TALLADEGA — Calling the final lap melee at Sunday’s Good Sam Roadside Assistance 500 at Talladega Superspeedway ‘The Big One’ might sell the massive pile-up short.
Twenty-four cars were involved in a scary last-lap crash that sent defending Cup series champion Tony Stewart’s car airborne into four-wide traffic, collecting all but five lead-lap cars.
Matt Kenseth was just ahead of the mess of turn 3, and the pink-and-black EcoBoost/National Breast Cancer Foundation Ford took the checkered flag well ahead of second-place Jeff Gordon, who somehow managed to avoid the carnage and keep his championship hopes alive. Non-chaser Kyle Busch also emerged from the crash to finish third. David Regan and Regan Smith each posted their best finishes of the season to round out the top 5.
Kenseth, who won for the first time at Talladega, said his car’s handling dictated his position on the final lap.
“We had a lot of speed today, more than I thought we had,” Kenseth said. “The track just kept getting looser for me as the day went on, and we never could get it tightened up. On the last lap, that’s why I chose the middle groove; I knew I couldn’t be on the bottom or I’d get spun out, so I had to run the middle or the top to try to make a move.”
Kenseth himself shoved his way into position on the final lap, as he cut across from the high lane to the low, forcing race leader and two-time defending event champion Clint Bowyer below the yellow line, breaking Bowyer’s momentum. The aggressive move put Kenseth in the only safe place on the track when the final crash was triggered — out front.
“Clint and I got together on the backstretch; I don’t know if that was my bad and we weren’t exactly all the way clear or what happened there, but that really slowed the ground and we got a big lead,” Kenseth said.
“It was just a shame,” Bowyer said. “I got myself in the right situation where I wanted to be; I just didn’t win.”
The race had been relatively incident-free, with several drivers making great saves that might have triggered the Big One much earlier. Kenseth got together with teammate Greg Biffle and spun out on lap 47, but managed to escape without damage.
“That’s one of those I’d love to take the credit for, but it’s pretty much lucky,” Kenseth said. “I just kind of held the wheel and the car sort of caught itself, and thankfully we were able to straighten it out with no damage.”
Kenseth may have had luck on his side, but other drivers saw their luck — and perhaps patience — run out heading to the checkered flag. Stewart got a run on the Toyota of Michael Waltrip, and the three-time Cup champion tried to get to the inside of Waltrip, but quickly ran out of room and tapped the left quarterpanel of the No. 55 Toyota. Waltrip turned up the track into Harvick, who spun and began collecting cars, and the nose of Stewart’s car turned down the track so abruptly that the No. 14 Chevy spun and was lifted off the ground and onto the cars of Paul Menard and Kasey Kahne.
The spin could not have come at a worse moment, as almost 30 cars were running four-wide when Stewart went airborne.
“I just screwed up,” Stewart said. “I turned down across, I think it was Michael, and crashed the whole field. It was my fault blocking to stay where I was at. So, I take 100 percent of the blame.”
The win was the second of the year for Kenseth, who won the season-opening Daytona 500 but struggled to start the 10-race Chase for the Cup. Even after Sunday’s win, Kenseth remained last out of the 12 championship-eligible drivers, 62 points behind points leader Brad Keselowski, who limped home seventh after the crash.
“That’s pretty big,” Keselowski said. “I just feel lucky to survive Talladega.”
Jimmie Johnson, another victim of the Big One, finished where he started — 17th — and remained second in points, 14 points behind Keselowski.
The big loser after Sunday’s race was fan-favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. After flirting with the lead all day and losing a lap due to a penalty for speeding on pit road, Junior was in the battle for the win before being caught up in the last-lap crash. Junior came home 21st and lost four spots in the points standings, sliding all the way back to 11th.
There were 54 lead changes among 18 drivers in the race.
|High School Sports||@DecaturPreps|