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Talladega wreck does little to shake up standings

October 08, 2012, Mark Aumann, NASCAR.com

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Top three remain the same; Gordon, Earnhardt Jr. headed in opposite directions

For all the talk about Talladega Superspeedway being the one race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup that could create wild swings in the standings, the top three coming into Sunday's race remained in the same spots when the checkered flag finally flew.

And for as much carnage as race-winner Matt Kenseth dodged all day, he's still mired in 12th, 62 points behind Brad Keselowski.

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"I just feel lucky to survive Talladega. There's still a lot of racing left. At least we're not fighting from a hole."

--BRAD KESELOWSKI

Keselowski was one of the 10 Chase contenders caught up in a final turn, 25-car pileup but felt fortunate to leave Talladega still holding a 14-point advantage over Jimmie Johnson. He was credited with a seventh-place finish, while Johnson wound up 17th.

"That's pretty big," Keselowski said. "I just feel lucky to survive Talladega. There's still a lot of racing left. At least we're not fighting from a hole."

Denny Hamlin was another Chase contender who turned a potential disaster of a day into a blessing when he somehow threaded his way in and around spinning and crashing cars to finish 14th.

Hamlin was running at the tail end of the pack when Tony Stewart drifted down in front of Michael Waltrip in Turn 4 and made contact, sending Stewart's car spinning into the middle of four-wide racing.

"Once they started crashing, I immediately stood hard on the brakes and waited for everyone to kind of wash down the track," Hamlin said. "Then I drove around them. We don't have a scratch on our car, and it sucks to get a good finish that way, but that's the strategy in which we played [Sunday] is to not get into a wreck."

It was an unusual race for Hamlin, who in recent restrictor-plate events has been one of the stronger tandem-drafting pushers. Instead, Hamlin rode in the back nearly the entire race and was content to try and leave Talladega without tearing up his car -- or his title hopes.

"We were all saving fuel to try to make it all the way," Hamlin said. "I felt if you were in the lead pack there, it was more than likely you were not going to make it there, or some of them weren't. The wreck was going to start because some guys were going to run out of fuel, or guys were going to have to pit and we were going to improve our position that way.

"With this strategy, you're basically conceding a chance at a win, but you're just trying to do damage control not to finish in the 20s and 30s."

The big winners and losers on the day all were driving equipment from Rick Hendrick Motorsports. Jeff Gordon's second-place finish moved him up four spots in the standings, and Kasey Kahne leapfrogged two other drivers by finishing 12th.

Gordon was right behind Kahne and being pushed by Kyle Busch in the lower groove when the incident started. After colliding with Stewart, Waltrip tapped the back of Kevin Harvick's car, and those two cars wound up sideways, blocking the upper half of the track.

That allowed Gordon to somehow slip through nearly unscathed, what he termed "like a win."

"When I saw smoke, everybody checked up in a hurry," Gordon said. "I hit [Kahne] and [Busch] hit me, and it just turned me right down to the apron and I drove by pretty much everybody but [Kenseth]. So we got really lucky there."

Since finishing 35th in the Chase opener at Chicagoland, Gordon has two seconds and a third. That's moved him up six places in the standings, but he's only gained a handful of points on Keselowski during that same span.

"It's a little frustrating," Gordon said. "Our team is doing a great job. We've been performing really, really well. We can sit there and really get mad about what happened in Chicago, but the reality of it is all we can do is go each and every week and keep trying to put ourselves in position to win and get top-fives.

"It's not over yet. It is certainly not over yet. So we'll see what happens. If we keep doing this, I really think we might have a shot at it."

At the other end of the spectrum, Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. both took huge hits to their championship chances after getting caught up in the final-lap melee. Stewart finished 22nd and dropped two positions in the standings, while Junior went from seventh to 11th with his 20th-place finish.

Stewart readily accepted the blame for the accident, saying it was "a mistake on my part. It cost a lot of people a bad day because of it."

One of those was Earnhardt, who finds himself 51 points behind Keselowski. He wasn't willing to make a definitive statement on his title hopes until he had a chance to re-examine things.

"Well, we will keep digging but we will see," Earnhardt said. "I don't know where we are at."