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Cars bump, Carl flies and Keselowski wins

- dpoole@charlotteobserver.com
Sunday, Apr. 26, 2009

Poll

What would you do about the restrictor-plate racing at Talladega and the risks to competitors and fans?

TALLADEGA, Ala. - Under normal circumstances, Sunday's Aaron’s 499 would have been NASCAR's feel-good story of the year.

Brad Keselowski, a 25-year-old driver with a bright future in just his fifth career Sprint Cup start, wins in a car owned by a low-budget team owned by a James Finch, a stock-car wildcatter who's been racing his whole life for a moment just like this one.

But there's rarely anything normal about racing at Talladega Superspeedway, a 2.66-mile track known for wild competition and even wilder wrecks, a place where cars race with restrictor plates to choke off power in at least a passing glance at safety for competitors and the people who can't keep themselves from coming to watch.

So, it seems, your opinion of what happened on the final lap of Keselowski's surprising victory depends on your appetite for danger.

Keselowski called it "a great show." But Carl Edwards, whose car was sent flying into the catch-fence in a final lap wreck in which seven spectators were injured, said "it's something we'll do...until somebody gets killed, and then we'll change it."

After a 14-car pileup seven laps into the 188-lap race, another wreck involving at least 10 cars on Lap 180 bunched the field for a restart with just four laps left.

Ryan Newman, who had hung back trying to avoid a wreck to that point, had been ushered to the front with a drafting push from Denny Hamlin right before that second big wreck. But Hamlin had been shuffled out of the draft and fell back into the pack to the point he wound up in that Lap 180 melee.

Newman, meanwhile, sat in the lead with Dale Earnhardt Jr. riding his rear bumper as the final four-lap dash began. Determined to try to make their cars the only ones that could win, Earnhardt pushed Newman's Chevrolet trying to create a gap between them and the pack that rumbled behind them.

That gap appeared and Earnhardt said he didn't think anybody else would have a shot at passing the front two. But he was wrong.

Edwards, who had restarted ninth, pulled out of the single-file line and Keselowski, who restarted 11th, came with him.

Just as Hamlin and Newman had done a few laps earlier, their two-car train quickly gathered steam and as what had become the front four headed past the white flag Edwards had the lead with Keselowski pushing on his rear bumper.

Newman and Earnhardt stayed locked together, but they were not going to catch back up. It came down to Edwards, who had also run near the back of the pack all day, and Keselowski as they came through the trioval one last time.

Last fall here, Regan Smith tried to pass Tony Stewart for the win off the final turn. Stewart blocked the low lane and Smith went under the yellow out-of-bounds line to the track's inside to make the pass and reach the finish line first. Smith did get there first, but NASCAR disallowed the pass and named Stewart the winner.

Keselowski was mindful of that, he said.

"I made a move up high, hoping he would block," Keselowski said. "I came across him to the left and I got under him, just barely. It was up to him if he wanted to run me down the track.

"...I was not going to let me run him down there. I was here to win."

Edwards wanted to win, too.

"When I saw him turn down, I immediately started to turn down, but he had already come up along my left side a couple inches, a foot maybe, so it turned me when I turned down," Edwards said.

Edwards' Ford went sideways and caught air when its wheels came off the ground.

Keselowski went by, heading toward the win. Newman went right at Edwards' car and helped launch it into the catch-fence as Earnhardt swept by to take second. Newman bounced off the wall but still finished third as the front of Edwards' car was violently grated to pieces as it slashed at the fence.

Remarkably, Edwards escaped injury. He climbed from his car and ran down the track to cross the finish line, to at least symbolically complete the race's full distance.

Eight people in the grandstands, though, received medical treatment. Dr. Bobby Lewis, the track's medical director, said six were treated for minor injuries. One woman was airlifted to a hospital with an apparently broken jaw. Another woman who had been seated in the area was taken to a hospital with what was described as a "medical condition," but was not hit by anything from the car or the fencing.

Edwards didn't blame Keselowski for wrecking him. He blamed the circumstances that people who race here are placed in.

"Brad did everything right," Edwards said. "NASCAR puts us in a box. ...I don't know how I'd change this racing. I know it's a spectacle for everybody and that's great and all, but it's not right to ask all these guys to come out and do this.

"What if the car goes up in the grandstands and kills 25 people? At some point, they've got to say, 'Look, we've got to change this around a little bit.' "

NASCAR spokesman Jim Hunter contended there's not much that can be done.

"If there was something we could do today to make it safer, it would be done," Hunter said. He said crash investigators would meet with vice president for competition Robin Pemberton and Sprint Cup Series director John Darby to analyze the incident.

"They will see if there is anything possible we can do to prevent it. The retaining fence did what it is designed to do, which is to keep the car on the race track. ...We'll also look at the fence and see if there is something we can do to improve it."

But Jack Roush, Edwards' team owner, sees things differently.

"We come and we race because we have to. It's certainly not what we would like to do if we had some say," Roush said. "The race tracks were built in the in the 1950s and they were built with the aero configuration of the cars and the tires of the 1950s.

"The cars today are way different. If they were building race tracks today they would not be configured like this."

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