Jamie McMurray, breaking a three-year winless streak (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Jamie McMurray came from seemingly out of nowhere in the final miles to win a remarkably clean Talladega 500, with a bit of a break from a last lap yellow that foiled Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s planned backstretch bid, on a beautiful, sunny fall Sunday afternoon at Talladega Superspeedway.
It's been more than three years since McMurray's last tour win, so he was beyond jubilant.
Jimmie Johnson and teammate Earnhardt had the two fastest cars in the virtually caution-free race, but Johnson was unable to get the low lane working well down the stretch. And McMurray and Earnhardt held solid in the top lane, at the head of a long single-file train.
As those final laps clicked off, it appeared Earnhardt, running second, had McMurray clearly in his sights.
But just as Earnhardt put his plan in play, Ricky Stenhouse tapped Austin Dillon, dueling for third, and NASCAR quickly threw the yellow as Dillon's car flew up in the air after getting hit hard by Casey Mears. Mears was treated and released from the infield hospital; he was the only driver taken there.
That yellow ended the race.
Earnhardt was scored second, Stenhouse third, Paul Menard fourth. NASCAR used video to determine the final results.
Johnson finished 13th, Matt Kenseth 20th, so Johnson heads to Martinsville Speedway this week for Round Seven of the 10-race playoffs with a slim four-point lead.
Austin Dillon flying in the air the last lap, just behind Jamie McMurray (1) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Kyle Busch recovered from a botched pit stop early to finish fifth and gain some ground in the Sprint Cup championship chase. He's now 26 points down with four races to go.
And Kevin Harvick survived a rocky day -- he started 34th, rode in the back most of the race, but managed to finish 12th. That leaves him also 26 points down.
Jeff Gordon, on the other hand, though he ran as high as third late, couldn't hang in there, and he goes to Martinsville fifth in the standings, 34 points down.
Those are the five still in the title hunt.
And given Johnson's remarkable record at Clay Campbell's flat half-mile, and Kenseth's not-so-great record there, the turning point in the title race may well be at hand.
What happened between Stenhouse and Dillon?
"I'd been running half throttle and timing a run off turn two," Stenhouse said. "We hung back a little bit and had a good run coming, and when we pulled down, he pulled down to block, so I pulled back to the outside as quick as I could.
"And we just met in the middle."
Dillon, subbing for Tony Stewart, had worked himself into an enviable position down the stretch, in only the 10th Cup start of his career.
"We were just going for the win," Dillon said.
Ironically it's the second time here in this particular race that the Stewart car has been up in the air at the end of the race.
Jamie McMurray takes the checkered and the caution (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Some of the day's big storylines:
-- Johnson's strong performance but weak finish.
-- Earnhardt's failed late race bid.
-- Matt Kenseth's troubles.
How many second-place finishes now for Earnhardt in these plate races? Four here at Talladega, four also at Daytona.
"I'm not going to complain too much, because I'm driving some of the best cars in the sport," Earnhardt insisted.
For McMurray, whose only other good run this season was a second at Kentucky in June, the win added to his reputation as a great restrictor plate racer.
McMurray conceded Earnhardt, then second, held the preferred spot for the end game.
"But I was fully content to be in the lead the last lap," he said. "It's the second race I've won leading at the white.
"Yes, Junior was probably sitting in the best position...but you never know when the yellow might come out."
Earnhardt himself tried to put the best spin on what could have been a great finish: "We had such a good car. It was a rocket, and we could be aggressive. Tried to lead every lap. (He led 38 of the 188.)
"I can't anticipate a caution coming out the last lap at Talladega, so I planned my move for the backstretch. We let Jamie get a bit of lead going into one, then I hit the gas, and I was ready to get up beside him and see who my friends were.
"Then I noticed my run just stopped, and I looked in the mirror and everybody was out of control.
"Can you remember the last race here that didn't end under caution? We're lucky we didn't have more involved in that than we did.
"I really wanted to be out front. But waiting and being patient I thought would pay off."
Menard may have been in the catbird's seat for that last lap, until the crash, pulled off a fourth. "I was waiting for Dale to make something happen," Menard said. "I didn't want to be the first guy to jump out."
Kyle Busch. An early pit stop miscue put him in a hole, but he rallied to finish eight spots ahead of Jimmie Johnson and 15 ahead of Matt Kenseth, fighting to get back into title contention with four races to go (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
McMurray said during the last 20 laps "I never looked at the windshield. I looked out the rear view mirror the whole time.
"I noticed early in the race when they would get single-file and everybody would run against the wall, guys on the bottom could make up a lot of ground because it's such a shorter distance around the bottom. But then as we'd get towards the front, the guys that were on the outside who had been leading would move down to the middle of the track and it would stall out the bottom line.
"So when I got to the lead I was trying to enter (corners) a little bit lower... so we weren't using so much racetrack. So if everyone behind me would follow, maybe the bottom line wouldn't develop and move up as fast."
McMurray figured Earnhardt would make a move off the corner, off turn two or off turn four.
"As those laps counted down I was trying to do something different each lap so he couldn't prepare for it.
"Another thing I noticed about this (2013) package is it's easy to get a big run, but the car will stall out if you don't have another car behind you helping. The package races really well. But when we all got single-file, I didn't really think Junior could get me if Austin Dillon wasn't pushing him.
"I'm looking in the mirror and I saw the wreck before the spotter said anything. Honestly it didn't cross my mind that the race was going to be over at that point. I thought we'd have a green‑white‑checkered. You're so focused on what's going on..."
Smoke 'em into the sunset (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)