1000Bulbs.com 500 – Talladega Superspeedway

Talladega Superspeedway – the wild card track where anything can happen and usually does.  It’s the home of restrictor plate racing where drivers compete in such close proximity that one mistake from one car ends up collecting several, creating a massive wreck that’s become known as the ‘Big One’.  These are some of the reasons behind the track’s infamous tagline of “THIS is Talladega!”  But this Sunday’s Round Two playoff race didn’t come close to living up to the tagline.  Based on social media reaction to all but the last few laps, “THIS was boring”.

Qualifying for the 1000Bulbs.com 500 placed all four Stewart Hass drivers at the front of the starting grid, with Kurt Busch as Pole Sitter.  And that’s the way the majority of the race would play out as the SHR team worked together like a well-oiled machine, occasionally switching up their order but essentially dominating the field as they ran unexcitedly in single file.

Heading to the Green Flag

The race had no sooner begun when, on Lap 2, driver David Ragan, ironically in the 1000Bulbs.com-sponsored Ford, deliberately moved up the track and dropped out of the draft after losing power.  Ragan was heard radioing to his team that he had no oil pressure.  Though the car briefly refired, it shut down again and Ragan headed to pit road for repairs.  On Lap 12, Jeffrey Earnhardt had a tire go down and spun through the infield grass.  The single car spin brought out the yellow flag and several cars took advantage by pitting for gas, however, it was earlier than expected considering the 40-45 lap fuel window.  Only a few laps later, Paul Menard returned to pit road after radioing in that “something broke”.

Meanwhile, in the final 10 laps of the stage, the four cars of Stewart Haas Racing (Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer, and Aric Almirola) gained almost a half track lead as they broke away from the first pack of cars, which had included Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney, and Chase Elliott.  Pole sitter Kurt Busch took the stage win.

No doubt you’ve heard the expression, ‘Second verse, same as the first’ which denotes something repetitive.  That’s right, Stage 2 was almost a repeat performance.  Once again all four Stewart Haas cars proved their dominance with fast pit stops and lined up P1 to P4 for the re-start.  And again, they easily pulled away from the field.  For race fans looking and hoping for a more competitive race, the situation was becoming tedious. On Lap 63, Jimmie Johnson got loose on the tri-oval where banking was sheered off during the repave, thus creating a danger zone.  Johnson purposely veered down the track as he spun, to avoid collecting cars.  But he ended up hitting the inside wall and went a lap down during repairs. Later, on Lap 103, Kyle Larson suffered a single car spin after blowing the left front tire on the back straightaway.  It was one of the most graceful spins of the day as the #42 Camaro seemed to pirouette down the track and eventually pointed itself in the right direction.  Despite how delicate the spin may have looked, it tore up the right front fender and Larson headed to pit road.  This time, Kevin Harvick would claim the stage win.

Full House for the 1000bulbs.com500 Playoff Race

Just as the pace car came out to collect the field, Chase Elliott ran out of gas and had no choice but to head to his crew despite that pit road was closed until the next lap.  The penalty sent him to the back of the field for the final stage restart, though he didn’t remain there for long.

Thus far, the race was very unlike Talladega.  There had been no ‘big one’, only single-car spins.  The majority of the field were not racing door to door as usually seen in restrictor plate racing. Instead, the front of the pack ran single file, the very thing most race fans consider boring. And there hadn’t been much in the way of lead changes or battles for track position.  SHR had dominated.  Period.  And though all 3 Penske cars and some of the Hendrick team had made their way into the Top 10, none were fast enough to challenge the leaders.

Also strange was the fact that playoff drivers Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. purposely ran together near the back of the field, almost as if they were anticipating ‘the big one’ and were strategizing to avoid it.  Neither car had been running well all day and it showed, with both falling out early from their starting positions of P9 and P11 respectively, and sliding further and further back.

Jaime McMurray incurred a black flag penalty during the final stage after pushing Paul Menard below the yellow line.  With 51 laps to go, McMurray then blew a tire.  A controversial caution flew with 28 laps to go when an uncontrolled tire from DJ Kennington‘s pit rolled into the grass on the infield. Though none of the cars would have come in contact with it, or even close for that matter, cars were forced to make an extra lap under yellow, causing grave concern for drivers that were running short on gas.

On Lap 186, playoff driver Alex Bowman, who is in a must-win situation, got turned in Turn 4 and collected teammates Chase Elliott and William Byron, as well as JJ Yeley.  The caution flag caused the race to go into overtime.

Aric Almirola celebrates 1st win of the season

The white flag flew signaling one lap to go when suddenly Matt DiBenedetto got turned with his spin collecting Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr who, ironically, had been trying to avoid an accident.  It also entangled Chase Elliott, who was T-boned by Busch’s car and then dragged along the wall.  Much to everyone’s surprise, this time the caution flag was NOT displayed.  Instead, the race continued with Kevin Harvick running out of fuel first, followed by Kurt Busch who had been leading.  Teammate Aric Almirola, who had a run on Busch and was already at his back bumper, watched as Busch suddenly faded and Almirola took the checkered flag. The win was much deserved after repeatedly coming so very close to winning throughout the year.

Teammate Clint Bowyer finished 2nd, with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 3rd, Denny Hamlin 4th, and Joey Logano rounding out the Top 5.

Stay tuned for next week’s Hollywood Casino 400 elimination race at Kansas Speedway before heading into the Round of 8 at Martinsville.

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