Talladega provides one of closest NASCAR finishes in history Sunday
Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama has seen some terrific racing down through the years. But Sunday's finish between Jimmie Johnson and Clint Bowyer at Talladega tied the NASCAR record for closest finish ever.
Talladega, Alabama — Dale Earnhardt Jr. decided being a good teammate was more important than winning his first Cup race in nearly three years.
At least he got the checkered flag.
The tag team championship would've been more appropriate.
Earnhardt hooked up with Jimmie Johnson in a thrilling Talladega two-step Sunday, pushing his Hendrick Motorsports teammate across the line about a foot ahead of Clint Bowyer in a finish that tied for the closest in NASCAR Sprint Cup history.
Johnson claimed his first win of the season and 54th of his career.
Junior has gone 101 races since his last victory.
He's OK with that.
"I was more comfortable pushing Jimmie and I think we were the faster combination pushing that way," Earnhardt said. "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."
It came down to an eight-car sprint. Well, actually, four pairs of cars, with only the guys at the front of the tandems having a chance to win the Aaron's 499.
After laying back most of the day, Johnson hugged the yellow line at the bottom of the track — flirting with a penalty — and edged Bowyer at the line.
"I can't thank Junior enough," Johnson said. "He made the decision that my car was faster leading. And the way these things are finishing up, the lead car's going to get the win. ... He was more worried about the team having a good performance than anything."
The winner gave Earnhardt the checkered flag.
"That just came to my mind," Johnson said. "He was like, 'Man, I don't want that.' But I told him, 'I have to give you something for the push and working with me.' He just said, 'That's what teammates do.'"
There was a bit of dispute over Johnson's winning move. He clearly touched the yellow line with his left tires, but appeared to be forced low by an attempted block from his other two Hendrick teammates, Jeff Gordon and pusher Mark Martin. NASCAR officials ruled it a legal pass.
"I was not focused on where the yellow line was," Johnson said. "I was more worried about causing a big pileup. Luckily, the 5 car (Martin) quit coming down. I don't know where my left-side tires were, but I'm glad we're not here worrying about that."
Johnson got a huge run coming out of the fourth turn, surged past Gordon and Martin in the trioval and beat out Bowyer in a four-wide dash down the long finishing straightaway at Talladega Superspeedway.
"What a bummer," said Bowyer, who led a race-high 38 laps. "I saw him coming."
Earnhardt was fourth. Kevin Harvick, who was Bowyer's pusher, wound up fifth. Carl Edwards almost got into the mix as well, going right up against the outside wall with Greg Biffle on his bumper but didn't have enough room to pull it off. The No. 99 car finished sixth.
Biffle was seventh, while Martin slipped to eighth — just 0.145 seconds behind Johnson.
Hendrick Motorsports claimed the top four spots in qualifying, only the third team in NASCAR history to sweep the first two rows in a Cup race. They carried that speed right to the end.
The finish made up for a day of mostly lackluster racing with this new tandem style, which the drivers began using at the season-opening Daytona 500 and really perfected at the 2.66-mile Alabama trioval.
Rather than run together in huge drafting packs, which used to be the norm at the restrictor-plate tracks, the drivers figured out they can go even faster in pairs. So, everyone cut deals before the race, usually with teammates, and swapped radio frequencies so they could make changes on the fly if needed once the green flag dropped.
One guy in the pairing would run out front for a while, then they'd switch positions before the driver doing the pushing overheated his car.
The most important thing was hanging together. During an early pit stop, Johnson stayed in a little longer to make some adjustments on his car. Earnhardt just idled in his box, waiting to go back out with his partner.
"It's different," said Chad Knaus, Johnson's crew chief. "It's definitely different."
Even though 26 leaders swapped the top spot 88 times, tying the record set in last year's spring race at Talladega, there was a lot of just riding-around. Many of the lead changes were nothing more than choreographed switches, the main aim to stay out of trouble, conserve the cars and have a chance to race — or at least push — for the win.
But it sure was thrilling at the end.
"With as crazy as it gets in these closing laps," Gordon said, "sometimes a third is almost like a victory at these type of race tracks."
There weren't any huge crashes, but bumping cars from behind and trading places at 190 mph doesn't always go smoothly — especially when the second driver in a tandem can't see a thing except the guy he's pushing.
Matt Kenseth was among those taken out in a wreck he had nothing to do with.
Not surprisingly, he's not a big fan of tag teams.
"So much is out of your hands here," Kenseth said. "It's a frustrating type of racing, to say the least. It would be nice to be able to see and control your own destiny a little more."