The tough nature of superspeedway racing - and in particular the roulette nature of two-car drafting that once again dominated this weekend at Talladega in the Good Sam Club 500 - meant that Clint Bowyer got very lucky indeed and headed for victory lane, while several big-name Chase drivers no longer remain in any realistic contention for the 2011 Sprint Cup championship after only three of them finished in the top ten.
Clint Bowyer started from third position on the grid, and soon hooked up in a pre-arranged move with his Richard Childress Racing team mate Jeff Burton for a race-long two-car-draft arrangement that saw Burton hit the lead for the first time briefly on lap 4, although Bowyer had to wait until lap 30 before he had a taste of the lead for himself.
Driver fortunes waxed and waned throughout the afternoon, with cars being propelled to the front by their drafting partners only to plummet backwards once the momentum had gone or the two cars had needed to break apart and swap over to prevent the pushing car from overheating from lack of front air intake. At other times, team tactics dictated a strategic retreat to the back of the pack to stay out of trouble.
That's why there were a massive 72 lead changes during the 188 laps of the 2.66 tri-oval on Sunday afternoon (and that remarkable statistic is still well off the circuit record), between 26 of the 43 drivers out on track. Clint Bowyer led 25 of those laps and Burton led 26, making them the most consistent and successful pairing of the race; Tony Stewart led the most laps of all with 30 in front, although he wouldn't hit the lead for the first time until a comparatively tardy lap 63.
Stewart's drafting partner at the start was his team mate Ryan Newman; Matt Kenseth paired up with David Ragan; Mark Martin with Jeff Gordon; Red Bull duo Kasey Kahne and Brian Vickers and Earnhardt-Ganassi's Jamie McMurray and Juan Montoya also took up drafting together. Kevin Harvick was running with Paul Menard and Travis Kvapil had considerable early success working with David Gilliland, while Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne had taken up with Robby Gordon. Other pairings included Casey Mears and Landon Cassill, Carl Edwards with Greg Biffle, Kurt Busch with Regan Smith, and AJ Allmendinger hooking up with Richard Petty Motorsports team mate Marcos Ambrose.
Joe Gibbs Racing team mates Kyle Busch and Joey Logano paired up from lowly qualifying positions back in the thirties and powered their way into the top ten during the first 20 laps, but their third team mate Denny Hamlin was left without a dance partner at all in the opening stint and paid the price, losing touch with the pack altogether which seriously compromised his pace and led to him being lapped by the leaders before the first caution of the day on lap 25, for debris - which at least meant that he promptly got the free pass and was back on the lead lap again.
The trouble with these carefully arranged pairings is that they often don't survive the heat of battle, and so it was true for JGR. On lap 67, Busch and Logano got separated as they fumbled over Trevor Bayne entering pit road early in a round of green flag pit stops. Logano got spun, and while he initially kept it together and carried on, his tyre promptly blew out sparking the second caution of the afternoon. Worse, it had caused damage to the front of the #20 and compromised his ability to effectively push his team mate in the draft. Not that Busch was having a great time of it either, as he got a penalty for speeding on pit road and sent to the back for the restart.
Another pairing also fell apart on lap 80: Newman and Stewart were trying to get past David Reutimann on the lowside when the #39 car got unsettled. The draft broke up and Stewart couldn't avoid rear-ending his team mate when Newman hit the brakes in an unsuccessful attempt to stop the spin onto the infield that left him with major front splitter damage. That pretty much ended his prospects as a drafting partner for the rest of the race, and - combined with the damage itself - Newman would end up finishing in 28th place 16 laps off the lead.
Necessity makes for odd bedfellows, and after the restart Stewart was left with few alternatives other than to take up with Joey Logano, himself now partner-less in Stewart's old #20 Home Depot car. Despite the damage on Logano's car, the pairing immediately proved remarkable effective in their mutual hour of need. Logano's former dance partner Kyle Busch had taken up with the formerly friendless Denny Hamlin, the two making it work all the way to the front on lap 90 despite being hampered by radio communications difficulties that made strategising difficult. But it would prove no matter, for their partnership was about to get hit by the fourth caution of the afternoon on lap 104.
