This was not a victory for heart health.
Nor was it a particularly good day for those who spent the last five years waiting for Danica Patrick to drive the No. 10 car to a gender-bending appearance in Victory Lane.
But this is Talladega. If you want sport that is in any way socially redeeming, a big, old-school Southern racetrack probably isn’t the first place you should look.
Driving the Smithfield Bacon for Life Ford, Aric Almirola won the 1000Bulbs.com 500 (there, I’ve hit my mandatory NASCAR sponsorship quota) Sunday at Talladega. Save for a little confusion on the closing lap, it was a shockingly tame afternoon at a place that invented the screeching, upside-down 200-mph wreck.
What it lacked in the usual Talladega body damage, the winning car made up for in curiosity value.
For one, there was the sponsorship splashed across its flank. It’s one that Almirola, in his great excitement over winning his second career Cup Series race, couldn’t help screaming about from his platform in Victory Lane. These are words that surely will ring loudly forevermore in NASCAR lore, for as long as man drives fast:
“Bacon for life!”
That was in reference to the sweepstakes his sponsor is running in which one lucky soul stands to win a package of bacon per week for 50 years or until the heart surrenders, whichever comes first.
It was a good week to be a member of the Stewart-Haas Racing family. The team’s four cars occupied the first two rows at the start of the race and spent most of the afternoon running up front until the checkered flag fell.
“It was us against the field. When we drove off together early in the race, I knew we had something special. I knew one of us was going to win,” Almirola said.
He had come to Stewart-Haas this year, taking over the No. 10 car vacated by Danica Patrick. (Almirola, a Cuban-American who is a product of NASCAR’s diversity program, got his first win with Richard Petty’s team in a rain-shortened Daytona summer race in 2014). He already has taken it to places Patrick couldn’t.
Patrick had all the notice, but in 191 Cup Series races, she put together only seven top-10 finishes, but no top-5s. Already this year, Almirola has in addition to this victory, three top-5 finishes and 13 top-10s.
He won on a last-lap sprint after this race went into overtime following a minor five-car wreck near the finish. The extra racing stretched cars to the limit of their gas mileage. It wasn’t until pole-sitter Kurt Busch sputtered, his gas gone, that Almirola passed him for the lead on the last lap.
“I don’t know if I would have beaten Kurt, but it would have been exciting,” Almirola said.
“From that point, it was all eyes on my mirror ready to block all cars that might be coming. And make sure I got to the finish line.”
Sunday was the ultimate testament to team racing. Usually there has to be a Belichick involved to have a team this dominant. But a Stewart (as in Tony) and a Haas (Gene) were more than enough here Sunday. Even the victim of the last-lap gas gaffe was almost giggly. And no one is giggly after running 500 miles at Talladega, unless on that rare day he runs relatively carefree out front, away from all the potential chaos.
“It was a very different Talladega for me. I really enjoyed leading the race, working with my teammates,” Busch said.
“I’ve never seen so much synergy.” Yes, a race car driver used the word, “synergy.” This isn’t your granddaddy’s NASCAR.
Involved in the late wreck that set up the finish was Dawsonville’s Chase Elliott. Having won a week ago, Elliott already is assured a place in the next stage of the Cup Playoff, when it’s pared to eight cars in two weeks. Still, he did a whole bunch of hard racing Sunday, but never could break the tyranny of the Fords (he’s a Chevy man). Not a great weekend overall for a big Georgia Bulldogs fan.
Elliott kept taking shots, trying to find a way to the front, only to be shuffled back in the draft with no one to push him. Spend too much time back with the teeming automotive masses at Talladega and trouble will find you.
“I mean it is what it is,” Elliott said. “We were far enough back in the pack where if (a wreck) does happen you are probably going to be in it. Yeah, it happens.”
This was a kinder, gentler Talladega. “The Big One” – as the seemingly inevitable multi-car crash is called in these parts – never happened. “The Little One” would have to do.
Talladega without a big wreck is like dancing without touching. It’s gumbo without the hot sauce. An infomercial without adjectives. There wasn’t enough wreckage in this one to fill the first 10 minutes of a Vin Diesel movie.
But, who in his right mind would complain about a lack of carnage.
The day was just fine without it.
Because everything goes better with bacon.
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