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McMurray Wins, Medicine Man Tanks At Talladega

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, November 1 2009
Mark Martin's car limps to the finish line after being involved in a late-race wreck at Talladega Sunday afternoon. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Mark Martin's car limps to the finish line after being involved in a late-race wreck at Talladega Sunday afternoon. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Rick Minter | Senior Writer

Talladega, Ala. – After Sunday’s AMP Energy 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, it appears the Creek Indian medicine man who performed a ceremony designed to put and end to the strange occurrences at the speedway needs to try a different potion.

Sunday’s list of strange and unexpected events was a rather long one.

* Jamie McMurray, a driver who is losing his ride at the end of the season, did a masterful job behind the wheel and won the race, his third at NASCAR’s elite level and his first since Daytona in July, 2007.

* NASCAR president Mike Helton imposed new rules for bump drafting at the driver’s meeting Sunday morning, promising penalties for those guilty of bumping in the turns. Oddly, no penalties were assessed for bump drafting, even though drivers and others said it occurred.

* Ryan Newman, the driver who complained the loudest in recent weeks about NASCAR not doing enough to keep the cars out of the air, wound up being the one who took a wild, upside-down ride down the backstretch in a crash that also claimed his teammate Tony Stewart.

* Veteran Mark Martin, who had a top-five run going before a last-lap crash saw him upside down in his No. 5 Chevrolet, saw another chance at a championship slip out of his grip. His wreck left him 28th in the final rundown at Talladega and 184 points behind his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson.

* Jeff Gordon ran out of fuel, got a push to the pits and returned to the race just in time to get knocked around in the race-ending wreck on the frontstretch.

* And Jimmie Johnson, the driver often criticized for being too vanilla and too non-confrontational, ended up making the strongest statement about the perils of restrictor-plate racing and how they should be addressed.

But one thing occurred that wasn’t entirely unexpected, given the way things have gone in the Sprint Cup Series over the past three years. Johnson, the series points leader, rode around at the back of the pack for most of the afternoon, then eased his way through the last-lap wreck, finished sixth and pushed his points lead to a relatively comfortable margin. Only two drivers, Martin and Gordon, are within 200 points with three races left to run

“I feel good about things,” Johnson said of the prospects for his immediate future, adding that once again it was a call by his crew chief Chad Knaus – this one to pit for fuel late in the race – that put him in position to make a big jump, points-wise. But he said there’s still too much at risk to change his strategy now.

“I can’t stop doing what I do.. until there’s no chance,” Johnson said.

The story at Talladega was one of two races. The first one, which lastest about 490 miles, was boring by Talladega standards. Drivers often formed one long line and ran lap after lap in the outside groove, with many of the best drivers riding at the back to avoid a crash.

Then came Race No. 2.

In the end, the best efforts to avoid the “Big One” crash didn’t work, as the race ended with a 13-car pile-up on the frontstretch. It started when Brad Keselowski, winner at Talladega in the spring, ran into the back of Kurt Busch, who had overcome an earlier incident to contend for a top-10 finish. In his defense, Keselowski appeared to be getting pushed himself when the wreck started.

Either way, it set off the chain-reaction wreck that included Juan Pablo Montoya among its victims. When the dust cloud cleared, and Johnson had emerged unscathed, the race and the Chase were effectively over. Johnson now is in position to coast to his fourth straight Cup title.

And all McMurray had to do to collect the race win was idle back around to the checkered flag.

Ironically it was Johnson, the guy often criticized as being too plain and boring for most fans and some media members, who gave a very non-vanilla assessment of the dilemma of racing at Talladega. He said that the real problem, in his opinion, is that fans seem to enjoy watching 400 or more miles of essentially single-file racing topped off by a frightening, dangerous “Big Crash.”

Johnson said drivers tend to “mind our manners during the middle of the race and run single file, and probably everybody is disappointed in that. And then we get racing at the end and have the big wreck.”

He was clear in his solution to the problem. “The only way we avoid this is to eliminate the need for restrictor plates. And that means get the tractors out and knock down the banking.”

He said the only way to have safer racing is to put drivers on a track where they can’t run wide open all the way around.

“We have to let off in order to avoid this,” he said. “At the end of the day, I think restrictor plate racing is still here because it’s a good show for the fans. At some point when the fans dislike it. I guess we’ll make a change. But until then, we’re a product of what the fans want to see.”

Driver Elliott Sadler also called for changes, but he wasn’t as direct as Johnson. “I think NASCAR and all the drivers should sit in a private room, lock the doors and have a discussion and try to fix this together,” he said.

– Rick Minter can be reached at rminter@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, November 1 2009
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