Eight races into the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season and there have now been seven different drivers first past the checkered flag. On Sunday in the Aaron’s 449 race at Talladega it was the turn of five times champion, Jimmie Johnson. He matched the winning margin set only once before at Darlington in 2003 as he crossed the line just two thousandths of a second ahead of Clint Bowyer.
The closeness of the finish was not just about that miniscule time gap, though, for as the no. 48 car crossed the finishing line to take the flag there were seven other cars within fifteen metres of his car, arrayed across the track in four nose-to-tail pairs. Johnson was being pushed by Dale Earnhardt Jr., Bowyer had Kevin Harvick shoving him along and Jeff Gordon had just lost touch momentarily with Mark Martin. With those three pairs racing side by side for victory Carl Edwards, with Greg Biffle pushing him along, was trying to make a fourth lane around the outside.
If it’s close racing and close finishes you want you don’t need to look much further than NASCAR racing, that’s for sure.
The majority of the race was not so thrilling, though. Talladega, like that other superspeedway, Daytona, tends to produce tactical racing as all the drivers bide their time waiting for the mad, and often bad, dash to the finish over the last fifteen to twenty laps. Since the advent of racing in tandem twosomes pairs of cars have been seen to drop from the front of the field to the back in just one lap if they become separated. Equally, two cars getting hooked up and then running in the draft of another pair can run up to eight or nine mph faster than everyone else and drag themselves forward to take their turn at leading.
The Hendrick Motorsports team cars all started from the front four spots, only the third time that particular feat has been achieved, with Gordon on pole followed by Johnson, Martin and Earnhardt. But during the middle part of the race they were all to be found at the rear of the field, keeping pace with the various leaders, but resolutely keeping away from any potential multi-vehicle wrecks.
The Hendrick drivers also were clearly following a philosophy of keeping to the one partner for the bump-draft throughout the race. When the bump-draft first started to be used – at Talladega last year – drivers were inclined to change partners frequently, looking for someone who could run faster or make the switch from front to rear in the pair, or vice versa, smoothly and quickly without losing too much ground.
Experience has shown that some drivers have a significantly better understanding of what this style of racing takes and many of the top teams, Hendrick, Richard Childress Racing, and Roush Fenway Racing seemed to have realised that there is more to be gained by racing with one partner throughout and learning together the skills required.
By contrast the teams that changed partners more often during the race tended to have more difficulties, Kurt Busch especially managing to spin three cars he was pushing in the course of the race, those of Brian Vickers, Brad Keselowski and, sadly, Dave Blaney who drives for a shoestring team that were having their big day. Blaney led the second highest number of laps and was still in the leading bunch with just a couple of laps to go, that was until he teamed up with Busch. Come the next Daytona meeting in July it is easy to see Busch will discover how it feels to be the last boy picked to play in the team.
Twenty-six drivers led the race at some point but by the end of the race six of those eight drivers fighting for the win were the ones who had stayed back, fearful of getting embroiled in one of Talladega’s big wrecks. In fact, the big one never really happened. On lap 90 the engine in David Ragan‘s UPS Ford blew just as Kurt Busch – running alongside Ragan – sent his teammate Keselowski to the outside wall. Trevor Bayne, Kasey Kahne and Marcos Ambrose all suffered in the ensuing carnage although only Bayne and Ragan failed to rejoin the race. Another wreck just before three-quarter distance eliminated Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth but by Talladega standards the race was relatively trouble free, hence 27 cars finished on the lead lap.
There was some controversy immediately after the race when some claimed Johnson had won the race illegally having crossed the yellow line separating the track from the apron as he ran alongside Gordon and Martin in the last hundred yards but video evidence showed it would have been a harsh decision and the actual finishing order was given as Johnson, Bowyer, Gordon, Earnhardt, Harvick, Edwards, Biffle, Martin, a surprised and surprising David Gilliland in ninth with Joey Logano rounding out the top ten. Paul Menard, who once again out qualified his RCR teammates, finished in twelfth, Martin Truex Jr., who was blamelessly wrecked in the last two meetings was delighted to actually finish this time, in thirteenth and Jeff Burton, 16th, was another driver with a much needed decent result.
In the points standings Edwards holds on to his place at the top of the table but with just five points over Johnson who climbs to second followed by fellow climbers Earnhardt and Harvick. Biggest losers are Kyle Busch who drops four places to sixth and Kenseth who falls five places to eighth.
The Sprint Cup Series has a week off now and returns on April 30th at the three-quarter mile oval in Richmond, Virginia for a floodlit night race. Next week is the turn of the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series at Nashville.