Winners: 2011 NASCAR Champions

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series: Austin Dillon
NASCAR Nationwide Series: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: Tony Stewart

Monday, April 27, 2009

Edwards flips, Keselowski wins at Talladega

Sunday's Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway won't be remembered by many as the site of Brad Keselowski's first career Sprint Cup Series win, nor will it be remembered for the 14-car wreck on the seventh lap that took out such drivers as Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin and Clint Bowyer.

No, Sunday's race will be remembered for Carl Edwards getting airborne in the tri-oval on the final lap and flipping into the catch fence. Sunday will be remembered for Edwards peeling himself from his burning car and running, a la Ricky Bobby, across the start-finish line. Sunday will be remembered for the seven fans who were injured by debris from Edwards' crash, one of whom was airlifted to a nearby hospital with a reported broken jaw.

As far as I'm concerned, any and all criticism of the new car needs to stop. It's true the vehicle has produced underwhelming racing at times over the past year or so -- but to be honest, so did the old model at times. Between Edwards' wreck on Sunday and Michael McDowell's tumble at Texas last season, the new car has more than proven its worth in terms of safety. Teams are getting a handle on the car, which is leading and will continue to lead to better racing, but the safety -- which was why this new car was created -- makes the current model a rousing success.

I'm not sure Edwards walks away on Sunday if they were still driving the old car.

To be clear: Keselowski was not to blame for the wreck. He held his line on the bottom and Edwards came down on him in an attempt to block. Edwards wasn't to blame, either; he did what he had to in order to try and win the race. The real culprit was NASCAR's rule which prevents drivers from diving below the double-yellow line on the bottom to pass.

Just ask Regan Smith. He dove below that line last October and passed Tony Stewart on the last lap of the AMP Energy 500 for what he thought was the win. Smith, who was penalized a lap by NASCAR for going below the line, said he did that to prevent wrecking Stewart. In Smith's mind, if he held his ground, an incident similar to Edwards' on Sunday might've happened.

To be fair, Edwards might not have gone as high into the air as he did if Ryan Newman didn't collect him. Sure, Edwards was already in the air, but the roof flaps had deployed and the car was starting to return to the track. Newman's hit -- which was not his fault -- sent Edwards even higher into the air, careening into the catch fence.

The fence did its job; it gave, but did not break. The fence threw Edwards' car back onto the track, and the fans who were hurt by the resulting debris largely suffered minor injuries. Still, that Edwards went into the air like that and we're even talking about this means something probably needs to be done.

"We'll probably keep racing like this until somebody gets killed," Edwards, who did not blame Keselowski, said on Sunday. "Then (NASCAR) will change it."

"Talladega is short for 'We're going to crash, we just don't know when'," Newman said.

It was the third major wreck of the afternoon; the first Big One took place going into the third turn on Lap 7, when Matt Kenseth got loose in a four-wide pack and sent Gordon near the wall. Everyone checked up from there, leaving Martin, Bowyer, Kevin Harvick and Kasey Kahne, among others, in the carnage.

The second Big One happened on the backstretch on Lap 180, when Denny Hamlin got into polesitter Juan Pablo Montoya. Robby Gordon slammed head-on into the inside retaining wall -- which was outlined with a SAFER barrier -- while Jimmie Johnson and Martin Truex Jr. were also involved.

Talladega -- and Daytona, the other track on which NASCAR runs the carbeurator restrictor plate -- is prime ground for the Big One. The huge wrecks aren't possibilities; they're inevitabilities. Drivers employ different strategies to avoid the wreck -- lead all day, stay out front, or hang out in the back.

Edwards chose the latter strategy, and it almost worked. He hooked up with Keselowski, a part-time Cup rookie who competes full-time in the Nationwide Series, with two laps to go and rocketed to the front on the high side. We saw all day that two cars could hook up and shoot past everyone, anywhere from six to 10 MPH faster than the rest of the field.

Edwards and Keselowski passed Newman and Dale Earnhardt Jr. coming to the white flag, setting up the frantic sprint to the checkereds. In the tri-oval, Keselowski looked high, only to have Edwards block his path. Keselowski, in the No. 09 owned by James Finch, then ducked low, getting a fender alongside Edwards as the No. 99 then peeled low to block again. The two cars made contact.

Three, two, one ... liftoff.

Let's just be glad everyone came out of the incident relatively unscathed, and that Edwards can be at Richmond for this weekend's races. The crash was probably one of the scariest Talladega had seen since 1987, when Bobby Allison spun in the tri-oval at over 210 MPH and got airborne. He also soared into the catch fence, which was not nearly as strong back then, and a large chunk of that fence was torn off.

I never heard about any injuries in that incident, but Allison's accident was what prompted NASCAR to mandate the restrictor plates at Daytona and Talladega. Without them today, these cars would probably be sailing off into the corners at Talladega at over 230 MPH.

Retired NASCAR driver Rusty Wallace, who conducted just such a test a few years ago, later said running 230 at Talladega by one's self was probably not that big a deal, but to do so in a race? To paraphrase Wallace, no thanks.

I'm not sure what the answer is. I don't know what NASCAR needs to do to prevent something like this from happening again, but it does merit a close look. Then again, racing is inherently dangerous, and no matter what NASCAR does, the drivers and fans will never be 100 percent guaranteed to be safe.

But rather than place blame and play the "What if?" game, let's just be thankful Edwards and the fans are alright.

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Aaron's 499
1. Brad Keselowski*
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr.*
3. Ryan Newman*
4. Marcos Ambrose
5. Scott Speed*
6. Kurt Busch*
7. Greg Biffle*
8. Brian Vickers*
9. Joey Logano*
10. Jeff Burton*
11. Reed Sorenson
12. David Ragan*
13. Paul Menard*
14. Joe Nemechek*
15. Regan Smith
16. Casey Mears*
17. Matt Kenseth*
18. Max Papis
19. Elliott Sadler*
20. Juan Pablo Montoya*
21. Michael Waltrip*
22. Denny Hamlin*
23. Tony Stewart
24. Carl Edwards*
25. Kyle Busch**
26. David Reutimann
27. John Andretti*
28. Bobby Labonte
29. Robby Gordon
30. Jimmie Johnson*
31. David Stremme
32. Jeremy Mayfield*
33. Martin Truex Jr.*
34. Sam Hornish Jr.*
35. A.J. Allmendinger
36. Kasey Kahne
37. Jeff Gordon
38. Kevin Harvick
39. Clint Bowyer
40. David Gilliland
41. Scott Riggs
42. Jamie McMurray
43. Mark Martin

*led a lap (5 bonus points)
**led most laps (5 more bonus points)

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