Brad Keselowski survives chaotic Talladega race, wins Alabama 500 in 300th start

Entering the Alabama 500 weekend at Talladega Superspeedway, all eyes were on Dale Earnhardt Jr. The retiring six-time track winner was expected by many to be a favorite for the race win despite being out of playoff contention, and began his weekend with a pole position, his first career Talladega pole. Wrecks and other carnage were thrown in his way, and while he was able to escape each one, Brad Keselowski stole the show in his 300th start to punch his ticket into the Round of 8.

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In commemoration of Earnhardt’s final start at Talladega, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey declared Sunday, October 15 as Dale Earnhardt Jr. Day. In addition to being race day, October 15, 2017 marked the 17-year anniversary of the 2000 Winston 500 at the track, Dale Earnhardt’s final Cup win. As a gift from the track, Earnhardt was given his father’s #2 Rod Osterlund car, which was driven to the 1980 championship. During pace laps, Alabama Gang member Donnie Allison drove the #2 as the honorary pace car. Keselowski also changed his car’s paint scheme for the race, running one inspired by his #88 Navy Nationwide (now Xfinity) Series car owned by Earnhardt.

For the race, a reversal of February’s Daytona 500 front row took place, with Earnhardt starting on the pole alongside Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott. A slow start on Elliott’s outside line allowed Earnhardt to pull ahead, with the #24 committing to his teammate’s inside. Earnhardt led for much of the lap until defending race winner Joey Logano – who started behind Earnhardt in 3rd – had a strong run on the outside groove in the tri-oval, and made the pass shortly before crossing the line. Keselowski caught up to his Penske teammate as Earnhardt was shuffled to 3rd, with the leaders running single-file along the inside.

On lap 15, every Ford from Team Penske, Roush Fenway Racing, and Stewart-Haas Racing hit pit road for fuel-only stops; a similar strategy had been adopted by the Toyota teams at the Talladega race in May. As a result, Chevrolets led by Earnhardt began to lead, with Landon Cassill being the only Ford in the top five (4th). Upon completing their stops, Danica Patrick and Aric Almirola lost the draft, causing them to fall off the pace.

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Elliott passed Earnhardt for the lead on lap 22. Four laps later, the other leaders began their stops; as he slowed down to join pit road, Jamie McMurray was hit from behind by Erik Jones, sending the #1 around. The #1 slid up the tri-oval and was hit by Jeffrey Earnhardt, causing McMurray to go airborne. Upon landing, McMurray was hit by Mark Thompson. As the caution came out and pit road was immediately closed, many drivers – including Elliott, Earnhardt, Joey Gase, Paul Menard, Kyle Larson, and Michael McDowell – found themselves unable to avoid entering pit road and were penalized accordingly. Earnhardt restarted 30th.

A Penske front row of Logano and Keselowski led the field to the restart on lap 36, with Penske ally Ryan Blaney joining the two in the top three. With five laps remaining in Stage #1, Menard hit the wall to bring out the caution. Earnhardt was once again penalized when he was too fast entering pit road. A restart took place with one lap to go in the stage as Keselowski won his third stage of the year. Logano, Blaney, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Clint Bowyer, McDowell, Kurt Busch, Trevor Bayne, and Kasey Kahne also received stage points.

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Kahne stayed out while the leaders pitted, which enabled him to be the leader for the start of Stage #2 on lap 61 alongside Matt Kenseth. Kenseth took the lead from Kahne a lap later before Hamlin became the leader on lap 64. Green flag stops began for many on lap 67, while Jimmie Johnson took damage to his right rear, though it was not repaired on his stop. When Kenseth pitted, Kahne led until he also hit pit road, allowing Brendan Gaughan to lead two laps until Matt DiBenedetto took the lead. A caution for debris on the backstretch came out on lap 81; Hamlin, who was pitting at the time for a loose wheel, nearly went a lap down, but was able to beat DiBenedetto to the line.

Stenhouse and Ku. Busch comprised the front row for the lap 88 restart, with the latter taking the lead a lap later. Blaney and McDowell pushed their ways to the front on lap 92, with the top ten settling into single file by lap 100. Ten laps later, Blaney won the stage with Keselowski, Bowyer, Elliott, Ku. Busch, Austin Dillon, Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Ky. Busch, and Hamlin following.

After staying out between stages, Gaughan became the leader for the start of Stage #3 on lap 115, though Hamlin and Blaney traded the lead from laps 117 to 124 before Elliott took 1st. On lap 144, Blaney and a number of drivers pitted, with Elliott and others following a lap later. Upon completion of the cycle of stops, Logano was the new leader. On lap 152, Bayne had a tire go down after making contact in the pack, causing the #6 to hit the wall and bring out the yellow flag.

