TALLADEGA, Ala. — For drivers, Talladega is NASCAR's version of Disney World, a place where dreams come true and every frog can be a prince, if only for a moment. It's a place where seasons can be salvaged and teams can be saved, and on Sunday, it might have kickstarted one of NASCAR's sputtering stars.
Denny Hamlin might well be a future champion, but he's hit a serious dry spell. Coming into Sunday, he hadn't won since last year's season finale, and hadn't won a race meaningful to his championship hopes since the second race of the 2012 Chase.
But none of that matters at Talladega, where you've got a chance to win provided you keep most of your wheels on the track. Hamlin was in the right place at the right time, leading when a final-lap caution fell, and as a result he ended up with a virtually certain Chase berth.
We'll get to that later, though. Whenever NASCAR comes to Talladega, fans and drivers alike know that there are going to be wrecks. Huge, chassis-warping, day-ending wrecks. Sunday was no exception, with many of the sport's biggest names ending the day either several laps down or on an early plane home.
Brad Keselowski was at the center of two wrecks, both apparently self-inflicted. He made contact with Danica Patrick on Lap 14 and spun into the infield, eventually restarting six laps down. Then, while racing in the pack trying to get his laps back, he got loose and set off a major wreck that involved Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon and several others.
Keselowski, for his part, took responsibility for the wrecks after the race on Twitter:
— Brad Keselowski (@keselowski) May 4, 2014
It's too soon to tell if that will placate many of the drivers who appeared either openly or implicitly irritated at his actions.
"I don’t know what he was doing,’’ Gordon said. “Obviously thinking that was going to be the way to get his lap back. All that it did was get a bunch of other cars wrecked.’’
“If it was the other way around and it was anybody else except for him, we’d all be getting lectured," Kenseth added.
With only a handful of laps remaining, Jimmie Johnson got loose and took out Joey Logano and others. All in all, Gordon, Kenseth, Keselowski, Johnson, Logano, Carl Edwards, Tony Stewart, and Kurt Busch fell out of contention via wreck. That's some serious star power on the sidelines, and with that many top drivers on the shelf, the door was open and the way was clear for someone to make a move.
Which brings us back to Hamlin, who up until this point had exactly zero wins at Talladega, and no points-paying wins at fellow superspeedway Daytona. Talladega is always something of a crapshoot; you're at the mercy of those around you, and your day can end because of the mistake of someone 20 spots ahead of you ... or, in this case, behind.
Greg Biffle and Clint Bowyer were running second and third behind Hamlin when the final caution flew at the very start of the final lap. That flag froze the field, denying Biffle and Bowyer the chance to make a run at Hamlin.
"I was setting up to go by [Hamlin] but just never had the chance," Biffle said. "I wish I would have known that we weren't going to race all the way back, but it was a good day for us."
"It's a wild situation," Bowyer added. "It was kind of funny, we see all the smoke and it was 400 yards behind us. We're supposed to be looking out the windshield."
If they'd looked through that windshield, they'd have seen only Hamlin, who admitted after the race that he might actually be getting the hang of this superspeedway thing. "I drive superspeedway races a lot different than I used to, for sure," he said. "I'm not always the guy making the move now. I'm more staying in like and trying to be patient ... for God's sake, after nine years, you would think I'd come close to winning one."
"Denny really operates a lot off momentum," Hamlin's team owner JD Gibbs said. "He's just a great leader. He's a great driver. But he has to have that confidence, and I think he has it now."
Hamlin thus leaves Alabama with a smile on his face. The other 42 drivers leave with some mix of resignation, frustration and outright fury. "That's Talladega. What can you say?" Johnson said afterward. "Stuff happens. Well, there's a four-letter word that says it better. But that's Talladega."