In what is considered as the "wild card" race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, Sunday's Good Sam Roadside Assistance 500 at Talladega Superspeedway lived up to expectations.
Matt Kenseth won the fourth race in the Chase after surviving a 25-car accident that occurred on the final turn of the last lap and was triggered by defending Sprint Cup Series champion Tony Stewart.
Just before they crossed the line to complete the penultimate lap, Stewart passed Clint Bowyer to take the lead. As he dropped down the bottom of the track to protect his position heading into turn four, Stewart was hit from behind by Michael Waltrip. Stewart spun around before his car went airborne and rolled over several other cars. Bowyer, who had won the past two fall races at Talladega, and Jimmie Johnson were among those title contenders caught up in the pileup. No one was injured.
"I just screwed up," Stewart said while taking blame for the wreck. "It was my fault for blocking while trying to stay where I was at. It was a mistake on my part, but it cost a lot of people a bad day because of it."
Kenseth maneuvered his way through the melee and pulled ahead of the field just before the yellow flag was displayed, ending the race under caution.
"I was trying to go to the bottom but not that far," Kenseth said. "That's one of those I'd love to take the credit for, but it's pretty much lucky. I just kind of held the wheel, and the car sort of caught itself, and thankfully, I was able to straighten it out with no damage."
The race concluded with a green-white-checkered finish. Jamie McMurray, who led the most laps with 38, spun around on the frontstretch during the closing laps, which set up the two-lap overtime finish.
Kenseth, who entered this race last in points among the 12-member Chase field, claimed his second win of the season and the 23rd of his Cup career. His first victory this year came in the Feb. 27 season-opening Daytona 500, a race delayed one day due to rain. It was also Kenseth's first win at Talladega.
"We've been so strong at all four of these restrictor-plate races this year," he said.
NASCAR declared Kenseth the winner of the race roughly one minute after he crossed the finish line. Race officials then spent almost one hour reviewing video of the final lap to determine the finishing order. Jeff Gordon was credited with second place.
"That was the craziest, craziest finish I've ever experienced here at Talladega," Gordon said. "For a change, I finally came out on the good side of it."
Kyle Busch overcame a one-lap deficit to finish third. Busch fell a lap behind after he was penalized for speeding on pit road early in the race.
David Ragan placed fourth, followed by Regan Smith and Chase drivers Greg Biffle and Brad Keselowski. Travis Kvapil, Ryan Newman and Jeff Burton completed the top-10.
With six races remaining in the Chase, Keselowski holds a 14-point lead over Johnson, who ended up finishing 17th. Keselowski won the spring event at Talladega in May. He had also scored victories in two of the first three Chase races -- Chicagoland and New Hampshire.
"That's pretty big," Keselowski said. "I just feel lucky to survive Talladega."
Johnson entered this race just five points behind Keselowski.
"It was just hard racing at the end," Johnson said. "We knew it was going to happen. We did a very good job of managing things all day long."
Denny Hamlin is 23 points behind Keselowski following his 14th-place run. Kasey Kahne trails by 36 points. Kahne finished 12th after starting on the pole.
Stewart wound up finishing 22nd, while Bowyer was 23rd.
"That's just Talladega," Bowyer said. "I wish they would shorten this race, because it's all about waiting to see what happens there at the end."
Bowyer is currently fifth in the point standings (-40), followed by Gordon (-42) and Stewart (-46). Dale Earnhardt Jr. is 51 points behind after finishing 20th. Earnhardt Jr. also received a pit-road speeding penalty in the early going and spent most of the race one lap down. Kenseth remained last in Chase points (-62).
The race at Talladega featured 54 lead changes among 18 drivers and had just a few minor crashes before the major one on the last lap. A four-car wreck, involving Carl Edwards, occurred on lap 17. Just past the halfway point, Kurt Busch held the lead right before he was hit behind by Jamie McMurray and spun around into the inside retaining wall along the backstretch. Busch ran out of fuel, causing him to slow down in front of McMurray.
While safety personnel were tending to him, Busch drove away from the accident site, trailing debris behind him. NASCAR officials immediately ordered him to stop, but he continued to drive towards pit road. Busch said he did not have his helmet on and therefore did not receive instructions from officials.
Busch competed in his last race as driver of the No. 51 car for Phoenix Racing before he moves over to Furniture Row Racing to be behind the wheel of the No. 78 car, beginning with next weekend's event at Charlotte. He had driven for James Finch's team since the start of the season.
"We ran out of gas while leading and four laps away from pitting, and it was just one of those situations to where it was either a miscalculation of fuel mileage or a problem with the fuel cell," Busch said. "We're a team that worked really hard this year, and little things might have been overlooked here and there. But we gave it all we had. I went around and hugged all the (team members) and said thanks. It was a tough way to go out."
NASCAR parked Busch for the remainder of the race for not following direction.
"That's the competitor in me; that's the desire that I have, and that's what gets misconstrued, all the time," he said. "This is the way my life works. Today is a perfect example. I'm leading and then I wreck while running out of gas. I'm still that competitive guy who wants to get back in the race. And now NASCAR is yelling at me, because I don't have my helmet on. I'm trying to get it back to the garage for the guys to work on it. Now I'm in trouble."