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McMurray wins in Talladega; NASCAR Chase lead changes


Sunday on Twitter, as a single-file line froze in place after the NASCAR Sprint Cup race’s final caution on the white-flag lap, I wrote the following Talladega evaluation:

“Great race, but last few laps, almost all drivers decided getting out in one piece was more important.”

The term “great race” got me butchered by the always-polite Twitter faithful. No one, it seems, could understand how a race that ended under yellow, with no last-lap pass for the win, could earn that distinction. Instead, there has been much complaining, which will likely increase over the coming week, there wasn’t enough action when it counted. Calls will rise for NASCAR to change the plate package yet again in time for a “revamped” 2014 Daytona 500.

I’m not saying NASCAR should stand pat at one of its fan-friendly tracks. Joey Logano mentioned adjusting the “shark fins” across the decklid designed to add sideforce on the cars. Side-drafting has become the new bump-drafting as there was so much weaving back and forth the pack could have become confused with a bunch of guys warming their tires under a caution flag. According to Logano, one of several voices inside the garage, the way those fins change the air causes the bottom lane of the draft to stall out. It’s a defect that could be improved, especially if NASCAR’s tinkering with the basic Gen-6 chassis anyway.

But for those saying Sunday’s race was terrible, I say Talladega just can’t win. In over 500 miles we saw 20 leaders, 52 lead changes and best of all, a clean event. Only three cautions slowed the action — just two for crashes — and only four cars total were involved in wrecks. If not for Austin Dillon getting turned off Turn 2 by rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr. we would have probably seen cars fan out for a fantastic ending. With 24 cars in the lead draft after 103 consecutive laps of green-flag racing, what more did you want?

Consider that cars were three, sometimes four-wide over much of the nearly three hours of racing knowing there was little, if anything, to gain. The draft leaves them stuck together like glue; putting drivers “in position” on Lap 110 does little when there’s 78 laps left. I think fans have been pampered by so many breathtaking endings they now expect that type of action for every one of the event’s 188 laps. It’s an unrealistic expectation, one that can’t be sustained, especially when too many of these drivers have been a part of plate racing for so long. They know the dangers of these 200-mph wrecks, where cars are still launched in the air (see: Daytona’s scary February crash in the Nationwide Series that injured over a dozen fans). The Chase, and keeping one’s spot in the standings surely plays a part of playing it safe. But these men and women know the risks involved with making the wrong move on the final lap. Most importantly, they know their risk to their careers, their families … their bodies.

For too many, if they’re running comfortably inside the top 20, that’s no longer worth making the first move. It’s going to make for an occasional dud of an ending, one where they all wait too long because those fears start taking over.

Honestly? With what we’ve seen throughout plate racing history that’s not a bunch of “wussy” athletes. That’s what’s called being completely understandable.

With that, let’s shift “Through the Gears” after Talladega …

FIRST GEAR: Jamie McMurray (once again) proves he belongs  
When it came to future Sprint Cup employment, Jamie McMurray entered this season a dead man. Most experts had Kyle Larson pegged as his replacement, earning a promotion to ride alongside Juan Pablo Montoya. Well, Larson got promoted all right … and he’ll have the plate race expertise of McMurray to lean on in his rookie season.

The move to retain McMurray surprised many, considering the close relationship owner Chip Ganassi maintained with Montoya. (It’s one that will be strained for the foreseeable future, once the veteran decided to move to rival Roger Penske’ open-wheel team in 2014). But in making the choice before it actually happened, experts ignored McMurray’s own relationship with the owner, along with minority shareholder Felix Sabates. One of the friendliest guys inside the garage, McMurray is the opposite of Montoya’s aggressive personality, perhaps the perfect balance for Larson as the youngster moves up.

And, as Sunday proves, the driver still has what it takes to win races. Talladega marked the fourth plate race win for McMurray since 2007; no one, not even Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick or Jimmie Johnson, has that many. Ever so quietly, Hendrick motors have led to improvements at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, to the point McMurray’s average finish this season (15.8) is also his best in almost a decade. Down the stretch on Sunday, he put the No. 1 car in position and awaited a challenge that simply never came. Not anyone knows exactly when to press those buttons; Montoya, for sure, never had the keys to get to Victory Lane and boost confidence.

“This does a lot for both of our race teams,” said Sabates. “It shows that we're capable of winning. Jamie can drive at these places. He can drive anywhere, but any time you get Jamie on a superspeedway, he's a force to be reckoned with. I'm not surprised that we won because we have a team that's capable of winning every week.”

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They also have a driver in position to claim the bonus for finishing “Best of the Rest” among non-Chase drivers. 30 points ahead of Brad Keselowski with four races remaining, it looks like McMurray will build momentum towards making a bid for the 2014 playoffs that have long eluded him.

SECOND GEAR: Dale Earnhardt Jr. runs second … again  Extend that plate race winless streak for Earnhardt to nine years. The No. 88 team was the second-place finisher at Talladega after a potential last-lap challenge to McMurray was cut short before it even began.

“Nobody moved, so I was like, ‘Hey, I'm just going to wait until the end,’” said NASCAR’s most popular bridesmaid. “I don't have to try until the very end. I've got one guy to pass, and all I've got to do is make one run happen, and maybe it'll work.”

