At Talladega, it’s the lure of the unknown

Looking back on an interesting Geico 500 weekend from Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway:

Folks said they didn’t know what to expect when the field took the green flag for Sunday’s Geico 500 at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway but when has that not been the case at NASCAR’s biggest track?

Talladega has forever been the “unknown” when it comes to the top series, from the first race there in 1969 (PDA boycott) right up until today.

It’s part of its, well, charm sounds too nice.

There’s always been the danger factor and the speed factor and today the folks down there between Atlanta and Birmingham really push the party factor, too.

As long as the racing fits the bill, party on.

NASCAR has been known to change the rules to fit the situation and the situation was no different this time around. When speeds began to climb on Friday (eight cars were clocked at 202-plus during opening practice), adjustments were made. A one-inch wicker bill was added to a spoiler that was already just three inches shy of a foot tall.

The next time on the track, the cars went even faster. Maybe they were more stable …

What happened?

Well, a good race for one. Which wasn’t or should not have been a surprise. After all, it was Talladega and it’s a rare occasion when the 2.66-mile track offers up a dud. Lead changes and three- and four-wide packs and a few crashes that always seem to occur were the order of the day.

In other words, a typical Talladega race. Competitive, interesting and so different from races contested elsewhere.

The series will return to Talladega in October and chances are folks will arrive once again suggesting they don’t know what to expect.

Don’t listen to them though. They know. After all, it’s Talladega.

Chase Elliott became the season’s sixth different race winner when he captured Sunday’s Geico 500. There’s a playoff spot with his name on it, along with ones for Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. (all of Joe Gibbs Racing) as well as Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano (both of Team Penske).

All six of this year’s race winners were playoff participants a year ago.

Where does career win No. 4 put Elliott? At No. 79 on NASCAR’s all-time win list, along with former racers Bob Flock and Chargin’ Charlie Glotzbach and Bobby Hamilton.

Morgan Shepherd, the 77-year-old who still makes the occasional Xfinity Series start, and Ken Schrader also had four career Cup wins, as did Michael Waltrip and Wood Brothers Racing patriarch Glen Wood.

Elliott is one of four drivers to win four times for Hendrick Motorsports – joining Schrader, Kyle Busch and Ricky Rudd.

There’s a four-driver lineup when it comes to wins while working with crew chief Alan Gustafson as well. Elliott (4), Mark Martin (5), Busch (4)) and Jeff Gordon (11). That’s win No. 24 for Gustafson.

The win was the first for Chevrolet this season; dating back to the 2018 Daytona 500 the automaker has five victories and four belong to Elliott.

After sweeping the top three spots at Daytona, it was something of a surprise to see Toyota teams off the mark at Talladega. Kyle Busch was tops for the manufacturer with his 10th-place finish. Truex Jr., led 11 laps, most for the group. He finished 20th.

Busch and teammate Hamlin combined to lead 67 laps at Daytona, where Hamlin won.

The most obvious difference, aside from the rules package – Joe Gibbs Racing drivers worked closely with Hendrick (Chevrolet) teams at Daytona; at Talladega, Chevrolet organizations were practically under orders to work only with one another.

NASCAR penalized the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing team Tuesday for a violation found during opening-day inspection at Talladega.

According to the official penalty report, body filler was used on the rear deck lid of the Chevrolet. Per the rule book, the deck lid must be used as supplied by the manufacturer.

Crew chief Danny Stockman has been fined $25,000 and car chief Greg Ebert has been suspended for one Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series points race. The team was also docked 10 championship owner and driver points for the L1 infraction.

The only other penalty noted from Talladega – Jeremy Bullins, crew chief for Ryan Blaney, was fined $10,000 for a missing lug nut on the No. 12 Team Penske Ford.

NASCAR officials also noted that Austin Wayne Self, a competitor in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series, has completed the sanctioning body’s Road To Recovery program and his suspension has been lifted.

Driving for his family-owned team, Self finished ninth (Daytona), 27th (Atlanta) and 15th (Las Vegas) this season prior to his suspension for a failed drug test.

A two-day Goodyear tire test scheduled for Tuesday/Wednesday, April 20-May 1 at Chicagoland Speedway, was scuttled due to weather concerns. The test has been rescheduled for May 7-8. Drivers listed to participate are Brad Keselowski (Team Penske No. 2 Ford), Ryan Newman (Roush Fenway Racing No. 6 Ford) and Paul Menard (Wood Brothers Racing No. 21 Ford).

