18 April 2011
Johnson wins at Talladega - by 0.002s
Drafting strategies and picking the right partner were the focus of racing at Talladega, which delivered another of Sprint Cup's all-time close finishes for Jimmie Johnson - thanks to his drafting partner Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Friday saw violent storms pass through Alabama and left NASCAR drivers, staff and media taking shelter from tornado warnings, but at 1.22pm local time on Sunday the weather was bright and the only storms anyone could see on the horizon were the inevitable wrecks and fall-outs to come on the 2.66 mile Talladega Superspeedway.
Polesitter Jeff Gordon led Jimmie Johnson and the rest of the field to the green flag start, while the rear of the field was brought up by Trevor Bayne, Greg Biffle, Bill Elliott and Robby Gordon all of whom were sent to the back for post-qualifying adjustments to their cars (and in Robby Gordon's case, he had not even made it to Talladega for qualifying because of the storms in the area and needed Sam Hornish Jr. to fill in for him on Saturday.)
With Hendrick Motorsports forming the top four positions at the start, it was no surprise to see them choosing their drafting partners and getting ready to control the race right from the start. Jeff Gordon held the lead with support from Mark Martin, while Jimmie Johnson settled in with Dale Earnhardt Jr as his backer. Other partnerships shaping up included Clint Bowyer with Michael Waltrip, Landon Cassill with Kurt Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing duo Kyle Busch and Joey Logano, Kasey Kahne with Brian Vickers.
Inevitably there were glitches during in the bedding-in period. Bowyer briefly took the lead on lap 5 but then fell back slightly when Waltrip got loose; Gordon was struggling with a plastic bag that had splayed itself across his engine air-intake and immediately threatened to cause overheating problems. Drafting partners shot through out of nowhere to claim the lead - Ryan Newman (with Denny Hamlin) on lap 10 promptly usurped at the front by Brad Keselowski; Kurt Busch had his turn in front on lap 13, then Jimmie Johnson on lap 14 after he and Earnhardt had initially appeared to be heading for the midfield, dropping back to 15th and 16th spots respectively.
But few drafting pairs could hold on for long - as soon as they had to switch around to relieve overheating problems in the pushing car, both cars would lose momentum and fall back. The most consistent pairing in terms of holding the lead during these early laps was undoubtedly Bowyer and Waltrip, but even so there were eight lead changes and six different leaders inside the first 20 laps.
David Ragan and Paul Menard started to feature over the next ten laps as they battled with Kyle Busch and Joey Logano, but Kyle's brother Kurt was equally determined to lead from the front with the help of Landon Cassill. Unfortunately on lap 28 this latter partnership broke down when Kurt gave Landon such a bump that the #09 got loose and slammed into Brian Vickers who went out of control, spun down the front straightaway and then hit the wall hard. Amazingly only Matt Kenseth was caught up in the aftermath, his rear bumper grazed by a light brush from Vickers. The unfortunate Cassill survived the incident but then got a penalty for pitting too soon, and was sent to the rear of the field.
Bowyer and Waltrip led after the ensuing pit stops under caution, and led the field to green at the restart on lap 31. Bowyer, however, was changing dance partner: his team mate Jeff Burton was now in a good position nearby and so Bowyer switched to him and left Waltrip to plummet back down through the field without anyone to draft with. David Ragan had also now switched, abandoning Paul Menard and now pushing Matt Kenseth to the lead - showing that the light contact sustained in the previous caution hadn't affected the #17's handling one bit. The jilted Menard was more fortunate than Waltrip and quickly hooked up with David Ragan, in an arrangement that saw Menard himself briefly lead on lap 45.
Bowyer and Burton were proving to be the most consistent front-runners, but others came and went: Brad Keselowski had taken up with Kurt Busch now that Landon Cassill was running out of position, but it was Dale Earnhardt Jr. who inevitably got the biggest cheer from the 115,000 crowd as he took the lead with Jimmie Johnson's help and the two briefly stretched out a surprisingly large lead before once again the race ebbed and flowed and they were caught up by the pack once more.
Having both started at the back of the pack, Greg Biffle and rookie Trevor Bayne had forged a surprisingly effective marriage of convenience, and Bayne was certainly demonstrating a knack for restrictor plate racing that proved his shock Daytona 500 win was no mere fluke by leading on lap 59, but the switchover between the two cars inevitably resulted in them falling back again immediately afterwards, although they continued to do battle for the lead with Earnhardt/Johnson and Bowyer/Burton through to the start of green flag pit stops on lap 69.
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