Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Chase Coverage: Talladega Wrap-Up Report

Clint Bowyer and Kevin Harvick race to the finish at Talladega on Sunday.
(Todd Warshaw/Getty Images)
While it wasn't your typical race at Talladega, Sunday's Amp Energy Juice 500 was full of edge-of-your-seat action without continuous crashing. The race had 87 lead changes and plenty of passing. Out of the race's six cautions, four were for wrecks and the most cars involved in a single incident were six.

Then there was the finish. As Chasers Clint Bowyer and Kevin Harvick gave it their all, the two teammates - along with everyone else! - had to endure 10 minutes of not knowing who actually won the race! After scouring through footage, NASCAR determined the victor was Bowyer, who claimed his second Chase win.

The majority of the Chasers emerged from Talladega with their racecars mostly intact. Also intact are the championship hopes for the top 3 in points: Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Harvick survived the wildcard of the Chase. With Harvick's second-place finish, the top 3 contenders are only separated by 38 points. As a result, we now have the closest points battle with three races to go in the history of the Chase - and the promise for an exciting last three races at that.

Twelve of our contributors run down how the Chase drivers fared at Talladega Superspeedway.

1.) Jimmie Johnson – Leader – Rebecca Kivak
The strategy for Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 Lowes team at Talladega Superspeedway was to lie in wait at the rear of the field, avoid trouble, win the race and build on their championship points lead. Though the team fell short in winning Sunday's Amp Energy Juice 500, Johnson's seventh-place finish allowed him to extend his points lead to 14 over second-place Denny Hamlin. Surviving the lottery known as Talladega is one more step in Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus' plan to make history and claim their fifth consecutive title.

Johnson started 19th when the green flag dropped Sunday. Shortly after, the four-time Sprint Cup champion joined Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon in falling to the back of the pack. The teammates wanted to steer clear of the "big one" and other multi-car wrecks that Talladega is infamous for. Early in the 188-lap event, Johnson reported a good-handling car. As the race went on, he told crew chief Chad Knaus he was a little nervous about riding around in the back, but the crew chief asked Johnson to be patient until it was time to go. The plan, Knaus said, was to win the race.

On lap 134 Johnson's teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Burton wrecked, bringing out the second caution of the day. Johnson stayed out to lead a lap, gaining five coveted bonus points. A few laps later, a six-car incident brought out the third caution. Johnson pitted, reporting possible damage from one of the cautions, so car chief Ron Malec surveyed the car. The 48 got four tires and the crew repaired some minor damage to the right rear.

Johnson restarted from the rear of the field. Within 30 laps he and Gordon were preparing to make a push to the front. With 15 laps left, Knaus told Johnson it was go time. Gordon and Johnson dropped to the inside and within three laps they had charged into the top 5. On lap 178 Johnson took the race lead, but lost his drafting partner when Gordon started to experience possible engine problems. After the fifth caution on lap 181, Johnson restarted second behind eventual race winner Clint Bowyer. With Gordon dropping out of line, Johnson found he had no help and fell back, working to stay in the top 10. When a multi-car wreck occurred on the final lap, Johnson was initially credited with a ninth-place finish, but upon NASCAR's review of video and scoring loops he was scored seventh in the final results.

"All in all, great day. I mean, we had a strategy. Stuck to our game plan. In the end, I had a shot at winning the race, which is what we were after," Johnson said. "Really I would like to be in it all day long. It's more fun to race like that. If you wreck with two or three to go, that's it, that's fine. But if you wreck on lap one or two, that's kind of a bummer."

The No. 48 team's strategy to play it safe at Talladega until the end paid off, though the win was not to be theirs. Teamwork with Gordon put Johnson in position to get a top 10 and finish ahead of Hamlin, helping him build his points lead. With Kevin Harvick finishing second and gaining points on Johnson, a three-man battle for the title is in place. With Talladega behind them, expect Johnson and the No. 48 team to go all out in the last three races.

