Jamie McMurray an unlikely winner in surreal Talladega race

By Jenna Fryer, AP
Sunday, November 1, 2009

McMurray snaps 86-race winless streak

TALLADEGA, Ala. — Jamie McMurray was the unlikely winner of an uncharacteristically dull race at Talladega Superspeedway, where a ban on bump-drafting forced most competitors to treat the event as a slow Sunday drive.

The day started with a stern warning from NASCAR president Mike Helton against the aggressive driving that has turned Talladega into the most exciting track on the circuit. What followed was an anesthetized first 450 miles, with long periods of single-file traffic and no driver willing to defy NASCAR’s order not to bump through the corners.

But the action picked up with roughly 20 laps remaining, and with it came the typical Talladega mayhem. 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.

That set up a two-lap sprint to the finish, and that was halted when championship contender Mark Martin went flipping across the track in his own spectacular crash.

The race ended under caution, with McMurray in Victory Lane for the first time in 86 races. Jimmie Johnson, meanwhile, likely wrapped up his NASCAR-record fourth-consecutive championship because of all the late action.

Because Johnson spent most of the race puttering around the back of the pack, he was stuck back in the mid-20s when Newman crashed. Crew chief Chad Knaus sensed a lengthy delay and quickly called Johnson in for gas — a decision that may have clinched the title.

When cars ahead of him in the running order began to run out of gas because of the red-flag delay, Johnson vaulted up in the standings. The final finishing order showed him in eighth, but he was adamant he finished sixth.

After a lengthy review, Johnson was indeed credited with a sixth-place finish that stretched his lead in the standings to 184 points over Martin with three races remaining.

“From where we were with the red flag to where we finished, I’m still in shock,” Johnson said. “I can’t believe that it worked out. I can’t believe that many guys ran out of fuel and put themselves in that position.”

It was the final hurdle in Johnson’s path 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 snapped an 86-race winless streak dating to 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. Bump-drafting has become a necessary evil as drivers jockey for position in the tight packs, conditions five-time Talladega winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. said left them “at the mercy of the whole field.

“I don’t think it’s acceptable. I feel lucky that I didn’t wreck,” he said after an 11th-place finish. “We show up to bust our (butt) to get our cars to handle right and do right everywhere else, but when you come here, you just sit in the bus, wait for the damn race to start and see what your number is at the end of the deal. It’s a lottery.”

(This version CORRECTS Corrects Johnson finish to sixth. UPDATES.)

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