Call it Talladega Superspeedway math. Four wide plus two deep equals one fantastic finish.
Sunday's Aaron's 499 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race concluded with a pack of eight cars spread out four wide across the track, all crossing the finish line within a blink of the eye. It took video replays to conclude that Jimmie Johnson had nipped Clint Bowyer for the victory by 0.002 seconds, matching the closest margin of victory since NASCAR began using electronic timing.
The race also equaled the NASCAR record for the most passes in a race, set last year at Talladega Superspeedway. There were a total of 88 lead changes among 26 drivers.
"When you're four wide coming across the finish line, that's a pretty good race," Johnson said. "There was just so much going on at the end of that thing coming to the stripe.
It originally appeared that the sprint to the finish would come down to a battle between Jeff Gordon, who was being pushed by Mark Martin, and Clint Bowyer, who was being pushed by Kevin Harvick. But as that quartet came out of turn four and entered the trioval, Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. dipped down to the low side and barely squeezed past the Gordon-Martin combo.
Meanwhile, just before the pack reached the finish line, Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle got into the mix on the high side near the wall, and all eight cars roared across the line within a fraction of a second of each other. Gordon finished third, Earnhardt fourth, Harvick fifth, Edwards sixth, Biffle seventh and Martin eighth.
"If you didn't like that finish, you're crazy," Bowyer said. "That was an unbelievable finish. I hope people enjoyed it, because it looked pretty wild through the windshield."
Several drivers agreed with Bowyer's assessment. The new two-car tandems that have become all the rage at restrictor-plate tracks have enabled cars to gain speed and make passes, something that had been more difficult during the days of pack racing.
"There is some technique required now, instead of just running wide open all the time and sitting there in a guy's tire tracks," Johnson said. "There's some work and skill required. I think this racing was fun. When you have this many lead changes in a Cup race, that's a good thing."
The final pass occurred at the last possible moment. Gordon and Bowyer ran side by side in the middle of the track through turns three and four, enabling the Johnson-Earnhardt combo to make a late charge through the trioval.
"They were worried about racing each other and left the bottom open, and we had momentum on our side and off we went," Johnson said.
Bowyer said he was hoping that Gordon and Martin would shift toward the bottom of the track in an effort to block Johnson, a move that Bowyer felt would have given him the victory.
"I saw them coming, and (Gordon) and I were drag racing off each other and trying to break each other's momentum," Bowyer said. "I was like, ‘Oh no. Block ‘em, block, ‘em.' I knew if they had dipped down to block them, that we had the race won. But we came up just short. It's frustrating."
Earnhardt said he was willing to push his Hendrick Motorsports teammate to the victory because their tandem did not seem to work as well when Earnhardt's car was in front and Johnson was doing the pushing.
"I was more comfortable pushing Jimmie. I think that way was the faster combination for us," Earnhardt said. "When we got to the white flag (indicating one lap to go), I got on the radio and told Jimmie not to lift, no matter what."
Johnson never did, and afterward he gave Earnhardt the checkered flag to thank him for his help in getting Johnson to Victory Lane.
"Junior was more worried about the team having a good performance than anything," Johnson said. "We worked together all day, and in the end he was responsible for this win. I can't thank him enough."
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