After last week's outing at the cramped Martinsville circuit, you couldn't have a bigger contrast than the switch to NASCAR's longest circuit - the epic Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama, a huge 2.66 mile tri-oval with its 33 degree banking and massive concrete apron run-off areas. And it's just as well they are there, because Talladega is notorious for its wild action and unpredictable outcomes: none of the three main Chase contenders - Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick - wanted any nasty surprises here this weekend or it could be the end of their Sprint Cup campaign right then and there.
With Talladega being a restrictor plate circuit, the racing is all about the draft: find the right person to push or be pushed by and you'll fly past the opposition; but find yourself out of the draft and on your own and you'll fall backwards as if you've had a parachute open. That explains why the lead changed virtually every lap for the first seventeen, as cars were propelled to the front but then once in the lead and out of the draft they would find it impossible to hold on.
So, first lap around we had Joe Nemechek edging Clint Bowyer for the lead; Kevin Harvick led on lap 2, and then next time around you knew from the roar of the crowd that it was Dale Earnhardt Jr hitting the front for the second consecutive weekend. Juan Montoya pipped Bowyer next time around before opting to sink back to stay out of trouble for a while, then it was Kasey Kahne, Earnhardt Jr. again, then Bowyer finally got his turn on lap 8, then Michael Waltrip pushed Sam Hornish Jr. to the front, the two of them pulling away from the rest and exchanging the lead a few times until Jeff Burton got a boost from Matt Kenseth to take them both to the front. For a ten lap period, the duo had the lead between themselves and the race caught its breath.
Among those having a less successful start to the day was Tony Stewart, who had to pit on lap 21 for a tyre going down. When he came back out, a lap down, he was isolated and draft-less, quickly caught by the leaders and overtaken to go a second lap down. Ryan Newman was another driver to have fallen away from the pack and left for dead.
By lap 29, Burton and Waltrip's time up front had overstayed its welcome and they were caught and eventually passed by the pack led by Brad Keselowski. Burton switched drafting partners to Clint Bowyer, and sure enough Bowyer was boosted to the front on lap 36, just as pit stops loomed up for everyone.
After the first round of pit stops, David Reutimann was in the lead thanks to the continued assistance of Marcos Ambrose, but soon there was another rapid fire sequence of lead changes: Mark Martin for a single lap on lap 48, then Denny Hamlin with a push from Hornish Jr., then Martin, and then Hamlin again this time with the help of Reutimann. But on lap 53 the crowd roared again as Dale Jr. once again topped the leaderboard, and this time he liked the view and stayed there for almost ten laps making him the driver with most laps led at this stage of the afternoon.
Up till this point most of the cars had been two-, three- or even four-wide at times, but now things were settling down and there was even a brief period of single file running before everyone massed again for a renewed assault: Jamie McMurray ended Earnhardt's time at the front, only to then get passed by Kevin Harvick who was getting a boost from Reutimann. The two quickly built up a 2s lead only to loose it equally as quickly, as first Kyle and then Kurt Busch came to the front, but then it was back to Harvick and Reutimann.
Tony Stewart had just come in for his off-sync stop (putting him three laps down now) when the first yellow of the afternoon came out on lap 69, after AJ Allmendinger got bumped by Keselowski and got sideways, fortunately saving the car and keeping it off the wall. Finally all the runners had the opportunity to come in for yellow flag pit stops, and it was Matt Kenseth who won the race off of pit road to lead at the restart ahead of Kyle Busch, McMurray, Reutimann and Joey Logano.
A restart meant another tense, closely-packed four-wide battle for positions at the green flag: Kyle got a push from Reutimann and the two climbed to the top, trading the lead between them until first Kasey Kahne, then Dale Earnhardt Jr., then Juan Montoya with help from his team mate McMurray, then Martin Truex Jr. with help from Sam Hornish Jr. who then took the lead the next time around and then finally Montoya to the front on lap 86 to bring a short period of stability to proceedings as the cars finally started running in single file for almost the first extended period in the race.
