ATW: Roush returns to the top at Talladega

Tim Bradbury/Getty Images

By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor

Late battles, a playoff shakeup and a fresh face in victory lane all served to make the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series’ latest trip to Talladega Superspeedway one of the most memorable in recent years.

From packed grandstands on race day to Charlie Daniels rocking out on Saturday night, the race weekend at Talladega at times felt like a nostalgic trip to the past – to an era where Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” filled the airwaves and a young driver named Dale Earnhardt was beginning to make a name for himself.

The on-track product didn’t match the nostalgic look of the weekend surrounding it, and it didn’t deliver the outcome that many of the NASCAR faithful wanted – a good result for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. in the heart of what pre-race ads dubbed “Earnhardt country.”

Still, there was much to take in.

Here are a few observations leaving NASCAR’s second of four restrictor-plate races.

Spreading the Wealth

Through 10 races of the Cup series season, eight drivers from seven different organizations have made their way to victory lane.

On Sunday, it was Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. taking the flag for Roush Fenway Racing – his first-career victory and Roush’s first since the now-retired Carl Edwards won at Sonoma Raceway in 2014.

Drivers from all throughout the pack have managed to contend for victories this season. (Photo: NASCAR via Getty Images)

Roush is just the latest in a string of resurgent teams to find success in a year defined parity.

Sure, the dominant organizations like Team Penske and Hendrick Motorsports have made their rounds, earning five victories thus far – though Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) remains winless. But along with those usual suspects, former stalwarts such as Roush, Richard Childress Racing and Chip Ganassi Racing have each made their way to victory lane once to shake the season up.

Last year only seven organizations earned victories all season, with 13 drivers in total taking the checkered flag as winners. This year, both of those marks could be surpassed before the playoffs.

Remember that JGR, one of NASCAR’s top teams – and in many ways the reason for last year’s lower numbers due to their early dominance – is still searching for their first win. A victory for the Toyota team would move the mark up to eight different winning organizations.

In the same regard, a host of proven winners and strong contenders are still searching for their first victory of 2017. Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth are all likely to deliver JGR a triumph by year’s end, as is Kevin Harvick for Ford and Stewart-Haas Racing. Many others, including Clint Bowyer, Chase Elliott, Jamie McMurray and Ryan Blaney have shown early promise – signs that their teams could earn a victory under the correct circumstances.

Throw in the possibility for someone from the middle of the pack to snag a win – think Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Kasey Kahne or one of the rookie trio of Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez and Ty Dillon – or the odds for a specialist like road-course ace A.J. Allmendinger to surge to the front in one of their limited opportunities, and there’s a strong chance that the regular season could see last year’s total of 13 different winners matched, if not surpassed with the current level of competition in the paddock.

If that were to happen, the availability for the remaining field to make the playoffs based on points could become slim.

Under the current championship format, when underdogs find a way to win, points racing becomes a much less promising proposition.

The Big One Strikes Again

As is the case for most restrictor-plate races, Sunday’s event was defined as much by a massive crash – “The Big One” – as it was by its dramatic late race battles.

With cars packed together as tight as they’ve ever been under the current package, the margin for error throughout the field is hair-thin. And when something does go wrong, especially at the front, those drivers mired in the pack have little they can do save for ride along and pray they aren’t included in the carnage.

The Geico 500’s edition of the Big One came late, on lap 169 of 188, and included 18 of the field’s 40 cars, with two of them – Chase Elliott’s No. 24 and AJ Allmendinger’s No. 47 – going airborne amidst the bedlam.

The Big One struck again on Sunday, eliminating nine drivers and damaging many more. (Photo: Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

Nine of the 18 cars involved were sent to the garage area, not to be seen again. Drivers eliminated included Elliott, Allmendinger, Joey Logano, Erik Jones, Martin Truex, Jr., Austin Dillon, Trevor Bayne, Michael McDowell and Danica Patrick.

What’s noticeable about the above list is that nearly all of the competitors involved entered the weekend winless in 2017, and one of the two that have a win this season (Logano) lost all benefits to an encumbered finish penalty.

As a result, their road to the playoffs grew steeper and more arduous.

Elliott and Logano are still presumably safe, sitting fourth and fifth in the standings, but Elliott fell further out of the reach of points leader Kyle Larson, while Logano dropped into a tie with second-place finisher Jamie McMurray. That may not sound like a big deal, but with additional playoff points on the line for the top 10 drivers in the standings, each position could be the difference between contending until the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway or making an early exit.

