That sixth Sprint Cup championship? Jimmie Johnson moves another step closer (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
New points leader, 48.
Now Jimmie Johnson heads to Martinsville, one of his best tracks, back atop the Sprint Cup points, for the first time in the chase.
And some stock car fans may hear the fat opera lady warming up. This was one of Johnson's worst tracks, and one of rival Matt Kenseth's best; Martinsville is one of Johnson's best and one of Kenseth's worst.
For much of Sunday afternoon it looked like Johnson and Kenseth would play to a draw. Johnson led 47 laps, more than anyone. Kenseth had a strong car early too, leading 32 laps and running door to door frequently with Johnson.
Then midway through the race Kenseth's car developed unexplained problems. He rallied back to the top 10, but he tried too hard late to make something happen, and he faded to 20th.
What happened to Johnson? The race was between him and teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. most of the way. Earnhardt led 38 laps and had the strongest car late.
But Johnson, like Kenseth, got stuck in the low lane down the stretch and struggled home 13th.
Well, that's a bit strange. While Jamie McMurray was working the high line so successfully, Johnson tried to line up a charge down low. But Johnson couldn't get the low line working.
That's the same way things played out at Daytona back in February, the high lane much preferable to the low lane.
But how in the world could Talladega become a one-groove track? Saturday's Truck race was filled with three-wide racing, and it came close to a three-abreast finish.
Sunday's Cup race, while tense, was still just single file at the end.
For the last 15 laps or so, McMurray led a single-file train, with the men behind him patiently waiting for someone else to make the first move. No one did.
Then Austin Dillon and Ricky Stenhouse crashed just as Earnhardt was starting his last lap play.
Matt Kenseth pits, as Dale Earnhardt Jr. roars by. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
"The middle lane that I was in quickly became the bottom lane, and then quickly didn't exist," Johnson said of his frustrations. "I dropped like a rock."
So he jumped up to the outside lane to make up a few spots, "and fortunately missed the big pile-up.
"13th isn't the best finish, but with what we are trying to do -- win a championship -- we beat the competition, and that is good."
With Martinsville, Texas, Phoenix and Homestead now the only stops between Johnson and a sixth NASCAR championship, Johnson is finally starting to feel more comfortable. Especially after making a statement here.
"The races forward now are where the competitors go earn it," Johnson declared. "You don't have this luck issue that can take place at plate tracks."
Kyle Busch was not happy about his day, despite his vigorous rally. He had the best finish among the five men still in the title hunt:
"You're supposed to come to pit road single file, and I didn't. I would have ran into the back of Jamie McMurray, so I had to go to the outside of him and not hit him.
" When I did that, it essentially blocked me out of my stall. So I had to go through the pits and try to come back around.
"I think that's two or three years in a row we've done that here. It'd be nice if we could not come down to pit when everybody else is coming down and be so discombobulated, and then have a clean pit road to enter on."
And why didn't anyone make a move at the end? Why just single file?
"It was interesting everybody stuck up on the outside that long, though it was the fastest way around," Busch said. " There wasn't anyone making up any time on the bottom. I figured that a lot of people would try to and be able to make up some time, but a couple tried and never made anything happen."
Kenseth complained about his car not handling midway through the race, but it was unclear if there was really anything wrong.
"I guess not, because after the last pit stop it drove good again," Kenseth said.
"It was really bizarre. Typically handling is a non-issue here; but we just got so loose I couldn't even hang on to it. I pretty much had to run in the back for two runs, which was disappointing. We finally got it fixed that last run, but we only had 20 laps to get back up there. I really needed to be up there like we were early and feel like I was controlling the race more."
His end game?
"I got stuck three-wide on the bottom... and then we actually hung in near the lead for a long time," Kenseth said. "When they got me shuffled back to the very bottom, you're no good down there.
"Then I thought everybody would mix it up at the end and try to make a race out of it, but everybody stayed up on the top and pedaled it.
"That was my bad (trying to make something happen). I guess I should have just been happy with 10th, but I just have a hard time doing that.
"If I had to do it over, I would probably just ride up there. Just trying to make something happen."
The last lap: Austin Dillon gets launched (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Johnson's teammate Jeff Gordon needed to make something happen here, to make a move in the title chase, but he didn't. He came in 14th.
Gordon, and most drivers, were more than surprised at how well-mannered drivers were Sunday. Single-file too. No jukin' or jivin.'
"Shocking. Shocking," Gordon said.
"It's smart for those guys up front to do that, because it eliminates a lot of cars out of the running for the win.
"But I've never seen guys have that much patience here in my life. I was pretty shocked to see them just holding that line like they did."
Dillon, running only his 10th Cup race, did well, getting into position to take a shot at the win. But then he got tangled with Stenhouse and wound up airborne.
"I was trying to go for the win," Dillon said. "Ricky had a bit of a run with Paul Menard, and I tried to go with him, and came back across and hooked me.
"That was a lot of fun coming to the white flag at Talladega and having a shot to win. I was going to push Junior. Just trying to wait until the end, and they made a move and I tried to block it, and it didn't work out.
"I went low, and when I was coming back up, he just hooked me. A wild ride. I have to thank NASCAR for everything they have done for safety. I got to drive the car back."
Kevin Harvick had to make a comeback after starting 33rd. He decided to ride in the back of the pack most of the day to avoid any big wrecks. Then he managed to get into a decent position late.
"We got ourselves in position to be where we needed to be at the end of the race," he said. "Then lost everything that we gained on the last pit stop.
"We had a strategy we stuck to...and then we were just last off of pit road."
A beautiful day at Talladega....Jimmie Johnson (48) and teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. (88) spent most of the day up front like this...but Jamie McMurray wound up with the win (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)