2.) Denny Hamlin – (-14) – Holly Machuga
Denny Hamlin and the FedEx team finished ninth in Sunday's AMP Energy Juice 500 at Talladega. This is another track that Denny is OK at, but not particularly great. Prior to Sunday, Hamlin had three top fives out of 10 starts, and four top-tens. He brought what was a horrible car from the back of the field and to the top 10. It was impressive for the No. 11 team, who struggled with the car all day long. They had been a lap down at one point, also.

Denny is only 14 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson and remains in second place. With three races left to go, the No. 11 team maintains their plan of running their hardest and running for the win. With the standings this close in points, and the top three of Johnson, Hamlin and Harvick pulling away, these last races will be the most interesting all season.

3.) Kevin Harvick – (-38) – Amber Arnold
In what was the final installment of Hallowdega, as the Halloween weekend race will move to Martinsville next year, we saw our share of racing drama. From all three Chasers having issues at one point, to two teammates waiting it out at the end to find out exactly who won, Talladega did not disappoint.

Harvick and the 29 guys were in the thick of the battle on what was the final lap of green-flag action. In a day plagued with wrecks and mishaps, crossing the finish line with a car that was more bear bond than anything else in second place surely seemed like a dream to the Shell/Penzoil team. After a hard-fought battle, Harvick now finds himself sitting 3nd in points and just 38 out of first place.

While the 29 team is still trailing the 11 and 48 going into the final three races, they have made their presence known in the 2010 Chase. Harvick was seated next to Johnson for a part of the post-race interview and called him out saying, “Someone else needs to win it.” Harvick calling his shot perhaps? Only time will tell and with three races left there’s plenty of it!

4.) Jeff Gordon – (-207) – Genevieve Cadorette
Jeff Gordon and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson drove like teammates on Sunday. Gordon fell behind on lap five and started to draft with Johnson for nearly 15 laps.

With the final 16 laps to go, Chad Knaus gave Johnson orders to make his move and Gordon lined up with Johnson on cue and their plan to help each other ahead worked; Johnson drafted tightly with Gordon from 14th position to first.

Gordon led the lap until "it felt like the engine was blowing. I smelled oil and saw a lot of smoke inside the car and I think Jimmie saw it too so that is why I got shuffled out."

At this point, it is still unsure what the real mechanical problem was.

After a 31st position start, an eighth-place finish is what Gordon needed to hold on to the fourth position in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. There are three races left before the Championship Cup and Gordon told the press yesterday, "This is the tightest we have had among three different guys that I can ever remember. It is going to be exciting."

An exciting end to an exciting season indeed.With Gordon not having won a single race this year, it would make winning the final race even sweeter for a championship win.

5.) Kyle Busch – (-230) – Lindi Bess
Strategy was the name of the game at Sunday’s running of the Amp Energy Juice 500 at Talladega Superspeedway. This ‘Dega wasn’t the ‘Dega we expected. It was one of control, strategy and finding a fast friend with whom to play with.

The #18 Toyota Camry went into this race with hopes of closing in on the Sprint Cup championship. Entering the race 172 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson, Kyle’s only hope to stay in the Chase was to finish at the top of the field. 

The first 3/4 of the race was fairly quiet, some might say boring. There was quite a bit of radio chatter between drivers and teams regarding whom they might draft with. With the majority of the race behind him and a caution with 50 laps to go, Kyle pitted for four tires and fuel. “Leave it (no adjustments) alone.” It was out and away for the #18 to begin his advance. 

Another caution with 35 laps to go, Kyle pitted, taking four new tires and fuel. At 22 to go, Kyle found himself in the 21st position. Ryan tweeted, “Kyle and Denny talking to each other, Putting a plan in place as we get down to the end of this thing." Kyle gets together with #11 of Denny Hamlin and they move to the front, and at times were 10-car lengths in front of the others.

With 20 laps to go, Kyle is in the lead and moving along with Denny Hamlin right on his bumper. This is when the #48 and #24 began to make their move forward. The race began to get really wild now. It only took the #48 and #24 1-1/2 laps to move into the lead. We saw a lot of teamwork on the track that we hadn’t been seeing otherwise.

