In a day that was filled with hard racing, big crashes and barrel rolls, Brad Keselowski came out victorious in Talladega.
Arguably, Keselowski had the strongest racecar on Sunday leading a race-high 46 laps. After a mid-race pit stop that forced his hand and go toward the rear of the top 10 the last 20 laps, the No. 2 car established itself as the one to beat.
“This Fusion was hauling,” Keselowski said. “That’s one of the tickets of staying out of the wrecks at Talladega is if you can stay up front, you have a great shot of not getting in a wreck. Daytona didn’t go the way we wanted it to go. We just didn’t have the speed, but the guys went to work and brought me a really strong car here for Talladega.”
This is Keselowski’s fourth-career win at NASCAR’s biggest track, the most he has at any one track.
After leading 12 laps early on, Kyle Busch came home second. He was getting a huge shove coming to the white flag, but Keselowski blocked, settling the No. 18 car for the runner-up position.
Austin Dillon posted a career best third-place finish after making 15 pit stops throughout the day. Just passed halfway, David Gilliland got into the rear of the No. 3 machine turning him into the outside causing the first big crash of the day that saw rookie Chris Buescher flip multiple times.
“What we’ve really been focused on going forward is trying not to panic,” Dillon said of his day. “They fixed the car and what a run to the finish. Our car probably wasn’t good enough to really win the race, but it was good enough for the No. 1 to push me all the way through [Turns] 3 and 4.”
Jamie McMurray notched his best finish of 2016 with a fourth-place result. The former winner at Talladega never led, but pushed several cars to the lead throughout the 500 miles.
Pole-sitter Chase Elliott led 27 laps and notched his third top-five finish of the young season. After leading much of the opening stint of the event, the No. 24 car fell back throughout the day, but came on strong in the final three laps.
“You can’t have a good day unless you finish,” Elliott said. “I think it was just focusing in on that and obviously it got really wild and for us we tried to keep that in mind to try and make it to the end.”
Tony Stewart was credited with a sixth-place finish, though Ty Dillon drove the No. 14 Chevrolet to the checkered flag. After the first caution on Lap 50, the XFINITY Series regular replaced the three-time Cup Series champion behind the wheel.
The Cup veteran admitted that “it sucked” having to get out of the racecar, but it was part of the deal to get him back in the car last weekend in Richmond.
Clint Bowyer, Landon Cassill, Michael Waltrip, Cole Whitt, Bobby Labonte and the aforementioned Gilliland all posted season best finishes on Sunday.
The biggest incident of the afternoon came with 28 laps to go when Kurt Busch got into the rear of Jimmie Johnson spinning him into the wall, causing a 17 car crash. Daytona 500 winner, Denny Hamlin was one of the drivers involved in the accident.
With eight laps to go Michael McDowell, spun Danica Patrick, clipping the side of Matt Kenseth’s machine and causing him to flip into the inside fence. The No. 20 car was one of the strongest racecars throughout the day leading 39 laps, finishing a disappointing 23rd.
Coming to the checkered flag was the last crash that saw 2014 Sprint Cup champion Kevin Harvick get airborne, hitting the outside retaining wall. Eight cars came across the checkered flag with damage due to this incident.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Carl Edwards and Kasey Kahne all finished toward the rear with each driver had multiple problems at the 2.66-mile track.
In all, 33 out of the 40 cars received some kind of damage throughout the wildest race of the season to date.
The Cup Series will head to the Midwest for some night racing next Saturday in Kansas, with Johnson the defending winner. It was the controversy in the fall that led to the Kenseth and Joey Logano drama that saw its latest chapter on Sunday when the No. 22 car forced the No. 20 Toyota below the yellow line.
After the event had concluded Kenseth pointed his finger out of displeasure at Logano, where the 25-year-old shrugged his shoulders and chuckled.
Practice hardly matters at Talladega unless a team crashes due to the unpredictability of the event. Fortunately, there were no incidents in either of the two sessions on Friday.
In opening practice, Jamie McMurray paced the field at 199.737 mph. The No. 1 Chevrolet was on track for 16 laps, most of them coming in the draft, where he set his quick time.
Daytona 500 pole-sitter, Chase Elliott slated the No. 24 just behind McMurray at 199.729 mph. Kurt Busch, at 199.409 mph was third, with Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Danica Patrick in fourth at 199.384 mph and Trevor Bayne rounded out the top five at 199.317 mph.
30 teams posted a 10 consecutive lap run and Kyle Larson topped that list at 195.541 mph. On single lap speeds the No. 42 car was ninth overall.
Teams such as the Wood Brothers, Front Row Motorsports, Premium Motorsports and The Motorsports Group were all racing the weather with drivers Ryan Blaney, David Gilliland, Cole Whitt, Michael Waltrip and Josh Wise.
