NASCAR: Johnson wins at Talladega – by 0.002s

Friday saw violent storms pass through Alabama and left NASCAR drivers, staff and media taking shelter from tornado warnings, but at 1.22pm local time on Sunday the weather was bright and the only storms anyone could see on the horizon were the inevitable wrecks and fall-outs to come on the 2.66 mile Talladega Superspeedway.

Polesitter Jeff Gordon led Jimmie Johnson and the rest of the field to the green flag start, while the rear of the field was brought up by Trevor Bayne, Greg Biffle, Bill Elliott and Robby Gordon all of whom were sent to the back for post-qualifying adjustments to their cars (and in Robby Gordon’s case, he had not even made it to Talladega for qualifying because of the storms in the area and needed Sam Hornish Jr. to fill in for him on Saturday.)

With Hendrick Motorsports forming the top four positions at the start, it was no surprise to see them choosing their drafting partners and getting ready to control the race right from the start. Jeff Gordon held the lead with support from Mark Martin, while Jimmie Johnson settled in with Dale Earnhardt Jr as his backer. Other partnerships shaping up included Clint Bowyer with Michael Waltrip, Landon Cassill with Kurt Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing duo Kyle Busch and Joey Logano, Kasey Kahne with Brian Vickers.

Inevitably there were glitches during in the bedding-in period. Bowyer briefly took the lead on lap 5 but then fell back slightly when Waltrip got loose; Gordon was struggling with a plastic bag that had splayed itself across his engine air-intake and immediately threatened to cause overheating problems. Drafting partners shot through out of nowhere to claim the lead – Ryan Newman (with Denny Hamlin) on lap 10 promptly usurped at the front by Brad Keselowski; Kurt Busch had his turn in front on lap 13, then Jimmie Johnson on lap 14 after he and Earnhardt had initially appeared to be heading for the midfield, dropping back to 15th and 16th spots respectively.

But few drafting pairs could hold on for long – as soon as they had to switch around to relieve overheating problems in the pushing car, both cars would lose momentum and fall back. The most consistent pairing in terms of holding the lead during these early laps was undoubtedly Bowyer and Waltrip, but even so there were eight lead changes and six different leaders inside the first 20 laps.

David Ragan and Paul Menard started to feature over the next ten laps as they battled with Kyle Busch and Joey Logano, but Kyle’s brother Kurt was equally determined to lead from the front with the help of Landon Cassill. Unfortunately on lap 28 this latter partnership broke down when Kurt gave Landon such a bump that the #09 got loose and slammed into Brian Vickers who went out of control, spun down the front straightaway and then hit the wall hard. Amazingly only Matt Kenseth was caught up in the aftermath, his rear bumper grazed by a light brush from Vickers. The unfortunate Cassill survived the incident but then got a penalty for pitting too soon, and was sent to the rear of the field.

Bowyer and Waltrip led after the ensuing pit stops under caution, and led the field to green at the restart on lap 31. Bowyer, however, was changing dance partner: his team mate Jeff Burton was now in a good position nearby and so Bowyer switched to him and left Waltrip to plummet back down through the field without anyone to draft with. David Ragan had also now switched, abandoning Paul Menard and now pushing Matt Kenseth to the lead – showing that the light contact sustained in the previous caution hadn’t affected the #17’s handling one bit. The jilted Menard was more fortunate than Waltrip and quickly hooked up with David Ragan, in an arrangement that saw Menard himself briefly lead on lap 45.

Bowyer and Burton were proving to be the most consistent front-runners, but others came and went: Brad Keselowski had taken up with Kurt Busch now that Landon Cassill was running out of position, but it was Dale Earnhardt Jr. who inevitably got the biggest cheer from the 115,000 crowd as he took the lead with Jimmie Johnson’s help and the two briefly stretched out a surprisingly large lead before once again the race ebbed and flowed and they were caught up by the pack once more.

