NASCAR: Round 10 – Aaron’s 499, Talladega – 26 April

Talladega is one of NASCAR’s most famous venues: it’s the longest (2.66 miles), steepest banking (33 degrees) and overall the fastest oval on the calendar, where the cars pack together for draft racing – and where it can all go wrong in an instant.

It is, in other words, the track where The Big One isn’t a possibility – it’s just a matter of when. And in 2009, it came really early – and was quite literally just the start.

It happened on lap 7, when Matt Kenseth moved up the road and caught Jeff Gordon, tipping him into a slide. After that it was mayhem as cars piled into each other, too close to react or avoid the pile-up happening in front of them. It was, in effect, a great advert for how not to drive on a freeway.

Casey Mears, Jamie McMurray, David Gilliland, Clint Bowyer, Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, David Gilliland, Scott Riggs, Brian Vickers, Mark Martin, A.J. Allmendinger and Kasey Kahne were all wrecked by the fallout, and the track resembled a junk yard as the dust and smoke cleared. Some of the cars could be worked on and put back out for a few laps at least, but none of them were really going very far.

Up till then, Juan Montoya had led the first few laps before Dale Earnhardt Jr powered his way past to the huge cheers of the assembled crowd. David Ragan briefly took the lead as the wreck developed, and then after the pit stops under caution it was rookie Joey Logano who took the field to the restart where he was promptly usurped by Martin Truex Jr courtesy of a huge push to the front from Earnhardt. Denny Hamlin and Jeff Burton also had brief stints in the lead, and Kurt Busch was out front when the second caution flew for debris on the track (some tape from the emergency repairs on Regan Smith’s car) on lap 28.

Kyle Busch took the lead on lap 31 after making a tactical decision to change only two tyres in the pit stops. He had been running toward the back initially, apparently trying to stay out of trouble that way, but running through the aftermath of the Big One was enough to make him reconsider that plan and decide that the front was altogether safer. He was joined at the front by Scott Speed, who had gone a lap down at the start of the race because of the need for some pit work even before the green flag, but he’d benefited from the free pass after the big wreck on lap 8 and now ran strongly at the front of the field.

The third caution came out on lap 42, when Michael Waltrip came down the track too quickly after passing Marcos Ambrose and hit his rear on the front of the 47, tipping himself into a wild slide across the infield section and only keeping it off the inner pit walls with a spectacular piece of recovery driving.

Things were moving fast. Dale Earnhardt Jr blasted back to the front, replacing Matt Kenseth who slumped almost immediately back to 10th after losing the draft. Former leader Kyle Busch had slumped almost out of the top 20, but then worked his way back in the right lane to climb back into the top 10 and toward the front only to get shuffled out of the draft and abruptly fall all the way back to 24th after the next restart – and promptly started to climb back again, essentially doing research for how far he could fall back and how long it would take to recover when it was really important.

Some of the cars were walking wounded: Kurt Busch was missing the entire rear bumper assembly of his car, while Jimmie Johnson was radioing in fearing a loose wheel on lap 58 and facing the prospect of an emergency green flag pit stop. Fortunately for Jimmie, the fourth caution came out almost immediately – ironically thanks to Kurt Busch, who got loose sending the number 2 careering onto the grass in a replay of Waltrip’s early spectacular slide. Like Waltrip, he saved the car from hitting the infield wall.

So at lap 73, Denny Hamlin led Matt Kenseth, Juan Montoya, Martin Truex Jr, Elliot Sadler and Dale Earnhardt Jr. as the top 6 of an ever-changing roll call of cars. Montoya was turbo-boosted to the front by Jimmie Johnson one minute, only to then be dropped from the draft like a hot potato the next and plummet out of the top 20 in a matter of seconds – it was that type of day.

Sam Hornish Jr had just taken the lead (despite his earlier feeling ill with the flu – amazing what an adrenalin shot of 200mph racing can do for you) when lap 85 saw the fifth caution, again for debris this time on the backstretch.

Paul Menard stayed out while others pitted to assume the lead but was quickly overtaken by Denny Hamlin at the restart; they were just ahead of Joey Logano, who was under strict instructions not to take the lead – he’d get hung out to dry by the Talladega veterans and left for dead, so he tried to just sit there learning and lapping it up. Unfortunately he was then isolated on the outside line, denied the draft – and promptly fell back out of the top ten. Meanwhile, Kyle Busch fell to 32nd and the back of the lead lap by having to pit twice to get some bodywork damage fixed, but a few laps later he had bounced back to 18th and climbing.

