Stewart, Newman gain separation from pack
Greg Biffle fell only one spot in the points standings, but more telling is that he fell a daunting 75 points further in the hole. That's what happens on a day when you finish 27th, saved from a position free fall only by the fact that many of your fellow Chase contenders didn't fare so well, either.
In truth, that's what happens when a six-man clog separated by only 23 points comes to the destructive, 2.66-mile Alabama track called Talladega Superspeedway.
"Good 'ol Talladega," Biffle said. "Just another day at the racetrack. It's what we expect when we come here. We come here for the fans and for TV -- to put on a show and they got to see a great show today. That's what it's about."
Mind you, these were not the words of a happy man. Biffle's head hung low, his only consolation was that -- finally, after two playoff races in which nearly all contenders finished high -- Chase contenders Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin and Rusty Wallace had poor outings, too.
After Week 3 of NASCAR's Chase for the Nextel Cup, the attrition rate slimmed. With second- and third-place finishes, respectively, Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman climbed to first and second in the standings -- separated by only four points. The rankings get a lot roomier after those two, though.
With a 25th-place finish, Wallace fell one spot to third, a relatively distant 76 points back. With a 31st-place finish, Johnson fell three spots to fourth, 82 points back. Other than Biffle's fall to fifth, 98 points back, it was only Martin who suffered the wrath of 'Dega, falling five slots to ninth, 138 points back.
"I just want to say one thing," said Martin, the retiring veteran perhaps having just seen his hopes for an ever-elusive title slip once more through his racing gloves. "The fans are the only ones that can do something about this. No one else can -- the drivers can't, the owners can't and NASCAR's not going to do anything about it."
Martin was referring to the tight quarters that restrictor-plate racing creates and the massive carnage it often leaves behind. For Martin and Johnson, Sunday's race was over after 18 laps. For Biffle and Wallace, there was a premature break, as well.
"I know that it's exciting racing to watch," Martin said, "but I didn't even get a sweat worked up."
On this Sunday, there were two "Big Ones" -- as drivers refer to the multicar Talladega wrecks. Each left victims pointing at Chase contenders.
|“||I know that it's exciting racing to watch, but I didn't even get a sweat worked up. ”|
|— Mark Martin|
The first incident on lap 18 led pole-sitter Elliott Sadler to call out Johnson, who entered Sunday as the points leader -- and who, incidentally, has never finished the fall Talladega race.
"I'm really upset at Jimmie," Sadler said. "We've got three pedals in these cars and as many times as he's been drafting here he knows that you always stack up at the end of every straightaway -- it's the way the draft works. I guess he's trying to keep his streak alive. He caused a big wreck here last year and he caused a big one again this year. Maybe that's his way of racing here at Talladega as far as trying to get rid of everybody so he can try to win the race."
On lap 18, Sadler's car became the focal point of the first big wreck when he started spinning. He said Johnson got into the back of him and sent him on his way. Johnson said he wasn't sure if he got into the back of Sadler, but he did acknowledge that he probably got close enough to get Sadler's No. 38 loose. Still, Johnson said it wasn't his fault.
"I was getting a huge push from behind," he said. "I've got my hand up waving off the No. 8 [of Dale Earnhardt Jr.] and I was on the brakes trying not to get into the back of the No. 38. And I don't think I got into him, but I think I got close enough to him where it loosened him up getting into the turn. But there is only so much you can do when you're getting a push."
When Sadler started spinning, Martin said his windshield filled up with the No. 38 car and there was no way of avoiding it.
Later, Biffle said it was Newman who caused the second big accident of the day when Casey Mears's No. 41 Dodge wrecked. The 41 collected Biffle and Wallace in its path.
"It was pretty obvious what happened," Biffle said. "It looked like Ryan Newman spun the 41 out. It's unfortunate. We were right there racing with those guys, but I had a good race car. This is what people pay their money to come see and pay to watch television and listen to the radio is big crashes here at Talladega. Everybody loves it."
Everybody except the guys who can't avoid the wreckage.
"All of a sudden I look and I see the No. 41 spinning across the start/finish line right in front of me," Wallace said. "That just ruined my day."
Said Newman: "I don't know who was to blame [or] if I was to blame in the deal on the front straightaway there. I know I took the air off the No. 41 and he was in a loose position. I feel sorry for the guys that were involved, as well as I saw that Scott Riggs took a heck of a lick."
For Newman's part, though, he benefited big-time from the lick his fellow Chase contenders took, making it a tight two-man race for the title with eight others waiting for Newman and Stewart to hit some bad luck.
For four drivers, however, Talladega was pretty uneventful -- and to a man they insisted that at Talladega uneventful sometimes feels like a win.
Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch had taken hits in the standings over the first two Chase races, and with fourth- and eighth-place finishes, respectively, the two made up some ground on everybody except the duo at the top. Kenseth is now only 35 points out of third, though he's 111 out of first. Busch is now 104 points out of third -- up from a 152-point defecit coming into the event -- and 180 out of first.
"There were some hard times out there trying to dodge the wrecks," Busch said.
As for Carl Edwards and Jeremy Mayfield, neither has been extremely impressive or disappointing during the Chase. That's why they've been hanging back in the points, coming into Talladega ahead of limping Kenseth and Busch but behind the six others who had posted solid finishes in the first two Chase events.
On Sunday, Edwards posted his first top-five of the playoffs -- his second top-10 in a row -- and climbed two spots into fifth, 100 points out of first. Mayfield kept his streak of mediocrity in tact, finishing 14th. He fell a spot to eighth.
Even he couldn't complain, though. He'd driven by the wrecking ball and survived. At Talladega, that's about all anyone -- particularly anyone still chasing a championship -- can hope for. "We made it through," he said, "and that's the main thing. Finishing is what counts, and we finished."
Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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