The big loser during this restart jockeying was Denny Hamlin, who had fallen back and lost the draft entirely, running by himself back in 32nd place, 26s off the lead - a very dangerous situation for a prime Chase contender. On the radio, Hamlin's team mate Kyle Busch was heard to ask his pit chief whether he needed to fall back and carry out a rescue mission to provide Hamlin with a drafting partner before the pack (closing at a rate of some 2s a lap) put him a lap down, but it was already too late. Hamlin was on his own, and on lap 99 he was finally off the lead lap: worse, with the traffic passing him in a single file, he was desperate to find someone to let him in line before he fell all the way to the back of the field here as well. Finally it was David Reutimann who tapped the brakes and made a space for Hamlin to slot into.
By now, Dale Earnhardt Jr had once again thrilled Junior Nation by being boosted to the front by Jeff Burton on lap 92; he would be deposed eleven laps later by Reutimann, who was pushed to the front by Hamlin returning the #00's good deed letting him back in line. Getting back to the front also meant Hamlin was technically back on the led lap, which did not sit well with Chase rival Kevin Harvick who mounted a determined campaign with the assistance of Clint Bowyer to take the lead and push Hamlin off the lead lap once more.
And then for the next 25 laps, it was leader slot machine all over again: Juan Montoya led lap 105, then Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer, Montoya again, Earnhardt Jr. back to the front on lap 112, then Bowyer was back as many of the cars hit pit road for another green flag sequence of stops. David Reutimann won the race off pit road, then ceded the lead to Aric Amirola: Elliott Sadler, Marcos Ambrose, Harvick, McMurray, Burton, Burton and Montoya all cycled to the top as things remained very fluid and the field extended out four-wide at times. With the race fast approaching its final 50 laps, things were starting to get a lot more serious, the racing tougher, and drafting partners harder to come by.
Considering Talladega's reputation for huge wrecks, it was amazing that the afternoon had seen 133 laps of running with only one caution; but that couldn't last, and sure enough the second caution of the afternoon was out on lap 134. It was sparked by Earnhardt Jr. giving Jeff Burton too much of a shove from behind, sending the #31 down the track where it made light contact with Kevin Harvick; Burton overcorrected, veered up the track and sandwiched Earnhardt Jr between himself and the wall. That sent Burton completely out of control, down the track - mercifully missing everyone on the way - across the grass. The damage to the front end from where it had hit Earnhardt Jr and the wall was extensive - steam and flames coming out in equal measure - and Burton climbed out of the car, furious at the turn of events after having spent much of the race up front. He kicked the car door in frustration on the way out, but it wasn't going to change matters.
Earnhardt Jr took to the garage to get the damage to the #88 sorted out but Harvick was luckier with the damage to his car from the initial hit with Burton pretty light. Ironically, the biggest loser among the Chase contenders from this yellow was Denny Hamlin who hadn't even been involved in the accident itself: unfortunately for Denny, the yellow had come out just seconds after Ryan Newman had gone a lap down, and that meant that Newman and not Hamlin got the lucky dog. Hamlin was still a lap down, a critical blow to his Chase hopes.
Juan Montoya led the field to green but then David Reutimann and Joey Logano teamed up to take the lead on successive laps. Not that the racing continued for long: on lap 141 it was back to a caution, and once again Kevin Harvick was in the thick of it. It started when Kyle Busch made a move down the inside of Marcos Ambrose, leaving Ambrose pinched between the #18 and the #42 of Montoya on the outside, which left him destabilised and just needing to ease off the throttle. That earned him a tap from behind from Clint Bowyer, and it was enough to spin Ambrose to the left and send him down the track - and the first car to plough into the side of the #47 was none other than Kevin Harvick, who got a lot of front end damage. It looked bad, but Harvick was on the radio reassuring his pit crew that there was nothing terminal; further back it was less fortunate for Bill Elliott, who had spun as the field reacted to the wreck ahead of them and ended up with major damage against the wall.
Meanwhile, Denny Hamlin was in the lucky dog position and set to finally get his lap back - until preliminary word from NASCAR suggested that he had been involved in the incident and therefore barred from benefiting. Several minutes later - and a lot of video replays - finally proved that Hamlin had been completely out of the picture when the wreck started and so he could breath again, back on the lead lap at long last.
