Since it opened in 1969, Talladega has been NASCAR’s racetrack of extremes. When right, the sport’s decision to slap restrictor plates on brings out maximum excitement, the best opportunity for 43 teams to compete on a level playing field. Feel-good stories emerge, like the case of Bob Jenkins, a restaurant owner who has filtered more money into his three-car team just to run 25th, than most will make in a lifetime. Since 2005, he has toiled — once suffering through a season with more than 30 DNQs — and posting only two top-5 finishes in 403 starts prior to Sunday. The dream was to pursue a Sprint Cup victory, but a look at the stat sheet would point one towards financial self-destruction … or a man in need of mental help.
Now, Jenkins can point right back at his critics and towards a trophy that is rightfully his. Jenkins’ Front Row Motorsports drivers Ragan and David Gilliland produced the first 1-2 finish in team history in the Aaron’s 499, outclassing the Goliaths they race against through smarts and speed. At no other track — even Daytona, with NASCAR’s handling package — would such a victory be remotely possible. (Previous best finish for this team in 2013: Ragan’s 20th at Richmond.) It’s the type of victory that brings attention to the sport, giving executives something to sell, potential new car owners justification to compete and the backside of the NASCAR garage a reason for hope. No one will change the way these men feel about plate racing now; heck, you could strap a parachute to the car at Daytona and they’d be happy based on the parity that gives them a chance.
On the other side of the fence sits Ryan Newman whose season, if not more, was mere feet from being cut tragically short on Sunday when an entire car landed on the windshield of his No. 39 Chevrolet. As chaos unfolded in front of him, Kurt Busch’s Chevy entry landed, then rolled over Newman’s car in the midst of a 12-car melee that’s become all too common at Talladega. It’s not the first time the driver has been in physical danger; four years ago, this nasty flip (LINK: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wxE1_VZkQKI) left the roll cage bent mere inches from his head.
“We had a race here in the spring, complaining about cars getting airborne,” Newman said then. “I wish NASCAR would do something. That’s not what anyone wants to see.”
Four years later, he’s saying the same words again, this time more viciously after not feeling that NASCAR has lifted a finger on the rules. No one will change the way Newman feels about plate racing now, he just doesn’t want himself or a competitor to end up dead.
Talladega. The land of extremes, where guilt, grief, miracles, merriment, disaster, disgust, rage and redemption come together as one. It’s why everyone is pushing for change, but as they do human nature makes it impossible to look away – keeping us in the same cycle forevermore.
FIRST GEAR: Two Davids snookered the field
Make no mistake, Ragan’s slice ‘n’ dice to the front of the pack would not have been possible without two things. One: Teammate David Gilliland, sitting on his back bumper and not letting go until the two cars were sitting out front. Those feeling like the “push” of tandem drafting was completely dead need to take a second look on how these cars were stuck together like superglue down the stretch.
“I know he wishes that he was sitting in my shoes right now,” said Ragan of his teammate, now winless in 232 Cup Series starts. “I kind of wish that he would have had a chance to win the race, too.”
I’m not sure Gilliland cared much, though. His whole family was in attendance to watch Ragan’s post-race presser, a sign of the teamwork atmosphere this underdog organization has pushed since the beginning. Fact: Ragan now has as many wins with this team (one) in just 15 months as he did in five full seasons driving for Roush Fenway Racing. Turns out all the money in the world can’t buy that all-important chemistry needed for those moments when people need to bring out the best in each other.
“He was driving for a top-tier team, had UPS as a sponsor and when he left, he bought into what we were trying to do at Front Row,” said Jenkins. “His expectations of himself and his team never changed. He didn't look at it as if, ‘Hey, I'm taking a step down here, I realize I'm going to be a back marker.’ He continues to expect a lot out of himself and a lot out of his team, and I think what happened is people bought into that and they followed behind him and we've seen results.”
That belief system brings me to point No. 2: it wasn’t shared by his Sprint Cup competitors. Go ahead, you have my permission to review that final lap . Notice how Matt Kenseth drifts up on the backstretch to draft with Carl Edwards as if he needs to stick with the No. 99 to have a shot. Had he stayed in the middle, the FRM duo would have been blocked and we’d be talking about a different winner today. As for Edwards, he just didn’t see the freight train until it was too late, taking a prime opportunity to win a plate race away from a man who’s been victimized far too often there.
“David just got us,” Edwards said. “He did his job. As long as I’m not upside down, in the fence, it was pretty clean.”
For an organization who, just a few weeks ago stated they needed extra sponsorship  for several races the outcome at Talladega was nothing short of incredible.
SECOND GEAR: Is it all getting to Brad Keselowski?
