TALLADEGA, Ala. — Rain and wrecks pushed NASCAR to the edge of darkness Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway, where three of the biggest names in the sport led the field to final flag.
NASCAR was giving it one final go to get the rain-delayed race wrapped up, and Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson were at the head of the pack for the two-lap overtime sprint to the finish.
None of them ever saw David Ragan coming.
Heck, Ragan barely even saw teammate David Gilliland hook onto his rear bumper. But Gilliland locked up with Ragan for that last-gasp push to the finish and the Front Row Motorsports drivers sliced their way to the front and put Ragan into Victory Lane for the tiny organization's first victory.
"This is a true David versus Goliath moment here," Ragan said.
It was the second career victory for Ragan — he also won at Daytona in July 2011 when he drove for Roush Fenway Racing — and Gilliland finished second for a 1-2 finish for Front Row Motorsports.
"I wouldn't want to line up and have to do it again," said Ragan, who didn't realize Gilliland was pushing him until he exited Turn 2 on the last lap. "That gave me a little extra confidence ... that I could make the right moves and I knew that he was going to stick with me. I had a great teammate. David Gilliland gave us a great push. I owe him a lot. I'll definitely buy him lunch this week or something."
The victory came a day after Regan Smith won the Nationwide Series race and Ragan was flooded with misfired congratulatory messages on Twitter.
"All fans- please send all congrats to @ReganSmith. Not this Ragan..... He is the Winner today!! Haha," he tweeted Saturday night.
Now Ragan has his own win — just in time to qualify for the Sprint All-Star race in two weeks.
Gilliland wanted the win but was content settling for second on a day his team earned its first victory.
"What a great day for Front Row Motorsports, an underfunded team coming in here and being able to finish 1-2 is awesome," Gilliland said. "I'm very proud of David Ragan. I know he would have done the same for me. I had a heck of a run, we were pushing, I was locked to his bumper and I wasn't going to let him go."
The race took seven hours to complete after rain stopped it for 3 hours, 36 minutes midway through the event. With darkness quickly closing in, contact between Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and J.J. Yeley triggered a frightening crash that sent Kurt Busch's car airborne and on top of Ryan Newman's car.
Newman has been in numerous harrowing accidents at Daytona and Talladega, where NASCAR uses restrictor-plates to control the speeds, and was sharp with his criticism after exiting the infield care center. He said he only stopped to do a live television interview to criticize cars still being able to go airborne.
"They can build safer race cars, they can build safer walls. But they can't get their heads out of their (expletive) far enough to keep them on the race track, and that's pretty disappointing," Newman said. "I wanted to make sure I get that point across. Y'all can figure out who 'they' is."
He also was upset NASCAR continued the race with darkness closing in on the track so quickly.
"That's no way to end a race," he said. "That's just poor judgment in restarting the race, poor judgment. I mean, you got what you wanted, but poor judgment and running in the dark and running in the rain. That's it, thank you."
Busch wasn't injured in the accident.
"We just got hit from behind, and along for the ride we went," he said, adding "Yes, lovely," when asked if he was OK.
NASCAR sent the race into overtime after the final accident for one attempt at a green-white-checkered finish, and it seemed as though it might have been Kenseth's race to win.
He led a race-high 142 laps and was the leader on the final restart but was passed by Edwards on the first lap of overtime. He tried to get the lead back and was battling Edwards with no drafting partner. He never saw the pack coming behind him and, with nowhere to go, fell out of contention in the blink of an eye.
"Carl just got a rocket restart there, and he cleared me down the backstretch," Kenseth said. "He just got a huge run somehow. I was still second. I thought we still had a shot. I tried to get around Carl but he blocked, which you should. We got real wide getting up there and got pretty far to the top, and I just didn't watch the runs from the guys way in the back.
"I saw David at the last minute but he was going too fast. If I pulled in front of him I was just going to get wrecked. I just had to bite the bullet and try to find the hole, which there wasn't one. It was a disappointing end to the day but man, we had a great car.'
That's when Ragan and Gilliland came charging out of nowhere, sweeping past Edwards and Johnson and to the front.
"That was crazy," Edwards said. "I blocked everybody I could. I was doing everything I could. I blocked Matt and I thought, 'Oh, we've got it.' And then I saw Jimmie coming and I blocked him and I thought, 'Who is that back there?' It was this Ford freight train coming and I just couldn't stay in front of them."
Edwards wound up third for a sweep of the top three spots for Ford.
Michael Waltrip, who turned 50 this week and was running his first race since the Daytona 500, was fourth, and Daytona 500 winner Johnson was fifth after thinking the win was going to come down to him, Kenseth or Edwards.
"They came up on us so fast that I could see Carl trying to block and he finally said there's no real way to block the speed that they're bringing," Johnson said. "Those two had blown by and David had made it back to the checkered flag. So, it's really cool for that team."
Smith finished sixth and was followed by Martin Truex Jr., Kenseth, Scott Speed and Aric Almirola.
Denny Hamlin successfully returned from a compression fracture in a vertebra by turning 23 laps before getting out of his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota for replacement driver Brian Vickers during the first caution. Hamlin climbed out through a roof hatch and Vickers slid in through the window quickly enough to keep the No. 11 on the lead lap.
"It was all about just going through the motions and getting the process of making a comeback, getting that started," Hamlin said. "This is the first week of a comeback. This is going to be the start of everything, so anything that Brian gets us for points today is strictly a bonus and we're going to start next week in Darlington with our hair on fire."
But it was short-lived hope for Hamlin.
A mere 18 laps later, before Hamlin had even completed his media interviews, Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch triggered a 16-car accident on lap 43 that collected Vickers. Hamlin scurried to his garage stall to survey the damage on the car, where Vickers sat with the window net still up.
Vickers finished 34th in Hamlin's car.