Sunday’s Hellmann’s 500 at Talladega Superspeedway – the knockout event in the second round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup – had all the ingredients to be a wild, nerve-wracking race, and once the checkered flag flew, we all ended up experiencing a nail-biting main course.
Forty cars took the green flag for Sunday’s 500-mile event, all forty of them focused on capturing the checkered flag. Ten of them were focused on something else as well though – advancing to the third round of the Chase. Austin Dillon, Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, and Chase Elliott were the four drivers outside of the cut-off mark heading into Sunday, but over the course of a full race at Talladega, a lot can change, and a lot did.
Early on in the event, the championship hopes for one of the strongest cars all season long went up in smoke. On Lap 42, shortly after green flag pit stops, pole-sitter Martin Truex Jr. brought out the caution as his engine expired, billowing smoke out of the back of his No.78 Bass Pro Shops/TRACKER Boats Toyota. The Mayetta, NJ native had a 13-point cushion at the start of the race, but when it was all said and done, would up in the garage – eliminated from playoff contention.
“Just damn, it just hurts to go out like that,” Truex told the media in the garage. “We could have raced all day, got in a big wreck and still not made it – there’s no telling, but it sure would have been nice to at least find out and at least play out the whole game so to speak and see what would have happened. To barely make it to the first pit stop hurts. It’s the way it goes some days. Some things you just can’t explain.”
But Truex Jr. wasn’t the only Chase contender whose playoff hopes literally – went up in smoke. Brad Keselowski proved to have the dominant car of the day on Sunday, leading 90 of the first 145 laps. The No.2 Miller Lite Ford seemed to be unstoppable, until a piece of trash decided to make its way onto Keselowski’s grille. The temperature on the grille continued to rise, until the engine finally found it’s breaking point. Smoke began to pour out the back of the No.2 machine as the engine quit – ending Keselowski’s championship hopes.
“Something let go,” said Keselowski in the garage. “I’m not sure exactly what, but it’s unfortunate. We had a really fast Miller Lite Ford and that kind of ended our day. It was a lot of fun to be leading at Talladega. I really like this track. It’s been good to us and there are a lot of great fans here today. We were doing the best we could to make a show of it and have some fun and lead some laps and just happy and proud to have a fast car.”
Two of the four drivers eliminated knew their fates before the race ended – but for the other two, it was a hard-fought battle all the way down to the wire.
Chase Elliott entered Sunday’s race in a virtual “must-win” scenario after experiencing misfortunes in the first two races at Charlotte and Kansas. Elliott had a strong car throughout the 500-mile event, running up front and leading nine laps. But as the race began to wind down, the No.24 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet seemed to be losing track position, and when it was all said and done, Elliott crossed the finish line 12th, eliminated from championship contention.
“We were trying to be as aggressive as we could and try to make stuff happen. It’s tough to do as you just get back in the back and try to make your way through the pack. It just takes time. There’s definitely a lot of power in numbers. We’re disappointed that we came up short. The NAPA team has been fighting hard the past few weeks. We’ve had some awesome racecars. It’s unfortunate to come up short.”
The fourth and final driver eliminated from Chase contention on Sunday was Dillon, who ended up in a tie with Denny Hamlin for the final spot. But courtesy to NASCAR’s rule, if two drivers tie at the end of a Chase round, the nod goes to the driver with the highest finish in that round. So Hamlin, who edged out Kurt Busch by 0.006-seconds for third place, advanced to the next round literally on the last lap at the last second of Sunday’s race.
“Yeah, you know, it’s heartbreaking obviously…” said a defeated but positive Dillon after the race in the media center. “I’m just proud of this team. We made it a full ‘nother round. Thought we were going to make it another one, but it didn’t work out for us. But thanks to our partners, Dow, American Ethanol, everybody.”
Hamlin expectedly showed different emotions after the checkered flag.
“We needed some things to fall our way if we didn’t win the race. Today things fell our way…” said Hamlin. “But for me I really truly believe this is the first great fortune that we had in a Chase in my 11-year career. Things just happened well for us. We went out there and we did our jobs.”
Hamlin will be joined by Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Joey Logano, and Carl Edwards in the third round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Logano wound up taking the victory in Sunday’s Hellmann’s 500 – his 16th-career Sprint Cup win and second-career checkered flag at Talladega Superspeedway.
“What a special win,” said Logano post-race. “Winning here at Talladega is always special and it’s a lot of fun. You never know you’ve got it. Even when you’re coming off turn four you don’t know if you’ve got it because so many things can happen before the start-finish line, so it’s nice to be able to move on to the next round. That was a great feeling for about 20 minutes and now we’re thinking about Martinsville already and how we’re gonna go out there and try to get ourselves to Homestead to win this championship.”
The third round of NASCAR’s playoffs will kick off next weekend at Martinsville Speedway, the shortest track on the Sprint Cup circuit. Tempers and drama tend to flare at the half-mile track, and if history is any indication we are in for another Chase thriller at NASCAR’s oldest track.