The accident started when polesitter Mark Martin, seeking to connect with drafting partner Jeff Gordon, had ended up dropping down the track and catching the nose of Denny Hamlin's car: Hamlin was turned and the two cars caught Regan Smith, who was sent into a nose-on impact with the outside wall in a crunching impact reminiscent of Jimmie Johnson's hard impact last weekend at Charlotte. Fortunately Smith was out of the car, albeit limping on his right ankle despite the cushioning effect of the SAFER barrier.
"Yeah, that was not a fun hit, but it is what we do at the restrictor plate tracks and unfortunately get caught up in other people's messes. I don't know what happened, I just know I turned right in a hurry," said Smith later. "It is what it is, and I was hoping we were going to have a good day. My partner, Kurt Busch got wrecked earlier and it was not his fault either, but that is how it goes.
It was not the end of the day's drama for Smith and his team, as a fire later broke out next to their hauler as the team were packing up fuel cans after the race. "They had the gas can on the ground there between the tractor and the hauler," said spokesman Dave Ferroni. "They took off the fuel probe, something sparked it and it ignited. That's all we know at this time." No one was hurt and the team put out the fire before the official fire trucks made it to the scene of the billowing column of smoke that went up over the in-field Talladega paddock area, but some equipment and hoses as well as personal baggage were damaged.
The clean-up for Smith's on-track accident pushed the race into a green-and-white-chequered finish, with Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer restarting from the front. Could they hold on to the lead for two more laps or would the drafting politics of Talladega deny them the win? They answered that question immediately and blasted away from the competition by well over a second, and once the white flag came out (meaning that the race would end with the next flag, whatever the colour) it meant that the win was theirs.
One small detail: which of them would claim the actual victory? Burton had the lead on the track into the final lap, but Bowyer pulled out of the draft down the inside on the final turn and judged his strike to perfection, surviving a glancing impact with Burton to claim the chequered flag by 0.018s over his team mate.
Did Bowyer feel bad about snatching victory away from Burton after all their drafting work together during the afternoon? "He worked so well with me all day long. you hate that it comes down to that," said Bowyer afterwards. "It is what it is. You owe it to your team, to your sponsors to go out and win the race. Unfortunately it came down to that situation."
Bowyer added that if the competition had been closer to them, then "I was prepared to push him to the win no matter what the cost." But once it was clear that they had the win to themselves, he was determined to take it. "He's already won a lot of races. I think he's won like 20 some races, I've only won five," he laughed.
It's likely to be Bowyer's last Cup victory with Richard Childress Racing, with his move to Michael Waltrip's team sealed for 2012, and Bowyer was proud to be saying goodbye to RCR by handing the team their 100th Cup win, five of which he had contributed to the team himself.
"It's just so important to me to be able to cap off such a good relationship with Richard. Everybody at RCR, it's like family over there. Meant a lot for me to be able to win before we end this deal," he said. "The stars were lined up today ... If I won the race, it was going to be Richard's hundredth win. Too many things meant to be for it not to be. I'm excited that it was."
For his part, Jeff Burton admitted that he didn't "know whether to be excited or upset. After the year we've had, it's good to be in position to win a race. Obviously Clint and I worked really well together the whole race. Had some good luck along the way. Whenever you leave here not wrecked, you ought to be happy. At the same time I'm heartbroke we didn't win the race," he admitted.