The story of Sunday was complicated. There was the matter who would win the fall race at NASCAR’s biggest, brawniest track. And then the one of who would position himself — an acceptable pronoun with Danica Patrick no factor — in the point standings to move on to the round of eight in the Sprint Cup’s playoff format.
Logano, Elliott, Keselowski and Truex all were among the 10 drivers racing for the six spots still available for the semifinal round entering Sunday’s race. Their fortunes were a huge part of the race within a race that makes for so many interwoven storylines this time of year.
Logano eliminated all doubt about his place in the Chase by just going out and winning the race. Victory, thankfully, still trumps math in these matters.
Logano’s day began almost comically as he circled the track following his first pit stop with a jack still wedged beneath the low-slung frame of his yellow Ford. All the way around the 2.6-mile expanse of Talladega the jack clung to him, like the racing equivalent of a “kick me” note stuck to a middle-schooler’s back.
“Nice to know we have the world record for the fastest jack,” Logano could joke afterward.
It was almost a scene out of history’s funniest racing movie (admittedly that field is small), “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.”
In honor of that film’s 10th anniversary, let’s pause to apply a few words from the fictional Mr. Bobby to the very real Mr. Logano: “I’m just a big hairy American winning machine, you know?”
Logano had plenty of time to overcome the bizarre pit problem. And by the time the inevitable madness that is the final laps at Talladega erupted, he was out front and more than capable of keeping the likes of Brian Scott (second place) and Denny Hamlin (third) at bay. So humor came easily.
As well as being the setting for Will Ferrell’s sophomoric comic stylings, Talladega is world famous for the massive wrecks that play out on its pitiless asphalt. But the Big One never happened this time. Rather it was a series of little ones that set up this particular sprint to the finish.
That was the great paradox of this Sunday. It was not the usual tons of twisted metal that defined the Hellmann’s 500. Far more important were a few bits of fluttering litter that bedeviled the field. Proper trash disposal is not a top priority of many of your race fans.
Keselowski had the best car on the lot and seemed supremely positioned to win his third straight restrictor plate race (something only the late Dale Earnhardt had done). But with a bit of trash clinging to the front of his fine vehicle, restricting air flow to the engine, he overheated and blew up 375 miles in.
Pole-winner Martin Truex was tooling along happily much earlier when his engine gave up a little more than 100 miles into the race. That condemned him to a last-place finish and an abrupt exit from the championship chase. The cause may or may not have been litter-related.
The rookie Elliott at least went the distance. Bad finishes the preceding two weeks had left him in need of nothing short of victory to advance in the playoff chase. He ran up front for much of the first half Sunday, leading a total of nine laps, before being shuffled to the middle of the field.
“We just came up short,” said Elliott, who finished 12th.
“We had a really good car again. You try to make stuff happen and I felt like we were pretty aggressive. I just couldn’t find myself in the right spot at the right time with the right folks behind us, or at least enough folks.”
It is on to Martinsville next week for the son of Bill Elliott, the man who put Georgia on the racing map. Chase will be among those turning laps without any championship designs. But he is only 20 and surely will have many more chances to climb the points ladder.
In the meantime, there is only one logical way to react to such disappointment. As Ricky Bobby would say, “How ’bout we go get kicked out of an Applebee’s?”