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.