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Mark McCarter: Talladega fall race leaves some contenders in precarious perches

October 17, 2018 GMT

TALLADEGA — Aric Almirola won the race and then he sent the “awwwww” factor into overdrive with his kids Alex and Abby joining him in Victory Lane and at postrace media obligations.

He offered enthusiastic and shameful sponsor shout-outs, including the weekend’s marketing catchphrase of “Bacon For Life,” the gift of which would be awarded to a lucky fan who, one would hope, would also have cholesterol meds for life.

He also made Tony Stewart look like the smartest man in the garage area. As Stewart recently said to Almirola: “The day I told you I was going to hire you, I told you you were going to win races for my company.”

The occasion of Almirola’s victory in Sunday’s 1000Bulbs.com 500 leaves some precarious perches for several contenders, a feeling of awe over the dominance of Ford and a dubious distinction for the 34-year-old Almirola — this was his second win, both at restrictor plate tracks, and can he avoid being labeled as a one-trick-and-two-track pony?

“I’ve won an Xfinity race at Daytona, I’ve won an Xfinity race here at Talladega, I won my first Cup race at Daytona, now I’ve won my second Cup race at Talladega,” he said. “Now I’d like to win at some of these other tracks so people don’t say, ‘Oh, he’s just a good restrictor plate racer.’”

Rather than the usual Big One from Talladega, it is the Big Picture that echoed as the weekend was left in the mirror.

No longer is Talladega’s fall event a Round of 12 “cutoff” race, the final one among the three in each playoff tier. That responsibility goes to Kansas Speedway this Sunday to eliminate four drivers from contention. But ’Dega did its damage, and with no small bit of controversy.

Simply because they ran out of gas on the final lap, 2012 champ Brad Keselowski and Penske teammate Ryan Blaney plummeted from the top eight to 18 and 22 points, respectively, out of eighth place. And just because his car was a lemon, defending champ Martin Truex Jr., dropped from third to eighth.

Almirola and Dover winner Chase Elliott are assured spots in the top eight, and Kevin Harvick is locked in on points; Kyle Busch and Joey Logano are in, too, barring total disaster at Kansas.

Perhaps there would have no fuel issues had NASCAR not inexplicably required five caution laps to clean up after a relatively benign five-car incident on lap 187, leaving Kurt Busch to grouse about the “human element calls there at the end. I don’t know why we ran an extra lap under yellow.”

Neither did many others.

This was the final restrictor plate race at Talladega. Following next February’s Daytona 500, NASCAR will use aerodynamic measures to govern speeds at the two biggest tracks.

It’ll be interesting to see how parity that prompts. Fords, powered by Roush Yates Engines, have blown away Chevy and Toyota at Talladega and Daytona. This was the seventh straight Ford win at Talladega, and the 15th of the last 25 at Daytona and Talladega.

“My dad loved racing here,” engine genius Doug Yates said of his late father Robert. “We raced here together a lot, and it kind of started back when we had Davey Allison as our driver in the 28 car. It was interesting, I asked Aric yesterday I said, ‘Maybe we should put a 28 on the side of this car.’ You know he had a little bad luck last week. I thought he was gonna win the race and I asked him if he’d mind to carry that 28 to Victory Lane today and to be here with him is amazing. I’m trying to carry on what my dad, Robert Yates started, and our family tradition of plate racing.”

The story wasn’t just the winner. Not since The Beatles were atop the charts has one quartet been so far ahead of the competition as the four Stewart-Haas Racing Fords were Sunday, with Almirola and Clint Bowyer in the tire tracks of Kurt Busch and Harvick.

Often, the four SHR cars were followed immediately by the four from Team Penske, driven by Keselowski, Logano, Blaney and Paul Menard.

Almirola was fourth-best of the SHR quartet, but perhaps riding in the draft preserved fuel as Harvick and Busch couldn’t. But he was strong enough to take advantage of the opportunity, just as he’s been able to do coming to SHR from the low-budget Petty Enterprises.

“Last year to think about potentially my career ending (he broke his back in May 2017) and never knowing if I was good or not, I feel like I always had equipment as an excuse,” he said. “When I showed up to Stewart Haas Racing, that was no longer the case. I did not have that as an excuse. I have the best team in the garage. For me, it was up to me. It was time to go do my job and see if I’m good enough.”

Mark McCarter is a special contributor to The Anniston Star. He can be reached at markfmccarter@gmail.com.