NASCAR’s championship battle got tighter after Sunday’s 500-mile race at the Talladega superspeedway. Talladega is NASCAR’s biggest and fastest track but restrictor plates make any race at the Alabama circuit a lottery. Most NASCAR drivers hate the power-choked restrictor plate races there and at Daytona. They hope only to survive any multi-car shunts that inevitably occur as the cars run around in huge clumps as everyone plays a cagey game, trying to find a drafting partner to work their way to the front in the closing laps.
Winner Clint Bowyer hooked up with Juan Pablo Montoya at Talladega to do exactly that in the final laps, while Montoya lost second on the last lap to year-long championship contender Kevin Harvick. So Bowyer and Harvick scored a one-two sweep for Richard Childress’s Chevrolet team, and Harvick closed to within 38 points of Jimmie Johnson. The four-time champion finished seventh at Talladega, two places ahead of leading title rival Denny Hamlin, who is now 14 points behind Johnson with three races to go.
Johnson and team-mate Jeff Gordon were able to work together to draft their way from the midfield to the front before fading in the final laps. Still, Johnson was as relieved as anyone afterwards. “It went really well,” he said. “Our strategy played out. Jeff and I were planning on that all day. You just need a guy you can trust because you can’t see out the windshield when you’re pushing somebody like that. You need someone who knows how to use their brakes correctly to stay at the front.
“Maybe we got to the front a little early but I felt like we were both smart enough to hang onto it, and then Jeff thought his engine was blowing up and pulled out of the way so he wouldn’t screw up my effort. At the end on the final restart every other car abandoned the No77 [Sam Hornish] and myself and we lost our momentum. I got a great push from the No56 [Martin Truex Jr] but a couple of other guys tried to block me and got me disconnected from the guy pushing. But, all in all, it was a decent day. I wish we could have finished a little better, but we’ll take it.”
Denny Hamlin came back from losing a lap to finish ninth at Talladega. “It’s hard not to be happy with our day because nobody really gained or lost and that’s what I wanted,” he said. “I didn’t want anyone to get killed in the championship by this race. I wish I could have raced a bit more aggressively and had a bit better show, but with this [restrictor plate] format you just can’t do that. You’ve got to play it safe and that’s what we had to do today.
“We got a solid finish but I hate saying that,” Hamlin added. “I got in trouble early in the race because we were just being too lazy back there and not paying attention to what I needed to do.”
With Talladega behind him Hamlin is looking forward to the three remaining unrestricted races on successive weekends at Texas, Phoenix and the Homestead-Miami Speedway. “I like that the championship is now going to be decided on three race tracks that the drivers and the teams can control,” Hamlin said. “Let the best man win.”