Denny Hamlin claimed victory at Talladega on Sunday by edging ahead of the pack after a late-race restart and a race-ending caution to reclaim the strength he showed at Daytona International Speedway earlier this season. While he led just 12 laps Sunday, they were the most important, putting Hamlin confidently into the running for a spot in this season's Chase for the Championship.
There is something special about racing at Talladega Superspeedway. Whether it is the unexpected crashes that take out top competitors, or the 20 or so cars within striking distance of the win with mere miles remaining, something is simply exhilarating about racing at this track, and Sunday's event lived up to the hype. However, NASCAR's decision to throw a caution for debris as the field was nearly three-fourths of the way through the final lap stunted what could have been an exciting run to the finish line, but the build up to the finish Sunday was enthralling as drivers jockeyed their chassis for position as the miles clicked down.
Although Hamlin claimed an overdue victory, other competitors showed their mettle and may have gained some needed momentum as the series streaks into Kansas Speedway this Saturday evening for the final race before the All-Star break. Looking ahead to this week's race, let's consider where teams and drivers are before kicking off the weekend in Kansas.
Denny Hamlin - Hamlin finally found the victory Sunday he looked destined for at Daytona. The No. 11 started the race's final restart from the top position, edged in front of Kevin Harvick, and then held on until the final caution flew due to another wreck and debris on the track. After such a dominant showing before the season began it was time that Hamlin finally found his win. Despite fading in the season's early races after winning both the Shootout and his Duel in Daytona, Hamlin came good last weekend in Talladega, another restrictor-plate track. Hamlin's 11 starts at Kansas Speedway have produced a win, three top-5s and a 14.8 average finish, and with last week's win he could be on a new streak.
Jimmie Johnson - Johnson's 7.5 average finish from 15 races at Kansas make him a favorite this week. He has two wins in that span and only failed to finish in the top 10 twice in that time. His worst finish at the track was the result of a crash in 2004 when he finished 32nd. Aside from that result he hasn't yet failed to finish in the top 15 there. He was caught up in a crash and finished 23rd last week in Talladega, which could be chalked up to yet another week where Johnson missed out on the top performance almost everyone believes he is due. That top performance will come some week, the only question is when. With his stellar Kansas record one can't help but think it will be this week where that win comes.
Kevin Harvick - Harvick looked likely to win Sunday's Aaron's 499 with less than 10 laps to go. All he had to do was outrun Hamlin to the flag, but a late move on his outside sucked him back into the draft and out of contention for the win. The No. 4 car fell quickly out of the top two with that move and will now have to look forward to score his third win of the season. Harvick's average finish at Kansas from 16 career starts is 12.2 with a win, two top-5s and seven top-10s. Harvick has been a contender at just about every track this season, and this week should be no different.
Clint Bowyer - After more than his fair share of bad-luck finishes, Bowyer finally found a way to finish inside the top 5. He was fast and within striking distance of the win before a late caution effectively ended the race. His Kansas record is a good one with two top-5s and five top-10s in 11 career starts at the track. Bowyer has been within touching distance of a win multiple times this season, but his luck has bit him on more occasions than not. If he is able to avoid trouble and dodge the bad luck he looks as though he is on the cusp of victory. That elusive win could come this week in Kansas where his average finish is 13.2, especially after scoring a top-5 run at Talladega.
Greg Biffle - Biffle led 58 laps Sunday at Talladega, more than any driver, and continued to show that he can be a contender at restrictor-plate tracks despite not being one of the predominant names when the series visits the two superspeedways. To make last week's performance look even more impactful, fantasy owners should consider that Biffle's Kansas record is one of the best in the field. Fifteen races at the track have given him two wins, seven top-5s and nine top-10s, which is great for any driver. Those finishes all help him generate a 10.3 average finish at the track, making him a solid choice for this weekend's first race under the lights at the Midwestern oval.
Matt Kenseth - After being caught in one of a handful of crashes last Sunday, 37th position was the best Kenseth could offer. The driver that has been so strong recently on restrictor-plate tracks simply couldn't avoid trouble in Alabama. On a positive note, Kenseth has two wins, six top-5s and nine top-10s to add to his two pole positions at Kansas Speedway. His 14.6 average finish from 16 career starts at the track makes him a favorite this week despite the trouble he encountered last week. The veteran driver can take some solace from his disappointing Talladega weekend since his teammate won, but Kenseth knows he will need to reverse the slide started by a Talladega crash in just a few days.
Brad Keselowski - Early in Sunday's Aaron's 499 Keselowski was tagged in the left rear by Danica Patrick. The resulting spin damaged the No. 2 car's front splitter and put him at the back of the field, multiple laps down. Being mired in the pack he lost control deep into the race, causing a large crash and ending his already disappointing day. It was not the weekend the driver and team were capable of, and they'll be on the prowl for a better finish this week. Keselowski could bounce back quickly at Kansas, though. The young champion has a win, two top-5s and four top-10s from eight starts at the track, giving him a 10.2 average finish, second only to Jimmie Johnson.
Jeff Gordon - Gordon was caught in the wreck that ensued when Keselowski lost control in the middle of the pack. There was damage to both sides of his car, and that stunted any chance of salvaging a top finish for the driver who has been so close to victory so many times this season. Despite his Talladega disappointment, Gordon has a wonderful Kansas record. His 16 starts at the track produced two wins, nine top-5s and 11 top-10s. His average finish there is 10.6, and given how close to victory Gordon has been this season, it wouldn't be terribly surprising to see him turn this past week's poor finish into the motivation he needs for a top finish at Kansas.
Tony Stewart - Being classified in last position is never a good thing, and Stewart wouldn't disagree after what he endured Sunday. The No. 14 driver endured multiple crashes in the Aaron's 499, and those incidents ruined his day, damaged his car and will cause him to rebuild whatever momentum he thought the team had before the weekend. At Kansas the veteran team owner hasn't performed too terribly with his 12.3 average finish being driven by two wins, six top-5s and nine top-10s in 15 career races at the track. Stewart now heads to Kansas with consecutive finishes outside the top 20 and will need a decent effort to turn around his decline and score a victory for his Chase effort.
Kyle Larson - After a few rookie mistakes at Daytona International Speedway, where he finished 38th, Larson applied his studies at Talladega. The young driver drove a confident race, avoiding the errors he made earlier in the year at Daytona, driving most of the race within touching distance of the lead. He finished classified in 10th position, but was among the top-5 cars before the final caution flew. The brash speed of this young driver appears now to have gained some veteran's experience and should continue defying the rookie odds at each track. Larson has just one Kansas start in the Nationwide Series, and that result was a disappointing 30th-place finish. Larson is starting to look like a weekly contender for fantasy rosters.