It was all going pretty well at Talladega Superspeedway for Sunday's Good Sam Roadside Assistance 500 Chase race. And then the white flag came out and it all went really, really badly, with probably the most costly final lap incident ever seen in the history of NASCAR
as virtually no car escaped unscathed. (See video of the final restart.
The one notable exception to the rule was Matt Kenseth, who managed to get around Tony Stewart in the final run down the backstretch and sail off into the lead through the final two corners, just as Stewart ended up lurching down the track and colliding with Michael Waltrip at the front of the oncoming traffic - causing mass disaster, not least for Stewart himself whose car was turned across the nose of Waltrip's and then flipped into the air.
"I just screwed up," admitted Stewart after escaping unhurt from the wreck with a 22nd place in the final race classification. "I was trying to win the race, and I was trying to stay ahead of Matt
"Michael got a great run on the bottom, had a big head of steam. When I turned down, I turned down across the right-front of his car. A mistake on my part. It cost a lot of people a bad day because of it," he continued. "It was my fault blocking to try to stay where I was.
In the circumstances, Waltrip was magnanimous toward his fellow owner-driver: "I don't blame Tony at all because anybody in the world would have had to block like that," he said, after the accident ended up demoting him from a possible win to being classified in 25th in a written-off car.
In total, 25 of the 33 cars still running at that point were caught up in the wreck - more than in the larger than life Days of Thunder
film. Even at a track infamous for providing "the Big One", this was a different order of magnitude of carnage.
Since the wreck happened after the white flag had already been shown to the leaders, there was no question of a second green-white-chequered restart (the first having been a result of long-time leader Jamie McMurray being tipped into a spin by Kevin Harvick on lap 182.) The race was done, and NASCAR
officials had to spend an hour painstakingly piecing together who was where when the yellows came out in order to arrive at the final results.
There was no question about the winner, as Kenseth had managed to get the #17 around Stewart just before the disaster unfolded. He was about the only person who did. Jeff Gordon stayed low to escape the fallout that broke out around him and scampered away to claim second place, followed by an equally lucky (for once) Kyle Busch in the #18.
"I didn't see anything but Kasey Kahne's rear bumper," said Gordon. "I had my teammate in front of me which is perfect. I had the #18 behind me, one of the best pushers out there ... I really have no idea how we all made it to the white flag because it was three, four wide.