Despite finishing 11th, Carl Edwards raced well and increased his points lead
Brad Keselowski finished in fourth place, best of any championship-eligible driver
It was a bad race for Kyle and Kurt Busch, who both received a grade of D-
Grading the performances from Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway.
The points leader and trusty squire/Roush Fenway teammate Greg Biffle skulked in the back of the field for much of the race -- just like many of those with an anticipation of victory -- running in the mid-30s. But Edwards was able to do what many Chase for the Championship drivers could not in the final laps, advance with a bold thrust through the field despite a precautionary pit stop after possibly running through accident flotsam. His 11th-place finish was enough to improve his points lead to 14 points over teammate Matt Kenseth with four races left. "I don't know that I have ever been so excited about 11th place. This race was one that was nerve-racking for everyone but we came in here with a small points lead and that was a huge day for us," Edwards said.
The former Talladega winner and Chase wild card continues his impressive foray through the second half of the Sprint Cup season, finishing fourth on Sunday, best of any championship-eligible driver. His three-spot vault to third in the standings was the heftiest of any Chase driver. At just 18 points behind Edwards, Keselowski is an extremely interesting ... wild card.
The two-time series champion recovered from a tandem-drafting incident with Ryan Newman to finish seventh. Stewart advanced one spot to fourth in the standings, just 19 off the lead.
He was without a drafting partner for long stretches of the early laps, pathetically trying to horn in on other drivers' dates. Fortunately for him, attrition allowed him to link up with some lonesome souls and finish eighth. Eleventh in points, 84 back, he's groping for positives like this as the season winds down.
He finished 18th, but just four Chase drivers finished ahead of him, and one of those, Hamlin, is no threat to Kenseth or anyone else in terms of the championship. The 2003 series champion just keeps chipping away.
He pushed, he followed, he helped quarterback Jimmie Johnson through the field on Sunday. And in the final sequence he aligned the No. 88 Chevrolet to push Johnson to the front because Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet was overheating and needed the cooling air. Didn't work. Earnhardt Jr. finished 25th, one spot ahead of Johnson. It could have been an epic display of teamwork, but ultimately a fruitless exercise, especially considering their success on restrictor plate tracks.
The five-time defending champion slipped a little further from a possible sixth consecutive title, finishing a disheartening 26th when his race-long strategy of lurking in the back of the field failed in the final laps. Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Earnhardt Jr. game-planned a rush for the front in the final 20 laps but three cautions in the final 42 laps fouled their timing. Johnson and Earnhardt apologized to each other for foundering during the restart. Johnson actually gained a spot to seventh because of poor finishes by several Chase drivers, but no driver has ever come from as much as 50 points with four races remaining to win a Sprint Cup title. "We were out of sequence the way we were lined up (on the final restart)," Johnson said. "I was going to push Junior and I had to be in the lead the way we had the debris on the grill. And then as we went to make our switch, the pack was organized and with the green-white-checkered situation, there's not a lot of time to get organized and we lost our momentum there and got to the outside and kind of stalled out up on the top and finished far worse than we had hoped to."
His uncanny ability to recover from difficulty was tested beyond its limit on Sunday, as Harvick was caught in a late accident and relegated to a costly 32nd-place finish. The disastrous result dropped him three spots (the most of any Chaser) to fifth in the standings. He's 26 points off the pace, on the edge of the realistic-chance boundary.
As Roush Fenway blooms, Hendrick wilts. Gordon spoke optimistically and often during the race about a No. 24 Chevrolet capable of reaching victory lane, but he was relegated to a 27th-place, just behind two of his teammates. A once-promising bid for a fifth title is diminished to a slog to the end of the schedule as Gordon is in 10th place, 82 points out.
Another Chase seems to be slipping away from Busch after a 33rd-place finish following a wreck with 13 laps left. He had a bumping incident with Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Joey Logano, was involved in the crash that collected Harvick in a miserable afternoon. Busch fell two spots to sixth in points, 52 out. "(Edwards) and (Johnson), they rode out back and finished. We were up towards the front and we got wrecked out. It's so hard to know where you need to be and this race is so circumstantial," Busch said.
Again bedeviled by restrictor plate tracks despite his aptitude at Daytona and Talladega, Busch finished 36th after plowing the veering car of Bobby Labonte on Lap 173 of a scheduled 188. Eighth in points, 52 out. Done.
Involved in a drafting mishap with his teammate, Tony Stewart, on Lap 80 Newman was sent sliding and to an eventual 38th-place finish. He fell two spots to the last of the Chasers. If he was an English Premier League team, he'd be facing certain relegation, but, alas, he is not.