While Aaron's 499 ending was epic, just ridin’ ain’t racin’

Jimmie Johnson (48), Clint Bowyer (33), Jeff Gordon (24), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (88) and others approach the finish line in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race at Talladega Superspeedway, Sunday, April 17, 2011, in Talladega, Ala. Johnson won, and Bowyer was second. (AP Photo/Todd Warshaw)

TALLADEGA — Barely had dusk descended upon Talladega Superspeedway on that 2011 spring day, and Clint Bowyer was already being suggested as the answer to a NASCAR trivia question:

Who was the runner-up in the closest finish in Talladega Superspeedway?

Bowyer wasn’t especially thrilled about that dubious distinction, saying, “That sucks. It’s never very good to know you made NASCAR history by losing.”

Jimmie Johnson edged Bowyer by .002 seconds — that’s two one-thousandths of a second, compared to the three-tenths of a second for an eye to blink — for what was not only a track record but tied the NASCAR Cup series record.

It wasn’t necessarily shocking.

Going into today’s 1000Bulbs.com 500 (1 p.m., NBC-TV), the average margin of victory here has been .136 seconds in the 29 events that haven’t been decided under caution.

Bowyer got close again Saturday in qualifying.  He was .126 seconds slower than teammate Kurt Busch, who for the first time in 71 attempts has won a pole for a restrictor-plate race, leaving Bowyer on the outside front row.

Stewart-Haas Racing swept the top four spots, with Kevin Harvick and Aric Almirola on the next row, followed by a foursome from Hendrick Motorsports, Chase Elliott, Jimmie Johnson, Alex Bowman and William Byron.

“I think it’s our turn,” Bowyer said of his team’s attempt to topple Team Penske, winner of six of the past eight ’Dega races.

The last Monster Energy NASCAR Cup race to be decided at Talladega by more than a one-second edge was July 29, 1984, when Dale Earnhardt steered his blue-and-yellow Wrangler’s Chevy home 1.66 seconds ahead of Buddy Baker.

Talladega Superspeedway has long staked a legitimate claim as the most competitive track on the circuit. Of the 11 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races with the most lead changes, nine were here.

It’s not limited to the races in the Sunday spotlight. The Xfinity Series and the Camping World Truck Series have comparable stats; .120 in the 10 Xfinity races that finished under green, .057 for the truck races that finished under green.

Now, to be sure, those close finishes have appeared from a variety of ways.

They have come following major crashes, day-long dramatics, lap-after-lap of 25-car drafts, the dreary two-car tandem days and the tentative days with — here’s one for nostalgia — “the Car of Tomorrow.”

After his .066-second win over Tony Stewart in the fall of 2007, in the COT’s ’Dega debut, Jeff Gordon confessed that, “I’ve never yawned in a race car before.” Such was the trepidation that day, more drivers tried to run in the rear of the field than at the front.

The tandem racing led to a lot of teamwork assistance, including 2002 when Michael Waltrip pushed Dale Earnhardt Jr. to an .06-second win, only to have Junior return the favor in 2004. That day, Waltrip celebrated by exiting from the newly-installed roof hatch on his Chevy. “I’m a redneck,” he said. “I like to get out of the sunroof every now and then.”

The wins have come with controversy. Harvick edged Jamie McMurray by .011 seconds in 2010 by diving deep left to make his pass. Below the yellow line? Some say yes, NASCAR said no. Two years earlier, Tony Stewart had won his first Talladega race by a .052-second margin over Paul Menard, but only after Regan Smith was ruled to have passed Stewart illegally in the trioval. There’s the yellow-line rule in the book, but there’s another one that Smith thought should apply: “The rule is, No. 1, on the last lap, anything goes.”

Before Johnson’s record-tying win over Bowyer, the closest finish had been in July 1993, when Dale Earnhardt Sr. edged Ernie Irvan by .005 seconds after a side-by-side drag race through the trioval. Said Earnhardt, “It was one of them seesaw deals, and I was on the last saw.”

Some 190 days after Bowyer’s runner-up finish to Johnson, teammate Jeff Burton found himself in second place in the fall 2011 race.

The winner, by a mere 0.18 seconds, was Clint Bowyer.

This is excerpted from a story in the 1000Bulbs.com souvenir program on sale this week at Talladega Superspeedway.

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