For the first time since July 7, 2007, Jamie McMurray found himself in the right place at the right time.
Jimmie Johnson, on the other hand, can't seem to put himself in a wrong position - even when he thinks he has.
McMurray was at the front of the field in Sunday's Amp Energy 500 at Talladega Superspeedway when the inevitable 'big one', a 13-car wreck off Turn 4, caused the sixth caution of the race and froze the running order with just more than one lap left. All McMurray had to do was complete the white flag lap to claim his first NASCAR Sprint Cup victory since he edged Kyle Busch by 0.005 seconds at Daytona in 2007.
Johnson, the series points leader, wallowed around in the back of the field for most of the afternoon, but a fortuitous stop for fuel under caution for Ryan Newman's unnerving crash on lap 185 helped him get to the finish line past a score of cars that either wrecked or ran out of gas.
Johnson leaves Talladega with a 184-point advantage over second-place Mark Martin, whose car hurtled through the air, flipped and slammed into the front-stretch wall during the final melee on an otherwise ho-hum day - thanks to a stern prerace warning against bump-drafting and push-drafting from NASCAR - that turned ugly in the closing laps at the 2.66-mile superspeedway.
Kasey Kahne overcame a start from the rear of the field because of an engine change to finish second. Rookie Joey Logano came home third. Because of the late caution for the wreck during which Newman's Chevrolet flip once end-over-end and land on its roof, the race went three laps beyond its scheduled distance of 188 laps, and McMurray was one of many drivers worried about running out of fuel.
“I saw the guys wreck behind me, and I didn't know if you had to take the white (flag) in order (to win the race) - I wasn't real sure what the rules were - and the 9 (Kahne) went to the outside because he saw the same issue, but I just moved up and kind of tried to block him,” said McMurray, who won the third Cup race of his career. “As soon as I crossed the start-finish line, I shut the engine off and pushed the clutch in and coasted around as far as I could.
“What an exciting day. It's been a long time since I've won, and I want to assure every fan out there that I appreciate this as much as anybody. So thanks to all my fans who have stuck with me. I just can't believe it's here again.”
As late as the final restart, which took place on lap 190 after a 12-minute, 34-second red-flag period for Newman's wreck, Johnson was resigned to a finish in the 20s, where he was running after pitting for fuel right before NASCAR threw the red flag.
“From where we were with the red flag to where we finished - I'm still in shock,” said Johnson, who can clinch his record fourth straight title by finishing tenth or better in the final three races in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. “I can't believe that it worked out. I can't believe that that many guys ran out of fuel and put themselves in that position. We almost stayed out.
“It was such a relief to finish and make up points. I do feel bad that the guys crashed coming to the finish, and we got wrecked cars. I was really concerned for Mark, because when I looked in the mirror I saw the 5 roof number tumbling and flipping and then it hit the outside fence. I hate to see things take place that way.
“So the crash part, yeah. But making up points on them, that's what we're here to do. I wish it would have been under fuel circumstances not under a crash, for sure. But we'll take them.”
For the record, McMurray's victory was the first for a Ford and the first for Roush Fenway Racing since Matt Kenseth won the first two races of the season. McMurray is looking for a ride for next season because of a NASCAR mandate that requires Roush Fenway to pare its roster from five teams to four.
by Reid Spencer / Sporting News