It started when Allmendinger got rather too much more assistance than he could cope with from Marcos Ambrose: the #43 spun, and in doing so caught up Juan Montoya, Jamie McMurray, Kevin Harvick - and Kyle Busch, who ended up with Montoya running into the side of the #18. Busch's damage seemed initially fairly superficial, but then it emerged that the suspension had been knocked out of whack and he was withdrawn to the garage area, ultimately re-emerging to end up 13 laps off the lead and running in a miserable 33rd place by the chequered flag. His Chase hopes - already fading somewhat coming into Talladega - were well and truly over now.
"There were a lot of repairs to be done - all four corners of that car, the suspension and body were damaged," said Busch's crew chief Dave Rogers, who could at least take some comfort in how the team's repair efforts meant that they picked up half a dozen places at the end over simply having opted to park it. "That's the silver lining of the day," he said.
"I wish there was a recipe that we could tell Kyle to let him know where to be when we race in Talladega, but it's so hard to say, added Rogers, who put the crash down to Kyle simply being "in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Kevin Harvick - who came into Talladega as one of the Chase front-runners - was also in serious trouble. He looked the most beaten-up of the cars involved and spent multiple visits to pit road trying to get repairs without going off the lead lap; but there was smoke in the cockpit and smoke visibly trailing from the car outside from a broken oil cooler, and still more attention and a huge amount of duct tape was required to keep it all running. The Richard Childress Racing crew worked minor miracles and the #29 did indeed make it to the end, but by then it was nine laps off the lead and in a borderline-disastrous 32nd place in the final classifications.
"I thought I was around a pretty good group of cars there. I don't know what happened. It is just one of those deals," said Harvick of the original incident. "Obviously that wasn't the day we wanted."
In the dozen green flag laps that followed the restart, three pairings - Matt Kenseth/David Ragan, Kasey Kahne/Brian Vickers and Clint Bowyer/Jeff Burton. - emerged as the breakaway leaders before a blown tyre for AJ Allmendinger on lap 121 brought out the fifth caution of the day. A sixth followed shortly after the restart when Kasey Kahne spun at the start/finish line, but following that things would settle down and there would be 30 laps of green flag racing, with Tony Stewart getting most of his laps led during this period as that scratch pairing with Logano really came good and paid dividends.
It was coming up on green flag pit stops with 25 laps of the race remaining when Andy Lally turned down into Jimmie Johnson. Lally spun as did Terry Labonte, while the #48 was left with only light damage that was checked over by the team during the ensuing round of pit stops under the caution.
At the restart, remarkably it was Dave Blaney in the lead for one lap thanks to a good pairing he'd got going with Brad Keselowski - Keselowski's Penske team mate Kurt Busch having opted to take up with Regan Smith early in the afternoon. But Trevor Bayne's long-term relationship with Robby Gordon looked to be at an end after Gordon's rear accumulated too much rear-end damage to continue to push effectively, and he would then suffer a lengthy pit stop with rear gear issues that finally put him out of the running. Bayne instead enjoyed a brief dalliance with Marcos Ambrose, but with most drivers still largely playing with their team mates there were few realistic options for the Wood Brothers' #21 single entry.
Inside the final 20, things were finally getting serious in a race that had previously largely been a game of chess strategy and inter-driver diplomacy. Tony Stewart was back in the lead now with support from Paul Menard who had lost Harvick as his earlier drafting partner; they were looking increasingly good for the win, when the eighth caution came out for a spin by Bobby Labonte - who was then collected in a hard hit by Kurt Busch. Both cars were clearly out, Busch's #22 managing to limp back to the garage while Labonte himself was only able to limp to the waiting ambulance.
"Our championship hopes are done, just because of this two-car Talladega draft," fumed a frustrated Busch.
