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Johnson's finish as good as a win

11/2/2009 - NASCAR

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Jimmie Johnson opened the drain NASCAR poured its season down Sunday.

Now get this for working a system and a screwball race made screwier by NASCAR's pre-race antics (I mean edicts): Riding around 30th or worse for most of the afternoon, Johnson blew the Chase to smithereens and turned the rest of it into his personal, three-city victory parade through Fort Worth, Phoenix and Miami.

All that's left to mop up is a little math. He'll likely clinch at Phoenix in two weeks, show up at Homestead-Miami only if he feels like it, then hit Las Vegas for the official celebration of his historic fourth straight championship.

This one may not be over, but it's over.

Win the Amp Energy 500? Nah. Who needed that? (For those who care, Jamie McMurray won the worse-than-usual mess at Talladega Superspeedway.)

This was better than a win for Johnson. A lot better. He finished a slick sixth and escaped Casino de Alabama decisively ahead of those who didn't -- 184 points ahead of Mark Martin, 192 up on Jeff Gordon and 239 over Juan Pablo Montoya, all of whom wrecked on the inevitable big one that came at the white flag of a green-white-checkered overtime.

"Yes, I do feel better than a race win with today's finish," Johnson confirmed when I asked him.

But there was the somewhat hollow feeling of leaving teammates Martin and Gordon so far back in the Chase due to the crapshoot circumstances that got them caught up in the big one that started just feet behind Johnson's right-rear fender.

He felt "still in shock" with elation, but, "I'm trying to keep it back because I do feel bad that the guys crashed coming to the finish. … I was really concerned for Mark, because when I looked in the mirror I saw the 5 roof number tumbling and flipping and then hitting the outside fence. I hate to see things take place that way …

"But [gaining] points on them, that's what we're here to do. I wish it would have been under fuel circumstances [which got Martin and Gordon back into the crazy areas of the draft lines], not a crash, for sure. But we'll take them."

NASCAR president Mike Helton changed the Talladega game just hours before the race, at the drivers' meeting, by proclaiming that NASCAR would not tolerate any bump drafting in the corners and would keep a close eye on aggressiveness down the straightaways.

So the drivers did what they usually do here when NASCAR makes things even harder on them than usual: They staged one of their sit-down strikes in motion, riding around for most of the race, behaving themselves to the point of drowsiness and exasperation for considerably less than a packed house in the stands and infield.

When they did get down to the usual business of wrecking here, they did it big. Ryan Newman, though not seriously injured, had to be cut out of his cockpit after he landed upside down, the roof of his putatively ultra-safe Car of Tomorrow crushed down and wedging his helmet in the roll cage.

That, the first significant event of the race, came with just five laps left in regulation.

And it started the rapid chain of events that left Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus, looking every bit the maestro of this Chase chess game that he is.

With NASCAR just asking to leave here with a pie in the face, Knaus hit with banana cream, point blank.

Knaus called Johnson into the pits for a splash of gas while the field was still rolling under caution, and before NASCAR decided to red flag the race to assure the fans a show.

They got it, all right.

Martin and Gordon both ran out of gas soon after the field began moving again under caution to set up the green-white-checkered. So many cars were running out that NASCAR even delayed the overtime, so as not to make a bigger mess than it already was -- NASCAR's way of trying to at least wipe some of the cream out of its eyes, let's call it.

In the No. 48 car, Johnson began to sigh a bit of relief, because just before Newman's tumble he'd begun to wonder whether the ride-at-the-back strategy was going to backfire.

"To be honest with you," he said afterward, "the strategies completely backfired. The only thing that saved our butts was Chad's decision for fuel. We were in big trouble, 25th or something, on that red flag. So all the credit goes to Chad for making us come down pit road and put some fuel in the thing. That was really the strategy that did it."

As cars ahead of him dropped into the pits for fuel, Johnson suddenly found himself 11th when the green flag started overtime -- it was just far enough up front, and I mean a matter of feet or maybe inches, to keep him out of the big one that was the last one.

Brad Keselowski, who made a sweep of Talladega this year from the standpoint of detonating the final big wreck -- the one in the spring had been justifiable to beat (but launch) Carl Edwards -- got into Kurt Busch from behind to detonate the 13-car pileup that froze the field just as the white flag flew.

"I saw the guys wreck behind me," McMurray said in Victory Lane. "And then as soon as I crossed the start-finish line I shut the engine off and pushed the clutch in and coasted."

No such luck for Martin, who limped his car across after tumbling, nor for Gordon, who did a series of spins along the tri-oval.

"Nothing," Martin said bluntly to ESPN TV reporters when asked what he saw of the melee. Martin had been predicting all week that for once, he wouldn't wreck here.

Oh, well. At least it came at the end.

But, as Johnson said, "We can run 497 miles around here, and it doesn't matter, it's just that last lap."

Drivers complained that the race was boring not just for fans but for themselves, but Johnson had a twist on that. Rather than boring, "For me it may have been a little more relieving than the others because you [could] finally just ride around and log some miles."

But in the final analysis, Johnson lit into NASCAR and its biggest white-elephant track as thoroughly as the wrecked and angry others had.

"I mean, we go through this every year," he said. "You guys [media] try to find new ways to have us answer the same question about restrictor-plate racing.

"Yeah, we have the steering wheel, the gas pedal, brake pedal … But until somebody really has a chance to sit in these cars and understand how tough it is, it's easier to say these things [how boring the racing is here until the final laps] …

"We mind our manners during the race, single-file, and everybody was probably disappointed in that.

"Then we get racing in the end, and you have the big wrecks. So … there is not a new [story] angle.

"The only way we avoid this, if anybody wants to avoid these big wrecks and this type of racing, is to eliminate the need for restrictor plates.

"That means get the tractors out and knock down the banking."

Fat chance of that ever happening at the track so monstrous that all the star drivers walked out and refused to run the inaugural race, 40 years ago.

Gordon was sardonic to the nth degree with his final analysis.

"I'm kind of glad we ran out [of gas] when we did," Gordon said, "because we were at least able to get back out there and destroy our car."

That said it all about the way the drivers feel about a gigantic track that by configuration is far too fast for safety and requires all sorts of manipulatory gimmicks and last-minute edicts just to keep things remotely sane.

Sometimes you wonder why, here, they don't just hold pre-race ceremonies, run a green-white-checkered right then, and be done with it.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn3.com.