Immediately after Sunday's 500 ended, no one was entirely sure of anything. Not about who had won, or who had made it into the next stage of the Chase - or come to that, even whether the race was actually over or not. It was the sort of general omnishambles that race officials dread, especially coming as it did in one of the most crucial races of the entire 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup championship when all eyes were fixed on the outcome.

At stake was not only a race victory, but the Chase hopes still hanging in the balance of the 11 drivers still vying for a spot in the final eight to remain in contention for this year's title. The only person who didn't have to worry was Penske's Joey Logano who had already won the previous two races at both Charlotte Motor Speedway and Kansas Speedway to guarantee his progression to the next round of the play-offs.

In a classic case of cosmic irony, it ended up being Logano - the one man who didn't need the security of a race win at Talladega Superspeedway this weekend - who was quickly declared the winner of the race. That meant he had succeeded in sweeping all three races in the so-called Contender Round of the Chase

"I saw the lights come on when I was still in the lead and I thought we had it," said Logano in victory lane. "It is all about how the timing loops are and the camera to make sure that is what happened. It is such a crazy race. That were such long green flag runs, you never see that. To pull it into victory lane here at Talladega is so cool."

Full NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race results from Talladega Superspeedway.

Logano's hat-trick came after the one single permitted attempt at a green-white-chequered finish had ended in one of Talladega's legendary 'big ones' - a multi-car wreck that left a huge mess not only out on the track but also in race control, as officials tried to work out exactly where everyone was when the accident broke out. On their analysis of the video footage and telemetry hung the fate of the title campaigns of several of the biggest names in the sport.

The irony was that up until the final minutes the race had been relatively quiet and even sedate by 'Dega standards: for the first 133 laps of the 196-lap race there hadn't even been a single caution. Pole sitter Jeff Gordon took the initial lead with his Hendrick Motorsport team mates Kasey Kahne and Dale Earnhardt Jr. running alongside him. Joe Gibbs Racing's Denny Hamlin went to the front on lap 13, but as things settled down it was Earnhardt - the driver most in need of an outright win if he was to have any chance of staying in the Chase after this weekend - who settled in for a lengthy stint at the head of the field.

A round of green flag pit stops on lap 40 saw a third member of the Hendrick contingent take over at the front, with Jimmie Johnson going into cruise mode for the next 22 laps before returning the reins to Earnhardt. However, for the second time today the #88 struggled to slow down on entry into pit lane for a new round of green flag stops on lap 80 and as a result Earnhardt lost control of the race to Logano who had started from tenth place and was coming to life as the race reached the halfway point and increasingly looking like one of the strongest cars out on track.

The race was starting to take its toll on others, however. After a great qualifying performance in the part-time #21 Wood Brothers entry, Ryan Blaney was forced out of the race on lap 86 with an engine issue. And minutes later, Denny Hamlin was also forced on to pit road with an issue with his roof flap coming open. An initial application of duct tape failed to fix the problem and the #11 fell off the lead lap while the crew tried further repairs: having come into the race second in the championship points, Hamlin was now watching his title hopes disappear before his eyes.

Meanwhile the race continued to run under green, with various drafting hook-ups seeing Clint Bowyer (Michael Waltrip Racing) and Kevin Harvick (Stewart-Haas Racing) briefly surge to the front before the final remaining member of the Hendrick squad Kasey Kahne reasserted order through to the next round of green flag stops which saw Johnson win the race off pit road to go back to the front. He was still there when the uninterrupted spell of running finally came to an end with the first caution of the day on lap 134 for fluid on the track from David Ragan's car and Justin Allgaier's engine blowing up, which finally allowed everyone to come down pit lane under yellow and take a relative breather from the non-stop running to date.

A fuel-only call meant JGR's Matt Kenseth won the race off pit road ahead of his team mate Kyle Busch, both of them needing a win or a strong finish to stay in the Chase. They were followed to the green flag on lap 140 by Gordon, Johnson, Kyle Larson, Harvick, Cole Whitt, Bowyer and JGR's Carl Edwards, but it was Dale Earnhardt restarting from 19th place who was soon thundering through the field and taking the lead again on lap 151 ahead of Logano and his Penske team mate Brad Keselowski. Meanwhile Harvick was going in the opposite direction, the #4 car now seriously wounded and plummeting back down the running order and becoming a mobile chicane hazard for other cars obliged to drive around him before he finally managed to arrest his fall and start to claw his way back up through the positions in hope of salvaging his own Chase hopes as he seeks to retain his Sprint Cup Series championships for a second successive year.