Joey Logano took the restart in the lead (after Sam Hornish, attempting a fuel-only strategy to put him out front, got hit with a pit lane speeding penalty.) He led through to lap 150 when Martin Truex Jr got pushed to the front by Montoya, and then two laps later there was a fourth yellow for debris. The top 15 opted to stay out under caution but some - including Kyle Busch, Greg Biffle, Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson - opted to pit for fresh rubber to give them a critical edge for the final run to the chequered flag.
And what a difference the lucky dog and fresh rubber made to Hamlin's cause: after Truex Jr led the restart only to see Montoya pushed to the front by Logano, it was Hamlin just three laps later who flew past for the lead with an assist from Kyle Busch: Denny was well and truly back, and with Harvick still running well and Jimmie Johnson never far away, all of a sudden it was looking like a big showdown between the three remaining Sprint Cup contenders was looming.
Kyle Busch had taken over the lead by the time the race entered the final dozen laps, and things were getting serious. Paul Menard took over from Kyle, but just behind it was Jeff Gordon helping Jimmie Johnson to the front to claim what could be five vital points for leading a lap. Suddenly suffering from engine problems, Gordon couldn't stay with the pace and fell back fearing he was about to blow up, so Johnson's lead was for a single lap - but enough to secure him those vital bonus points. Then Clint Bowyer was past for the lead just as Joe Nemechek has a tyre blow on him, shedding debris on the race track and bringing out the fifth caution of the day on lap 181 - seven laps from the chequered.
Unsurprisingly no one from the leaders pitted - Kasey Kahne back in 25th place was the highest-placed car to take to pit road - so at the restart it was Bowyer leading Johnson, Montoya, Hornish Jr and Kenseth with just four laps left to run. Now was the critical moment for having a good drafting partner: Bowyer had Montoya, Harvick has Reutimann come to his aid, but in the middle lane Johnson suddenly felt the absence of Gordon and he and Hornish fell backwards at a fast rate of notes, suddenly out of contention and crowded out of the four-wide battle up front.
It was going to be between Bowyer and Harvick, as the two of them and their respective drafting partners pulled out a huge lead over the rest of the field. As the white flag came out it was Harvick just putting his damaged nose ahead; and then suddenly, the race was over, the caution was out: a major wreck behind the leaders (although not quite the proverbial "big one") had sent cars shooting off in all directions.
Replays showed that Jimmie Johnson himself had been the trigger for it, still struggling in the middle of the pack and lacking a drafting partner. He had wobbled just enough to require him to lift up a fraction, and that sparked the problem behind him as the following cars reacted, setting off a series of small bumps that had big consequences. The worst affected was undoubtedly AJ Allmendinger, who was turned sideways and then flipped over entirely so that the car skidded across that wide concrete run-off apron upside down; then it made a heavy impact with the inside wall, rebounded, went up on its front end for a couple of dainty pirouettes before finally slamming back down to earth. Fortunately AJ was in good shape - more than could be said about what remained of his car - but with the #43 and several other cars all over the race track a yellow flag had been the knee-jerk and entirely correct call.
So who had won? It all came down to whether Harvick or Bowyer had been in front at the moment the yellow came out. That meant pouring over the video tapes and the scoring loops to work out exactly when the track went yellow, and who was in front when it did: as the minutes ticked by, it was clear that Bowyer felt that there was no question and that the win was his - "Hell yeah! Claim that one before somebody else does!" he joked; Harvick was more subdued and had a tense wait on pit road for word to come down.
And when it did, Bowyer's confidence was proved well-founded: he'd just been ahead, by a foot at most, but that was all that was needed. Bowyer finally had some measure of recompense for having his New Hampshire victory marred by the post-race penalty for technical infringement. It might be far too late to put him back into contention for the 2010 Sprint Cup, but it was as sweet as he could possibly have hoped for.
Meanwhile Harvick's second place, combined with steady but not exactly stellar seventh and ninths place finishes for his Chase rivals Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin respectively, means that he closes up on them in the Sprint Cup standings, reducing his deficit to Johnson from 62pts to 38pts. Johnson can at least take comfort that he marginally pulls away from second-placed Hamlin, his overall lead up to 14pts, but there's no question that the Sprint Cup battle remains the closest in Chase history as they head into the final three races of the year.