TALLADEGA, Ala. — Highlights of Sunday’s Alabama 500, the second race of the second round of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs, at Talladega Superspeedway:
Keselowski takes Talladega
WINNER: Brad Keselowski passed Ryan Newman on the final lap following a restart with three laps remaining in a crash-marred race of attrition.
Keselowski led the field to green on the final restart with six-time winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. on his back bumper, but Denny Hamlin pushed Newman to the lead on the outside. Keselowski battled back on the final lap, pulling alongside Newman, then holding on to win at NASCAR's biggest track for the fifth time.
Keselowski, racing in his 300th career Cup start, locked up a berth in the third round of the playoffs, joining Martin Truex Jr. "We didn't get the restart we needed to clear, and the 31 (Newman) and 11 (Hamlin) got the lead, and I just had to make all the right moves to get by them," Keselowski said. "And right at the end, I put the block on my teammate Joey Logano and it was just enough to give us momentum to win."
Newman finished second, followed by Trevor Bayne, Logano and Aric Almirola. Hamlin finished sixth, followed by Earnhardt, Kasey Kahne, Gray Gaulding and David Ragan. Earnhardt was making his final Cup start at the track that is the center of Junior Nation. The fans clearly were pulling for Earnhardt, who now has just five races remaining before retiring from full-time Cup competition.
"The right front was an inch and a half low, and I couldn't really push anybody or get some runs going, and nobody wanted to push me 'cause they could see I was struggling a little bit," Earnhardt said. "But we got lucky and missed a lot of wrecks there. It's real hard to get up there and keep that track position. These plate races get harder and harder to win, and congratulations to Brad."
Keselowski's No. 2 Team Penske Ford was sporting a #Cheers 2 Dale Jr. logo on the car. Earnhardt gave Keselowski a big boost in his career when in 2007, he hired the then-23-year old to drive for his Xfinity team JR Motorsports.
BIG BOOM THREE: With only a handful of drivers left in the final laps to decide the race winner, more were eliminated with six laps remaining when Chase Elliott and Daniel Suarez crashed while racing for the lead. Chris Buescher and Kyle Larson also were involved in the accident, which produced the afternoon’s third red flag.
BIG BOOM TWO: With 10 laps to go, contact between Logano and Ryan Blaney started a multi-car crash that also involved Kevin Harvick and Bayne. Earnhardt and Keselowski barely avoided the crash, which resulted in a red flag.
“The 38 (David Ragan) ended up parked right in front of us," Stenhouse, who won the May race at Talladega, said after being checked and released from the infield care center.
"I felt like we had a really good run coming up the bottom of the 48 (Johnson), trying to get some track position back that we had lost at the end of the second stage. But our 17 was fast again. We felt like we had a car capable of contending for the win, led some laps but we didn’t get into victory lane."
Said Johnson: “I’m OK. I just saw the No. 38 turning down across the group and hooked me and sent me up into the wall. It knocked the wind out of me for sure."
BAYNE TIRED: An apparent blown tire sent Bayne’s Ford sliding into the outside wall near Turn 3, producing the race’s sixth caution on Lap 153. Earnhardt bumped into Suarez in traffic near the accident, but neither car suffered major damage. On the ensuing restart, AJ Allmendinger, Almirola, Clint Bowyer and Cole Whitt crashed, sparking another caution. Bowyer, angry at his team because of a slow pit stop that dropped him deep into the field, where he was swept into the accident, got out of his car on pit road and climbed on his pit wagon to complain to the team.
BLANEY WINS STAGE TWO: Blaney, racing to stay in the playoffs, edged Keselowski to win the race’s second stage. Following were Bowyer, Elliott and Kurt Busch.
BUMPY RIDE FOR JOHNSON: Seven-time and reigning series champion Johnson wound up in crowded traffic while trying to pit on Lap 67. Johnson was bumped by Ty Dillon, and that contact pushed Johnson into Danica Patrick. Johnson’s Chevrolet received right rear fender damage.
SECOND CAUTION: Paul Menard whacked the outside wall to bring out the day’s second caution on Lap 52, starting a round of pit stops. During the stops, Earnhardt was penalized for speeding on pit road. Menard’s accident occurred near the end of the first stage. NASCAR restarted the race with one lap to go in the stage, and Keselowski finished first, followed by Logano, Blaney, Stenhouse and Johnson.
CAUTION ONE: The race’s first wreck occurred on Lap 27 as several drivers tried to drop onto pit road for stops. Jamie McMurray, a playoff driver, was in the heart of the accident as he tried to pit from the track’s second lane. McMurray spun and sailed up the track, where he was hit hard by Jeffrey Earnhardt. Others involved in the wreck were Mark Thompson, Kyle Busch, Buescher and Erik Jones. Busch, whose car received minor damage, blamed the crash on McMurray, who admitted he made a mistake.
"It was my fault," McMurray said after being checked and released from the infield care center. "I assumed that they said the 18 (Busch) was going to let me in, so I thought we were all going to pit. I didn’t even know where the 77 (Jones) was. When I got on the brakes, I thought we were all coming to pit road as a group. I’ll take the blame for that. I just kind of assumed we were coming to pit road right there. Obviously not everyone was.” Earnhardt was among the drivers penalized for pitting while pit road was closed, putting his Chevrolet at the back of the field for the restart.
JUNIOR MANIA: Pre-race ceremonies spotlighted Earnhardt’s last race at the track where he and his late father, Dale Earnhardt Sr., had dominant race days. Earnhardt Jr.'s No. 88 Chevrolet was the center of a swarm of team members, family, hangers-on and fans in the minutes before the race.