At half distance, it was Denny Hamlin leading David Reutimann, David Stremme, Brian Vickers, Reen Sorenson and Martin Truex Jr. but it didn’t stay that way and on lap 111 Earnhardt and the lapped Jeff Burton power-drafted their way into the lead and blasted away from the pack, opening up a huge lead in short order.

Paul Menard suffered for his strategy of not pitting under the previous caution by having to make a green flag stop on lap 112, going a lap down and leaving him hoping that no other caution came out before the rest of the field had to pit too. His heart must have leapt when Reed Sorenson had a tyre go down on the very next lap, but Sorenson kept it out of the wall and was able to come into the pits without causing a caution. Elliot Sadler scraped the wall a couple of laps later but managed to keep it going forward, and similarly avoided bringing out the yellows.

Earnhardt’s lead evaporated as quickly as it had appeared, and Martin Truex Jr was back in charge as Earnhardt slipped to eighth as a result of his audacity. But Jeff Burton was still at the head of the field and had effectively unlapped himself, and all he needed was a caution so that he would be able to drive round to the back of the lead pack and complete his recovery from being three laps down with electrical problems earlier in the day.

The caution came out on lap 124, for debris once again, and even Paul Menard was okay because of receiving the free pass to make up for his earlier green flag pit stop out of synch. Kyle Busch managed to beat Jimmie Johnson out of the pits, followed by Truex Jr, Earnhardt Jr, Brian Vickers and Denny Hamlin.

As the race headed into the last 50 laps, the order and the lead were changing like a cheap Vegas slot machine. Even Jeff Burton returned to the front on lap 143, so soon after recovering from three laps down; and then he was bested by Kurt Busch, despite the number 2 missing the entire rear bumper. It was clearly anyone’s race and all that mattered till the final laps was that you were still running going into the last 4-5 laps.

The shade assembly from one of the sets of caution laps fell onto the track and brought out the seventh caution on lap 147. That left just over 40 laps to go to the end, and so everyone could pit and comfortably make it to the chequered. Soon after the restart, Kyle Busch was blasted to the front on lap 154 by the unlikeliest of collaborators, Dale Earnhardt Jr – historically there’s no love lost between them, but apparently all hatchets are buried when someone can be useful at Talladega!

As the race entered the last 35 laps, everyone was running in single file behind Kyle Busch: things were getting serious and the time for hijinks was over. Kyle was determined that no one should pass him, and blocked ruthlessly – but in the end, a hit from the number 31 of Jeff Burton sent the 18 wobbling all over the place. Busch wrestled with it to keep it under control but simply couldn’t, the car spinning to a halt in the infield after somehow managing to miss everyone else in the process – remarkable driving by all concerned.

Busch’s car wouldn’t fire up and required a starter truck, putting him a lap down with only 15 to go – effectively done for the day. Kenseth now had the lead at the restart, ahead of Earnhardt Jr, Burton and Kurt Busch, but then Ryan Newman and Denny Hamlin power-drafted past to take the lead on lap 177, only for Hamlin to suddenly sink like a stone and leave Newman all on his own at the front.

Then Hamlin got into the back of Montoya, turned him around and the 42 collected Bobby Labonte – and all hell broke loose in what ended up being The Big One Part 2. Cars shot off in all directions at high speed, the most dangerous one being Robby Gordon who was sent headlong into the safer barrier in the infield, demolishing the front end of the car but mercifully not harming the driver. Jeremy Mayfield, Jimmie Johnson, Martin Truex Jr., Michael Waltrip, David Stremme and Sam Hornish Jr. all got involved to greater and lesser extent, 14 cars in total getting caught up. “Man it sucks racing around here”, said Jimmie Johnson bitterly.

So with two to go, Newman led Earnhardt Jr, Kurt Busch, Jeff Burton and Joey Logano; and then from nowhere (or to be more precise, 8th place) Carl Edwards was suddenly blasted to the front with an assist from Brad Keselowski as they went into the final lap. Edwards had been hanging back in the midfield for most of the race, staying out of trouble and flying under the radar, but now it was time to pounce and he felt that he had found the help that he needed to pull it off.

