As the pack hurtled into turn three on the final lap Sunday afternoon at Talladega, a top 10 was looking out of reach for points leader Brad Keselowski, who was buried back in the pack on the inside line. And then when leader Tony Stewart made contact with Michael Waltrip, carnage ensued and chaos erupted.
The moment that Stewart spun off of Waltrip's front fender, Keselowski was the 23rd car in line. But remember, he was on the inside line; that turned out to be an extremely important detail, because it allowed Keselowski to immediately dive onto the apron of the track, where he missed most of the melee. As he was almost through, he was hit from behind by Bobby Labonte, but managed to keep the car pointed towards the start finish line.
He finished 7th.
That 16 position gain and the blows that his closest pursuers took in the final lap crash means that Keselowski leaves Talladega (unofficially) 14 points ahead of Jimmie Johnson and 23 points ahead of Denny Hamlin, a gain of nine points on Johnson and four on Hamlin.
Last year after the fourth race of the Chase, Kyle Busch was 20 points behind then-leader Carl Edwards; in eighth place. The top three were separated by four points, and eventual champion Tony Stewart was 19 points back in seventh place.
So yes, Keselowski has a significantly stronger hand than Edwards did at this time last year, and perhaps more importantly, he has five fewer drivers within a half a race than Edwards did -- Kasey Kahne is 36 points back in fourth.
Who's up? That's Jeff Gordon, who got his third straight top three finish after he turned his car on the apron and held his foot to the floor to avoid the crash ahead of him and finish second. While Gordon only made up six points on the points lead thanks to Keselowski's seventh place finish, he passed four drivers in the points standings, and is now ahead of Stewart by a point for sixth place.
Who's upside down? This one could go to a lot of drivers, but it has to be Tony Stewart, who went from potentially gaining 25 points on Keselowski and being within single digits of the top of the heap to being 46 points behind in seventh place thanks to his crazy upside down ride on the cars of Kahne, Clint Bowyer and Paul Menard. Honorable mention for the spot goes to Bowyer, who lost 15 points to Keselowski because of the crash too.
Who's out? Unfortunately for race-winner Matt Kenseth, the win didn't do him much good in the points standings; he's still 12th. But the biggest loser amidst Sunday's pileup was Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is now in 11th, 51 points behind Keselowski. (A loss of 12 points from the previous week.) We'll go ahead and make this group anyone who is more than a full race's worth of points out of the lead, so Kevin Harvick, and Greg Biffle, who are both 49 points out of the lead, can go ahead and start turning out the lights too.