My Brain on NASCAR: Talladega is home of ‘the big one’

col-cathyelliottIf the success or failure of an event — oh, let’s say a NASCAR weekend, for example – can be measured by the sum of its many moving parts, then the May 7 race at Talladega Superspeedway was an official doozy.

Daytona International Speedway, despite all its glory and success, didn’t quite satisfy its builder, NASCAR co-founder Bill France, Sr. He wanted something bigger. So, after failing to secure a location in the Raleigh, NC area, in 1968 he ended up breaking ground on an old airfield in Alabama, officially giving birth to NASCAR’s longest, fastest and arguably most dangerous track.

Talladega Superspeedway is, in pretty much every way you can think of, literally “the big one.”

The Geico 500 on May 7 race was no exception. The wrecking ball started rolling during qualifying, when Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., driving the No. 17 Fastenal Ford Fusion for Roush Fenway Racing, won the pole position, only the second of his career.
That was pretty exciting. Despite his obvious talent behind the wheel, Stenhouse hasn’t quite managed to reach the levels of success and fan popularity enjoyed by some of NASCAR’s other “young guns,” most notably our usual suspects, Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson. Winning the starting spot at Talladega was a great moment for him … except for the small issue of who he took it from.

In what has unfortunately become Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s farewell tour, Stenhouse’s moment in the sun clouded up the day for many fans when he snatched the pole from Junior and held onto it. For Stenhouse, whose career to date hasn’t exactly been full of stellar moments — although mark my words, that’s going to change — the moment was definitely a big one.

No doubt many fans assuaged their disappointment, as so many of us are wont to do, with food. A relatively new menu item available at the track concession stands for the low, low price of only $12 is a monstrous meatball featuring a center of blended mozzarella and pepper jack cheesed mixed with pulled barbequed pork.

It is then coved by a layer of ground beef and rolled in a panko bread crumb and parmesan cheese mixture before being — wait for it — deep fried and finished off with a dollop of barbeque sauce and a spaghetti garnish.

It even has a Fred Sanford-worthy name: the “Big One.” (Insert your own “Get ready, Elizabeth, I’m coming to join you” joke here.)

The race itself did not disappoint. With fewer than 20 laps remaining, a massive wreck sent several cars flying through the air, taking out nearly half of the remaining field.

Wrecks like this are the rule rather than the exception at Talladega, delighting some and horrifying others. Sad to say, for some fans a carnage-free race at the legendary track is somewhat of a wasted day, but happily, no one was seriously injured.

In the closing laps, it looked like Kyle Busch would cruise his way to the win until Ryan Newman wrecked on the backstretch and sent the race to overtime. Stenhouse, thanks to a push from Jimmie Johnson, went on to take the lead on the final lap, earning his first Cup Series checkered flag.

It was a great victory not only for Stenhouse, but for Roush Fenway Racing. Once enjoying a seat at NASCAR’s top tier of success, the team’s bright spots have been scarce in recent years. Although it remains the winningest team in NASCAR history, RFR has been through a rough patch lately. Specifically, the team’s last win prior to Stenhouse’s day in the Talladega sun came way back in June of 2014, when Carl Edwards won at Sonoma.

“It felt like a validation,” said legendary team owner Jack Roush, a 2018 NASCAR Hall of Fame nominee. “And I figured they would let me stay around for a while. All these years later, we’ve been fortunate to get a lot of wins, and Ricky is the ninth driver that we have had win for us in a Cup car, with eight of those guys getting their first win for us. I think that says a lot about the organization and the opportunity that we have given young drivers over the years.”

For RFR this win was truly a big one.

At the end of an exhausting, exhilarating day, Stenhouse was greeted in Victory Lane by his girlfriend and fellow competitor Danica Patrick, who laid a flashy ol’ Hollywood-worthy smooch on Talladega’s newest champion.

As happy moments go, that may have been the biggest one of all.

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