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IN THE days leading up to Sunday's race at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway, every driver in the Chase for the Cup confessed to fearing the Big One, the multicar wreck that always looms ominously like a storm cloud over the 2.66-mile track. This kind of massive crash—often erupting after the slightest of wobbles on the restrictor-plate tracks at Daytona and Talladega, which foster nose-to-tail racing in large packs—is the biggest X factor in the Chase, because a driver can get caught up in one without making a mistake himself. This is why, for the title contenders, 'Dega is more a game of survival than a race to the checkered flag.
So even though Jimmie Johnson finished ninth in the Amp Energy 500 on Sunday, he emerged as the day's biggest winner after fellow Chase qualifiers Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle, Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were done in by a late-race Big One that left them staring at their mangled cars.
The wreck was triggered when Edwards, running in second place with 14 laps to go, carelessly rammed the back of teammate Biffle's number 16 Ford. Biffle lost control and slid into Kenseth, another teammate. A heartbeat later 12 cars were spinning down the track at 190 mph. Johnson, who was behind the wreck, could only see smoke and faint outlines of the cars whirling in front of him, but he was able to come out of it scratch-free.
This may well be remembered as the key moment of the 2008 Chase, because with six races left in the season Johnson, the two-time defending Cup winner, holds a 72-point lead in the standings. "This is like a win for me," Johnson said after the race. "When I saw how many of the Chase guys got collected in that accident, I was like, Wow, this is my day."
While Edwards (second in points) and Biffle (77 back) still are within striking distance of the leader, Earnhardt's title hopes went up in the smoke of the crash. He's a five-time winner at Talladega, and the track offered his best chance to get back into Cup contention. He led for 19 laps but finished 28th—another disappointment in a season of near misses for Little E, who trails Johnson by 249 points. "We've been close to winning a lot of races this year, but we're just a little off," Earnhardt said on Sunday. "I'd give us a B for how we've done this year."
Little E frequently has been in the lead pack at the midway point of races but then faded. He and his crew chief, Tony Eury Jr., have struggled to adapt to changing conditions on the track, which is why the addition of veteran Mark Martin to Hendrick Motorsports next season is important to Earnhardt's future success. The 49-year-old Martin, whose team will be housed under the same roof as Earnhardt's in 2009, excels at pinpointing what car adjustments need to be made to find more speed during a race.
Little E turns 34 on Friday. And when his birthday cake is rolled out at Whisky River, a bar he owns in downtown Charlotte, he shouldn't bother wishing for a championship this season. Thanks to the Big One at 'Dega, that's one wish that certainly won't come true.