Never wavering from their partnership throughout the day, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. drove to the bottom lane in the tri-oval to beat the two-car tandems of Jeff Gordon-Mark Martin and Clint Bowyer-Kevin Harvick Sunday in Talladega.
The winning margin of 0.002 seconds ties the Ricky Craven-Kurt Busch finish at Darlington in 2003 for the closest finish in NASCAR history since the implementation of electronic scoring.
Hanging in the back of the pack for much of the afternoon after starting in the top four, Johnson and Earnhardt Jr. came to life at the perfect time to score the win. As the Gordon and Martin battled Bowyer and Harvick for the lead heading down the backstretch on the final lap, Johnson and Earnhardt closed the gap. Coming through the tri-oval the No. 48 and No. 88 went to the low side and were able to win by the narrowest of margins as the two-car tandems fanned out four wide at the start-finish line.
“That was crazy,” Johnson said. “With maybe one and a half, two (laps) to go, I thought we were in trouble and it wasn’t going to work out. And then we got hooked back up; I think Junior was overheating and we got disconnected one time and those two lead groups side-drafting and slowed each other up. I had a good run into (Turn) three but nowhere to go with it and then by the time we got back to the tri-oval, we had another big run going and those guys were worried about side-drafting each other towards the top of the track and left the bottom wide open for us and we rallied our way through there.”
Knowing he had his teammate to thank for the win, Johnson handed Earnhardt Jr. the checkered flag before heading to Victory Lane.
“I handed it to him and he said, ‘Man, I don’t want that,’” Johnson explained. “I said, ‘Well I have to give you something for the push and working with me.’ He said, ‘No, that’s what teammates do.’ I smiled and I said, ‘Take the damn flag. I’ll give you the trophy, too.’ He says, ‘No, I don’t want the trophy. I’ll take the flag, though.’”
“If I couldn’t win the race I wanted Jimmie to win the race because I had worked with him all day and he is my teammate,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I am proud to be driving for Hendrick Motorsports and this was a great finish and a great weekend for us to be able to qualify like we did, race like we did and we have awesome engines and we build great cars and we all finished very well today and that is a tribute to the craftsmanship we have back in Charlotte.”
After an intense day of back of forth lead changes, which also tied the record for most in NASCAR history with 88, it came to the last lap duel between four sets of two-car tandems. Crossing the line, Johnson and Earnhardt had the advantage over Gordon and Martin, Bowyer and Harvick, and a fast-approaching Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle.
When all was said and done, Johnson had edged Bowyer for the win, with Gordon in third, Earnhardt fourth, Harvick fifth, Edwards sixth, Biffle seventh and Martin eighth. First and eighth were separated by only 0.145 seconds.
Love it or hate it, the two-car draft that makes up the racing at Talladega and Daytona produces exciting finishes and gives almost anyone on the lead lap a shot at the checkered flag.
“If that doesn’t sell some tickets, I don’t know what will,” Edwards said. “I don’t know what it looked like from the outside, but from inside it looked like about eight drivers doing some seriously precision driving. That was pretty wild.”
“It doesn’t matter what happened throughout the race or what your thought was, If you didn’t like that finish and it didn’t make you forget about the race, you’re crazy,” Bowyer said. “You know, whether it’s ten cars of 43 cars left, it’s always a hell of a finish at these plate races, and always comes right down to the wire for whatever reason.”
It seemed Kurt Busch’s No. 22 Dodge was the common denominator when it came to cautions Sunday in Talladega. Pushing Landon Cassill early in the race, Cassill’s No. 09 turned sideways exiting Turn 2 and shot into the right front of Brian Vickers’ Toyota to bring out the first caution of the day.
The day’s ‘Big One’ was also triggered by a shove from Busch to teammate Brad Keselowski. That incident, which came on Lap 91, came when Busch was pushing Keselowski down the backstretch in a tandem. Keselowski got loose from Busch’s push and slid up the track and into Marcos Ambrose. Simultaneously, it appeared David Ragan’s engine blew, sending flame out from under the car. With a blown motor and a wreck happening just ahead of him, Ragan went down the track and collected Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne. Both cars shot up the banking and into the outside wall. Kasey Kahne was also involved after hitting Ragan’s car as it slid back down the banking.
As a result of having both cars taken out from incidents started by Busch, Red Bull Racing’s post-race press release was titled, “Thanks, Kurt.”
A push from Busch also ruined the day of underdog driver Dave Blaney. Driving for the under-funded Tommy Baldwin Racing, Blaney led six times for 21 laps - second only to Bowyer - and appeared on his way to a solid finish, if not a shot at a win. However, in the closing laps, Blaney slid off the nose of Busch’s car and down the track. With no caution thrown, Blaney finished 27th, the last car on the lead lap.
“Restrictor plate racing and this two-car draft is really tough and I was in the middle of a bunch of incidents,” Busch said. “I feel bad for wrecking a bunch of cars, especially my teammate Brad (Keselowski).”
Heading into the second off-weekend of the season, Carl Edwards sits atop the point standings, followed by Johnson, Earnhardt Jr., Harvick and Kurt Busch. After the Easter break, the series heads to the short track in Richmond, Va. for a Saturday night shootout under the lights.
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