Having both started at the back of the pack, Greg Biffle and rookie Trevor Bayne had forged a surprisingly effective marriage of convenience, and Bayne was certainly demonstrating a knack for restrictor plate racing that proved his shock Daytona 500 win was no mere fluke by leading on lap 59, but the switchover between the two cars inevitably resulted in them falling back again immediately afterwards, although they continued to do battle for the lead with Earnhardt/Johnson and Bowyer/Burton through to the start of green flag pit stops on lap 69.

Earnhardt and Johnson got the best boost from the pit stops and raced off into an impressively enduring lead, while their Hendrick team mates Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin were less fortunate and slumped way back having gone for oddly different strategies (Martin taking two tyres only, Gordon going for four and a ton of fuel) which made it harder to work together and co-ordinate properly. Earnhardt and Johnson were finally caught by Ryan Newman, who had picked up an effective new drafting partner in the surprising shape of Kyle Busch, and the four of them were competing for the front spot when the second caution of the afternoon came out on lap 90

Once again Kurt Busch was involved, although the root cause was David Ragan’s engine blowing. His initial slowing-up had caused problems for those behind him as they reacted, which resulted in Kurt bumping into the back of his latest drafting partner Brad Keselowski, who then got loose and collected the cars of Bayne, Ambrose and Kahne in the ensuring wreck: Kahne was the most seriously damaged, the #4 catching fire as he tried to navigate it back to pit road, forcing Kasey to bail out and leave it to the fire crew to take care of. Burton had suffered less serious damage, while even Johnson and Earnhardt had ended up causing light damage to one another in the aftermath because of their close drafting. But it was most definitely the end of Talladega for the Daytona winner Trevor Bayne.

“That was one of the harder hits I’ve taken,” admitted Bayne afterwards. “I just saw the #2 [Keselowski] get hooked at the same time the #6 [Ragan] was on fire. He [Keselowski] goes across the track, I saw him hit the outside wall, but then I don’t know who caught us in the right rear and sent us. But I thought we were safe. I was like, ‘Man, that was close,’ and about the time I said that I was headed toward the outside wall. So not a fun ride.”

Ironically it was Kurt – the driver who had dispatched two drafting partners already today – who inherited the lead after track went green again after pit stops. He had to rely on surprising family loyalty to pick up a new victim, sorry, drafting partner in the shape of the #18 of Kyle Busch, but this was a period of rapid changes at the front: Dave Blaney led lap 100, then Carl Edwards was back in front, then Kurt was briefly back in the lead before Clint Bowyer surged past for a lap. But each time they were bested, the unlikely pairing of the Busch Brothers seemed equal to the challenge until at last Regan Smith (working with Bobby Labonte) and Clint Bowyer (still with Burton) got a grip – and then remarkably Dave Blaney worked his way into the lead with help from Kevin Harvick, meaning that as the race passed lap 120 we’d seen 58 lead changes at an event where the record stands at 88 set here at this even in April 2010. Blaney led for four laps laps during that sequence, which is not bad considering he’s only led five laps in total in Sprint Cup events before this.

A bungled switchover in position between Blaney and Harvick saw Kurt Busch take to the front again, and then the third caution of the afternoon was out on lap 128 for debris that seemed to have dropped off Clint Bowyer’s car. Paul Menard and Regan Smith were teamed up to take the lead at the restart, and Dave Blaney made another appearance at the front for two laps leading drafting partner Kevin Harvick to quip “I’m going to have nightmares about kids eating free,” referring to an advertising offer by Blaney’s sponsor Golden Corral should the #36 manage to pull off the upset win of the century.

But racing was abruptly at an end with the fourth caution for a multiple car wreck. After the previous Joey Logano had got on the radio with a “Yo Kyle, it’s Joey, what’s going on up there?” to which Kyle had responded: “I say we find each other again. Like yesterday. See if you can’t hammer down and get back to me. In this situation it doesn’t matter when we hook up, just that we hook up. It’s still early in the race.”

To say that this suggestion proved a less-than-great idea was an understatement: on lap 140, Logano promptly misjudged his drafting and managed to spin his JGR team mate down the backstraight, sending the #18 hard into the side of Matt Kenseth. AJ Allmendinger spun trying to avoid the accident, but kept it off the wall and avoided hitting anyone else in the process, while Denny Hamlin also sustained light damage but was able to carry on.

