NASCAR: Round 33 – Amp Energy 500, Talladega Superspeedway – 1 November

And so the Chase arrives at the unique challenge of Talladega – there’s no other circuit quite like this one, it’s the only restrictor plate race of the Chase, and it’s delivered some quite spectacular racing and accidents over the years. Would 2009 continue the run? Moreover, would polesitter Jimmie Johnson use it to extend his already formidable lead?

Unfortunately, it looked as though the entertainment of Talladega was sabotaged before it even started – by NASCAR itself. A new rule had been rushed in by NASCAR for Talladega forbidding cars from bump drafting in corners. “We want to see sunshine between the cars,” said NASCAR president Mike Helton, “All of the way through Turns 1 and 2, and all of the way through Turns 3 and 4, you will not be allowed to push someone, to bump-draft them or to shove them through the turns,” Helton said. “Remember the aggressive driving will still be watched very closely on the front stretches and through the tri-oval. But we have seen the progress, particularly at Talladega, of two cars hooking up and basically locked up all the way around for a lap. You will not be allowed to do that in the turns. That’s from the green flag all the way through to the checkered flag. So even on the last lap, coming through 3 and 4, you’re not going to be able to push a guy hooked up in a two-car tandem.”

With such a late change to common practice, the drivers were distinctly nervous as proceedings got underway and maintaining a clear distance in the opening laps – to the detriment of close racing. It almost looked like industrial action on the part of the drivers to protest NASCAR’s edict.

Mark Martin got a great start and beat Johnson to the first led lap of the day, but he and Johnson then both got bumped out of the running order and fell back to the middle of the pack leaving Kurt Busch in the lead ahead of Carl Edwards as the yellow flag came out on lap 5 when Paul Menard cut a tyre, turned into the wall and trapped Joe Nemechek against it as he did so, the two of them locked together, grinding along the wall for a quarter of a lap before finally coming to a halt.

Once the racing got underway again, the cars took up a nerve-racking three-wide formation and started putting the draft racing to full effect. David Reutimann took over the lead spot on lap 11, then challenged by Jeff Gordon before both of them were passed by new leader Casey Mears on lap 22 as the field finally stretched out into a single file. No one was pushing, and the effects of the “no draft bumping” decree were making themselves felt as everyone played safe, unwilling to be the guinea pig who got slapped down first.

With the race going caution-free for a lengthy period, the first full round of pit stops starting on lap 40 took place under green flag conditions. Clint Bowyer came in a little too hot and ran into the back of AJ Allmendinger as they slowed down for the pit lane speed limit, tipping the 44 into a spin, but it wasn’t until nearly all the pit stops were done that Kurt Busch went for a fast and wild spin through the infield grass after a tyre went down on him on lap 50 to bring out the second caution of the afternoon. The last remaining cars to pit now did so, and some that had already pitted came in for a quick fuel top-up; the worst hit were a small group of cars that were about to hit, and were too close to pit lane to pull out when the track went yellow and the pit lane closed. Among those caught out and put to the back of the lead lap were Casey Mears (who also got a pit lane speeding penalty) and a disgruntled Jimmie Johnson.

At the restart on lap 55, Elliott Sadler led Brad Keselowski, Matt Kenseth, David Ragan and Greg Biffle; Kenseth briefly took the lead before a huge cheer went up on lap 60 as the 88 of Dale Earnhardt Jr sprang forward to lead a couple of laps, before Denny Hamlin then took up the lead spot for a lap and then Kevin Harvick popped up to take over. Bump drafting briefly picked up, before the drivers thought better of it and the field once again stretched out to a single file procession; boredom was setting in, with Harvick overheard asking for cruise control next time; his crew chief Gil Martin dryly responded with a promise of fitting an iPod into the drink holder instead.

As the race passed lap 90 of 188 it was time for some more green flag pit stops to begin, albeit rather strung out because of the different approaches to pitting under previous cautions – the majority of the leaders came in a gaggle on lap 98, Casey Mears and Jeff Gordon making contact at the pit entrance as they vied for their pit boxes.

