E.A. Sports Today

Talladega notebook

Team Penske’s Chase dominance continues

Lauren Sherrill, a Dale Earnhardt Jr. fan from Pensacola, Fla., extends well wishes to her favorite driver on pit road Sunday. Earnhardt, as expected, received the biggest ovation during driver introductions.

Lauren Sherrill, a Dale Earnhardt Jr. fan from Pensacola, Fla., extends well wishes to her favorite driver on pit road Sunday. Earnhardt, as expected, received the biggest ovation during driver introductions.

By Matthew Gruber
For East Alabama Sports Today

TALLADEGA – For all the talk of pressure during The Chase, one team seems to be relishing the white-hot spotlight even as other fade.

Team Penske Racing’s two full-time drivers, Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski, have now won four of the first six Chase races and more importantly have both earned slots in the Eliminator Round of eight drivers after Sunday’s GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway.

“We’ve won four of the six races, but I think today really showed the teamwork with Joey,” team owner Roger Penske said. “We were 16th or 17th and Joey pushed Brad up to the front. We talked before the race about how this was going to be a team effort and certainly the moves there at the end and Brad’s tremendous driving gave us the win. (Crew chief) Paul Wolfe called a great race. Brad was cool all day long.”

Keselowski may have been cool Sunday, but he was anything but last Saturday night at Charlotte, as the emotional driver’s fiery side was on display in post-race altercations with Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin.

“I told him ‘It’s over … Let’s move on,’” Penske said. “I like (Brad). He’s a great driver. We’ve got a long-term relationship with him, and if he wants to get a little upset sometimes, that’s OK with me. We’ll let NASCAR figure out whether he is over the line or not, and I guess it cost us 50-grand ($50,000 in fines).

“But I’ll take the 50-grand and a win this week, wouldn’t you?”

Keselowski has now won a series-best six races in 2014, while Logano has notched five wins, the second-most on the series.

Logano in particular seems to be riding a wave of momentum as the season enters its final stages. He was involved in the first caution of the day but rallied to finish 11th.

“We’re doing what we have to do to win this championship,” Logano said. “The next races are obviously going to be important to what we have to do. We can’t let anything get to us, and we have got to stay focused on what we’ve been doing.”

Even 20-year-old Ryan Blaney, who made just his second Cup start Sunday, led twice for 15 laps and ran in the lead pack all day before being shuffled to 22nd on the final lap.

Cassill notches best finish

Restrictor plate races again proved to be the great equalizer, as Landon Cassill finished fourth for underfunded Hillman-Circle Racing, his second career top 10 finish.

“We wanted to win this race,” Cassill said. “We came here to win it. My team deserves it. We don’t have a lot to work with, but we do work with it, we set out to run good at these superspeedway races, and we proved that this year. Fourth place is just amazing.”

Faces and Heels

It’s no surprise that Dale Earnhardt Jr. received the loudest cheers during driver introductions Sunday, but the fans’ second-favorite might come as a surprise to veteran NASCAR watchers.

Long-time Talladega villain Jeff Gordon – a driver whose car was targeted by a shower of beverage cans and cups on his victory lap the last time he won here — received the second-loudest ovation of the day. It was a testament of fans’ appreciation for Gordon’s late-career renaissance in 2014 after several seasons of declining results for the four-time Cup champ.

The boo-birds predictably were out in full-force for mercurial brothers Kurt and Kyle Busch, while Sunday’s race winner Brad Keselowski’s controversial night at Charlotte Motorspeedway last week apparently hasn’t won him any support with the masses.

The loudest mixed review came for Danica Patrick, who apparently inspires strong emotions both among fans and detractors. Patrick’s charge to the front late in race largely inspired cheers. Patrick led seven laps and broke her own record for best finish by a woman at Talladega by coming home 19th.

Contender’s weekend ends early

Cup regulars Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Justin Allgaier failed to qualify – the first missed race of the season for both drivers – thanks to confusion amongst the teams about the qualifying format. The confusion caused several strong teams to start in back using provisional sports, leaving the young drivers on the outside looking in.

The DNF was particularly shocking for Stenhouse, who drives for Ford powerhouse team Roush-Fenway Racing, and whose No. 17 team won here in 2012 with Matt Kenseth behind the wheel. In fact, Stenhouse had scored the most points of any driver in his three career Talladega starts and had an average finish of 8.7 in those races, with a top 5 and a pair of top 10s.

Sunday marked the first time there was no car No. 17 in a Cup race since 1998. Speaking of quirky things with numbers, Kurt Busch drove his No. 41 Chevy to 18th in qualifying, while brother Kyle drove his No. 18 Toyota to a 41st starting position.

Upon further review

A couple teams, including that of fifth-place finisher Ryan Newman, might have some explaining to do Monday as NASCAR plans to bring their cars in for further inspection.

Newman’s No. 31 Chevrolet failed post-race inspection for being too low on both sides of its rear. NASCAR officials said it would address any findings Monday or Tuesday, the day of the Chase media day.

Any points penalties Newman may incur aren’t expected to impact his advancing into the Eliminator stage of the Chase since he made the top eight by a comfortable margin. He could, however, start with a points deficit next week at Martinsville.

NASCAR also is taking back the cars of race winner Keselowski, runner-up Kenseth and Kasey Kahne.



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