Fight overshadows Goldsmith victory

Sunday, April 28, 1957 – Paul Goldsmith won the season’s 13th race in the NASCAR premier series, held at Greensboro Agricultural Fairgrounds, but it was the altercation between Tiny Lund and the Petty family that is still talked about today. It was the first win of the year for Goldsmith, driving for owner Smokey Yunick, and the second of his career. He bested a field of 19 on the .333-mile dirt track.

Lund and the Pettys were involved in a fracas that didn’t end until Elizabeth Petty, wife of Lee Petty, began pummeling Lund with her purse, which reportedly held a .38 pistol.

There are minor differences in the story of the fight – some say it started before the race began during pre-race introductions while others say it occurred after the race while Lund and Petty were in line at the payout window. Regardless of when it began, all agree that Lund was fighting, and whipping, Lee as well as his sons Richard and Maurice Petty when pistol-packing Elizabeth Petty stepped in and began whacking Lund with her purse.

The race was the last before NASCAR officials outlawed what was considered high performance equipment (superchargers and fuel injection). It was hoped the move would level the field, which had been dominated by Ford and Chevrolet teams.

Waltrip overcomes blunder, lost laps for win

Sunday, April 27, 1980 – Darrell Waltrip made a blunder on pit road but recovered to make up four laps, chase down Benny Parsons and win the rain-hampered Virginia 500 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway.

• The race was one of the first to utilize NASCAR’s new short-track tire rule which penalized teams two laps for changing tires under the yellow flag. Waltrip had followed the pace car onto pit road after the fourth caution of the race on lap 182 before realizing he could not take on tire without penalty. “It was just driver error,” Waltrip said afterward. “I guess we sort of panicked and … changed all four tires.”

• The race was delayed twice by rain but completed in its entirety. Officials were hopeful of reaching the halfway point, thus making it official, when rain returned a second time at lap 230.

• Parsons, Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough and Joe Millikan rounded out the top five. L.G. DeWitt, owner of Millikan’s team and a championship winner with Parsons in 1973, announced two days after the race that the No. 72 team was shutting down.

Rookie Shepherd dusts field for win No. 1

Sunday, April 26, 1981 – Thirty-nine-year old Morgan Shepherd led 203 of 500 laps in the Virginia 500 to earn his first NASCAR premier series victory, beating Neil Bonnett by a full 15 seconds at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway. Shepherd, competing for rookie of the year honors, took the lead for the final time with 89 laps remaining in his No. 5 Cliff Stewart-owned Pontiac.

Martinsville was the site of several memorable events in Shepherd’s career. In addition to his first premier series win, in 1977 he won a Late Model Sportsman race that provided enough funding to allow him to continue his racing career; and in 1980 he was married on the start/finish line at the .526-mile facility.

Shepherd became just the third driver to win during his rookie season, joining Dale Earnhardt (1979) and Earl Ross (1974).

The victory came in Shepherd’s 15th start in the series, his first as a full-time competitor.

NASCAR rules no gas cap, no problem

Sunday, April 25, 1971 – Richard Petty was flagged the winner, David Pearson filed the protest and career win No. 10 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway for Petty was put into question when he completed the final 18 laps of the 500-lap race with the gas cap on his ’71 Plymouth not secured.

Petty held a half-lap lead when he pitted for a splash of gas and returned to the track side-by-side with Pearson. He eventually pulled away and won the Virginia 500 by more than 1.5 seconds.

Ralph Moody, Pearson’s team owner, met with NASCAR officials as soon as the race ended to lodge a complaint. Len Kuchler, NASCAR competition director, said because Petty took only a small amount of fuel, none was spilling onto the track and the unsecured cap did not create a safety hazard.

Pearson filed an official protest and when it was disallowed by Kuchler, appealed to the NASCAR Racing Commission.

One week later, the Commission disallowed Pearson’s protest, declaring Petty the official race winner. Pearson’s $100 protest fee was returned.

Unofficially, the race was the last of three at the tiny half-mile oval to see only one caution flag wave during the course of an event. As of 2019, there has never been a caution-free premier series race on the .526-mile track.

Petty avoids potholes, first to score No. 50

Sunday, April 24, 1960 – Lee Petty became the first NASCAR driver to score 50 victories in the premier series when he was declared the winner in a scheduled 200-lap race at Asheville-Weaverville Speedway. The distance was shortened to 168 laps, however, due to deteriorating track conditions on the half-mile paved oval. Large chunks of asphalt had begun coming up in Turns 3 and 4, leading officials to first halt and eventually end the season’s 15th of 44 scheduled races. Joe Lee Johnson finished second.

