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For a race that managed over a hundred peaceful green flag laps mid-race with only a couple of debris cautions to break things up - not bad going at all for a track where big wrecks are notoriously common - it was painfully inevitable that the end of the race would be dominated by a series of big accidents that waylaid many of the leading contenders.
The net result of it all was to leave Joe Gibbs Racing's Denny Hamlin and Stewart-Haas Racing's Kevin Harvick fighting it out for victory in the Aaron's 499 at the final restart, only for Harvick's car to appear to stutter as the tank started to run dry and the engine left to run on fumes. That meant Harvick was dropped by his drafting partners which cleared the way for Hamlin to escape at the front by the time a final caution came out following spins for Alex Bowman and Justin Allgaier - but the yellow came out after the white flag, which meant there would be no green-white-chequered remount and Hamlin was on his way to victory lane.
"We knew we were in a good spot to get a victory and it was a just a matter of which line was going to get the push," said Hamlin. "Was it going to be the outside or inside? I thought my best chance was to stay on the inside, but usually the outside lane gets jumbled up with guys trying to stick it three-wide. I chose the bottom and it was the right decision."
The win wasn't just Hamlin's 24th victory in 300 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races - which will likely see him go through to the Chase championship play-offs in September - it was also Hamlin's first career points win at a superspeedway in a restrictor plate race.
"It feels great. I've got tons of exhibition wins on superspeedways, but none with points. I like it!" he said. "I'm still a short track guy - those are my roots, that's where I love racing the most, but we've come a long way [but] now it seems like when we go we know we've got the knowledge and car that can win. It feels good to come to these types of race tracks and know you can win."
The race had come to a final two-lap shootout following two late cautions for accidents involving multiple cars. On lap 175, Jimmie Johnson went into a slow slide while drafting in the middle of a pack of cars: unable to stop the inevitable accident he also ended up taking Kurt Busch, Joey Logano, Michael McDowell and David Ragan with him in the process.
"We just got turned around, I'm not really sure why," said Johnson afterwards. "I know I had some damage to the right rear quarter panel and I had a great-driving race car with no issues and then as I was coming through turn 3, the back end just slid out from under me. So, I don't know where cars were around me and what could have created it, but it just took a big lazy slide and the back came around."
That caution led to a restart attempt on lap 181 that managed to last just two laps before Carl Edwards blew a left rear tyre and spun out into the path of Ryan Newman, with Cole Whitt also getting caught up. This interrupted the spirited battle at the front between Hamlin and Harvick, with the caution coming when Hamlin just had a nose in front meaning that he picked up the lead spot for the final restart on lap 187.
"I lost a tyre," confirmed Edwards. "I tried my best to get out of the way, but I couldn't hang on to it. I couldn't keep the speed up and hang on to it, but all those guys did a really good job of avoiding me. The car just got too wide and too sideways and Ryan got me, but overall we were having a pretty good day. We didn't get caught up in any wrecks and that got us. I think that would have got us no matter what we were trying."
By Talladega Superspeedway standards, none of these final cautions counted as the 'big one' which is almost inevitable in any restrictor plate race at the 2.66-mile track, where lengthy spells of three- and even four-wide running are common. That came instead on lap 137 when Brad Keselowski got loose and started to slide out in traffic at the front of the field, quickly getting collected by Trevor Bayne and then Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon, Brian Scott and Tony Stewart also among the dozen cars caught up in the aftermath.
"I just spun out in front of the whole field," lamented Keselowski. "I don't know why, if I just busted my butt on my own or lost a tyre, but I feel bad for everyone that got torn up. We had a really fast Team Penske Ford, but I just feel bad for the whole Miller Lite team."
While on one level Keselowski's spin had been just 'one of those things' that happens all too easily at Talladega, the 2012 champion was also roundly criticised by his peers because he had been running hard in the leading pack despite being six laps down following an earlier accident at the start of the race when he'd made contact with Danica Patrick.