The players at the restart on lap 178 with ten to go consisted of Tony Stewart, Paul Menard, Marcos Ambrose, Trevor Bayne, Brian Vickers, Kasey Kahne, Jeff Burton, Clint Bowyer, Matt Kenseth and David Ragan. Burton got the best push at the restart from Bowyer and took the lead, and was still in front when the track went yellow for a ninth and final time on lap 181.
The accident started when polesitter Mark Martin, seeking to connect with drafting partner Jeff Gordon, had ended up dropping down the track and catching the nose of Denny Hamlin's car: Hamlin was turned and the two cars caught Regan Smith, who was sent into a nose-on impact with the outside wall in a crunching impact reminiscent of Jimmie Johnson's hard impact last weekend at Charlotte. Fortunately Smith was out of the car, albeit limping on his right ankle despite the cushioning effect of the SAFER barrier.
"Yeah, that was not a fun hit, but it is what we do at the restrictor plate tracks and unfortunately get caught up in other people's messes. I don't know what happened, I just know I turned right in a hurry," said Smith later. "It is what it is, and I was hoping we were going to have a good day. My partner, Kurt Busch got wrecked earlier and it was not his fault either, but that is how it goes.
It was not the end of the day's drama for Smith and his team, as a fire later broke out next to their hauler as the team were packing up fuel cans after the race. "They had the gas can on the ground there between the tractor and the hauler," said spokesman Dave Ferroni. "They took off the fuel probe, something sparked it and it ignited. That's all we know at this time." No one was hurt and the team put out the fire before the official fire trucks made it to the scene of the billowing column of smoke that went up over the in-field Talladega paddock area, but some equipment and hoses as well as personal baggage were damaged.
The clean-up for Smith's on-track accident pushed the race into a green-and-white-chequered finish, with Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer restarting from the front. Could they hold on to the lead for two more laps or would the drafting politics of Talladega deny them the win? They answered that question immediately and blasted away from the competition by well over a second, and once the white flag came out (meaning that the race would end with the next flag, whatever the colour) it meant that the win was theirs.
One small detail: which of them would claim the actual victory? Burton had the lead on the track into the final lap, but Bowyer pulled out of the draft down the inside on the final turn and judged his strike to perfection, surviving a glancing impact with Burton to claim the chequered flag by 0.018s over his team mate.
Did Bowyer feel bad about snatching victory away from Burton after all their drafting work together during the afternoon? "He worked so well with me all day long. you hate that it comes down to that," said Bowyer afterwards. "It is what it is. You owe it to your team, to your sponsors to go out and win the race. Unfortunately it came down to that situation."
Bowyer added that if the competition had been closer to them, then "I was prepared to push him to the win no matter what the cost." But once it was clear that they had the win to themselves, he was determined to take it. "He's already won a lot of races. I think he's won like 20 some races, I've only won five," he laughed.
It's likely to be Bowyer's last Cup victory with Richard Childress Racing, with his move to Michael Waltrip's team sealed for 2012, and Bowyer was proud to be saying goodbye to RCR by handing the team their 100th Cup win, five of which he had contributed to the team himself.
"It's just so important to me to be able to cap off such a good relationship with Richard. Everybody at RCR, it's like family over there. Meant a lot for me to be able to win before we end this deal," he said. "The stars were lined up today ... If I won the race, it was going to be Richard's hundredth win. Too many things meant to be for it not to be. I'm excited that it was."
For his part, Jeff Burton admitted that he didn't "know whether to be excited or upset. After the year we've had, it's good to be in position to win a race. Obviously Clint and I worked really well together the whole race. Had some good luck along the way. Whenever you leave here not wrecked, you ought to be happy. At the same time I'm heartbroke we didn't win the race," he admitted.
Dave Blaney held on to third place with the help of Brad Keselowski, while the Red Bull duo of Vickers and Kahne came in a strong fifth and sixth respectively in what could be one of the last outings for the team before it's wound up at the end of the year if no buyer can be found for the operation. Tony Stewart finished in seventh place just ahead of Denny Hamlin, the only two Chase drivers other than Keselowski to make it into the top ten at the end of what had proved a very costly race for the championship hopefuls.
