Monday, October 21, 2013

Chasing the Championship: Recapping the Camping World RV Sales 500 at Talladega Superspeedway

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McMurray wins at Dega: Photo by NASCAR via Getty Images
For the second week in a row, a non-Chase driver celebrated in victory lane. Ending a three-year drought, Jamie McMurray took the checkers when a last lap crash involving Austin Dillon brought out the caution on the final lap. McMurray’s emotions flowed in victory lane as son Carter joined him for the celebration.

It was a good weekend for Chip Ganassi, Owner of the No. 1. In addition to McMurray’s victory, Ganassi driver Scott Dixon became the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Champion.

The Chase points standings saw a shake up at the top as Johnson took the lead from Matt Kenseth.

How did your Chase driver fare? Here’s the rundown.

1. Jimmie Johnson
by: Lisa Janine Cloud

New leader: 48.

New points leader, that is.

Jimmie Johnson rolled off in 11th position since qualifying rained out and the field lined up in order of speeds from second practice. By lap 50 he was leading for the first of 10 times, 47 laps total. Despite earning the bonus point for leading the most laps, his performance was not as dominant as that statistic might imply. Still, it was enough to move Johnson past Matt Kenseth and into the points lead by four points.

Though Johnson ran up front most of the race, he faced stiff competition from his Hendrick teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., who finished second.

"The outside lane got going and everybody jumped up in it," Johnson said. "You just don’t know if people are going to chase the bottom or the top and when I saw the 1 car had the lead, I figured the 1 and the 88 would take the top. As that developed I was on the bottom lane and I worked my way to the middle lane and was able to maintain it for a little while and then everybody went single file and I dropped like a rock."

Johnson passed up several opportunities to team up with Earnhardt Jr., and though that's not unusual, the choice seemed to make even less sense than usual, given the speed of the No. 88. and the Hendrick-powered No. 1 of Jamie McMurray, who went on to win the race under caution when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Austin Dillon tangled on the backstretch.

"Thirteenth isn't the best finish, but with what we are trying to do and win a championship, we beat the competition today and that is good," said Johnson. "I am happy to have the points lead and we went through a lot of work to get there. We were just getting one point at a time and we got a few more than normal today and were able to get the lead."

"We just go racing from here and that is the thing I am most excited for. Great race tracks, great race cars and it’s just going to be a dogfight to the end."

Next up: Martinsville, where Johnson has eight wins in 23 starts and an average finish of 5.3.

"It’s been good to us in the past," he said. "We've got to go there and race. There is going to be a lot of strong competition. We will make sure we get buttoned up and ready to go for this weekend’s race and go up there to that paperclip and see what we can do."

2. Matt Kenseth (-4)
by: Jessica Tow

With the Chase more than halfway completed, it looks like the tables have turned. Matt Kenseth now sits four markers behind new points leader Jimmie Johnson. We knew this was bound to happen at some point, right? After all this is Talladega we are talking about here.

In a race with an atypically calm nature, Kenseth had a solid run. He started 12th and stayed near the front most of the day. No matter how hard he tried, he could not shake off the No. 48; the two cars ran close together throughout most of the afternoon. In the last few laps, Kenseth jumped to the bottom of the track to try to salvage a finish ahead of Johnson. With no help from anyone, Kenseth was left by himself.

With the checkered flag in the air, Kenseth finished 20th and Johnson finished 13th.

When asked about the switch in the standings, Kenseth said, “I don’t think it will affect my team. I think I have one of the greatest teams out here obviously and I feel like we can go everywhere else, and honestly we can race with anybody when we’re at our best. Hopefully, we’ll be at our best the next four weeks and we’ll give them a run for their money. It was just an incredibly disappointing day. The end there, I just still for the life of me figure out — I need to watch it. From third on back to 14th, I think everybody was running half – throttle and me, Joey (Logano) and Carl (Edwards) and I thought Greg (Biffle) was going to go with us too and he must have decided not to.  A couple of other guys tried to make it happen and I figured two or three more would bail on the bottom and we’d mix it up and somebody would go up and try to be the leader, but nobody wanted to go. Everybody wanted to stay in their spots. I should have been smarter there and I guess paid attention to points, but I’m not really wired like that. I want to go up and mix it up and try to win the thing.”

Next weekend the drivers will be "Chasing the Championship" in Martinsville. While this track is one of Johnson's strong suits, don't count Kenseth out just yet.

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NASCAR via Getty Images
3. Kyle Busch (-26)
by: Lacy Keyser

Coming off a nasty wreck in the Camping World Truck Series race Saturday Kyle Busch hoped to avoid the big one in Talladega. His hard hit from Saturday’s race had everyone worried. But Busch was ready for racing, even though his wife Samantha was worried.

