The fastest car won the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Geico 500 at Talladega Superspeedway Sunday. To get to that win however, it was a story of survival for Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Stenhouse started from the pole but led only 14 laps on the afternoon.
He led the most important one, the final lap on a green white checkered flag overtime holding off Jamie McMurray and Kyle Busch for his first Cup win in his 158th start.
“It’s been a long time coming,” the Mississippi native said. “We’ve run really well here at Talladega. This is the closest race track to home. I got a lot of cheers riding around here today and the fans were awesome. We had a lot packed in here at Talladega and it felt old-school.”
After leading early, Stenhouse was shuffled back in the field. He made his way back to the front and was in second when after the race’s seventh and final caution flew with three laps to go when Ryan Newman crashed on the backstretch.
The caution set up the overtime finish. Kyle Busch, who led a race high 48 laps, shot to the lead but on the white flag lap, Stenhouse got past first McMurray then dove to the bottom of Busch entering turn 3. From there he was able to hold off Busch who was fighting with McMurray for second. Stenhouse won his first race by .095 of a second.
“There was so much going on and I knew I had to keep the 48 (Johnson) back,” Stenhouse said. “The 1 (McMurray) got a huge run. I think the 18 (Kyle Busch) thought I was gonna go to the top and we ended up getting to the bottom. We were side drafting each other like crazy, so that was one heck of a race and I’m glad we came out on top.”
Behind McMurray and Kyle Busch, Aric Almirola was fourth, Kasey Kahne fifth.
“I just got a run at the right time,” McMurray said. “I thought the No. 17 (Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.) was going to get a little bit further out, but when we were coming to the line it just seemed like his car wasn’t going at that point, so it was a good finish. It was a great race.”
To get back to the front was no easy task for Stenhouse. The infamous Talladega “Big One” erupted on lap 168 when AJ Allmendinger was pushing Chase Elliott who was in second. The two exited turn 2 behind leader Busch, but Allmendinger tapped Elliott in the right rear sending Elliott’s Chevy spinning towards the outside wall; Allmendinger’s car ended up on its roof at the entrance to turn 3 as Elliott’s car rode nose first along with wall. In all a total of 18 cars were involved including several who had led laps including, Martin Truex Jr., Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano.
NASCAR threw the red flag for just over 27 minutes. The restart came with 15 laps to go. Kyle Busch led the way until the final caution that set up the final overtime finish and the eventual win for Stenhouse.
Kurt Busch finished sixth, Keselowski, who led 31 laps, seventh with Jimmie Johnson, Paul Menard and David Ragan rounding out the top 10.
Denny Hamlin dropped to the back of the field early in the going then short pitted to grab the lead. He would lead the second most laps of the race, but was shuffled back in the final laps and finished 11th.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. who started second, was a contender much of the day, but never led a lap, suffered a tire issue late and finished 22nd.
“I had a wheel come off,” Earnhardt said. “The guys said it was real similar to the issue we had at Atlanta. But, it was pretty bad. We were about to wreck.
I hated it because we were right there in good position to get a great finish; if not win the race and I had to bail out. That was a hard decision to make. But, knowing what I know now when we come down pit road and they saw the tire, I’m glad I did because it wouldn’t have made it another lap or two.”
The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads to Kansas for its first night race of the year, Saturday nights Go Bowling 400 at Kansas Speedway. Live coverage will be on FS1 starting at 7:00 p.m. ET.