Turns out they left virtually unscathed, keeping this playoff a nail-biting three-man race with three races left. But who could talk Sprint Cup points when the NASCAR official booth, not the competitors, ended up determining the final running order after the last lap. The way in which the white flag dressed up as a ghost of a controversy leads off this edition of Five Things From the Sprint Cup race:
1. NASCAR's timing and scoring will undergo some scrutiny this week. After a day filled with the spectacular competition restrictor-plate racing creates, NASCAR found itself with the perfect scenario Sunday: A relatively clean event devoid of the "Big One" that usually decimates the field. After three minor incidents, 30 cars were on the lead lap and ready to duke it out in a four-lap sprint to the finish.
Richard Childress Racing's Clint Bowyer held the point over Jimmie Johnson on the final restart, and then hooked up with Juan Pablo Montoya to jump out to an advantage over the field. But teammate Kevin Harvick fought back, hooking up with David Reutimann to create a drafting duo all their own and retake the lead coming to the final lap. With Joey Logano, Martin Truex, Jr. and a snarling pack of cars behind them, it was shaping up to be a full-speed, photo finish at the checkered flag.
Sixty seconds later, the sport was filled with chaos, with those cars crossing the finish line at a snail's pace and out of order with NASCAR officials already stressing over video replay. Heading into Turn 1, the dreaded multi-car wreck everyone fears had broken out, with A.J. Allmendinger's flipped car necessitating a yellow flag that left everyone confused as to how this ending would be scored.
Here's what the rulebook says: The second the caution light turns on, the field is frozen in place based on their position as of the last computerized "scoring loop" each car passed on the racetrack. These loops, in place at NASCAR's discretion around the oval, and video helped determine that Bowyer was ahead of Harvick by a hair the second the yellow light was pushed. That meant a teammate inadvertently robbed another of a win, which would have cut Harvick's deficit in the Cup Series standings from 38 to 23.
The end result leaves fans confused to a point, unnerved by two things. The first -- that cars couldn't race full speed to the checkered flag -- is as simple as life and death. Should Allmendinger or others have been seriously hurt in that wreck, a full-speed run to the checkers delays officials from getting to any of those cars by up to a minute, a time lapse that could mean the difference in survival at a track that's killed its fair share of drivers over a 41-year history. The option to force all races to end under green could have led to an unlimited number of endings at 'Dega, plate racing parity typically causing physical destruction during any type of double-file restart.
So that put NASCAR between a rock and a hard place, especially considering the second problem: A five-minute-plus delay in announcing the winner following the race's ending. The sport took great care not to make a mistake, but there has to be a better way to please everyone involved.
"You just never know where the caution flew," said Harvick, a matter of subjective seconds making the difference in who winds up in Victory Lane. "Heck, I honestly didn't even know the caution was out until halfway through turns one and two. They probably told me on the radio. But at that point you're so in tune with what's going on, trying to focus on when you got a guy behind you pushing you. You got to hold the wheel straight.
"So it was just one of those deals where, like I say, we've won some that way and we've lost some that way."
The IndyCar Series has used a system where a caution flag means scoring reverts to the last completed lap rather than where cars were at the time the yellow comes out. That change would have given the win to Harvick, but it's also an imperfect solution. Everyone may just have to take this race for what it was, moving on with a half-empty feeling in their stomachs instead of the thrill of what could have been one of the year's most memorable moments.
2. This Chase is now the closest since 2004 -- because Jimmie Johnson's two biggest challengers have learned how to fight back from adversity. Harvick and ninth-place finisher Hamlin should have been thrilled with their days, disaster averted and turned into the type of title-building effort typically showcased by the No. 48 team. For his part, Harvick was happy, having recovered from serious front-end damage after Marcos Ambrose spun in front of him on Lap 142. That required extensive stops to tape up the car and aerodynamic issues that required him to draft with care.
"[Marcos] just kind of rolled across the nose," Harvick explained. "I was able to just kind of go back on the gas and push him off of me. That was the best way I knew at that point to minimize the damage on the nose.
"After that, the hood wasn't wrinkled up. I didn't see any fender damage. My main concern was not popping the tires. We came right into pit road, and did a great job fixing it. Got the fenders pulled out. As long as we were in the middle of the pack, we were fine."
Curiously enough, Toyota driver David Reutimann gets an assist in teaming with the wounded Harvick in the closing laps, pushing the cars back up through the pack even though that impeded the progress of manufacturer teammate Hamlin.
Hamlin, in the No. 11 Toyota, had his own set of struggles, an ill-timed lag to stay out of trouble on a Lap 74 restart causing him to lose the draft. He was lapped by the halfway point, and then needed a series of cautions and breaks to earn NASCAR's "Lucky Dog" and get back on the lead lap. Working his way into contention, it appeared the FedEx Toyota would charge ahead of Johnson until losing teammate Logano heading toward the white flag, a broken draft that caused the No. 48 to skirt back by and leave the challenger disappointed rather than delighted with a top-10 finish that, for all intents and purposes, he shouldn't have had.
