Flat Spot On – Keselowski Claims Talladega Again

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, April 26 2021

Brad Keselowski served up some post-race donuts at Talladega on Sunday. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

TALLADEGA, Ala. – Welcome to Talladega, NASCAR’s home of the unpredictable. It’s an oddly unsettling place, the kind where Stephen King, a prolific author of stranger-than-life fiction, would probably feel comfortable.

Like the old days of one-mile dirt tracks such as Langhorne or Lakewood, the current epitome of length and speed in stock cars invites disaster. When they leave here mostly unscathed, without a major league Big One in the rearview mirror, well, there’s a palpable sense of satisfaction—and relief for competitors.

The hardy Talladega fans, well they just expect to see a show. After a COVID constricted crowd quickly filed out of the grandstands, one apparently satisfied fan waved a victory sign with fingers held high toward Big Bill’s Garage as he walked beside the ultra-high fence along the front straight, the one rife with cables thicker than an Anaconda. Like the distant fan who chatters on behalf of his baseball team from the upper deck, this fan was happy to let everybody know in the distant and vacant pits across the vast trioval bend that it was a good show. Cars broke loose in all directions all day, albeit without collecting the entire field.

Drivers and teams consider themselves to be doing well just to finish a race here and be packing up without excessive damage. That was the theme of winner Brad Keselowski. “Every time I had a chance to go for the lead, I kept saying to myself, ‘Keep it in one piece.’” He won in overtime by leading his only lap of the day, the 191st

After 41 seasons – subtracting last year’s COVID hiatus – I’m not sure I’ve ever felt comfortable at Talladega. It’s like the lover who alternately excites both magnetic appeal and quicksilver trepidation. Things can and do go wrong in a hurry. But then the checkers fall, an almost invariably deserving winner is declared and the magic flows once again no matter how much carnage the day has seen.

In gloriously engaging spring sunshine and greenery well-watered by a Saturday storm, on this day Joey Logano and Bubba Wallace each dodged a 3,400-pound bullet by missing one another on the back straight in the early going. Either one could have collected the other at 200 mph as the Ford of Logano went flying after being turned in traffic. No matter how high the fences, a punted piece of large weldment is the worst-case scenario. Wallace escaped with a damaged antenna as Logano slid over his roof, the equivalent of a single hair getting injured during a horrendous fall. Like something that might happen to Stan Laurel, Buster Keaton or a slapstick version of Kevin Kline. Unable to continue, Logano took only a hit in the points.

Three of Hendrick Motorsports cars were involved in one wreck Sunday at Talladega. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

On Saturday, before the lightning there was fire on the back straight. In yet another inexplicable Talladega circumstance, driver Derrick Lancaster hit the wall during the ARCA race, whereupon his cockpit gradually was engulfed in flames as he rolled to a stop at the other end of major league racing’s longest straight. He was fortunate to escape with burns on his neck and on hands uncovered by gloves.

Alert fans will recall that Penske Racing teammates Logano and Keselowski were involved in a last-lap imbroglio in the season-opening Daytona 500 that paved the way for a victory by first-time winner Michael McDowell. In this one, the charging Penske Ford of Dave Blaney as well as McDowell’s Ford figured in the last-lap scramble to overtake leader Matt DiBenedetto, one that ended with “only” a couple of turned cars hitting the wall in the trioval as the field thundered to the checkers.

DiBenedetto chose poorly, as the saying goes, by jumping in front of the line of cars led by Blaney and leaving his pusher Keselowski in the process. All this took place entering the last lap where a work of art known as Turn 1 gently lifts into the 33-degree banking in a swoosh of asphalt the remains unequaled in high-bank history for the aesthetic of its geometry.

One can hardly fault the decision of the driver of the Wood Brothers looking for his first career Cup victory and the 100th for the lads behind the candy apple red and white Ford with their No. 21 writ in gold. DiBenedetto was wary of having Keselowski behind him, who now has six victories on the plains of Alabama. “Kez” is also one of 11 drivers who have scored their first career victory at Talladega. As DiBenedetto probably knows, to get that first victory Kezelowski pushed Carl Edwards in a tandem draft to the final flag at the Start-Finish before almost pushing Edwards’ Ford into the grandstands. That was a narrow miss, a nearly tragic punt, or shunt as they say in some quarters of racing. As it was, a teenage girl had to have her broken jaw wired shut until it healed after getting hit with debris flying through the grandstands. 

Kezelowski was on the way up and driving a Chevy for James Finch when he won in 2009. He very much deserved to win that day—in spite of Edwards’ bad block attempt. If not for teammate Logano’s bad block, the oldest stock car driver at Penske Racing might have won this year’s season opener at Daytona instead of flying into a fiery melee of lead draft cars. Given the way this one finished, and which two cars were leading at Daytona before the merde hit the fan, it looks like the Penske Fords have an edge on the big tracks. And it looks like the second-generation driver from Michigan best knows how to use it—one winning lap at a time.

Which brings us to the day’s hard luck story. After almost getting pancaked at the end of the first stage, Wallace won the second stage. He dodged the accident ahead of his team owner Denny Hamlin en route to his first career stage win. During green flag pit stops, Wallace dodged what turned out to be a near schlemozzle, as more than a dozen cars headed for the pits. But in the end, after leading 16 laps and setting one of the race’s fastest laps, Wallace and his 23XI team elected to stay out—along with near winner DiBenedetto among others—instead of pitting for tires during a caution that fell with 18 laps remaining. Bad call. He ended up 19th after pitting during the day’s final caution just before the green fell for the overtime finish.

On a day when NASCAR announced a partnership with the Boys & Girls Club of America to introduce more young people of different backgrounds to its brand of racing, Wallace demonstrated his individual ascent to NASCAR’s top rung has depended upon his talent and perseverance, his father’s investment and support from NASCAR’s diversity program—in that order.

Alas, there wasn’t a Black fan in sight from the perspective of the press box, which has a good view of the entire front straight and which requires a long trek through fans to access. Legend has it that the track was built on land cursed by the Creek tribe of Native Americans when they were forced to move during the Trail of Tears. Maybe it’s the land where time has stopped. Ironic for a place of so much asphalt beauty and breathtaking speed.

(Editor’s note: Jonathan Ingram and Bill Lester are co-authors of the new release from Pegasus Books titled “Winning in Reverse.”  Ingram’s current book “CRASH! From Senna to Earnhardt – How the HANS Helped Save Racing” includes a comprehensive account of Dale Earnhardt’s last-lap crash at Daytona in 2001. Published by RJP Books, signed copies of “CRASH!” are available at www.jingrambooks.com.)


| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, April 26 2021
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