Penske drivers aiming to avoid Daytona repeat at Talladega

John Zenor
Associated Press

Talladega, Ala. — Roger Penske doesn’t want a repeat of the Daytona 500, when teammates Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski took each other out racing for the win on the final lap.

Penske, owner of Team Penske, convened his drivers for a Zoom session ahead of Sunday’s Geico 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on the importance of balancing the collective good of the team with individuals’ competitive desires.

Ryan Blaney (12) and Martin Truex Jr. (19) approach the third turn during a NASCAR Cup Series auto race at Martinsville Speedway in Martinsville, Va., Sunday, April 11, 2021.

“Just trying to find the best way that if we are in a spot where we’re 1-2 coming to the end of this thing, how do we go about that?” said Ryan Blaney, who won at Talladega last June. “How do we go about to make sure and do our best that we finish 1-2, no matter who wins?”

It would be a nice problem to have at Talladega, which staged its longest and most caution-filled race last October.

Penske drivers have won seven of the last 11 Cup races at Talladega and typically have enjoyed success at Daytona, too.

But the most recent speedway memory is a sour one for Penske.

Blaney watched the finish from his couch after getting involved in a 16-car crash 14 laps into this year’s Daytona 500. The crash with Logano and Keselowski helped open the door for 100-to-1 long shot Michael McDowell to win.

Another Penske car, driven by rookie Austin Cindric, was also destroyed in the organization's disastrous race.

Penske spoke individually to his drivers in the aftermath and collectively too. He knows tensions can escalate in the heat of the moment as they did at Daytona. But he said he wants them to remember that everyone from the crew to the sponsors, and of course the drivers, can lose in those situations.

“I don’t think there’s anything new that will happen, but I think we just have to make an agreement on just exactly how you want to play ball if you get into that same situation as we had with two of us running as well as we had with a half-mile to go, and then end up with three cars in the trash bucket,” Penske said.

“But that’s what you have to expect, unfortunately. It wasn’t a good day for us, obviously.”

At least one relationship seemed to be in good shape; Blaney was twice interrupted by calls from Logano during a Zoom session with reporters.

Now, it remains to be seen if the team unity holds up in, as Blaney says, “the heat of the battle.”

“Everyone wants to win,” he said. “Those things are tough, but I thought we had a really good discussion and hopefully we can apply the things we talked about and try to finish 1-2-3-4 or 1-2 or whatever it is, just try to get a Penske car to Victory Lane.”

Streaking Hamlin

Series points leader Denny Hamlin has six straight top-five finishes at superspeedways, including a triple-overtime win at Talladega last October in a race that saw 13 cautions.

Not only that but Hamlin, who will start up front, has a career-best eight straight top-five finishes. Only Hall of Famers Cale Yarborough (1974) and Darrell Waltrip (1979) have nine top-five finishes in the first 10 races of a season.

Odds and ends

Hamlin, who has flirted with victory late only to fall short in each of the last three races, is the 7-1 favorite, with Logano next at 9-1. ... Defending series champion Chase Elliott is the only Hendrick Motorsports driver without a win so far. ... Eight drivers have won in the first nine races, with Martin Truex Jr. the only one with multiple victories. ... Keselowski leads active drivers with five Cup wins at Talladega, the latest in 2017. Logano has three 'Dega wins, Hamlin and Blaney two each. ... The all-electric Mustang Mach-E will serve as pace vehicle.

Xfinity

The rain came at a good time for Jeb Burton, helping him end a years-long personal winless stretch that had left him at times doubting his future in racing.

Burton got his first NASCAR Xfinity Series victory Saturday when heavy rain halted the action with 23 laps left, securing his first high level win since a truck race in 2013.

“The rain didn’t hurt my feelings at all,” Burton said. “Everything I’ve been through in my career, to get one, we didn’t really care how we did it. But we ran up front all day. It definitely wasn’t a fluke.

“We led a lot of laps and it was a blast to drive.”

He said he was “a little bit in disbelief” when told that he had been declared the winner, showing little initial reaction. The disappointment at not getting to finish it passed when he remembered his own career struggles at finding rides and sponsors – much less wins.

Burton passed cousin Harrison Burton on the inside on Lap 82 and stayed up front before a seven-car wreck forced a caution and the downpour sent the cars to pit road.

Burton, the son of former NASCAR driver Ward Burton, had opened the season with three straight top-five finishes.

Burton, who has made 30 Cup Series starts, finally got to celebrate another win since that Texas Truck Series race in 2013. He did manage some rain-soaked burnouts.

Burton was emotional after the win and so were his parents when he spoke to them on the phone.

“I definitely broke down talking to my dad and mom,” Burton said. “They told me to dry it up and stop crying and enjoy it. They were crying too. We just wanted this for so long.”

It was the third straight win at Talladega for Kaulig Racing, with teammate Justin Haley sweeping the two 2020 races.

Series points leader Austin Cindric was second after starting in the pole position, followed by Burton’s teammate, AJ Allmendinger.

“Ward and Jeb and that whole Burton family have fought hard to stay in the sport and be a part of it,” Allmendinger said. “I just told Jeb when he got here – it’s not like shut up and do the work – but it’s like, ‘Man just put your head down and let’s do this together and we’re all going to benefit.”

The biggest wreck of the day happened Joe Graf Jr., who appeared to have a flat tire, drifted up the track into Brandon Jones. That, it turned out, was the end of the racing.

Noah Gragson won the $100,000 Dash 4 Cash prize after finishing sixth. Jones, Josh Berry and Daniel Hemric also had been in contention.

It was Gragson’s second straight Dash 4 Cash prize, and he said his share would go to members of the crew.

“It’s not me winning the $100,000 two weeks in a row,” Gragson said. “It’s the 9 team and those guys. It takes the whole group.”

Haley won the opening stage after taking the lead with an inside move for the final two laps, ahead of Jeb Burton.

Gragson surged past Cindric on the final lap to win Stage 2.

But Burton was up front in the end, for the first time in some eight years. He was already thinking about trying to get the next win.

“Ever since then it’s just been really tough to stay in a place and get in a rhythm it’s been an up and down roller coaster of a career for sure just on the sponsorship side and finding the right home,” he said. “But now I have that.”