NASCAR’s undoing of some of its newer rules seemed to be just the cure as Sunday’s Aaron’s 499 at Talladega Superspeedway turned out to be the kind of race NASCAR fans had come to expect at the giant Alabama track.
A good bit of the push for the recent rules changes can be traced to last fall’s Cup race at Talladega, where NASCAR officials had drivers on edge with their vows during the drivers meeting to punish excessive bump drafting. Many blamed that possibility of penalty for a race that was lackluster for most of the 500-mile run.
Then, in the off-season, NASCAR officials told the boys to “Have at it” and do their own policing on the track.
This time around, there was no mention of bump drafting in the Talladega drivers meeting. The drivers were left to police themselves, and they did a relatively good job of it. And the change back to the spoiler from the wing on the rear decklids of the cars seemed to improve the racing, as trailing cars tended to close the gap quicker than before.
When all the factors were added together, Sunday’s Aaron’s 499 had a little something for every NASCAR fan. There were an all-time Sprint Cup record number of lead changes and different leaders, with 29 drivers swapping the lead 88 times, three green-white-checkered-flag finishes that extended the race from 188 to 200 laps, another chapter in the escalating feud between Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.
And to top it all off, a battle to the wire for the win between Jamie McMurray and Kevin Harvick, with Harvick winning by a scant .011 seconds with a pass reminiscent of the old days at Talladega.
“The show isn’t going to get any better than this,” said Juan Pablo Montoya, who finished third behind Harvick and McMurray.
McMurray appeared poised to win his third straight restrictor-plate race, having won at Talladega last fall and the Daytona 500 this year, but Harvick passed him in the tri-oval coming to the checkered flag.
“I think it was very typical Talladega,” Harvick said. “I think there was a lot of pushing and shoving, two and three-wide. The spoiler made it so you could pull back up on somebody if you made a mistake. You just didn’t want to be the very last car. It was very interesting day and it played out perfect for us.’’
Harvick’s crew chief Gil Martin compared the winning pass to ones that occurred at Talladega back in the day.
“That was a tremendous pass just like the old days, like you would have seen Buddy Baker or Cale Yarborough or anybody do here,” Martin said. “That was a tremendous pass, and it was timed perfectly.”
Harvick and McMurray both said that with the aerodynamics of the current car, once Harvick made his final move, McMurray was a sitting duck.
“I was guarding against the outside,” McMurray said. When (Harvick) went left it really loosened the car up. The car doing the passing had the momentum.”
Harvick said his successful pass was a matter of perfect timing. “(McMurray) moved to the right, and I moved to left and that was it,” he said. When you shoot past them it slows them down. It worked out absolutely perfect on the timing.”
Harvick said the record number of lead changes and the exciting finish could be contributed to a combination of the new spoiler that has replaced the wing on the rears of the cars, the drafting skills of the drivers and to NASCAR’s loosening of the enforcement on aggressive driving.
Sixth-finishing David Ragan agreed with him on that.
“I thought it was a lot of fun,” he said. “Certainly, the cars drive really well. I think NASCAR made the right decision on allowing guys to push a little bit more and be a little more aggressive.
“I think it was a pretty clean race, except for maybe the last 10-15 laps and that’s just from everybody losing a little bit of patience.”
One of the few drivers that seemed upset after the race was Gordon, who had another run-in with his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson just prior to being collected in a multi-car crash in Turn Three.
“ The 48 is testing my patience right now,” Gordon said. “I am pissed right now.
“I don’t know what it is with me and (Johnson) right now.”
Harvick’s win also was came at an interesting time, sponsor-wise. Just last week, his Cup team’s primary backer, Shell/Pennzoil announced that it was leaving at the end of the season to move to Penske Racing and driver Kurt Busch.
In Victory Lane, Harvick thanked a long list of sponsors, but mentioned Shell/Pennzoil last.
His crew chief Gil Martin said the team’s win, it’s first since Harvick won the 2007 Daytona 500, 125 races ago, should help the team attract a new primary backer.
“ I hate that Shell Pennzoil is leaving, but the fact of the matter is we’ve got a top‑notch team, so we’re looking for somebody to come on board and start the next chapter at RCR with them,” Martin said.
Said team owner Richard Childress: “This is about as sweet as it gets.”
Rick Minter is a veteran, award-winning sports journalist who joined The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1991 covering motorsports as well as serving as a bureau chief. From 2000-2008 Minter focused on racing exclusively, traveling the NASCAR circuit as the paper’s motorsports writer.
Rick can be reached at email@example.com
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