TALLADEGA, Ala. – Sunday’s Good Sam Roadside Assistance redefined the “big one” at the Talladega Superspeedway with 31 cars crashing in the final turn of the final lap.
Matt Kenseth was just ahead of the carnage to escape for the victory, just one of five cars that escaped without damage in a pileup that may have eliminated half the contenders in the Chase for the Championship.
Talladega is known for big crashes since restrictor plates reduce speeds by nearly 35 mph for safety reasons. That creates huge packs of three-wide, 10-deep traffic that too often leads to massive pileups.
The final lap of Sunday’s race may have been the biggest of all.
“As you saw today and you’ve seen a lot of times, there is no safe place,” Kenseth said.
It started when Tony Stewart tried to block a charge by Michael Waltrip and Casey Mears while running second. Stewart turned sideways, cut across traffic and landed on top of Kasey Kahne’s car. Of the 36 that were still on the track, 31 were in the crash.
“If it’s a green-white-checkered, you know you’re not going to make it back,” Gordon said.
Kenseth, who was knocked off the track on Lap 41, was at the right place at the right time when it counted. He re-started second to Clint Bowyer for a green-white-checkered finish and he moved his No. 17 Ford ahead on the backstretch. As Bowyer tried to make a charge, Kenseth moved two lanes to the left to run Bowyer to the apron. Kenseth quickly veered back to the right to protect his lead.
As the massive pack moved into the fourth turn, Stewart was trying to protect his second-place finish when he misjudged the run by Waltrip and Mears.
Stewart, one of the most out-spoken critics of blocking, took the blame.
“I just screwed up; I turned down across, I think it was Michael (Waltrip) and crashed the whole field,” he said. “It was my fault blocking to try to stay where I was at. So, I take 100 percent of the blame.
“I was trying to win the race, and I was trying to stay ahead of Matt (Kenseth) there. Michael got a great run on the bottom, had a big head of steam. When I turned down, I turned down across the right front of his car, a mistake on my part. It cost a lot of people a bad day because of it.”
Kenseth, second-place Jeff Gordon, third-place Kyle Busch, fifth-place Greg Biffle and sixth-place Brad Keselowski were the only ones to make it through the accident without hitting anyone.
There have been several 20-car accidents at Talladega. In fact, drivers are so leery of the 2.66-mile speedway because success is so dependent on missing the “big one.”
“If this is how we raced every week I would find another job,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. “It’s not safe. Wrecking like that is ridiculous. It’s blood-thirsty if that is what people want. It’s ridiculous.”
Fourth-place David Ragan was in the middle of the crash, but he managed to make it the final half-mile despite a heavily-damaged right-front fender.
“I saw [Stewart] spinning out,” Kenseth said. “We were cleared of him. I looked in the mirror, nobody was back there. I knew it was our race then.”
A total of 16 cars were able to limp across the finish line. Jimmie Johnson’s car was so beat up he jumped on Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s battered car for a ride back to the garage area.
The top-three finishing drivers in the Chase came into the race as the bottom three in the rankings. Points leader Keselowski didn’t allow them to make up any significant ground in the championship.
Others, however, fell so far behind it may be impossible to catch up. Kenseth, Earnhardt, Kevin Harvick, Biffle and Martin Truex Jr. are all at least 47 points – a full race worth of points – behind, while Stewart, Gordon, Bowyer and Kasey Kahne are down by at least 37 with six races remaining in the playoffs.
Johnson is second in the standings, behind by 14, while Denny Hamlin is down by 23 in third.
Several drivers, including Stewart, dropped to the back for most of the race to stay out of trouble. Kenseth said his team was determined to run up front as much as possible.
“We decided the fans pay a lot of money to watch these races, so we run as hard as we could,” he said. “As you could see, there is no safe place. Sooner or later you’ve got to go racing. The last lap is the last lap. I’d already rather be there if I can.”
Kenseth led on the final lap of all four restrictor plate races this year, including the Daytona International Speedway, and he’s hung on to win twice.
More important, he missed the biggest of the big ones.