If Kevin Harvick and his Richard Childress Racing teammates pull this 2010 Sprint Cup Series championship out of the fire, they might look at Talladega as one of the critical turning points.
You just knew, as you watched Harvick's crew chief, Gil Martin, accept congratulations from one visitor after another as he stood 10 or 15 yards in front of their battered No. 29 Chevrolet -- as NASCAR officials pored over it in post-race inspection -- that Martin almost couldn't believe that his team and driver had achieved a second-place finish.
Martin won three consecutive track championships with the late, great Bobby Hamilton at the legendary Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway in the late 1980s. He's had plenty of race wins -- including victories in all three of NASCAR's national tours -- but nary a championship since then.
And Martin hardly wants to let himself think too much about grabbing RCR's first Cup championship since another legend, Dale Earnhardt, achieved the feat in 1994.
But performances like Sunday's make it hard not to do so.
Someone walked up to Martin, cocked their head and asked him: "Where does this rank on your personal list of comebacks, or recoveries for a decent finish, in a race?"
"Oh -- it's got to rank right there at the top," Martin said without hesitation. "We've had a few where we've come back and run well, like that, but the last two Talladega races we've had here, we've won and lost by an inch -- so I guess if you averaged that out, we've tied -- though I don't know how you'd average that out."
There's no need to do that -- it was just a moment of silliness for a guy who's intense as it gets when a race is on the line; but who's flexible enough to deal with a driver who takes "intensity" to the nth degree.
And surprisingly, Harvick and Martin never exchanged much in the way of cross words despite having a car that right from the start proved it was plenty capable of repeating Harvick's victory in Talladega's spring race -- before it was involved in two on-track incidents that had every chance of developing into Talladega's infamous Big One, though they never did.
They just put their heads down, in concert with the crew, and worked: Not once, when Harvick had to pull a hard-left turn to get off the banking to miss a wrecking teammate, Jeff Burton; but twice, when later in the race with less than 40 laps to go Bowyer tangled with Marcos Ambrose in heavy traffic and turned Ambrose into Harvick's path.
It was a near disaster, but Martin, atop the pit box, immediately responded to Harvick's radio call that "it didn't seem too bad," and began issuing commands to repair the damage in multiple pit stops. It's the stuff from which championships are made.
"What a great day," Martin said later, with a nod. "[The crew] did a great job fixing the car -- as much damage as we had -- but it was a good day for us. A lot of things went our way.
"With everything that's on the line, of course this makes us even more enthusiastic about the way we were able to pull through. For once, it seems like some of the breaks are maybe going our way. We had a flat tire right there at the end, as we sat out on the [start/finish] line after the race was over -- so if that caution [on the white-flag lap] hadn't of come out, we probably would've finished 30th.
"So we're catching some of the breaks we hadn't caught in the past."
And in the end, the last thing that had Martin shaking his head was the in-race deficit his team had overcome. With 10 laps to go, the live points chart -- which indicates the standings as the cars run on the track -- had Harvick in third behind Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin, 108 points out of first.
"I think that sums it up and I think we've said it a bunch of times in the last few weeks," Martin said. "Earlier in the year, we lost 100 points to second place at Martinsville, and at Sonoma, we gained 100 points on second place. I heard the announcer say we were 108 points behind with nine [laps] to go and I cringed.
"But then we had that caution and I told [ESPN pit reporter] Jerry Punch when he was interviewing me: 'This thing is fixing to go four-wide, we're gonna fan-out and win this thing.' There's nobody I'd rather have than [Harvick] -- he can spot a good hole.
"And it didn't hurt us at all having that 00 of David Reutimann behind us. I've got to give him a lot of credit."
Reutimann, who finished fifth, only laughed when he was asked when his check for a cut of Harvick's race winnings would be in the mail.
"I don't think it works like that," Reutimann said after he stopped chuckling. "It worked out earlier in the race where we were together and I just said, 'Wow!' Because some cars I could push and some cars I just couldn't make it work. You've just got to remember that, at the end, it was just the right place at the right time and it worked out for all of us."
It remains to be seen if it will work out for Martin and Harvick after three more races.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.