Conventional wisdom tells you that whoever leads going into the final lap at Talladega is not going to be the man claiming the chequered flag 2.666 miles later. Being out front on this draft-heavy track is the same as having a huge bulls-eye painted on your back, as Kyle Busch had found out just the previous day in the Nationwide Series race he lost to Joey Logano in the final run to the flag.
So Kyle must have thought he'd set himself up perfectly when he came into that final corner in second place, pushing Brad Keselowski ahead of him and just waiting for the moment to pull out and snatch the win. Except Keselowski had other ideas.
"I had this whole plan if I ever got in that situation where I was leading," admitted Keselowski. "I thought about it and thought about it. Dreamed about what to do. And sure enough, going into 3, it was just me and Busch. And I knew the move I wanted to pull."
To get to that point of the afternoon had been a huge test of endurance, patience, mechanical reliability and a hefty dose of good luck, in a race that saw only 19 of the 43-car grid make it to the end of the race on the lead lap. Most of the big incidents came toward the end of the race, while the first half of the three-hour event was dominated by drivers making sure that their engines didn't overheat and fail prematurely.
"It's fun to be able to race and have to watch the gauges at the same time," was the dry tongue-in-cheek view of a clearly fed-up reigning Cup champion Tony Stewart after the race. "Being able to make yourself run on the apron and everything else to try to get clean air, it makes it fun. I'm sorry we couldn't crash more cars today. We didn't fill the quota for today for Talladega and NASCAR," he added, keeping a totally straight face.
Although Jeff Gordon had claimed pole position on Saturday, he seemed to prefer to take the safer approach by heading to the back early on and instead it was Stewart who launched himself into the lead for the first stint of the race with assistance from Matt Kenseth over the pairing of Richard Petty Motorsport team mates Marcos Ambrose and Aric Almirola starting from the second row.
The first caution came out on lap 16 for an engine blow-up leaving oil on track: Regan Smith was the unlucky man at the wheel.
"All was going well," explained Smith's crew chief Pete Rondeau. "Regan started in the back, showed that he could drive to the front and then was settling in when the engine started to smoke. Very disappointing since we had high expectations today."
He would not be alone in exiting the race early due to an Chevrolet failure: Ryan Newman only made it to lap 42 before his engine packed up, and Jimmie Johnson had a failure on lap 61 that put him out of the race.
"Just something underneath the hood," said Newman when asked what had gone wrong. "I smelled oil off of 2 and felt the motor tightening-up. I lost oil pressure and gained a bunch of water pressure. I just pulled it out of gear."
"A problem lost oil pressure there," said Johnson when it came to his turn to crawl into the garage area. "We don't really know why just yet. Unfortunately, the #39 is sitting in here with a similar issue. I'm hoping that our team mates, the other Hendrick engines out there don't have the same issue with this oil pump. Or oil pressure situation we don't know exactly what it is yet."
The caution caused by Smith's early blow-up broke Stewart's cosy, consistent lead of the race and returned proceedings to the typical surge-and-fall-back rhythm typical of Talladega's two-car tandem and pack-racing characteristics together with a round of green-flag pit stops. Matt Kenseth, Michael Waltrip, Jeff Burton and Dale Earnhardt Jr., all had turns in front, as did Jimmie Johnson before his premature exit. Kasey Kahne also had a good spell up front, trading the lead several times with Juan Montoya as the race passed the halfway point and ticked over the 100-lap landmark. But by this point, Tony Stewart had pushed his fuel just a little too far and duly ran out of gas before his next green flag pit stop, causing him to lose a lot of time as he rolled into pit lane.
Championship points leader Greg Biffle hooked up with Matt Kenseth to lead laps during the next stage of the race, and Kurt Busch was also looking strong in his Talladega Nights
-themed car livery and firesuit which had seen him and his pit crew exchanging film quotes all afternoon, the light-hearted banter in sharp contrast to the frequently incendiary exchanges between driver and crew for Kurt Busch in 2011.
With over 110 laps in the books since the race's one-and-only caution of the afternoon so far, drivers were starting to think about the dash for the finish line to come and as a result the intensity of the competition picked up a notch, with drivers less willing to follow obediently around in what had become increasingly single-file traffic. Instead they were breaking out into separate lines and surging back and forth again as they had in the early laps: some 14 cars were running within a lap of the leader at the front but they still managed not to trip up over each other. On lap 135, Biffle slipped up the track while fighting for the lead with Busch and ended up making slight contact with the #51 fortunately without serious consequences.
