formatting and all the little things that kept Johnson, Earnhardt and Kahne from moving on. But on a day where teamwork reigned supreme, Hendrick emerged without a top-10 finish and it seemed, as the champagne rained down on Keselowski, that NASCAR’s multi-car king was beaten in the game he created.
“Through the Gears,” post-Talladega, we go …
FIRST GEAR: Keselowski’s great save
Much of the last week’s news was focused around Brad Keselowski’s on-track behavior. After a $50,000 fine following his actions at Charlotte which included separate incidents with Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth and Tony Stewart (who got docked 25K himself), the 2012 champion was under a microscope. The old theory of “getting kicked when you’re down” came into play, and it seemed plenty of pundits both inside and outside of the garage were ready and willing to pile on.
Here’s the problem for them: Keselowski and his team didn’t stay down for long. Despite a spin by Jamie McMurray, one where his No. 1 car slammed into Keselowski’s passenger side door, the bunch never lost focus. In both repairing the damage, aligning the driver with teammate Logano and practicing strong pit stops, the team never lost its fire. So when the pack shuffled a bit entering the final lap, Keselowski was in perfect position to seize control of the race. Here’s the irony of it all: rival Kenseth, one week after locking Keselowski in a headlock, charged to second and was right behind his adversary at the checkered flag.
“It was funny how this racing world works out,” Keselowski said. “I don't know why it is that way. I don't know why it seems like every week where there's either a fight in the garage or a mishap or something like that happens, those two cars and people end up together, whether it was our cars were parked together in the garage area, or on the racetrack for the win in the closing laps at Talladega. I don't know why that happens.”
“You have to do what’s best,” added Kenseth. “That's where I felt I had to put my car for my best chance at the best finish.”
So Keselowski survived, bouncing back from two tough weeks, and once again has an excellent shot to win a title. Two championships in three years, after zero in twenty-plus years for owner Roger Penske, is a good way to earn unconditional, lifetime support from your organization.
“He's a great driver,” said the owner. “We have a long-term relationship with him. If he wants to get a little upset sometimes, that's OK with me. We'll let NASCAR figure out if he's over the line or not. I guess it cost us 50 grand. I'll take 50 grand and the win this week, wouldn't you?”
SECOND GEAR: Kyle’s great fall
For the first time in his 10-year career, Kyle Busch entered Talladega sitting on five straight top-10 finishes inside the Chase. For a driver who’s been doomed by self-inflicted wounds, it appeared he’d finally learned the consistency needed within NASCAR’s championship format to contend. At ninth in the standings, 26 points ahead of teammate Matt Kenseth, it would take an epic fail for Busch to miss the final eight. Announcing his wife’s pregnancy this weekend, very little could bring Busch crashing down to earth with a simple strategy: run at the back, stay out of trouble and pick your drafting partners wisely.
And along came rookie Austin Dillon. The No. 3 car became the demise of Busch’s best ever Chase. Riding in the back, trying to stay out of trouble, the No. 18 Toyota was in perfect position to avoid “The Big One” when it inevitably happened on lap 104. Following contact between J.J. Yeley and Aric Almirola, the track was blocked and Busch slowed immediately. Everywhere, cars scattered but there were only a handful running behind Busch. Surely Dillon, who’s completed more laps on the circuit than anyone else this season, would see the wreck unfolding in front of him.
The answer came in the form of scrunched sheet metal, Busch’s car getting spun hard into other cars and his Chase bid officially becoming toast. Due to a weird scenario of other contenders avoiding wrecks and a limited amount of attrition (at least for ‘Dega) from the big wreck that did happen, Busch could do no better than 40th, allowing several others to pass him on points and ending his bid for this year’s title.
“There is no safe place in here,” claimed crew chief Dave Rogers. “Everyone, every time we come to a speedway everyone will strategize — we’re going to ride in the back, we’re going to ride in the front, we’re going to do this. The truth is that if you’re out there on the racetrack 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.”
