David Ragan takes the checkers, at long last. (Getty Images)
TALLADEGA, Ala. - At Talladega, controversy comes at you like a pinwheeling car in The Big One: you don't know when it will happen, and you don't know what direction it will come from, but you know it's coming. Every single year.
The Aaron's 499 on Sunday took seven hours and five minutes, about half of which was spent in a red-flag rain delay. And, as always happens at Talladega, race-altering possibilities that were visible at the green flag — rainfall, catastrophic wrecks, the threat of darkness — all came into play, seasoned with a light dusting of a restart controversy.
First things first, however: this race had the most improbable 1-2 finishers in years, if not decades. Winner David Ragan and second-place finisher David Gilliland, both from indie team Front Row Motorsports, combined to outrun the absolutely dominant trio of Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards. If this wasn't quite a 16 beating a 1 in the NCAA tournament, a journeyman winning the Masters, or a mule taking the Kentucky Derby, it was close enough. The emotion and disbelief were evident on both Davids' faces as they spoke after the race, and team owner Bob Jenkins was beaming with the kind of serenity that only comes when you've done everything exactly right and it's paid off better than you could have hoped.
"In the racing graveyard, my epitaph won't be, 'I won the most races or championships,' but I want to be known as a team that did the most with the least," he said. "We work within ourselves. The chassis we run, we build. We're unable to go out and buy products from other teams and that's a disadvantage, but on a day like today it really makes you feel good because you know the equipment that you won the race with was what you built in your own shop."
Ragan won thanks to some last-lap cunning and impeccable timing, knifing through the field as Kenseth, Johnson and Edwards struggled to maintain the supremacy they'd held all day. This wasn't tandem racing, not quite, but Gilliland was able to shove Ragan to the front from 8th place on the last restart, and by the final turns of the race Ragan had Talladega completely in control.
For much of the afternoon, however, it appeared that Mother Nature would own the day, with Edwards — in first place when the rains fell thanks to a daring move of his own — getting the win by default. NASCAR moved up the start time of the race by 13 minutes, which in the end made little difference. The rain came, as the forecasts predicted it would, followed by hail and lightning. But credit NASCAR's new "Air Titan" track-drying system for getting the 2.66 miles of Talladega dry enough to fit in the entire race as night fell.
Still, this is Talladega, and that means wrecks are in the mix. Plenty of them. Two major wrecks shaped the race, one before the rain delay and one afterward. Kyle Busch triggered the first wreck when he misjudged the moves of Kasey Kahne; Kurt Busch was the most dramatic victim of the second one, set in motion when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. bumped JJ Yeley into a thick pack of drivers. The first wreck involved 13 cars, the second, 12; Marcos Ambrose, Jamie McMurray and David Stremme had the misfortune of being in both.
Kyle Busch took responsibility for the first wreck, but Ryan Newman had a different target in mind for the second: NASCAR itself. "They can build safer race cars, they can build safer walls, but they can't get their heads out of their asses far enough to keep them on the race track, and that's pretty disappointing," Newman said. "I wanted to make sure I get that point across, and y'all can figure out who 'they' is."
Newman continued: "That's just poor judgment in restarting the race," he said. "I mean, you got what you wanted, but poor judgment in running in the dark and running in the rain."
Other drivers took a slightly different view, one unobstructed by wrecking cars. "I could see everything," Martin Truex Jr. said. "You can't see much racing these things all day anyway ... Once that last caution came out, from there to the end it was raining a little bit the whole time, so you've got the wet windshield, the Speedy-Dry flying around, and it's like your windshield gets this crappy mist-looking mud on it. Nobody could see that good, but you see far enough ahead of you and around you to see what's going on."
"I was really grateful personally that NASCAR let us run that green-white-checkered," Edwards said afterward. "It had to be a tough call for NASCAR, but we could see well enough. The one thing NASCAR did was gave us time to change our visors. I put on a clear visor. I think a lot of people did. So we were all prepared for less light."
Even that wasn't enough controversy for one race. Brad Keselowski, last year's spring Talladega winner, took to Twitter immediately after the race to protest:
mad as hell about that finish. We were suppose to line up 10th when the 34 switched lanes entering 3 before green. That lane won.BS
— Brad Keselowski (@keselowski) May 6, 2013
NASCAR, however, countered that it properly lined up the racers ahead of time, and Ragan agreed with that assessment. "Obviously Brad wanted to start on the outside, because he knew the same thing that I knew, that the outside lane had an advantage on the restart, but he just didn't want to listen to NASCAR," Ragain said. "Brad was just trying to snooker us and get the preferred lane, and eventually he decided he should do the right thing, and he restarted ninth and restarted 10th, so there's no controversy."
No controversy? At a Talladega race? Yeah, right.
-Follow Jay Busbee on Twitter at @jaybusbee.-
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