There is no more unpredictable track than Talladega Superspeedway, where a good day can turn disastrous in a split second and where upstarts can score upset victories.
Sunday’s GEICO 500 saw Ricky Stenhouse Jr. become the 11th different driver to win his first race in what is now the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series at Talladega. Stenhouse won in his 158th career start, breaking a 101-race winless streak for Roush Fenway Racing.
It was an exciting, dramatic race that came down to Stenhouse making a last-lap pass of Kyle Busch to win.
Here are five takeaways from NASCAR’s biggest and fastest oval track:
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There is nothing more joyous in NASCAR than seeing a driver win for the first time, especially when he’s been trying for a long time to get it done. Stenhouse made his first Cup start in the 2011 Coca-Cola 600, so this victory definitely didn’t come overnight.
“When we were in the XFINITY Series, we showed up every week, and they knew that they were going to have to beat us to win a race, and I want that feeling here,” Stenhouse said. “We're not there yet, but they know we're here. We're on some of them's radar screen. We're not on all of them yet. There are teams that don't look at us throughout practice yet, but they will.”
As big a victory as it was for Stenhouse — and it was — you could argue that it was even bigger for team founder and co-owner Jack Roush. A decade or so ago, Roush Fenway Racing was one of the truly elite teams in the sport, but they’d fallen on hard times in recent years before rebounding this year. Winning was a big shot in the arm.
“it gives us fresh wind in our sail,” said Roush. “We've got over 300 victories in NASCAR. … We'll celebrate with the crew and with all the engine builders and everybody else that this is their first win. We'll celebrate the fact that they were there the day that Ricky won at Talladega in 2017.”
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Blue Oval Boys
Success at restrictor-plate race tracks is largely a function of horsepower and it's clear that Doug Yates and the gang at Roush Yates Engines packed a ton of steam under the hoods of all the Fords in the field. Brad Keselowski won Stage 1, as Ford drivers took four of the top six spots.
In the second stage, Denny Hamlin led 40 of 55 laps in his Toyota, although Ford drivers Kevin Harvick and Ryan Blaney were second and third, respectively.
In the final stage, Stenhouse was able to pull off the victory, with fellow Ford pilots Aric Almirola (fourth), Kurt Busch (sixth), Brad Keselowski (seventh) and David Ragan (10th) all finishing in the top 10.
Ford drivers have now won five of 10 points races this year, putting Ford on track to win its first NASCAR Cup Manufacturers’ Championship since 2002.
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With 10 races in the books, eight different drivers have already won races and all but clinched spots in NASCAR’s season-ending playoffs. Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson have each won twice, while Stenhouse is joined by fellow one-time winners Kurt Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Larson, Joey Logano and Ryan Newman.
Conversely, Chase Elliott, Jamie McMurray, Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer. Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin are all winless, despite being ranked 11th or higher in points. The playoff race will get more interesting as we move to the summer.
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The little guys
Restrictor-plate tracks historically give opportunities for the Davids of the sport to compete with the Goliaths, at least more so than on the typical 1.5-mile tracks.
To that end, props to Cole Whitt, Elliott Sadler, Matt DiBenedetto and Gray Gaulding, who all finished in the top 20. Those were solid finishes for each of those drivers.
It was great to see the grandstands filled at Talladega. Doubtless, many came to see Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s penultimate appearance at NASCAR’s biggest over, but whatever the reason, it was impressive, to say the least.