Austin Dillon Goes Airborne

Austin Dillon's last-lap crash off Turn 2 in the sixth race of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup brought out the third caution of the race and froze the running order before race runner-up Dale Earnhardt Jr. could make a move (photo courtesy: Robb Carr, GETTY IMAGES SPORT)


For the second time in as many weeks, a non-Chase driver went to Victory Lane in a Chase race, the first time non-Chasers have won consecutive Chase races since Tony Stewart won back-to-back at Atlanta and Texas in 2006.

In the final laps of the Camping World RV Sales 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, Jamie McMurray was right where he wanted to be - in the lead. If anyone wanted the win in the Sprint Cup Series fall classic, they were going to have to pass him. They didn’t.

McMurray, piloting a special “Auburn University” paint scheme on his No. 1 car, was leading down the backstretch over Dale Earnhardt. Jr. and Austin Dillon - who was subbing in for injured Tony Stewart - in what was shaping up to be a dogfight to the finish. However, when Dillon was tagged from behind, he spun into the wall, bringing out the caution and securing McMurray his second triumph at Talladega.

“Fortunately I was able to get myself into position (to win the race),” said McMurray, who also won at Talladega in 2009. “I don’t know how the last lap would have played out because I could see the 88 (Earnhardt) trying to set me up and trying to figure out where he could get a run on me. Honestly, I wanted to see it end under green, but at the same time, I said if there was a caution, I would be okay with that, too.”

Earnhardt, who was a runner-up for the fourth time in his career at Talladega, wasn’t sure if he had enough - even with the help of Dillon - to get by McMurray whether the caution had come out or not.

“I don’t know,” said Earnhardt Jr., who led eight times for 38 laps in the 188-lap event.  “I had a plan we were going to get a run down the back straightaway. We were kind of forming our run around the middle of one and two and I think we had a pretty good head of steam coming off turn two and they got together behind us and that was that.  I was going to try something down the back straightaway but we never got the chance.”

Earnhardt, who has seven career restrictor-plate wins, earned his eighth second-place restrictor-plate finish — and his second in the four plate races this year — as he once again came up one spot short Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway.
This one might have been more frustrating than the others. Earnhardt was in position to make a move on the final lap but never got a chance because of a wild crash and caution flag before he got to Turn 3 on the final lap.

“It's frustrating because the worst part about it really is you go home and you'll spend months thinking about what you could have done to not be second,” Earnhardt said. “That's the worst part about it.
Having last won a restrictor-plate race at Talladega in October 2004, Earnhardt was in great position on the final lap as he was running second to McMurray and had a committed drafting partner in Dillon behind him.

But Dillon tried to throw a block — as Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was running fourth and making a move to the inside lane — that triggered a wreck on the backstretch. Dillon's car got airborne and NASCAR threw the caution.

Once NASCAR threw the caution, Earnhardt had lost his chance to make a move, which typically only works coming to the finish. Instead of Earnhardt celebrating, McMurray was in victory lane.

“We were kind of forming our run around the middle of (turns) 1 and 2 and I think we had a pretty good head of steam coming off Turn 2 and they got together behind us and that was that,” Earnhardt said. “I was going to try something down the back straightaway, but we just never got a chance.”

Stenhouse wound up third, followed by Paul Menard and Kyle Busch. Jimmie Johnson, who led the most laps (47), wound up 13th, but took the top spot away from Matt Kenseth in the Championship Chase. The Chase For The NASCAR Sprint Cup will culminate at Homestead-Miami Speedway Nov. 17.

Matt Kenseth, who thought drivers in front of him in the waning laps would make moves, now trails Johnson by four points after a disappointing 20th place finish.

In the final rundown, Johnson was credited with a 13th-place finish and Kenseth a 20th, the respective worst finishes for both drivers in the six Chase races so far. This is the first time in the entire Chase that anyone other than Kenseth has been atop the NASCAR Sprint Cup points standing. Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick are now 26 points back of the lead, with Jeff Gordon fifth, 32 points out.

With 10 laps to go, Johnson dropped down and attempted to move back to the lead, but when everyone else stayed in single-file order, he got hung out of the draft and had to scramble just to finish where he did.

“The outside lane got going and everybody jumped up in it,” said Johnson. “And you just don’t know if people are going to chase the bottom or the top. I figured the 1 (McMurray) and the 88 (Earnhardt) would take the top and run up there, and as that developed, I was on the bottom lane. I worked my way to the middle lane and was able to maintain for a while and then everybody went single-file at the top and I dropped like a rock. It wasn’t a comfortable feeling. It was not the position I wanted to be in late in the race.”

Johnson at least took comfort in knowing he brought his No. 48 car home ahead of Kenseth and took back the points lead for the first time since Atlanta. “Most importantly, finished in front of the 20 (Kenseth) and missed the wreck on the backstretch.”

After leading 32 laps early in the race, by about the halfway point, Kenseth was complaining that his car was so loose that he thought we was going to wreck. And for two subsequent fuel runs, it was still handling poorly, with Kenseth falling as far back as 28th before crew chief Jason Ratcliff was able to make adjustments that made it competitive again.

“It was really bizarre,” Kenseth said. “Typically handling’s a non-issue at Talladega and we just got so loose I couldn’t even hang onto it. So I pretty much had to run at the back for two runs, which was disappointing. We finally got it fixed that last run, but we only had 20 laps to get back up there, and I really needed to be there like we were early and feeling like I was controlling the race more.”

Kenseth’s understandable frustration was evident. Like Johnson, he was peeved that the rest of the field ran in lockstep, instead of fanning out and trying to pass.

“It was just an incredibly disappointing day,” said Kenseth. “The end there, for the life of me I still can’t figure it out. I just need to watch it. From third (place) on back to 14th I think everybody was running half throttle … nobody wanted to go. Everybody just wanted to stay in their spot, so I should have been smarter there and pay attention to points, but I’m not really wired like that. I wanted to go up there and mix it up and try to win the thing.”

It was a strange afternoon, but it looks as if the same two men who came into Talladega with control of the championship will settle it between themselves over the next four weeks. The Chase For The NASCAR Sprint Cup will culminate at Homestead-Miami Speedway Nov. 17.

Next up for the Sprint Cup drivers is the seventh race of the Chase at Martinsville on Sunday, October 27 (1:00 p.m. EDT, ESPN, Sirius NASCAR Radio Channel 90)—Race 32 of 36 en route to Ford Championship Weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Nov. 15-17). The Chase For The NASCAR Sprint Cup will culminate at Homestead-Miami Speedway Nov. 17.

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