Saturday's motors: NASCAR charges into Talladega for unpredictable playoff race

By Jenna Fryer
Associated Press

Talladega, Ala. — Denny Hamlin is already through to the third round of NASCAR’s playoffs with nothing to worry about at Talladega Superspeedway.

His championship rivals? Not so much.

NASCAR’s challenging second round of the playoffs – three wildly different circuits – moves Sunday to the behemoth 2.66-mile Alabama superspeedway where luck is as important as skill. The white-knuckled race falls between Las Vegas, a traditional 1.5-mile speedway where Hamlin won last week, and the twists and turns of the hybrid oval/road course at Charlotte Motor Speedway next week.

Tate Fogleman sprays a bottle in Victory Lane after winning a NASCAR Truck Series auto race in Talladega.

The unpredictability expected this week and next has the 11 drivers vying for seven remaining playoff slots slightly on edge.

“You can’t freak out and try any harder because I’m already trying as hard as I can,” said Alex Bowman, who narrowly raced his way through to the second round only for Las Vegas to drop him right back to 11th out of 12 in the standings.

“We’re not in a great spot and we’re going to a place that’s a huge wild card,” he said. “We’ve just got to wait and see how it shakes out. If it works out for us, it does. And if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.”

Hamlin, who automatically advanced to the third round with his Las Vegas victory, is the defending race winner, and Brad Keselowski scored his only win of the season at Talladega in April. Keselowski returns to the track only four points above the cutline, a mere two points separating him and teammate Joey Logano.

“It is stressful because your whole season can be decided this weekend and that may be somewhat out of your control,” said Logano, who has never been eliminated before the round of eight.

“This is the round that a true championship contender can be a surprise knockout.”

The four drivers below the cutline headed into Talladega are William Byron, Kevin Harvick, Bowman and Christopher Bell. Harvick is 1 for 41 at Talladega and his fourth-place finish in April was only his third top-10 in nine races, a span that included two race-ending crashes.

“It’s been a destruction derby over the last couple of years,” Harvick said. “It’s one of those places where you want to race up front and race hard all day. … I believe you have better odds at the front of the pack when it comes to staying out of a wreck if you can keep that track position all day.

“You’re going to race in a pack, three-wide at times, and you’re going to get pushed and have to push at times. You just never know what’s going to happen because Talladega is its own animal. It’s hard to finish a race there.”

Ryan Blaney, a two-time Talladega winner who is above the cutline alongside his Team Penske teammates Keselowski and Logano, said drivers need the same mindset for this playoff race as any other event.

“You have to be aware that you can get wiped out and it’s none of your doing. We’ve all been there. You’re just minding your own business and you get blindsided and you’re destroyed the next thing you know,” Blaney said. “But you can’t let that eat at you. You’ve just got to say, ‘Let’s focus and let’s do these things like we know how to do them, and go racing.’ ”

Xfinity

Brandon Brown became the second NASCAR driver to earn his first national series victory Saturday with a win in the Xfinity Series race shortened by darkness at Talladega Superspeedway.

Brown was the leader when a crash with 12 laps to go brought out the seventh caution of the race and slowed activity as daylight faded over the 2.66-mile superspeedway. Brown was among a handful of drivers claiming over the radio it was too dark to see and the race needed to be called, a decision NASCAR made with six laps remaining.

Brown sobbed over his team radio as he thanked his father, who owns tiny Brandonbilt Motorsports along with his son.

“We did it, Dad, we did it! We did it, we won!” he radioed.

He did several burnouts to celebrate his first win in 113 Xfinity Series races over six seasons. After collecting the checkered flag, Brown stood atop his car and screamed “Let’s Go!” then energetically saluted the crowd.

“This is everything we hoped and dreamed for, this is everything,” Brown said. “Everything I’ve ever wanted to do is take the trophy home to mom and dad.”

It was the second upset winner of the day at Talladega, where Tate Fogelman smashed his way to his first career victory in the Truck Series race that opened the doubleheader. Neither winner is competing for the championship in their respective series, muddying both the Xfinity and Truck Series playoff grids.

Only reigning Xfinity Series champion Austin Cindric has clinched a spot in the second round of the playoffs headed into next Saturday’s race at The Roval at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The field will be trimmed from 12 to eight at Charlotte.

Talladega is host of a busy two days for NASCAR and its playoffs with all three national series racing the middle event of their respective playoff rounds. The Cup Series is scheduled to race Sunday, weather permitting.

The atmosphere was festive Saturday in the Talladega infield, but a small convoy of vehicles paraded past the main entrance of the speedway waving Confederate flags at the start of the day. NASCAR last year banned the Confederate flag at its events and similar convoys have turned out for all four race weekends since the ban went into effect.

One of the vehicles displaying the Confederate flag on Saturday was also towing a war-era canon.

Inside the track, Brown was celebrating in victory lane. The 28-year-old graduate of Coastal Carolina University has been desperately trying to build a winning race program alongside his father, and earlier this season made a used car salesman type social media post soliciting sponsorship.

