TALLADEGA, Ala. – NASCAR demanded drivers be on their best behavior at Talladega Superspeedway, where a ban on bump-drafting sanitized what’s usually one of the most spectacular races of the season.
But in the end, chaos reigned, just like always.
After 450 miles of what resembled a slow Sunday drive, the action picked up and the outcome was much of what everyone has come to expect out of Talladega: An unlikely winner, two spectacular crashes and an army of drivers frustrated about the unpredictability of restrictor-plate racing.
“I think we all know that’s what’s going to happen when we come to Talladega,” said Jeff Gordon, who first ran out of gas and then wrecked – all in a five-lap span.
Jamie McMurray was the surprise winner, snapping an 86-race winless streak by leading 32 late laps and holding on in a race that ended under caution. Jimmie Johnson, meanwhile, ended up sixth, likely wrapping up his NASCAR-record fourth-consecutive championship because of all the late action.
“I made the comment … it’s just going to be luck,” McMurray said, “whoever can get in the right row and make the moves.”
That’s how it usually works at Talladega, where horsepower-sapping restrictor plates slow the speeds and force drivers to use aggressive maneuvers to plow their way through tight packs of traffic.
But after Carl Edwards’ airborne April crash into the frontstretch fence, NASCAR has felt the pressure to cut down on the dangerous bumping and blocking that usually triggers the multi-car accidents known as “the Big One.”
In response, the 43-car field spent much of Sunday in a single-file parade lap that almost looked to be a conscious thumbing of the nose at NASCAR.
“I think everyone was just content to log laps,” said Denny Hamlin, who was sidelined with an engine problem before the finish.
“Where is the middle ground between the new NASCAR rule and racing? Let us race. They gave us a car to race, now let the drivers handle it.”
They did when it counted, and as always, it got dicey when the racing picked up with about 20 laps remaining.
Ryan Newman’s harrowing crash with five laps to go left him upside down in the grass, and NASCAR needed a stoppage of almost 13 minutes to cut him from the car.
The race ended under caution, with McMurray in Victory Lane.
Sunday was the final hurdle in Johnson’s path to his fourth championship because his 17.7 average finish at Talladega is his worst of the 10 races in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. He had dreaded Sunday’s race because of the unknowns that come with the horsepower-sapping restrictor plates that are used to control the high speeds at the 2.66-mile track.
“I was so concerned about this race,” he admitted. “I thought I was going to lose points with about three or four (laps) to go. So to have it turn around and lead with points over the guys, I didn’t expect it.”
Aside from Johnson and McMurray, who won for the first time since Daytona in July 2007, few drivers were happy with the final outcome.
That’s usually the way it goes at Daytona and Talladega, the two places were the plates are used and the final results rarely reflect what actually happened.