High drama at Talladega

by Gordon Kirby on 27th April 2009

The racing season is on full song these days and almost all the major American series were in action last weekend. At Talladega, the giant 2.66-mile superspeedway in Alabama, 25-year-old rookie Brad Keselowski scored a spectacular first NASCAR Sprint Cup victory after tangling with Carl Edwards on the last lap while the pair duelled to the chequered flag. Edwards crashed heavily – leading to seven fans being injured – but he scrambled out of the wreckage and jogged across the finish line.

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At the Kansas Speedway, Scott Dixon won the IRL’s first oval race of the season. It was defending Indycar champion Dixon’s first win of the year as he beat Hélio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan and Ryan Briscoe. And Grand-Am, back in action for the first time since January’s Rolex 24 hours, was at the delightful Virginia International Raceway road course where Alex Gurney/Jon Fogarty scored their first win in more than a year.

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Talladega is the only NASCAR track other than Daytona where horsepower is cut in half by carburettor ‘restrictor plates’. The result is that everyone runs around in massive packs of cars and as usual there was a brace of multi-car accidents, including a wild one at the finish.

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Edwards was a little too aggressive in attempting to block rookie Keselowski from sneaking by on the inside on the run to the flag. He spun and was hit by Ryan Newman, putting both into the wall. Edwards was launched into a wild flip and tore down some of the safety fence before his car came to a stop on the track. It was a violent accident and, although Edwards was unhurt, seven spectators were injured by flying debris. None suffered life-threatening injuries.

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“Brad was pushing, doing everything he could,” said Edwards. “He went high, he went low and I didn’t realise he had got that far inside. I tried to block a little bit but he was already there and that turned me around backwards. I was very fortunate to hit the wall in a way that didn’t crush my rollcage down on my neck.

“NASCAR puts us in this box (with the restrictor plates) and we’ll race like this until we kill somebody. And then they’ll change it. Brad did what he’s supposed to do. He got inside me so quick I didn’t know he was there. I was doing everything I could to keep him from winning.”

Eliminated or seriously delayed in other accidents were championship leaders Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, mid-race leader Kyle Busch and polesitter Juan Pablo Montoya. Gordon and Johnson’s first DNFs of the year meant Kurt Busch, who finished sixth at Talladega, took the Sprint Cup points lead.

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The crowd may have been down a little at Talladega, which was less than a sell-out, but it was still huge. In contrast there was only a sparse crowd at Kansas City where Dixon was the man to beat for most of the day. After two frustrating weekends in the IRL’s street racing season-openers at St Petersburg and Long Beach, Dixon was relieved to win in Kansas.

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The weekend was less fruitful for his Ganassi team-mate Dario Franchitti, who was penalised for crossing the white line during his qualifying run and moved from pole to the back of the field. Dario worked his way up to sixth place, only to crash late in the race when he locked his brakes while trying to get into the pits. As a result Franchitti ceded the IRL points lead to Kanaan.

At Virginia, the Grand-Am season restarted with a field of 16 Daytona prototypes and 19 GT cars – 35 starters in all. Gurney and Fogarty came through to win in Bob Stalling’s Gainsco Riley-Pontiac, with Gurney holding off a charging Michael Valiante aboard one of Mike Shank’s two Riley-Fords. Gurney and Fogarty, the Grand-Am champions in 2007, didn’t win a race last year so they too were delighted to be back in the winner’s circle.

Defending champions Scott Pruett/Memo Gidley led the early going but Pruett was punted from behind on the final restart by Daytona winner David Donohue and then collected by Max Angelelli, eliminating both Pruett and Angelelli.

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