That was the point where the championship began to slip away from the #18 M&M’s Toyota. Two laps to go without having the "Big One." Then all hell broke loose. Kyle fell back into 26th when the ‘Big One” happened. After all was said and done, the #18 Camry finished a disappointing 25th, having gotten caught up in the final caution.

Kyle enters Texas 230 points behind the leader, #48 Jimmie Johnson. With no chance of winning the championship now, what will Kyle do in the remaining three races? Will he assist teammate Hamlin with his pursuit of the Sprint Cup championship? If ‘Dega is any evidence to what the #18 will do, I think he’ll prove to be very useful for #11 car and their pursuit for the Sprint Cup.

6.) Carl Edwards – (-247) – Amanda Ebersole
Time to shout from the rooftops, “We survived Dega!” and oh, that is a wonderful thing to type! Talladega’s race was exciting for those of us who like the hardcore racing, but for those tuning in to see the “big one” sorry to say, you missed out! Oh and I have to mention that the finish to the race was amazing, not knowing who won … kind of like a cliffhanger we get on our favorite TV show!

Carl Edwards, who started the race in 23rd, decided to play the strategy card and drop back to the tailend of the lead pack to avoid the possible big one. Carl was running with our points leader and contenders throughout much of the race and was just hanging out until being told to go. Carl was running 19th at the halfway point when he and teammate Matt Kenseth hooked up on a two-car tandem and made their way to the lead. In the last 20 laps, Carl was running in 13thand had brokered a deal to work with Brad Keselowski and fellow Roush Fenway Racing teammate, David Ragan. They made their move with 14 to go but couldn’t gain the momentum they needed. It all came down to a debris caution on lap 182: Carl and crew chief Bob Osborne made the decision to pit if the others around him did, so he came down pit road for four fresh tires.

With only four laps to go, Carl restarted in 30th and was knocking off positions when the caution flag and checkered flag came out for a wreck that saw AJ Allmendinger flipping but again walking away from the crash. (Thank you NASCAR!)

We leave Talladega still 6th in points and now 247 behind our current points leader Jimmie Johnson.

7.) Tony Stewart – (-317) – Unique Hiram
The AMP Energy Juice 500 proved to have a negative effect for Tony Stewart and the #14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet race team. He completed all 188 laps, started on the grid 26th and finished in the 31st position due to a five-car wreck on the last lap of the race. Stewart and his team had been battling adversity throughout the race which included a right front tire going down during the first 20 laps, which caused him to go down two laps off the pace. On lap 62, Stewart made a pit road stop due to a front end vibration that he felt and this caused him to go three laps down off the pace. However, he was able to gain back two of the three laps due to caution wave-arounds on laps #62 and #133 respectively.

Stewart was able to finally get back on the tailend of the lead-lap cars during lap #180. However, his hopes of capturing a top-10 finish were dashed when on the final lap of the race the five-car wreck occurred and unfortunately he was caught up in this one. “Well, we had a really good car, but then we had some bad luck and got a flat tire right off the bat,” Grubb said. “We drove over a piece of debris on lap 19, came in, went three laps down, then came back and still had a chance to win this thing with four to go. I can’t say enough about the guys and how hard they worked. I just don’t know how long we can keep coming to this place, where you can have a one-lap race and have the same drama you have in 188.”

The Sprint Cup Chase finds Stewart still holding on to the 7th points standings position and he has fallen even further out of contention for a chance at the title. This team is known for continuing to be competitive and fight for a win before the 2010 season is over. They have three more races to make that a reality and the next race will be held at Texas Motor Speedway.

8.) Matt Kenseth – (-324) – Whitney Richards
For the second time this year, Matt Kenseth and the Crown Royal Black crew headed to Talladega. It would mark the seventh Chase race of the season. On Friday, Kenseth qualified 27th but was confident that he had a great racecar. As a track that is known for its unpredictability, Talladega had no shortages of surprises on Sunday. Kenseth was able to get up front in the early part of the race to lead a total of 13 laps, but in true Talladega style, his finishing position of 16th belied the fact he had ran so much better than that for a majority of the race.

