TALLADEGA – All that, just for the inevitable.
Three red flags. Eleven cautions. Carnage that left only 14 cars racing on the final lap. A garage area that began to resemble a salvage yard. The figurative carnival tent for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s final Talladega race.
All that, for – ho-hum – another Brad Keselowski victory at Talladega Superspeedway.
Though, to be sure, nothing ho-hum about the final three laps of Sunday’s Alabama 500 in front of a six-figure crowd on an unseasonably tropical afternoon.
Keselowski and Penske Racing teammate Joey Logano did a 200-mph tango past a hopeless Ryan Newman while much of human civilization crossed its collective fingers for Earnhardt to somehow explode from the small pack of cars and go racing off into NASCAR lore with a final win at his finest track.
Said Junior, whose car’s aerodynamics were stymied by a mangled splitter, “Wish we could have seen what we could have done with a straight car at the end.”
Except in the pit stalls of Team Penske, which has won five of the last seven Talladega races, that sentiment was universal.
Keselowski, 33, has won five times at Talladega. He has won Talladega as an unknown – remember the Brad Who? questions after his upset in 2009 when Carl Edwards went from Keselowski’s quarterpanel into the frontstretch catchfence – and he has won as the most skillful practitioner of restrictor plate racing in the field.
And now he’s won as the luckiest guy on the track. Luck being the residue of design, as the old quotation goes.
“You’ve got to have a little bit of luck,” Keselowski said, “and you’ve got to execute at the end.”
But, as crew chief Paul Wolfe noted, “You don’t just get lucky four times (with Keselowski as a Team Penske driver). That’s having fast race cars.”
The victory automatically clinches the No. 2 Miller Lite Ford team a spot in the Round of 8 in NASCAR’s playoffs. He came into the weekend as No. 10 in points and leaves second behind Martin Truex Jr.
“I told him this was going to be our path to Homestead (the season finale),” Wolfe said. “We’ve got to go to Talladega and win.”
Now, a whole bunch of folks need to go to Kansas next Sunday and win. That Talladega is no longer a “cut-off race” at the end of one of the playoff tiers is a welcomed mulligan.
Jamie McMurray fell from eighth to 12th after a lap 26 wreck. Kyle Busch dropped from sixth to ninth and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., the Talladega winner in the spring, finds himself in a must-win deal at Kansas. However, only four of the 12 playoff drivers were running at the finish, so it’s perhaps a less drastic reshuffling than it could have been.
Keselowski padded his points by winning the first stage, then Ryan Blaney won the second stage, with the first 115 laps having been relatively uneventful, save for the 20 lead changes among 14 different drivers.
Then things became, as described by Jimmie Johnson, “predictable.” Not just a Keselowski-wins-Talladega predictable, but a Talladega-goes-wreck-fest predictable.
There were a couple of Mini-Ones that kayoed Clint Bowyer and a couple of backmarkers, then on lap 172 David Ragan got loose to trigger a 16-car wreck involving playoff drivers Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Truex and Stenhouse.
They had barely left the infield care center and mandatory check-ups when another parade of gurneys came in, this one including contender Kevin Harvick. Then six laps later, Chase Elliott tried to dart through a space between Daniel Suarez and Kyle Larson. But the space shrunk and six cars were damaged, including Earnhardt’s. But Keselowski “survived,” as he put it.
“You know when you come here that probably three out of every four races you’re going to get caught up in a wreck,” Keselowski said. “The races where you have the good fortune … you have to take those races, run up front and win them, and I think that’s what we’ve been able to do.”
There are tracks, he admitted, where he feels “bad for the paycheck I earn. Talladega,” Keselowski said, “ain’t one of them.”