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Having all four of your team's cars finish within a half-second of the lead usually amounts to a darn good day.
That was undoubtedly the case for Hendrick Motorsports on Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway, which had the winner (Jimmie Johnson), his loyal pusher (fourth-place Dale Earnhardt Jr.) and the third-place finisher (Jeff Gordon).
Other than Mark Martin becoming barely unhooked from Gordon's bumper at the last second and finishing eighth, it was a pretty stellar day for Hendrick Motorsports all the way around.
"We have a collective group of guys at Hendrick Motorsports that work on our superspeedway program, and they do a fantastic job of putting a very good product out there," winning crew chief Chad Knaus said. "...You know, we have been working a while to try to get to where we could get the drivers to really commit to one another and work together."
And they did on Sunday. The 1-3-4-8 finish gave Hendrick an average result of 4.0, which led the way among all the major teams of three or more cars.
Here's a look at the rest:
Richard Childress Racing (average finish: 8.75)
Sunday was a pretty decent day for Richard Childress Racing, as the team's ECR-powered cars once again showed how strong they are at restrictor-plate races.
But given how random circumstances and situations dictate the finishes, just the slightest bit of timing kept Childress' day from being great.
Clint Bowyer was second, the loser of what tied the closest finish in NASCAR history.
"That sucks!" Bowyer said. "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 (Johnson) has won enough."
Kevin Harvick was right behind Bowyer in fifth, though Paul Menard (12th) and Jeff Burton (16th) fell back a bit at the end of the race.
Roush Fenway Racing (average finish: 22.0)
Talladega was a split decision for Roush Fenway Racing: Two cars finished in the top 10 and two cars finished outside the top 35.
The drafting tandem of Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle made it four-wide at the finish on the very outside lane, but their charge came just a bit too late. As a result, points leader Edwards finished sixth and Biffle was seventh.
The news wasn't as good for Matt Kenseth (36th) and David Ragan (38th). Both drivers were caught up in accidents – Ragan's may have started with an engine failure – and thus had disappointing results.
Joe Gibbs Racing (average finish: 22.7)
After eight races – with nearly a quarter of the NASCAR season gone – Joe Gibbs Racing's struggles are still a head-scratcher.
Bad luck seemed to be the problem again on Sunday. Joey Logano accidentally spun teammate Kyle Busch, who wrecked and finished 35th. The same incident also got Denny Hamlin out of shape, and Hamlin eventually finished 23rd – another lackluster result for last year's Chase runnerup.
Logano, who has struggled to put together a good finish all year, was the team's top performer on Sunday. He finished 10th.
Is this team's luck going to change? Or is it perhaps just not JGR's year?
Being part of the eight-car cluster at the Talladega Superspeedway finish line on Sunday paid big dividends in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series point standings, with several drivers gaining two or more spots.
The results of the Talladega race left Kevin Harvick as the week's big winner – despite a fifth-place finish – as he jumped five spots in the standings. Harvick, who has already won two races this season, is now fourth in points.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. also made a nice gain (moving from sixth to third in the standings), while race winner Jimmie Johnson and runnerup Clint Bowyer gained two spots apiece.
Carl Edwards, who was also part of the finish-line cluster, remained the points leader for the second consecutive week.
It was also a good day for Joey Logano, whose 10th-place result moved him up four spots to 24th. But Brad Keselowski and Matt Kenseth had a race they'd like to forget – their finishes dropped them five spots each.
Here are the updated NASCAR Sprint Cup Series point standings after Talladega:
Some fans felt Jimmie Johnson passed below the yellow line en route to his victory at Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday, which would make his winning move illegal.
Before you watch the replay below, keep this in mind: Johnson would have had to not only go below the line, but improve his position (make a pass) while he was down there.
Check out the replay, then decide:
Before every race at Daytona and Talladega, drivers are warned: Do not pass below the yellow line. So did Johnson pass Martin while he was down there? What do you think?
After the race, Johnson said he hadn't seen a replay yet and had no idea whether he was below the line or not – he was watching the cars to his right in order not to cause a wreck.
Officially, NASCAR senior vice president Steve O'Donnell tweeted that Johnson's move was legal.
@odsteve: Great finish, we don't see any evidence of 48 gaining a position below yellow-sorry if you disagree
Said Johnson: "I don't know where my left-side tires were, but I've heard that a statement has been released and everything is cool. So I'm glad I'm not sitting here having to worry about that."
Dave Blaney's hands were still shaking 15 minutes after the race, his mouth occasionally giving the hint of a quiver after what had to be one of his greatest days at Talladega Superspeedway – but also one of the most disappointing at the same time.
