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.
"Cars were moving everywhere," he said of the last seconds of the race. "Basically I went into turn three, I was right on Kasey. I saw smoke, they all checked up. I hit him. I got hit by the #18 and somehow that turned me down on the apron and I just put it back to the floor and drove by every car, and I came out of that second behind the #17 car."
Busch said that he remembered little except Gordon's back bumper sticker. "I was quarter throttle running all over the #24, we just weren't going anywhere. The outside lanes were kind of going by us, and got to turn three and the wreck ensued," he said. "It turned Jeff just enough to turn me and we got through there all right. It's good to come out here unscathed and have the car in one piece."
Busch had spent most of the race frustrated and a lap down, after being caught speeding on pit lane on lap 59 which meant a drive-thru penalty. When he came back out on track, he'd lost the all-important pack draft and soon all leaders rolled straight past him. It took him another 80 laps of hard graft before circumstances conspired to allow him to clinch the lucky dog free pass for which he'd spent half the afternoon competing for it with Dale Earnhardt Jr., who had also been handed a speeding penalty at the same time.
After Busch came David Ragan in fourth place, followed by Regan Smith in fifth place in his last outing in the Furniture Road Racing #78 before he's dropped in favour of Kurt Busch.
"What a wild ending," said Smith. "We restarted the green-white-chequered in 28th, picked up a bunch of spots on the first lap and then came the wreck. We were involved in the mêlée and had major damage to the car, but somehow I was able to drive it to the chequered flag with a fifth-place finish.
"I need to look at replays to see how it all came about and how it all finished," he admitted. "Everything happened so quickly."
Kenseth's Roush Fenway Racing team mate Greg Biffle came home in sixth place, calling the way that the race had ended "unbelievable."
"It was the craziest thing I've ever been involved in - in my life," he said. "I was probably 20th and five-wide up against the wall, and then cars started wrecking. A car flew over the top of my car as I turned to the bottom and missed guys by three inches.
"It was like Days of Thunder coming through the smoke and the grass, and [I] just kept it going straight. That's all I did, and once I was clear of all the stuff, I kept going to the start-finish line," he added.
Kenseth, Gordon and Biffle - all still contenders in this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup championship - scored well as a result of surviving the monumental wreck. Gordon - who had been at the bottom of the 12 Chase drivers after the first race of the play-offs - was rewarded for surviving with a four place boost in the standings to sixth. But he's still 42pts off the championship leader Brad Keselowski, which is where he was after that disastrous first outing at Chicagoland.
The reason why he's made so little impact on the Chase leader is because Keselowski also rode his luck and emerged from the smoke and debris of the backstretch wreck in seventh place, much to his relief.
"That's pretty big," said Keselowski. "I just feel lucky to survive Talladega. There's still a lot of racing left. At least we're not fighting from a hole."
In fact the day turned out well for Keselowski as his lead over Jimmie Johnson increased to 14pts after Johnson ended up managing to coax his car crawling across the line after the huge accident.
"We knew it was going to happen," said Johnson of the wreck. "It was just getting really tight. I think we were probably four-wide going into three. I could see some tyre smoke off the guys in front of me, and then everybody just merged together and we were all in a big wad at that point.
"Fortunately my car I could still drive to the finish, so I passed a couple of guys that were sitting there on the bottom trying to get going themselves," he explained. "I guess I finished 17th. I don't know, we'll take it I guess. We don't have a choice now."
The third-place man in the championship, Denny Hamlin, also considered himself fortunate to manage to get across the line classified in 14th place, behind a trio of Chase drivers to finish just outside the top ten consisting of Kevin Harvick, Kasey Kahne and Martin Truex Jr. Hamlin himself was one of the few drivers not to have any damage at all.
"Once they started crashing, I immediately stood hard on the brakes and waited for everyone to kind of wash down the track," he said. "Then I drove around them. We don't have a scratch on our car, and it sucks to get a good finish that way, but that's the strategy in which we played [the race] - to not get into a wreck."
His strategy had been to sit at the back and save fuel during the three-hour race, he explained. "With this strategy, you're basically conceding a chance at a win, but you're just trying to do damage contro," he admitted.
"I felt if you were in the lead pack there, it was more than likely you were not going to make it there, or some of them weren't," he explained. "The wreck was going to start because some guys were going to run out of fuel, or guys were going to have to pit."
The scale of the accident led to many drivers and experts wondering whether Talladega really had a place on the Sprint Cup calendar - or at least a position in the Chase, when everyone is at their most overwrought and aggressive as the season comes to its climax.
"If this was what we did every week, I wouldn't be doing it, let me put it to you like that," said Dale Earnhardt Jr., the sport's post popular driver with the fans who finished the race in 20th place. "I don't even want to go to Daytona and Talladega next year."
"But I ain't got much choice," he added, unhappily.
