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Johnson wins at Talladega - by 0.002s

Earnhardt and Johnson got the best boost from the pit stops and raced off into an impressively enduring lead, while their Hendrick team mates Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin were less fortunate and slumped way back having gone for oddly different strategies (Martin taking two tyres only, Gordon going for four and a ton of fuel) which made it harder to work together and co-ordinate properly. Earnhardt and Johnson were finally caught by Ryan Newman, who had picked up an effective new drafting partner in the surprising shape of Kyle Busch, and the four of them were competing for the front spot when the second caution of the afternoon came out on lap 90

Once again Kurt Busch was involved, although the root cause was David Ragan's engine blowing. His initial slowing-up had caused problems for those behind him as they reacted, which resulted in Kurt bumping into the back of his latest drafting partner Brad Keselowski, who then got loose and collected the cars of Bayne, Ambrose and Kahne in the ensuring wreck: Kahne was the most seriously damaged, the #4 catching fire as he tried to navigate it back to pit road, forcing Kasey to bail out and leave it to the fire crew to take care of. Burton had suffered less serious damage, while even Johnson and Earnhardt had ended up causing light damage to one another in the aftermath because of their close drafting. But it was most definitely the end of Talladega for the Daytona winner Trevor Bayne.

"That was one of the harder hits I've taken," admitted Bayne afterwards. "I just saw the #2 [Keselowski] get hooked at the same time the #6 [Ragan] was on fire. He [Keselowski] goes across the track, I saw him hit the outside wall, but then I don't know who caught us in the right rear and sent us. But I thought we were safe. I was like, 'Man, that was close,' and about the time I said that I was headed toward the outside wall. So not a fun ride."

Ironically it was Kurt - the driver who had dispatched two drafting partners already today - who inherited the lead after track went green again after pit stops. He had to rely on surprising family loyalty to pick up a new victim, sorry, drafting partner in the shape of the #18 of Kyle Busch, but this was a period of rapid changes at the front: Dave Blaney led lap 100, then Carl Edwards was back in front, then Kurt was briefly back in the lead before Clint Bowyer surged past for a lap. But each time they were bested, the unlikely pairing of the Busch Brothers seemed equal to the challenge until at last Regan Smith (working with Bobby Labonte) and Clint Bowyer (still with Burton) got a grip - and then remarkably Dave Blaney worked his way into the lead with help from Kevin Harvick, meaning that as the race passed lap 120 we'd seen 58 lead changes at an event where the record stands at 88 set here at this even in April 2010. Blaney led for four laps laps during that sequence, which is not bad considering he's only led five laps in total in Sprint Cup events before this.

A bungled switchover in position between Blaney and Harvick saw Kurt Busch take to the front again, and then the third caution of the afternoon was out on lap 128 for debris that seemed to have dropped off Clint Bowyer's car. Paul Menard and Regan Smith were teamed up to take the lead at the restart, and Dave Blaney made another appearance at the front for two laps leading drafting partner Kevin Harvick to quip "I'm going to have nightmares about kids eating free," referring to an advertising offer by Blaney's sponsor Golden Corral should the #36 manage to pull off the upset win of the century.

But racing was abruptly at an end with the fourth caution for a multiple car wreck. After the previous Joey Logano had got on the radio with a "Yo Kyle, it's Joey, what's going on up there?" to which Kyle had responded: "I say we find each other again. Like yesterday. See if you can't hammer down and get back to me. In this situation it doesn't matter when we hook up, just that we hook up. It's still early in the race."

To say that this suggestion proved a less-than-great idea was an understatement: on lap 140, Logano promptly misjudged his drafting and managed to spin his JGR team mate down the backstraight, sending the #18 hard into the side of Matt Kenseth. AJ Allmendinger spun trying to avoid the accident, but kept it off the wall and avoided hitting anyone else in the process, while Denny Hamlin also sustained light damage but was able to carry on.

However, it was the end for two drivers who came into Talladega second and third in the points. The pit crew had an idea to repair Kyle's radiator and get him out if only to help someone else with drafting; and Kyle had learned just the previous day that a "never say die" attitude can reap rewards, after his Nationwide Series car held together by duct tape and prayers managed to win the race at the last gasp. But there would be no such resurrection from the dead for the #18 today and he joined Kenseth in retirement.

At the restart on lap 144 the race had 44 laps to go. The big loser after this most recent round of pit stops was, ironically, Dave Blaney: perhaps Harvick had been serious about getting nightmares about that free food for kids, because he dropped the #36 as soon as it was clear that the four Richard Childress Racing cars (Harvick, Menard, Bowyer and Burton) were all lined up in the top four spots for the restart and in perfect position to act as a team to dominate the remainder of the race.

Bowyer rewarded Harvick by shoving him into the lead at the restart, the 70th lead change of the afternoon. Martin Truex Jr. briefly intervened in the RCR lock-out before going for a wild ride down the inside apron leaving Jeff Burton to take the lead, while a bigger threat was brewing to the foursome in the shape of a Jamie McMurray/Juan Montoya pairing. And incredibly, Dave Blaney wasn't done yet either - finding a new partner in the form of Regan Smith, he led a couple more laps before RCR once again packed out the top four with Clint Bowyer taking the team lead.




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