It’s like modern-day Goldilocks gone wrong for Earnhardt at these places; too early, too late, but never just right. In a mental game, one his father played so well, the son has forgotten just exactly when to start charging to the front. It’s a shame, considering his team has had its best Chase since Earnhardt was signed prior to 2008. Sitting sixth in the standings, 52 points out of the top spot, he’d be in title contention if not for that 35th-place eyesore of an engine failure at Chicagoland.

Battling back, retaining confidence can be credited to crew chief Steve Letarte and Earnhardt’s developing maturity. But the cold, hard fact remains he’s on the verge of going winless in five of his seven seasons with NASCAR’s version of the New York Yankees. Earnhardt’s popularity sticks with him through the rollercoaster ride but even at ‘Dega, you get the sense it’s the specter of his famous father combined with past reputation that keeps the flame going. Every time there’s a chance to change that, connecting with a new generation of fans, young gun-turned-veteran Earnhardt looks more like Kyle Petty than Kyle Busch. When is he going to get aggressive when it counts?

THIRD GEAR: Underdogs still have their dayThe green-flag tilt at Talladega didn’t stop the parity of plate racing. Front Row Motorsports, who finished a shocking 1-2 in the spring event, proved that run wasn’t a fluke with David Ragan and David Gilliland. They ran sixth and seventh, respectively, at the only track where they’ve run inside the top 10 all season. Just as impressive was Michael McDowell, whose mostly start-and-park Phil Parsons Racing car hadn’t finished a race since Indianapolis. He ran 15th and in the lead draft for the final 100 laps with a team that simply doesn’t make green-flag pit stops. Casey Mears and Austin Dillon (subbing for Tony Stewart) would have made the list, too if not for that last-lap wreck which took them both out.

Most importantly, the race was another this season where not a single team start-and-parked. While NASCAR’s new rules reducing purse money for 40th – 43rd have made a difference, so too is the prospect of winning at plate tracks. It’s much harder to convince a team running on a shoestring budget to run the distance when it’s a miracle to run better than 30th. That’s the fate for Ragan, Gilliland and McDowell at intermediates, but here at ‘Dega they’ve got as much of a shot as anyone. The end result is a payday for McDowell, even at 15th, roughly $35,000 higher than finishing dead last. It helps justify buying more tires, paying a trained crew and perhaps coming out a bit ahead on the deal.

For NASCAR to understand its problems — getting new owners involved in the sport and built into weekly contenders — it needs to understand this business side of racing. Making that side more profitable again is key to get more than just Hendrick, Roush, Penske and the other top-tier owners investing in the sport. A chance at success four times a year just isn’t enough for new investors long-term.

FOURTH GEAR: Johnson shifts into cruise control for a sixth title
While Matt Kenseth led early on Sunday, establishing himself at the front of the field, Jimmie Johnson waited for the right opportunity. During the race’s middle stages, teammate Earnhardt hooked to the back of the No. 48 in what looked like a planned strategy to get him to the front. Lap after lap, Earnhardt served as a blocker until Johnson blew by Kenseth and appeared to earn those bonus points for most laps led.

That became crucial when both drivers had disappointing results; Johnson was 13th and Kenseth 20th after being left out to dry in the draft. Still, while both were happy to survive, a look at the big picture caused an important switch: Johnson, trailing the entire Chase, has taken the point lead by four. Kenseth, after three weeks of playing defense, is now second, heading to a track where he’s averaged a 15.8-place finish (only three top 5s) is 27 Cup starts.

That doesn’t bode well for JGR’s title chances, especially with teammate Kyle Busch still steaming over a Kansas wreck. Sunday, he spent post-race driving a bus over his crew chief, his spotter and anyone with an M&M’s shirt after missing his pits during an early green-flag stop (keep in mind, Busch recovered to run fifth).

Considering the dissention, combined with Kenseth’s handling crises (Loose? At Talladega?), Johnson becomes a stronger favorite to cakewalk towards a sixth title. Any challenge might come from two unexpected sources in the forms of Kevin Harvick and Jeff Gordon. Both are playing with house money; Gordon, in particular, has a strong record over these last four races, including a win in last year’s Homestead season finale. Who would have expected the “lame duck” driver and the 13th Chaser to be the biggest obstacles to the No. 48?

Maybe Kasey Kahne was skittish after three races/three crashes in plate events this season. The Chaser lost the draft not once, but twice, despite a powerful Hendrick Motorsports engine and ended the day 36th, two laps off the pace. That left his average finish for Daytona and Talladega this year a mind-boggling 36.5. … Danica Patrick had a promising run going inside the top 10 until missing her pit stall during the last round of green-flag stops. With boyfriend Ricky Stenhouse Jr. a career-best third, Patrick’s chances to win this year’s rookie title have been taken off life support. … Pole-sitter Aric Almirola, a popular darkhorse, was never a real factor. Leading eight laps, he slid to the back of the lead draft and was 22nd at the finish.

Follow Tom Bowles on Twitter:@NASCARBowles

Photos byAction Sports, Inc.