However, it was the end for two drivers who came into Talladega second and third in the points. The pit crew had an idea to repair Kyle’s radiator and get him out if only to help someone else with drafting; and Kyle had learned just the previous day that a “never say die” attitude can reap rewards, after his Nationwide Series car held together by duct tape and prayers managed to win the race at the last gasp. But there would be no such resurrection from the dead for the #18 today and he joined Kenseth in retirement.

At the restart on lap 144 the race had 44 laps to go. The big loser after this most recent round of pit stops was, ironically, Dave Blaney: perhaps Harvick had been serious about getting nightmares about that free food for kids, because he dropped the #36 as soon as it was clear that the four Richard Childress Racing cars (Harvick, Menard, Bowyer and Burton) were all lined up in the top four spots for the restart and in perfect position to act as a team to dominate the remainder of the race.

Bowyer rewarded Harvick by shoving him into the lead at the restart, the 70th lead change of the afternoon. Martin Truex Jr. briefly intervened in the RCR lock-out before going for a wild ride down the inside apron leaving Jeff Burton to take the lead, while a bigger threat was brewing to the foursome in the shape of a Jamie McMurray/Juan Montoya pairing. And incredibly, Dave Blaney wasn’t done yet either – finding a new partner in the form of Regan Smith, he led a couple more laps before RCR once again packed out the top four with Clint Bowyer taking the team lead.

Racing came to another yellow on lap 163 for further debris out on track, and the timing meant all the drivers and teams needed to think hard about what to do – stay out, come in, two tyres, four, fuel or risk running to the end? It was make or break time. The top ten leaders stayed out, with Kurt Busch in 11th the highest-placed driver to come in. Jimmie Johnson had been hanging well down the running order with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and opted to come in for four tyres; Hendrick drafting partners Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon were also in, for fuel and tyres respectively.

A touch of karma possibly played a part at the restart, as Harvick paid for his abandoning of Blaney at the last caution with a slow getaway: it was a result of a miscommunication that saw Bowyer and Burton team up and take the lead, and Menard feeling like he’d been left all alone took up with Regan Smith which left Harvick out in the cold.

But on lap 170 all eyes were on Ryan Newman, who had been bumped from behind by drafting partner Denny Hamlin, got loose and slammed into Juan Montoya between turns 3 and 4. Somehow both drivers saved their cars and seemed able to carry on, but three laps later Newman lost it again and went for a spin down the backstretch, this time loitering to bring out the sixth caution of the afternoon and packing the field right back together again for a final 11-race sprint to the chequered flag. Sadly it would be without Montoya, whose damage was just too extensive to allow him to continue – the right side of the car was now extensively torn up after the right front tyre had finally burst following the earlier collision, and a one-way trip to the garage was inevitable.

The short hiatus gave the drivers the chance to get on the radio and make their final plans. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was on to Jimmie Johnson warning him that “I’m going to push you like hell, no matter what,” and Johnson simply replied: “Ten-four, man, let’s do it.”

The green was out on lap 177 (and whaddaya know, none other than Dave Blaney was there to lead the field to the restart!) and the pairing of Harvick and Bowyer took to the front – no confusion this time around, but then there was no room for them to mess it up as the four Hendrick Motorsports cars that had dominated qualifying were now gathering for the big finish, and preparing to exercise their muscles.

Dave Blaney refused to go away, however, and took the lead again on lap 180. Unfortunately his new drafting partner was none other than Kurt Busch, and anyone who had been following Kurt’s impact on the race today thus far couldn’t help but hear the “Omen” theme pipe up as soon as he appeared on Blaney’s bumper. Sure enough his mere proximity was enough to send Blaney spinning out on lap 185. Blaney saved the car and didn’t hit anything, but he’d fallen well out of the pack and had no chance of getting anywhere near the front now that he had fallen completely out of the draft.

“I feel bad for wrecking a bunch of cars, especially my team-mate Brad,” a sheepish Kurt said of his race afterwards, admitting: “Restrictor plate racing and this two-car draft is really tough and I was in the middle of a bunch of incidents.” Yes, Kurt – funny how they all seemed to happen around you like that, wasn’t it?