Everyone knew that the probably-final round of pit stops were approaching and it seemed as though these would again be under green flag conditions. Drivers were pushing their fuel as far as possible in order to make sure they got to the end even under green-white-chequered extended conditions, but abruptly from lap 138 it was clear that many had pushed their tanks of gas too far: Jeff Burton, Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch were among those to suddenly run dry.
The abrupt slowing of so many cars on so many parts of the race track all at once was an invitation for an accident, and on lap 141 it happened: Aric Almirola and Dave Blaney got together and after that a chain reaction drew in just about everyone in the vicinity. Carl Edwards, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Joey Logano, David Gilliland, Juan Pablo Montoya and Terry Labonte were all caught out, while polesitter Jeff Gordon got taken out of the race by Martin Truex Jr.
"It was like a wreck at a stop light ... Everybody started checking up and hitting each other," said Edwards. "It looked like guys were running out of fuel and going down in there in turn three the guys in front of me stopped and it was just over. We got wrecked. This is Talladega," he shrugged.
With NASCAR having introduced Electronic Fuel Injection systems to Cup racing at the start of 2012 and a number of cars having had fuel pick-up issues already this season, Edwards was asked whether that could have been a factor in so many cars suddenly running dry and triggering the wreck.
"The cars were running out of fuel and with the new fuel system I am sure everyone will look at it," agreed Edwards. "I don't think they expected to run out of fuel. It is just frustrating. Our Fastenal Fusion was good. The Fords were really good and I wish we had a chance to be out there racing for the win.”
The clean-up took almost ten laps, and some of the more canny drivers like Kenseth, Denny Hamlin and Michael Waltrip came onto pit road for a second stop toward the end of the lengthy caution for a quick fuel top-up just to make sure of getting all the way to the end of the race. Kenseth was in any case at the back of the field, having been penalised (along with Marcos Ambrose) for coming onto pit road too soon after the caution came out - he'd run out of gas and been left with no option but to come in and take the hit regardless.
That meant that at the restart on lap 150 with 38 laps to go the leaders were Paul Menard, Brad Keselowski, Clint Bowyer, Greg Biffle and David Ragan - although Menard was without a drafting partner and quickly dropped back, while Keselowski was quickly found by his Penske team mate AJ Allmendinger and pushed to the lead for the first time of the day.
Clint Bowyer then pushed Denny Hamlin past the Dodge duo for the lead on lap 159 as the intensity of the racing was turned up full; it hadn't taken Matt Kenseth to get back to the sharp end either, this time in league with Casey Mears whom he pushed to the front on lap 162. But Mears' purpose was done, and soon after the leading quartet of Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin and AJ Allmendinger went single-file to take a breather before the final campaign, closely followed by Clint Bowyer, Paul Menard, Greg Biffle, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch and Casey Mears who were all ready to pounce if the opportunity presented itself
Mears was trying to get a push from Marcos Ambrose, but a cut tyre proved unlucky for the #13 and it ended in tears when he went spinning in turns 1 and 2. Trevor Bayne joined in the spin in reaction to bring out the third caution of the afternoon on lap 175, just 13 laps before the scheduled end.
"We kind of just tried to stay out of trouble all day and then after that last pit stop we were well inside the top 15 there, so we decided to go ahead and see what we had," said Mears. "We were able to go to the front and lead some laps. I can't remember what lap it was, it was probably with 15 or 18 to go and we were running in the middle. The #17 had a run but there wasn't enough room and I got tagged in the left rear and eventually six or eight laps after that we got a left rear flat and spun out and got in the wall. That kind of ended our day."
With nine laps to go at the restart, a few drivers including Hamlin, Waltrip, Bowyer and Jamie McMurray tried a throw of the dice with a quick stop for fresh tyres before the track went green again. After all, this being Talladega the next Big One is never far away and the old adage about cautions breeding cautions never more apposite.
Sure enough, the next green lasted only two laps: Kurt Busch had the front of the #51 buried deep into the back of Kenseth's #17 to get the best possible breakaway from Keselowski in third, but it went wrong when the #2 tapped the back of the Phoenix Racing car and sent Busch for a sideways spin into the inside wall across the start/finish line and into turn 1. The earlier Talladega Nights
banter waned rapidly as Busch compounded the situation by trying to sneak into pit road from the wrong end rather than have to go all the way around, and promptly got slapped with a penalty for his misdemeanour which put him a lap down.