With the new charter system, none of those five drivers have a guaranteed spot in the main event on Sunday. Prior to the 2016 season, 36 teams were granted a charter giving them a position in each of the races this season and with qualifying being questionable for Saturday, each team needed to lay down a quick lap.
The slowest was Wise in 35th at 194.551 mph and if qualifying were to get cancelled he would miss the show.
The fall winner at Talladega, Joey Logano led final practice at 196.290 mph. Slated just behind him was Blaney at 196.239 mph.
Both Elliott and Patrick were in the top five in each session as the No. 24 car had a lap at 196.185 mph and the No. 10 machine was fourth at 195.094. Brian Scott completed the top five at 195.003.
Patrick also held the point on best 10 lap averages, though only a handful of drivers made a run of at least 10 laps. Three of the other four drivers were from the Hendrick Motorsports stable, with Jimmie Johnson as the odd man out.
Tony Stewart climbed into the No. 14 Chevrolet with roughly 15 minutes remaining to make his first laps of the day. The team worked on swapping Ty Dillon and he out of the car as the three-time Cup champion will only participate in the race until the first caution due to his lingering back injury.
Qualifying is set to begin on Saturday at 12:30 p.m. There will be a new pole-sitter from last year as Jeff Gordon won the pole for Sunday.
In 2010, Dave Gilliland said goodbye farewell to start and park teams after bouncing around severely underfunded teams in 2009. Since he has joined Front Row Motorsports, Gilliland has developed into a driver that has led a little team and created enthusiasm for a team owned by fast food entrepreneur, Bob Jenkins.
Last year, the California native finished a career-best 26th in points with the No. 38 team. However, the team has gone in the wrong direction this year. There are multiple variables that have thrown Front Row Motorsports a giant curveball, but none bigger than the aero changes which NASCAR enforced over the off-season.
“We are a little bit behind right now, but we are always looking to improve and hopefully our goal is to get to 25th in points,” Gilliland said in an exclusive interview with Speedway Digest on Saturday morning. “We are running all different springs, different ride heights, different sway bars – just different everything. Without testing, we are learning stuff as we go for what we need. We are just kind of learning on the fly.”
But it is more than just adjusting to the new parts and setups which the team needs to use. The organization is severely underfunded. Jenkins has notably funded the team out of his own pocket over the years, but they have been able to receive additional funding as they continue to have success.
“I think (we) just need funding and sponsorship really. We don’t have the budget that these other teams have, so with new partners and sponsorships comes resources and that would help a little bit,” Gilliland said.
And they have done just that. This year, Front Row Motorsports has had four different companies (not including those owned by Jenkins) aboard the No. 34 and No. 38 Fords. Moreover, besides qualifying well at Bristol, this small organization has struggled to run well during qualifying with the new format. Being that step or two behind has truly hurt the team Gilliland said. But there is hope for the organization as Gilliland says Front Row Motorsports is like family to him now.
“I wish we could put a little bit longer contracts together, but I understand Bob (Jenkins) and the entire team’s side of it. They are doing what they can do. I have a great relationship with our car owner, Bob, and we are like family. It is good to go to work for a company that you have that type of relationship with, and that is something special,” he said.
Though Gilliland has not started to discuss renewing his contract, he wants to stay with the organization. The results might not be what he wants, but with silly season starting to spark, Gilliland is expected to resign with the team. But this is nothing new for him as he has been working on one year deals for Front Row Motorsports since he signed on with the team due to the presence of a lack of funding.
“We haven’t really talked about it (contract negotiations) yet. We usually wait a little longer throughout the year. I like Front Row Motorsports, and I have been there for a long time. I have seen it progress and have been part of helping it get built and was a part of their first win at Talladega. I enjoy being a part of being a part of building the program.”
For Gilliland, a turning point in the team’s day-to-day operation would be completing an alliance with one of the larger teams – similar to what JTG Daugherty Racing and Germain Racing has done with Richard Childress Racing. Even though FRM receives Roush-Yates engines, that is about all they get. While Team Penske and Roush-Fenway Racing are doing their own thing, Ford has stepped up to give a helping hand to this little team.
Now, Gilliland’s son, Todd Gilliland, is starting his racing career. At 13-years-old, he won his first career Late Model event at Ace Speedway in North Carolina at the beginning of May. Not only was it huge victory, but it symbolized so much for the entire Gilliland family.
“It has been tough (to go focus on his career while working with his son), but it has been very enjoyable. He is a great racecar driver, and I think he has a really bright future ahead of him. We are obviously doing everything we can to help him and give him the best opportunities on and off the track. It is something that I love doing.”
Even though Gilliland was not present for his son’s victory, he has been able to guide him on and off the track. For the father-son combination, they are examples as to how great it is to have amazing moments with family. NASCAR’s latest “NASCAR with Dad” initiative does just that as fans can share pictures and stories about going to the track as a father/son combination.