Splitter to Spoiler: Stenhouse wins first top-tier race at home away from home

Roush finally breaks through in Alabama, Almirola racks up before failing inspection and danger in Dega comes with the territory

Adam Hagy—USA Today Sports
NASCAR Cup Series driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (17) celebrates winning the GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has talent. That much is undeniable. Whether or not that talent would ever translate over to the Monster Energy Cup Series remained to be seen.That was finally proven on Sunday in Talladega as Stenhouse drove past Kyle Busch in the final lap, held off pushes from Jimmie Johnson, Jamie McMurray and Busch to pull off his first victory at NASCAR’s top level.”It feels really good to get that first win here,” Stenhouse said. “I remember sitting in the bus watching this race and knowing that this is a racetrack that we’ve had good success at, we’ve ran well. You know, so close to home. It feels awesome to get the first win here.”Winning at Talladega was a huge deal for not only Roush Fenway Racing — it was nearly a three-year wait, after all — but Stenhouse as well. A Mississippi native, Stenhouse grew up dreaming about driving into Victory Lane at the largest superspeedway in NASCAR.Having team owner Jack Roush and girlfriend Danica Patrick there to celebrate with him was more than a dream come true.”It was special,” Stenhouse said. “Pulling into Victory Lane and seeing Jack and Danica standing there together, they’re the same height (laughter), it was super special. She supports me through anything I need to do, whether it’s spend more time at the shop, whether it’s we need to fly somewhere a little bit later because I need to spend a little bit more time with the guys at the shop or want to go to dirt races or anything like that. She’s been so supportive and knows how hard that I’ve worked, and to have her there was really awesome.”As for Roush, the once dominant team has been a shell of itself over the last three years. Once a four-car team, RFR has been stripped down to a two-team program with the exits of Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle in recent seasons.No Roush driver has made NASCAR’s playoffs in the last two years. Prior to 2015, a minimum of two cars made the playoff-style format since it started in 2004. In 2005, all five drivers made the Chase when Greg Biffle came just short of winning a third straight title for RFR.Despite the team’s obvious struggles, this season was already looking like a turning point for the program as a whole. Now with Stenhouse’s spot in the postseason all but secured, the focus can turn to Trevor Bayne to get the other RFR car into the playoffs.”We knew it was a possibility for both Trevor and I, if you look at the way Trevor has ran, as well, real consistent, and now that’s our next objective is to have both cars in the Chase,” Stenhouse said. “The way we’re running, you don’t have to win. … For us, it’ll be nice to go out and just gather as much information throughout this year and go out and contend for wins.”Almirola’s party spoiled by likely penaltiesAric Almirola did almost everything right in Talladega over the weekend. He wheeled the No. 98 car to Victory Lane in the Xfinity Series for Richard Petty Motorsports then avoided carnage on Sunday to come away with his second fourth-place finish of the season and first since the Daytona 500.This was all great. Failing post-race inspection after the Monster Energy Cup race was, well, not.Securing the top-five finish put the No. 43 team just one point outside the crucial 16th-place position after Dega. However, if he’s docked points for failing the post-race inspection — which seems like a foregone conclusion — Almirola would slide down several spots.Similar penalties handed out have seen drivers docked as much as 35 points or encumbering wins. Almirola didn’t win the race, but losing 35 points could see him drop from 17th down to a tie for 21st with Daniel Suarez and moving Kasey Kahne into the bubble spot just outside the playoffs.On a weekend where Almirola thrust his name into the spotlight in nearly every way imaginable, this is not the type of publicity he or RPM needs after two solid outings.Danger in Dega comes with the territoryThere’s a reason why the term the “Big One” only exists in Talladega and Daytona. Sure, tracks like Pocono, Michigan and even Indianapolis often produce wide-open racing and huge crashes, but no track produces the type of carnage of a superspeedway.Sunday didn’t disappoint.Chase Elliott and A.J. Allmendinger were battling for second place when Allmendinger got into the left side of Elliott’s bumper. The No. 24 spun out, taking the No. 47 with it and collecting a massive 18-car pileup that included Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr. and Matt Kenseth.”He just apologized. I don’t know that it was really his fault per se,” Elliott said of Allmendinger. “He had a big run and he kind of got to my bumper and just happened to be in a bad spot coming up off the corner and was skewed a little bit to my left rear. And when that happens, it just unloads these cars too much.”Restrictor-plate racing produces pack racing. In turn, pack racing produces cars traveling at speeds in excess of 200 mph. When one car turns, guess what happens to the field directly behind it? You guessed it — chaos.But the drivers who have the gnarliest wrecks are often remembered just as much as the winners themselves. Sure, Stenhouse’s victory will be memorable because it was his first, but Allmendinger landing upside down on Sunday might be the lasting image for fans.