Commentary

Feel the thrill? How could you not

Updated: April 17, 2011, 8:21 PM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- If you didn't like this one, you will never like NASCAR. And you never would have, back in any of its days.

Two by two, four wide, eight cars from three different teams came to the checkered flag of Sunday's Aaron's 499.

Somehow, Jimmie Johnson, pushed by teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., shot down the inside lane to beat the rest of the cavalry charge -- Jeff Gordon paired with Mark Martin, Clint Bowyer paired with Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards paired with Greg Biffle.

So much for tandem racing being boring.

When the scramble was electronically unscrambled, the finishing order showed Johnson ahead of Bowyer by 0.002 of a second, tying the closest electronically scored finish in NASCAR history.

The other one was by Ricky Craven over Kurt Busch at Darlington, S.C., in 2003. And that one was a two-car show.

Twenty-six different cars led Sunday. The lead changes, 88, tied the NASCAR record set here a year ago.

"It doesn't get any more exciting than those closing laps right there," said Gordon, who wound up third, "whether you're sitting in the stands or you're sitting inside the car."

Johnson gave the checkered flag to Earnhardt, who was "responsible for the win," Johnson said, by pushing Johnson down the frontstretch, through the tri-oval and down to the line. Earnhardt wound up fourth.

This was the first win of the season for Johnson, but was the 54th Cup victory for the reigning five-peat season champion.

The final half lap produced more memorable action than a lot of full races.

Going into Turn 3 of Talladega Superspeedway, Johnson and Earnhardt were fifth and sixth -- or, "in third place," as Johnson put it, because of the tandem racing where the pairs stayed locked together.

Even off Turn 4, the Gordon-Martin and Bowyer-Harvick pairs appeared to be the duelists for the win, running down the middle of the track, with Johnson and Earnhardt stuck behind them.

And Johnson and Earnhardt felt lucky to be that close, after getting separated with four laps to go. But they got back together, and "somehow trucked by a bunch of guys on the bottom," Johnson said. "I don't know if they switched lanes or what, but before we knew it we found ourselves in third place after we took the white [flag] …"

Earnhardt had earlier radioed the Hendrick Motorsports team that his car wasn't working well in the front of the pairing, and that Johnson should take the point and hold it.

The Richard Childress Racing pair of Bowyer and Harvick made a big run on the other Hendrick pair, Gordon and Martin, down the backstretch.

"They got side by side," said Johnson, "which let us really close up. And as we went into Turn 3, I had a big run and was thinking about the bottom. The 24 [Gordon] defended that.

"I kind of wandered to the middle and just didn't have an option open."

On the radio, Johnson was "telling me, 'Looks like the middle, [then] nothing up the middle,'" Earnhardt said.

"I knew I still had about a mile to go," Johnson said. "So I just chilled out and decided to draft, and as we came off Turn 4, those two tandems were trying to side-draft each other and race each other, and had the top covered up."

Then Earnhardt heard, "'We're going to the bottom,'" he said. "I just tried to stay in the back of him without wrecking him."

"As we started rolling up on them," Johnson said, "I shot down to the bottom and we were able to surge by, out of the tri-oval, coming out of the bottom, because they kind of left it open there.

[+] EnlargeJimmie Johnson
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesJimmie Johnson's 15-race winless skid came to a screeching halt Sunday at Talladega.

"So," Johnson concluded coolly, "it just worked out."

After the NASCAR computers had sorted out the cavalry charge at the line, the finishing order was Johnson, Bowyer, Gordon, Earnhardt, Harvick, Edwards, Biffle and Martin.

"Man, what a bummer," said Bowyer, who had won here last fall after he and Harvick had proven to be the strongest tandem in the field. This time, they showed flashes of an edge, but the Hendrick cars kept coming back past them.

At the media conference, someone who apparently hadn't covered much NASCAR asked Bowyer if there was any consolation in losing by a record-tying close margin.

"Hell, no!" Bowyer yelped. "It sucks. It's not very good to know you made NASCAR history by losing.

"Sooner or later I need to start making history by winning. That guy's won enough."

Maybe Bowyer should have had a little mercy this time. Johnson had lost a whopping -- for him -- 15 consecutive races dating back to last season, and was beginning to get questions about whether he'd fallen into a slump.

What "bums me out" even further, Bowyer said, was that the Hendrick cars had lagged far back in the field for most of the race, trying to stay out of trouble and make big runs at the end. The RCR cars had pretty much raced up front.

"That makes it tough," Bowyer said, "losing to somebody who did that. We were up front for our sponsors and our team and digging, all day long. And you get it taken away from you there at the end by somebody lying back all day. That's hard to take."

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

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