Sunday, May 05, 2013

Talladega Sees A Ragan Revolution

We've seen it all before.

Yet when it happens again, it feels like we'd never seen anything like it before.

This is what we get when racing produces a darkhorse winner even at a speedway whose history is filled with them. 

There were of course numerous candidates for darkhorse winner, even after one of them flipped over down the backstretch. Kurt Busch's tumble set up a green-white-checker finish and then saw what seemed impossible - the Saturday Alabama 500k produced a finish seemingly impossible to top - yet the Winston 500 actually topped Saturday's three-wide photo finish, and reintroduced the sport not only to David Ragan - the winner in the 2009 500k - but reintroduced the sport to the Talladega jinx.

Of all the tracks in racing, one cannot think of any other that has seen as many darkhorse winners as Talladega.   From the 1969 opening marred by a mass driver park-out over speeds too high for available tires to handle, Talladega has been the stage for the darkhorse.   Richard Brickhouse was the first.   James Hylton in 1972 after a new Goodyear compound literally blew up in Goodyear's face was the second, going with year-old tires and rocketing from 22nd to domination.   Dick Brooks 40 years ago this season was the next one, whipping a year-old Plymouth from 24th to a wild upset win.  

Dave Marcis outlasted another ferocious 500 in 1976 for his lone Talladega win.   Lennie Pond in 1978 then whipped to his only win.   The most famous upset of all remains Ron Bouchard in 1981 in a finish that always comes to mind when there is a three-wide photo finish, be it Regan Smith's win in Saturday's 312-miler or Tim Richmond's 1986 Pocono win or Sam Hornish's 2003 Chicago Indy 300 win.

After Bobby Hillin Jr., Davey Allison, and Ken Schrader in Richmond's #25 won Talladega, the darkhorse era at Talladega appeared to end in the 1990s as only Greg Sacks in the 1996 Alabama 500k pulled off an upset for the track in that decade.   The darkhorse era then started creeping back in 2006 with Brian Vickers; Regan Smith's stolen 2008 win pushed the darkhorse era closer to the fore, but it was 2009 that truly brought it back between Brad Keselowski's slugfest with Carl Edwards and then Jamie McMurray's surprise win that autumn.


This spectacular win has also reintroduced the sport to new team owners getting the win.   Front Row Motorsports began with Jimmy Means and restaurant chain owner Bob Jenkins (not the Bob Jenkins of ESPN fame).   Being small has of course been a strike against them, and with the win, being small is also an illustration of how much opportunity Talladega Superspeedway opens up for racers.  

The Jenkins team was not the only darkhorse outfit strutting its stuff in this race, as James Finch's team with Regan Smith (who had a legitimate shot at the end for the Talladega sweep) as well as the Baldwin Racing #36 were also in contention with the #30 of David Stremme.   No one will ever confuse the #43 for a darkhorse but Richard Petty's mount damn near pulled off the win as well.     No one will ever confuse Jeff Gordon's #24 for a darkhorse either, yet after two wrecks Gordon finished 11th anyway.  


Given how much positivity the 2013 Winston 500 produced, it seems inappropriate to pick nits, yet one should point out this race was not quite the ringing endorsement of the Generation Six racecar the spectacle of the final laps showcased.   The racing at the end was spectacular, and one wishes the combat up front had been at something close to that level for the event's duration as was the case in the 312-miler the day before - after seeing 47 lead changes on Saturday, the 30 produced Sunday ought to have been twice that number.  

The other nit to pick is Ryan Newman, who continues to be an insufferable baby; one should be concerned that Kurt Busch flipped onto his racecar, but to blame it on NASCAR is another case of Newman going too far. Newman is 100% wrong; restarting the race was the right call; he should be angry at whoever spun out whomever to detonate the crash; Newman should also reexamine his own racing competence given how far he's slid down the racing totem pole.

The upshot is that pointing out the nits to pick only illustrates that the Gen-6 actually is making progress toward living up to the hype.   There was some serious push-drafting at the end and that's a manifestly good sign for the sport, for that opens up passing - and the sport needs all the passing there is to have.

So the Aarons Talladega weekend after two drawn-out races can only be considered a smashing success, which produces yet one more illustration -  The Thrill Isn't Gone after all.

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