It was a race at Talladega that had record writers scrambling for their pens as Kevin Harvick snuck past Jamie McMurray on the run to the checkered flag to take his first win in 115 races, the first victory for Richard Childress Racing since Jeff Burton in October 2008.
It was a race like no other.
The count of 29 different leaders beating the previous record of 28 set in 2008's fall Talladega event, while the 88 official lead changes they combined for smashed the previous record of 75 (again set at the Alabama track), set in 1984, when restrictor plates were a thing of the distant future. The race also saw the first race where NASCAR have used the maximum of three green-white-checkered finishes, pushing the total number of completed laps to 200 – twelve more than the original distance – another record, this time for the longest race at Talladega.
While not unexpected the full complement of 'overtime' attempts left several teams nervous about fuel mileage. McMurray, Harvick, Juan Pablo Montoya and Greg Biffle had all decided not to pit on a lap 177 caution brought out by Bobby Labonte's harmless spin across the back straight apron so found themselves leading on trio of restarts despite being forced to drive around the bottom of the track, off the banking, behind the safety car trying to guarantee fuel pickup on the restart.
“Obviously we were tight on fuel,” said Harvick post-race from the relative comfort of the press conference. “We were able to save enough gas to get where we needed to be for all the green-white-checkereds.”
It was clearly a concern for all of them, McMurray saying, in his post-race interview, he believed he was “really close”, Montoya claiming he had “plenty” after threatening to run the car out of fuel on track before sacrificing track position in the final laps.
Biffle was not so lucky.
Taking the second green flag leading the outside line in second place his Ford was slow getting up to speed. Pushed out of line as everyone swept by him through turns one and two the 3M sponsored car became a mobile chicane down the back straight as the drafting lines tried to lose as little momentum getting by him. It was Jimmie Johnson who eventually clipped the 'curb' of the chicane, hitting Biffle's nose in his haste to get back in line. Johnson span first up, then down the track, pushed all the while by Biffle who delivered the final blow which sent Johnson into the inside wall.
The crash brought out the caution once again, and promoted Montoya – the Colombian already pleasantly surprised he'd avoided the accidents “the way the season is going” – to second, taking Biffle's place leading the outside line.
It was not a situation McMurray liked, later admitting he would rather have had his Earnhardt-Ganassi teammate behind, rather than beside, him but he had the next best thing in Harvick as the RCR engines come from same shop as EGR powerplants.
As the race restarted for the final time it looked like it would be a return to the two-car-hook-up battle that decided the race last year Denny Hamlin pushing Montoya as the front four ran side-by-side to the white flag. There Montoya's (and anybody besides Harvick's challenge) was ended. Montoya said he belived that damage to Hamlin's no.11 car meant the pair couldn't keep up to pace, but the obvious culprit was more likely the yawning gulf between the pair through turn one on the final lap, while McMurray and Harvick remained bumper-to-bumper.
Out on their own it was theirs to settle. It looked as through McMurray the winner of the last two restrictor plate races would continue the streak but Harvick waited and waited until the exit of the tri-oval (Talladega's finish line is off-set towards turn one), he slid across McMurray's bumper, sending the no.1 car briefly, slightly, sideways giving himself enough of an advantage to sneak to the line, ahead by no more than a few feet.
While the winners laurels went to Harvick, credit should be paid to McMurray. Even as Harvick was below him he refused to try and block him – the sort of move that has led to the recent last lap wrecks at restrictor plate tracks.
It was how a Talladega race was meant to end. No flying, flipping cars and arguments, just a close finish – the margin of 0.011seconds the eighth closest since the introduction of electronic scoring.
That said, it was not all clean, argument free racing – there were of course accidents.
Ryan Newman was once more critical of Talladega – suggesting that “Talladega racing” was an oxymoron – after he was taken out in a wreck on the first G-W-C attempt when Joey Logano bump drafted him in turn three on the highest line of a four wide pack, spinning him down into traffic and triggering a nine car accident.
However, the crash that may get the most attention was not the biggest.
When Scott Speed, Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton were spinning though the tri-oval grass on lap 183 it was just the latest chapter in the “trouble at HMS” story. Gordon was once more very critical of Jimmie Johnson, not for the accident but a block half a lap before which had forced him to dive onto the apron.
“I was coming maybe ten miles and hour faster than anybody,” he said. “[Jimmie Johnson] is testing my patience I can tell you that. It takes alot to make me mad and I'm pissed right not. When a car is going that much faster – I don't know what it is with me and him right now but, y'know, whatever.”
Johnson had a further part in crash, having blocked Gordon and lost momentum Johnson found himself being passed on all sides, as he tried to slot back into a line he caused those behind him to stack-up, Burton the unlucky victim, being spat into the outside wall before collecting Gordon en route to the grass.
Photo Credit: Todd Warshaw/Getty Images