The second restrictor plate race of the season, the GEICO 500 from Talladega Superspeedway, took place on Sunday afternoon. After starting on the pole, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. successfully snapped his 157-race losing streak to claim his first career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory.
A pair of Juniors started on the front row with Stenhouse on the pole and Dale Earnhardt Jr. next to him. Stenhouse led early, but began to drop when debris started to collect on his grille, allowing Brad Keselowski to take the lead on lap 14. Points leader Kyle Larson brushed the wall afterwards, hitting it again on lap 17 when he cut a tire and brought out the first caution of the day.
When he pitted, Clint Bowyer did not change his tires and took the lead for the restart on lap 22. He led six laps, his first under green flag conditions in 2017, before relinquishing it to Kyle Busch. Busch and Keselowski battled for the lead, though the latter suffered a similar fate as Stenhouse when debris appeared on his own grille. With four laps left in the first stage, Denny Hamlin decided to pit, putting him a lap down. Meanwhile, Keselowski overcame his debris problem to win the stage; Stenhouse, Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Trevor Bayne, Joey Logano, Paul Menard, Danica Patrick, Ryan Blaney and Erik Jones also received points for finishing in the top-10.
As he had pitted earlier, Hamlin stayed out as the leaders pitted between stages, giving him the lead. On pit road, Keselowski was slowed down when he exited his pit box as Daniel Suárez entered his box in front of the #2 team. This led to Truex winning the race off pit road and starting 2nd alongside Hamlin, while Keselowski fell to 7th.
Stage #2 began on lap 63 with Hamlin as the leader. The green flag run lasted until lap 82, when Reed Sorenson blew a tire in the tri-oval and slammed into the outside SAFER barrier. On the ensuing caution, Bayne, Newman, David Ragan and Ty Dillon did not pit and were the top-4 for the lap 87 restart. Bayne led two laps before Newman took the lead; Clint Bowyer and Hamlin would also lead laps during the stage. By the end of the second stage, Hamlin remained the leader to win the segment. Kevin Harvick, Blaney, Truex, Jimmie Johnson, Larson, Kurt Busch, Kasey Kahne, Jones and Jamie McMurray rounded out the top-10.
During the caution period between Stages #2 and #3, Larson was forced to pit while pit road was closed to change a battery; however, he stalled in the process and was pushed back to his pit box. Bowyer was penalized for an uncontrolled tire.
Hamlin’s teammate Matt Kenseth pitted for just two tires and took the lead for the start of Stage #3 on lap 117. Kenseth’s lead lasted only two laps before three Ford drivers began to lead laps: Keselowski led four laps starting on lap 119, Harvick led 13 laps starting on lap 123 and Logano took the lead on lap 139. Green flag pit stops began on lap 145 and Kyle Busch inherited 1st seven laps later. Busch would remain the leader for much of the remainder of the race.
On lap 160, Blaney collided with Keselowski’s rear and Stenhouse also hit him, sending the #21 around and bringing out the caution. The green flag came out with 23 laps to go, but it only lasted three laps before the Big One struck. On the backstretch, Chase Elliott and A.J. Allmendinger made contact, sending the two around. Elliott was hit by Logano and went airborne, landing on his driver’s side, while Allmendinger followed suit, though the #47 landed on his roof. Allmendinger was pushed by the momentum of the rushing pack before coming to a stop. By the time the wreck had ended, 16 drivers were involved: Elliott and Allmendinger, Keselowski, Harvick, Bayne, Patrick, Kenseth, Logano, Jones, Truex, Austin Dillon, Gray Gaulding, David Ragan, Cole Whitt, Corey LaJoie and Michael McDowell. NASCAR threw the red flag afterward, lasting 27 minutes.
The next restart took place with 15 laps to go. Landon Cassill fell off the pace as smoke exited his car; when he tried to bring his #34 car off the track, he was unable to, resulting in another caution with 10 laps remaining. Another restart came with seven laps, lasting four laps before the final caution occurred: Chris Buescher was hit by Bowyer, the former clipping Ryan Newman and sending him into the inside wall. The caution led to a NASCAR Overtime situation and a two-lap sprint to the finish.
Busch was the leader on the final restart with Stenhouse next to him. The Las Vegas native was able to pull away early on, but Stenhouse remained in position behind the #18, passing him on the final lap. Stenhouse held off Busch and the incoming McMurray to win his first career Cup Series race in 157 starts. McMurray beat Busch to the line for 2nd. Aric Almirola, who won the previous day’s Xfinity Series race, finished 4th, followed by Kasey Kahne, Kurt Busch, Keselowski, Johnson, Menard and Ragan.
“This is for all the guys at the shop. We’ve been terrible for a long time,” Stenhouse stated. He was also joined by fellow driver and girlfriend Patrick in Victory Lane. “This year, every race, we’re getting better and better. We knew that Talladega was a good racetrack for us.”
“There was so much going on and I knew I had to keep the 48 back. The 1 got a huge run. I think the 18 thought I was gonna go to the top and we ended up getting to the bottom. We were side-drafting each other like crazy, so that was one heck of a race and I’m glad we came out on top.”
He also dedicated the win to his friend and late dirt track racer, Bryan Clauson. “It’s been a good one in the past and I’m just glad we parked it for my buddy, Bryan Clauson. He was with us on that last lap.”
The win is Roush Fenway Racing’s first since the 2014 Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway with Carl Edwards. It was also the first victory for the #17 car since Kenseth won the 2012 Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway. Stenhouse, a two-time Xfinity (then Nationwide) Series champion, had only one pole position and a best finish of 2nd at Bristol’s 2016 Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race entering the weekend.
Next week, the Cup Series travels to Kansas for the Go Bowling 400. Held on May 13, it will be the first Saturday night race of the 2017 season.
Race results (courtesy of Racing-Reference)
Featured image courtesy of @FordPerformance