E.A. Sports Today

Geico 500 notebook

[corner-ad id=2]‘Big One’ collects 15 cars early in race; swapping seats; chilly reception for Freeze

Emergency crews attend to crumpled cars while the race is red-flagged on Lap 47. On the cover, cars scatter during the biggest incident of the race.

Emergency crews attend to crumpled cars while the race is red-flagged on Lap 47. On the cover, cars scatter during the biggest incident of the race.

By Matthew Gruber and Al Muskewitz
East Alabama Sports Today

TALLADEGA – It’s not a matter of “if” but more a matter of “when.”

You know The Big One is coming when NASCAR visits its fastest track, and Sunday’s Geico 500 from Talladega Superspeedway was no exception.

On Lap 47, Paul Menard got a huge run on the outside of Trevor Bayne’s Ford going down the backstretch and Kurt Busch sucked up behind Bayne’s car in the draft. The movement took the air from the rear of Bayne’s car, and sent the No. 6 spinning without any contact from Menard or Busch.

Bayne’s car hit hard nose-first, and a multicar melee to avoid the spin was on. Joey Logano plowed into the 6, Greg Biffle spun and Landon Cassill slammed into Kyle Larson sending cars sliding in all directions down the backstretch.

“It felt like the 27 (Menard) was really tight on our door and sucked us around,” Bayne said. “The air is so sensitive here; when you get too close to somebody it can just pull you right around and it is as much as hitting somebody physically. It’s typical Talladega anytime you come out of the infield care center, it seems like.”

The crash was particularly damaging for Cassill, whose underfunded team was running in the front pack without the benefit of a sponsor. Cassill had a pair of strong runs – 11th and 4th – at Talladega in 2014.

“It’s just a bummer,” Cassill said. “I want to win here so badly; I want to win a race here or Daytona so much. We were where we wanted to be in the top 10, and we had the car to stay there all day.”

In all, 15 cars sustained damage in the pile-up, which resulted in an 11-minute red flag for NASCAR to clear the track.

Of the cars involved in the crash, Kevin Harvick was able to salvage the best finish. After his Stewart-Haas team made repairs to the nose of the Outback Chevrolet, Harvick was able to run in the lead pack and eventually rallied for a 10th place finish and maintain his points lead.

Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. have each posted nine top 10s in the first 10 races of 2015.

Crew chief nearly missed first win

If not for the insistence of a brave 8-year-old back in North Carolina, race winner Dale Earnhardt’s new crew chief Greg Ives might not have been around for his first win.

Payton Ives, Ives’ 8-year-old daughter, was being discharged from the hospital about the same time Earnhardt was taking the checkered flag after having three pins placed in a “significant break” to her right arm after falling off a swing set.

Earnhardt was all right with his crew chief missing the race for the emergency and offered to fly him back home, turning the race duties over to engineer Kevin Meendering.

But Payton wanted her dad to stay at the track, telling him in her pointed way “it was my job to go out there and try to win the race; that’s the only thing that’s going to satisfy her.”

Earnhardt thought the offer was the right thing to do and noted the approach to this race was “a little less challenging” than other tracks.

“He says she’s tough as nails,” Earnhardt said. “He was worried about what she was going to tell him when he got home because she’s been hard on him. That’s probably good; she keeps him honest.”

In-season Silly Season continues

Drivers typically don’t start swapping rides until later in the season, but injuries and illness have caused the Silly Season merry-go-round to start turning early in 2015.

David Ragan’s stint as a substitute driver for Joe Gibbs Racing came to an end Sunday, but another seat will open for the former Talladega winner Saturday at Kansas.

Ragan, who started the season as the driver of the No. 34 Ford, had served as a substitute in the 18 in place of Kyle Busch. As Busch continues to recover from a broken leg and foot suffered in an Xfinity Series crash at Daytona, Gibbs’ Xfinity Series driver Erik Jones will take over the 18 effective Saturday. Ragan, meanwhile, will shift over to Michael Waltrip Racing’s No. 55 in place of Brian Vickers, who is expected to miss the rest of the season due to ongoing treatment for blood clots.

A full-time replacement for Ragan in the No. 34 has not been named, but the ride has been shared by Chris Buescher and Brad Moffitt, who has also driven the 55 this season.

