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TALLADEGA, Ala. – Chaos is a recurrent theme at Talladega Superspeedway.
Huge wrecks are part of the game. A major shake-up in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship seemed possible, even likely, after 500 miles on the big trioval.
Well, the big one didn't happen.
The standings don't look all that different, either.
Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth swapped spots at the top — Johnson now leads Kenseth by a scant four points instead of the other way around — but those two are still firmly in control of the Chase with four races left.
Jamie McMurray won Sunday's race at Talladega. Johnson and Kenseth kept plenty of distance on the competition.
Johnson steered around a last-lap crash and finished 13th. Kenseth dropped to second with a 20th-place showing, but it's another 22 points — a daunting margin — to Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick tied for third. Jeff Gordon, who had hoped Talladega's unpredictable nature might help him make a big push, made up only two points and is 34 behind the leader.
"Thirteenth isn't the best finish," Johnson said, "but with what we are trying to do and win a championship, we beat the competition. That is good."
Gordon tried to put the best face on finishing 14th heading to next weekend's race at Martinsville.
"We didn't gain really anything but we didn't really lose anything, so it's sort of a wash," he said. "In that sense, we didn't tear up the race car, I'm standing here, and we just move on to the next one."
McMurray took the checkered flag for the first time in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series since 2010, snapping a 108-race winless streak, and didn't even have to worry about a planned last-lap charge from Dale Earnhardt Jr. The race finished under caution after rookie Austin Dillon spun on the last lap, leading to a huge collision with Casey Mears that amazingly didn't impact any other cars.
Not the typical Talladega crash by any means.
"Once you get toward the end, it usually gets more intense and everybody starts taking bigger risks," McMurray said. "I'm really surprised they couldn't put something together to make more of a run. I'm shocked by that, actually."
Mears slammed head-on into Dillon's car and sent it flying into the air before it came back down upright.
Everyone was OK.
"I was trying to go for the win there," said Dillon, who was filling in for injured Tony Stewart in the No. 14 car and competing in just his 12th Sprint Cup race. "A wild ride. I just have to thank NASCAR for everything they have done for safety. That hit was fine. I got to drive the car back" to the garage, though he settled for 26th after going to the final lap in third.
The race was essentially trouble-free. There was a minor wreck early on when Marcos Ambrose got loose in front of the main grandstand and took out Juan Pablo Montoya, and 103 consecutive laps under green until the yellow and checkered flags waved together at the end.
Earnhardt settled for second, followed by Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Paul Menard and Busch.
"For some reason," Earnhardt said, "it was a lot calmer the last few laps."
After running strong early in the 188-lap race, Kenseth dealt with an ill-handling car and lost several spots when he attempted to make a move late in the race.
"It was really bizarre. Typically handling is a non-issue here," Kenseth said. "We finally got it fixed that last run, but we only had 20 laps to get back up there. I really needed to be up there like we were early and feeling I was controlling the race more."
McMurray, who isn't part of the Chase, won for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing and took a phone call in victory lane from car owner Chip Ganassi, still in California celebrating Scott Dixon's championship in the IndyCar series the previous night.
Earnhardt, a huge fan favorite at Talladega, had hoped to make his move going down the back straightaway on the final lap.
He never got the chance.
"I guess if we're in that situation next time," Earnhardt said with a shrug, "we'll try to go a lap sooner."
Johnson wound up leading 47 laps, Earnhardt 38 and Kenseth 32.
McMurray led only one lap until he got to the front with 15 to go, after the final round of green-flag pit stops. He held that spot the rest of the way, showing again his knack for restrictor-plate racing. He has won twice each at Daytona and Talladega, accounting for more than half of his seven career victories.
There was a huge pack behind him — 25 cars running within 3 seconds of each other — but nobody could figure out a way to get to the front.
Even if the caution had not come out, Earnhardt wasn't sure if he had enough momentum to pass the leader.
"I didn't have the greatest run," he said. "I wish I was in front."
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