One driver, though, was crying foul over Ragan’s miracle moment. Brad Keselowski, in several tweets  after the race, felt his rival lined up in the wrong lane for the final restart. Several photos showed the cars trying to pass each other for position on the backstretch under yellow before NASCAR made the final call as to where Keselowski, Scott Speed and Ragan would line up. The verdict was Speed eighth, Keselowski ninth and Ragan 10th based on where they were at the last scoring loop when the caution came out. Were they right? Judge for yourself at the 2:42 mark of this clip . My take is that’s it’s far too close to call.
Either way, Keselowski was presumptuous to predict one change in lane would have earned him a victory – or cost Ragan one. Plate races are so unpredictable that you’ll get 1,000 different endings per 1,000 green-white-checker finishes. I just wonder, after a disappointing 15th-place finish, whether pressure is starting to get to the reigning champ. The final appeal for his Penske team is Tuesday, where 25 points and suspensions of his top four crew members appear imminent. Winless this season, he’s also posted back-to-back finishes outside the top 10 for the first time since Michigan and Sonoma last June. Every superstar, no matter his or her mental strength, goes through adversity; now might be Keselowski’s time, sitting fifth in points with just a single lap led over the last six events.
He just didn’t have to drag David Ragan into his own psychological hell.
THIRD GEAR: The racing was … what it was
I know. It sounds like a copout. Well, if you ask Newman, who joined Busch in the ranks of “Big One” Demolition Derbys, NASCAR racing here needs to be thrown in the trash bin:
"I am doing this interview to let everybody know I'm alright,” said Newman, who if NASCAR has any consistency (Denny Hamlin, anyone?) will be fined for the comments that follow. “They can build safer race cars, they can build safer walls. But they can't get their heads out of their asses far enough to keep them on the race track, and that's pretty disappointing. I wanted to make sure I get that point across. Y'all can figure out who 'they' is. That's no way to end a race ... I mean, you got what you wanted, but poor judgment and running in the dark and running in the rain.”
To be fair, most didn’t share the driver’s sentiment about the conditions of the track itself down the stretch. Only sprinkles could be felt in the final minutes and, while dark, the race ended earlier than the Nationwide Series event the day before. It’s the other part of Newman’s diatribe — the plate package — that would be under greater scrutiny if not for Ragan’s headline-saving win. I felt like Dale Earnhardt Jr. put it best:
“I don’t really know,” he said. “I don’t know – I thought it was alright, I guess.”
A classic “C, C+” type of response, and clearly not what NASCAR wants out of one of its fan-favorite facilities, especially after Earnhardt raved about the racing in Daytona. But that’s the truth. 30 lead changes were the least since 2002, when Earnhardt laid waste to the field. The draft, while handling multiple grooves unlike its sister track, had a tendency to “stop ‘n’ start.” There would be times when drivers would get stir crazy, and others — like for 30 laps after the rain delay — where they fell in line and passed the time.
It still seemed like, apart from the final lap, the line that had the most cars could make a difference, with the outside groove still holding a substantial edge. There’s work to be done here, although different rules can only do so much. Drivers are smarter. They know nothing matters at these races until less than 20 laps to go. Trying to force them to stay aggressive in the wake of what happened to Newman and Busch is like throwing them in the lion’s den and asking them to play.
FOURTH GEAR: Gibbs’ plate race problems continue
Plate races place even the best drivers on Lady Luck’s roulette wheel. Take Jimmie Johnson, for example: four plate races last year, three wrecks and one blown engine. In 2013? He’s two-for-two in the top-5 finish category with a win. This year, the bad karma has made its way over to Joe Gibbs Racing. Matt Kenseth’s dominating performance at Talladega, in which he led 142 laps, went for naught with one bad choice on the final lap. He wound up eighth, still a far cry from teammates Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin. Busch, lost in the shuffle of the afternoon rain delay, started the race’s first “Big One” that collected a dozen cars, including himself. And Hamlin? A return to the seat, which ended quickly and safely under the first caution on Lap 23 netted him just 10 points. Sub Brian Vickers was caught up in that wreck, leaving the driver 34th and actually increasing his deficit on the top 20 in points by five, (76 points behind Kurt Busch).
Kudos to other underdogs with solid performances Sunday. Phoenix Racing, which has pulled a “Front Row” in the past here (Keselowski, April 2009) was sixth with Regan Smith, but Leavine Family Racing was perhaps more impressive. Scott Speed (ninth) scored the first top-10 result for the organization and just the fourth of his journeyman career. … Bobby Labonte, in his 700th start ran 20th for JTG Daugherty Racing. It’s a tale of two careers for the veteran; he earned 20 wins and a title in his first 350 starts behind the wheel, but just one victory since. … NASCAR’s “Air Titan” was credited for saving the day, as its track drying efforts allowed for time to finish Sunday’s race. So why did it still take two-plus hours to dry the track? I thought it was advertised as a 30-minute fix. It’s still a work in progress, in my opinion.
by Tom Bowles
Follow Tom on Twitter: @NASCARBowles