Talladega Superspeedway has generally been the "wild card" in the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
Not this time.
Sunday's 400-mile race at Kansas Speedway took the honors as the crapshoot in this year's Chase after all the crashes, cautions and chaos that occurred there.
The Oct. 7 event at Talladega featured a 25-car crash on the final lap, which involved most of the title contenders, including Jimmie Johnson, Clint Bowyer, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and defending series champion Tony Stewart.
But Kansas was a wild affair from start to finish on the track's newly repaved surface. It featured both a track and Sprint Cup Series season-high 14 cautions, mostly for wrecks. When all was said and done, Matt Kenseth drove into victory lane with cosmetic damage to his car, while the point-separation between leader Brad Keselowski and second-place Jimmie Johnson remained the same at seven, despite both drivers having a grueling day.
"With a hundred (laps) to go, I was thinking to myself, 'Man, this really had to be entertaining for everybody to watch'," Kenseth said. "There was a lot of wild stuff happening."
With a new coat of asphalt and the addition of variable banking in the turns at Kansas, Sprint Cup teams faced the unknown when they arrived at this once- labeled "cookie cutter" 1.5-mile racetrack. In addition to the regularly scheduled weekend practice sessions, NASCAR granted teams two days of testing at Kansas earlier in the week to familiarize themselves with the track changes.
In a season that has featured a less-than-normal amount of cautions and wrecks compared to previous years, Kansas was more than just a race. It was survival of the fittest.
"I said when we finished Talladega that somebody should make 'I Survived Talladega' T-shirts," Keselowski said. "Well, I didn't know coming to Kansas it was going to be the same. Just wrecks and accidents and blown tires, everything you can imagine happened today. I felt really lucky to survive it."
Many of the incidents at Kansas were a result of tires blowing. Goodyear used a harder compound for its tires there.
Keselowski survived Kansas with an eighth-place finish, maintaining his points lead with just four races remaining.
"Everybody has been asking all season long where have all the cautions been?" he said. "The answer is that they flew to Kansas."
In what could have been a huge blow for his hopes of winning a sixth Sprint Cup championship, Johnson bounced back from a wreck at the halfway point to finish one spot behind Keselowski in ninth. While running at the tail end of the lead lap, Johnson spun around and hit the wall in turn four. He managed to stay on the lead lap after making numerous pit stops for a new deck lid and other necessary repairs. Johnson then benefited from a pair of late-race cautions to rally for a top-10 run.
Like most other drivers in the Chase, Johnson was happy to leave Kansas unscathed in points.
"It was crazy," he said. "It's weird that all the cautions came back. Now we see this type of driving at all the racetracks, but we don't get cautions out of it, and (Sunday) we got a lot of cautions out of it. Restarts were pretty wild. You had to run so hard that when something happened and you lost grip, the car just stood up on the tires and would take off, and you couldn't control it, and the guys were sliding everywhere."
While Kansas did little to shake up the Chase standings, Greg Biffle took the biggest hit in points. Biffle, who ended the 26-race regular season as the points leader, finished 27th after he was one of many causalities in the wreck-filled race at Kansas. He slapped the wall on lap 176 and spent more than 30 laps in the garage for repairs before returning. He dropped from sixth to 11th in the rankings.
After yellow-flag fever plagued Kansas, it's likely we could see another caution-filled race this coming Sunday at Martinsville Speedway. Martinsville, which is 0.526-miles in length, is the only short track on the Chase schedule and is considered a wild card as well.