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Ingram: Two-Car Tandems Storm Sunny Talladega

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, November 1 2010

The storm built during the final laps of Sunday's Amp Energy Juice 500 at Talladega. (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

From the Monday Morning Crew Chief:

Talladega, Ala. – The race at Talladega was decided as the tandems led by Clint Bowyer and Kevin Harvick emerged from the late afternoon shadows cast by the high banks just past Turn 1. Or, if you prefer, the race was decided in the piercing late afternoon sunshine at the inside retaining wall at the entrance to Turn 1. That’s where A.J. Allmendinger’s Ford pitched, rolled and jerked like a butterfly on its way to smashing the inside retaining wall.

The multi-car schlimazel just after the field bellowed past the white flag caught Allmendinger out and put a halt to an otherwise safe 200 mph race under NASCAR’s “freeze the field” formula after such incidents. It handed the victory to a richly deserving Bowyer and the “first in class” honors to runner-up Harvick, the top finisher among Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin, the two others who would be this year’s king.

Maybe, just maybe, the Chase for the Sprint Cup, a playoff format that has suffered during the four-year reign of defending champ Johnson, will emerge from the shadows a winner as well. Separated by only 38 points, it’s safe to say Johnson, Hamlin and Harvick will not be balloon-footing their way through Texas, Phoenix and Homestead.

It’s too early to tell if the Sprint Cup might be again decided on the last lap as in the now hazy memory of Version I in 2004. That first Chase was decided by the fact Kurt Busch’s wobbling wheel disengaged just as he entered to the pit road under green, enabling him to stay in the hunt and eventually win the title on the last lap.

In this year’s Round 7 at Talladega, which came down to the beginning of the last lap, the decisive elements for the top three Chasers were Bear Bond, which held Harvick’s front end together, and teamwork, which helped dump Hamlin’s late charge and pump up Johnson’s failing fortunes.

Large swatches of black Bear Bond tape kept Harvick in the running after a run-in with the

Teammates Clint Bowyer and Kevin Harvick head to the finish line at Talladega. (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images)

spinning Toyota of Marcos Ambrose, which suffered untenable instability due to a dive to the apron by Kyle Busch. With the motor racing version of stitches across the nose, what Harvick’s Chevy lacked in aerodynamics, he made up with determination.

“I just attached myself to the back bumper of the 56 (Martin Truex),” he said of the final 3.2 laps of green. “As we were shoving our way through there, we knocked a couple of them out of the way and wound up in our (own) lane.”

Fortunately, with a handicapped front bumper and the white flag in sight, Harvick found Toyota’s David Reutemann, looking for a final-lap slingshot that never came, on his rear bumper. “I backed up to the 00 and were able to get a good run from there,” continued Harvick, who led at the white flag. But Harvick’s snaggletoothed Impala was not quite up to the challenge of teammate Bowyer in the lower lane, who had Juan Pablo Montoya (also powered by Earnhardt-Childress engines) in the role of pusher, on the final stunted lap.

Hamlin, meanwhile, got hamstrung by team politics. He wasn’t close enough to the front for Mark Martin, his afterburner, to keep pushing with an eye on winning once the tandem reached the front. Instead, Martin backed off bumping Hamlin toward the front the moment a fading Hendrick Motorsport teammate Jimmie Johnson slid backward past them in the draft with two to go.

“As soon as we passed the 48 (Johnson), Mark just stopped pushing and that’s teamwork,” said Hamlin. Ironically, it was Hamlin who left himself flying solo when he lost touch with the draft after the second round of pit stops. Not even close relative Michael Waltrip, i.e. a fellow Toyota driver, slowed down to create the all-important two-car tandem that is now standard procedure at Talladega. A lonely Hamlin got swallowed by the maw of the lead draft and lost a lap.

“It was a matter of getting too lazy and then not paying attention,” said Hamlin, revealing the pitfalls of the lollygagging in the back to avoid accident s– just as Harvick’s incident with Ambrose demonstrated the pitfalls of trying to hang at the front, where he led 11 laps prior to the white flag lap.

Johnson, on the other hand, seemingly had a perfect plan that went awry – almost.

One reason why the fans seem to disdain Johnson, one suspects, is his talent at emerging unscathed from dire circumstances, the sort of thing that ought to make for a stock car racing hero. After lurking around at the back like a shameless second story man, the four-time champion hooked up with Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon to charge to the front in just seven laps. Then the well-coordinated effort began throwing oil – from the engine of Gordon, who dropped out of the lead with 11 to go, soon followed by Johnson once he lost his dance partner.

“Yeah, we were planning on that all day long,” said Johnson of the run to the front. “I just wanted a guy I could trust. You can’t see out the windshield when you’re pushing a car like that. You need someone who knows how to use their brake correctly to stay on the front. I thought we had this thing in control. Maybe we got to the front a little early, but I thought we were both smart enough to hold on to it.”

Johnson got further hamstrung by the balked Dodge of Sam Hornish Jr. after the last re-start. Johnson’s Chevy sank like a bar of ballast through the middle groove, but then was rescued by a revived drafting partner Gordon. They then two-stepped past a chagrinned Hamlin, who finished ninth, up to seventh and eighth.

It certainly was another excellent race unless you were Allmendinger and got shot out of the draft like a watermelon seed and into a wall one lap from the finish or any of the other drivers caught up in the five-car “Big One.” Allmendinger walked away and one hopes his misfortune was not a foreshadowing of things to come for Richard Petty Motorsports due to the financial troubles of team owner George Gillett.

For his part, Bowyer, a garrulous Midwestern good ol’ boy, was beaming like the sun in his native Kansas after emerging with a coveted redemption victory. Along with the showing by Richard Childress Racing teammate Harvick, it underscored that an illegal chassis suffered by Bowyer after winning Round 1 of the Chase in New Hampshire was a one-off situation and not a crutch for an otherwise gimpy team.

Despite a crowd estimated to be 90,000 at a track holding over 140,000, Talladega, stock car racing in general and this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup looked pretty damned interesting as the last interview ended, deadlines loomed and the setting sun’s rays filtered through the superstructure of the main grandstand.

Quote of the week: “I love restrictor plate racing. This is what it’s all about. This feels awesome to come out here and do this.” – Race winner Clint Bowyer

See ya! …At the races.

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, November 1 2010
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