Brandon Jones finished second and was followed by Justin Allgaier and Daniel Hemric as Chevrolet and Toyota alternated the top four positions. Jordan Anderson was fifth to lead another trio of Chevrolets, and Cindric was the highest-finishing Ford driver in ninth – good enough to clinch him a spot in the next round.

“As far as I understand we’ve advanced onto the next round, so it’s kind of job accomplished for the day,” Cindric said.

The final caution of the night came with 12 laps remaining when Brett Moffitt in a pack of traffic got a big shove from behind and was ping-ponged off a pair of other cars. The crash collected playoff drivers Riley Herbst and Harrison Burton, but they were not the only title contenders to have problems at Talladega.

Herbst led four times for a race-high 26 laps and now goes to The Roval hoping to avoid playoff elimination.

“Somebody from behind me didn’t use their brake pedal and knocked the back of our race car off, so we had to come down pit road and fix that, and then that obviously put us in the hornet’s nest and the top three-wide. At that point, I knew we were gonna be wrecked,” Herbst said. “We led a lot of laps. We got a lot of points, but we just didn’t finish well. I think we’ve got to go win the Roval now.”

Noah Gragson led eight laps late but was wrecked while leading with 24 laps to go. Jeb Burton shoved Moffitt and Moffitt got loose then hooked left into Gragson, sending Gragson straight into the wall and bringing out the second red flag of the race.

The seven-car crashed also collected playoff driver Myatt Snider.

“The energy in the pack was a little chaotic. I thought it was a little early to be that aggressive,” Snyder said.

The first red flag was to fix damage to a retaining wall that occurred when AJ Allmendinger and Sam Mayer crashed 24 laps into the race. Allmendinger was the regular-season champion

“I just got hung up there, once you get back there, the people you are racing, it happens,” Allmendinger said. “We’re going to a pretty good racetrack for us.”

Trucks

Tate Fogleman smashed his way to his first career NASCAR national series victory with an overtime win in the Truck Series race at Talladega Superspeedway, the opening of NASCAR’s weekend playoff tripleheader.

Fogleman spun John Hunter Nemechek from the lead headed to the finish line Saturday on the second lap of a two-lap overtime shootout for his first victory in 46 career Truck Series starts. His Chevrolet wrecked its way across the finish line, and Fogleman went to the care center for the mandatory health check instead of victory lane.

“We’ve never finished a superspeedway race before so I really didn’t know what to do,” Fogleman said. “I’ve tried laying back in other races and it never worked. So, we figured we’d stay aggressive, try to stay toward the front.”

It was just the second career top-10 for Fogleman, who is in his second season driving for Young’s Motorsports. Saturday was the second career start at Talladega for the 21-year-old short track racer.

“I knew I just had to push as hard as I could,” Fogleman said. “I got the push from behind and stayed aggressive. I knew nobody was going to give me any room. I did all I could pushing and luckily the seas parted and luckily we came away with the win.”

The race was the first of all three NASCAR national series at Talladega this weekend and opened a Saturday doubleheader with the Xfinity Series. The Cup Series was scheduled for Sunday – the weather called for rain – and all three races carried huge playoff implications.

For the Truck Series, all four spots in the championship-deciding finale were open before Talladega because a non-playoff driver won at Las Vegas last week.

All four spots are still open with one race left in this round, at Martinsville Speedway on Oct. 30, where the field of eight will be trimmed to four. A win by any of the eight playoff drivers earns an automatic berth into the championship finale.

Fogleman capped a frenzied two-lap overtime shootout and denied Nemechek an automatic berth into the championship. Tyler Hill finished a career-best second and was followed by Todd Gilliland as Nemechek dropped to fourth.

“That’s just how every race here for the past however many years has ended,” Nemechek said. “I can’t be mad. As much as you want to be mad, you can’t be mad. It’s partly my fault. You take it with a grain of salt. I’m more mad at myself than anything for not staying higher to kind of stay away from him.”

And he dismissed a fuming Matt Crafton, calling the 45-year-old three-time series champion “an old man” when Crafton confronted him after the race. Crafton said he had issues with Nemechek in all three stages of the race.

“He’s smarter than that,” Crafton said. “I’m fine with getting hit going down the straightaway for stage points, but not coming off of the corner, but what comes around goes around sometimes.”

All drivers have fretted over Talladega because of the unpredictability of the pack racing on the 2.66-mile superspeedway. The Truck Series race had three cautions over the final 35 laps of regulation that collected 28 trucks – and that was before the multi-truck accident behind the leaders on the final lap of overtime.

“When we missed the first two big wrecks I had a feeling things were going in the right direction,” Fogleman said.

The race was stopped for a little over nine minutes with 35 laps remaining to clean up a 19-truck accident. A second six-truck race t argeted title contenders Carson Hocevar and Stewart Friesen, and the race ultimately wasn’t great for any of the playoff drivers.

The four drivers below the cutline headed into Martinsville are Friesen, Chandler Smith, Hocevar and Zane Smith. All four were involved in crashes at Talladega.

Nemechek, Ben Rhodes, Crafton and Sheldon Creed are in the top four, with Creed up five points over Friesen.