The race started off nice and easy. When the first caution came out on Lap 5, Busch headed to pit road for gas and some adjustments. He ran in the back after that pit stop, taking it easy, being careful. During green flag stops on Lap 44, Busch had an issue and couldn’t get over in time on pit road and missed his pit stall. He had to return to pit road, forcing him to drop to the back of the field.

On Lap 79, a wreck between Marcos Ambrose and Juan Pablo Montoya brought out the caution. Busch was the Lucky Dog and got back on the lead lap, and battled his way back to the front. He even took the lead, and stayed with the leaders for the reminder of the day.

Despite going a lap down and a mishap on pit road, Busch rallied back and finished fifth. He now sits third in the standings

4. Kevin Harvick (-26)
by: Beth Reinke

Kevin Harvick hoped to qualify up front at Talladega, but after rain led to setting the field based on practice times, he ended up starting 33rd, the farthest back of all the Chasers. Being at the rear wasn’t all bad though, since crew chief Gil Martin's plan was for his driver to run at the back for much of the event.

As the race wound down though, Harvick began his forward trek. With 63 to go, the No. 29 Jimmy John’s Chevy was 24th, but travelled into the top 10 by 32 to go. As green flag pit stops cycled through, Harvick pitted for right-side tires and gas, but came off pit road mired back in traffic. Struggling in 25th spot, he had trouble finding any drafting help until the final ten laps, when he worked his way forward for a 12th-place finish.

"We got ourselves in position to be where we needed to be at the end of the race coming to the last pit stop and then lost everything that we gained when we couldn't find a drafting partner when we came off of pit road. I just hate it for all our Jimmy John's guys. We had a strategy that we stuck to and then we were just last off of pit road."

Even though he gained three points in the standings and is tied in points with Kyle Busch, Harvick is listed in fourth spot, 26 marks behind the new leader, Jimmie Johnson.

5. Jeff Gordon (-34)
by: Stacey Owens

With more wins at Talladega Superspeedway than the rest of the Chase field, Jeff Gordon and the No. 24 team were looking to make significant gains at the 2.66-mile track during the Camping World RV Sales 500 on Sunday. And for a few laps, it looked like he was going to make those gains.

"It was a good day," Gordon confirmed following the race. "I thought that the car was fantastic. I thought the team did an awesome job of executing our plan, and we were in perfect position. And it just didn't work out."

Gordon started the race from the 20th position, and joined several other Chasers in slipping to the back early on. In the first three laps, Gordon eased his way to 33rd and then to 40th, a strategy that other drivers including the 18, 15, 5 and 29 also employed in an attempt to avoid the inevitable "Big One" at the storied Alabama track.

As green flag pit stops began at Lap 44, Gordon stayed out to lead a lap and pick up an important bonus point before returning to mid-pack racing. Just before the caution came out for a wreck on Lap 70 involving Montoya and Ambrose, Gordon radioed to his team, "When they're three wide, we've got to move further back."

It wasn't until much later in the race that Gordon decided to soldier toward the front, but he was admittedly surprised by the single-file racing at the front of the pack.

"Shocking. You never know," he said. "I mean it's smart for those guys up front to do that because it eliminates a lot of cars out of the running for the win. But I've never seen guys have that much patience here in my life. So I was pretty shocked to see them just holding that line like they did … But we just hung in there and made a couple of moves there at the end."

Those moves allowed Gordon to run with his Hendrick teammates for a few laps before finishing 14th.

Gordon is now fifth in the championship points standings, 34 points back from points leader Jimmie Johnson heading to Martinsville Speedway next weekend. When asked his thoughts on the Chase and getting through this wild card race at Talladega, Gordon said, "We didn't really gain anything, but we didn't really lose anything." For a lot of drivers, that alone is success at 'Dega.
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John Harrelson: Getty Images

6. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (-52)
by: Stephanie Stuart

Talladega Superspeedway is undoubtedly famous for pack racing, wild finishes and big wrecks. It's also a track that's near and dear to Dale Earnhardt Jr.. He has won there five times over the course of his Sprint Cup career, and loves racing in the draft, a trait he picked up from his late father Dale Earnhardt Sr. It was no surprise that Earnhardt Jr. was a favorite coming into the sixth race of the Chase.

A caution in the early goings of the last lap left him with a second place finish, and the rest of the world wondering what might have been.

