|Jimmie Johnson has to finish the race at Talladega in a badly damaged car. (US Presswire)|
Most pointed to Talladega as the Chase "Wild Card" race that would have the biggest impact on the championship picture.
After Sunday's Good Sam Roadside Assistance 500, the standings indeed have taken a hit. And there are three men left standing.
Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin have separated themselves from the rest of the pack with four races in the books of this year's championship.
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While mathematically still alive, the remaining 12 drivers are going to need all kinds of miracles to pull off the 2012 title.
"There's still a lot of racing left. At least we're not fighting from a hole," said Keselowski, who came out with a 14-point advantage on Johnson after finishing seventh on Sunday.
Johnson also got caught up in the 25-car melee that ended the race to finish 17th, but stayed philosophical about the turn of events.
"We knew it was going to happen," said Johnson of the crash. "We did a very good job of managing things all day long. It was just getting really tight. I think we were probably four-wide going into [turn] three. I could see some tire smoke off the guys in front of me, and then everybody just merged together and we were all in a big wad at that point.
"Fortunately my car I could still drive to the finish so I passed a couple of guys that were sitting there on the bottom trying to get going themselves. I guess I finished 17th. I don't know, we'll take it I guess. We don't have a choice now."
Hamlin employed the strategy of trying to stay out of trouble at the back of the pack and did just that with survival his goal.
"It was pretty much an off weekend for us," said the Joe Gibbs Racing driver. "We didn't make a whole lot of noise today and didn't run very fast. I've played so many different strategies at this race and I've ended up in a heap like all of these cars sitting here. It's probably the first speedway race in a long time that we haven't torn up a car. It's just part of it.
"Usually that wreck happens earlier in the day and had it been on the green-flag lap we'd be out there with eight cars running and maybe then go for a win. We made our bed and we said we were going to stick to our guns and not try to get in a wreck and we did that."
He's still in the race for the crown, something nine others are having a hard time saying heading to Charlotte this week.
Last week's ranking in parenthesis
1. Brad Keselowski (1): Tried to be in position for a Talladega sweep but like most everyone else on the final lap Sunday was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Still increased his point lead.
2. Jimmie Johnson (2): Technically finished Sunday's race despite the No. 48 car lying in a crumpled heap and Johnson needing to catch a ride back to the garage with Dale Earnhardt Jr.
3. Denny Hamlin (3): Tried the hang-out-in-back strategy and like other recent Talladega trips it nearly backfired for Hamlin. But at the end of the day he survived the day, which was the plan.
4. Kasey Kahne (4): Won the pole to start the weekend and rode around inside the pack until disaster struck on the last circuit.
5. Clint Bowyer (5): Had a very legitimate chance to win a third straight October Talladega race but was swept up in the 25-car melee.
6. Tony Stewart (6): Took complete blame for triggering the last-lap fireworks but was very close to taking the No. 14 ride to victory lane.
7. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (7): Put Junior down for a no regarding Talladega after Sunday's carnage. While I wouldn't expect Earnhardt Jr. to find a new job, he said he's ready to find new employment if plate racing were the weekly norm.
8. Martin Truex Jr. (8): Just another victim to be added to the long list from Sunday.
9. Jeff Gordon (9): Despite finishing second Gordon no longer looks forward to racing at Talladega. Harsh words for a guy with so much success as the track.
10. Joey Logano (10): Not much of a factor on Sunday after falling back early and being forced to play catch-up.
11. Kevin Harvick: (11): Looked like the old Richard Childress Racing Talladega magic was going to return for the No. 29 team until, well, you know the rest.
12. Greg Biffle: (12): Described the last-lap madness as something he's never seen before and likened it to being inside a video game. From the in-car camera shots, Biffle is exactly right.
13. Kyle Busch: (13): Battled back from being a lap down early and scored a third-place finish to keep up some solid performances during the Chase portion of the season.
14. Ryan Newman (14): Joined teammate Tony Stewart in helping the Stewart-Haas Racing organization's rebuilding process.
15. Matt Kenseth (15): Pulled off the "spin and win" in spectacular fashion, rebounding from an early race slide to score his second restrictor plate victory of the season.