Before the carmeggeddon finish to the afternoon, the race had actually been relatively straightforward and uneventful by comparison. Polesitter Kasey Kahne led for the first seven laps with the help of Jeff Gordon, but after that Talladega's unique restrictor plate style of pack racing means that there was a rapid turnover of cars being pushed to the front and then dropping back as the draft broke up. In total there were 54 led changes involving 18 different drivers, with Jamie McMurray leading the most with 38 of the 189 laps out in front followed by
The first caution came on lap 18 for an accident involving Cole Whitt and Carl Edwards which also inflicted some damage on Joey Logano's car and effectively stopped the youngster from making much of an impact in the day's proceedings, eventually ending up two laps off the pace in 32nd place.
After that early mishap the race went green all the way to lap 99, the latter stages of which featured a spirited attempt by Kurt Busch - in his last outing with James Finch's Phoenix Racing - in a successful bid to wrest the lead from Jamie McMurray, which saw the #1 briefly pushed down below the double yellow line marking the inside limit of the track.
Busch's challenge ended abruptly minutes later, when his car suddenly ran out of gas much to his - and the team's - amazement, as they thought he was good for at least another four to five laps before the next round of green flag pit stops were due. Running out of fuel and suddenly losing speed is not a happy thing to do in the middle of a high speed pack, and inevitably McMurray tapped the #51 into a spin out of turn 2 and into the wall to bring out the second caution of the day.
Busch's car was badly damaged and dropping debris on the track as he tried to pull away to get back to the garage, but he ignored the safety officials and drove off anyway - with an EMT kit still perched on top of the car's roof. He'd taken his helmet off and was unable to hear the incandescent radio communications from NASCAR race control, and by the time he'd finally got back into pit lane he was in a huge amount of trouble and officially excluded and parked from the race for disobeying the instructions of the track workers
"We talked to Kurt about the situation with our emergency people around the car and his effort to get back into the garage area," said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president for competition. "He made an effort to get back in the car and get back in the garage, and we felt like it put some of our folks in harm's way."
Pemberton wouldn't say whether Busch - already on NASCAR probation through to the end of the year for comments he made to a member of the media in June - would face further sanctions for his actions on Sunday afternoon. But he added ominously: "We had a good conversation with him and I'm sure we'll talk more about it."
"I'm leading, I run out of gas, I wreck - and still that competitive guy wants to get back in the race," Busch told reporters afterwards. "And now NASCAR's yelling at me because I don't have my helmet on, and I'm trying to get it to the garage so the guys can work on it.
"Now I'm in trouble, now I've got this little storm right here. This is my life. I'm not complaining. I put myself in a lot of these situations, but it's good things are moving forward. I've got all the bad luck out of the way. This year has been a great year to test me in every which way."
It was hardly the way Busch would have wanted to finish his time at Phoenix Racing, the team which had literally saved his racing career by taking him in after his abrupt split from Penske Racing at the end of 2011 that had come too late to get a top-level ride elsewhere. Despite the controversial final minutes of his time in the #51, Busch was seen embracing the Phoenix crew members in the garage area despite his cutting comments a few minutes earlier about their inability to get the full fuel loaded into the car on the earlier stop.
"That was more of an emotional hug of, thanks for all the work this year," said Busch. "It just came to an end short."
Whether Busch will now début with Furniture Row Racing next weekend as planned rather depends on whether NASCAR feel like throwing a ban in his direction; in the meantime, the current driver of #78 will be walking the other way down pit road to climb into Busch's vacant #51 in what's turned out to be a straight swap between the two squads.
After the caution for Busch's wreck, there was another 35-lap green flag stint before a debris caution on lap 139; and after that the race ran for almost another 40 caution-free laps before the caution for McMurray's accident on lap 182 that set up what proved to be the most ill-fated and expensive green-white-chequered finish of all time.
As virtually the sole man left standing by the end, Matt Kenseth found himself in victory lane - which he found hard to believe, since the team had never felt that it had succeeded in keeping up with the track conditions all afternoon and he'd almost wrecked on lap 42 when he got an accidental tap from team mate Biffle that took the save of the day to avert disaster. There was another near-miss on lap 147, and then at the final restart he'd banged into Clint Bowyer as the two ran side-by-side.
"The track kept getting looser for me as the day went on and we never could get it tightened up," he confessed. "There were just certain spots on the track I couldn't run and make it work. We were really loose and we were on the bottom and I had people pushing me and people outside of me it was just really hard to control.
"On the last lap, that's why I chose the middle groove," he said. "I knew I couldn't be on the bottom or I'd get spun out, so I had to run the middle or the top to try to make a move."
Kenseth had gone past Stewart, and then Stewart took out virtually everyone in sight leaving Kenseth with a free pass to the winners' circle. It's his first race win since the Daytona 500 - another restrictor plate race - which kicked off the 2012 season in February, and the first time he's won at Talladega.
"I'm really proud to be in victory lane with these guys, said Kenseth as he celebrated with his team. "They worked on it hard today. We had an up and down day. We had a couple of near-misses on the track, and had to work our way back through the pack two or three times. We had the car pretty loose and pretty tough at times. But glad it all worked out for us in the end."
Full race results
and Sprint Cup Championship standings