The tough nature of superspeedway racing - and in particular the roulette nature of two-car drafting that once again dominated this weekend at Talladega in the Good Sam Club 500 - meant that Clint Bowyer got very lucky indeed and headed for victory lane, while several big-name Chase drivers no longer remain in any realistic contention for the 2011 Sprint Cup championship after only three of them finished in the top ten.
Clint Bowyer started from third position on the grid, and soon hooked up in a pre-arranged move with his Richard Childress Racing team mate Jeff Burton for a race-long two-car-draft arrangement that saw Burton hit the lead for the first time briefly on lap 4, although Bowyer had to wait until lap 30 before he had a taste of the lead for himself.
Driver fortunes waxed and waned throughout the afternoon, with cars being propelled to the front by their drafting partners only to plummet backwards once the momentum had gone or the two cars had needed to break apart and swap over to prevent the pushing car from overheating from lack of front air intake. At other times, team tactics dictated a strategic retreat to the back of the pack to stay out of trouble.
That's why there were a massive 72 lead changes during the 188 laps of the 2.66 tri-oval on Sunday afternoon (and that remarkable statistic is still well off the circuit record), between 26 of the 43 drivers out on track. Clint Bowyer led 25 of those laps and Burton led 26, making them the most consistent and successful pairing of the race; Tony Stewart led the most laps of all with 30 in front, although he wouldn't hit the lead for the first time until a comparatively tardy lap 63.
Stewart's drafting partner at the start was his team mate Ryan Newman; Matt Kenseth paired up with David Ragan; Mark Martin with Jeff Gordon; Red Bull duo Kasey Kahne and Brian Vickers and Earnhardt-Ganassi's Jamie McMurray and Juan Montoya also took up drafting together. Kevin Harvick was running with Paul Menard and Travis Kvapil had considerable early success working with David Gilliland, while Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne had taken up with Robby Gordon. Other pairings included Casey Mears and Landon Cassill, Carl Edwards with Greg Biffle, Kurt Busch with Regan Smith, and AJ Allmendinger hooking up with Richard Petty Motorsports team mate Marcos Ambrose.
Joe Gibbs Racing team mates Kyle Busch and Joey Logano paired up from lowly qualifying positions back in the thirties and powered their way into the top ten during the first 20 laps, but their third team mate Denny Hamlin was left without a dance partner at all in the opening stint and paid the price, losing touch with the pack altogether which seriously compromised his pace and led to him being lapped by the leaders before the first caution of the day on lap 25, for debris - which at least meant that he promptly got the free pass and was back on the lead lap again.
The trouble with these carefully arranged pairings is that they often don't survive the heat of battle, and so it was true for JGR. On lap 67, Busch and Logano got separated as they fumbled over Trevor Bayne entering pit road early in a round of green flag pit stops. Logano got spun, and while he initially kept it together and carried on, his tyre promptly blew out sparking the second caution of the afternoon. Worse, it had caused damage to the front of the #20 and compromised his ability to effectively push his team mate in the draft. Not that Busch was having a great time of it either, as he got a penalty for speeding on pit road and sent to the back for the restart.
Another pairing also fell apart on lap 80: Newman and Stewart were trying to get past David Reutimann on the lowside when the #39 car got unsettled. The draft broke up and Stewart couldn't avoid rear-ending his team mate when Newman hit the brakes in an unsuccessful attempt to stop the spin onto the infield that left him with major front splitter damage. That pretty much ended his prospects as a drafting partner for the rest of the race, and - combined with the damage itself - Newman would end up finishing in 28th place 16 laps off the lead.
Necessity makes for odd bedfellows, and after the restart Stewart was left with few alternatives other than to take up with Joey Logano, himself now partner-less in Stewart's old #20 Home Depot car. Despite the damage on Logano's car, the pairing immediately proved remarkable effective in their mutual hour of need. Logano's former dance partner Kyle Busch had taken up with the formerly friendless Denny Hamlin, the two making it work all the way to the front on lap 90 despite being hampered by radio communications difficulties that made strategising difficult. But it would prove no matter, for their partnership was about to get hit by the fourth caution of the afternoon on lap 104.