Carl Edwards had looked poised to make a successful late-race run, but it didn't pay off and a decision to come in for a tyre change under the final caution didn't reward him with the extra pace he needed to do better than 11th. But with so much ill-fortune hitting his main rivals, staying out of trouble had rewarded him with an impressive 14pt lead atop the points standings.
"That was a heck of a day for teamwork, Greg did an unbelievable job of sticking with me and we get to come out of here extending our points lead, which is good," he said, sounding relieved to have the superspeedway in the rear view mirror. "I am pleased that we are able to get out of here with the points lead intact because you just never know what can happen here and to extend it is just great."
Matt Kenseth is now the closest chalenge to him in the points but had been hoping for better than 18th place at Talladega. "It was a frustrating that we ran up there most the day. David [Ragan] was a great drafting partner and he broke something on the last restart, broke something in his engine. I had to try to find somebody with two laps to go and that is hard."
Kenseth had ended up working with Trevor Bayne in the dying minutes of the race - which frustrated Jeff Gordon, who thought he had a deal in place with Bayne to draft to the end of the race, only to be left high and dry. Bayne had wanted to hook-up with his childhood hero, but subsequently got overruled by the team who were playing the manufacturer solidarity card with a three line whip over their drivers to keep it in the Ford family, and ordered Bayne to switch to Kenseth instead.
"I didn't expect him to commit to me on the radio," admitted Gordon of his initial appeal to Bayne. "I expected him to say, 'Man, I'm sorry; I can't.' And when he said, 'Yeah, I'm pushing you, we're good,' I believed him. But I think they had a different plan."
"I'm as upset it turned out that way as anyone," Bayne later said on Twitter, explaining that "at that time [when I agreed to work with Gordon,] Matt and David were supposed to be working together. I had no idea what was coming.
"That's why I'm so sick about all this. I won't race restrictor plate races next year before I'm put in that situation," he continued. "I'm not happy about what this has become... It's too premeditated. We should be able to go with whoever is around is."
"Well I just find it odd," said a still-unhappy Gordon after Bayne visited the former Cup champion in his garage after the race to explain what had happened. "I just think it could have been handled better. If somebody is going to screw you, you'd like them to say it to your face you know? Or, at least on the radio! ... I would have been totally fine with that and understood."
Gordon ended up in a trio of poor-finishing Hendrick Chase contenders with Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 25th, Jimmie Johnson in 26th and Gordon himself just behind in 27th, results that seem to confirm that all three are out of contention for the 2011 championship - even five-time Chase winner Johnson.
"We had some issues with my car overheating," Johnson explained of why the #48 faded at the end. "That last caution that came out I got some trash and grass and stuff on the grill of the car. We were out of sequence the way we were lined up. I was going to push Junior and I had to be in the lead the way we had the debris on the grill. And then as we went to make our switch, the pack was organized and with the green-white-chequered situation, there's not a lot of time to get organized and we lost our momentum there and got to the outside and kind of stalled out up on the top and finished far worse than we had hoped to."
Johnson is now 50pts off the championship leader with just four races remaining before the title is decided. Kurt Busch is 52pts off the lead after his Talladega accident, while Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman had all come into Talladega knowing that their chances were all but over. They're now joined by Kyle Busch, whose woes at the superspeedway leave him 40pts off Carl Edwards by the end of the day.
The one driver left 'on the bubble' is Kevin Harvick: he's slumped to fifth place in the Sprint Cup championship points
and is now 26pts off the lead, which is a formidable gap to make up in just four races. But given his form in previous years, if there's anyone who can pull off this seemingly impossible feat, it may just be the #29.
Otherwise, Harvick - along with Johnson and both Busch brothers - will look back on an eventful Talladega as their most painfully costly Chase race of 2011.
Full race results and times available