IN THE daysleading up to Sunday's race at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway, every driver inthe Chase for the Cup confessed to fearing the Big One, the multicar wreck thatalways looms ominously like a storm cloud over the 2.66-mile track. This kindof massive crash—often erupting after the slightest of wobbles on therestrictor-plate tracks at Daytona and Talladega, which foster nose-to-tailracing in large packs—is the biggest X factor in the Chase, because a drivercan get caught up in one without making a mistake himself. This is why, for thetitle contenders, 'Dega is more a game of survival than a race to the checkeredflag.
So even thoughJimmie Johnson finished ninth in the Amp Energy 500 on Sunday, he emerged asthe day's biggest winner after fellow Chase qualifiers Carl Edwards, GregBiffle, Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were done in by alate-race Big One that left them staring at their mangled cars.
The wreck wastriggered when Edwards, running in second place with 14 laps to go, carelesslyrammed the back of teammate Biffle's number 16 Ford. Biffle lost control andslid into Kenseth, another teammate. A heartbeat later 12 cars were spinningdown the track at 190 mph. Johnson, who was behind the wreck, could only seesmoke and faint outlines of the cars whirling in front of him, but he was ableto come out of it scratch-free.
This may well beremembered as the key moment of the 2008 Chase, because with six races left inthe season Johnson, the two-time defending Cup winner, holds a 72-point lead inthe standings. "This is like a win for me," Johnson said after therace. "When I saw how many of the Chase guys got collected in thataccident, I was like, Wow, this is my day."
While Edwards(second in points) and Biffle (77 back) still are within striking distance ofthe leader, Earnhardt's title hopes went up in the smoke of the crash. He's afive-time winner at Talladega, and the track offered his best chance to getback into Cup contention. He led for 19 laps but finished 28th—anotherdisappointment in a season of near misses for Little E, who trails Johnson by249 points. "We've been close to winning a lot of races this year, butwe're just a little off," Earnhardt said on Sunday. "I'd give us a Bfor how we've done this year."
Little Efrequently has been in the lead pack at the midway point of races but thenfaded. He and his crew chief, Tony Eury Jr., have struggled to adapt tochanging conditions on the track, which is why the addition of veteran MarkMartin to Hendrick Motorsports next season is important to Earnhardt's futuresuccess. The 49-year-old Martin, whose team will be housed under the same roofas Earnhardt's in 2009, excels at pinpointing what car adjustments need to bemade to find more speed during a race.
Little E turns 34on Friday. And when his birthday cake is rolled out at Whisky River, a bar heowns in downtown Charlotte, he shouldn't bother wishing for a championship thisseason. Thanks to the Big One at 'Dega, that's one wish that certainly won'tcome true.
ONLY AT SI.COM
Lars Anderson's Cup analysis and Mark Beech's Racing Fan.
NASCAR officials had a hand in the end of TonyStewart's 43-race winless streak on Sunday at Talladega. On the last lapStewart (right) blocked Regan Smith, prompting Smith to drop below the yellowline that runs along the inside of the track. NASCAR rules stated that a drivercould go below that line only if he was trying to avoid another car (whichofficials declared he wasn't) or if it was the last lap and he could see thefinish line (which Smith could not). Though Smith beat Stewart to the finish,NASCAR declared Stewart the winner. On Monday, NASCAR amended the rule: Nopassing will be allowed under the yellow line, and NASCAR will decide if adriver purposefully did so. To create more thrilling endings, NASCAR shouldallow drivers to drive below the line on the final lap.
CHASE SCENE A wreck took out Biffle (16), Kenseth (17) and Earnhardt (88 and inset); Johnson (48) sailed through.
MARK J. REBILAS/US PRESSWIRE (EARNHARDT)
JOHN BAZEMORE/AP (STEWART)