Hands up who saw that one coming? David Ragan and his Front Row Motorsports team mate David Gilliland had been circulating in the midfield all afternoon at Talladega Superspeedway, but they'd never looked in contention for a top five finish - let along a maiden race win for the squad.
But then the Aaron's 499 NASCAR Sprint Cup race on Sunday had been one of those predictably wildly unpredictable affairs almost from the start. Forecasters were saying that the race would be hit by rain at some point but couldn't be sure when, how or for how long until it actually happened. Similarly, race fans and media pundits could say there would definitely be a Big One (or two) that would engulf large number of cars; but knowing just who would get caught up - and when - was impossible to tell. We just had to sit back and enjoy the ride and hold on tight when things got ... Interesting.
Having been handed the front row by the wash-out of qualifying on Saturday, Carl Edwards and Martin Truex Jr. led the field to the green flag even as drops of rain could once again be felt in the air over Talladega. Edwards quickly fell back from the front, allowing Truex to lead for five laps before Matt Kenseth swept past and took up what would prove to be a long residency at the front.
Kenseth's team mate Denny Hamlin had succeeded in making the start of the race, his first return to competition since his wreck at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California the week before Easter which had left him with a compression fracture of his lower back. However, Hamlin quickly headed to the relative safety of the back of the field and bided his time for the first caution of the race, at which point he planned on exiting the car through a hatch in the roof and handing it off to Brian Vickers. As the credited driver at the green flag, Hamlin would still be awarded any Cup points that Vickers went on to accrue.
Contact between Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Travis Kvapil on the backstretch on lap 20 seemed to promise that caution, but both cars were able to make it back to pit lane for repairs without triggering a yellow. However, an engine transmission blow-up for Trevor Bayne two laps later did the business, and Hamlin was able to come in and exit the car without putting Vickers a lap down for the restart.
"There was no warning at all, I got to turn one and it let go," said Bayne of his retirement. "I'm surprised the whole field didn't crash with as much oil that's pouring out of this thing in the garage, but we were lucky to hold onto it and keep this car in one piece."
Kenseth continued to lead at the restart on lap 28 ahead of Kasey Kahne, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Martin Truex Jr., with Vickers taking just a dozen laps to work his way back into the top ten after the driver change. With the third JGR driver Kyle Busch also moving up into the top three it looked like it was going to be a good day for the squad ahead of their scheduled mid-week appeal against heavy penalties on Kenseth's #20 car.
But their luck proved short-lived: on lap 44, Busch clipped the rear bumper of Kahne's car as he made a move for second place through turn 1, and that sent both cars into a heavy hit with the outside wall. Worse, another 15 cars were swept in up the chaotic aftermath: the Talladega 'Big One' was upon us.
Busch took the blame for causing what ensued: "Kasey made a move to get up in front of me there and I was catching him pretty quick and I tried to get to his outside before I got to him. I tapped his bumper and from there the wreck was on. Instantly, it just turned sideways.
"I hate that it happened to Kasey and, of course, to everybody else that got torn up in that mess," he added.
"I just kind of got shot through the centre there, just a lot of momentum coming from behind," explained Kahne for his part. "Felt the #18 pushing me and next thing I know I was spinning. You just can't push with these cars. We learned that at Daytona, he was pushing me and spun me in the wall and then happened again, so that is what it is."
Kahne said that he wasn't going to be holding any grudges toward Busch for sparking the wreck: "I didn't talk to him. I think we both probably understand what happened and we will figure it out from there."
Vickers was one of those running close enough to be heavily involved in the wreck. Also affected to varying degrees were Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle, Marcos Ambrose, Kevin Harvick, Jamie McMurray, David Reutimann, Jeff Burton, Casey Mears, Jeff Gordon, David Stremme, Kurt Busch and Scott Speed. It was, to put it mildly, a very big mess.
"I just saw them wrecking above me," said Biffle. "I thought about going to the left, I had plenty of room and probably should have, but I didn't. I just stayed straight and moved down all I could and it wasn't enough. They got me in the right-rear and turned me the wrong way up into the wall, a pretty hard hit, but that's all you can do is hang on when stuff like that happens."