“He was driving really, really, really aggressively to get back up there," complained Kenseth. "I didn't realize he was that many laps down. I don't know what his strategy was but just lost control of his car in front of the field and when that happens it always collects a bunch of them.
"If it was the other way around and it was anybody else except for him, we'd all be getting lectured," he added.
"I don't know what he was doing," Gordon concurred. "Obviously thinking that was going to be the way to get his lap back. All that it did was get a bunch of other cars wrecked."
"Certainly I wanted to get my laps back and have a shot to win at the end," Keselowski confirmed. "The only way I was going to do that was by being really aggressive at the front of the field."
As for the earlier incident on lap 14 with Patrick, that seemed to be a case of both drivers being mutually apologetic about how things had turned out, with Keselowski attempting to take the early lead by cutting down in front of the #10 apparently before having sufficient clearance, which meant the #2 got nudged in the rear which sent Keselowski sliding across the in-field apron.
"I'm not really sure what happened," said Keselowski. "I made an aggressive move to take the lead and the next thing I knew I was spinning, so I'm not really sure. Obviously, there was some kind of contact but I don't know what happened."
"My apologies if that was all my fault," Patrick said for her part. "I don't know if it was just me coming up. It very well could have been. I don't know if it was him coming down. I'm not 100 per cent sure ... I am not out here to make enemies, especially on speedways.
"I was running the bottom, and I was feeling I was about to get hung out,” she explained. “He went up to the outside and I was looking up into my mirror to see if I was clear of the #24 to slide in. I was moving up to get into that lane to clear it, and I just thought the #2 had enough momentum to be gone past me."
Other cautions during the afternoon included a debris caution on lap 50 and another on lap 106, the latter ironically being caused by a caution light falling apart as a result of the buffeting it had received from the cars racing past. There was also a caution on lap 151 for David Gilliland's engine blowing up, leaving debris and fluid on the track. In total, eight cautions saw 31 laps of the race run under yellow during the day.
This being a restrictor plate event where aerodynamic drafting is crucial, drafting partners were able to hook up and surge to the front one minute only to lose their connection the next for any one of a number of reasons and promptly fall way back down the running order. That meant the lead changed so frequently during the race - 48 times, among 23 different drivers the majority of whom led for just one lap - that cataloguing who was in front at any given time became a concern only of the most obsessive compulsive statistician.
The driver to have led the most laps on the day ended up being Roush Fenway Racing's Greg Biffle who amassed 58 of the 188 race laps out in front as he played a careful, sensible strategy that left him crossing the line in second place just 1.611s behind Hamlin at the end of the race when the yellow came out.
"I was backing up off of him quite a bit on the backstretch, and I got probably two and a half, three cars away from him, and then they said caution's out - I was setting up to go by him but just never had the chance," explained Biffle. "I wish I would have known we weren't going to race all the way back, but it was a good day for us. The car was really fast, a lot of speed, and just happy to come out of here with a clean car."
Behind Biffle, Clint Bowyer, Brian Vickers, AJ Allmendinger and Paul Menard rounded out the top six, while Harvick ended the race in seventh after falling back in the final seconds. Hendrick Motorsport's Dale Earnhardt Jr. had been in front for 26 laps but ended up in 26th place, while Joey Logano had led for 25 laps before ending up classified in 32nd place after being involved in the Johnson wreck.
Despite getting caught up in the Keselowski wreck and ending up classified in 39th place, Jeff Gordon continues to lead the points standings by three points over Matt Kenseth, who was able to get the #20 back out on track after being involved in the same caution and consequently marginally improved his final position to 37th as a result. Kenseth's JGR team mate Kyle Busch is a further point in the championship standings back having battled through to a 12th place finish at Talladega.
As for Hamlin, joining the ranks of the 2014 race winners with priority entry to the Chase isn't going to affect how he runs the rest of the regular season. "We really just want to win races, regardless of what implications this means for the Chase," he insisted. "It feels good to be back in victory lane in a points paying event, anyway."
Full race results
and Sprint Cup Championship standings.