Except for Denny Hamlin, the recent Talladega strategy of hanging in the back and avoiding trouble went by the wayside Sunday — right before half the cars in the field went sideways on the last lap.
“The first couple years we try to make a strategy,” Matt Kenseth said after winning the Good Sam Roadside Assistance 500 Sunday, referring to first years after the COT debuted. “‘Let’s all hang back. Let’s go up front, but if it looks scary, let’s go to the back.’ Honestly, we got tired of it, so I think Jimmy [Fennig] and I talked about it last July before Daytona. We decided the fans pay a lot of money to watch us race. These guys pay me money to drive the race car fast. We just race hard every lap. We try to qualify the best we can. Go up, try to lead the most laps we can, and put ourselves in position to win the race, and not really worry about all that.”
Sunday’s race will be remembered as much for all the near-misses before “the big one” actually happened, when Tony Stewart tried to block a charge from Michael Waltrip on the final lap.
“As you saw today and you’ve seen a lot of times, there is no safe place,” Kenseth said. “Tony was just leading. I might have passed him or he was in second when he got wiped out. So you’ve got to race sooner or later. The last lap is the last lap. Everybody’s trying to get to the front. I’d rather already be there if we can be.”
Unfortunately for Kenseth, Sunday’s win serves as nothing more than momentum for his move to Joe Gibbs Racing next year. He struggled so much in the first three races that even with the win, he still ranks last out of the 12 Chase drivers.
In the end the three top chase contenders, Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski created separation between them and the rest of the Chasers. Keselowski, who finished seventh Sunday, widened his lead over Johnson to 14 points. Johnson, despite being caught in the final-lap chaos, finished 17th to stay within striking distance. And Hamlin’s conservative strategy worked to an extent. He finished 14th and trails Keselowski by 23 points.
“We knew it was going to happen,” Johnson said of the wreck. “We did a very good job of managing things all day long. It was just getting really tight. I think we were probably four-wide going into [turn] three. I could see some tire smoke off the guys in front of me, and then everybody just merged together and we were all in a big wad at that point. Fortunately my car I could still drive to the finish so I passed a couple of guys that were sitting there on the bottom trying to get going themselves. I guess I finished 17th. I don’t know, we’ll take it I guess. We don’t have a choice now.”
Keselowski was similarly blase about his finish — although he realized how fortunate he was.
“We were four-wide for about two-and-a-half straight laps and it’s just a matter of time before you wreck,” said Keselowski, who now takes the lead to Saturday’s Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “It happens but that’s just Talladega. I ran the bottom lane knowing that it was going to happen and that I could at least escape it. It’s not really how I wanted to leave Talladega, but we survived it with the points lead. That’s pretty big.”