The race finally resumed on lap 51, with Kenseth back in charge after pit stops. Kurt Busch was running in second place for a time despite the #78 needing four pit tops to address the damage sustained in the earlier multi-car accident. At the halfway point of the scheduled race distance on lap 94, Kenseth was back in front after a round of green flag pit stops with Johnson, Earnhardt Jr., Kurt Busch, Truex, Clint Bowyer, Carl Edwards and Michael Waltrip comprising the top eight.
This was a pivotal moment: with half the race completed, it meant that the race would be 'legal' even if the rain moved in for the rest of the day. There would be no return on Monday even if there was a downpour - something that was starting to become a very real possibility as the skies darkened over turns 1 and 2. As the weather radar started to relay a grom prognostication, the teams ordered their drivers to go for the front in case the race ended at any moment, and on lap 117 Jimmie Johnson duly brushed aside long-time leader Kenseth.
Johnson lasted four laps in the front before the Ford gang showed up and took charge: Roush Fenway team mates Carl Edwards and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. moved to the front with Penske duo Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski in third and fourth, followed by the Michael Waltrip Racing trio of Waltrip, Bowyer and Truex which pushed Johnson down to eighth place ahead of Earnhardt and Ryan Newman.
And at that point the rain moved in: an initial caution on lap 124 became a red flag stoppage next time around and the cars headed onto pit lane to park up and wait for the rain to pass. It proved a long wait, with the initial light rain turning into a full-fledged storm at one stage before just as suddenly abating and leaving NASCAR to attempt to dry the 2.66-mile track with their new Air Titan technology. Even so, the red flag lasted three and a half hours before the order was finally given by NASCAR to re-fire the engines, by which point it was nearly 7pm and close to sunset. With no floodlights available at Talladega and rain still intermittently in the air, this was always going to be a very rushed and fraught encore - which meant everyone would want to be in the lead as soon as possible, and for as long as possible in case the race was called prematurely.
A pre-resumption round of pit stops put Bobby Labonte in charge ahead of David Gilliland and Saturday's Nationwide race winner Regan Smith for the restart on lap 130, but four laps later Kenseth was back in charge once more with Edwards and Truex staying close behind him. One round of green flag pit stops remained to be conducted with most cars following Kenseth in on lap 166 with Kenseth's visit to pit lane going poorly by comparison with others putting him behind Johnson, Waltrip and Bowyer.
The #11 still more than had the measure of the opposition back out on the track and was charging back to the front when the fourth caution of the protracted day's racing came out on lap 173 for Michael McDowell blowing a tyre and hitting the wall in turn 2. The #48 still held the lead over Kenseth under the caution, and Johnson was on the radio trying to persuade NASCAR that it really was very wet out here now, honest it was, and they should really just call the race right here and now while he was in the lead and not risk a restart. Kurt Busch, still running in third, provided the chorus by pointing out how dark it was.
But a restart there was all the same, with ten to go and ironically it was Kenseth who initially dropped back to fourth before recovering his momentum to go three wide with Johnson and Busch at 200mph. Regan Smith also arrived to make his presence felt, and everyone held their breath sensing disaster was imminent.
And it was. Another major wreck ensured following initial contact between Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and JJ Yeley, with Kurt Busch the most conspicuous casualty as the #78 was flipped and rolled into the air before landing on the hood of Newman's car. Danica Patrick's car was also extensively wrecked, and Clint Bowyer and Jamie McMurray were also caught up in the aftermath to a lesser degree.
"I saw that whole thing in my mirror - that was unbelievable," radioed Johnson, a note of understandable "I told you so" to his voice.
Now it was Kenseth's turn to plead for the race to be called - he'd just taken the lead with an audacious move before the cautions came out, putting him ahead of Edwards, Johnson and Smith. "What corner am I in again?" he radioed, to underscore just how dark it now was and how little visibility the drivers had.
Emerging from the infield medical centre, Ryan Newman was way more forthright in his words to the media: "They can build safer racecars, they can build safer walls, but they can't get their heads out of their asses far enough to keep them on the racetrack, and that's pretty disappointing," he fumed, adding that he was only speaking to reporters in order to let everyone know he was okay after the nasty wreck.
"I wanted to make sure I get that point across. Y'all can figure out who 'they' is. That's no way to end a race. Our car was much better than that. That's just poor judgement in restarting the race, poor judgement. I mean, you got what you wanted, but poor judgement and running in the dark and running in the rain.”
