NASCAR Playoffs at Talladega: 1000Bulbs.Com 500 highlights, stage results

TALLADEGA, AL - OCTOBER 13: Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M's Toyota, leads a pack of cars during practice for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on October 13, 2018 in Talladega, Alabama. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
TALLADEGA, AL - OCTOBER 13: Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M's Toyota, leads a pack of cars during practice for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on October 13, 2018 in Talladega, Alabama. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images) /

See who can survive the unpredictable nature of Talladega in the 1000Bulbs.Com playoff race.

The Big One in the spring is bad enough. The Big One at Talladega Superspeedway in the NASCAR Playoffs? That’s really bad news if it catches you. The 12 drivers still in the hunt for the 2018 NASCAR Cup Series championship will be hoping to avoid it in the 500, because it could spell their doom if they don’t.

One only had to be watching the Truck Series race to see that there’s no chance to feel secure until the checkered flag actually waves, even if you’re in the lead. There’s no such thing as a safe place to run, either up front or hanging way back in the pack.

Then there’s a question of how many risks you’re willing to take. For playoff drivers in danger of missing the Round of 8 on points, like Kyle Larson, it might take a win either today or next week to move on. That could mean hanging it all out in true “checkers or wreckers” fashion.

Stage 1

One nice thing about putting all of a team’s cars in the top four spots? It’s not hard to get lined up and into a single file group to put some space between you and the pack. That’s exactly what the Stewart-Haas Racing cars did in the opening laps, led by pole-sitter Kurt Busch.

The first caution of the afternoon flew because of Jeffrey Earnhardt, who spun around and flattened some tires but did not hit anything. Pit stops? For most cars, yes, but the Stewart-Haas Racing teammates remained in front on the ensuing restart.

Brad Keselowski signaled out his window for a pit stop with 14 laps to go in stage 1 after reporting a vibration that seemed to be getting worse and hinted at a loose wheel. Losing the lead pack threatened to put the Team Penske driver a lap down, something that happened in short order.

The final lap saw the four Stewart-Haas Racing cars settling things among themselves, and while there was some thought that “team orders” would lead to Aric Almirola being allowed to move up a spot or two for much-needed points, that didn’t happen.

Almirola had to settle for fourth as he could not get a run on Kevin Harvick, and Kurt Busch took the stage win.

Stage 1 results

  1. Kurt Busch
  2. Clint Bowyer
  3. Kevin Harvick
  4. Aric Almirola
  5. Joey Logano
  6. Ryan Blaney
  7. Denny Hamlin
  8. Alex Bowman
  9. Ty Dillon
  10. Austin Dllion

Stage 2

Ryan Blaney was the big winner on the restart that began the second stage, jumping up six spots on pit road. As a result, he got to control the start and took the lead before Jimmie Johnson went around. The seven-time champ managed to miss everyone else, but he slid through the grass and ended up making contact with the inside wall.

Would the outside line ever get going? Kyle Busch did his best to assure that it did, leading the outside line strongly enough to catch Harvick, who played Pied Piper again with his SHR teammates on the inside. With 40 laps to go in the stage, Rowdy made a couple of surges forward but was unable to get in front and stay there.

Just when it appeared the stage would end with no drama of any sort, Larson blew a tire and went around with less than seven to go. That made other drivers have to decide between trying for stage points or pitting early and going for the win.

Stewart-Haas Racing once again had no problems getting out in front and getting organized, and with just three laps left once the green flag waved, that appeared to be an insurmountable advantage. This time Harvick got to lead the way, and Almirola’s fourth-place finish left him just two points behind the cut line for the Round of 8.

Stage 2 results

  1. Kevin Harvick
  2. Clint Bowyer
  3. Kurt Busch
  4. Aric Almirola
  5. Denny Hamlin
  6. Ryan Blaney
  7. Kyle Busch
  8. Austin Dillon
  9. Joey Logano
  10. Brad Keselowski

Final stage

With pit strategies shuffling the front spots a bit, Brad Keselowski got to control the restart. Things got a little dicier early on than we saw earlier in the race, with cars four-wide behind the leaders and Jamie McMurray shown the black flag for forcing Paul Menard below the yellow line.

William Byron, with some help from Daniel Suarez, finally did something for the first time all afternoon: Making a pass to the outside of the leader. He then pulled down in front of Keselowski to lead his first laps.

Team Penske quickly regrouped, however, and pretty soon Keselowski was back in front, briefly with help from Joey Logano before he dropped off the pace. It was all Fords in front when misfortune befell one of the Chevys, the No. 1 of McMurray, who found himself in the grass and unable to get going again.

Kyle Busch elected to stay out, but nearly every other lead lap car came to the pits, with Kurt Busch beating Keselowski off pit road. That allowed the Stewart-Haas Racing cars to get lined up again, which threatened to be bad news for everyone else.

Considering this is Talladega we’re talking about, the race was unlikely to stay green the rest of the way, and it did not. A caution came out with less than 30 laps to go for a tire that got away from the D.J. Kennington team, which left most of the lead lap cars out but did bring Alex Bowman, Larson and a few others into the pits.

For just a second on the restart, it appeared Clint Bowyer might be stuck on the outside and not be able to form up with his teammates, but he managed to find just enough space to dive back inside.

With nine laps to go, the Team Penske cars attempted to make the outside lane work, then dropped to the inside to try to get momentum gathered to make a charge at the SHR foursome. All that could prevent a Stewart-Haas runaway was a wreck, and while it wasn’t quite the big one, it arrived with three laps to go and had serious consequences — particularly for Alex Bowman, already in dire need of a win.

Meanwhile, running out of gas became a serious concern for cars contending for the win, including the SHR drivers, all of whom were last on pit road at lap 138. Harvick and Blaney had to go to pit road just as the overtime restart was getting underway, but the other three SHR cars still got off to a good launch.

Kurt Busch took the white flag as a big wreck took place behind the lead pack. The race stayed green with Almirola shooting by the 41 as Kurt Busch ran out of gas. Improbably, Almirola got his first win as a member of Stewart-Haas Racing and locked himself into the Round of 8.