April 17, 2011
TALLADEGA, Ala. — When NASCAR comes to Talladega, there's always a sense of dread, a fear that something ominous is about to happen. But this year, there was a sense of dread that absolutely nothing of note would happen, save the two-by-two racing that infuriates more NASCAR fans than the suggestion that racing is nothing more than drivin' fast and turnin' left.
Leave it to 'Dega, of course, to turn a race that had the potential to be the worst of the year into a did-you-see-that spectacle, a finish that tied the mark for the closest in NASCAR history.
Jeff Gordon won the pole. Clint Bowyer led the most laps. And after a record-tying 88 lead changes, after a run that included everyone from Dale Earnhardt Jr. and two-time 2011 winner Kevin Harvick to Trevor Bayne and Dave Blaney leading laps, the race ended the way so many others have: with Jimmie Johnson in front when the checkers flew.
Talladega marked the fourth eyeblink finish of the season, an incomprehensibly small .002-second margin of victory. And when you add in Daytona (.118 seconds), Fontana (.144) and Martinsville (.727), that's four races that have been determined by a total of less than one second. If NASCAR was looking to generate more competition, that's a fairly strong indicator of success.
Of course, how that competitiveness has been achieved is a sticking point with many fans. Like Daytona, Talladega was recently repaved. Also like Daytona, the cars can use their aligned bumpers to link up two-by-two and shove each other around the track. And, yet again like Daytona, the promenade ticks off a huge chunk of NASCAR fandom. (Drivers, too, as both Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Jr. noted earlier this week.)
What drives fans insane about the two-car dance is that it turns a NASCAR race into a crap shoot of physics and positioning. "Talladega has always been about a 15-, 25-lap race, and the rest is just trying to get to the end," Gordon said after the race. "And that's basically what we have now. If you want to survive and you want to make it to the finish, you know, you have to either choose to try to push to stay up front, or ride in the back."
He had reason to be frustrated; after winning the pole but steadily sliding back into the field, he and teammate Mark Martin had powered to get to the front of the pack with only a handful of laps remaining. Challenging them were the tandems of Clint Bowyer and Kevin Harvick on the outside, and Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle on the inside. The laps wound down, the white flag drew closer and then flew, and the promised Big One never materialized.
But this is Talladega, where no race is decided before Turn 4 of the final lap, and it's there that the team of Johnson and Earnhardt made its move.
"I just chilled out and sat in [Gordon/Martin and Bowyer/Harvick's] draft and as we came off of four, those two groups were occupied trying to side-draft each other and racing each other at the top," Johnson said. "As 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."
They surged by thanks to a high-wire act on the yellow line, one that brought to mind Regan Smith's 2008 below-the-line pass on Tony Stewart. In that instance, Smith crossed the finish line first but got black-flagged and ended up losing the race; in this case, Johnson was cleared by NASCAR.
Conspiracists howled, but here's how NASCAR explains the rule: A driver cannot go below the yellow line to advance position. Johnson most certainly did advance his position, but did he go below the yellow line? Photographic evidence seems to indicate that his tires were on, but not over, the yellow line. Yahoo! Sports confirmed with NASCAR that the tires would have to be over the inside of both yellow lines; in other words, the line itself is still "in bounds."
"My eye line was on the 5 [Martin] and the 24 [Gordon]," Johnson said, "because they were coming down the track trying to protect the inside lane. I was not focused on where that yellow line was. I was more worried about causing a big pile-up, and luckily the 5 quit coming down and then the 24 pulled up."
That gave the 48 the room necessary to shove past the other four cars and edge Bowyer by the narrowest of margins: two-one-thousandths of a second, tying the record set by Ricky Craven in outdueling Kurt Busch in 2003 at Darlington.
"Good company," Craven texted Yahoo! Sports.
Joining the NASCAR record books as a loser didn't exactly enchant Bowyer. "That sucks," Bowyer laughed. "It's never very good to know you made NASCAR history by losing. Sooner or later I need to start making history by winning. That guy's won enough."
Johnson and Earnhardt also powered together upward through the standings. While Carl Edwards still holds the overall series lead, Johnson is now ranked second and Earnhardt third.
NASCAR now takes a break for Easter, and while the lap-by-lap racing may draw criticism, we're in the midst of one of the most sustained runs of great finishes in NASCAR history.
"It doesn't matter what happened throughout that race," Bowyer said. "If you didn't like that finish and it didn't make you forget about the race, you're crazy."
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