The 188-lap race began under sunny skies on Sunday, and it didn’t take long for the shuffling of positions to begin. Every driver searches for the perfect drafting partner, and for Kenseth, that drafting partner was the No. 31 of Jeff Burton. By lap 15, the duo had shot to the front with Kenseth leading. The two drivers took turns leading in an effort to keep their engines cool. The two of them were able to break away from the pack, but eventually Kenseth was unable to keep up with Burton.

Around lap 37, the first round of green-flag stops began. Kenseth pitted for four tires, fuel, and air pressure and wedge adjustments. After that, Kenseth made his way up to the 10th position. The first caution of the day came out on lap 70, and crew chief Jimmy Fennig called Kenseth down pit road for a two-tire stop. As positions shuffled after the restart, Kenseth drifted back to the 17th position before he hooked up with teammate Carl Edwards in the No. 99. The two were able to hook up and get to the front before green-flag stops began again. On lap 113, Kenseth pitted for four tires, fuel and more adjustments, but as he was leaving pit road, the team was informed Kenseth had been too fast entering pit road. He had to serve a pass-through penalty which sent him to the back of the field.

Being that far back, Kenseth lost his drafting help and eventually went a lap down to the leader. A caution on lap 134 had Fennig instructing Kenseth to stay out and take the wave-around. Kenseth restarted 31st, and two laps later the caution came out again, allowing him to get back on the same pit cycle as the leaders. Kenseth soon charged his way back inside the top 10 but lost his help in the draft in the closing laps. On the final lap, a multi-car incident had officials reviewing footage to figure out the finishing order. Eventually, Kenseth, who was not involved in the last-lap crash, was scored in the 16th position. He was able to gain two positions in the standings, up to 8th, 324 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson.

9.) Kurt Busch – (-350) – Katy Lindamood
Kurt Busch wanted nothing more than to win his first ever restrictor plate event this past Sunday at Talladega, but unfortunately it wasn’t meant to be. Starting from the third position Busch had the potential to win, but the incident on the final lap crushed his chances for a win and his chances for winning the 2010 Sprint Cup Series title.

Busch, who led two laps Sunday, finished in the 30th position and sits ninth in points with only three races remaining in the Chase. After the race, Busch’s crew Chief Steve Addington said, “We were better at pushing; we pushed cars to the front all day long. We would have been alright if we had somebody that could go in front us. We had drafted with the 56 (Truex) earlier and when we hooked up, we could really move. Throughout the race, it didn't matter if we got shuffled out, Kurt (Busch) could drive right back up there."

10.) Jeff Burton – (-352) – Genna Short
Jeff Burton started fifth in Sunday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway. What he had to show for it is a 41st-place finish and thousands of dollars worth of scrap metal.

It surely isn’t surprising that a man with his record at Talladega was able to muscle his way up to the front and take the lead by lap seven. Even though his teammate swiped it away on lap eight, Burton remained strong  throughout the 500-mile race at this historic superspeedway.

He paired with Matt Kenseth in the draft and pushed him to the lead. They worked together for a while, swapping the lead between them a few times from lap 15 before losing their lead on the rest of the pack by lap 29. Burton quickly found himself a new drafting partner- his teammate, and eventual race winner, Clint Bowyer. The pairing didn’t last long as green flag stops started shortly after.

Late into the race, he and Dale Earnhardt Jr., who had been drafting partners earlier in the race, made contact. The contact caused Burton to slam into the wall, bringing out the second caution of the day. He held no grudges against Earnhardt Jr., however.

"It's just racing. (Dale Earnhardt)Junior and I worked really well today and pushed each other a lot. We just didn't get lined up and I guess he got me in the right-rear quarter panel and got me turned around,” he stated in a post-race interview.

