Back Seat Driver

Back Seat Driver: Talladega

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*Editor’s Note* Every Monday, after every race weekend, contributing writer Jacob Mullins will recap the top story lines from the track in our weekly feature, Back Seat Driver.

WEEKEND OF THE UNDERDOG

It was a great weekend for restrictor plate racing in Alabama. In both the NASCAR Sprint Cup and XFINITY Series, we saw some fantastic racing and in the end, some lesser known names prevailed.

In Saturday’s Winn Dixie 300, JJ Yeley and Joey Gase posted season-best finishes of fourth and fifth, respectively. The fourth place finish by Yeley was his best finish in a race since the Kroger 200 Benefiting Riley Hospital for Children from O’Reilly Raceway Park in 2006. Gase earned his first ever top-five finish in 85 races. His previous best finish was at this one year ago where her finished 11th.

With strong finishes in Sunday’s GEICO 500, Ryan Blaney and Josh Wise also posted a pair of top-10 finishes. Although you may not think Blaney is an underdog, he drives for the Wood Brothers that compete on a part-time basis, so any good finish by the No. 21 Ford is a ray of light for the team to enter more races.

In just his 10th time behind the wheel of a Sprint Cup car, Blaney earned his first-ever top-five. After starting fourth, Blaney spent most of day pinballing back and forth depending on the runs. When the checkers flew, he finished fourth behind three Chevrolets. Blaney posted a driver rating of 103.0, fourth best of the day. This was the Wood Brothers best finish in Sprint Cup since the 2011 season when they won the Daytona 500 with Trevor Bayne behind the wheel.

Just like the other three underdogs, Wise posted his first top-10 of his career. With his 10th place finish, Wise has never finished better than 19th. His 19th place finish was in this race two years ago after starting 26th. Sunday, Wise made his way through the field as he started deep in the pack at 34th, but one thing about plate races is, it doesn’t matter where you start, it just matters where you finish.

JR NATION REJOICES

After winning the 2014 opening race, the Daytona 500, Dale Earnhardt Jr. visited victory lane three more times last year. After a dismal start to 2015, Earnhardt was missing one thing, a win. Don’t worry anymore NASCAR fans, he did just that. With his first win of the year, Earnhardt is locked into the NASCAR playoffs, the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.

With four of the five starting positions belonging to Hendrick Motorsports, you had a feeling one of them would win. As much as everyone would like to see Jeff Gordon win in his final season, Earnhardt had a different plan. Now that Earnhardt has won, JR Nation can rejoice.

By earning a max-point day of 48, Earnhardt led six times for a total of 67 laps. Not only that, but the King of Talladega won his sixth win at the track in his career and first since 2004. During the span of his two wins, Earnhardt posted a pair of runner-up positions and five top-10 finishes. However, during that same span, he has had five finishes of 30th or worse with a pair of 40th place finishes in 2005 and again in 2007.

THE BIG-ONE

At both Daytona and Talladega, the fear of the big-one is always in the minds of the drivers. Reaching 195+ mph and close racing, one small mistake can eliminate a portion of the field in a matter of moments. We saw this twice this weekend, one in both series’ races.

On Saturday, it was in the closing laps when drivers were slowing down to enter pit road to be topped-off with gas, the cars slowing down to enter pit road were bum-rushed by the cars staying on track. With the slower cars getting down to pit road speed, the freight train of cars were unable to avoid them.

Everything started with Ryan Sieg got into the back of Daniel Suarez and from that point on, cars were turning, sliding and the mayhem had just begun. As the cars were spinning, the machine of Brendan Gaughan spun though pit road and striking the wall in front of Aric Almirola’s pit box. Two of Almirola’s team members were injured and taken for evaluations. One was released from the infield care center while the other made a trip to hospital. In all, 10 cars suffered damage and the race had to be red flagged for the clean-up.

On Sunday, the opposite happened. Instead of a late race “big one”, the GEICO 500’s was an early race incident that impaired 15 cars. The cause of Sunday’s incident was Trevor Bayne, in the No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford, who broke free in the middle pack and then started to spin on his own. From Bayne on back, the track started to stack-up and the cars behind him had nowhere to go. Some strong cars that were impacted by the lap 46 accident were Kyle Larson, Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick. The accident created an 11-minute red flag.

ANOTHER FIRE ON PIT ROAD FOR RCR

Last weekend at Richmond, it was a pit road fire in the pit stall of Gaughan that sent three crew members to the hospital, two from the No. 62 team and other from Eric McClure’s team. This weekend, it was the pit stall of Ryan Newman that saw a fiery incident. The ironic thing in the two fires is that it happened to the same owner, Richard Childress.

As the gas man disengaged the fuel can to allow the rear tire changer to come around to the left side of the car, fuel spilled on the ground and a hot lug nut sparked the fire. Safety crews were quickly on the scene to extinguish the fire and Newman was able to drive away with no damage to the car.

None of the crew members involved were hurt.

This, along with the two “big ones” shows the dangers that drivers and crews endure on a weekly basis.

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About Jacob Mullins

Jacob Mullins serves as the managing editor and senior NASCAR writer covering all three national touring series's. You can find him on on Twitter at @JMulls15. An intercollegiate athletic administrator by trade, Mullins can be found at the big tracks as well as the local short tracks in the Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania area. Mullins enjoys social media, photography and graphic design. A native of West Chester, Pennsylvania, Mullins follows all forms of racing, Major League Baseball (Baltimore Orioles) and college football (Virginia Tech Hokies).

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