But the show had to go on, and would conclude with a green-white-chequered finish just like the Nationwide race had the day before. This time there was no last minute major wreck: but there was one heck of a major surprise instead, as out of no where the lowly Front Row Motorsports pairing of David Ragan and David Gilliland teamed up and swept past Edwards, Johnson, Smith and the rest to claim the win at the line against all the odds.
It's the first win for Front Row in the team's history, and Ragan's second career win; even Johnson, when told who'd won because he hadn't been able to tell himself because of the gloom, couldn't resist saying that the fairytale outcome for the tiny team was "awesome."
"It's a true David versus Goliath story and couldn't be prouder to play my role," said Ragan in victory lane afterwards. ""They're not all this easy, but this is special to get Front Row Motorsports their first win. It feels like I've never been here before.
"I've got to thank my teammates," he added. "If it wasn't for that final push from David Gilliland, I don't know what to say."
The only sour note in the post-race celebrations came from Brad Keselowski, who ended up in 15th place at the line having restarted in the top ten. "Me thinks if someone looked at what happened on that restart they might feel differently about that finish," he tweeted. "I'm happy as hell a small team won. Doesn't change the fact that the restart was blatantly wrong.
"#34 swapped lanes before restart," he explained. "Mad as hell about that finish. We were suppose to line up 10th when the #34 switched lanes entering 3 before green. That lane won." Ironically, Ragan blew his first shot at a Cup win at Daytona in 2011 by committing just such an offence and being penalised five laps from the end of the race.
Ragan refuted any allegations of a repeat of his previous misdemeanour: "NASCAR makes the call on where we line up at, and I listen to what NASCAR has to say,' he said. "Brad was just trying to snooker us and get the preferred lane, and eventually he decided he should do the right thing and he restarted ninth and I restarted tenth, so there's no controversy.
"NASCAR will set him straight eventually," Ragan added. "He maybe won't admit it, but he knows that he lined up in the right spot and I lined up in the right spot." But it didn't matter anyway - NASCAR had called the race and Ragan had the victory.
With Ragan and Gilliland appropriately sweeping the front row at the line, Carl Edwards was left in third just a hundredth of a second behind with Michael Waltrip finishing in fourth place ahead of Jimmie Johnson.
"That was crazy," said Edwards. "I blocked everybody I could, I was doing everything I could. I blocked Matt and I thought, 'Oh, we've got it.' And then I saw Jimmie coming and I blocked him and I thought, 'Who is that back there?'
"David did everything but wreck me," Edwards revealed. "He did everything right and I still thought he was gonna wreck when he was looking in his mirror and he almost hit the apron and he wiggled coming to the line, so I thought we still might get this thing. But it's awesome for David Ragan ... It's the most fun I've had at Talladega."
"I thought that between the #99 and the #20 and ourselves and the #51, that we would settle the race between us," admitted Johnson. "I was racing the #38 earlier and he had plenty of speed, but they came up on us so fast that I could see Carl trying to block and he finally said there's no real way to block the speed that they're bringing. Those two had blown by and David had made it back to the chequered flag - it's really cool for that team."
The race result means that Edwards closes the gap on Johnson in the points standings, but only by two points: Johnson still has a 41 point margin over the rest of the field after ten Cup races of 2013.
Meanwhile Matt Kenseth was left ruing 'what might have been' after he lost out badly in that final GWC sequence, dropping to eighth place behind Regan Smith and Martin Truex Jr. by the time he crossed the line despite having led for a total of 142 of the 192 laps of the race.
"It was a good run, but it was a really disappointing finish," he admitted. "Carl just got a rocket restart there and he cleared me down the backstretch. He just got a huge run somehow and I was still second. I thought we still had a shot: I tried to get right on Carl and he blocked, which you should, and we got real wide getting up there in one because he got me pretty far to the top.
"I just didn't watch the runs from them guys way in the back," he admitted. "They just got a huge run up the middle. I saw David at the last minute, but he was going too fast so if I pulled in front of him I was just going to get wrecked so I just had to bite the bullet and try to find a hole, which there wasn't one, and finish the best we can.
"Congratulations to David and David," he added. "That was cool to see the underdogs go up there and grab one so I'm happy for them guys."Full race results
and Sprint Cup Championship standings