A third caution came out on lap 105 for debris (a fender brace in turn 4 and a large piece of tear-off in turn 3.) Even though it has been just a few laps since their last stop, the leaders didn’t hesitate to come in again for a stop under caution. At the restart, it was Hamlin leading Joey Logano, Kyle Busch, Robby Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

The lead fluctuated as drivers caught the draft and were propelled to the front and then dropped back through the pack. Robby Gordon, Jeff Burton, Jeff Gordon, Joey Logano, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Denny Hamlin, Ryan Newman, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and David Stremme all took their turns at the front of the pack. Brad Keselowski had just taken up the lead on lap 136 making it 23 different leaders with 43 lead changes, when suddenly Hamlin pulled down below the double yellow line belching smoke from a terminally suicidal engine, bringing out the fourth yellow of the afternoon by leaving a streak of oil through turns 1 and 2.

With 50 laps to go we were still just outside the pit window to get all the way to the chequered – unless anyone could seriously stretch it, or there was a sudden abundance of yellows along the way. As the caution extended 6 laps, cars came in again for a quick top-up before the green on lap 144, when Keselowski led Jeff Gordon, Robby Gordon, Stremme and Martin Truex Jr. up to speed.

Jeff Gordon quickly took the lead back for himself, then Harvick, then Kasey Kahne, then Sadler, then Montoya, then Jeff Burton, then Jamie McMurray, then Burton again before Marcos Ambrose and then David Stremme took over – it was changing faster than a slot machine, a car leading one minute then plummeting to the back of the field next when they lost the draft. One notable absentee throughout all this was Jimmie Johnson, who was staying resolutely back in 33rd position – seemingly by choice, trying to stay out of trouble, but he was leaving that late surge very late indeed if it was to come.

The field once again stretched out to a single file line, allowing McMurray to claim the lead for a more settled period ahead of Kenseth, Montoya, Mears, Ambrose and Burton. Remarkably only two of the top ten were Chase contenders – Montoya, and Mark Martin in 10th place. Johnson continued to circulate back in 31st position showing little sign of life.

Then with 20 to go, the configuration changed and two- and three-wide racing was back as the drivers picked their dance partners for the final push. Earnhardt Jr briefly ousted McMurray as the leader, then Ragan did a brief turn in front, then Stremme – but it kept coming back to McMurray. Further back, Johnson was still having little joy making any progress, and Kurt Busch had to drop out with a tyre problem. But with five laps to go, it looked as though for once Talladega had been pretty much wreck free.

Ahhh. Not quite. It might not have been the “Big One” in terms of numbers, but what happened on lap 183 certainly ranked as “big” in the spectacular stakes. Marcos Ambrose bumped Ryan Newman, which caused team mates Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman to then collided with each other turning Stewart into the wall resulting in front end damage and possible problems with the brake lines, forcing him into the pits.

But for Newman it was a different matter. He was turned around one eighty degrees by the collisions, and once the car was facing the wrong way around the aerodynamics took over and lifted the back end of the car into the air, flipping it into a somersault that caused the back of the car to come crunching down onto the hood of Harvick’s car; Ambrose and Elliott Sadler also spun and made contact with the wall as they tried to avoid the wreck.

Newman’s wild ride wasn’t over. Now on its roof, it slid across the track to make contact with the outside wall, which caused it to bounce back spinning like a top toward the infield grass, where the front left quarter dug into the grass and flipped the car back into the air in a vicious little sting in the tail that ripped the rest of the car to pieces. Finally it came to a stop, still upside down, the roof collapsed in and fears that Ryan Newman would be trapped and injured inside; the recovery crew carefully righted the car and cut the roof off, allowing Newman to spring out seemingly unhurt but clearly furious, blaming NASCAR’s rules and restrictor plates for leading up to this incident.