"It wasn't very fun," said Hamlin, before criticizing a point system that he feels forced a conservative race strategy -- a DNF would have all but destroyed his title chances. "I didn't get to race as hard as I would like to at times. We were in a bad spot. We weren't around our teammates when it counted right there at the end. I had the 48 (Jimmie Johnson) by five spots coming off the last corner, and when the 5 (Mark Martin) stopped pushing me, it just killed us. We weren't going to go forward from that point."
So let's review: a Toyota driver loses his teammates while another Camry pushes his rival to a better finish? Wonder what type of meetings will take place behind the scenes this week. But the 38-point gap that now separates Johnson, Hamlin and Harvick is the closest among three drivers since the first year of the Chase, in 2004.
3. Johnson made an under-the-radar comeback that leaves him with a bit of an edge. The fact Johnson did finish ahead of the No. 11 was nothing short of miraculous after teaming with Jeff Gordon to charge forward like a freight train at Lap 172. From 23rd to second in eight laps, Johnson made it look as if this race could be all-Hendrick Motorsports until a mysterious oil smell and vibration forced the No. 24 to drop from the pack. That left Johnson all alone, without a drafting partner. He was abandoned quicker on the final restart than a room in which a skunk walks in.
His four straight titles has drivers finally making on-track maneuvers that work against the No. 48. Even in the post-race press conference, Harvick said, "No offense to [Johnson], but somebody else needs to win [this title]."
Still, try talking the confidence out of this Johnson, who fell outside the top 20 with three laps to go, only to use a well-timed push from Truex and several phenomenal maneuvers to re-enter the top 10. In the matter of 60 seconds, he went from losing the point lead to actually increasing it by eight over Hamlin.
"I really didn't have much stress," he said. "I don't know what it was today at all. But from the moment I woke up to driver intros, getting in the car, I just didn't have a lot of concern today, which was nice not to overstress things, be more in tune with kind of the flow of the race, what was going on."
That "ice in the veins" mentality will serve him well for a final three races in which his challengers will throw everything but the kitchen sink at him. It won't be easy for Johnson, but my money's still on the No. 48.
4. A record-setting day at 'Dega still leads to mixed reviews. Check out these mind-boggling stats: There were 131 lead changes in the first six races of the Chase, compared to 87 on Sunday alone. Two-car breakaways led to speeds of more than 200 mph, with an aggressive field rarely taking the time to settle into a single-file line. On the surface, it looked like another fascinating race at the sport's largest superspeedway. But despite the lead changes, drivers still wound up frustrated by the continued inability for plates to help make a pass on their own. Who you drafted with -- not how fast your car goes -- was the difference as the chess game often turned into a scenario of multi-car team vs. multi-car team. And the last wreck of the day, ruining nearly a half-dozen cars, also saw Allmendinger go end-over-end in an unavoidable wreck due to the style of competition.
"I hate this place," Allmendinger said after luckily emerging unhurt. "I always have and always will."
As I wrote Thursday, those mixed feelings of Talladega shined through more than ever.
5. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. lost his last chance to win a race this season -- by shooting himself in the foot. For the second straight week, the No. 88 team showed signs of sudden progress, leading the most laps in a race for the first time since the Coca-Cola 600 in May 2008. But it was another self-induced mistake that led to the race's second caution, a bad bumpdraft knocking Jeff Burton into the wall and then into the side of a driver whose entire career has been haunted since his tenure began at Hendrick Motorsports.
"Got a little too excited," Earnhardt said afterward, forced to nurse a damaged car to 39th. "Cost [Burton's] crew a great race car and opportunity to win. He had a really fast car, I apologize to Richard [Childress] and all of those guys over there. My boys too, they worked really hard on my car.
"Sometimes, you make mistakes and I made one today."
It's one that'll likely cost crew chief Lance McGrew his job in November. Any faint chance of him holding onto the pit box for 2011 should disintegrate now.
RACE GRADE: B+
During a plate race, half the battle is making sure no one gets seriously hurt. Check. There was lots of exciting, side-by-side racing, culminating in a victory for car owner Richard Childress almost 10 years after Dale Earnhardt's death. But another last-lap melee, another 500-mile race where cars were incapable of breaking apart from each other for long, left some still questioning this style of competition.
"I just don't know how long we can keep coming to this place," said Tony Stewart's crew chief, Darian Grubb. "Where you can have a one-lap race and have the same drama you have in 188."
My heartfelt condolences to the family and friends of longtime NASCAR executive and public relations guru Jim Hunter, who passed away from cancer Friday night at 71. While I only interacted with him a handful of times, his presence in the sport was larger than life, both in the way he handled NASCAR's problems while influencing a whole generation of media covering the sport with his wit, wisdom, and kindness. He will be sorely, sorely missed as one of the last active members of the sport's "old guard."