TALLADEGA, Ala. — Ryan Blaney emerged from a chaotic overtime restart to score his first NASCAR Cup Series victory of the season in a photo finish during Monday’s GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway.
Blaney was one of several competitors who had fallen back into the pack to save fuel after hitting pit road following a lap-141 caution flag for an incident involving Brennan Poole and Joey Gase.
With fuel mileage numbers being tight Blaney, who led the most laps during the race, was directed by his Team Penske crew to tuck into the pack to save fuel so he could make it to the end of the race.
“We were riding there. We came back in and topped off and we were just riding around until maybe 12 to go,” Blaney said. “I was waiting for Kevin (Harvick) to kind of go, but he had to save more than I did, so we just kind of had to get going. You’re just biding your time and hoping you saved enough.”
He, along with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Aric Almirola, started to make the run back through the field with 12 laps left. With four laps left Blaney was back at the front and, using a push from Stenhouse on the top side, took the lead down the backstretch. The battle continued behind Blaney, with drivers jockeying for position as several competitors prepared to pit for fuel.
Just as the field crossed under the start/finish line with three laps left, contact between Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick near the front of the field sent Johnson spinning as the field roared toward the first turn. The spin brought out the caution flag, setting up a green-white-checkered restart.
A number of competitors opted to hit the pits for fuel during the caution period, but Blaney, Kevin Harvick, Stenhouse and Chris Buescher chose not to pit and restarted in the first two races.
On the restart, Blaney didn’t get a big push from Stenhouse on the bottom lane, which allowed Harvick and Buescher to pull out into the lead from the top. Stenhouse said later that was by design.
“What that intended to do was let me and the 12 (Blaney) get hooked up and get a draft from those two cars that were out front,” Stenhouse said.
Harvick and Buescher led the field as they raced back to the white flag, with Blaney running third. Out of turn two Blaney got a big run on the two leaders and jumped to the top lane in front of Stenhouse to challenge for the race lead.
Blaney quickly dispatched Buescher, but he didn’t have the momentum on the top to catch Harvick. Blaney adjusted his strategy, diving low entering turn three to get alongside Harvick just as several cars crashed behind the leaders.
With the leaders clear of the crash entering turn three, NASCAR opted not to wave the caution flag so the race could play out.
Blaney cleared Harvick in turn three on the bottom, with Harvick finding himself three-wide with Stenhouse and Erik Jones for second exiting turn four. Jones got a push from rookie John Hunter Nemechek as they raced towards the tri-oval, with Jones attempting to go to Blaney’s outside to take the lead.
Blaney moved up to block that move, with Jones reacting with a quick move to the inside and then back to the top. Blaney moved back up in an attempt to block and the two made contact, sending Jones into the outside wall.
At the same time, Stenhouse made contact with Almirola on the inside of Blaney, sending Almirola spinning and giving Stenhouse a run at Blaney as they sped to the finish line.
Blaney managed to get to the line first, .007 seconds ahead of Stenhouse to earn his fourth series victory and his second-straight at Talladega.
“I just kind of blocked, just trying to block the best we could,” Blaney said. “Ride the top, ride the bottom. The 20 (Jones) got to my outside and I tried to go up there to slow him down and I’m not sure, I don’t know (if we were) three-wide. I hate that I hit him, but just kind of trying to beat and bang to the line and things like that. We just edged it out.”
Stenhouse fell just shy of his third NASCAR Cup Series victory aboard the No. 47 JTG Daugherty Racing Chevrolet.
“I thought I was done, I thought I was a sitting duck,” Stenhouse said. “The outside lanes were coming, the 20 (Jones) had a good run. Then they started banging, slowing each other down. I just kept in the throttle and was able to get close to the nose of the 12 (Blaney) there coming across the line.”
Despite spinning at the checkered flag, Almirola crossed the finish line in third. Denny Hamlin was fourth, with Jones being scored fifth despite slamming into the outside wall during the run to the checkered flag.
Blaney’s victory came on an emotional day for the NASCAR community after a noose was found in the garage stall of the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports car driven by Bubba Wallace Sunday.
The NASCAR community came together in support of Wallace, with all of the drivers pushing Wallace’s Chevrolet to the front of the grid prior to the start of the race. The drivers were followed by all of the crews and they all stood in unison during the pre-race prayer and the performance of the National Anthem.
Wallace would go on to finish Monday’s race 14th after briefly leading late in the race.
“The start of the day, all of the drivers on pit road pushing Bubba’s car, showing their support. It was just an honor to be a part of that,” Blaney said. “Not only the drivers, but the crew members that were in attendance as well, NASCAR, that’s something that everyone will remember for a long time.”
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