That left Edwards/Biffle duelling with Bowyer/Hendrick for the win with two to do; next time around it was the white flag – one to go – and Gordon/Martin were in front, with Johnson/Earnhardt now charging for the front after having been briefly pulled apart for practically the first time for the whole race two laps earlier, after Dale started to suffer from rising temperatures and needed to break-out for clean air.

Less than 60s later it was all over, although no one could be entirely sure who in fact had won as three cars (Johnson, Bowyer and Gordon) seemed to the naked eye to have crossed the finish line virtually simultaneously. Even those in the thick of it couldn’t be sure: “Man, it was close enough this time,” said Bowyer. “Sometimes you really can’t tell, but I had no clue.”

So what, exactly, happened in that final lap?

“Before we knew it, we found ourselves in third after we took the white and a decent gap from us to the leaders,” explained Johnson. “They got side-by-side, which allowed us to really close up and as we went into turn 3, I had a big run, and was thinking about the bottom, and the #5 and #24 defended that, and then I kind of wandered to the middle and didn’t have an option then.

“I just chilled out and sat in their draft and as we came off of [turn] 4. Those two groups were occupied trying to side-draft each other and racing each other at the top … We started rolling up on them, I shot down to the bottom, and we were able to surge by out of the tri-oval coming out of the bottom because they kind of left it open there. Just worked out.”

With Talladega being one of those NASCAR tracks where crossing the bottom yellow line is forbidden, there was a brief question of whether Johnson’s move to the bottom had gone too low and that his left wheels had dipped below the permissible track limit, but NASCAR reviewed it and found no transgression. It just left the small matter of who, exactly, had crossed the finish line first.

A photofinish coupled with electronic timing gave the win to Johnson, but he credited Dale with an equal role in the victory and tried to give him the chequered flag from the race, which Junior declined. The two had experimented early on in the race as to who would be in the lead to the finish: “After the last pit stop I was pushing him for while and we were getting disconnected pretty easily,” Johnson explained. “And at that point, he [Dale] just said, hey, you need to lead, it works better with you leading. Chad and Stevie confirmed that our lap times were faster with the #48 in front of the #88 and we made a swap going into turn 1 and just kind of stayed that way from there on out.”

Earnhardt was at peace with how it worked out: “If I couldn’t win the race, I wanted Jimmie to win the race, because I had worked with him all day, and he’s my teammate and I’m proud to be driving for Hendrick Motorsports,” he said after being confirmed as finishing in fourth place.

Bowyer was gutted to have been beaten at the last after spending so much of the race up at the sharp end fighting for the lead. “The only thing that bums me out about that is those guys lagged back all day long,” he said afterwards. “That’s what makes it tough, losing to somebody that did that. We were up front for our sponsors and our team, digging all day long. When you get it taken from you at the end by somebody who lagged back all day, it’s hard to take.”

In fact, although they had preferred to run out of harm’s way toward the rear of the field for most of the second half the race, Johnson had led 14 laps and Earnhardt 11. Their Hendricks team mates Gordon and Martin had opted for a consistent “6-10s behind the leaders” lag-behind strategy, and Gordon insisted that “It’s not as easy as you think it is to manage that and to figure it out,” explaining: “But let’s be honest: in my opinion, Talladega has always been about a 15-, 25-lap race, and the rest is just trying to get to the end. And that’s basically what we have now.”

The number of lead changes in the end was 88, tying the record, while the margin of victory – 0.002s – equals Sprint Cup’s closest-ever margin since electronic timing was introduced, the last time things were this close being when Ricky Craven beat Kurt Busch at Darlington in 2003. Talladega is renowned for its close finishes – all 29 green flag finishes here since 1993 have had a margin of victory of under 0.4s – but even more eye-catching was how the top eight cars were covered by an interval of just 0.145s.

The win is Johnson’s 54th Sprint Cup career victory and his second time in victory lane at Talladega, but only his first in the 2011 season after a 15-race winless streak (the second longest in his championship history). He’s the seventh winner in the eight races so far this year – only Harvick has won more than once – and his win means that the last eight races at Talladega have all had different winners.

