To race or not to race – that was the question.
The three leaders in the Chase for the Sprint Cup – Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin – decided not to race for much of the day in Sunday’s Good Sam Road Assistance 500 at Talladega Superspeedway. They were basically in “protection” mode, trying to avoid calamity and bring their cars home in one piece with good finishes.
That decision turned out mixed as virtually everyone was involved – to some degree – in the last-lap chaos sparked by Tony Stewart and Michael Waltrip, but the trio leading the standings still chugged to the finish with decent numbers and lived to race another day.
The Top Three stayed in the same positions. Keselowski kept the lead and boosted his edge over the second-place Johnson from five to 14 points. Hamlin stayed in third but now trails Keselowski by 23 points (a gain of seven for the Dodge driver) going into Saturday night’s race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
The biggest mover position-wise in the Chase standings was Jeff Gordon, who jumped into sixth position from 10th. But, despite a second-place race finish, he gained only six points on Keselowski and now trails by 42.
“After today, it's a little frustrating,” Gordon said. “Our team is doing a great job. We've been performing really, really well. We can sit there and really get mad about what happened in Chicago, but the reality of it is all we can do is go each and every week and keep trying to put ourselves in position to win and get top fives.
“It's not over yet. It is certainly not over yet. So we'll see what happens. If we keep doing this, I really think we might have a shot at it.”
After the wacky last lap crash that enveloped more than half the field, only four Chase drivers finished in the top 10 (after NASCAR reviewed videotape to determine positions).
Matt Kenseth won, and Gordon took second. Greg Biffle was sixth, and Keselowski was seventh.
Other Chase drivers and their finishes: Kevin Harvick 11th, Kasey Kahne 12th, Martin Truex Jr. 13th, Hamlin 14th, Johnson 17th, Dale Earnhardt Jr. 20th, Stewart 22nd and Clint Bowyer 23rd.
Stewart, who was in position to win Sunday’s race and make significant Chase progress before the third-turn mayhem, fell from fifth to seventh in points and is 46 behind Keselowski. Before the race, he trailed the leader by 32.
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 30 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.