Victory! (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
It's a great story, one of the best of the season: a brilliant, totally unexpected charge to victory by underdog David Ragan, pushed along in his gutsy bid by underdog teammate David Gilliland.
Two of the sport's good guys, having a great day.
And for team owner Bob Jenkins -- what, you've never heard of him? -- it was oh, so sweet.
Jenkins runs one of this sport's most underfunded operations, even at that quite an expensive venture.
And in the final moments Ragan and Gilliland were up against men from this sport's three most powerful operations, Joe Gibbs' Matt Kenseth, Jack Roush's Carl Edwards, and Rick Hendrick's Jimmie Johnson.
And Kenseth, Edwards and Johnson were each concentrating so intently on each other that they missed the Ragan-Gilliland train until it was too late.
For Ragan it was even sweeter, since Kenseth and Edwards were once his teammates at Roush's.
How Ragan and Gilliland pull this off? Well, even looking at the video again and again, it's hard to figure it out.
First, former teammates Kenseth and Edwards, who have had their moments over the years, appeared to be focusing too hard on each other, and keeping an eye on always dangerous Jimmie Johnson, backed by fellow Chevy driver Regan Smith, himself a winner in a thriller Saturday.
And by the time Kenseth, on the high-side, noticed Ragan and Gilliland charging up the middle, it was too late to throw a block.
With a full-head of steam Regan and Gilliland then roughed up Edwards -- not easily done -- and sailed away into the darkness of victory.
And it was dark at Talladega Superspeedway at the end of the race, just after 7 p.m. CT.
Too dark really to race.
But NASCAR officials were determined to give the fans a finish. And the fans -- though the stands were maybe only two-thirds-full -- got a hellava of a finish...even if was a blur.
"The lights on the pace car (just before the green-white-checkered finish) were so bright, I kept looking away, trying not to get blinded," Edwards said.
Of course none of the drivers would concede on the record that it was too dark to race, for fear of one of those $25,000 or $50,000 or more NASCAR penalties that the sanctioning body has been oh so eager to dish out.
Well, none, except Ryan Newman.
Newman had the misfortune of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Again.
Again Newman had a stock car flying at him and landing on his windshield. A few years back here it was Edwards' car smacking Newman. This time it was Kurt Busch.
Innocence doesn't count in this game.
And Newman -- remember the crash when he was hung upside down and unable to extract himself for maybe 12 minutes? -- this time had had enough. He vented hard at NASCAR.
And it was in similar vein to what teammate Tony Stewart said he one year ago.
Drivers simply do not like driving plate races, regardless of what they may say publicly. Even the great Dale Earnhardt, after his legendary charge from 18th to victory here in the final five laps in 2000, declared sharply "I don't like restrictor plate racing."
But most drivers, having realized that the track owners here have no intention of changing anything, have all but given up their complaining.
Just as unexpected as Ragan's victory was Kenseth's loss.
Kenseth yet again showed the strongest car in the field, almost unpassable, leading a whopping 142 of the 192 laps. He conceded he was "really disappointed....but it could always be worse I guess."
Just before the 3-1/2-hour rain delay, just past halfway, with 160 miles yet to run, Kenseth had sized up his end-game opponents as Edwards and Ricky Stenhouse. Kenseth's Toyota teammates had already crashed out, so he had no one really helping him in the draft. But Edwards and Stenhouse, if they could work together, appeared nearly as strong as Kenseth.
In fact at the rain Edwards and Stenhouse were 1-2.
"Those two together, I don't think anybody was going to be able to beat them," Kenseth said.
It was, all in all, another good performance by Stenhouse, a rookie, driving for the team that Kenseth drove for for so many years. He did make a few mistakes: speeding on pit road, letting Edwards get by him just as NASCAR threw that rain caution, and then triggered that final crash, on lap 182 of the scheduled 188-lapper.
Somewhat ironically Stenhouse's 'girlfriend,' Danica Patrick, who had starred at Daytona two months ago, didn't have much going for her this time, while Stenhouse was rocking and rolling.
In hindsight Kenseth could see how the end-game had developed: "You don't know what's going on seven or eight rows back, and how far they're hanging back, and how big a run they can get on the pack.
"It's just unpredictable, and it's crazy."
The past two years Kenseth, while at Jack Roush's, was kingpin at Daytona and Talladega.
At Daytona this time Kenseth, now with Toyota's Joe Gibbs, was again very strong, but he blew an engine.
"Restrictor plate racing is tough," Kenseth says. "Everybody, after our great year last year, said it's a strong point. I think it's a weak point. I feel like I'm not very good at making the right spots.
"Last year I think we were leading, or in the top-two, in all four green-white-checkers."
And again here Sunday.
"You definitely want to be the leader," Kenseth says of these two-lap shootouts. "And I thought I got a good restart. It's just Carl had a really fast car, and he got that rocket restart and cleared me.
"I would have never dreamed David Ragan and David Gilliland had that much momentum.... and I had about two feet to pull down in front of them. But I knew they were going to hit me so hard I was going to wreck."
Kenseth, if not for that engine penalty (the appeals panel meets this week to assess that), would easily be in strong position to challenge for the championship. And he still could, though losing his crew chief for six weeks will put him at a serious disadvantage.
"We've led the most laps four or five times, and we won two races," Kenseth said. "But I feel there have been a few I've left on the table.
"I kind of let everybody down here, because you take off leading on that green-white-checkered and you come back eighth... even though I don't really know what I would have done different."