Entering this weekend’s race at Talladega Superspeedway, everyone knew Sunday’s AMP Energy 500 would be one of the wildest races of the 2009 season. In an attempt to make safer racing, NASCAR issued smaller restrictor plates to reduce the speed of the cars. Aggressive bump-drafting during Friday’s practice sessions led NASCAR President Mike Helton to warn drivers in the pre-race drivers’ meeting that if bump-drafting took place in the corners, black flags would start to fly.
This late announcement threw a kink in the plans of many teams and drew criticism from both drivers and fans alike. Dale Earnhardt Jr. explained the late rule change was like telling the NFL to go from tackle football to two-hand touch.
With rain washing out qualifying, points leader Jimmie Johnson led the 43-car field to the green Sunday afternoon. It did not take long before the first yellow flew on lap 6 when Paul Menard blew a tire in turn 2, collecting Joe Nemechek.
Following the restart on lap 9, the field broke from the typical two- and three-wide racing and paraded around the top of the track in single-file fashion. In what appeared to be a message to NASCAR, the drivers forewent racing aggressively and putting on a good show for the fans and decided instead to ‘play it safe’ lap after lap.
Kurt Busch brought out the second caution of the day just as the first round of green-flag pit stops were coming to a close. As a tire gave out and the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge slid through the grass in the tri-oval, Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman, Jamie McMurray, Johnson and Jeff Gordon had slowed to hit pit road. NASCAR quickly threw the caution and closed the pits as the five cars approached the commitment line. Gordon was the only one of the group to turn back to the track and avoid the penalty for pitting too soon.
The second caution of the day mixed up the field and allowed Elliott Sadler to lead the field to the green on lap 56. After some dicey racing on the restart, the field soon got back to single-file racing. The lackluster racing continued as Earnhardt Jr., Gordon, Denny Hamlin, Juan Pablo Montoya and Sadler took turns out front.
With the 100-lap mark approaching the field began to slow again for the second round of green-flag stops. After the field completed their stops under green, NASCAR threw the third yellow of the day for a reported piece of debris, sending the leaders back to pit road.
Restarting the race on lap 109, Hamlin led the field to the green as the action picked up on the track. Gone was the single-file racing and back was the typical jockeying for position two- and three-wide. Despite the warning from NASCAR, drivers continued to bump-draft mostly on the straightaways, but others pushed the issue in the corners.
This intense racing continued for the next 30 laps until Hamlin dropped to the apron in the tri-oval with smoke billowing from his No. 11 FedEx Express Toyota. Although he was one of the best cars in the draft, Hamlin’s terrible luck continued as he scored his third DNF in the last four races.
Hamlin’s troubles brought out the caution with 49 laps remaining and sent the field to pit road for what many figured to be the final time of the day. As NASCAR gave the one to go signal, a number of cars – including Johnson – came back in to top off the fuel before the restart with 45 laps to go.
Three-wide racing following the restart gave way to single-file racing as the field came to 30 laps to go. That did not last long however, as the bottom lined formed and the action picked up with Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin charging towards the front.
As the laps clicked away the racing intensified. With five laps remaining Newman looked to bump-draft teammate Stewart to the front of the pack. Hitting the back of the No. 14 Chevrolet, Newman was tagged from behind causing the first big crash of the day. The contact sent Stewart into the outside wall, as Newman shot down the track into Kevin Harvick. Spinning around backwards, Newman’s No. 39 U.S. Army Chevrolet lifted into the air, landing on the hood of Harvick’s car before shooting back up the track and into the outside wall on its roof. Sliding back down the banking the No. 39 flipped again in the grass before coming to a rest on its roof. Sadler and Marcos Ambrose were also involved.
An outspoken critic of cars getting airborne, Newman had to be cut from the car after the safety crew righted the No. 39. Uninjured in the crash, Newman explained he was sore from the incident, but overall was disappointed in NASCAR’s rules for Sunday’s race.
“I wish NASCAR would do something,” Newman said after leaving the infield care center. “It was a boring race for the fans. That’s not something anybody wants to see, at least I hope not. If they do, go home because you don’t belong here.
“It’s just a product of this racing and what NASCAR has put us into with this box and these restrictor plates with these types of cars,” he went on to say. “You know with the yellow line, no bump-drafting, no passing. Drivers used to be able to respect each other and race around each other. Richard Petty, David Pearson and Bobby Allison and all those guys have always done that. I guess they don’t think much of us anymore.”
Following a 12 minute and 34 second red-flag period, the yellow was brought out and the cars rolled around to set up for the final dash to the checkers. With fuel a concern prior to the lengthy clean-up, a number of cars including Gordon, Montoya, Earnhardt Jr., Martin and David Stremme ran out of gas and had to hit pit road with only a handful of laps remaining.
With others having trouble and some running out of gas, Johnson’s strategy of lying at the back of the pack all day finally paid off. Restarting the race in the 16th spot, the points leader looked to make three clean laps and emerge from the wild-card race with a secure lead in the standings.
Roush Fenway Racing’s McMurray led the field to the final restart of the day for the green-white-checkered finish. The field broke into two- and three-wide racing as everyone battled for position. Coming off turn 4 to get the white flag, Kurt Busch received a bump-draft from Brad Keselowski that sent the No. 2 car sideways in front of the rest of the field. A number of cars were involved as Martin’s No. 5 Chevrolet tumbled on its roof and back on four wheels before hitting the outside wall.
As the field wrecked behind him, McMurray led the field to the white and yellow flag to score his first victory in 85 races. Kasey Kahne overcame losing the draft early in the race and contact with AJ Allmendinger to finish second. Joey Logano, Greg Biffle, Jeff Burton, Johnson, Michael Waltrip, Keselowski, Sadler and Earnhardt Jr. rounded out the top 10.
“I saw the guys wreck behind me and I didn’t know if you had to take the white in order for, I wasn’t real sure what the rules were, and the No. 9 went to the outside because he saw the same issue, but I just moved up and kind of tried to block him,” McMurray said in victory lane. “As soon as I crossed the start-finish line I shut the engine off and pushed the clutch in and coasted around as far as I could. What an exciting day. We had a lot of fans out here today and, certainly, thanks to them.”
While the end of the race was a jumbled mess thanks to a number of cars running out of fuel, McMurray truly had one of the better cars in the field. The No. 26 led the field five times for a total of 31 laps, more than any other driver.
Only three races remain in the 2009 season, and with the series headed to Texas the action will continue to heat up. Johnson was able to survive the biggest threat to his title run and enters next weekend’s race with an over 180-point lead over his teammate Martin.
“I am good with that. That is a good number,” Johnson said of his lead with three races to go. “I really have to give Chad (Knaus, crew chief) credit for coming in and pitting and putting fuel in the car. That’s what set us up for this great finish. To be far enough ahead on the racetrack that I wasn’t caught up in that big wreck.”
Sunday’s AMP Energy 500 from the Talladega Superspeedway featured 58 lead changes amongst 25 drivers and was slowed by caution six times. Next week the Chase for the Sprint Cup continues to Texas, followed by Phoenix and the season-finale in Homestead.