By Jeff Wolfe
The wait was long, but the result was sudden.
As is often the case with NASCAR Sprint Cup races on restrictor plate tracks, the anticipation of the potential big one, the accident that takes out several cars in one fell swoop, creates a different atmosphere than at most other tracks.
The big one at Talladega Sunday didn’t take place until the last of the 189 laps on the 2.66-mile superspeedway, where cars race in big packs and speeds push 200 mph. Emerging from the final lap carnage, which featured 25 cars, the largest last-lap accident in NASCAR history, was Matt Kenseth with the victory, his second this season and the 23rd of this career.
Kenseth, who led 33 laps, escaped because he was near the front of the pack when leader Tony Stewart moved down from in front of Kenseth and tried to block a charging Michael Waltrip on the bottom on the backstretch. Stewart admitted he made a bad move, that left a lot of expensive cars looking like they belonged in a junkyard.
“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 then went for a ride on his side on the on the hood of Clint Bowyer and the door of Paul Menard as the melee went on all around. That allowed Kenseth, who made a save when his car nearly spun on lap 42, to surge ahead of the wreckage.
“Well, I saw Tony’s back bumper,” Kenseth said. “I saw him getting spun out. I don’t know how that happened or how he got in that position. But I saw him spinning out. We were clear of him. I didn’t know if Kevin was still back there. You check your mirror in a lot of these places.
“I looked in the mirror and there was nobody back there. I thought that it was our race then. So just kind of slowed down and got it back to the finish.”
With the finishing places frozen once the yellow flag came out and NASCAR needing about two hours to sort out the final results, that left Jeff Gordon in second for the second consecutive week.
“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.”
In typical wreck-avoiding fashion, Gordon knew his finish was a matter of some rare good luck for him this season.
“We were like four-wide, went into three, and I saw smoke,” he said. “When I saw smoke, everybody checked up in a hurry, and I hit the 5 and the 18 hit me, and it just turned me right down to the apron and I drove by pretty much everybody but the 17. So we got really lucky there.”
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. wasn’t one of the lucky ones. The five-time winner at Talladega led 18 laps and ended up finishing a frustrating 20th.
“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. It’s not safe. It’s not. It’s blood thirsty. If that’s what people want, that’s ridiculous.”
The rest of the top-10 in front of a crowd of an estimated crowd of 88,000 after Kenseth and Gordon were Kyle Busch in third, David Ragan, Greg Biffle, Regan Smith, points leader Brad Keselowski, Travis Kvapil, Ryan Newman and Jeff Burton.
The drivers, whether they like it or not, know the finishes at Talladega and Daytona, the other restrictor plate track, are likely going to be a bit crazy.
“At the end you know it’s going to get aggressive,’’ Gordon said. “It started to ramp up, so you’re pretty sure there’s going to be a caution, and then with the green-white-checker, you know you’re not making it back to the checkered. You wonder if you’ll make it to the white. You know you’re not going to make it back to the checkered without there being a wreck.”
The final caution was the fifth one of the day in a race that featured 54 lead changes among 18 drivers.
Jamie McMurray led the most laps on the day with 38 and looked to be a contender for the win, but he spun with five laps to go to set up the final dash, and amazingly was avoided by the rest of the field, but was left with a 34th-place finish.
The fifth race in the 10-race Chase for the Championship will take place at 7 p.m. Saturday on ABC when the circuit goes to Charlotte Motor Speedway.
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