Johnson rides abominable two-car draft to victory; Talladega notes
Jimmie Johnson beat Clint Bowyer by .002, tying the closest NASCAR finish
Johnson won via two-car draft, a bastardized form of racing not likely to change
Dale Earnhardt Jr. continued his bounce-back season with a fourth-place finish
Talladega Superspeedway is a 2.66-mile roulette wheel. Round and round the little cars go. After an interminable wait, punctuated by a last few seconds of anticipation, something happens, and the illusion is thrilling. Opinions on the merits of the game depend where the players' chips rest.
1. The two-car draft is an abomination/once again labor bailed out management. One hundred-sixty eight laps of relative drudgery were magically transformed into a transfixing spectacle by eight cars in ridiculous two-car pods careening for the checkered flag. Ultimately, Jimmie Johnson was able to dust Roush Fenway's Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle and squeeze past teammate Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin along the yellow boundary to beat Clint Bowyer by .002 seconds, which tied the closest finish in NASCAR history since electronic scoring began. The previous four hours were wholly unfulfilling, again creating nostalgia for the 30-car freight trains of cars that used to embody racing at Daytona and Talladega.
"It's a frustrating type of racing, to say the least," said Matt Kenseth, who was collected in a wreck with 48 laps left. "Ever since I've been coming to Talladega or watching Talladega, every time you interview somebody that has crashed they're like, 'Oh, this racing is terrible. Somebody is going to get hurt.' I mean, it's been the same thing, but it's different. Before, at least you [could] kind of control your own destiny and you [could] draft a little bit. Here, if you don't have a car locked on you and shoving you, or vice versa, you're going to get lapped in 15-20 laps, and it's really hard."
Dale Earnhardt Jr. doesn't even like it. But this bastardized form of the already bastardized form of racing is not, as Jeff Gordon notes, likely to change. Not, Kurt Busch said, "until we fix it." And there's almost too much to fix. Physics, fresh pavement laid down at Talladega in 2006 and Daytona this season and the design of the current Sprint Cup car have made two-car tandems much faster than those freight trains of yore.
NASCAR's attempts to split these pairs by tinkering with cooling systems have yielded little change. Teams on Sunday resorted to spray cooking oil and other lubricants to ease the wear on their bumpers and nose pieces. Sublime. But, hey, it's just Talladega, and the drivers will work it out.
2. Earnhardt Jr. is finally earning his varsity letter. Johnson gave him the checkered flag from the cockpit of the No. 48 Chevrolet. Team owner Rick Hendrick ordered him to victory lane to celebrate. Earnhardt has won five times at Talladega, but his performance on Sunday was arguably one of his most impressive and important there, especially taken in the context of what he is currently trying to accomplish: restart his career.
Although his winless streak reached 101 races, Earnhardt was critical in a Hendrick effort that put all four cars in the first two rows after qualifying and in the top eight after the race. His race-long commitment to the pre-race plan to work with Johnson put his teammate in victory lane. After 116 races at NASCAR's most successful team, Earnhardt Jr., who improved to third in driver points, is each race less the balky part and more a contributor. Perhaps Earnhardt Jr.'s reassignment to what was Gordon's team last year -- specifically crew chief Steve Letarte -- has been the elixir.
Whatever the reason, with a fourth-place finish he now has two top-5s and five top-10s in eight races -- after managing just three and eight, respectively, last year -- it appears Earnhardt Jr., to the delight of the multitudes, matters again.
3. Clint Bowyer doesn't like sand-baggers ... or history. The jovial runner-up would rather not have been involved in the co-closest finish in series history unless he was the winner.
"That sucks," he laughed. "It's never very good to know you made NASCAR history by losing. Sooner or later I need to start making history by winning. That guy's won enough.
"The only thing that bums me out about that is those guys lagged back all day long. That's what makes it tough, losing by somebody that did that. We were up front for our sponsors and our team and digging all day long. When you get it taken from you at the end by somebody who lagged back all day, it's hard to take."
4. Kurt Busch has a conscience. Arguably the series' best active restrictor-plate racer without a win, Busch hooked Landon Cassill on Lap 28, spun Penske Racing teammate Brad Keselowski on Lap 90 and surprise 19-lap leader Dave Blaney with three left. For that, the 2004 series champion was sorry.
"Man, a busy day," he said after finishing 18th. "Restrictor-plate racing and this two-car draft is really tough, and I was in the middle of a bunch of incidents. I feel bad for wrecking a bunch of cars, especially my teammate Brad.
"My car was really fast all day getting pushed. Once I had to push, the car didn't seem as stable as I needed it to be."
Keselowski called the incident "just one of them deals here at Talladega. It's just racing. I just got on the wrong end of it."
5. The Biff is back. Not that he ever wanted to leave, but the former trucks and Nationwide champion will return to Roush Fenway -- his employer since 1998 -- for three more seasons after announcing a renewal on Sunday. The deal coincides with his primary sponsor returning for the same term. Biffle, who finished seventh Sunday, has 16 Sprint Cup wins and has finished second and third in series points. Jack Roush has a reputation as an austere boss but is among the best in a fickle business in developing and retaining drivers. Kenseth joined the organization in 2000 and Carl Edwards in 2003. Biffle, 41, took another step toward ending his career where it began.