When things are this tight, you just know something is going to happen (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Even by Talladega standards this finish was over the top.
With Tony Stewart -- who just moments before was the leader of Sunday's Talladega 500, and looking to earn enough points to fight his way back into the Sprint Cup championship hunt -- literally on his top....after his move to block a pass by Michael Waltrip went so badly awry.
Stewart, who spent most of the nice but cloudy afternoon struggling to work his way into contention, in a race dominated by surprising Jamie McMurray, crowd favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Daytona winner Matt Kenseth.
And if Stewart could have held on for the win and made it the final mile to the finish line, he would have moved to within 10 or 12 points of the NASCAR tour leader, Brad Keselowski, heading this week to Charlotte Motor Speedway for Round Five of the 10-race chase.
But as it turned out, Stewart wound up 22nd, and he's now 46 points down and all but out of the chase. The most a man can earn in a playoff race is 48 points.
Clint Bowyer too was right with Stewart, trying to get back in the heat of the chase, and he was within seconds -- and sight of the finish line -- of doing just that.
But Kenseth pounded Bowyer into the infield in the late-race scrambling, and Bowyer then got caught up in that 25-man crash. He finished 23rd, and now 40 points down is in precarious position.
Indeed the title chase, after four playoff races, still looks like a three-man fight, with Keselowski picking up points on both Jimmie Johnson (a crash victim, 17th) and Denny Hamlin (a non-factor all day, 14th at the finish).
Matt Kenseth, all alone at the end (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Kenseth, who ironically is leaving team owner Jack Roush and Ford at the end of the season, in six weeks, to join Joe Gibbs and Toyota, was relieved both at having a good day and a good finish, after a long run of hard luck.
"Clint and I got together a little on the backstretch.... I don't know if that was my bad or what," Kenseth said, in a rather subdued victory celebration.
"That really slowed the group, and we got a big lead -- which typically isn't good here. I looked in my mirror and saw them coming at me three-wide.
"I let Tony have his spot. It didn't look like he had a big push behind him.
"We stayed locked together until we got to turn three, and I thought it was going to be a drag race to the finish.
"I didn't know what was going to happen... and I'm still not sure what happened.
"Somehow Tony got turned and caused a big wreck."
Tony Stewart (14) launches...and Jeff Gordon (24) and Kyle Busch (18) slip underneath the carnage (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Kenseth and teammate Greg Biffle are both out of the title hunt. But both came out lucky Sunday.
What did Biffle (6th) see in those final seconds?
"You wouldn't believe me," Biffle said. "Unbelievable -- I was probably 20th, and five-wide up against the wall. And then cars started wrecking.
"A car flew over the top of my car as I turned to the bottom and missed guys by three inches.
"It was like Days of Thunder coming through the smoke and the grass... and just kept it going straight.
"It was the craziest thing I've ever been involved in in my life."
Jimmie Johnson gets a ride back to the garage from banged up teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Casey Mears, a good runner here, proved it again, leading late and pushing Michael Waltrip at the end, in what proved to the decisive incident.
"We had the run to win or be top-three," Mears said. "I was shoving Michael pretty good. Tony, you could tell for a second he thought 'Should I go down (to block) or not?'
"When he decided, it was already too late.
"This stuff happens. Everybody is trying to win and make something happen.
"It was about the biggest wreck we've had in a long time at the end of a race. I saw Tony upside-down, and I'm glad to see he's okay.
"It's unbelievable we can run around here 200 mph, have a pile-up like that, and everybody walks out feeling pretty good."
Jeff Gordon, who sneaked through to finish second, said "That literally is bumper cars at almost 200 mph... and I don't know anybody that likes that."
The finish was Gordon's sixth top-three finish in the past seven races (two thirds, four seconds), amazing. But it still can't change that 35th at Chicago, though he's now 42 points down, with something of a long-shot at the title.
Kurt Busch hasn't had a memorable season (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
While most of the race was monotonously boring, there were moments of emotion, yes. And Kurt Busch provided some of those.
He was leading midway when he suddenly ran out of gas. And Busch wound up bouncing into the infield wall.
During the yellow Busch got out to look at his car and decided it could be repaired. So he cranked it up and started to drive it back to the garage, though without his helmet.
Busch was naturally angry at running out of gas, and had asked his crew what the problem was.
NASCAR ordered him to stop on the track, to stop scattering debris. But without his helmet Busch didn't get the radio message.
So Busch roared off while the emergency crews were still at his car, one even with his arm inside, and other with an emergency medical kit on the roof, which fell off.
NASCAR angrily order Busch's car parked for the rest of the race....which is his last with team owner James Finch. Busch two weeks ago decided to move over to Barney Visser's team, beginning this week at Charlotte.
So when Busch emerged from the infield medical center, it was to a jam of reporters and crewmen.
Bobby Labonte limps back after that last lap crash, in flames (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Busch hugged his crewmen, then discussed his fate:
"We ran out of gas... ran out of gas while leading. A miscalculation, or our fuel cell wasn't picking up all the fuel.
"That is just small-team blues. You work as hard as you can to keep up with the big teams, and sometimes little itty-bitty numbers will take you out.
"I got out of the car and surveyed the damage; saw that it could still roll. So I jumped back in. These engines will run at 20 percent of fuel pressure to get it back to the garage. So I tried like heck.
"That is the competitor in me... the desire I have...and what gets misconstrued all the time.
"This is the way my life works. Today is a perfect example: I am leading, I wreck, I run out of gas. I tried to get back in the race, and now NASCAR is yelling at me because I don't have my helmet on, and I'm trying to get it to the garage so the guys can work on it.
"Now I'm in trouble, this little storm right here.
"This is my life.
"I'm not complaining; I put myself in a lot of these situations.
"But it's on to good things now, moving forward. I got all the bad luck out of the way.
"This year has been a great year to test me in every way."
Jamie McMurray, in the grass, in the final miles. He drove a strong race (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)