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All eyes on Wallace as Blaney wins at Talladega

All eyes on Wallace as Blaney wins at Talladega

NASCAR Cup Series GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway: Blaney wins; Wallace makes history

 

Talladega, AL, June 22/20 (GRW): The race here at Talladega was an historic day in the history of NASCAR – an organization and a fan base long associated with the racial divide in the old South of the United States. I will address my thoughts on that topic in a ‘sidebar’ story.

On the Sunday a noose was found in the No. 43 car’s pit stall – the Black driver Darrell Wallace drives that car. On Monday, the actual day of the race, the entire body of NASCAR drivers and the crews members took park in a demonstration of support of Wallace. For a sport which has its roots in the old South and which has been notable for its lack of participation by Black fans or drivers, NASCAR’s recent moves to reject this old legacy – and this demonstration of solidarity with Wallace at Talladega – are historic for the sport.

NOTE: After I wrote this story, NASCAR issued an ‘Official Release’ which stated: “The FBI has completed its investigation at Talladega Superspeedway and determined that Bubba Wallace was not the target of a hate crime. The FBI report concludes, and photographic evidence confirms, that the garage door pull rope fashioned like a noose had been positioned there since as early as last fall. This was obviously well before the 43 team’s arrival and garage assignment. We appreciate the FBI’s quick and thorough investigation and are thankful to learn that this was not an intentional, racist act against Bubba. We remain steadfast in our commitment to providing a welcoming and inclusive environment for all who love racing.”

It is unfortunate that NASCAR jumped the gun on this and created a situation which gives the nay-sayers a chance to say “I told you so.” I would note that, under the current restrictions, NASCAR has limited the total number of media writers to about five at each event and they are confined to the press box which at Talladega (as is typical of most places) it is on the opposite side of the track from the garages and the pits. The rest of us are covering these events from home or some other remote location. Hence it is difficult for any media representatives, on site or in a remote location, to independently verify information provided by NASCAR.

Regardless, this issue of ‘Black Lives Matter’ is still a real issue and one we must not lose sight of.

PHOTO NCS Dega Petty 062220Richard Petty, in a rare appearance at a race track, stands with his driver Darrell Wallace in an expression of support prior to Monday's race (Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

I am no fan of the kind of racing the big, high-banked oval of the Talladega Superspeedway produces and this day’s race was no exception. As is usual, most of the race consisted most of the field running around in a huge pack, lap after lap. Given the drafting that goes on here, the order up front typically changes around from lap-to-lap. This is followed by a short segment at the end of the race when everyone gets serious and tries to get to the front of the pack for the finish. Usually this sets of one or more ‘big one’ crashes that may involve up to half of the field at a time. When this is cleaned up, we see a late race dash over a few frantic laps – and nowadays it is commonplace for this final dash to produce another big crash as the field comes to the checker. Think of Ryan Newman’s big wreck across the finish line at Daytona earlier this year. We had all of these elements in today’s race.

Today’s race was scheduled to run for 188 laps/500 miles. The end game was set up when the race’s seventh caution flew on lap 143 and almost every car pitted for fuel. When the race went back to green on lap 147, there were 41 laps or 110 laps to go to the flag. Every car would have to make another pit stop or risk running out of fuel. Crew chiefs had two options, one: let their driver run at the front and burn up fuel in hopes that there would be another yellow and everyone would pit again, leaving their car positioned in the lead with enough fuel to race to the final flag, or two: instruct their driver to fall back into the pack where they could save fuel and hope that, in the absence of another yellow, the front runners would have to pit under green (or run out of fuel) letting the fuel-saving driver cycle up to the front to take the checker and win the race.

These two different approaches saw the order of the field scrambled going into that final 41-lap run. Joey Logano, who had been part of the three-car Penske train that had led for most of the race, was now vying with William Byron and Denny Hamlin for the lead – while his other two Penske teammates – Ryan Blaney and Brad Keselowski – had dropped back to the mid-field, saving fuel.

With ten laps to go, Logano was still fighting for the lead against Tyler Reddick and Hamlin, while Blaney was moved up a bit – to 11th place. That still seemed to be a ‘bridge too far’ for Blaney to hope to hope to win this. But, remember, Blaney had been saving fuel and the guys at the front were not able to stay up there and save fuel at the same time – so something was going to happen to shake things up.

The first thing was that Erik Jones, who had pitted a bit early out-of-sequence the time before, had to pit to top-up with fuel with about eight laps to go. This, seemingly dropped him totally out of any chance at winning the race. Now, on lap 183, Reddick was still leading Hamlin and Wallace (who had worked the drafting to his advantage) ahead of Blaney in fourth.

Then, on lap 186, two laps to go, Kevin Harvick clipped Jimmie Johnson sending him into a spin and bringing out a final yellow – and sending the race into overtime. Seven drivers – including Logano and Wallace – cried ‘uncle’ and turned down pit lane for more fuel, conceding any hopes of winning the race.

According to my notes, when they lined up, Blaney was now in front with Harvick alongside, Chris Buescher in third, Rick Stenhouse (who had earlier been consistently the fastest of the non-Penske drivers) fourth, Keselowski (where did he come from?) and Cole Custer. I’m not sure where Jones was but he was outside the top ten as they lined up.

The final green flew signaling just two more laps – or five miles – to the checker. A number of cars mid-field started wrecking but the green stayed out and the leaders took the white flag and continued. As they came out of the final turn Blaney was leading but Jones, who had come from far back was shooting forward and it looked like he was going past Blaney just before they crossed the line (see the photo at the top of this story) but Blaney hip-checked him up towards the wall collecting another car (John Hunter Nemechek) there as well. This was enough to give Blaney the advantage and he took the checker by centimetres ahead of Stenhouse (recorded as a 0.007-second margin).

"I just kind of blocked, just trying to block the best we could," Blaney said. "Ride the top, ride the bottom. The 20 (Jones) got to my outside, and I tried to go up there to slow him down and… I’m not sure, I don’t know… three-wide, I hate that I hit him, but just kind of trying to beat and bang to the line and things like that.

"We just edged it out, but I’m really proud of this whole team. It’s been a cool year so far, and I’m really excited to get our first win of the year at a cool place.”

And that’s what passes for fair competition here at Talladega.

Aric Almirola slid sideways across the finish line to claim third place, with Denny Hamlin and Jones following in fourth and fifth, respectively. Chris Buescher, Alex Bowman, John Hunter Nemechek, Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick completed the top 10. In my opinion, Jones was robbed of the win when Blaney pushed him up into Nemechek’s car.

Before all that late-race action there was a long, period when the big pack of cars – headed by the Penske trio of Logano, Keselowski and Blaney – and sometimes the affiliated Woods brothers entry with Matt DiBenedetto – making a three- or four-car train at the front. Strangely, Reddick and Alex Bowman led this Penske train to the first Stage win and Stenhouse beat Blaney to the second Stage win – but by then the three-car Penske train was starting to break up.

The race had been postponed to the Monday after rain had washed it out on Sunday. Now, on Monday, the rain came again bringing out the red flag for an hour as of lap 57. Even after that, the skies were still very threatening and, for some time, it looked like the race would never run its full distance – indeed, one wondered if it would be able to reach its minimum half distance on Monday without another day’s delay. However, once the race got into its third segment the skies cleared and worries that the rain might again interrupt the race went away.

• Click HERE for the results of the GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway

• The next NASCAR Cup Series race will be at Pocono Raceway next Saturday, June 27. The Pocono weekend is a Cup double-header with a second Cup Series race there on Sunday, June 28.

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