One can only imagine the range of emotions flowing through Blaney after finishing 27th in the Aaron's 499, despite leading as late as five laps to go.
It all went south when his drafting partner Kurt Busch gave an ill-timed bump, sending Blaney spinning as the race stayed green.
"It's just disappointing when you could have accomplished something pretty nice," Blaney said. "You had the car to do it, in position to do it – and just didn't make it at the end. So that's disappointing."
Blaney said all the team could take from it was "a morale booster." Just minutes earlier, even a top-10 finish would have seemed like a letdown from where he was running.
And now this: 27th place.
"It was just the wrong spot, and (Busch) just had me going and around we went," Blaney said. "That is what is going to happen late in the race. I can't believe it didn't happen more. You just get such huge runs, it shoves you in there and if there is nowhere to go, you're in danger of getting turned around."
Busch apologized for being a part of so many wrecks – he spun three different drivers on Sunday – but that won't help Tommy Baldwin Racing very much.
"I've been doing it so long, it is what it is," team owner Baldwin said. "We showed everybody we're capable of doing this, and that's the encouraging thing. This speedway stuff is not easy, and we showed we belong in this series today."
The lack of much-needed points will continue to sting, though. Because Andy Lally finished 19th, Baldwin's No. 36 car actually lost ground in its quest to get back into the top 35 in owner points.
If the team had been 36th heading into Richmond – ahead of Lally and the TRG Motorsports car – Baldwin's team would have been in the show because the Wood Brothers are skipping the next three races. Instead, the No. 36 car is nine points behind the No. 71.
"Now we've got to qualify," Baldwin said, smacking his hip and gesturing in frustration. "We run up front all day, and (Lally) runs in the back and beats us. That's the most aggravating thing out of it all. But we showed the world today we can run, so I'm happy about that."
In the future, though, Baldwin said he hoped Blaney's good runs at both Talladega and Daytona would assure the team drafting partners. TBR builds all of its own cars and gets engines from Earnhardt Childress Racing Technologies.
Blaney said he hoped he'd reflect on his race as "a really nice accomplishment for a little team."
But, he added with a laugh, "I don't know how I'll feel about it tomorrow."
Standing on pit road at Talladega Superspeedway after the latest in his string of good finishes, Dale Earnhardt Jr. saw Jimmie Johnson driving toward him, about to make the turn to Victory Lane.
Earnhardt Jr. bolted from a pack of reporters and jogged toward Johnson's car, then did a celebratory juke move as he approached the driver's side window.
He leaned into the car and shook Johnson's hand, and the winning driver handed the fourth-place driver the checkered flag.
"Man, I don't want that," Earnhardt Jr. said.
"Well, I gotta give you something for the push and working with me!" Johnson replied.
"No, that's what teammates do," Earnhardt Jr. said.
"Just take the damn flag," Johnson said, laughing.
Earnhardt Jr. took it reluctantly – but happily – and said though he didn't agree he deserved it, he'd find a place for it in his trophy case.
"I appreciate it and I'll get him to sign it," Earnhardt Jr. said. "It'll be the one checkered flag I got that ain't mine."
Johnson was pushed to the finish line – in what tied the closest finish in NASCAR history – by a teammate who Johnson said "was committed – as was I."
"It could have gone either way if we were single file," Johnson added, "but the way the race unfolded, the leader had the spot. And he pushed me to victory."
Earnhardt Jr., who had been a critic of the two-car draft style of racing, said working with Johnson all day "actually made the race tolerable and actually somewhat fun at times."
He had decided to be completely committed to Johnson – his teammate in Hendrick Motorsports' 48/88 shop – after the Nationwide Series race on Saturday.
In that event, Earnhardt Jr. had separated from JR Motorsports teammate Aric Almirola at the end – and had a less-than-satisfactory finish because of it.
"We all had commitment phobia – nobody really wanted to go all the way," Earnhardt Jr. said. "So I told (Johnson) today, 'We gotta stay committed no matter what happens. Every lap. Every restart.' And it worked out."
Earnhardt Jr. credited Johnson with picking all the correct lines at the end of the race, and the No. 88 driver just followed and pushed Johnson all the way.
"I was screaming on the radio for him not to lift no matter what," Earnhardt Jr. said. "(Spotter) T.J. (Majors) was screaming and Jimmie was screaming.
"(Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin) tried to squeeze us down, and I got into the side of Mark real hard and it turned us sideways, and I thought we were going to have a hell of a wreck. But I was able to save it somehow and had enough energy to push Jimmie to the win."
Of course, Earnhardt Jr. said he would have preferred to win himself – it's been 101 races without a victory now – but he was still pleased with the points. His fourth-place result moved him up three spots to third place in the standings.