Earnhardt Jr.'s second place finish catapulted him up three spots to sixth place in the race for the Sprint Cup title. He led 38 laps before coming to the white flag. As the field raced single file with 20 laps to go, Earnhardt Jr., running in second place, calculated his final move, telling his team that he had a plan for the finish. As the field took the white flag, he seemed to be getting ready to make the move, as Austin Dillon stepped out of line, heading towards the bottom of the track. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. went to go with him, but the move took the air off of Dillon's car, sending him hurtling towards the wall. That move ended the race, as NASCAR threw the yellow and the checkered flags at the same time, sending Jamie McMurray to Victory Lane. Earnhardt Jr. never saw his last lap plan play out.

It wasn't a bad day for the No. 88 team. They had a car that ran up front and was able to make moves freely on the track. The car handled well most of the day, and the pit crew made sure they kept Earnhardt Jr. in the running, giving him good pit stops. He told the team after the race that his car was a rocket.

As the 2013 season winds down, Earnhardt Jr. sits 52 points out of first place. He's run well all year. If he is going to make a run at the title, he's going to have to make a big impact starting now. Today's race proved that Earnhardt Jr. is still one of the kings of superspeedways, and the good run he had today may just provide the momentum he needs to march his way to the top.

7. Greg Biffle (-53)
by: Rebecca Kivak

Greg Biffle stayed out of trouble at Talladega, steering around Austin Dillon’s last-lap crash to finish 11th in Sunday’s Camping World RV Sales 500. Despite his good finish, Biffle dropped one spot in the championship standings to seventh, but gained five points in the process, sitting 53 markers behind new points leader Jimmie Johnson.

After starting sixth, the driver of the No. 16 3M Scotch Blue Ford Fusion stayed near Roush Fenway Racing teammate Carl Edwards for much of the unusually tame restrictor-plate race. Biffle ran in and around the top 10 for the first half of the event, leading twice for five laps. After the caution on Lap 79, Biffle restarted seventh but got shuffled back in the pack. He decided to play it safe and run in the back until it was time to make his move toward the front.

After final green-flag pit stops cycled through with 23 laps to go, Biffle was running second behind leader Kyle Busch. Biffle fell as far back as 17th before progressing to outside the top 10 in the final laps. He avoided a spinning Dillon to cross the finish line in 11th.

“We made it through, that is half the battle at this place,” Biffle said after the race. “It was typical Talladega, we were up and then in the back and up and then in the back. At the end of the day, we missed the wreck and that is all I really care about.”

In Sunday’s pre-race show, many of the ESPN commentators stuck a fork in Biffle’s chances for the championship. With only four races left in the Chase, Biffle’s title hopes are falling further out of reach as he sits more than a race behind points leader Johnson. However, he is standing within 19 points of fifth-place Jeff Gordon, which means there’s still time for Biffle to breach the top five.

8. Clint Bowyer (-57)
by: Carol D’Agostino

Most of the time merely ending a Talladega Superspeedway race with a fully operational car is a good thing, but during the Sprint Cup Chase? Not so much. The good news for Clint Bowyer is that he didn’t lose any spots in the driver championship standings on Sunday with his eighth place finish, which brought him six points closer to the new points leader Jimmie Johnson. Bowyer started the race in 20th place, and led twice for a total of two laps.

Bowyer was cautious, but hopeful that he could gain some points in the standings at Talladega, a track where he traditionally runs well.

“Talladega is the race that can win or lose you the Chase in a fraction of a second. It’s a traffic jam at 200 mph. You have to survive until the end, which is easier said then done, all while putting yourself in the right position to win and get as many points as you can. You have to drive aggressive and be defensive all at the same time. You worry about what you are doing and keep track of who is around you. If you make a mistake chances are you’ll end up with a wrecked race car. On the other hand if you are as far back in points as we are right now - if something happens early in the race it can put you right back in this thing. You just have to race and hope it all works out in the end.”

The No.15 team now shifts its focus from the biggest track on the circuit to the smallest – Martinsville Speedway, where Bowyer’s performance has been less than stellar.

Bowyer's Martinsville statistics over last 10 years: average finish 17.4; 1 top 5; 3 top 10s

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NASCAR via Getty Images
9. Kurt Busch (-61)
by: Stephanie Stuart

Kurt Busch brought "Ricky Bobby" back to life this weekend in Talladega, but couldn't duplicate the character's famous win. Busch finished 18th, and now sits ninth in the standings for the Sprint Cup title.

Racing the Wonder Bread car, Busch hovered in the top 20 most of the day. He battled an ill-handling racecar early, telling the team that he was loose off. In a race that is known for "the big one," today's race only had a handful of cautions, and the incidents involved just two or three cars. Busch managed to avoid the trouble, but the long green flag runs were not kind to the No. 78 team.

