3. Johnson made an under-the-radar comeback that leaves him with a bit of an edge. The fact Johnson did finish ahead of the No. 11 was nothing short of miraculous after teaming with Jeff Gordon to charge forward like a freight train at Lap 172. From 23rd to second in eight laps, Johnson made it look as if this race could be all-Hendrick Motorsports until a mysterious oil smell and vibration forced the No. 24 to drop from the pack. That left Johnson all alone, without a drafting partner. He was abandoned quicker on the final restart than a room in which a skunk walks in.
His four straight titles has drivers finally making on-track maneuvers that work against the No. 48. Even in the post-race press conference, Harvick said, "No offense to [Johnson], but somebody else needs to win [this title]."
Still, try talking the confidence out of this Johnson, who fell outside the top 20 with three laps to go, only to use a well-timed push from Truex and several phenomenal maneuvers to re-enter the top 10. In the matter of 60 seconds, he went from losing the point lead to actually increasing it by eight over Hamlin.
"I really didn't have much stress," he said. "I don't know what it was today at all. But from the moment I woke up to driver intros, getting in the car, I just didn't have a lot of concern today, which was nice not to overstress things, be more in tune with kind of the flow of the race, what was going on."
That "ice in the veins" mentality will serve him well for a final three races in which his challengers will throw everything but the kitchen sink at him. It won't be easy for Johnson, but my money's still on the No. 48.
4. A record-setting day at 'Dega still leads to mixed reviews. Check out these mind-boggling stats: There were 131 lead changes in the first six races of the Chase, compared to 87 on Sunday alone. Two-car breakaways led to speeds of more than 200 mph, with an aggressive field rarely taking the time to settle into a single-file line. On the surface, it looked like another fascinating race at the sport's largest superspeedway. But despite the lead changes, drivers still wound up frustrated by the continued inability for plates to help make a pass on their own. Who you drafted with -- not how fast your car goes -- was the difference as the chess game often turned into a scenario of multi-car team vs. multi-car team. And the last wreck of the day, ruining nearly a half-dozen cars, also saw Allmendinger go end-over-end in an unavoidable wreck due to the style of competition.
"I hate this place," Allmendinger said after luckily emerging unhurt. "I always have and always will."
As I wrote Thursday, those mixed feelings of Talladega shined through more than ever.
5. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. lost his last chance to win a race this season -- by shooting himself in the foot. For the second straight week, the No. 88 team showed signs of sudden progress, leading the most laps in a race for the first time since the Coca-Cola 600 in May 2008. But it was another self-induced mistake that led to the race's second caution, a bad bumpdraft knocking Jeff Burton into the wall and then into the side of a driver whose entire career has been haunted since his tenure began at Hendrick Motorsports.
"Got a little too excited," Earnhardt said afterward, forced to nurse a damaged car to 39th. "Cost [Burton's] crew a great race car and opportunity to win. He had a really fast car, I apologize to Richard [Childress] and all of those guys over there. My boys too, they worked really hard on my car.
"Sometimes, you make mistakes and I made one today."
It's one that'll likely cost crew chief Lance McGrew his job in November. Any faint chance of him holding onto the pit box for 2011 should disintegrate now.
RACE GRADE: B+
During a plate race, half the battle is making sure no one gets seriously hurt. Check. There was lots of exciting, side-by-side racing, culminating in a victory for car owner Richard Childress almost 10 years after Dale Earnhardt's death. But another last-lap melee, another 500-mile race where cars were incapable of breaking apart from each other for long, left some still questioning this style of competition.
"I just don't know how long we can keep coming to this place," said Tony Stewart's crew chief, Darian Grubb. "Where you can have a one-lap race and have the same drama you have in 188."
My heartfelt condolences to the family and friends of longtime NASCAR executive and public relations guru Jim Hunter, who passed away from cancer Friday night at 71. While I only interacted with him a handful of times, his presence in the sport was larger than life, both in the way he handled NASCAR's problems while influencing a whole generation of media covering the sport with his wit, wisdom, and kindness. He will be sorely, sorely missed as one of the last active members of the sport's "old guard."
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