While Newman was being extracted, the race went to a red flag before being readied for a green-white chequered finish. This played havoc with the field, however, who were at breaking point on fuel: some cars had to dive in for emergency splash-and-dash stops, while Jeff Gordon and Juan Montoya both ran out of gas and limped – or were pushed – back to the pits for agonisingly slow refuelling stops.

Finally the race got back to green, Jamie McMurray leading them away. But back in the midfield, the real Big One was underway as the 09 of Brad Keselowski tipped Kurt Busch into a spin that sent him skewing across the track. He impacted Mark Martin heavily, tipping the 5 car into a nasty but brief barrel-roll, and behind all this a dozen cars in total were caught up in the wreck to a greater or lesser degree. The race ended with the cars that were still running picking their way through the debris to take the yellow-and-chequered, with McMurray ecstatic at taking the win.

But the biggest winner? Jimmie Johnson had indeed managed to stay out of all the late race trouble by hanging towards the back, and emerged unscathed in the top ten. Best of all, with Martin wrecked, Stewart running several laps down because of the earlier collision with Newman, and Montoya and Gordon’s campaigns badly pit by running out of gas, it meant that all his chief rivals were absolutely no where. Johnson had turned around an afternoon that looked like damage limitation into an early Christmas present and a surely unassailable championship lead.

The Sprint Cup effectively ended here today at Talladega, folks. All hail the luckiest driver in NASCAR, Jimmie Johnson, the new champion. Of course, in motorsport you make your own luck – and the 48 team made it in spades just by striving to stay out of trouble, so brains as well as speed have delivered another trophy to the Johnson family.

Race result

FIN ST  CAR DRIVER                MAKE        PTS/BNS  LAPS  STATUS
1   22  26  Jamie McMurray        Ford        195/10   191   
2   11  9   Kasey Kahne           Dodge       175/5    191   
3   20  20  Joey Logano *         Toyota      170/5    191   
4   8   16  Greg Biffle           Ford        160/0    191   
5   18  31  Jeff Burton           Chevrolet   160/5    191   
6   1   48  Jimmie Johnson        Chevrolet   150/0    191   
7   33  55  Michael Waltrip       Toyota      151/5    191   
8   36  09  Brad Keselowski       Chevrolet   147/5    191   
9   26  19  Elliott Sadler        Ford        143/5    191   
10  37  171 Bobby Labonte         Chevrolet   134/0    191   
11  24  88  Dale Earnhardt Jr.    Chevrolet   135/5    191   
12  15  33  Clint Bowyer          Chevrolet   127/0    191   
13  12  83  Brian Vickers         Toyota      129/5    191   
14  10  99  Carl Edwards          Ford        126/5    191   
15  13  18  Kyle Busch            Toyota      123/5    191   
16  29  43  Reed Sorenson         Dodge       115/0    191   
17  28  6   David Ragan           Ford        112/0    191   
18  41  36  Robert Richardson Jr. Toyota      109/0    191   
19  5   42  Juan Montoya          Chevrolet   111/5    191   
20  3   24  Jeff Gordon           Chevrolet   108/5    191   
21  21  29  Kevin Harvick         Chevrolet   105/5    191   
22  30  12  David Stremme         Dodge       102/5    191   
23  35  34  John Andretti         Chevrolet   99/5     191   
24  14  17  Matt Kenseth          Ford        91/0     191   
25  19  07  Casey Mears           Chevrolet   93/5     191   
26  16  00  David Reutimann       Toyota      90/5     191   
27  38  82  Scott Speed *         Toyota      82/0     190   Accident
28  2   5   Mark Martin           Chevrolet   84/5     190   Accident
29  42  113 Max Papis *           Toyota      76/0     190   
30  6   2   Kurt Busch            Dodge       78/5     189   Accident
31  23  1   Martin Truex Jr.      Chevrolet   75/5     189   Accident
32  34  7   Robby Gordon          Toyota      72/5     189   Accident
33  25  44  A.J. Allmendinger     Dodge       64/0     189   
34  17  47  Marcos Ambrose        Toyota      66/5     188   
35  4   14  Tony Stewart          Chevrolet   63/5     183   Accident
36  7   39  Ryan Newman           Chevrolet   60/5     183   Accident
37  31  96  Erik Darnell          Ford        52/0     167   
38  9   11  Denny Hamlin          Toyota      54/5     137   Engine
39  43  78  Regan Smith           Chevrolet   46/0     99    Engine
40  27  77  Sam Hornish Jr.       Dodge       43/0     44    Engine
41  40  66  Dave Blaney           Toyota      40/0     12    Vibration
42  32  98  Paul Menard           Ford        37/0     4     Accident
43  39  187 Joe Nemechek          Toyota      34/0     4     Accident

