After last week's outing at the cramped Martinsville circuit, you couldn't have a bigger contrast than the switch to NASCAR's longest circuit - the epic Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama, a huge 2.66 mile tri-oval with its 33 degree banking and massive concrete apron run-off areas. And it's just as well they are there, because Talladega is notorious for its wild action and unpredictable outcomes: none of the three main Chase contenders - Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick - wanted any nasty surprises here this weekend or it could be the end of their Sprint Cup campaign right then and there.
With Talladega being a restrictor plate circuit, the racing is all about the draft: find the right person to push or be pushed by and you'll fly past the opposition; but find yourself out of the draft and on your own and you'll fall backwards as if you've had a parachute open. That explains why the lead changed virtually every lap for the first seventeen, as cars were propelled to the front but then once in the lead and out of the draft they would find it impossible to hold on.
So, first lap around we had Joe Nemechek edging Clint Bowyer for the lead; Kevin Harvick led on lap 2, and then next time around you knew from the roar of the crowd that it was Dale Earnhardt Jr hitting the front for the second consecutive weekend. Juan Montoya pipped Bowyer next time around before opting to sink back to stay out of trouble for a while, then it was Kasey Kahne, Earnhardt Jr. again, then Bowyer finally got his turn on lap 8, then Michael Waltrip pushed Sam Hornish Jr. to the front, the two of them pulling away from the rest and exchanging the lead a few times until Jeff Burton got a boost from Matt Kenseth to take them both to the front. For a ten lap period, the duo had the lead between themselves and the race caught its breath.
Among those having a less successful start to the day was Tony Stewart, who had to pit on lap 21 for a tyre going down. When he came back out, a lap down, he was isolated and draft-less, quickly caught by the leaders and overtaken to go a second lap down. Ryan Newman was another driver to have fallen away from the pack and left for dead.
By lap 29, Burton and Waltrip's time up front had overstayed its welcome and they were caught and eventually passed by the pack led by Brad Keselowski. Burton switched drafting partners to Clint Bowyer, and sure enough Bowyer was boosted to the front on lap 36, just as pit stops loomed up for everyone.
After the first round of pit stops, David Reutimann was in the lead thanks to the continued assistance of Marcos Ambrose, but soon there was another rapid fire sequence of lead changes: Mark Martin for a single lap on lap 48, then Denny Hamlin with a push from Hornish Jr., then Martin, and then Hamlin again this time with the help of Reutimann. But on lap 53 the crowd roared again as Dale Jr. once again topped the leaderboard, and this time he liked the view and stayed there for almost ten laps making him the driver with most laps led at this stage of the afternoon.
Up till this point most of the cars had been two-, three- or even four-wide at times, but now things were settling down and there was even a brief period of single file running before everyone massed again for a renewed assault: Jamie McMurray ended Earnhardt's time at the front, only to then get passed by Kevin Harvick who was getting a boost from Reutimann. The two quickly built up a 2s lead only to loose it equally as quickly, as first Kyle and then Kurt Busch came to the front, but then it was back to Harvick and Reutimann.
Tony Stewart had just come in for his off-sync stop (putting him three laps down now) when the first yellow of the afternoon came out on lap 69, after AJ Allmendinger got bumped by Keselowski and got sideways, fortunately saving the car and keeping it off the wall. Finally all the runners had the opportunity to come in for yellow flag pit stops, and it was Matt Kenseth who won the race off of pit road to lead at the restart ahead of Kyle Busch, McMurray, Reutimann and Joey Logano.
A restart meant another tense, closely-packed four-wide battle for positions at the green flag: Kyle got a push from Reutimann and the two climbed to the top, trading the lead between them until first Kasey Kahne, then Dale Earnhardt Jr., then Juan Montoya with help from his team mate McMurray, then Martin Truex Jr. with help from Sam Hornish Jr. who then took the lead the next time around and then finally Montoya to the front on lap 86 to bring a short period of stability to proceedings as the cars finally started running in single file for almost the first extended period in the race.