TALLADEGA, Ala. —This track has a way of doing everything it can to make you uncomfortable, whether you're a driver, a fan or an owner.
For the second time in three years, a lame-duck driver has won Talladega, making for an awkward kind of podium pairing that perfectly matches the strange two-by-two circling that characterizes plate racing these days. In 2009, it was Jamie McMurray standing alongside Jack Roush just weeks after Roush cut him loose, and on Sunday it was Clint Bowyer winning one more race for Richard Childress before the two part ways at the end of the season.
Bowyer and Jeff Burton paired up for the entire day, forming the afternoon's dominant two-car team. Challengers included Tony Stewart (with two drafting partners, Ryan Newman and later Paul Menard) and the Red Bull duo of Kasey Kahne and Brian Vickers, but on the race's final restart, Bowyer and Burton leaped out to a huge lead, Burton in front. And once the drivers made the final turn, the real race began.
Bowyer slipped out from behind Burton, who dropped backward slightly. Bowyer took the lead, and Burton appeared poised to reclaim it but couldn't quite close.
"I thought he made his move a little too early," Burton said, "and as it turned out, he did it perfect. We had a great day; part o fme wants to cry, and part of me wants to cheer. Anytime you leave here and the car is in one piece, you should be happy, but to come that close after the year we have had is pretty disappointing."
Still, Burton was one of the lucky ones. The Chase hopes of Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson effectively ended this afternoon, with all three drivers finishing the race at least 26 points behind leader Carl Edwards with only four races remaining. Edwards extended his lead on the field to 14 points, but if he has a single misstep, Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski and Tony Stewart are waiting just a few places back.
The 2x2 racing continued unabated, apparently unaffected by the rules changes that NASCAR had put in place prior to this race. And it was the tandem racing that led to some of the afternoon's most spectacular wrecks, though nothing approaching the "Big Ones" of legend. Still, Ryan Newman, Bobby Labonte, Kurt Busch and Regan Smith all saw their hopes end early thanks to wrecks, and Joey Logano had to fight from three laps down to get back onto the lead lap after a blown tire destroyed the front left of his car.
Still, while most of the action was behind him, Bowyer was more than happy to bask in the victory, which, coincidentally enough, marked Richard Childress' 100th win during Chevrolet's 100th anniversary. So what did Bowyer tell his soon-to-be-ex-owner?
"I told him, 'Congratulations,'" Bowyer said, and then laughed. "I guess I'm going to have to race his ass for the 101st."