Earnhardt continued to lead on the high line with Logano at the head of the middle column and Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon vying for control down low. However, everyone still had one more visit to pit road to make before they could make it to the finish with the green flag pit stops breaking out on lap 170, and Earnhardt once again locking up as he came in meaning that he was forced to take tyres when the team had originally been planning a fuel-only stop. With many others able to do just that, the #88 drop back to ninth place.

Roush Fenway's Greg Biffle had little to lose and stayed out on a highly unlikely fuel conservation strategy but with a lead of over 40 seconds to play with over Chase contenders Ryan Newman (Richard Childress Racing) and Martin Truex Jr. (Furniture Row Racing). With the leaders strung out into a single file it was difficult to make progress, but Logano managed to make his way up to second with Earnhardt behind him as the pair made in roads on the race leader who by now was running in fumes.

With just four laps of scheduled race distance left, the engine in Jamie McMurray's #1 Ganassi car blew and forced a dramatic last-minute yellow for fluid on the track, only the second caution of the afternoon. The clean-up took several minutes and the delay was not a friend to Biffle, who was finally forced to dive onto pit lane for a splash and dash to get him to the finish. It left the front row for the restart to Logano and Earnhardt, and it was Earnhardt who needed to make this a do-or-die moment.

Because of the long (2.66-mile) nature of Talladega, NASCAR had made the pre-event decision to limit the number of green-white-chequered finish attempts to just one. There was general incredulity therefore when NASCAR declared that the first GWC attempt 'didn't count' when Johnson went around, on the basis that the field hadn't actually crossed the line even though the green flag had been briefly shown. Some of the more cynical commentators remarked that race control might have called it differently if Earnhardt had got the nose of the #88 out in front by the time his team mate spun, and it was certainly true that if the willpower of the crowd alone could influence the outcome of the race then Earnhardt would have had it in the bag hours ago.

Finally, the official one-and-only GWC got underway - and almost immediately there was chaos as jostling within the closely-packed field caused by Harvick's car once again failing to get up to speed and packing up the cars behind him resulted in multiple contacts and cars spinning all over the place. Among those listed as being involved in the general carnage were Harvick, Hamlin, Kenseth, Tony Stewart, Danica Patrick, Austin Dillon, Sam Hornish Jr., Trevor Bayne, Michael McDowell, David Gilliland and Alex Bowman.

"At the end, the #4 knew he was blew up," explained Kenseth of the situation as he had seen it. "We had the first attempt, but I guess they said it wasn't an attempt although they threw the green, so it seems like we attempted the start and there was a wreck. So then they tried it again and the #4 knew he was blew up, so he said he was going to stay in his lane, so the #6 [Bayne] then went up and outside and he clipped him and caused a wreck because he knew he'd make the Chase that way."

With the re-emergence of the yellows, the race was done. The only problem is that no one knew what the result was at the moment the caution had actually been declared and the running order officially frozen. Logano's victory over Earnhardt - his sixth of the year and 14th in 251 starts - was confirmed relatively quickly, but it was a long and anxious wait before the remaining positions were sorted out in race control, with Keselowski being awarded third place ahead of Gordon, Keselowski, Edwards, Paul Menard, Truex, Bowyer, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Kurt Busch who was one place ahead of his brother Kyle in 11th.

But the key question was: where did that leave the Chase situation?

For Earnhardt, he'd come into the race knowing that only a win would be enough to get him out of the drop zone. Despite leading for a race-high 61 laps, he'd fallen short of the victory by mere inches, meaning that his Chase bid is now officially over.

"I'm proud of what we did today. We did everything we needed to do, just fell about the width of the splitter. You know how I hate that splitter, so [this is] another reason," he laughed. "I couldn't believe [Logano] gave me the bottom [line]. I was like 'man this is a gift.' I was going to win the race for sure, but that caution came out."

