The Good Sam Club 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, the sixth race in the 10-event Chase, was characterized as the “wild card” event of the “playoffs.”
That’s because of the typical unpredictability of the race. With high speeds and two-car “dance partner” drafting that is a part of the 2.66-mile Talladega track and its sister, Daytona, it’s almost impossible to pinpoint what is going to happen – much less an outcome.
Championship contenders could have poor finishes, or fall by the wayside, for many reasons – all related to the complexities of restrictor-plate racing. A driver in the lead on the last lap could very well find himself outside the top 10 by the time he got to the finish line. An unheralded, even unknown, competitor could find the means to win – consider young Trevor Bayne, who took the victory in the Daytona 500.
The Good Sam Club 500 lived up to its billing. It was indeed a “wild card” race.
The winner was certainly not unheralded or unknown. But he was unexpected. It’s very likely few, in any, predicted he would triumph at Talladega.
But that’s exactly what Clint Bowyer did. He won for the first time this season – his last victory came in this race in 2010 – he became the first Chase non-qualifier to win in the “playoff.” He earned the distinction of providing the 100th Cup series victory for Richard Childress Racing.
Ironically, it came five races before Bowyer’s tenure with Childress comes to an end. Largely because of a lack of sponsorship, Bowyer will move over to Michael Waltrip Racing next season and RCR may well be reduced from four teams to three.
As for the Chase contenders, overall, they fared worse at Talladega than in any other race since the title hunt began at Chicagoland on Sept. 19.
Only three of them finished among the top 10. Two placed 11th-20th and a whopping seven were 25th or worse.
Replacing them at the head of the pack were such drivers as Jeff Burton (second), Dave Blaney (third, his best finish of the season), Brian Vickers (5th), Kasey Kahne (6th), Waltrip (9th) and Martin Truex Jr. (10th).
Really, now, who could have predicted that?
And who could have predicted that the Chase leaders, those drivers atop the standings when the Talladega event began, would experience mediocre to dismal results?
Carl Edwards, No. 1 in the standings, finished 11th, his first run outside the top 10 since the Chase began. Kevin Harvick, who was hot on Edwards’ heels prior to the race, experienced on-track misfortune and wound up 32nd. Matt Kenseth, third when the green flag fell, could do no better than 18th.
Resurgence for Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch came to an end as they saw momentum die with finishes of 26th and 33rd, respectively.
For all of that, Edwards not only retains his lead in the point standings, he now has largest margin in the first six races of the Chase – largely because he finished ahead of all but two of his rivals.
Edwards now has a 14-point margin over the new runnerup, Kenseth. He’s 18 points ahead of Brad Keselowski, who ran fourth at Talladega, and 19 over Tony Stewart, who finished seventh and was a victory contender for a large portion of the race.
Harvick came into Talladega No. 2 in points, just five behind Edwards with steady Chase performances. But he was involved in a multicar accident after 107 of 188 laps and was forced to report to the garage area for repairs, including a broken oil line. He finished nine laps down and is now fifth in points, 26 in arrears.
Kyle Busch, 33rd at Talladega after his involvement in a multicar wreck, is presently sixth in points, 40 behind Edwards. Johnson’s bid to win a sixth consecutive title took a serious hit with his 26th-place finish, which puts him seventh in points and 50 out of the lead. Kurt Busch wound up 36th at Talladega, also the victim of a wreck, and he’s eighth in points, 52 down.
The remainder of the top 12 in points has, for the most part, been removed from championship consideration. They are Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman.
“I don’t know that I have ever been so excited about 11th place,” said a relieved Edwards. “This race was one that was nerve-racking for everyone but we came in here with a small points lead and so it was a huge day for us.
“I cannot believe how much Greg (Biffle, Roush Fenway Racing teammate) helped us today. I owe him a lot. Greg stuck with me all day. On the last lap he was driving my car from back there. It is good to get a good finish and even though it is not a win, it is a big battle in the war and a huge day for us.”
Edwards wisely added that although he’s boosted his points lead, competitively, he couldn’t let up.
“We’d have to have a 100-point lead to take a breath,” he said. “Anything can happen. I’m proud of our team, where we’ve come from, how far we’ve come in the last 18 months. We’re doing well.
“But I’m a little nervous about Matt, honestly, because I know how good he is and how good his team is. Having him in second doesn’t make me breathe easier, competitive-wise.”
Despite Edwards’ surge in the Chase, the most compelling Talladega tale was Bowyer’s victory.
The Emporia, Kan., native, who has spent all of his six full Sprint Cup seasons with Childress, finished among the top 10 in points in three of the last four seasons.
But he was 14th when the Chase began this year. And as the season wound down, it became clear that all attempts to secure a sponsorship package that would allow him to remain with Childress were going to fail.
To win at Talladega, Bowyer hooked up in the draft behind leader and teammate Burton when the race restarted from its ninth, and final, caution period with just two laps to go.
The two were well ahead of the pack when Bowyer made his move, pulling to the inside of Burton on the last lap. Burton retaliated, the two bumped, but Bowyer held on to win by a half-car length in yet another Talladega race decided by a last-lap pass.
“Trust me, I was prepared to push Jeff to the win no matter what the cost was if we would have had people breathing down or necks,” Bowyer said. “It just wasn’t meant to be for him. He’s been a great teammate and I’ve learned a lot from him. He’s already won a lot of races. I think he’s won like 20 or so. I’ve only won five.
“You owe it to your team and to your sponsors to go out and win the race.”
Bowyer quickly admitted he wanted to win to reward the efforts of his team and to indicate he wasn’t going to be the typical lame duck.
“It’s just so important to me to be able to cap off such a good relationship with Richard,” he said. “Everybody at RCR, it’s like family over there. It meant a lot for me to be able to win before we end this deal.
“The stars were lined up today with having the hundredth anniversary of Chevrolet on my race car. If I won the race, it was going to be Richard’s hundredth win.
“I’m excited that it was.”