Jamie McMurray didn't know what he was going to do.
Was Dale Earnhardt Jr. going to make a move on McMurray for the lead coming off of turn two on the final lap? Was he going to do it on the backstretch? Was he going to wait until the field was football fields from the finish line? How was McMurray going to defend it?
None of us know.
With McMurray in the lead on the final lap of Sunday's race at Talladega, the caution flag flew for a crash involving Austin Dillon and Casey Mears before Junior had a chance to make that move. On last-lap cautions, the field is frozen. McMurray was the winner.
"I don't know how the last lap would have played out," an emotional McMurray said in victory lane. "I could see the 88 trying to set me up and figure out where he could get a run on me but when I saw -- the caution came out behind me -- and honestly I wanted to end under green but at the same time I wanted a caution and I'm OK with it right now."
The race had made it to that point without a Talladega staple, the Big One, a wreck that encompasses a double digit number of cars. As many a NASCAR fan can attest, the longer a race goes without a Big One, the more inevitable it feels. But we still don't ever know if it'll happen until it happens.
Add in the jockeying for position that heats up over the final laps of a restrictor plate race, and when Dillon's car snapped around from third place in front of a whole pack of cars behind him, mass crashing immediately became a possibility.
But that didn't happen. This Big One only meant severe damage for Dillon and Casey Mears, who clobbered Dillon's car so violently that it popped up into the air before it landed on its wheels.
While the timing benefitted McMurray, who took the lead with 15 laps to go and never relinquished it, the placement of the car crashing did too. The race's final pit stops came more than 25 laps from the finish, and over the last 10 laps, drivers were forced to move to a line on the high side of the track to manage their tires. Remember, Dillon was in third.
"I don't know -- the thing about the package we have now -- if you can get the third car in line to push the guy in second, it's hard to defend," McMurray said. "You just gotta try to make your car as wide as you can ... And then when they could never get the bottom line to form, I'm like it's going to come down to the first three or four cars."
But do you ever truly know? Both in NASCAR and at Talladega. Sunday's win was McMurray's first since October of 2010, a three-win season that included wins in the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400. He missed the Chase that season, but the season looked to be the start of a fruitful partnership between McMurray and car owner Chip Ganassi.
Since then, the team has struggled, and McMurray's had just 15 top 10s in 108 starts. But in that time period, McMurray and his wife Christy have had a son and daughter. And there are signs of a turnaround on the track.
The team switched to Hendrick engines before 2013 and seven of those top 10s had come this season before Sunday, the first time that McMurray was able to celebrate with his wife and children in victory lane. He's now 14th in the standings, the same place he finished in 2010, and is signed with Earnhardt-Ganassi for 2014 to team with Kyle Larson.
Will the improvement continue? That too, we don't know. But isn't that why we all keep driving?
- - - - - - -