Busch left the track without comment; a bad time for immaturity to rear its ugly head. With a believed new crew chief coming in 2015, it would have been a good moment for the 29-year-old to show some leadership. While he had a right to be frustrated, we didn’t see Kahne, Johnson or Earnhardt ducking the cameras. Whatever crew chief assumes the reins in 2015 (Rogers is said to be promoted within JGR) keeping Busch’s mood swings in line will clearly be their number one assignment.
THIRD GEAR: Underdogs triumph again at ‘Dega
NASCAR’s most unpredictable track has always been a prime place for David to slay Goliath (see: David Ragan, pulling the upset of the decade last year for underfunded Front Row Motorsports). On Sunday, none of NASCAR’s lower-tier teams was a true threat to win but several made it through with exceptional performances. Landon Cassill, passed over for top-tier rides in the free agent market, gave the best impression, forcing owners to give a second look with a fourth-place finish driving for a small-time Hillman Racing team that built its equipment from the ground up. That’s right, no major team support, making the achievement for the No. 40 bunch that much more impressive.
“We don’t have a lot to work with. But what we do work with, we set out to run good at these four superspeedway races,” Cassill said. “And we proved that this year. Fourth place is just amazing.”
Cassill’s pseudo-teammate, Travis Kvapil, came home sixth driving a Circle Sport car for just the second time all season. It’s the best effort for owner Joe Falk since returning to the Cup circuit in 2011 after a decade away. And Casey Mears, while better funded with single-car Germain Racing, earned a serviceable 10th-place finish. In all, six non-Chasers crept into the top 10, the most for any playoff race this season.
FOURTH GEAR: What happens now?
With the Chase field cut to eight, there’s a clear separation between favorites and underdogs in position to make NASCAR’s first ever “Final Four.” The two Penske cars, Logano and Keselowski, have won 11 races and are the clear favorites to advance. Kevin Harvick, with over 1,800 laps led, has been dominant at times during the postseason and has the full support of Stewart-Haas Racing. Same for Gordon, has all of Hendrick Motorsports at his disposal and would lead the points without NASCAR’s Chase format.
The other four drivers, Carl Edwards, Ryan Newman, Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth, have combined for just three wins this season. Anything can happen, of course, and each one has victories at Martinsville, Texas or Phoenix since 2012. But if any of them did it this time, knocking out the four contenders above, it would have to be considered a minor upset.
NASCAR’s new qualifying format took its toll on Ricky Stenhouse Jr. The Roush Fenway driver failed to qualify after a misunderstanding on timing left the No. 17 Ford heading out too late during his session. With so many “underdog” cars timing into the field, Stenhouse was too low in owner points to earn a provisional to start the race (among those needing a provisional: five Chasers, Tony Stewart and talented rookie Kyle Larson). It’s the second time in two weeks an RFR team, once the pride of Ford’s stock car racing effort, has failed to qualify. (Trevor Bayne missed the show at Charlotte.). … Rookie Justin Allgaier in the single-car No. 51 effort also missed his first race of the season. It’s the first time two cars inside the top 30 in owner points have failed to qualify all season, causing critics to attack NASCAR’s provisional system. My question: Why? If a car couldn’t get up to speed and has had a difficult season it deserves to go home, no matter how many sponsors adorn it or fans are in town to see it race. It is an athletic competition, after all. … Two cautions for debris — the second of which set up a green-white-checker finish — makes you wonder what will happen at Homestead. (To be fair, the second one at Talladega, occurring just after a spin, had a less dramatic effect on the outcome rather than if it happened after a 60-lap green flag run.) You would think NASCAR would go caution-free in the final laps unless there’s a wreck or a giant bull is running around at the start/finish line. There would be no silly cautions for debris to decide a winner-take-all race for the championship … right? Right?
Follow Tom Bowles on Twitter: @NASCARBowles
Photo by Action Sports, Inc.