"I would have loved to have won the race, but in this kind of package, you have to make some sacrifices," Earnhardt Jr. said, then added with a laugh: "Just like a relationship."
Talk about your great finishes: Jimmie Johnson got a push from Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the last lap of the Aaron's 499 to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Talladega Superspeedway by the thinnest margin in NASCAR history since the advent of electronic timing.
Johnson used Earnhardt's push to edge just in front of Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon at the finish line, and took the checkered flag by .002 seconds, or two thousandths of a second. It's the narrowest margin of victory in NASCAR history, tying Ricky Craven's win over Kurt Busch at Darlington in 2003.
That win clearly means something to both drivers, given what Johnson did after Earnhardt came to see him on the way to Victory Road:
And when Dale Earnhardt Jr. leaned in to congratulate him, @JimmieJohnson gave him winning checkered flag @TalladegaSuperS #NASCAR
Full results from the Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway are as follows:
Time to chat! Let's all talk about the Talladega Superspeedway race together.
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What do you think of the two-car drafts? Will there be a "Big One?" Who will win?
Let's talk about those topics and more...now!
It's NASCAR race day at Talladega Superspeedway, and we've got the actual race start time, the starting lineup and some other facts about the Aaron's 499 race for you below.
Start time: The command to start engines will be given by national championship college football coach Gene Chizik (Auburn) at 1:08 p.m. Eastern time (12:08 local). That might be interesting, since the 'Dega stands will have many Alabama fans as well as Auburn fans. The actual start time of the race will be 1:20 p.m. Eastern. So if you want to skip the pre-race show and just tune in for the race itself, turn on your TV set at 1:20. Waving the green flag today is the winner of an Aaron's contest.
Race name/distance: The race is called the Aaron's 499 because the furniture rental chain offers some deals for $99 a month. Get it? "For" "99?" Actually, though, the race isn't 499 miles. It's 188 laps around the 2.66-mile track, which is 500.8 miles. But who's counting?
TV and radio: As for all of the races through May, FOX is televising the Aaron's 499. The radio broadcast can be found on your local Motor Racing Network (MRN) affiliate. Click here to see a list of MRN stations where you can listen.
National anthem: Someone named Ashton Sheppard is singing the anthem today. We're not familiar with Ashton, but Google tells us she's a country music singer.
Last time: In an amazing race that will be hard to top, Kevin Harvick beat Jamie McMurray to the line in last year's Aaron's 499. The race featured the all-time NASCAR records for both lead changes and different leaders. Last fall, Clint Bowyer beat Harvick in a Talladega race that ended under caution.
Starting lineup for today's Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway:
Just when you think Talladega Superspeedway's lottery-ball nature is sure to yield a surprise winner, here's Kyle Busch.
Busch won the Aaron's 312 under caution on Saturday afternoon, leading the pack with a push from Joey Logano as Mike Wallace flipped into the air to bring out a yellow on the white-flag lap of a green-white-checkered finish.
After getting hit and spun late in the race during a big crash, Busch somehow still rallied for a win – his fourth of the season already.
"Look at the thing!" Busch said incredulously in Victory Lane. "I got hit like three times on the left side. I thought it was killed!"
Added crew chief Jason Ratcliff: "It's the ugliest car we've ever had in Victory Lane. And it came in a restrictor-plate race."
Finishing under caution was an anti-climactic ending to a crazy race, which saw more of the two-car drafts that have recently become prevalent at NASCAR's restrictor-plate tracks.
Busch's winning move came via a bold pass through a narrow corridor of cars.
"I saw daylight," Busch said. "Somehow we made it through there. I didn't think it was wide enough for a car to fit through, but I made it wide enough for car to fit through. I closed my eyes, held my foot to the floor and prayed for the best."
Logano finished second, followed by the tandem of underdog Joe Nemechek and pusher Brad Keselowski, who showed the veteran plenty of respect.
"How about that for a small team?" said Nemechek, who has just four employees. "It was a cool race."
Elliott Sadler finished fifth, with Trevor Bayne, Justin Allgaier, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Reed Sorenson and Aric Almirola rounding out the top 10.
The race ended on the second green-white-checkered finish after the first attempt didn't last long.
A trio of Turner Motorsports cars were collected on an ill-timed bump, with Jason Leffler, James Buescher and Sorenson all involved.
Leffler, despite a 15th-place finish, took over the points lead.
There were a race-record 36 lead changes in Saturday's race.
Here are the full results for Saturday's Aaron's 312 at Talladega Superspeedway:
Apparently, Hendrick Motorsports has this whole restrictor-plate qualifying thing figured out.
