"I just chilled out and sat in their draft and as we came off of [turn] 4. Those two groups were occupied trying to side-draft each other and racing each other at the top ... We started rolling up on them, I shot down to the bottom, and we were able to surge by out of the tri-oval coming out of the bottom because they kind of left it open there. Just worked out."
With Talladega being one of those NASCAR tracks where crossing the bottom yellow line is forbidden, there was a brief question of whether Johnson's move to the bottom had gone too low and that his left wheels had dipped below the permissible track limit, but NASCAR reviewed it and found no transgression. It just left the small matter of who, exactly, had crossed the finish line first.
A photofinish coupled with electronic timing gave the win to Johnson, but he credited Dale with an equal role in the victory and tried to give him the chequered flag from the race, which Junior declined. The two had experimented early on in the race as to who would be in the lead to the finish: "After the last pit stop I was pushing him for while and we were getting disconnected pretty easily," Johnson explained. "And at that point, he [Dale] just said, hey, you need to lead, it works better with you leading. Chad and Stevie confirmed that our lap times were faster with the #48 in front of the #88 and we made a swap going into turn 1 and just kind of stayed that way from there on out."
Earnhardt was at peace with how it worked out: "If I couldn't win the race, I wanted Jimmie to win the race, because I had worked with him all day, and he's my teammate and I'm proud to be driving for Hendrick Motorsports," he said after being confirmed as finishing in fourth place.
Bowyer was gutted to have been beaten at the last after spending so much of the race up at the sharp end fighting for the lead. "The only thing that bums me out about that is those guys lagged back all day long," he said afterwards. "That's what makes it tough, losing to somebody that did that. We were up front for our sponsors and our team, digging all day long. When you get it taken from you at the end by somebody who lagged back all day, it's hard to take."
In fact, although they had preferred to run out of harm's way toward the rear of the field for most of the second half the race, Johnson had led 14 laps and Earnhardt 11. Their Hendricks team mates Gordon and Martin had opted for a consistent "6-10s behind the leaders" lag-behind strategy, and Gordon insisted that "It's not as easy as you think it is to manage that and to figure it out," explaining: "But let's be honest: in my opinion, Talladega has always been about a 15-, 25-lap race, and the rest is just trying to get to the end. And that's basically what we have now."
The number of lead changes in the end was 88, tying the record, while the margin of victory - 0.002s - equals Sprint Cup's closest-ever margin since electronic timing was introduced, the last time things were this close being when Ricky Craven beat Kurt Busch at Darlington in 2003. Talladega is renowned for its close finishes - all 29 green flag finishes here since 1993 have had a margin of victory of under 0.4s - but even more eye-catching was how the top eight
cars were covered by an interval of just 0.145s.
The win is Johnson's 54th Sprint Cup career victory and his second time in victory lane at Talladega, but only his first in the 2011 season after a 15-race winless streak (the second longest in his championship history). He's the seventh winner in the eight races so far this year - only Harvick has won more than once - and his win means that the last eight races at Talladega have all had different winners.
The win moves Johnson up two positions to second behind Carl Edwards in the Sprint Cup championship standings
, just ahead of his Talladega drafting partner Dale Earnhardt Jr. who moves up three spots to third. The biggest losers were Kyle Busch (down four spots to sixth) and Matt Kenseth (down five to eighth) after their mutual exits in the wreck on lap 140.
The next race is the Hansen 400 at Richmond International Raceway on April 30 in two weeks time, after a weekend off for Easter.
1. #48 Jimmie Johnson Chevrolet 188 laps Leader (47/1 pts)
2. #33 Clint Bowyer Chevrolet 188 laps + 0.002s (44/2 pts)
3. #24 Jeff Gordon Chevrolet 188 laps + 0.039s (42/1 pts)
4. #88 Dale Earnhardt Jr. Chevrolet 188 laps + 0.058s (41/1 pts)
5. #29 Kevin Harvick Chevrolet 188 laps + 0.064s (40/1 pts)
6. #99 Carl Edwards Ford 188 laps + 0.074s (39/1 pts)
7. #16 Greg Biffle Ford 188 laps + 0.130s (38/1 pts)
8. #5 Mark Martin Chevrolet 188 laps + 0.145s (37/1 pts)
9. #34 David Gilliland Ford 188 laps + 1.066s (35/0 pts)
10. #20 Joey Logano Toyota 188 laps + 1.123s (35/1 pts)
11. #43 A.J. Allmendinger Ford 188 laps + 1.274s (33/0 pts)
12. #27 Paul Menard Chevrolet 188 laps + 1.314s (33/1 pts)
13. #56 Martin Truex Jr. Toyota 188 laps + 1.376s (32/1 pts)
14. #00 David Reutimann Toyota 188 laps + 1.434s (30/0 pts)
15. #78 Regan Smith Chevrolet 188 laps + 1.449s (30/1 pts)
16. #31 Jeff Burton Chevrolet 188 laps + 1.570s (29/1 pts)
17. #14 Tony Stewart Chevrolet 188 laps + 2.103s (27/0 pts)
18. #22 Kurt Busch Dodge 188 laps + 2.116s (27/1 pts)
19. #71 Andy Lally * Ford 188 laps + 5.212s (25/0 pts)
20. #7 Robby Gordon Dodge 188 laps + 5.239s (24/0 pts)
21. #1 Jamie McMurray Chevrolet 188 laps + 5.269s (24/1 pts)
22. #13 Casey Mears Toyota 188 laps + 5.297s (23/1 pts)
23. #11 Denny Hamlin Toyota 188 laps + 9.033s (21/0 pts)
24. #47 Bobby Labonte Toyota 188 laps + 11.392s (21/1 pts)
25. #39 Ryan Newman Chevrolet 188 laps + 11.422s (20/1 pts)
26. #46 Bill Elliott Chevrolet 188 laps + 15.448s (18/0 pts)
27. #36 Dave Blaney Chevrolet 188 laps + 22.294s (18/1 pts)
28. #115 Michael Waltrip Toyota 187 laps + 1 lap (16/0 pts)
29. #38 Travis Kvapil Ford 184 laps + 4 laps (0pts)
30. #42 Juan Montoya Chevrolet 177 laps + 11 laps (14/0 pts)
31. #09 Landon Cassill Chevrolet 170 laps + 18 laps (0pts)
32. #9 Marcos Ambrose Ford 157 laps + 31 laps (13/1 pts)
33. #2 Brad Keselowski Dodge 154 laps + 34 laps (12/1 pts)
34. #32 Terry Labonte Ford 152 laps Engine (10/0 pts)
35. #18 Kyle Busch Toyota 144 laps Accident (10/1 pts)
36. #17 Matt Kenseth Ford 139 laps Accident (9/1 pts)
37. #4 Kasey Kahne Toyota 139 laps Running (8/1 pts)
38. #83 Brian Vickers Toyota 115 laps Running (6/0 pts)
39. #6 David Ragan Ford 89 laps Accident (6/1 pts)
40. #21 Trevor Bayne Ford 89 laps Accident (0pts)
41. #87 Joe Nemechek Toyota 5 laps Vibration (0pts)
42. #135 Steve Park Chevrolet 4 laps Electrical (0pts)
43. #97 Kevin Conway Toyota 1 laps Electrical (0pts)