Ryan Blaney emerged from the smoke and wreckage of a wild weekend at the Talladega Superspeedway on Oct. 14 to claim his first checkered flag of the season by a scant .007 seconds over runner-up Ryan Newman, the closest margin of victory in Talladega history.
Entering the race in last place of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoff standings, Blaney’s win vaulted him into the Round of 8 with only one race remaining before the next round of cuts.
Blaney was the only playoff driver to escape damage or elimination in the two-day affair in Alabama (heavy rains delayed the race 24-hours) as a series of multi-car accidents swept through the field in the final stages of the contest.
“We knew we had to win one of these two weeks. It’s just a huge relief after having such a bad weekend last week,” Blaney said. “It’s nice to get a win and lock into the next round, for sure, but you still go out and try to win Kansas.”
Pole-winner Chase Elliott found himself battling traffic in the beginning of the race after losing the lead to a team effort from the Ford drivers on the first lap. Although he battled back into contention, racing in the top-ten for almost all of the second stage, he got swept up in all three major collisions of the race to finish outside the top-10 in both stages and eighth overall to find himself two spots off the playoff bubble.
“We had our ups and downs for sure today. Got caught up in that crash but my guys did a nice job of putting it back together as best we could. Just head out West to Kansas now and try to get a win out there,” Elliott said. “You have to have the mindset to go out there and control what we can control and do everything we can to get a win. That’s all we can do.”
The first of three “Big-Ones” occurred just before the end of stage two when Alex Bowman attempted to block Joey Logano’s charge to the front of the pack on lap 107. The ensuing chaos destroyed Martin Truex Jr’s No. 19 Toyota and damaged the cars of four more playoff drivers as Elliott, Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski all scattered across the track.
"My guess is that I threw a block I shouldn't have," Bowman said. "I knew [Logano] was coming, and I just tried to move down just a little bit. ... They just had a bigger run than I realized. I should have let him go and shouldn't have thrown a block."
After the caution, the race continued with only minor incidents until William Byron lost his way on lap 162, spinning into traffic and sending Logano into the wall. Byron’s day was over as a result, but Logano’s team was able to repair the damage and send the No. 22 back into the trenches for an eleventh-place finish.
The worst carnage of the contest hit with only six laps remaining when Kyle Busch lost control of his No. 18 Toyota and spun directly into Keselowski’s Ford causing a chain reaction that gathered up another nine cars and sent Brendan Gaughan’s Chevy airborne into a barrel-roll style flip that ended with him back on all-four tires.
“It was okay, it was just one easy, quick flip and we put it down. The only thing you worry about then is somebody hitting you. That is what you don’t want and that is where the fear comes in,” Gaughan said. “Other than that, I am fine and like I said, some people would argue that I have anything up there that’s going to hurt.”
With six post-season spots up for grabs heading into the elimination race, the Hollywood Casino 400 on Oct. 20, four drivers, Bowman, Elliott, Clint Bowyer and Byron find themselves in a must-win situation to guarantee their spot in the third-round of the playoffs.
Of the four, Elliott has the best chances as he is the most recent winner at the Kansas Speedway and the only one of the group to have moved up in the standings after Talladega, rising one spot to number 10 on the list.