A restart took place on lap 155, though the green flag barely lasted a lap as McDowell and Cole Whitt wrecked in turn one, with A.J. Allmendinger and Clint Bowyer also involved. Keselowski was the lone driver to pit under caution as he was struggling with radio problems. The green flag waved with 29 to go, lasting just five laps before Gase was clipped by D.J. Kennington exiting turn two and hit the wall.

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Lap 169 saw the next restart as Logano and Blaney were the front row. Menard, who restarted 7th, quickly pulled to the apron after losing a fourth gear. Daniel Suárez blasted ahead to the lead on lap 170 before chaos broke loose in the form of the Big One in turn three: the wreck collected Stenhouse, Kenseth, McDowell, Harvick, A. Dillon, Ragan, Johnson, Ku. and Ky. Busch, Martin Truex Jr., and Danica Patrick. Earnhardt Jr. slid to the grass to avoid the crash but was able to keep his car moving. The red flag was eventually flown for cleanup, lasting 13 minutes.

Hamlin, Keselowski, Earnhardt, Menard, Ty Dillon, Chris Buescher, and DiBenedetto pitted on lap 172, with Suárez and Logano staying out to lead the field to the restart with 12 laps to go. Suárez led the first lap of the restart before Elliott entered the picture by making a gutsy three-wide pass for the lead. A lap later, Larson joined the battle for 1st as he entered turn three, where Logano and Bayne made contact and checked up the track into Blaney, causing the #21 to come down and hit Bayne. Earnhardt Jr., once again in a precarious position, watched as the sideways Bayne and Blaney slid past his nose without any damage. As Blaney’s car slid back up the track, Harvick hit Gaughan and Blaney.

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Another restart occurred with eight laps to go, with Suárez and Elliott on the first row. Suárez received a push from Larson and Keselowski to pull ahead and lead the lap. On lap 182, Larson passed Suárez for the lead in turn one, but the 2016 Xfinity Series champion was not keen on giving up the position as the two dueled side-by-side. With six laps to go, Elliott attempted to make a move between Larson and Suárez, but clipped the latter and resulted in the two going around. Larson hit the wall, while Buescher was also involved. Yet again, another red flag was waved. After 17 minutes, red flag conditions were changed to yellow.

As a result of the carnage, only 13 cars remained on the lead lap for the three-lap dash to the finish, including only four playoff drivers (Keselowski, Hamlin, Larson, and a lap-down Kenseth). Bayne, Kahne, Logano, and Menard pitted as the others stayed out.

For the restart on lap 186, the top two consisted of Keselowski and Newman, with Earnhardt and Hamlin behind them, respectively. The tandem of Newman and Hamlin quickly cleared Keselowski, with Hamlin attempting to steal the lap led from Newman as they came to the start/finish line before falling short. Hamlin eventually dropped to 6th as Newman led the penultimate lap. On the final lap, Keselowski passed Newman for the lead in turn four to claim his fifth Talladega victory.

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Newman finished 2nd, followed by Bayne, Logano, and Almirola, who was turned as he crossed the finish. Hamlin finished 6th and Earnhardt settled for 7th in his final Talladega start. Kahne recorded his second straight top-ten finish with 8th, while Gray Gaulding scored his best finish with 9th. 2013 spring Talladega race winner David Ragan rounded out the top ten. Of the 40-car grid, only 14 finished the race, and all but Kenseth finished on the lead lap.

“I was getting about every other word, but, man, it’s so hard to tell what’s going on,” Keselowski commented in regards to his radio problem. “You got cars three-wide, four-wide, and you get in the corner two-wide, but then somebody sneaks in and ‘Sorry, it wasn’t me.’ […] It’s just part of the pain and privilege of Talladega. It’s a little bit of both.”

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“I feel lucky to have a team and a car, getting to drive for Dale (Earnhardt Jr.) a little bit, he taught me a lot, and I’m very thankful for that. Thankful to get to run this scheme to honor him and his team JR Motorsports, Miller Lite let us do that, that was really nice of them, but there’s just so much to be thankful for here today. To be able to win and advance to the next round of the playoffs and not have to deal with all of that, I just don’t know what to say. It’s really special.”

Next week, the Cup Series travels to Kansas Speedway for the Hollywood Casino 400. Harvick is the defending race winner.

Featured image by @NASCAR

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