At the first plate race since Hendrick swept the front row for the Daytona 500, Hendrick took all four of the top spots at Talladega Superspeedway on Saturday, resulting in a pole for Jeff Gordon.
Gordon (178.248 mph) led the way, followed by Jimmie Johnson (177.844), Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
The pole was the 70th of Gordon's career, which moved him past Cale Yarborough for third on the all-time pole winners list.
"We knew our cars were good in practice yesterday," Johnson said. "It's good to see it show up on the scoring pylon today."
Talladega qualifying has long been known as one of the least important exercises in NASCAR – the starting positions at 'Dega have little bearing on the race – but Hendrick's qualifying dominance showed they have a good package, at the very least.
"Restrictor-plate qualifying is kind of fickle," Martin said. "I don't think you ever know until you get the lap in...but we're certainly pleased with that. I'm honestly, once again, humbled to be part of Hendrick Motorsports."
It was only the third time in NASCAR history that a team has swept all four of the top spots – Roush Fenway Racing most recently did it in 2005 at Fontana. Pete DePaolo also did it in 1956 at Charlotte, according to NASCAR.
Here's the starting lineup for Sunday's Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway:
Think about this, if you will: If Janet Jackson had never shown her boobies at the Super Bowl, would Dale Earnhardt Jr. be a Sprint Cup Series champion?
"Come again?" Earnhardt Jr. said Saturday. "Did you say, 'boobies?'"
Bear with me for just a second – or "bare," if you're Janet Jackson – before you dismiss the connection.
During halftime of the 2004 Super Bowl, Jackson infamously flashed one of her breasts at America – and the world. Ultimately, it prompted an over-reaction from NASCAR to show stock-car racing was a family-friendly sport, and NASCAR President Mike Helton warned drivers at the start of the 2004 racing season to watch their language (among other things).
Earnhardt Jr. didn't watch his language, though, after he won the 2004 Chase race at Talladega – taking over the points lead at the time – and was docked 25 points for saying the word "shit" in a Victory Lane interview.
"It don't mean shit right now – Daddy's won here 10 times!" Earnhardt Jr. said in a moment of exuberance when asked about where his win stacked up in his family's 'Dega history.
NASCAR's penalty knocked Earnhardt Jr. from the points lead, and he never led again. He ultimately finished fifth in the Chase that year, ending up 138 points behind champ Kurt Busch.
So that was my question: Did Earnhardt Jr. ever wonder if things would have gone differently had Jackson not shown her boobies on international television?
"Hell naw, man!" Earnhardt Jr. said, laughing. "That's a hell of a..."
...Stretch. Yeah, I know.
"I might have beat Mark Martin for position for points that year, that's about it," he said. "We sucked at Homestead and weren't going to be able to battle whoever won the championship that year. But me and Mark battled it out that day, for fourth in points."
Still, you never know. With two races to go that year, Earnhardt Jr. was behind by 47 points and trailed by just 72 heading into Homestead. Would things have been different if he'd had a fighting chance that day?
Anyway, it was clear Earnhardt Jr. had no ill will toward Jackson or her boobies – but there was something he was pissed about: The two-car drafts at Talladega.
During his media session on Saturday morning, he called the two-car drafts "silly," "strange," "a mess" and "crap."
"Everybody thinks it's cool now, because it's neat and everybody's like, 'Look what's going on,'" Earnhardt Jr. said. "Everybody's getting a big kick out of it. But over the long haul, man, it's not the best. It's not as good as 40 dudes in one pack racing like hell trying to get to the front. It's not anywhere as good as that! Give me that any day over this.
Earnhardt Jr. said when the novelty of the two-car drafts wear off, everyone will long for the big pack racing (and, by the way, I'm not so sure people aren't longing for it already). NASCAR's most popular driver said he didn't know how to change it, but said he wished someone would.
"I think NASCAR is doing what they think is right," he said. "I don't want to say what they're doing is wrong, because I don't know. I don't know whether I'm right or wrong. I just know what I prefer, what I like. It's my opinion. I'm entitled to one, everybody's got one."
Remember last week when Carl Edwards blamed his mom's cooking for his upset stomach at Texas Motor Speedway? On Friday at Talladega, Edwards told reporters he actually blamed his mother incorrectly.
As it turned out, his motorhome drivers ate the same food without having any stomach problems – and called Edwards' mother, Nancy Sterling, to tell her so.
"They called my mom and said, 'We ate the rest of that food and we're fine, so it wasn't your food,'' Edwards said. "So I had to apologize to Mom."
Edwards said his mother took the whole thing in stride, though.
