Lady Luck wears McMurray hat
Posted: Monday, November 2, 2009 5:52 pm
By: By JENNA FRYER, AP Auto Racing Writer
TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) — NASCAR demanded drivers be on their best behavior at Talladega Superspeedway, where a ban on bump-drafting sanitized what’s usually one of the most spectacular races of the season.
In the end, chaos reigned, just like always.
After 450 miles of what resembled a slow Sunday drive, the action picked up and the outcome was much of what everyone has come to expect out of Talladega: An unlikely winner, two spectacular crashes and an army of drivers frustrated about the unpredictability of restrictor-plate racing.
“I think we all know that’s what’s going to happen when we come to Talladega,” said Jeff Gordon, who first ran out of gas and then wrecked — all in a five-lap span.
Jamie McMurray was the surprise winner, snapping an 86-race winless streak by leading 32 late laps and holding on in a race that ended under caution. Jimmie Johnson, meanwhile, ended up sixth, likely wrapping up his NASCAR-record fourth-consecutive championship because of all the late action.
“I made the comment … it’s just going to be luck,” McMurray said, “whoever can get in the right row and make the moves.”
That’s how it usually works at Talladega, where horsepower-sapping restrictor plates slow the speeds and force drivers to use aggressive maneuvers to plow their way through tight packs of traffic.
But after Carl Edwards’ airborne April crash into the frontstretch fence, NASCAR has felt the pressure to cut down on the dangerous bumping and blocking that usually triggers the multi-car accidents known as “the Big One.”
Officials warned at the start of the weekend that they didn’t want to see drivers shoving each other around the speedway, and proved it by parking Michael Waltrip during a Friday practice when he didn’t back off Johnson’s rear bumper.
NASCAR president Mike Helton ramped it up another notch Sunday in a stern pre-race lecture that banned all bumping in the corners. He was peppered with questions from the drivers, but held firm and warned that a victory could be stripped if it was gained through bump-drafting.
In response, the 43-car field spent much of Sunday in a single-file parade lap that almost looked to be a conscious thumbing of the nose at NASCAR.
“I think everyone was just content to log laps,” said Denny Hamlin, who was sidelined with an engine problem before the finish.
“Where is the middle ground between the new NASCAR rule and racing? Let us race. They gave us a car to race, now let the drivers handle it.”
They did when it counted, and as always, it got dicey when the racing picked up with about 20 laps remaining.
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.
Outspoken in the wake of Edwards’ April crash, he was none too pleased to have spent almost 15 minutes trapped inside his car.
“It’s probably the closest thing to being stuck in a tomb and not being able to get out — all my body weight was pressed up against my head,” he said. “I respect NASCAR. I just wish they respected me.”
His crash set up 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.
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 won for the first time since 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.”