Except that that ‘help’ had idea of its own. Keselowski was looking for the slightest opportunity to take the lead from Edwards, and when the number 99 sensed a move from Keselowski and went up the track slightly to block, Keselowski kept on the inside and stuck his nose in the spot Edwards had just vacated. Edwards came down the track, hit the number 9, and – then it all went to hell.

Edwards’ car was turned sideways, and then the aerodynamics lifted the car up off the track – and right into Ryan Newman. The 99 collected the hood and windscreen of Newman’s car, a nasty moment in itself, but the second impact hoisted Edwards even higher into the air. When he hit the wall, it was above the safety barrier altogether and into the fence – which, thankfully, did its job as well as it possibly could and protected the crowd just feet away from all but the most minor debris flying off. Edwards’ car was wrecked and injury to the driver looking all too possible – but then Edwards struggled out of the wreckage, and went for a short jog to cross the finish line just a few meters away. He wanted to finish, car or no car. To his credit, Edwards was sanguine about Keselowski, saying he’d just been doing his job.

But in the meantime, Keselowski had taken the chequered flag followed by Earnhardt (and even the remains of Ryan Newman’s car sliding across in third.) Keselowski was busy celebrating with Earnhardt when Kyle Busch came up unnoticed from behind, and Keselowski got a harmless post-race spin before celebrating properly with some donuts.

It was a breathless end to an eventful race. But then, Talladega wouldn’t be Talladega without thrills, spills and accidents. And another first time winner, Brad Keselowski, celebrating in victory lane.

Race result

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                
FIN ST  CAR DRIVER             MAKE       PTS/BNS LAPS 
1   9   09  Brad Keselowski    Chevrolet  190/5   188  
2   11  88  Dale Earnhardt Jr. Chevrolet  175/5   188  
3   25  39  Ryan Newman        Chevrolet  170/5   188  
4   34  47  Marcos Ambrose     Toyota     160/0   188  
5   8   82  Scott Speed *      Toyota     160/5   188  
6   28  2   Kurt Busch         Dodge      155/5   188  
7   2   16  Greg Biffle        Ford       151/5   188  
8   30  83  Brian Vickers      Toyota     147/5   188  
9   22  20  Joey Logano *      Toyota     143/5   188  
10  20  31  Jeff Burton        Chevrolet  139/5   188  
11  41  43  Reed Sorenson      Dodge      130/0   188  
12  10  6   David Ragan        Ford       132/5   188  
13  17  187 Joe Nemechek       Toyota     129/5   188  
14  24  98  Paul Menard        Ford       126/5   188  
15  6   78  Regan Smith        Chevrolet  118/0   188  
16  15  07  Casey Mears        Chevrolet  120/5   188  
17  13  17  Matt Kenseth       Ford       117/5   188  
18  43  113 Max Papis *        Toyota     109/0   188  
19  39  19  Elliott Sadler     Dodge      111/5   188  
20  1   42  Juan Montoya       Chevrolet  108/5   188  
21  18  11  Denny Hamlin       Toyota     105/5   188  
22  31  55  Michael Waltrip    Toyota     102/5   188  
23  29  14  Tony Stewart       Chevrolet  94/0    188  
24  16  99  Carl Edwards       Ford       96/5    188  
25  23  18  Kyle Busch         Toyota     98/10   188  
26  33  00  David Reutimann    Toyota     85/0    188  
27  40  34  John Andretti      Chevrolet  87/5    188  
28  12  96  Bobby Labonte      Ford       79/0    179  
29  42  7   Robby Gordon       Toyota     76/0    179  
30  36  48  Jimmie Johnson     Chevrolet  78/5    179  
31  37  12  David Stremme      Dodge      70/0    179  
32  27  41  Jeremy Mayfield    Toyota     72/5    179  
33  3   1   Martin Truex Jr.   Chevrolet  69/5    179  
34  4   77  Sam Hornish Jr.    Dodge      66/5    179  
35  38  44  A.J. Allmendinger  Dodge      58/0    164  
36  35  9   Kasey Kahne        Dodge      55/0    133  
37  14  24  Jeff Gordon        Chevrolet  52/0    128  
38  19  29  Kevin Harvick      Chevrolet  49/0    127  
39  5   33  Clint Bowyer       Chevrolet  46/0      8  
40  26  171 David Gilliland    Chevrolet  43/0      6  
41  21  36  Scott Riggs        Toyota     40/0      6  
42  32  26  Jamie McMurray     Ford       37/0      6  
43  7   5   Mark Martin        Chevrolet  34/0      6  