The win moves Johnson up two positions to second behind Carl Edwards in the Sprint Cup championship standings, just ahead of his Talladega drafting partner Dale Earnhardt Jr. who moves up three spots to third. The biggest losers were Kyle Busch (down four spots to sixth) and Matt Kenseth (down five to eighth) after their mutual exits in the wreck on lap 140.

The next race is the Hansen 400 at Richmond International Raceway on April 30 in two weeks time, after a weekend off for Easter.

Race results

PO ST  CAR  DRIVER             ENGINE     PTS   LAPS TIME
1  2   48   Jimmie Johnson     Chevrolet  47/1  188  Leader
2  10  33   Clint Bowyer       Chevrolet  44/2  188  + 0.002s
3  1   24   Jeff Gordon        Chevrolet  42/1  188  + 0.039s
4  4   88   Dale Earnhardt Jr. Chevrolet  41/1  188  + 0.058s
5  38  29   Kevin Harvick      Chevrolet  40/1  188  + 0.064s
6  20  99   Carl Edwards       Ford       39/1  188  + 0.074s
7  17  16   Greg Biffle        Ford       38/1  188  + 0.130s
8  3   5    Mark Martin        Chevrolet  37/1  188  + 0.145s
9  39  34   David Gilliland    Ford       35/0  188  + 1.066s
10 36  20   Joey Logano        Toyota     35/1  188  + 1.123s
11 16  43   A.J. Allmendinger  Ford       33/0  188  + 1.274s
12 5   27   Paul Menard        Chevrolet  33/1  188  + 1.314s
13 26  56   Martin Truex Jr.   Toyota     32/1  188  + 1.376s
14 14  00   David Reutimann    Toyota     30/0  188  + 1.434s
15 18  78   Regan Smith        Chevrolet  30/1  188  + 1.449s
16 27  31   Jeff Burton        Chevrolet  29/1  188  + 1.570s
17 30  14   Tony Stewart       Chevrolet  27/0  188  + 2.103s
18 8   22   Kurt Busch         Dodge      27/1  188  + 2.116s
19 37  71   Andy Lally         Ford       25/0  188  + 5.212s
20 -   7    Robby Gordon       Dodge      24/0  188  + 5.239s
21 21  1    Jamie McMurray     Chevrolet  24/1  188  + 5.269s
22 40  13   Casey Mears        Toyota     23/1  188  + 5.297s
23 29  11   Denny Hamlin       Toyota     21/0  188  + 9.033s
24 15  47   Bobby Labonte      Toyota     21/1  188  + 11.392s
25 23  39   Ryan Newman        Chevrolet  20/1  188  + 11.422s
26 43  46   Bill Elliott       Chevrolet  18/0  188  + 15.448s
27 35  36   Dave Blaney        Chevrolet  18/1  188  + 22.294s
28 12  115  Michael Waltrip    Toyota     16/0  187  + 1 lap
29 28  38   Travis Kvapil      Ford       0     184  + 4 laps
30 13  42   Juan Montoya       Chevrolet  14/0  177  + 11 laps
31 6   09   Landon Cassill     Chevrolet  0     170  + 18 laps
32 24  9    Marcos Ambrose     Ford       13/1  157  + 31 laps
33 19  2    Brad Keselowski    Dodge      12/1  154  + 34 laps
34 41  32   Terry Labonte      Ford       10/0  152  Engine
35 34  18   Kyle Busch         Toyota     10/1  144  Accident
36 25  17   Matt Kenseth       Ford       9/1   139  Accident
37 31  4    Kasey Kahne        Toyota     8/1   139  Running
38 9   83   Brian Vickers      Toyota     6/0   115  Running
39 7   6    David Ragan        Ford       6/1   89   Accident
40 11  21   Trevor Bayne       Ford       0     89   Accident
41 22  87   Joe Nemechek       Toyota     0     5    Vibration
42 33  135  Steve Park         Chevrolet  0     4    Electrical
43 32  97   Kevin Conway       Toyota     0     1    Electrical

