This week, SPEED.com counts down the five best NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races of the 2010 season. No. 1 is the Aaron’s 499 at Talladega Superspeedway.
It’s pretty simple, really: If you want to see a great NASCAR race, head to Talladega Superspeedway.
Since it first opened in 1969, the mammoth 2.66-mile Alabama oval has hosted some of the most thrilling races in NASCAR history, from Richard Brickhouse’s win in the first race to Bill Elliott coming from two laps down in the mid-1980s to Dale Earnhardt rallying back from 17th place over the last four laps to win the final race of his illustrious career in 2000.
Drama, competition and — yes, danger — have long been staples of the Talladega experience and 2010 was no exception, with Kevin Harvick wowed the Talladega crowd with a last-lap, last-second pass of Jamie McMurray to claim victory in the Aaron’s 499. Juan Pablo Montoya finished third, followed by Denny Hamlin, Mark Martin, David Ragan, Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Mike Bliss and Carl Edwards.
With his stunning last-lap pass, Harvick broke a 115-race winless streak, dating back to the 2007 Daytona 500.
Earlier in the weekend, Harvick and crew chief Gil Martin talked in detail about how to make the last-lap pass.
“We made a plan before the race, and I'm telling you, every piece of it played out exactly how we wanted to play it,” Harvick said. “We put four tires on the car when we wanted to, we pitted when we wanted to, we stayed out of the pack when we wanted to until it was time. And then coming into the last lap, that's exactly how we planned it out on paper, and it's hard to not pull out, but I could say that we were way in front of all the guys behind us with the push that I was able to give Jamie there. And when he made that dart to the right, I immediately went to the left.”
“I was really guarding against the outside, and when he went left, it did, it really loosens the car up,” said McMurray, who earlier in the year had won the Daytona 500. “ ... When there's someone directly behind you and they pull their car out of line really fast, it's like you pull a parachute in your car. It literally feels like you lose three or five miles an hour immediately, and when that happens, the car that's doing the passing just has the momentum.”
And McMurray knew he was a sitting duck.
“Really once he got underneath me, all I was doing was side drafting and hoping I could stall him out and just get him back to the start-finish line,” McMurray said.
It was down to the very end.
Harvick’s No. 29 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet crossed the start-finish line just 0.011 seconds ahead of McMurray’s No. 1 Earnhardt Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates Chevrolet. It was the second-closest finish in Talladega history and the eighth-closest finish in NASCAR since the advent of electronic timing and scoring in 1993.
“This is about as sweet as it gets,” said team owner Richard Childress, no stranger to victory lane here. “This is as good a race as you can see at Talladega.”
He was spot on.
On Lap 181, Gordon got a tremendous run on the inside line. But Johnson pulled left directly in front of him, forcing Gordon to lift off the throttle, which dropped him well back in the pack.
Then, on Lap 182, Mike Bliss tagged Jeff Burton on the frontstretch tri-oval, sending Burton into the outside wall, then down to the low lane, where he clipped Gordon, who had slipped well back in the pack after being balked by Johnson. The contact with Burton heavily damaging the nose of the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, forcing Gordon into the pits .
“We got a huge push going down the back straightaway,” said Gordon, who was credited with a 22nd-place finish. “And I don’t know who it was, the 39 (Ryan Newman) maybe or somebody gave me a big shove and I was coming 10 miles an hour faster than anybody and the 48 (Johnson) is testing my patience I can tell you that. It takes a lot to make me mad and I am pissed right now. You know when a car is going that much faster. ... I don’t know what it is with me and him right now but whatever.”
Afterwards, Johnson did not directly address his situation with Gordon, but allowed as how he didn’t much enjoy the end of the race. “You know it's going to happen,” he said of a spate of late-race accidents. “We all do. I've been fortunate to miss a lot of them. I just hope to miss the fall when the points are really on the line.”
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100 and e-mail him at Jensen is the author of “Cheating: The Bad Things Good NASCAR Nextel Cup Racers Do In Pursuit of Speed,” and has appeared on numerous television and radio shows. Jensen is the past President of the National Motorsports Press Association and an NMPA Writer of the Year.