NASCAR's longest race is the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, but this past Sunday's Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway sure had the semblance of the Memorial Day classic from North Carolina as well as shades of Martinsville and Bristol.
About every driver's sleek Gen-6 stock car had some kind of marking on it, be it Speedy Dry that corroded their paint, tire marks on either sides, and of course, the typical carnage and damage from the mammoth, 2.66-mile beast. The millions of dollars invested into the cars and its components were surely put to the test after a race that lasted about seven hours with the three and a half hour long rain delay.
After 30 lead changes amongst 17 drivers, which saw drivers like Matt Kenseth (who led a race high 142 of 192 laps) pacing the field alongside the Class of '93's Jeff Gordon and Bobby Labonte, it was ultimately the small-time brigades who prevailed with top finishes.
A competitive and at times, scary but exciting event, the drivers were taking more chances than at the season opener at Daytona. All the notes and observations from the 500-mile season opener back in February seemed to pay off with the racers taking more chances at Talladega. As typical with plate races, some of those risky maneuvers resulted in spectacular wrecks on laps 44 and 184.
Once the sparks stopped flying and the sheet metal was ripped apart from some bent up machines, the duel to the finish was about as memorable as ever under the Alabama evening skies. In a marathon that appeared to be a race won by the Goliaths of NASCAR like Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson, and Matt Kenseth, it was instead the two Davids from Front Row Motorsports who triumphed for the top-two spots. David Ragan and David Gilliland dropped the hammer home for an amazing 1-2 finish, as their team owner Bob Jenkins finally got his first Cup victory.
Not everyday do the small timers get to revel in the spotlight, as they're often noted for the occasional strong qualifying effort or a top-20 finish. For Front Row Motorsports to beat the best in NASCAR, even if it was for just one race, was probably like winning a championship. Call it inspirational or a lucky win, it was a popular victory for a likeable driver and for a team that has certainly had their ups and downs since their inception in 2004-'05.
With so many stories that unfolded at Talladega, from popular, sentimental winners in both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup races (Regan Smith and David Ragan), highlight reel wrecks, and of course, the Air Titan making its true debut, let's start "Going Three Wide" and look back at the drivers, teams, and personalties that were going up high, ran in the middle, or found the low line all weekend long.
The High Line
David Ragan and David Gilliland (and Josh Wise) - OK, so admit that you didn't choose any of these drivers from the Front Row Motorsports brigade, alright? (Said writer for this column didn't even realize that both Davids were on the lead lap on the final restart). With that said, give credit where credit is due for this trio. Sure, Josh Wise didn't factor in the finish but he ran a solid race in his No. 35 MDS Transport Ford Fusion to finish 19th. However, the glory and honors have to go to David Ragan and David Gilliland, who are solid restrictor plate talents. From the drivers to the equipment from Front Row Motorsports, everyone on that team deserves to take a bow and get some respect, kudos, and how about some good sponsors to help out a really good underfunded team?
Regan Smith - Give some props to the man who was replaced by Kurt Busch at Furniture Row Racing and has found not only the winner's circle at Talladega in the Nationwide race (and the points lead in that series), but has also shown his worth to be in the Cup ranks. Will someone at please consider this talented driver for a Cup ride in 2014? He's bound to make huge leaps and bounds for wins and perhaps a Chase spot one day. Smith finished sixth in James Finch's No. 51 virtually unsponsored Chevy SS. Yes, it did say Hendrickcars.com but really, this team (and that driver) would either be a potent combination or at least deserve some funding for a Cup effort.
Scott Speed - Milk and cereal, cereal and milk. Amazing finish by this versatile driver, who seems to have found his Cup home with the No. 95 Leavine Racing Ford Fusion team. This race definitely was for those who believe in the underdogs of NASCAR or just with life in general. Think about how many times you've worked and chipped away to make opportunities happen but to little success. Talladega was like that everyman winning the lottery, and in this case, it was Speed's reminder to NASCAR teams and to sponsors out there that he is a legit racer for keeps.
Michael Waltrip, David Stremme, and Dave Blaney - Tremendous efforts by this trio of talents. Mikey, I may not like the commentary on most racedays by you, but you still sure know how to wheel a car still. As for Stremme and The Buckeye Bullet, y'all haven't forgotten how to be winners and Talladega shows with a little luck and hard work, perhaps either of these drivers and teams could be like David Ragan and David Gilliland.
Carl Edwards - Somebody hire this guy as a racing analyst once the helmet is on the mantel permanently. He was an amazing commentator for ESPN's NASCAR Nationwide Series races but of course, he's damn good at his daytime job as a NASCAR driver. Mark my words, Edwards is back as a contender and he's going to win plenty of races and contend for a championship soon.
