Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – TALLADEGA, AL – It was a dramatic day for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff drivers in Monday’s rain-delayed 1000Bulbs.com 500 at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway – with all 12 championship-eligible drivers involved in some way in an assortment of wrecks, including three versions of the track’s famous “Big One.”
The race ultimately came down to a photo finish between a pair of Ryans. Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney beat Roush-Fenway Racing veteran Ryan Newman to the finish line by a foot – .007-seconds – to take the victory and ensure his position in the Playoff’s Round of 8.
Blaney, who led a race best 35 laps, prevailed on a day where the question became “who wouldn’t” be affected by some form of race contact during the style of high-speed, close-quarter racing that has made this playoff race an absolute must-see event for fans.
Ironically, it was Blaney, who essentially started the wild Playoff action on Sunday – spinning as he hit pit road during a stop. He managed to navigate more steadily Monday, avoiding the big wrecks and ultimately hoisting the big trophy. Next week’s race at Kansas Speedway determines which six drivers join Blaney and last week’s Dover, Del. winner Kyle Larson in the Round of 8 beginning in Martinsville, Va. in two weeks.
“Missed some big ones today,’’ Blaney said with a slight smile. And that was an understatement.
Veteran Denny Hamlin, who finished third, had a high-action day, but was where he needed to be in the waning laps.
“[The strategy] changed with every caution, it was a game of chess all day,’’ said Hamlin, a four-time winner this season who now leads the standings among those that haven’t won in this playoff round.
“We played the race as good as we could, given all the problems we had.’’
Behind Hamlin in the Playoff standings now is his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr., a series-best six-race winner this season, who finished 26th Monday. He trails Hamlin by eight points. Their JGR teammate, the 2019 regular season champion, Kyle Busch is 15 points behind Hamlin.
Stewart-Haas Racing driver Kevin Harvick, who finished 17th, is ranked sixth just in front of Blaney’s Penske teammates Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano.
Hendrick Motorsports driver Alex Bowman is ranked ninth – first outside the Playoff group that would move on. He trails Logano by 18 points. His teammate Chase Elliott is 10th, 22 points below the cutoff. SHR driver Clint Bowyer is 11th, 24 points back and Hendrick’s William Byron – who won Stage 1 of the race – is ranked 12th, 27 points behind Logano.
The big action started just past the race’s midway point. Larson – the only driver who showed up in Talladega already with a guaranteed spot in the Round of 8 – was among a group of drivers sidelined after the first multi-car accident on Lap 107.
The incident happened at the front of the field when race leader Bowman tried to block a run from behind by fellow Playoff contenders, Ford drivers Logano and Bowyer. The contact between Logano’s Ford and Bowman’s Chevy sent Bowman to the bottom of the race track. His car spun back up into traffic collecting 10 cars, including his Hendrick teammate Jimmie Johnson and Larson. Bowman, Johnson and Larson suffered too much damage to continue and finished 37-38-39, respectively.
“After watching it, I just didn’t realize how fast the 22 (Logano) was coming there,’’ said Bowman, who goes to Kansas Speedway next weekend now ranked last in the 12-driver Playoff field.
“I probably shouldn’t have even attempted to block that. He was a solid chuck faster than us, so that’s on me. It’s part of Talladega and superspeedway racing. It’s really unfortunate for our team. I apologize to the other guys that got taken out in that.’’
That was only the beginning of an intense afternoon.
Bowyer’s No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford – which narrowly escaped the Bowman incident – led 13 laps and won Stage 2 of the race – his first stage victory of the season. However, he spun out on Lap 153 and came to rest precariously on the track apron. Because the car’s back wheels were on the high banking and the front tires on the ground, Bowyer was frustratingly stuck and needed the safety crew to push him off so he could make his way to pit road.
The time it took to get Bowyer’s car off its perch cost him two laps, however. He had to make two pit stops during the ensuing caution period but rallied on the afternoon to finish 23rd.
The next major incident happened with 26 laps remaining – again among the race leaders. Racing three-wide for laps, Joey Logano got a huge push from behind in an accordion-effect that ended up collecting eight cars – including Byron.
And the multi-car mayhem wasn’t over yet.
With seven laps remaining, an 11-car pileup happened during tight at the front of the pack. The Busch brothers, Kurt and Kyle, made contact, with Kyle Busch’s No. 18 JGR Toyota spinning up into the field. Playoff drivers Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick were among those caught up in some form.
“We had our ups and downs for sure today,’’ said polesitter Chase Elliott, who rallied to an eight place finish and is the defending winner of this week’s Kansas race.
“Got caught in that [first big] crash, but my guys did a nice job of putting it back together as best we could. Just head out west to Kansas now and try to get a win out there. That’s about all we can do now.
“You have to have the mindset to go out there and control what we can control and do everything we can to get a win. That’s all we can do.’’