Not that Earnhardt was feeling bitter by the fact that NASCAR's new one-GWC-attempt-only rule for this week's race because of how things had turned out. "I'm fine with the new rule. Everybody is going to debate that we were thinking before the race that they made a good change on the GWC to go to one and I still feel that way. Per the rules we run second, I can live with that.

"The #22 did a great job. He had a hell of a round winning all three races [of the Contender Round]. If he wins the championship he can look back on this round here as the one that set him up."

After disappointing rounds at Charlotte and Kansas in recent weeks, Matt Kenseth had been in a similar position to Earnhardt coming into today's race - knowing that only a win would do, and he'd never been close.

"It's disappointing, but, like I said, it was a little bit of a circus there at the end. At Talladega, you don't have a lot of control. Our car just wasn't very fast today. To be honest with you, we just couldn't do the things with it that I'm used to being able to do with these cars. We were just kind of stuck where we were - usually go backwards, could never really go forward, so we didn't have a car today that could be a threat any way. I shouldn't have got us in this position at Charlotte and Kansas. We should have been able to get away and do a better job there and wouldn't have been in that spot here."

It had looked like Kenseth was going to be joined in being eliminated by his JGR team mate Kyle Busch who had come into the final round stuck the bottom four positions in the points standings. However instead it was another of the JGR contingent, Denny Hamlin who found himself being relegated instead because of the roof flap issues on the #11 car.

"I don't know what broke or whatever. It just peeled up. I guess what's frustrating is they didn't tell us we had to, but we came in and fixed it, we didn't get it fixed, we tried to come in again and get it fixed, didn't fix it and went a bunch of laps down. It's tough, we'll just move on to next year."

Hamlin's dismay meant that Busch ended up being boosted up one place to eighth place in the points meaning he stays in title contention for the next three races at least.

"This is the first time I finished at Talladega without a scratch on the car and I finished worse than third because I've only finished twice - I won and I finished third and now I can say that I have not finished in the top-10 without a mark on it. I don't know if that's a success or a failure, but either way it was a success for today."

Busch finished the race one place and just three points ahead of Ryan Newman, who accordingly ended up being eliminated from the Chase as a result. He was frustrated by the way the race had ended - not only the two restarts but also the part played in them by Kevin Harvick, the man who'd taken over his seat at SHR at the end of 2013.

"Which one do you want me to talk about?" he snapped when questioned by reporters. "Which one? The final, final restart? Or, the one where we were only going to have one and not anymore? And then the #4 causing the crash?", adding: "I guess if you come up with a new rule every week, we'll have something to talk about, won't we?

"I'll be honest. I am extremely disappointed in the situation and what all transpired. I'm not happy coming up one position short under these circumstances. At this point all I can say is we'll go to Martinsville Speedway like everybody else."

The general ill-feeling toward Harvick for his role in the final multi-car wreck won't have been helped by the TV network covering the race unearthing a transcript of a radio conversation between Harvick and his crew chief Rodney Childers, which appeared to suggest that the #4 had triggered the final wreck intentionally in order to save his Chase progression hopes.

"Hopefully they wreck right past the start/finish line, might end up with something. That's our one shot. Everybody's done a good job all day though, no matter what," the recording reveals Childers telling his driver. Then either Childers or possibly the team's spotter adds: "I know you ain't got much option, but I would try and block as many positions as you can because that's what it's going to come down to."

However it's not a smoking gun that will cause race control to rewrite today's results or issue post-race penalties for misconduct, as the rules simply don't cover the situation where someone simply does what he has to in order to win. Indeed, anything else might well be a violation of NASCAR's overarching stipulation that drivers "must give 100 per cent all the time." Harvick certainly did what he had to in order to keep himself in the Chase - and it had worked.

All of which means that joining Joey Logano in the next round of the Chase will be Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch. They will all have their points levelled up to 4000 meaning that they go into the Eliminator Round dead level with just three new races to make their case for staying in contention at the season finale next month.

After this week's high drama, next weekend at Martinsville Speedway will be a comparatively laid-back affair. No one can be eliminated at the Goody's Fast Pain Relief 500, although whoever wins - providing they're one of the eight drivers still in the Chase - will be automatically assured of a place in the final four who will ultimately contend for the title at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 22.

Full race results from Talladega Superspeedway and updated Sprint Cup Championship standings.

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