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Johnson wins at Talladega - by 0.002s

Racing came to another yellow on lap 163 for further debris out on track, and the timing meant all the drivers and teams needed to think hard about what to do - stay out, come in, two tyres, four, fuel or risk running to the end? It was make or break time. The top ten leaders stayed out, with Kurt Busch in 11th the highest-placed driver to come in. Jimmie Johnson had been hanging well down the running order with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and opted to come in for four tyres; Hendrick drafting partners Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon were also in, for fuel and tyres respectively.

A touch of karma possibly played a part at the restart, as Harvick paid for his abandoning of Blaney at the last caution with a slow getaway: it was a result of a miscommunication that saw Bowyer and Burton team up and take the lead, and Menard feeling like he'd been left all alone took up with Regan Smith which left Harvick out in the cold.

But on lap 170 all eyes were on Ryan Newman, who had been bumped from behind by drafting partner Denny Hamlin, got loose and slammed into Juan Montoya between turns 3 and 4. Somehow both drivers saved their cars and seemed able to carry on, but three laps later Newman lost it again and went for a spin down the backstretch, this time loitering to bring out the sixth caution of the afternoon and packing the field right back together again for a final 11-race sprint to the chequered flag. Sadly it would be without Montoya, whose damage was just too extensive to allow him to continue - the right side of the car was now extensively torn up after the right front tyre had finally burst following the earlier collision, and a one-way trip to the garage was inevitable.

The short hiatus gave the drivers the chance to get on the radio and make their final plans. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was on to Jimmie Johnson warning him that "I'm going to push you like hell, no matter what," and Johnson simply replied: "Ten-four, man, let's do it."

The green was out on lap 177 (and whaddaya know, none other than Dave Blaney was there to lead the field to the restart!) and the pairing of Harvick and Bowyer took to the front - no confusion this time around, but then there was no room for them to mess it up as the four Hendrick Motorsports cars that had dominated qualifying were now gathering for the big finish, and preparing to exercise their muscles.

Dave Blaney refused to go away, however, and took the lead again on lap 180. Unfortunately his new drafting partner was none other than Kurt Busch, and anyone who had been following Kurt's impact on the race today thus far couldn't help but hear the "Omen" theme pipe up as soon as he appeared on Blaney's bumper. Sure enough his mere proximity was enough to send Blaney spinning out on lap 185. Blaney saved the car and didn't hit anything, but he'd fallen well out of the pack and had no chance of getting anywhere near the front now that he had fallen completely out of the draft.

"I feel bad for wrecking a bunch of cars, especially my team-mate Brad," a sheepish Kurt said of his race afterwards, admitting: "Restrictor plate racing and this two-car draft is really tough and I was in the middle of a bunch of incidents." Yes, Kurt - funny how they all seemed to happen around you like that, wasn't it?

That left Edwards/Biffle duelling with Bowyer/Hendrick for the win with two to do; next time around it was the white flag - one to go - and Gordon/Martin were in front, with Johnson/Earnhardt now charging for the front after having been briefly pulled apart for practically the first time for the whole race two laps earlier, after Dale started to suffer from rising temperatures and needed to break-out for clean air.

Less than 60s later it was all over, although no one could be entirely sure who in fact had won as three cars (Johnson, Bowyer and Gordon) seemed to the naked eye to have crossed the finish line virtually simultaneously. Even those in the thick of it couldn't be sure: "Man, it was close enough this time," said Bowyer. "Sometimes you really can't tell, but I had no clue."

So what, exactly, happened in that final lap?

"Before we knew it, we found ourselves in third after we took the white and a decent gap from us to the leaders," explained Johnson. "They got side-by-side, which allowed us to really close up and as we went into turn 3, I had a big run, and was thinking about the bottom, and the #5 and #24 defended that, and then I kind of wandered to the middle and didn't have an option then.




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