It was the race that had been discussed since the new NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Chase format was announced. Today’s Geico 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, a track known for its hold your breath style of racing and large accidents, represented the cut-off race of the second round with only the top eight teams advancing into the Eliminator Round.
Joe Gibbs Racing entered the day with all three teams still competing for a spot in the final eight. Kyle Busch was second in points entering the day but contact from behind on lap 103 sent him hard into the wall and although his M&Ms team worked valiantly to put him back out on the track he finished 40th and narrowly missed the cutoff. Teammates Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin managed to avoid any major accidents and finished second and 18th respectively to advance into the Eliminator round of eight.
Kenseth qualified the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota in the 13th position but an engine change resulted in having to drop to the back of the field for the start of the race. Kenseth was content running toward the back of the field through the early portion of the race but eventually moved toward the front of the field and managed to lead lap 63 to pick up an important bonus point. The Home Depot Camry would move toward the back of the field once again following a lap 103 caution for an accident that claimed his teammate Kyle Busch among several others. A restart with nine laps to go allowed Kenseth to move forward and he was quickly racing in the top ten while driving in the middle lane of a three wide situation before a caution for debris came out with five to go. He would line up 11th for a green-white-checkered finish. A wreck behind him would bring out another caution and he was eighth for the restart on a second attempt at the green-white-checkered finish. He would drive his way up to finish second and claim his spot into the next round.
Hamlin started his No. 11 FedEx One Rate Deliverminator Toyota from the 38th position was largely content to race at the back of the field through the early going. Hamlin would find an opening to make his way to the front of the field about 30 laps into the race and he claimed the lead on lap 39. He managed to avoid the day’s first two accidents including one major wreck on lap 103 that claimed his teammate Kyle Busch. When the race restarted a few laps later Hamlin made the decision to once again move to the back of the field in an attempt to clear any wrecks in front of him. A restart with nine to go saw Hamlin racing just inside the top 30 before a caution came out with five to go. He would line up 25th for a green-white-checkered finish. A wreck set up a second GWC finish and this time he lined up in 20th. He would go on to finish 18th and secure his position into the Eliminator round of eight.
Busch started the No. 18 M&Ms Halloween Toyota from the 41st position and was content running toward the back of the field in hopes of avoiding the big accident. It appeared that strategy would pay off when Busch managed to avoid any major damage in the day’s first accident on lap 61. The No. 18 Camry would get minor damage to the nose of his car but the M&Ms crew would make the necessary repairs on pit road and Busch remained on the lead lap. Unfortunately Busch wasn’t as fortunate on lap 103 when several cars spun in front of the M&Ms Toyota. He was well back of the initial wreck and slowed to avoid the spinning cars in front of him, but the 3 car hit Busch hard from behind and sent him spinning into the inside wall. The wreck caused major damage to the No. 18 but he managed to drive straight to the garage where the M&Ms team went to work in hopes of getting him back out on the track to make up enough points to secure his spot in the next round of the Chase. A tremendous team effort put Busch and the M&Ms Halloween Camry back on the track with 36 laps remaining. The valiant effort nearly paid off, but unfortunately Busch narrowly missed the cutoff and was eliminated from the Chase. The margin was so narrow that Busch was actually just one point out of the eighth position for the restart on a second attempt at a green-white-checkered finish, but the win by the 2 car took away his opportunity to advance.
Brad Keselowski won the race followed by Kenseth, Clint Bowyer, Landon Cassill, and Ryan Newman rounded out the top five. There were six cautions for a total of 25 laps and 38 lead changes among 19 different drivers.
The points once again reset with Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth advancing into the Eliminator round of eight in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Championship. Ultimately four teams will advance into the Championship round at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
The Eliminator Round of 8 under the new Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Championship format will start next Sunday at Martinsville Speedway. Live coverage from Martinsville will begin on ESPN Sunday, October 26 at 1 PM ET (race begins at 2 PM ET). The race will also be carried on Sirius NASCAR radio channel 90.