The Middle Line
Jeff Gordon - This sure had the makings to be an ugly, forgettable race for the No. 24 team. Instead of quitting and settling for a subpar 30th or worse finish with a battered Chevy, crew chief Alan Gustafson and the Imron Elite crew patched up their car, dealt with the wild cards with being swept up in two "Big Ones" and still managed an 11th place effort. Not great but just imagine what could happen once this team has a near mistake-free day.
Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. - It almost looked like it'd be his day in the winner's circle but ultimately, once the green flag was out following the rain delay, a bit of rookie impatience showed in the waning laps. Although his aggression is certainly a huge strength from this two-time NASCAR Nationwide Series champion, his "checkers or wreckers" approach sometimes gets the best of him, resulting in the second huge crash that eliminated contenders Kurt Busch, Ryan Newman, and Danica Patrick among others. Was the flight a long one going home with the significant other, Mr. Stenhouse? I kid, I kid.
Bobby Labonte - Congratulations on start number 700, champ. Though the 20th place finish was far from a desired result like a win or top-five, the Corpus Christi, TX native looked stout at times, taking the lead once the race resumed and he held his own in that hideous looking No. 47 Clorox Toyota Camry. Here's hoping to at least 100 more straight competitive races for you!
Michael McDowell - You see, he's Michael McDowell. Jamie McMurray's car has the golden arches. Phil Parsons has a driver with the golden arcs. OK, Coming to America references aside, despite that late race crash that cost him a shot at the "Lucky Dog" and a potential top-15 finish, the No. 98 team looked really great. Who wouldn't want to see this nice driver and his team put together even more solid finishes? Sponsors anyone?
Denny Hamlin - I'm in the middle with the pride of Chesterfield, VA's return to the No. 11 FedEx ride. It's wonderful that he's getting healthy and back to racing, but something has to be done where a driver doesn't have to risk their health and do this "start and earn points" deal. Being a longtime fan and observer of this sport, I've seen the likes of Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip climb out of their cars to let a substitute driver into their car, so it's nothing new, but it's scary to wonder if they'll get hurt just starting their rides.
The Low Line
Tony Stewart - I'll quote Billy Joel from his hit song "Vienna" to sum my thoughts on "Smoke." "Where's the fire, what's the hurry about, you better cool it off before you burn it out." Now is not the time for the No. 14 team to panic but something's really amiss with this team. That said, there's still plenty of races for them to figure out what to do before things are good.
Brad Keselowski - It's fine to speak your mind and have a perspective that the masses can agree to, be in the middle, or just completely disagree with fully. In this case, what was said following the Aaron's 499 race on Twitter by Kez may have irked a lot of fans and in some cases, personally, the Front Row Motorsports team. Again, it's cool to have an opinion but in this case here, champ, there's plenty of times to win races. Let Ragan and his No. 34 team enjoy their victory.
Greg Biffle - It's been a tough go at Talladega lately for "The Biff" and Sunday's race was no exception. This will be a temporary turn at this part of the rundown because the Vancouver, WA driver will be back to form soon at Darlington Raceway. For now, these plate races just don't like the No. 16 3M Ford Fusion team.
Mother Nature - At least she didn't completely rain on NASCAR's parades on Saturday and Sunday but c'mon, stick to watering the grass and plants on weekdays while making racing weekends all sunshine and happiness.
Kurt and Kyle Busch - It's really too bad that they were both knocked out in their respective crashes in the race. Had they still been on the track and missed their accidents, just imagine how the finish would've ensued. Sooner or later, we'll see a 1-2 finish with these brothers from Las Vegas, NV.
No Lights at Talladega - Maybe it's a legal thing or a project that just hasn't been tackled but seriously, there needs to be lights at Talladega. Nighttime racing at this superspeedway would probably help with those empty seats seen this past weekend.
Earnhardt Ganassi Racing - This isn't due to a lack of effort because the Nos. 1 and 42 teams of Jamie McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya were certainly in great rides for the win on Sunday. Instead, one was wiped out in a grinding crash on lap 184 while the latter had equipment issues that were a product of the lengthy red flag rain delay. Gotta feel for this group, who's a lot better than the results show.
The text you just read indeed are of the personal opinions of said writer of this article, who may have either gained or lost friends. Either way, it's all for fun and debate, so please discuss in the comments section below and share with your family and friends? Don't have any friends? Well - stop eating your Wonderful Pistachios and head to the racetrack or talk on the comments below!