Busch lost two valuable spots in the title standings with his finish at Talladega, and he immediately acknowledged the finish on Twitter, saying, "Not at all the finish we wanted. Choosing the middle with seven to go was a bad strategy... never would have guessed it. No one wanted to race."

Now 61 points behind Chase leader Jimmie Johnson, Busch has some work to do if he is going to be a contender for the title when the Chase reaches Homestead. It's been a great year for the one car team out of Denver, Colo., and I wouldn't expect anything but a charge from Busch as the season enters its homestretch. As he prepares to vacate the driver's seat of the No. 78 at the end of the season, nothing would be sweeter than leaving with a title.

10. Carl Edwards (-68)
by: Rebecca Kivak

After victory slipped through his fingers in the spring at Talladega, Carl Edwards looked like he had something for the field with 18 laps to go in his return visit to the superspeedway Sunday. But in the last 10 laps, Edwards was shuffled back. As the field reacted to Austin Dillon’s last-lap wreck, the driver of the No. 99 Subway Ford Fusion missed out on his chance to contend for the win in the Camping World RV Sales 500.

Edwards rolled off the grid fifth Sunday and stayed close to his Roush Fenway Racing teammate Greg Biffle for the majority of the 188-lap restrictor-plate race. After running in the top 10 for most of the event’s first half, Edwards joined Biffle in the back of the pack to wait out any trouble.

Following the final green-lap pit stops with 23 laps to go, Edwards was running fourth. On Lap 170, he passed Kyle Busch to lead one lap and continued to battle Busch for the lead over the next few laps. But with just 10 laps left, Edwards drifted back to 11th and fell as far back as 22nd with two laps to go. After steering around Dillon’s airborne car, Edwards was unable to make a move for the front and was credited with a 17th-place finish.

“I think that wreck at the end, there was a lot of stuff that was going to happen in the last half a lap but we didn’t see it because of that wreck,” Edwards said. “We should have been a little better. We were leading with 10 or 15 to go and I thought we were in a really good spot and it just did not work out. I tried my hardest and that is what we got.”

Edwards maintains his 10th position in the championship standings, sitting 68 markers behind new points leader Jimmie Johnson. With just four races left, Edwards is a long shot for the 2013 Sprint Cup title.

11. Ryan Newman (-72)
by: Lisa Janine Cloud

Ryan Newman finished ninth in the Camping World RV Sales 500, so you know what that means - Bloomin' Onions for all! And 10 lucky sweepstakes winners get their mortgages paid for a month by Quicken Loans.

Unfortunately, that's about all it means.

Newman started 17th, ran 23 to 30th for most of the race, and only had his name mentioned during driver introductions. It was a decent finish that moved him up one spot in the standings but since that spot is 11th, 72 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson, Sunday's run isn't going to change the complexion of the championship run.

As hard as the No. 39 Wix Filters Chevy team worked, Newman's hopes of taking a Sprint Cup championship with him to Richard Childress Racing grow dimmer each week.

12 Joey Logano (-74)
by: Katy Lindamood

Joey Logano’s 16th-place finish in Sunday’s Camping World RV Sales 500 wasn’t indicative of how the No. 22 ran during the first 400 miles. After starting the event from 18th position when rain cancelled qualifying, Logano showed strength in the opening laps. Teaming up with Austin Dillon on the high side, Logano was able to make a run toward the front and to the lead.

As the race progressed and the leaders shuffled, Logano held tight in the top ten and had made his way back to second when the caution came out for an incident involving the No. 9 and No. 42. Taking four tires and fuel on the pit stop, Logano fell back to fifth for the restart and was able to stay within striking distance until the field went single file in preparation for the final round of green-flag stops.

In the closing laps, the Shell Pennzoil Ford tried to make a move on the inside line, but stalled out. Logano finished 16th and lost one position in the standings.

13. Kasey Kahne (-101)
by: Katy Lindamood

There’s little doubt that Kasey Kahne will be happy to see the Chase come to a close in four weeks. A series of disappointing finishes has put Kahne at the back of the pack now 101 points behind his teammate Jimmie Johnson. It’s a safe bet that the No. 5 won’t be celebrating a title this season.

The Farmers Insurance Chevrolet started Sunday’s race in the 28th position and fell to the back in the opening laps. It didn’t take long for that strategy to backfire and for Kahne to lose the draft. They were never able to recover and spent the day one lap down.

Kahne finished 36th, the lowest of the Chase competitors.

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