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Sunday, October 7, 2012
Classic Talladega, for better or worse

By Ed Hinton
ESPN.com

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Wasn't that just soooo Talladega? No, it was even worse, or even better, depending on your point of view. Clearly, Talladega out-Talladegaed itself Sunday.

The "big one" was the biggest in memory, a 25-car wreck detonated by leader Tony Stewart on the last lap.

On top of all that, last-place Chaser Matt Kenseth's car was so fitfully loose all race that it forced him to take the very lane -- the middle -- that proved his escape route straight to Victory Lane from the melee that started right beside him.

Tony Stewart
Race leader Tony Stewart (14) triggered the last-lap melee at Talladega, and he paid the price.

"I knew at the end I couldn't be on the bottom with cars outside of me and cars pushing me," said Kenseth, who got his second restrictor-plate win of the season, the first being the Daytona 500 in February. "I knew that we'd get wrecked, because the last lap people are going to push you all the way around the track."

He dared not go low, but Stewart's car was plenty capable on the bottom. So after Stewart slipped past Kenseth, here came Michael Waltrip out of nowhere with a full head of steam, and Stewart dropped even lower and admittedly tried to block Waltrip, and the enormous wreck began.

But Kenseth was just outside the flashpoint, and got away cleanly.

"I just screwed up," Stewart said. "I turned down across Michael, blocking, trying to stay where I was at. So I take 100 percent of the blame. I was trying to win the race, and trying to stay ahead of Matt, and Michael got a great run on the bottom and had a big head of steam. So when I turned down, I turned right in front of his car.

"It was just a mistake on my part, but it caused a lot of people a bad day."

Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch somehow got through the mess to finish second and third, respectively. Chase leader Brad Keselowski escaped to a seventh-place finish and padded his margin to 14 points over Jimmie Johnson, who was wrecked out at the end.

"This was the craziest, craziest finish I've ever experienced here at Talladega," said Gordon, who jumped four spots in the standings, to sixth, to continue his relentless comeback struggle from wrecking out of the Chase opener. "And for a change, I finally came out on the good side of it."

Gordon said that to ESPN reporters on television. Afterward, at his media conference, he turned more serious about just how out-of-control Talladega racing has become.

"I remember when coming to Talladega was fun," Gordon said. "I really do. And I haven't experienced that in a long, long time. I don't like coming here. I don't like the type of racing that I have to do."

So from his point of view, this was about the worst Talladega in his memory. But from the fans' vantage point, he took the opposite stance.

Matt Kenseth
Matt Kenseth picked up his second restrictor-plate win of the season Sunday at Talladega.

"If I'm a fan, I would love that. I think it is incredibly intense. It's wild. It's crazy."

And he acknowledged that the drivers' perspective isn't the point.

"I don't have to be happy and be all excited about coming to Talladega. I don't expect that."

The detonation of the biggest one by a driver as skilled as Stewart was a prime case in Gordon's point of how helpless it can feel, trying to race here.

He was close enough to Stewart's ill-fated move that "I did see it," Gordon said. "If you isolate it to that, somehow he got the lead, but then he had nobody [pushing him in the draft].

"Somehow they [Kenseth, pushed by Kevin Harvick] went to the outside of him, and they were coming. There is no doubt.

"The 55 [Waltrip] was coming hard [on the inside], and the 13 [Casey Mears] I believe was pushing him," Gordon continued. "They were going to go right by him, and he just made a late move, and, unfortunately, he turned himself and caused a big wreck.

"But when you look at the bigger picture, is that what really caused it?" Gordon asked. "Because with this type of racing and the way the aerodynamics are and the power of these cars, that's what happens. When you lose momentum, you lose a ton. You're going backwards in such a hurry and the other guys are coming forward with so much momentum, it's inevitable that those types of things are going to happen."

And then Gordon completed his closing argument in defense of Stewart: "You're trying to judge making that move, but it's almost impossible to judge it because they're coming so fast. That's aerodynamics, that's power, and that's just the nature of the type of racing that we have right now at Talladega.

"Tony is a guy who takes blame for things, and you've got to respect him for that," Gordon concluded, "but I think there's a little more to it."

It was Talladega being Talladega, for better or for worse than ever, depending on your point of view.