The next restart on lap 184 lasted even less time before the yellows were flying again. Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch, Paul Menard and AJ Allmendinger were the leaders, with Hamlin diving down to take the middle line to get past, only to find Allmendinger had spotted the gap as well and was moving to stop anyone else from taking advantage of it. There was contact, and with it coming at the front of a closed-up pack there were repercussions for an awful lot of the cars around them.
Paul Menard, Greg Biffle, Michael Waltrip, Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton, Robert Richardson Jr., Tony Stewart, Joey Logano and others were swept into the mishap along with Hamlin and Allmendinger: Hamlin's left rear had been cut in the wreck and promptly disintegrated, scattering rubber all over the place that extended the caution still further for the debris to be cleaned up.
Matt Kenseth was shaping up to be the leader for the green-white-chequered finish that now fast approached, but despite avoiding the latest multi-car incident it was clear that the #17 was feeling the strain: a B-post on the car had split lengthwise and the right front fender had also shaken loose. He couldn't keep a good hook-up going with Greg Biffle at the restart, and the man who had led the most laps of the race (73 out of what turned out to be 194 laps in the end) just didn't have the final pace he needed to go with Brad Keselowski when the Penske driver got boosted clear away in front by Kyle Busch.
“I think we had the wining car, really just didn't have the winning driver,” said Kenseth, clearly annoyed with himself for how he had handled the finish. "I was just too stupid I guess at the end to keep a win.
"On the last restart, Greg and I got hooked together like Daytona ... Got clear in front of the #2 and Kyle as soon as we became clear. Wasn't long after that I looked forward for a second, and when I looked back Greg and I were separated, those guys were already outside him," Kenseth explained about what had gone wrong. “With nobody behind him, he lost his speed. With me not paying attention, keeping us hooked up, just cost us a shot at the win; cost Greg a shot at the win. Just didn't do a very good job of managing where he was on that last restart."
Meanwhile up ahead, the battle for the race win was raging as the white flag came and went. Busch had been in the top two in the final lap at Talladega just 24 hours earlier, but that had been in the lead of the Nationwide Series race and being pushed by Joey Logano. He'd felt that he had been a sitting duck out front, just waiting for Logano to slingshot out of the final turn to steal the win, just as it had played out. This time, Kyle must surely have thought that similar tactics would mean that the race was as good as his as he headed into the final corner tucked behind Keselowski. But then suddenly it all changed.
"I got to turn 3, and I got disconnected from him, got unhooked," said Busch. That broke his own drafting momentum at a critical moment and left him unable to play the slingshot card out of turn 4. "I hated that happened, thought we had a shot to win that thing.
"I'm not sure he did anything," Busch added later when asked if Keselowski had pulled off the move intentionally. "If he did, he's pretty smart, but I think our stuff just came unplugged."
But just up pit road, Keselowski was revealing to reporters that it has been no stroke of luck after all - and that it really had been down to a cunning plan on the part of the driver of the blue deuce.
"I went into turn 3 high and pulled down off of Kyle and broke the tandem up," he said, making it clear just how deliberate and pre-meditated that moment had been. "That allowed me to drive untouched to the chequered flag. It wasn't easy to convince myself to do that, but it was the right move. I'm glad it worked."
"My recollection is this is the first time we've won a Cup race at Talladega," said a delighted car owner Roger Penske in victory lane. "We've been coming here almost since 1972, so it's a long time to get a race win. It was certainly special."
It's special as well for the engine manufacturer with whom Penske will be parting company at the end of the season. The first and only time that Dodge has previously won at Talladega was on August 8, 1976 with Dave Marcis at the wheel. Penske was quick to credit the intelligence of his lead driver for this historic achievement, up to and including that supersmart last ploy to shake off Busch.
"I'd say that you certainly become a student of the game. The fact that he slowed down there at the beginning to get Kyle on that restart so they could get a run, then pulling on the outside of Kenseth was amazing," said the veteran motor racing team owner. "I would say he ran a perfect race. He ran the bottom lane all day. When it was time to go, he had it figured out. For me, that's what we hire these guys for, so it was a good job.
"When I look for a driver, I think the first thing we look at is does he know how to win races - Brad obviously had that attribute when he came with us," he added. "If the driver helps you attract the best people, a crew chief like Paul [Wolfe], you get stronger and stronger.
"When you put that all together, I think, as I said earlier, I wouldn't trade him for anybody on the grid."Full race results
and Sprint Cup championship positions