TALLADEGA, Ala. -- For the drivers at Front Row Motorsports, it all went exactly to plan.
David Ragan and David Gilliland, teammates at the organization that shocked NASCAR's traditional powers by winning the spring race at Talladega Superspeedway, were in position Sunday to record an even more stunning repeat on the big Alabama track. Their intention all along was to hang around until the final laps, and then make a run at it -- which they did, until a late accident ended the race with Jamie McMurray out front.
"It was a crazy last lap," said Ragan, who won the May race here with Gilliland right behind him. "We set out what we wanted to do ?. We had a chance to win the race, took the white flag in seventh or eighth and kind of had a good plan. But the caution came out. So, we got a top-10 finish and that's a good thing for our Front Row Motorsports team."
Aiming to prove their 1-2 finish here five months ago was no fluke, Ragan and Gilliland did just that Sunday by finishing sixth and seventh, respectively. In the spring, the Front Row teammates jumped to the front of a middle lane that charged to the lead before anyone else could move in to block. Sunday, they were thwarted by two factors that made it difficult for Talladega to produce another of its famous underdog winners.
First, the cars all fell into a line along the top, frustrating those who had hoped to jump to the bottom and mount a charge to McMurray and eventual runner-up Dale Earnhardt Jr. And hopes of forming that low lane were further thwarted when Casey Mears and Austin Dillon crashed on the final lap, bringing the event to an end under caution because McMurray had already taken the while flag.
"We were in position, we had a plan where we could make a move together, but then the caution came out on the last lap," Gilliland said. "Thankfully, we weren't a part of it and we were able to get a top-10 finish and a clean car to take home. I'm just really proud of my team. They've been working so hard, and days like this show that it pays off. I think we definitely could've had a chance (to) win. We were definitely in the mix for the last 50, 60 laps of the race. We weren't hanging back anymore."
Indeed, Ragan and Gilliland remained near the rear of the pack for much of the race before moving to the front over the final 20 laps. Kyle Busch, who led nine laps and was at the point with 18 remaining before falling back, was ready to use the Front Row teammates as drafting partners in a late bid to go for the win.
"I think I had (Ragan) and (Gilliland) behind me, and (Martin Truex Jr.), and I think they were going to go with me," Busch said. "I (gave) Ragan a hand signal. Whether or not he understood it remains to be seen, but I told him 'Turn 3, we'll go.' He pulled back in line like he understood, so that was good. I think he was going to help me, and of course his teammate was going to help him."
They never got the opportunity, not even at a track where restrictor plates close the gap between the sport's top teams and everybody else. Talladega has produced a number of surprise winners ranging from Richard Brickhouse to Ron Bouchard to Brad Keselowski in his Phoenix Racing days to Ragan this spring, but Sunday was a tough one for underdogs trying to add their name to that list. The race saw only three caution periods, and there was no Big One to winnow the field.
Even so, a number of potential sleepers seemed in the mix as the race neared its end. But Dillon and Mears were involved in the last-lap crash, Danica Patrick sped on pit road, and Trevor Bayne fell back in the draft. The biggest surprise Sunday? It might have been Michael McDowell, who finished 15th for Phil Parsons Racing. It was McDowell's best finish since the Daytona 500, where he placed ninth for Mike Curb's team.
The Front Row duo, though, clearly had the best chance to pull a shocker at the end. But unlike the last race on this sprawling 2.66-mile layout, the right conditions just didn't come together. As it was, the team still enjoyed a nice windfall of $339,946 in purse winnings, with the 30th-place finish of third driver Josh Wise added in.
After the last race here, though, they were after a little bit more.
"It just wasn't meant to be this time," Gilliland said. "Next time."
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