Sprint Cup standings

POS +/-  DRIVER                 PS   GAP     ST  P  W  T5  T10
1   --   Carl Edwards           295  Leader  8   2  1  4   6
2   +2   Jimmie Johnson         290  -5      8   0  1  4   5
3   +3   Dale Earnhardt Jr.     276  -19     8   1  0  2   5
4   +5   Kevin Harvick          268  -27     8   0  2  4   5
5   --   Kurt Busch             267  -28     8   0  0  1   5
6   -4   Kyle Busch             257  -38     8   0  1  4   5
7   --   Ryan Newman            253  -42     8   0  0  3   4
8   -5   Matt Kenseth           252  -43     8   1  1  3   4
9   -1   Juan Montoya           246  -49     8   1  0  2   4
10  +2   Clint Bowyer           245  -50     8   0  0  2   4
11  --   Paul Menard            242  -53     8   0  0  2   3
12  -2   Tony Stewart           240  -55     8   0  0  1   2
13  +1   Jeff Gordon            234  -61     8   1  1  3   3
14  +1   Mark Martin            226  -69     8   0  0  0   3
15  -2   A.J. Allmendinger      226  -69     8   0  0  0   1
16  +2   Greg Biffle            221  -74     8   0  0  1   3
17  +3   Denny Hamlin           195  -100    8   0  0  0   1
18  -2   Kasey Kahne            194  -101    8   0  0  0   3
19  +2   Martin Truex Jr.       192  -103    8   0  0  0   1
20  -3   David Ragan            191  -104    8   1  0  0   2
21  -2   Marcos Ambrose         188  -107    8   0  0  1   2
22  +3   Jeff Burton            185  -110    8   0  0  0   0
23  +1   Jamie McMurray         181  -114    8   1  0  0   1
24  +4   Joey Logano            179  -116    8   0  0  0   1
25  -2   Bobby Labonte          178  -117    8   0  0  1   1
26  +1   David Reutimann        174  -121    8   0  0  0   0
27  -5   Brad Keselowski        171  -124    8   0  0  0   0
28  -2   Brian Vickers          155  -140    8   0  0  0   2
29  --   David Gilliland        149  -146    8   0  0  1   2
30  --   Regan Smith            142  -153    8   0  0  0   1
31  --   Robby Gordon           128  -167    8   0  0  0   0
32  --   Casey Mears            116  -179    7   0  0  0   0
33  --   Dave Blaney            105  -190    8   0  0  0   0
34  --   Bill Elliott           100  -195    5   0  0  0   0
35  +1   Andy Lally             98   -197    7   0  0  0   0
36  -1   Tony Raines            81   -214    6   0  0  0   0
37  --   Ken Schrader           44   -251    3   0  0  0   0
38  --   Terry Labonte          40   -255    2   0  0  0   0
39  --   J.J. Yeley             26   -269    7   0  0  0   0
40  --   Michael McDowell       25   -270    6   0  0  0   0
41  --   Michael Waltrip        20   -275    2   0  0  0   0
42  --   Brian Keselowski       3    -292    1   0  0  0   0
43  --   Trevor Bayne           0    -295    8   0  1  1   1
44  --   Steve Wallace          0    -295    1   0  0  0   0
45  +1   Mike Skinner           0    -295    4   0  0  0   0
46  -1   Landon Cassill         0    -295    7   0  0  0   0
47  --   Travis Kvapil          0    -295    7   0  0  0   0
48  --   Hermie Sadler          0    -295    1   0  0  0   0
49  +1   Dennis Setzer          0    -295    1   0  0  0   0
50  +1   David Starr            0    -295    1   0  0  0   0
51  -2   Robert Richardson Jr.  0    -295    1   0  0  0   0
52  --   Joe Nemechek           0    -295    8   0  0  0   0
53  --   Todd Bodine            0    -295    1   0  0  0   0
54  --   Steve Park             0    -295    1   0  0  0   0
55  --   Kevin Conway           0    -295    1   0  0  0   0
56  -2   Derrike Cope           0    -295    0   0  0  0   0
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