There are clearly no hard feelings from Burton in this incident, although he was less than pleased with the outcome.

“I'm not mad about it. He didn't do anything wrong. It's just plain and simple racing."

11.) Greg Biffle – (-361) – Stacie Ball
How did the Halloween treat your racer during the festivities at Talladega? All in all I think the track treated Greg Biffle as well as I could have asked. He really stuck to his guns and did an awesome job with what was thrown out at him during the race along with the rest of the weekend.

Early in the race, Biffle opted to get a better feeling for the car and drove his way up to the third position on lap 13, before dropping back to 26th on the next lap and hanging around there until a round of green-flag stops began on lap 37. He pitted on lap 40 for four tires, fuel and a minor wedge adjustment. Biffle was 19th when the green-flag pit cycle was complete on lap 41.  

Biffle dropped back to the middle of the pack again and was running 23rd when he hooked up with fellow Ford driver Paul Menard on lap 174. He eventually pushed Menard all the way to the front of the field on lap 176. Another line of cars got going on the inside of them, however, and Biffle was running eighth when a caution came out on lap 180.

Most of the frontrunners including Biffle and Menard stayed out and the field restarted on lap 184. In the closing laps both Ford contenders were shuffled out of the draft and Biffle was running 19th when the field took the white flag. A multi-car incident on the final lap caused some confusion in the finishing order but the official results show Biffle was credited with a 19th-place finish.

“I was hoping we could stay on the top and stay lined up and hoped those guys wouldn’t be able to get such a good run on the bottom,” said Biffle. “The caution came out and that’s what bunched the field back up. On the restart there, the 55 was a little slow and Kurt Busch committed to pushing me, but then I just got stuck on the top. The 55 was slow getting into two, so I tried to go around him and we didn’t have enough momentum. There weren’t enough cars lined up behind us I’m just happy I wasn’t involved in anything. We escaped that, but we wanted a better finish than where we ended up.”

With the craziness of the ending of the race, I heard many different finishing positions for Biffle; I will definitely take 19th over the other ones I heard. I think everyone was at a total loss until we heard the final, confirmed, results. I hoping to see a new, excited team at Texas for this upcoming race! 

12.) Clint Bowyer – (-367) – Amy McHargue
Clint Bowyer started in the front row, in the number two starting position at Talladega Superspeedway on Halloween. His strong qualifying run gave Clint a good enough start that he led his first lap by taking over the lead on lap 4. Gaining five valuable bonus points in his quest to move up from 12th place in the Chase to the Sprint Cup Championship standings Bowyer then slid back in the pack to 13th position on lap 20, but was leading again by lap 36.

There were a few scary moments on lap 37 for Team Bowyer when other cars in the top 10 began to pit. The call to the pits was sent to Clint on lap 37 but he could not hear his radio. Clint could be heard saying “Are you there?” but he received no audible reply. A team member found an open radio button, closed the channel and Bowyer came to the pits on lap 41. After the #33 Richard Childress Racing crew put four fresh tires on Clint's Chevrolet and pit stops cycled through Bowyer was shown to be in 6th position on lap 43.

Much of the mid-section of the race found Clint ranging from 6th to 20th position. There was give and take between many drivers, Clint would catch the draft, then lose the draft. With 35 laps to go Bowyer had again found 6th position. Leaders began making last pit stops of the day, Clint got fresh rubber on the car and drove toward the front. He took the lead with 10 laps to go.

Teammate Kevin Harvick was closing fast as laps wound down; the #33 and #29 cars were door to door when the white flag hit the air. Less than a half lap later, A.J. Allmendinger got turned and began to flip ... the yellow flag was out. There was a 10-minute review of video and scoring loop data while Bowyer started his victory celebration. He was not celebrating in vain - NASCAR announced the #33 car the winner of the AMP Energy 500 by less than a half car length. The win gained Clint 190 points. Clint Bowyer is still in 12th position in Chase standings but is now just six points back from 11th place Greg Biffle.

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