(Final positions subject to review by NASCAR of the video tapes of the running order when the final yellow came out.)

Sprint Cup standings

    +/- DRIVER              PTS     BEHIND  ST  P   W   T5  T10
1   --  Jimmie Johnson      6248    Leader  33  3   6   14  22
2   --  Mark Martin         6064    -184    33  7   5   12  19
3   --  Jeff Gordon         6056    -192    33  0   1   16  23
4   +1  Juan Montoya        6009    -239    33  2   0   7   17
5   -1  Tony Stewart        5969    -279    33  0   4   15  22
6   --  Kurt Busch          5936    -312    33  0   1   8   18
7   +1  Greg Biffle         5908    -340    33  0   0   10  15
8   -1  Ryan Newman         5846    -402    33  2   0   5   15
9   +2  Kasey Kahne         5834    -414    33  0   2   7   14
10  --  Carl Edwards        5811    -437    33  0   0   7   13
11  -2  Denny Hamlin        5800    -448    33  1   3   12  17
12  --  Brian Vickers       5697    -551    33  6   1   4   13
======= CHASE FOR THE Sprint CUP - CURRENT CONTENDERS ========
13  --  Kyle Busch          4043    -2205   33  1   4   9   12
14  --  Matt Kenseth        3986    -2262   33  1   2   6   11
15  --  Clint Bowyer        3932    -2316   33  0   0   4   14
16  --  David Reutimann     3854    -2394   33  2   1   5   9
17  +1  Jeff Burton 3539    -2709   33  0   0   3   7
18  -1  Marcos Ambrose      3519    -2729   33  0   0   4   7
19  +1  Joey Logano*        3494    -2754   33  0   1   3   7
20  -1  Casey Mears         3471    -2777   33  0   0   0   4
21  --  Kevin Harvick       3380    -2868   33  0   0   3   7
22  --  Jamie McMurray      3286    -2962   33  0   1   1   5
23  +1  Dale Earnhardt Jr.  3197    -3051   33  0   0   2   5
24  -1  Martin Truex Jr.    3139    -3109   33  2   0   0   4
25  +1  Elliott Sadler      3134    -3114   33  0   0   1   5
26  -1  A.J. Allmendinger   3084    -3164   33  0   0   1   4
27  +1  David Ragan         2985    -3263   33  0   0   0   2
28  +1  Reed Sorenson       2964    -3284   33  0   0   0   1
29  -2  Sam Hornish Jr.     2948    -3300   33  0   0   2   7
30  +1  Bobby Labonte       2942    -3306   33  0   0   1   2
31  -1  David Stremme       2919    -3329   33  0   0   0   0
32  --  Paul Menard         2742    -3506   33  0   0   0   0
33  --  Michael Waltrip     2612    -3636   31  0   0   0   2
34  --  Robby Gordon        2474    -3774   32  0   0   1   1
35  --  Scott Speed*        2435    -3813   32  0   0   1   1
36  --  John Andretti       2381    -3867   31  0   0   0   0
37  --  David Gilliland     1700    -4548   28  0   0   0   0
38  +2  Brad Keselowski     1330    -4918   12  0   1   1   4
39  -1  Regan Smith         1306    -4942   16  0   0   0   0
40  -1  Joe Nemechek        1262    -4986   28  0   0   0   0
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