Road sign: Bump ahead

Race winner Dale Earnhardt might want to have a word or two for the crew that resurfaced Talladega Superspeedway in 2006. They might have missed a spot.

Earnhardt might not remember the most intense moments of his victory because he had to concentrate so much on creating it, but he knows the craziest part of racing at Talladega.

“Somebody paved the straightaway wrong,” he said. “There’s like two aprons. There’s progressive banking from the bottom groove into the next three grooves. It’s just one little, you know, ditch … a rut that grabs the back of the car and takes it. Our right rears get hung in that thing. It yanks the car around.

“When you’ve got a guy up your butt, one on the side of your car, one in front, no air on your car, it’s hovering through there. You’re just trying to keep it from wrecking. You can’t visually see this watching the cars, but they are a handful coming through the tri-oval.

“I’d love to get in front of the guy who paved this place just to talk to him a little bit about it. They did an amazing job – aside from that small mistake. I don’t believe it was intentional. It wasn’t like that before, but it’s interesting, for sure.”

Double Dip

For all the talk of the mental and physical toll restrictor plate racing takes on drivers, eight still pulled double duty, running both the Xfinity and Spring Cup Series races at Talladega this weekend.

Four such drivers swept the top spots in Saturday’s Winn Dixie 300, with Daytona 500 champ Joey Logano winning the race, followed by Brian Scott, Austin Dillon and J.J. Yeley. Scott and Yeley are both running for the Xfinity Series title in addition to competing on the Cup Series.

Sunday wasn’t as kind to Saturday’s front-runners, as Scott lost an engine early and Logano’s hopes for a weekend sweep were dashed when he was caught up in the Big One on lap 17. Dillon also was unable to replicate his finish Sunday, as his No. 3 Chevrolet lost its engine and caught fire with 28 to go.

J.J. Yeley had the best day of the bunch by far, bringing his No. 23 Dr. Pepper Camry home with a solid 14th place finish – his best showing of 2015.

Chilly reception for Freeze

Ole Miss head football coach Hugh Freeze was the grand marshal and honorary pace car driver for Sunday’s race. Freeze, whose Rebels notched a rare victory over state powerhouse Alabama last fall, expected a harsh reception from fans at Talladega, and he was proved right.

The boo-birds were out in full-throat for Freeze, who said before Sunday’s race he has been a NASCAR fan since the early 1990s and frequently records races to watch on Sunday nights.

Emotional experience

The races at Talladega attract fans from all over the world and there aren’t many first-timers who leave without being touched by the experience.
Erin Williams of Corpus Christi, Texas, was in Alabama for the first time and obviously attending her first Talladega race, which she found quite moving.

Her race ticket was donated to the Wounded Warriors Project by a track volunteer identified only as “6 Guns.” Williams expressed her appreciation to him and the experience with a message written on the start finish line.

“I cried,” she said. “I went to Fenway Park for the first time and Talladega is like the same (emotional) thing. It’s THE race.”

Williams, an Air Force veteran of Desert Storm wearing a Sterling Marlin T-shirt, has attended one NASCAR race before, at Texas Motor Speedway where she was positioned inside Turn 2 right next to actor Sam Elliott.

She had the option of sitting anywhere she chose at Talladega and was scouting out upper-deck locations near the checkered flag stand before the race so she could see as much of the track as possible.

“I must concede,” she said. “Us Texans are very proud, but you do it better than we do.”

Chairman’s message

TSS chairman Grant Lynch knows what the drivers say about his race track, but he also knows what it means to the people who follow the sport. Both were reflected in his remarks during the drivers meeting.

“I know Talladega is probably not any of y’all’s favorite racetrack,” he said. “When you do what you can do here, you can’t do it anywhere else. It sends chills down your back, and I hope you’ll do it today.”

With that, he turned it over to pre-race instructions.

Erin Williams of Corpus Christi, Texas, leaves a personal message on the start-finish line during her first visit to Alabama and Talladega Superspeedway. (Photo by Al Muskewitz)

Erin Williams of Corpus Christi, Texas, leaves a personal message on the start-finish line during her first visit to Alabama and Talladega Superspeedway. (Photo by Al Muskewitz)

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