TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) - Dave Blaney was the unlikely presence up front late in the Aaron's 499.
Sure, big names like Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are used to contending in big races, and Clint Bowyer is no stranger to that situation.
But Blaney was the surprising leader of a pack that included those stars until the final five laps Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway and hoping to pull off a stunning upset. Then Edwards overtook him and he was pushed back to the pack after Kurt Busch spun him out just over three laps from the finish line.
The result was a 27th-place finish, right at his career average. More encouraging for Blaney, he led six times for a collective 21 laps, second only to Bowyer's 38 laps leading the way.
Blaney drives for relative Sprint Cup newcomer Tommy Baldwin Racing, a team with that was forced to target 16 races to conserve cash while trying to qualify at all of them. He made six starts in the No. 36 last season.
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LET'S TALK: The voices coming across David Ragan's radio during the race came from impromptu allies, not his crew.
Partnering up throughout the race required plenty of driver-to-driver chatter as part of the tandem drafting tactic employed to add speed during the horsepower-sapping restrictor plate races at Talladega and Daytona. The driver-to-driver chatter took some getting used to.
``It's different. You're listening to guys you've never heard before,'' Ragan said, adding that he switched from Paul Menard to Matt Kenseth during the race. ``They've got a different style. I don't think I listened to my spotter from the first lap.
``I wasn't on our channel for one lap of the race. It's a little weird but that's how it is. In order to go fast, you've got to be bumper-to-bumper pushing and getting pushed, and that's just the way it is.''
Drivers seemed to find little to fault with the methodology because of the dramatic finish.
But Kenseth, who was knocked out when Joey Logano spun Kyle Bush into him on lap 140, said such tight drafting limits visibility for the trail car.
``All you can see is the spoiler in front of you and going that fast and not being able to see is not the most comforting feeling,'' Kenseth said. ``You catch people real fast and you have to have a lot of faith in the guy in front of you, and you're going to spin people out because they make a quick move and you're shoving them as hard as you can shove them doing 200 miles an hour.
``If they move too quick, they're gonna crash. It's a difficult environment to race in, to say the least.
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TREVOR'S TROUBLES: Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne thought he had dodged trouble in a five-car pile-up midway through the Aaron's 599.
He was teaming up with Greg Biffle when he saw Brad Keselowski's Dodge and David Ragan's Ford get caught up in the wreck, triggered when Kurt Busch got into Keselowski. He got off a warning of ``Blowing up, blowing up'' in time for Biffle to steer clear.
``I was like, 'Man, that was close,''' Bayne said. ``And about the time I said that I was headed toward the outside wall, so not a fun ride.''
He had hoped his fortunes would change upon arriving at another restrictor-plate race after finishing no higher than 17th in the six races since Daytona. Bayne led late in Saturday's Nationwide race, but finished sixth, and was up front three times Sunday for a total of five laps.
This time he qualified a career-best 11th and spent five laps up front before getting knocked out after 89 laps and finishing 40th of 43 cars.
``I was excited about it because any time Greg and I wanted to go, we would go right to the front,'' Bayne said. ``We led some laps there. We hung out in the back when we wanted to. I thought we were kind of out of harm's way out there, but obviously we weren't far enough out of it.''
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BIFFLE-ROUSH: Greg Biffle and his main sponsor will be sticking with Roush Fenway Racing through the 2014 season after renewing their contract.
3M first sponsored Biffle's No. 16 Ford in 2005 and came aboard as a primary sponsor for Roush in the Nationwide Series the following year. In 2008, the company moved up to sponsor Biffle's Sprint Cup program on a full-time basis.
Since then, Biffle has won four races and reached the Chase for the championship three straight years. This deal keeps the partnership going for at least another three seasons.
The 41-year-old Biffle says he ``couldn't ask for a better sponsor relationship.'' He's been with Roush Racing since 1998 and won 16 Cup races.
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CHIZIK'S DAY: Michael Waltrip couldn't live up to his bid to keep Auburn football undefeated. He raced around the tri-oval in an orange and blue No. 15 Toyota Camry before finishing 28th.
Gene Chizik, coach of the defending national champions, served as grand marshal and started the race with a brisk ``War Eagle'' and ``Gentlemen, start your engines'' to a mixture of cheers from Auburn fans and boos from Alabama faithful.
Waltrip joked that he was driving a ``Cam-ry,'' referring to Auburn Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton.
``You went undefeated, right, 14-0?'' he asked Chizik. ``I've gotta make it 15-0.''
Chizik said he had been to one Talladega race, won by Jeff Gordon. He attended his first NASCAR race while a graduate assistant at Clemson at the former Charlotte 600.
``I had no clue about racing other than what I saw on TV,'' he said. ``What I realized when I went to that race, it was really long, but I remember how cool it was because there's such a strategy involved in this. It dawned on me how unbelievably focused these drivers have to be and just the strategy involved with the pit.''
He and his family hopped in a white van and were driven away from the track shortly after the race started.

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