Five thoughts on Sunday’s NASCAR race at Talladega Superspeedway…
1. First-time winner, but no fluke
Both of this year’s restrictor-plate races have been won by drivers who had never won on a plate track before (or anywhere, in Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s case).
That’s surprising in a time where the current plate package seemed to favor a few drivers who had perfected how to manipulate the draft once they got a lead: Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Dale Earnhardt Jr., to name a few.
Kyle Busch is one of the good ones, too — but he seemed to get snookered by Stenhouse in overtime.
So what the heck happened?
When Stenhouse moved up to block Kasey Kahne’s run on the top side, Busch moved up to block Stenhouse — expecting to take away his momentum or at least get a shove.
And actually, Busch got what he wanted: A shot from behind. But to his surprise, it didn’t advance him.
“He got to my back bumper and actually hit me, and I thought that was going to shoot me forward,” Busch said. “He just turned left and passed me after hitting me. So, pretty impressive.”
Busch wasn’t being sarcastic; he meant it. It was impressive, and he repeated the term later in a second interview. Stenhouse deserved to win this race.
There have been fluky winners on restrictor-plate races throughout history, but Stenhouse isn’t one of them. For one thing, he started from the pole — which means Roush Fenway Racing built a very fast speedway car. And Talladega is also tied with Bristol for Stenhouse’s best track — he has a 10.4 average finish at both.
Look, it’s hard to read too much into any plate victory, because nothing translates to a “real racetrack” (as Busch put it Sunday).
But Roush Fenway really does seem to have something good going on this season. Stenhouse is now in the playoffs (wow!) and Trevor Bayne would also be in if it started today (he’s 16th in the standings).
Clearly, there’s been a lot of improvement over the offseason for a team whose three cars finished 21st, 22nd and 23rd in the point standings last season.
“(Over) the offseason, the whole attitude at our shop changed, and the people in each department were putting in more hours and working harder to make sure we started the season as best we could,” Stenhouse said. “We started a little stronger than we thought we would, but then we’ve also continued to make gains and continued to up our performance.”
2. The joy of winning
I’m sure this story is going to be everywhere, but this still deserves mention because, well, it’s completely awesome.
Apparently, Ricky Stenhouse Sr. was briefly detained by track security after the race while trying to get to victory lane and celebrate with his son.
Here’s the story, as told by Talladega public relations chief Russell Branham:
He was extremely excited about his son winning today, and naturally so. He was actually perched on the back straightaway up top the Alabama Gang Superstretch in an RV.
His son wins the race, he goes down, he tries to find a way to get across the track. He tried to climb the fence, found out he couldn’t. He begins running down outside of the perimeter road of Turn 3 outside the venue. He wants to go through the tunnel and get in here.
Our (security) guys saw it. Naturally, they stopped him, asked him who he was, said, ‘Would you get in the car?’ They placed him in the car, talked to him, they said, ‘Who are you?’
He said, ‘I’m Ricky Stenhouse’s father.’ (They said) ‘Hold on one second, sir. Let me call the director of security.’ Called our security, and our security guy said, ‘Take him to victory lane,’ and that’s what happened.
Seriously, how great is that? Even better is Stenhouse Jr. actually figured his dad would try to climb the fence (he did it before at Kentucky) and looked for Stenhouse Sr. when he came around on the cool-down lap.
“I went down the back straightaway after the race was over and looked up to see if he was there, but I didn’t see him,” Stenhouse Jr. said. “My dad has done so much for me in my career. … Everything that I know about racing I learned from him, and I’m glad that he was able to be here in victory lane.”
3. What’s up with Dale Jr.?
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was as discouraged as I’ve seen him in quite awhile following his 22nd-place finish.
Earnhardt, frustratingly to himself and his fans, wasn’t a factor all day after starting second. He scored no stage points — at a place where he’s normally toward the front — and failed to lead a lap at Talladega for only the fifth time in 34 career starts (and second time in a row).
The loose wheel at the end of the race ruined his shot at a good day, but the No. 88 car wasn’t a player anyway. So what gives?
Well, Earnhardt said he hasn’t loved this rules package at plate races after a horsepower change at the start of last season.
“When they changed the motor after (2015), it took a lot of the speed out of the cars as far as how they create runs and maintain runs and how you can put together passes and do things on the track,” he said. “Now everybody is just stuck side-by-side. If you aren’t in the first or second row, you really are just kind of riding behind those guys with nowhere really to go. You can’t do much about it, because the cars don’t create the runs like they used to.”
That makes sense if you look at the results. In 2015, Earnhardt finished third, first, first and second at the four plate races.
Since then, he’s finished 36th, 40th, 21st, 37th and 22nd.
“I’d change a few things if I was the king of this deal,” he said. “But as long as the fans enjoyed the show, we’ll keep going down the road with what we’ve got.”
If that’s the case, it doesn’t sound like winning one of his remaining two plate races is as great of a chance as it once was.
4. Air AJ
Airborne cars scare the crap out of me, but AJ Allmendinger played it pretty cool after he landed on his roof on Sunday. Allmendinger even joked he had a “nice flight” during the Big One.
“It’s better than some of the flights we take back home,” he said.
But what wasn’t as fun was hanging upside down in his No. 47 car as fluids leaked and Allmendinger waited for the safety crew to flip him back onto his wheels.
“Get me the hell back over,” he thought.
Allmendinger acknowledged he was worried the car would catch on fire, but said the key was to not panic. And he was reassured by the safety team’s rapid response.
“If they weren’t there that quick, I might have thought of trying to slide out,” he said. “But it kind of rolled over onto the window, so there wasn’t a lot of room that I was going to get out.”
Plus, he said, he didn’t want to loosen his belts and take another hit to the head, even though he joked “there’s not much in there to be that worried about.”
5. Snap away
NASCAR was featured as one of Snapchat’s Live Stories on Sunday and even had a new lens which could alter people’s faces.
But many fans were unable to use it due to the terrible cell phone reception at the track. Ugh. What a giant missed opportunity.
Granted, I still have Sprint, so maybe I just have a bad network. Some people had a signal (one of my friends has T-Mobile and said his worked). But I saw plenty of chatter from other people who had similar problems.
Post race Periscope coming as soon as I can get some service.
— Dale Earnhardt Jr. (@DaleJr) May 7, 2017
Talladega is in a relatively rural area, so you wouldn’t expect it would normally have decent cell service. And when about 70,000 people show up for a race, it certainly gets a lot worse.
But we live in an era where people want to share all their experiences via social media They want to show their friends where they are and what they’re doing. That’s basically free advertising for NASCAR! If fans can’t get any sort of cell service, though, a lot of that gets lost.
I don’t know what phone companies charge to bring in portable cell phone towers, but tracks need to figure out how to make it happen. Clearly, there isn’t a large-scale move to invest in wifi (though Daytona did it), so there needs to be another solution. Speedway Motorsports Inc. tracks have some sort of Verizon technology, but what about those of us who don’t have that carrier?
The whole NASCAR industry would benefit from better cell service at the tracks. This needs to be a very high priority on the list of fan amenities.