Keselowski survives for Talladega win in race of attrition

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After 500 miles, 188 laps and a ton of carnage, one victor emerged from the Alabama 500 at Talladega Superspeedway with a trophy, checkered flag and a trip to the Round of 8: Brad Keselowski.

The 2012 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion outlasted multiple “Big Ones” to win his third race of the season, fifth time at Talladega and 24th time in his career.


BRAD OUTLASTS

Half the battle on Sunday was avoiding the wrecks. Then, the racin’ commenced.

Photo: Sarah Crabill/Getty Images

Brad Keselowski was able to do both those things: avoid the wrecks and race the way he loves to race — restrictor plate style. On the final restart (that only had about a third of the cars that started the event running), Keselowski was able to pass Ryan Newman on the final lap entering turn three on the outside, block the pack behind him and cross the finish line in P1.

“It was one of those crazy days,” Keselowski told NBC following his third win of the season and fifth of his career at the 2.66-mile mammoth Alabama tri-oval. “I think we’ve seen that at the plate tracks this year—a lot of attrition. This is still sinking in. It’s a special place to get to race and a special place when you win here. It was really a collaborative effort with the team and getting a real fast car and making the right moves as a driver and a lot of help from up above with staying out of those wrecks. It really takes all three and we had them all today.”


A NEW KING

With Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the way out and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. still getting his proverbial feet wet with restrictor plate racing, the torch has officially been passed onto Brad Keselowski, who led only seven laps on Sunday. But maybe it was passed along a while ago?

“Of course it’s a special day any day you can win, but to win at Talladega for the fifth time is something I was never sure I’d ever have the opportunity to do,” Keselowski said in the media center. “Just winning here once felt pretty incredible, and it’s hard to believe that was eight-some years ago (in 2009 with James Finch). To win here again, it still feels pretty darned good. It doesn’t feel much different. I’m a little older now, but yeah, you never know when your first win or last win could be, and I want to of course soak this one up and be thankful for it.”

Photo: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

That’s because Keselowski has now become the king of restrictor plate races. He has five wins at Talladega (one shy of Dale Jr.’s career win total at ‘Dega) and one at Daytona. The Fords have consistently run well at superspeedways because of the power underneath the hood, but the driver that Keselowski has become sure as heck doesn’t hurt the No. 2 team’s chances.

“Well, you’d love to be able to pat yourself on the back and say it’s all skill, but there is some luck that’s involved in this,” Keselowski explained. “(In) 2014 we were in one of the big wrecks, and it just hit us in an area that didn’t damage the car to affect its performance, very similar here today where we made it through the wrecks.”

“But I feel like what’s critical to be successful here, whether it’s a cutoff race or a must-win or a not must-win, you know when you come here that probably three out of every four races you’re going to get caught up in a wreck or something like that happens. But the races where you have the good fortune, where you don’t get caught up in a wreck or you don’t have something break or any of those things, you have to take those races, run up front and win them. And I think that’s what we’ve been able to do.”


THE FIELD

Following Keselowski across the finish line was Ryan Newman in second place. Trevor Bayne (albeit with a beaten and battered car) was third, with Joey Logano and Aric Almirola rounding out the top five. Denny Hamlin, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kasey Kahne, Gray Gaulding and David Ragan rounded out the top 10 finishers when 500 miles were over from Talladega.

Yes, you read that right. Gray Gaulding, David Ragan and Trevor Bayne notched top 10 finishes. That’s the beauty of Talladega, folks. Kyle Larson finished 13th, Matt Kenseth 14th, Chase Elliott 16th, Ryan Blaney (won stage two) 18th, Kevin Harvick 20th, Martin Truex Jr. 23rd, Jimmie Johnson 24th, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 26th, Kyle Busch 27th and Jamie McMurray 37th.


CLOSE, BUT NO CIGAR FOR JUNIOR

The final race at Talladega Superspeedway didn’t go as planned for Dale Earnhardt Jr. But anything short of a win was going to be a disappointment. High hopes, high expectations, and a high heart-rate during the 500 miles for Junior Nation ended with a seventh-place finish.

Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images

“I thought the car had enough to win before we bent the splitter down,” Earnhardt Jr. said of the third “Big One” that damaged the No. 88. “And it was a great car all weekend. This has been a hell of a weekend for me, and I’m glad to be able to finish and finish well. That means a lot to me. I know a lot of folks came and traveled here to see us run, so I know they’re disappointed we didn’t win, but I’m glad they got to see us run the whole event. Hopefully they enjoyed it.”

With four races to go in Junior’s career as a full-time MENCS driver, the opportunities for a win aren’t staring him in the face. And he knows that. His fans know that. But for these last four races, let’s all sit back, relax, not complain and watch a future Hall of Famer finish his career.


RACE OF ATTRITION

What if I told you … that only 14 cars were running at the finish of the 2017 Alabama 500. What if I told you … that three red flags slowed the event for almost four hours, including two “Big Ones.” What if I told you that multiple playoff contenders were involved in such wrecks, hindering their chances of advancement. This is more than a race. This, is Talladega.

Photo: Josh Hedges/Getty Images

Okay, so now that my impromptu movie trailer is over, let’s actually talk about what happened.

There were three red flags that slowed the race for a total of 35 minutes and 29 seconds, and also took out multiple playoff contenders. There were also three “Big Ones,” with the first coming on lap 172, triggered by Martin Truex Jr. that also took out Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Matt Kenseth, among others. That “Big One” involved 16 cars.

Six laps later, another “Big One” took out Ryan Blaney and Kevin Harvick, and the third and final “Big One” occurred on lap 183, where Chase Elliott and Daniel Suarez got together, collecting Kyle Larson and a few other non-playoff drivers. It was a lot of carnage and lots of wrecked cars.


ON THE BUBBLE

The playoff grid has a new look heading into the final race of the Round of 12, and it includes Jamie McMurray, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch (yes, not a typo) in the bottom four. That’s what happens when you’re involved in wrecks at Talladega, folks.

Busch is only seven points behind Jimmie Johnson for the final playoff spot (eighth place), a gap that is more than surmountable. Kenseth is eight points back, with Stenhouse Jr. 18 points back and McMurray25 points behind. Not insurmountable, but not ideal, either.

All four of those drivers can win at Kansas. Busch has finished inside the top five in five of his last six trips to Kansas, Kenseth had back-to-back wins in his final year at Roush Fenway Racing and in his first year at Joe Gibbs Racing, McMurray has top-fived his way to death on intermediate tracks and all it takes is a pit strategy call for the No. 17 to get up front. You never know, folks.


WHAT’S NEXT

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads to Kansas Speedway for the Hollywood Casino 400 next weekend to close out the Round of 12. When the checkered flag flies on the 400-mile event, the bottom four drivers in the points standings will be eliminated. The green flag for that event is scheduled to fly at approximately 3:16 p.m. ET with television coverage on NBC.

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