The championship contenders said Talladega Superspeedway would be the wild-card race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
That was an understatement.
Talladega delivered yet another ”big one” Sunday, when defending NASCAR champion Tony Stewart triggered a 25-car pileup as he tried to protect the lead. His bid to block a long line of traffic on the last lap backfired, and his car was sent sailing through the air in a chaotic crash that collected 10 of the 12 title contenders.
Daytona 500 winner Matt Kenseth won under caution, and everyone else was left wondering when NASCAR will do something dramatic to alter the dangerous racing at restrictor-plate tracks.
”It’s not safe. It’s not. It’s bloodthirsty,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. ”If that’s what people want, that’s ridiculous.”
Stewart, who assailed the wreckfests at Talladega with a sarcastic diatribe in May, took full responsibility for creating the latest carnage.
He had charged to the lead on the first lap of a two-lap sprint to the finish, but got too far ahead of the pack to hang on to any drafting partners.
Kenseth was charging on the outside of him and Michael Waltrip was leading a line of traffic on the inside. Stewart was blocking all over the track, and said he mistakenly chopped across the front of Waltrip’s car to trigger the accident.
The contact hooked Stewart to send him into a spin, and his car lifted into the air and sailed on its roof and then on its side over several other cars. It created chaos through the pack, which was running three-wide in a frantic dash to the finish.
”I just screwed up. I turned down and cut across Michael and crashed the whole field,” Stewart said. ”It was my fault, blocking and trying to stay where I was at.
”I was trying to win the race and I was trying to stay ahead of Matt there and Michael got a great run on the bottom and had a big head of steam, and when I turned down, I turned across the front of his car. Just a mistake on my part but cost a lot of people a bad day.”
Stewart gamely waved to the crowd as he climbed from his battered car, while Jimmie Johnson sat on the ledge of Earnhardt’s window for a lift back to the garage. Everywhere they looked, they saw crumpled cars.
Five-time Talladega winner Earnhardt said enough is enough with the carnage. He was credited with a 20th-place finish that dropped him four spots in the standings to 11th.
”If this was what we did every week, I wouldn’t be doing it,” he said. ”I’ll just put it to you that way. If this was how we raced every week, I’d find another job. That’s what the package is doing. It’s really not racing. It’s a little disappointing. It cost a lot of money right there.
”If this is how we’re going to continue to race and nothing is going to change, how about NASCAR build the cars? It’ll save us a lot of money.”
Of the 12 Chase drivers, only race-winner Kenseth and second-place finisher Jeff Gordon avoided the final wreck and it pushed Gordon up four spots in the standings to sixth with six races remaining.
But there was little change beyond that as everyone else ended up with a sub-par finish.
”That was the craziest, craziest finish I’ve ever experienced at Talladega,” Gordon said. ”It was just insane. I remember when coming to Talladega was fun, and I haven’t experienced that in a long time. That was bumper-cars at 200 mph. I don’t know anybody who likes that.”
It took NASCAR more than an hour to sort the final finishing order. When the results were finally posted, Kyle Busch was third and was followed by David Ragan and Regan Smith, who grabbed a season-best fifth-place finish in his final race with Furniture Row Racing.
Chase driver Greg Biffle was sixth, followed by points leader Brad Keselowski, Travis Kvapil, Ryan Newman and Jeff Burton.
Keselowski considered himself lucky to be leaving with a 14-point lead over Johnson. Keselowski said he was holding on trying to stay in the bottom lane because he figured that would be his escape route when the inevitable accident happened.
He was credited with a seventh-place finish, but his Penske Racing team had a photo that showed Keselowski on the apron in fourth with the caution lights on – when the field should have been frozen. Both owner Roger Penske and team president Tim Cindric believed the driver wasn’t awarded the proper finish.
”That’s pretty big; I just feel lucky to survive Talladega,” Keselowski said. ”Just a bunch of guys running four-wide. You know it’s a matter of time before they wreck. We all did.”
Most of the race was tame, which seems to be the norm anymore as drivers use varying strategies to ensure they are still running at the end. The highlight before the final drama was Kurt Busch being parked by NASCAR for driving away from safety workers as they attempted to check on him after he wrecked.
Busch had lost fuel pressure while leading, which led to his accident in his final race with Phoenix Racing. He’s scheduled to join Furniture Row Racing, the team that signed him for 2013, next week, but could face sanctions from NASCAR.
Busch wasn’t wearing his helmet, which he said prevented him from hearing a NASCAR official telling him to not to move. When he drove away, a safety worker’s bag fell off the back of his car.
”Now I’m in worse trouble. This is the story of my life,” he said. ”Kurt Busch leads the race, runs out of gas, gets yelled at by NASCAR, and now I have a storm of media around me, and I don’t know what to do or what to say next.”
So he was long gone as the race roared on seemingly incident-free.
Because Talladega is the fourth race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, the championship-contending drivers had to do everything in the power to leave with a good finish.
It meant Denny Hamlin spent most of the race at the back of the pack – so far back, he was in danger of not being able to make up any ground when he needed to hustle.
”It’s what you have to do,” Hamlin said. ”You kind of give up the chance at a win riding in the back all day, but you’ve got to miss the wreck.”
A spin by Jamie McMurray brought out the final caution and bunched the field together, which gave Kasey Kahne, Martin Truex Jr. and Hamlin a chance to salvage their day. They had two laps to get to the finish line, and Stewart darted from fifth to first on the restart.
But he couldn’t win without some serious defensive driving, and it led to the accident that is part of Talladega’s legacy.
It cost two-time defending race winner Clint Bowyer, who was the leader on the restart and trying to make it to the finish before Stewart’s car landed on top of his. Bowyer wound up 23rd and said the accident started when Stewart ”hung a pretty hard left on Michael.”
”That’s just Talladega. That’s why we all come out and watch,” Bowyer said. ”We need to shorten this race up because it’s all waiting to see what happens right there at the end, anyway.”