"She thought it was pretty funny," he said. "She won't have to cook for anybody anytime soon. She's been offering everywhere she goes to cook for people and it's funny because they're like, 'No, that's OK.'"
Given the quality of the media center food at some tracks, though, Edwards' mother might be invited by reporters to cook for them at some point during the season.
I've never won a race. Odds are most of you reading this haven't either.
Sure, maybe you've beaten your buddies while go-karting or playing a racing video game. But have you ever wondered what it would be like to win a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race?
I asked Tony Stewart that question at Talladega Superspeedway on Friday. Here's what he said:
Your adrenaline is pumping the whole race. That's why guys, an hour after the race, are just tired – over it for the day. But especially at a place like this where the last lap, you don't know you've got it won until you get there...that anticipation is building and building, and the reason it's so suspenseful is you don't know until you get to the line whether you've got it or don't have it.
There's times when you win races and you've had a comfortable lead the last couple laps, and your heart rate is down because you're not being pressured. Here, you don't have that luxury. You're pressured all the way to the line and you don't know until you get there whether you've got it. You know how far you are away from it, so the anticipation keeps building.
So can Stewart remember everything about the finish of a race he wins, or is it all a blur?
You remember. You don't remember anything about the early part of the race, you remember the end that got you there and won you the race. It may be only a 100-foot section, but you remember all 100 feet and the move that got you to the line.
The rest of Stewart's interview session wasn't as cordial, but the feisty driver seemed to be in a good mood overall and was fastest in the lone Sprint Cup Series practice on Friday.
Could a win be in store for Stewart on Sunday?
The most races Jimmie Johnson has ever gone in his Sprint Cup Series career without winning a race is 19. But do you remember the last time Johnson won?
The answer was at Dover in last year's Chase. His mini-"slump" means Johnson has now gone 15 races without winning, which is tied for the second-longest drought of his career.
Johnson, though, said he's hardly worried that he has yet to win in 2011.
"I'm sure the question will be asked, and it's already swirling a little bit, but we're only six races into the season," he said. "I took that big trophy home at the end of last year, so I'm not too concerned."
This is Johnson's 10th full season in NASCAR, and there have been only three occasions where his first win of the year came later than the sixth race: 2002, 2003 and 2008.
Actually, make that four: 2011.
"I feel like we've been knocking on the door," he said. "We've had three real opportunities to win and made some mistakes. I'm responsible for two of the mistakes – one at Martinsville and one at California. Looking back, I could have done things a little differently to keep Kevin (Harvick) behind me at California."
But Johnson said he firmly believed that as long as he continued to run in the top five, "you're going to have your fair share of wins."
He also said his drought – which is tiny by the standards of most every other driver – shows how difficult it is to win in the Sprint Cup Series.
"We preach it all the time, how difficult it is to win races and championships," he said. "I don't know if people wanted to believe me, especially when we were on our roll. It is very, very tough to do. This year is proof of that to an even further extent."
NASCAR is on track beginning today at Talladega Superspeedway, starting with a Nationwide Series practice this afternoon.
If you're coming out to the track or just planning to watch practices or qualifying on TV, here's the full weekend schedule for Talladega (all times are Eastern; the track is on Central time):
4 p.m. – Nationwide Series practice (45 minutes)
5 p.m. – Nationwide Series final practice (1 hour)
12:10 p.m. – Nationwide Series qualifying
2 p.m. – Sprint Cup Series practice (45 minutes)
3:30 p.m. – Sprint Cup Series final practice (1 hour)
11:35 a.m. – Sprint Cup Series qualifying
3 p.m. – Nationwide Series race (117 laps, 311.22 miles)
1 p.m. – Sprint Cup Series race (188 laps, 500.08 miles)
(Note: ARCA is also having an event at Talladega, though the practice/qualifying times are not listed above. The ARCA race is Friday evening at 5 p.m. Eastern).
Someday, when the still-fresh track surfaces at Talladega Superspeedway and Daytona International Speedway begin to wear out and lose grip, pack racing will likely return to the restrictor-plate tracks.
Until then, it stands to reason that most plate races will look a lot like this year's Daytona 500 – two-car tandems hooking up and racing around the track like two dragonflies doin' it.
Since the Daytona 500 turned out to be pretty damn exciting, that's not such a bad thing. Sure, fans will miss the huge packs racing around together – but the two-car drafts bring a new element to the strategy of racing that has never been seen before.
It's synchronized racing at 200 mph. One spotter, two drivers, tons of negotiating and record-breaking numbers of lead changes.
Who will win this weekend at Talladega? If you know that, you might as well play the lottery.
It's anyone's guess what will happen in Sunday's Aaron's 499. And really, it could be a lot worse.
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