Matt Kenseth: out front, and the only lucky man in this mess (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
A wild 25-car pile-up at the front of the pack on the final lap shook up the NASCAR championship in Round Four and sent several drivers to the infield care center for quick check-ups, and Matt Kenseth wound up the winner of Sunday's curious Talladega 500.
Fortunately no one appeared injured in the big crash, and drivers were in surprisingly good spirits afterwards, even the eight who had to be taken to the infield hospital -- Clint Bowyer, Paul Menard, Michael Waltrip, Sam Hornish, Casey Mears, Aric Almirola, Tony Stewart, Marcos Ambrose and Bobby Labonte.
However the crash did shake up the way the Sprint Cup standings are taking shape. Brad Keselowski wound up padding his lead in the playoffs; he goes to Charlotte for Saturday night's 500 with a 14-point lead over Jimmie Johnson, one of the men caught up in the crash.
Kenseth was just ahead of the incident and declared winner at the ensuing yellow, based on where he was scored by embedded electronics when the caution was turned on. And Kenseth, strong all day but already knocked out of the championship hunt, was virtually all alone at the finish, with the entire third and fourth turns littered with destroyed cars and ambulances racing to help the drivers.
Good thing Talladega haa plenty of ambulances and rollbacks (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Stewart, who had fought his way into the lead at the white flag, took blame for the frightening crash, which occurred just moments later.
Kenseth was making a move to the outside of Stewart just as Michael Waltrip dived to the inside of Stewart as the huge pack headed into the third corner.
"I just screwed up, turned down and blocked and crashed the whole field," Stewart said. "It's my fault. Michael had a great run to the inside and I just drove across his front bumper."
The race had been relatively mild-mannered up till a yellow with five laps to go in the 188-lapper, when Kevin Harvick pushed leader Jamie McMurray too hard and McMurray, who had led much of the race, spun into the infield.
Most drivers pitted right then for fuel; the race was a fuel-mileage race for many. That jumbled up the field a bit.
On the restart, with two to go, Bowyer and Kenseth were side by side, just ahead of Harvick and Stewart. Kenseth pushed Bowyer toward the inside, below the yellow line, and Stewart grabbed the lead.
Then moments later Waltrip and Kenseth started to sandwich Stewart, and the result was a huge melee.
Stewart got the worst of it, flipping up on his side and getting banged around on all sides. But he emerged from the infield care center relatively unscathed, remarkably.
The 'big one' occurred during a two-lap 'green-white-checkered' finishing sprint.
In the spring here, remember, Stewart, after another crash-filled race, ripped off some zingers: "I'm sorry we couldn't crash more cars today. We didn't fill the quota for Talladega and NASCAR."
The full Stewart diatribe from April's 500 was classic Stewart: http://bit.ly/J4VYB7
And in Stewart's Daytona 400 win in July, that plate race was also marred by a huge late crash
"It's not safe. It's not. It's bloodthirsty," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. "If that's what people want, that's ridiculous."
The crash might have cost Earnhardt any shot the championship which has long eluded him. He finished 20th, which dropped him to 11th in the standings.
It wasn't a pretty finish (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
"That was the craziest, craziest finish I've ever seen at Talladega," Jeff Gordon said after pulling off a second. "I saw smoke going into three, and we got hit and hit, and then dived to the inside, and we got through and kept going.
"Tony accepts the blame a lot....but here I think there's a lot more to it.
"It's just part of racing here at Talladega and accept it. You put a lot of faith in your safety equipment.
"I don't know we made it to the white flag, because people are hitting you on both sides. It was just insane.
"I remember when coming to Talladega was fun. I used to love to come to Talladega. But I haven't had the feeling in a long time.
"But if I were a fan, I'd love it. From an entertainment aspect, race fans ought to be lined up out to the highway."
The crowd was surprisingly small, all things considered -- good weather and the playoffs.
The Sprint Cup playoff chase, at the start of the race, was pretty much a three-man battle, with Keselowski, Johnson and Denny Hamlin out front. Those three played it cautious most of the race, until near the end.
However Bowyer and Stewart, who both needed good days to get back in the thick of the chase, were up front down the stretch, and looking to make that needed points gain.
The crash wiped out all that progress.
Jimmie Johnson walks away from his crashed car (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Gordon took a dig at McMurray's driving during the race: "Jamie's car is as wide as that race track. He was doing that all day long. It seems to work for him, so I guess he'll keep it up."
But it was the last lap melee that angered drivers.
“If this is what we did every week I wouldn’t be doing it I will just put it to you like that," Earnhardt fumed. " If this is how we raced every week I would find another job.
”It’s really not racing.
" If this is how we are going to race, and that is how we are going to continue to race and nothing is going to change, I think NASCAR should build the cars.
"“The way we are going ain’t the right direction.
"There are plenty of engineers out there I’m just a driver. There are plenty of smart people out there that can figure something out where when one guy gets in trouble we don’t have 30 cars tore up .
"For the longevity of the sport that ain't healthy. I don’t care what anybody says; for the good of the sport -- I mean it’s good for the here and now, and it will get people talking -- but for the long run that is not going to help the sport, the way that race ended and the way the racing is.
"I don’t even want to go to Daytona or Talladega next year.
"There has been a last lap wreck in like 90 percent of these things for the last four years with this car. We can’t get away from each other with the bumpers lining up and everybody pushing all the time and spinning each other out. I mean that’s no good. It’s not working. Somebody needs to change it.
"I can’t believe that nobody is sensible enough to realize just how ridiculous that was."
There was no immediate reaction from NASCAR officials.
Hamlin, whose rope-a-dope defensive approach to the race may thus have worked, was relieved to get away from the track: "I was at the very tail end of the field, and once they started crashing immediately I just stood on the brake and waited on everyone to kind of wash down the track and then I drove around them.
"It sucks to get a good finish that way, but that's the strategy in which we played today -- to not get in a wreck."