Dale Earnhardt Jr. climbed from his Chevy on the Talladega Superspeedway's pit road, grabbed a towel and wiped his brow. He'd just finished second in a win-or-nothing elimination scenario at his favorite racetrack, where he'd managed to overcome a miscue by his pit crew, a miscue of his getting onto pit road and a late charge through the field reminiscent of his father's legendary Talladega runs.
But in the end, Earnhardt came up one spot short and was eliminated at the end of the second round of NASCAR's still-new four-phase Chase postseason format.
"That was interesting, wasn't it?" he deadpanned. "I need one of y'all to explain exactly what just happened."
Matt Kenseth stood by his wrecked Toyota, steam seeping from its crushed left-front corner, and sighed. He had been caught up in the wreck that occurred during the day's second attempt at a green-white-checker finish.
Or was it actually the first?
"I hate that we have this silly [Chase] system that makes us have to be out here playing games instead of racing. I miss just worrying about racing."
Brad Keselowski finished fourth and immediately asked, "Are we in?" He was, as far as anyone knew. Denny Hamlin emerged from the infield care center and trudged toward his destroyed racecar, the one with the taped-up escape hatch that had flapped in the 200-mph breeze all day and finished 37th. He, too, was out of the Chase ... as far as he knew. Hamlin's teammate, Kyle Busch, stood by his 11th-place car and looked downright befuddled.
"I don't feel anything," he said, eyes moving from person to person. "I just figured there with that second-to-last restart, it doesn't look good because I see an awful lot of [Chase contenders] in front of me, right? ... It just sort of played our way I guess there at the end."
Guess was the operative word. After a week of postseason hype and a race that spent nearly three hours meeting those haughty expectations, exactly what in the world had happened in the final frantic minutes of the race was anyone's guess. The sport's most unpredictable racetrack asked to whittle down the championship field from a dozen to eight responded in the most unpredictable way.
"I guess we got what we expected," Earnhardt said to a wall of cameras. "Which is that we had no idea what to expect."
As the drivers took their best guesses, the massive crowd in the massive grandstand across the massive frontstretch, after an afternoon of thunderous oohs and aahs, was totally silent, almost eerily silent. There was some booing of race winner Joey Logano, who hadn't yet been declared the winner. There were some beer cans thrown at Logano's car during the cool-down lap, a lap that was paced a little slower than normal while NASCAR Race Control could review video of the finish and determine exactly who the winner was.
From the grandstand's point of view, it was Earnhardt who held the lead when the race-ending caution flag was shown, freezing the field, not Logano. But they see everything through Mountain Dew-colored glasses.
A fan dressed in Earnhardt gear, staring at the towering video screen located behind pit road, finally screamed, "Does anyone have any idea what the hell is going on?!"
While they waited, rumors ran through that grandstand that Kevin Harvick, driving a quickly failing car, had caused the race-ending crash on purpose to manipulate the Chase field. Chatter ran through the grandstand that NASCAR was working not to fix the finish, but to fix the finish. Then, they simply ran from the grandstand, quietly emptying the seats with unusual speed.
Why? Because Logano was indeed declared the winner. Eventually, all the Chase-related results were announced, too. But it took a while. An awkward Victory Lane celebration by Logano took place beneath booming commentary from the track's public address announcers, wondering aloud about Harvick conspiracy theories and warning that "it could be days before NASCAR makes this finish official."
About an hour after the race was flagged NASCAR officially announced the eight racers moving on to the three-race semifinal round of the Chase: Logano, Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch, Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr., Harvick and Kyle Busch.
Kenseth was out. Hamlin was out. Ryan Newman was out.
And yes, Earnhardt was out.
But even as that announcement was being made in the infield media center, NASCAR president Mike Helton was meeting with reporters outside of the sanctioning body's office truck, saying in a impromptu, televised Q&A session that he was pleased with the initial rulings based on the video, but warned "something could crawl out of the woodwork over the next 24 hours."
By then, at least two people seemed perfectly content with how the wild, weird and ultimately letdown of a day at Talladega had unfurled. They also happened to be the two drivers who finished up front.
"I'm going to get asked about the green-white-checkered rule, which I am fine with," Earnhardt said, referring to NASCAR's announcement earlier in the week that they would limit the Talladega race to one overtime period in the name of safety and sanity. On Sunday there were two, but the first didn't count because a wreck happened before the leaders had taken the green. "I feel like no matter what the rules, when the race is over, I can live with the result as long as everyone else is going by the same rules."
"I can look back on a lot of different things that put me in this situation right now, starting with the first two races in this [Chase] round when we didn't run well," he continued. "Joey won all three. That's how you have to do it, I guess. Leave no doubt."
"I have no clue what is going on," Logano said, beaming, when asked about the whispers regarding the final restarts, particularly Harvick on the grassy knoll, and the video review that ruled he was the winner over Earnhardt. "I guess that there has been some talk of things, but I have no clue. I am out of the loop right now, which is a good thing for a change."
On Sunday night at Talladega, out of the loop was a crowded group. Just ask the grandstand.
So was out of the Chase. Just ask the grandstand's favorite driver.