Jimmie Johnson won a Talladega two-step Sunday, edging Clint Bowyer by about a foot with a big push from Dale Earnhardt Jr.
The official margin was 0.002 seconds, tied for the closest finish in NASCAR Sprint Cup history.
The tag-team race came down to an eight-car sprint – actually, four pairs of cars – with only the guys at the front of the duos having a chance to win the Aaron’s 499 at Talladega, Ala.
After laying back most of the day, five-time series champion Johnson came on strong at the end for his 54th career victory and first of the season.
“We were just the lucky guy at the end with a good run,” Johnson said. “We had some big mo on our side, and off we went.”
Coming out of the fourth turn, the No. 48 car dipped right next to the yellow line, surged past Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin and got to the finish line just ahead of Bowyer in a four-wide dash down the long finishing straight at Talladega Superspeedway.
“What a bummer,” said Bowyer, who led a race-high 38 laps. “I saw him coming.”
Earnhardt, the fourth Hendrick driver, finished fourth and essentially gave up a chance to claim his first win since 2008 by deciding he was more comfortable pushing Johnson than getting pushed.
“I can’t thank Junior enough,” said Johnson, who gave Earnhardt the checkered flag as a reward for being such a team player. “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. In some respects, he was more worried about the team having a good performance than anything.”
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, finishing sixth.
Biffle was seventh, while Martin finished eighth.
The finish matched the closest since NASCAR went to electronic timing – Ricky Craven edging Kurt Busch in 2003 at Darlington – and made up for a day of lackluster racing with this new tandem style, which the drivers began using at the season-opening Daytona 500 and really perfected at this 2.66-mile trioval.
Twenty-six leaders swapped the top spot 88 times, tying the record set in last year’s spring race at Talladega. Many of those changes were choreographed by pairs who were merely trying to stay out of trouble, conserve their cars and give themselves a chance at the end.
“If you didn’t like that finish and forget about the race, there’s something wrong with you,” Bowyer said. “It always seems to fix itself at the end of these restrictor-plate races. We always have a hell of a finish.”
Mike Conway made a late pass on Ryan Briscoe to win the Grand Prix of Long Beach (Calif.), earning his first career IndyCar victory in just his third race since a horrific crash last year in the Indianapolis 500.
Conway suffered multiple leg fractures and a compression fracture in his back in the Indy 500 crash, knocking him out for the remainder of the season. He signed with Andretti Autosport before this season, finishing 23rd and 22nd his first two races.
Conway started third and hung around the leaders on the 11-turn, 1.968-mile circuit through the streets of downtown Long Beach. After a series of late crashes, he finally took the lead with 14 laps left by whipping past Briscoe.
McLaren driver Lewis Hamilton won the Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai, passing Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel for the lead with five laps remaining.
Red Bull’s Mark Webber, who started 18th, made a remarkable run to finish third.
Del Worsham edged teammate Larry Dixon by 0.0048 seconds – about 6 inches – in the Top Fuel final in the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals at zMAX Dragway in Concord, N.C.
Jack Beckman (Funny Car) and Greg Anderson (Pro Stock) also won in the event featuring racing in four lanes instead of the traditional two. A center wall separated the second and third lanes.