Sprint Cup standings

The early exit of Jeff Gordon from the race means that he loses the lead of the Sprint Cup standings:

RANK    +/-     DRIVER      POINTS  BEHIND  ST  P   W   T5  T10
1   +2  Kurt Busch          1299            9   0   1   3   6
2   -1  Jeff Gordon         1294    -5      9   0   1   5   6
3   -1  Jimmie Johnson      1235    -64     9   0   1   4   6
4   --  Tony Stewart        1232    -67     9   0   0   3   6
5   --  Denny Hamlin        1193    -106    9   0   0   2   4
6   +1  Kyle Busch          1124    -175    9   1   2   3   3
7   +1  Carl Edwards        1119    -180    9   0   0   1   4
8   -2  Clint Bowyer        1098    -201    9   0   0   3   4
9   +2  Jeff Burton         1092    -207    9   0   0   1   4
10  +4  Greg Biffle         1081    -218    9   0   0   3   5
11  -2  David Reutimann     1077    -222    9   1   0   1   2
12  --  Matt Kenseth        1063    -236    9   0   2   3   3
CHASE FOR THE Sprint CUP - CURRENT CONTENDERS
13  +4  Ryan Newman         1033    -266    9   0   0   1   3
14  -4  Kasey Kahne         1030    -269    9   0   0   1   2
15  +4  Dale Earnhardt Jr.  1018    -281    9   0   0   1   3
16  -1  Juan Montoya        1018    -281    9   1   0   0   2
17  +1  Brian Vickers        995    -304    9   1   0   1   4
18  -5  Mark Martin          971    -328    9   3   1   1   4
19  +7  Marcos Ambrose       937    -362    9   0   0   1   2
20  -4  Kevin Harvick        918    -381    9   0   0   2   2
21  +1  Casey Mears          911    -388    9   0   0   0   0
22  -2  David Stremme        899    -400    9   0   0   0   0
23  -2  Martin Truex Jr.     887    -412    9   1   0   0   2
24  +3  Reed Sorenson        881    -418    9   0   0   0   1
25  --  Michael Waltrip      880    -419    9   0   0   0   1
26  +4  David Ragan          855    -444    9   0   0   0   1
27  -4  A.J. Allmendinger    847    -452    9   0   0   1   2
28  +1  Elliott Sadler       845    -454    9   0   0   1   1
29  -5  Jamie McMurray       825    -474    9   0   0   0   2
30  -2  Bobby Labonte        823    -476    9   0   0   1   1
31  --  Sam Hornish Jr.      775    -524    9   0   0   0   1
32  --  Paul Menard          763    -536    9   0   0   0   0
33  --  Joey Logano*         753    -546    9   0   0   0   1
34  --  John Andretti        676    -623    9   0   0   0   0
35  --  Robby Gordon         653    -646    9   0   0   0   0
36  +2  Scott Speed*         607    -692    8   0   0   1   1
37  -1  David Gilliland      569    -730    8   0   0   0   0
38  +1  Regan Smith          473    -826    5   0   0   0   0
39  -2  Aric Almirola        451    -848    7   0   0   0   0
40  +2  Joe Nemechek         374    -925    7   0   0   0   0
41  +5  Brad Keselowski      333    -966    3   0   1   1   1
42  -1  Scott Riggs          311    -988    5   0   0   0   0
43  -3  Travis Kvapil        292   -1007    4   0   0   0   0
44  +1  Jeremy Mayfield      230   -1069    4   0   0   0   0
45  -2  Bill Elliott         228   -1071    3   0   0   0   0

UPDATE

It emerged that seven spectators were injured from the incident where Carl Edwards’ car crashed into the catch fence at the end of the race.

Track officials confirmed that seven people were treated as a consequence of being hit by debris from the violent impact that Edwards’ car made with the fence a few metres short of crossing the finish line.

“After the incident that occurred on the last lap, we are treating approximately eight patients from injuries received from flying debris; the injuries appear to be minor and non life-threatening,” said the track’s medical director Dr Bobby Lewis.

“One female patient is being transported by air, because of traffic, for further evaluation and treatment.”

Later, the track officials stated that six patients had been released but that two would need further treatment with their own doctors for possible minor fractures in extremities, while the seveneth who was airlifted to hospital was said to have suffered facial injuries.

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