Of the 3,311 laps run during NASCAR's Chase, half a dozen laps made the most impact, by either ending, reviving or damaging championship hopes for various drivers. The outcome of these laps essentially guided Brad Keselowski to his first Sprint Cup crown.
After his gallant charge the week before at Richmond to narrowly make the Chase, Jeff Gordon's title hopes all but ended in the opening Chase race. A half-stuck throttle sent Gordon into the wall while he was running in the top five. He eventually finished 35th, which placed him too far back to make a title run.
That race would be the anomaly in a spectacular seven-race stretch where Gordon had six top-three finishes; unfortunately, the problems at Chicago kept him from being a title contender during those races. While Gordon experienced hiccups later in the Chase, one could wonder how differently the Chase might have been if he hadn't had problems at Chicago.
The last lap at Talladega had ramifications for many, but most noticeably Dale Earnhardt Jr., who suffered his second concussion in six weeks; lingering symptoms forced him to miss the next two races.
The Chase, though, turned in Brad Keselowski's favor when his car escaped the 25-car melee and managed to finish seventh. Ten of the 12 Chase drivers were collected in the incident but most finished behind Keselowski, including Jimmie Johnson. Even those who finished ahead of Keselowski had little to cheer about in regards to the points race.
"We finished sixth and I look at the scoreboard and Brad is seventh," Greg Biffle said. "We gained one point, so 49 more weeks and I'll be right there with him."
Brad Keselowski had the best car of the night, but the aggressiveness he and crew chief Paul Wolfe had been using backfired this time.
Keselowski was scheduled to pit on this lap, but as he ran down the backstretch, he was told on the radio to run an extra lap if his fuel pressure gauge had a certain reading. It did, so Keselowski didn't pit. He ran out of fuel in turn four just as he passed the pit entrance. Keselowski made it back around to pit but lost spots and track position. Instead of contending for the race and building his points lead, Keselowski finished 11th and saw Johnson move to within seven points of the lead with five races left in the Chase.
"We're not going to put the prevent defense out there," Keselowski said after the race, defending the decision. "We're going to go at you, we're going to try to sack the quarterback every time."
Jimmie Johnson's Chase hopes might have ended on this lap had it not been for eagle-eyed car chief Ron Malec. Johnson was trying to pass Martin Truex Jr. when he lost control of his car in turn four and backed into the wall. Despite calls from crew chief Chad Knaus to stay on the track, Johnson immediately headed down pit road. The call was made for Johnson to go to the garage but that changed based on what Malec saw when Johnson drove by the team's pit stall.
"I choose to go down pit road because my tires were flat," Johnson said. "Making that decision allowed me to go by the pit box to where Ron put a sharp eye on the back of the car and knew that it was fixable on pit road. If the deck lid mounts were ripped off, NASCAR wouldn't let us back on track. They were still intact, Ron spotted it and told Chad, 'Hey, bring it to the pits, we can fix this thing.' Chad made the call to bring it to pit road and they got it done."
Johnson's team made the repairs without losing a lap. That allowed him to finish ninth to score the same amount of points as Brad Keselowski, who finished eighth. Had Johnson gone to the garage, he likely would have outside the top 25 and lost several points to Keselowski. Malec's attentiveness kept Johnson's hopes for a sixth championship alive.
The warning signs had been there for a number of laps as Denny Hamlin ran in the top five. His car started losing power. They thought was it was a battery issue, but it proved to be worse.
He had talked about how he was handling this year's Chase better than in 2010 when he lost the championship to Jimmie Johnson in the season finale at Homestead. To have a shot at the title this time, Hamlin knew he needed to win at Martinsville with just three races remaining after it.
Instead, a master control switch broke and shut the car's power. Hamlin's car went to the garage for repairs. His Chase for the championship was over. He would finish 33rd, 34 laps behind the leaders.
"One of these days it's going to be our time," Hamlin said. "It's just not going to be right now."
Had it not been the penultimate race of the Chase, all the of the talk would have been about Jeff Gordon wrecking Clint Bowyer in retaliation for earlier incidents and the resulting brouhaha in the garage between the teams.
Yet, it was on this lap that Jimmie Johnson's title hopes all but ended. A blown tire -- a Goodyear official said resulted from excessive brake heat melting a bead -- sent Johnson into the wall and to the garage for repairs. He would finish 32nd and fall 20 points behind Brad Keselowski heading into the season finale at Homestead. The cushion would make Homestead easier for Keselowski.
A week after this incident, Keselowski finished 15th in the season finale at Homestead and raised the championship trophy as NASCAR's new champion.