TALLADEGA, Ala. —
"Now I'm in worse trouble. This is the story of my life," he said. "Kurt Busch leads the race, runs out of gas, gets yelled at by NASCAR, and now I have a storm of media around me, and I don't know what to do or what to say next."
So he was long gone as the race roared on seemingly incident-free.
Because Talladega is the fourth race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, the championship contending drivers had to do everything in the power to leave with a good finish.
It meant Denny Hamlin spent most of the race at the back of the pack — so far back, he was in danger of not being able to make up any ground when he needed to hustle.
"It's what you have to do," Hamlin said. "You kind of give up the chance at a win riding in the back all day, but you've got to miss the wreck."
A spin by Jamie McMurray brought out the final caution and bunched the field together, which gave Kasey Kahne, Martin Truex Jr. and Hamlin a chance to salvage their day. They had two laps to get to the finish line, and Stewart darted from fifth to first on the restart.
But he couldn't win without some serious defensive driving, and it led to the accident that is part of Talladega's legacy.
It cost two-time defending race winner Clint Bowyer, who was the leader on the restart and trying to make it to the finish before Stewart's car landed on top of his. Bowyer wound up 23rd and said the accident started when Stewart "hung a pretty hard left on Michael."
"That's just Talladega. That's why we all come out and watch," Bowyer said. "We need to shorten this race up because it's all waiting to see what happens right there at the end, anyway."