Did the Cup Series finally tame Talladega, or did the drivers just play it safe?
Either way, the Geico 500 at the fast-paced superspeedway didn’t play out like the usual ‘Dega. Taking into account Jamie McMurray‘s stunning wreck during practice on Friday, which saw the #1 Chevy Camaro barrel roll 6 and a half times, and given the unpredictability of most cars during qualifying on Saturday, which reached speeds of 194.48 mph set by pole-sitter Kevin Harvick, it seemed the stage was set for an action-packed restrictor plate race on Sunday. Surprisingly; however, it was relatively uneventful as drivers consistently reported their cars as feeling loose and ‘on the edge’. The new aero package and lack of downforce while reaching speeds of 202 mph during the race effectively prevented overly aggressive moves or running the top groove. This caused a lot of single file scenarios instead of the usual 3-wide racing.
Brad Keselowski proved victorious in a smoothly run Stage 1, with teammate Joey Logano placing second followed by Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, and Paul Menard. The results likely can be attributed to the Fords and Toyotas pitting early in the stage, which allowed them to advance as the Chevrolets pitted later on.
Not exactly the kind of big wreck we tend to see at ‘Dega, but indeed there was a wreck in Stage 2 that affected Kyle Larson, Erik Jones and Martin Truex Jr. Paul Menard in the #21 Wood Brothers Ford took the green-and-white checkered flag for his first-ever stage points, while holding off teammates Ryan Blaney and Joey Logano, who once again placed second.
Though stage points were collected by Keselowski and Menard, neither would finish the race as both were junked in the ‘Big One’ during Stage 3. It happened as Jimmie Johnson and Hendrick teammate William Byron got loose in Turn 4 as Johnson came down the track and Byron came up. As both cars began to slide sideways, Menard rear-ended Byron and also slid on the same trajectory. The melee took Keselowski into the wall as the wreck collected a total of 14 cars, including those of Austin Dillon, Ryan Blaney, Michael McDowell, and Clint Bowyer.
Joey Logano, in the Shell Pennzoil #22 Ford, led the final 42-of-188 laps and controlled the action after the Lap 166 wreck had thinned the field. Logano led the way to the green flag for the final restart on Lap 172 and stayed out front the rest of the way.
The victory was Logano’s third at Talladega and the 19th of his career, and it broke a dry spell of 36 races dating to the No. 22 team’s victory at Richmond last year, one which incurred a post-race penalty.
“I’m so proud to get this team back in Victory Lane – it’s been a year!” Logano exulted in Victory Lane. “It feels so good to be back in Victory Lane. There is no feeling like this. It feels so good. I don’t have to worry about the whole playoff thing anymore.”
Logano extended Ford’s winning streak at Talladega to six races with Ford drivers claiming six of the top seven positions.
Busch intended to pair with Harvick, his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate, for a final-lap charge at Logano, but Busch changed tactics when he saw that Stenhouse had a strong run on the next-to-last lap.
“We just needed the assistance from behind,” Busch said. “The 17 car (Stenhouse) was strong. All the Fords were great today. I was hoping he would get to us on the back straightaway so we could go on offense on the front to go win it, but it just didn’t materialize.
Kyle Busch saw his three-race winning streak end with a 13th-place finish at Talladega. The driver of the No. 18 Toyota was hit with a pit road speeding penalty under caution after the end of the second stage and recovered to run in the top five during the third stage, but he could make little progress after coming to pit road and restarting 18th on Lap 172. Teammate Denny Hamlin in the #11 Fed Ex Camry was also hit with back to back speeding penalties that ruined his chance of a Top 10 finish.
Chase Elliott was the only Chevrolet driver up front at the end of the race and finished third when he dove to the middle lane on the final lap and passed pole-sitter Kevin Harvick, who would finish fourth. During a post-race interview, Elliott expressed regret and frustration that none of the Ford drivers would make a move with him to shake things up and attempt a better finish, including defending race winner Ricky Stenhouse Jr. who showed little interest in pairing with anyone.