Two drivers, Jack Smith and Glen Wood, retired due to holes knocked in the oil pans of their cars caused by striking the potholes in the track. Likewise, Junior Johnson was forced to park his Wood Brothers ride when he ran through one of the potholes and bent a tie rod.

Petty and Herb Thomas began the 1960 season with 48 wins each, tops in the series.

Going out on top with the Monte Carlo

Sunday, April 23, 1989 – Darrell Waltrip captured the Pannill Sweatshirts 500 NASCAR premier series Cup race at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, giving automaker Chevrolet one final win for its Monte Carlo model before teams began making the switch to the new Lumina. Waltrip beat fellow Chevrolet driver Dale Earnhardt for his 76th career victory.

It was the 95th win for the Monte Carlo model in 183 races entered beginning in 1983.

At the time, Earnhardt had the most wins in the model with 26. Waltrip had 25 wins with the piece.

Most Chevrolet teams debuted the Lumina the following week when the series moved to Talladega Superspeedway although the Monte Carlo was still approved for competition by NASCAR.

Chevrolet teams competed with the Lumina through the 1994 season before the automaker brought back the Monte Carlo as its on-track entry in ’95.

Return of a champion

Sunday, April 22, 1962 – Lee Petty returns to NASCAR competition more than a year after he was seriously injured in a crash at Daytona International Speedway. Petty, founder of the legendary Petty Enterprises racing operation, resumed his racing career with a fifth-place finish in the Virginia 500 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway.

Petty suffered injuries to his right leg, a punctured lung and broken ribs in an accident during his qualifying race at DIS the previous year. He was hospitalized for four months.

The three-time series champion made roughly a half-dozen starts after his crash but by ’64 his was through as a driver. After the Martinsville start, his only race in 1962, Petty made three starts in ’63 and two in ’64.

Richard Petty said talk of his father’s retirement “never came up,” when the two were competing. “I don’t think it came up in his mind because he was still winning races and winning championships (at that time. I don’t think he ever thought about not driving,”

The Daytona accident changed all that. “One of the last races he ran, I think it was Martinsville, he got out of the car and he said, “I’m through,” Richard Petty said. “I said ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘I don’t enjoy it anymore; it’s not fun.’ He had lost his enthusiasm. If he hadn’t gotten hurt, he wouldn’t have lost it. Who knows how much longer he might have raced?”

Ford stands ground, calls for series exit

Thursday, April 21, 1966 – After two days of meeting with factory-backed teams, officials with Ford Motor Co., remained steadfast in their decision to pull out of NASCAR due to weight restrictions put in place with the new overhead cam engine. John Cowley and Jacques Passino met with the various parties in Charlotte, N.C. to discuss the company’s stance. NASCAR’s Bill France and USAC competition director Henry Banks approved the SOHC engine in March but stipulated teams using the engine must add 427 pounds to the overall weight of the car.  Ford officials called the additional weight an unfair disadvantage.

According to reports, five of the seven factory Ford drivers agreed to stand behind the boycott. Refusing to go along with the move were Curtis Turner and Junior Johnson

Several Ford drivers were considering a move to drag racing, including Turner, Fred Lorenzen, Dick Hutcherson, Cale Yarborough and Ned Jarrett.

Ford officials discussed several options with the factory-backed teams at the time: releasing the drivers and allowing them to operate as independents while still using Ford equipment; paying drivers for the remainder of the years while withholding parts and equipment going forward; and allowing drivers to compete as independents while allowing various Ford dealers to bear the brunt of the costs.

By the time the annual Southern 500 rolled around, most if not all Ford factory teams had returned to NASCAR competition.

Dominant Hamilton captures Martinsville

Monday, April 20, 1998 – A dominant performance by Bobby Hamilton in the Goody’s Headache Powder 500 resulted in the fourth career victory for the Nashville, Tenn., native and the 14th NASCAR premier series win for Morgan-McClure Motorsports. Hamilton led 378 of the 500 laps in a race that had been run a day later than originally scheduled due to rain. Ted Musgrave, Dale Jarrett, Dale Earnhardt and Randy LaJoie completed the top five.

Hamilton would go on to score one more Cup victory, at Talladega Superspeedway in 2001 while driving for team owner Andy Petree. By 2003 he had shifted his focus to the Craftsman Truck Series where he won 10 races and the 2004 series championship. He died Jan. 7, 2007, less than a year after announcing he had been diagnosed with head and neck cancer.

The Martinsville victory was the final premier series win for the Abingdon, Va.-based Morgan-McClure Motorsports team. Hamilton became the third driver to win for the organization, joining Ernie Irvan (seven wins) and Sterling Marlin (6).