With the exception of the two drivers already guaranteed a place in the third phase of this year's Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship, the driver looking like he held the strongest hand to assure himself of a place in the Eliminator 8 round coming into Talladega was Kyle Busch. Surely only a complete disaster could thwart his hopes of clinching a transfer position in Sunday's race?
Unfortunately for Busch, a disaster is exactly what he got. Aric Almirola got into the back of JJ Yeley on the backstretch on lap 102, and in total ten cars were caught up in the accident that unfolded. One of them proved to be the #18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, which was spun into the wall after sustaining rear contact from Austin Dillon.
"We were just biding our time the first half of the race," Busch said later. “The strategy was to hang around the back for a while and stay out of trouble, which we were able to do the first half of the race.
"We were going to pit there, so I was getting to the bottom to come to pit road the next lap, but a couple of guys got together in front of me. I got my stuff slowed down but the #3 didn't look like he checked up at all. He got in the back of me, and we were along for the ride after that."
"I was trying my hardest to brake during that wreck but I just couldn't stop in time," responded Dillon after the race. But that was little consolation to Busch, who had to coax the remains of his car back to the JGR garage to see what could be repaired.
"The rear suspension was broken, the track bar was messed up, the spindles were bent, the brake studs and the spindle broke, the right front upper control arm was broke and then you had all the body damage," revealed crew chief Dave Rogers afterwards. "There was just so much damage and the crew was spread so thin. If you go back and look at it and I play it over and over and over, what could we have done better?"
In the end, a brilliant job by the pit crew managed to get Busch back out on track again, albeit over 40 laps down by the time he rejoined. It still allowed him to pick up three places in the final race classification which translated to three extra championship points that could still have proved crucial if any of his rivals out on the track hit problems; but they didn't, and Brad Keselowski going on to win and clinch one of the spots in the next round of the Chase was the final nail in the coffin of Busch's championship hopes for yet another year.
"I can't say enough about how hard the M&M's team worked to get our car back out there," insisted Busch of how his crew had risen to the challenge. "They've done an awesome job the whole Chase. It's just hard to take getting eliminated like that because of how great of a job the guys did to get us to where we were."
"Realistically the way the race unfolded we had to finish on the lead lap, so it didn't matter," Rogers admitted. "There was nothing these guys could have done any better that would have changed the results from today. It is what it is and we'll walk away from Talladega with our heads held high.
A deeply disappointed Busch subsequently exited the superspeedway without wishing to talk with the media, leaving Rogers to speak for him instead.
"I can't praise him enough, he's really stepped up to be a great leader of this race team in the Chase," Rogers insisted. "Kyle's done a really good job of biting his lip and just backing the race team to let us do our job. Kyle, I can't say enough good about him. I'm really proud of him. It's been a lot of fun working with him."
The irony is that Busch had been following a 'safety-first strategy' at Talladega when disaster struck regardless. After confusion in Saturday's qualifying session had resulted in Busch and a number of his fellow Chase contender taking the green flag at the back, Busch opted to hang back there in an attempt to avoid becoming collateral damage in someone else's midfield accident - which is exactly what ended up happening anyway.
"Coming into it I was hoping we could sit on the pole and lead all the laps," said Rogers. "But we missed our timing line [in qualifying] and we didn't get back to the start finish line in time and missed that by a half-second and that put us in the back. Once you're there, we just chose to ride back there.
"I thought we were in a decent spot coming into the race and rode around in the back," Rogers continued. "[But] there is no safe place in here. Everyone, every time we come to a speedway everyone will strategise: we're going to ride in the back, we're going to ride in the front, we're going to do this. The truth is that if you're out there on the race track at Talladega or Daytona, you have a pretty good chance that you're going to get in a wreck and today was our day. It's unfortunate, but that's the way it is.
"If you look at it, we got wrecked from behind. We didn't drive into a wreck, we got our stuff stopped and the guys behind us didn't and they just ran us over. It doesn't matter if you're first or 40th, if someone is going to run you over from behind, they're going to run you over from behind."
The Joe Gibbs Racing team still has two of its three drivers in the Chase, with Matt Kenseth making the next round by coming second to Keselowski at Talladega and Denny Hamlin also safely through after finishing in 18th position.
"It was close, we were tied for eighth [in the points] on the last lap," said Hamlin. "Just trying to fight through. Hate lagging in the back, but couldn't afford to have what happened to the #18 happen to us and take our chances out. Still proud of our effort and happy that we made it."
Rogers felt that Kenseth and Hamlin should be able to go all the way to the winner-take-all season finale at Homestead-Miami on November 16, where a single race will determine which of the four drivers still in contention by that time will become the 2014 champion. Certainly, Rogers had been confident that the #18 team had been coming on form at just the right time to make a run for the title if only it had survived the crucible of Talladega this weekend.
"My hats off to all these guys, everyone at Joe Gibbs Racing and everyone at TRD," he said, referring to engine partners Toyota Racing Development. "It's a shame, everyone has been working really hard. I felt like we got off to a slow start early in the season and we were advancing through the play-offs pretty well with hard work and good decisions and good teamwork. The team was performing really well and working extremely hard."
"It's not a shock, you're just here at Talladega and you know things can happen," he added. "On the other hand it's by no means an indication of what this race team is about. These guys have worked hard and everyone at Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota and everyone on this M&M's Camry. They've worked hard and we're better than an eighth place team or a ninth place team. It's the way it worked out.
"The #2 car did a great job," said Rogers, referring to Keselowski and his crew chief Paul Wolfe. "My hats off to Paul and them guys for winning the race. They had to do what they did, but they had a horrible round. They are way better than that. If they'd got knocked out today you would be talking to Paul Wolfe and he'd say, 'We're way better than a ninth place car.' There's nobody in this business that can argue that they're not. They are really good, but they stepped up and they did what they needed to do today and they got the win and they are advancing on."
And unfortunately for Busch and Rogers, the #18 car is not. It means that Busch will have to wait for another year to bid for what would be his first Sprint Cup championship, but once again the Chase format has not been kind to him. His previous best finish at the end of a season was fourth in 2013, but there will be no improvement on that this year.
"We're not done yet," insisted Rogers. "We can't win the championship, but we can still advance in points and work our way up to fifth. We're going to go to Martinsville working hard and we're going to try to win all these races."