Bayne dropped to 16th in points, right on the playoff bubble. That can’t be a comfortable position to be in, especially as potential winners including Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt, Jr., lurk behind him in the standings.

Jones dropped to 20th, continuing a free-fall that began with the short track heavy month of April. Meanwhile, the elder Dillon brother saw yet another bad finish in a race where he direly needed a good run. The 2016 playoff participant now sits behind younger brother and rookie Ty Dillon in the standings, mired back in 23rd.

Allmendinger lost all hopes of making the playoffs on points, dropping to 29th in the standings with a 100-point gap to make up on the current playoff bubble. Patrick dropped out of the top 30 in points altogether in 31st, with McDowell following in 32nd.

Each of these drivers saw a significant setback in the final moments of the event. The only blessing to come out of the crash was that an assortment of their competitors – including Kenseth, Ryan Blaney and Kevin Harvick – were also beset by issues, with many also suffering damage in the crash.

The 2017 season has provided a wealth of competition. The on-track product is as strong as it’s ever been, and the field is rich with parity. Those are both positives for NASCAR as a whole, but the result is that every lap, stage and race seems to matter that much more. Because of that, getting swept up in the Big One isn’t just a minor setback – it could be the difference in whether a team makes the playoffs or not.

The Blue Ovals are Back

TALLADEGA, AL – MAY 07: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. continued a strong start for Ford in the Monster Energy era with his Talladega Superspeedway win. (Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

After a few years of struggles, the Ford Performance stable appears to finally be getting back on-track.

Team Penske has held the torch for Ford ever since making a move to the blue oval in 2013, but their fellow teams – Roush being the greatest – have spent the majority of the last handful of seasons in a mid-pack slog, running desperately behind the strongest teams in the field,

How bad have things been? Stenhouse, finally embracing the joys of a Cup series win after four seasons of struggles, readily admitted that his team had “been terrible for a long time” in his victory lane interview with FOX.

2017 promised to be different for Ford. The manufacturer courted Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) over from Chevrolet to bolster its talent pool and was immediately rewarded with a victory in the Daytona 500.

SHR has endured the sort of up-and-down season typical for teams making a manufacturer swap in the weeks since, while Penske has gone on to accomplish the level of success they’re known for with three wins in the last nine races.

Both of those results were expected. What was less anticipated, however, has been the steady re-ascent of Roush.

Coming off of a year that saw them finish 21st-23rd in the standings, lose veteran Greg Biffle and slim down to a two-car team with prospects Stenhouse and Bayne, fans and critics alike could be forgiven for doubting Roush’s playoff prospects going into Daytona to start the year.

And yet, 10 races later, the team has both drivers in the current playoff grid, with Stenhouse all-but guaranteed to make his playoff debut after a win at Talladega.

That win wasn’t a fluke, either. There’ve been multiple instances in the past when a feel-good story has come out of Daytona or Talladega (David Ragan in 2013 comes to mind), but most of those tales come with an asterisk. A driver catches rain at the right time or prevails through a race with high attrition, where most contenders are eliminated. Take nothing away from those that win under those circumstances, but most that do fail to be contenders moving forward.

Some have eyed Stenhouse’s win on Sunday in the same manner, but it simply isn’t the case.

Stenhouse’s car at Talladega was fast. RFR brought a stellar machine to Talladega – one strong enough to net the Mississippian his first pole since 2013. The No. 17 Ford proved capable of nearly any challenge Stenhouse could issue to it, be it diving under race leader Kyle Busch with ease on the penultimate lap or holding the field at bay for the final circuit.

While ‘Dega wasn’t purely indicative of the team’s speed throughout the year, it was the breakout moment in a season a quiet resurgance.

They’ve had their issues on the intermediate tracks, but Stenhouse and Bayne have both been consistently competitive this year.

Aside from his victory, Stenhouse is only one top five and top 10 away from matching his career-best totals – four and six, respectively – in each category. That comes just three months into the season, with half of a calendar year left to contest.

Bayne hasn’t been able to match his teammate in raw speed, but the 2011 Daytona 500 winner has made up for it in consistency. The Tennessean’s 16.4 average finish to date is on-track to easily overcome his current career best – a 19.9 average from last season.

They still have improvements to make, but Roush appears poised for at least a moderate amount of success this season. Paired with Penske’s usual strength and the high ceiling attributed to the recently-acquired SHR, the trio give Ford its greatest potential as a NASCAR manufacturer in many years.

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