In the state of Alabama, race fans congregate twice a year to see “The Talladega Tango.” After 88 lead changes among 26 drivers, at the end of the race, Jimmie Johnson came out of nowhere to lead an eight-car blanket over the finish line by two-thousandths of a second to win the Aaron’s 499. The final margin of victory was tied for the closest finish since electronic scoring was introduced to NASCAR, which was set back in 2003 at Darlington when Ricky Craven nipped Kurt Busch at the line that day, but today, it was Johnson besting Clint Bowyer at the line.
Jeff Gordon led the field to the starting line with a qualifying lap of 178.248 mph with teammates Johnson, Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. starting second, third, and fourth, one of only three times in NASCAR series history for this to happen, with the first being Pete DePaolo in 1956 in Concord, N.C. and the other being Jack Roush in 2005 in Fontana, Calif. After 27 laps of frentic racing action, the first caution of the day came out when Kurt Busch made contact with Landon Cassill, who veered hard to the left toward Brian Vickers’s car, sending Vickers for a spin into the wall.
Caution number two came out for a five-car pile-up again triggered by Kurt Busch again making contact with another driver, this time it was teammate Brad Keselowski. In the after-math of the incident, Trevor Bayne, Marcos Ambrose, Kasey Kahne and David Ragan were caught up in the incident, with Ragan being swept up in the accident while his car appeared to be blowing an engine. More fast-paced plate-racing action followed until lap 129, when debris in turn 3 from Bowyer’s car brought out the caution.
Twelve laps later, another five-car accident took place, this time when Joey Logano hooked teammate Kyle Busch in the left rear, sending him spinning into the path of Matt Kenseth. Kurt Busch, AJ Allmendinger and Denny Hamlin also were swept up in the accident.
The pace picked up once more and with 15 laps to go, the Big One nearly happened when Kurt Busch accidentally, for the third time, hooked a car he was drafting with, this time Ryan Newman, and Newman hit Juan Pablo Montoya, but amazingly managed to save the car from too much damage. Incredulously, just a couple of laps later, Newman made contact again, this time with Hamlin, and once again got away with a miraculous save. But, he stalled the car and the caution would come out with 13 laps remaining with Dave Blaney leading the race.
Blaney led the field back to the green flag, but quickly lost the lead to Kevin Harvick. However, two laps later, Blaney was up front again and poised to make another Talladega Cinderella story come true. He held the lead until four laps to go when Carl Edwards got around him, turning Blaney’s golden carriage into the proverbial pumpkin. Blaney would spin just a lap later following contact with Kurt Busch.
The next lap saw Bowyer back up front. Edwards took the lead back with two laps to go, but Gordon would be the one leading the field to the white flag. On the last lap as eight cars frantically chased for the win through turn 4 and the tri-oval, it would be Johnson going to the inside and eking out Bowyer by .002 seconds for the win with Gordon, Earnhardt Jr., Harvick, Edwards, Greg Biffle and Martin all in the mad sprint to the line as well with David Gilliland and Logano rounding out the top 10.
“Man, I thought we were in trouble. Something happened with like two to go and we got disconnected,” Johnson said in victory lane. “I had a really tough time hearing Junior on the radio so I didn’t know what he was saying or needed but we were disconnected and I got us back together.
“We got hooked up and rolling and all of a sudden it was just two groups in front of us. A big run down the [backstretch], I saw the bottom and they protected it and I just rolled through [turns] 3 and 4 and I’m like ‘we’ll get another chance, I hope.’ They were worried about each other in that second and third lane and left that bottom open and we had some big momentum on our side and off we went.”
“It’s great how the plan worked out, Johnson continued. “Can’t thank Junior enough. He made the decision that my car was faster leading and the way these things have been finishing up that lead car is going to have the win so in some respects he was more worried about the team having a good performance than anything. They are responsible for this win today.”
Bowyer, despite leading 15 times for 38 laps, had to settle for second best.
“We did everything we could do. The BB&T Chevrolet, she did everything she could do,” Bowyer said. “I saw them coming in the mirror even through Kevin and I knew. I was like ‘the No. 24 better block them guys, better block them guys’ and they were too worried about racing us as we were them. Just all hell broke loose is exactly what happened but that’s what makes this place awesome. It is a good finish for us. Very frustrated that we didn’t get the win.”
Johnson averaged a blistering 156.261 mph in victory and led four times for 14 laps en route to the win. Unlike the Daytona 500 in February, which had a record number of cautions, Sunday’s Aaron’s 499 had only six cautions for 20 laps. 27 cars finished on the lead lap.
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