TALLADEGA, Ala. — Jimmie Johnson walked up to crew chief Chad Knaus in the fading twilight at Talladega on Sunday, gave him a little bro-hug and exhaled.
“Dude, seriously?” Johnson asked after his improbable sixth-place finish extended his points lead to 184 with three races left in the season.
On a day when the three-time defending champion’s game plan backfired, he still somehow managed to squeeze his way into the top 10 and take another major step to becoming the first driver to win four consecutive titles.
Johnson planned on spending the first half of the race in the back of the pack to avoid “The Big One,” the term given to the massive pileups that have become a trademark of restrictor-plate racing at the massive 2.66-mile oval.
One problem, NASCAR’s warning about bump drafting in the corners had drivers on their best behavior and Johnson found himself 30th with 18 laps to go and no Hendrick Motorsports teammates in the vicinity.
It had all the makings of disaster. And Johnson knew it.
“Our strategy killed us, our strategy didn’t do us any good today because there wasn’t the big wreck halfway through the race,” Johnson said.
Yet, as has become routine over the last three-plus seasons, a little luck and some quick thinking from Knaus saved the day. Again.
When the race was red-flagged following Ryan Newman’s spectacular wreck with five laps to go, Knaus ordered Johnson onto pit road for fuel. While other chase for the championship competitors found themselves out of gas on the restart, Johnson zoomed to the front and managed to avoid the pile-up at the finish for his best performance at the track in two years.
“Everybody had the option (to get gas),” Johnson said. “People can say we were lucky today but if you really think about it, Chad made the decision to pit. It wasn’t that we missed something or got lucky about something. Chad called me down pit road for fuel, and that’s what got us into position.”
Johnson’s relief afterward was palpable, and the normally reserved driver acknowledged — a little — that he knows the chase is his to lose.
“We’re just going to keep doing what we’ve been doing and try to close this thing out as soon as possible,” Johnson said.
NEWMAN’S RIDE: One second Ryan Newman was running behind boss Tony Stewart, the next he was lying upside down on top of Kevin Harvick’s car at 180 mph.
If this is progress on safety at Talladega, count Newman out.
Newman’s wild ride with five laps remaining was the kind of high-profile wipeout NASCAR was hoping to avoid when it modified the rules hours before the race. Newman had his No. 39 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet tucked in behind Stewart when he nudged his boss.
Newman checked up slightly before getting nicked by Marcos Ambrose, sending Newman veering to the left. He flipped upside down and landed on top of Harvick before sliding off and skidding several hundred feet on his roof. He then tumbled back to the infield grass, rolling over a couple times before finishing upside down.
“It’s probably the closest thing to being stuck in a tomb and not being able to get out. All my body weight was pressed up against my head,” Newman said.
Emergency crew members had to cut Newman out, and while he escaped serious injury he didn’t mince words about the safety measures NASCAR and the track adopted after Carl Edwards went hurtling into the fence during the spring race.
“We don’t need the cars getting upside down like this,” Newman said. “This is ridiculous. There is way more technology than that to help us out. Whether it is a speed issue, a roof flap issue, whatever.”
NASCAR cut the size of the restrictor plates to take off some of the top-end speed on the cars then issued a stern warning to drivers about bumping in the corners. And Newman still found himself flying through the crisp fall air five laps from the finish.
“It is a shame that not more is getting done,” Newman said. “I don’t know. I guess maybe I expect NASCAR to call me. I am the only guy out there with an engineering degree. I would like to have a little respect on my end.”
RESUME BUILDER: Jamie McMurray’s victory couldn’t have come at a better time for the 33-year-old driver. His deal at Roush Fenway Racing expires at the end of the season, and he needs a ride next spring.
His first win in 86 races is something nice to put on the resume, especially now. He also knows it doesn’t guarantee him anything heading into 2010.
“There’s not a lot of rides available right now,” he said.
Maybe, but there’s at least one car in need of a driver next year after Martin Truex Jr. opted to leave Earnhardt Ganassi Racing for Michael Waltrip Racing. And McMurray may have let a little something slip during his postrace session with reporters.
“I think everyone knows the cars that are available right now,” he said. “For me, I just hope we can get it, you know, signed and announce it whenever they want to so it will make it a little bit easier to sleep at night.”
HOME MAKEOVER: Talladega Superspeedway will have a new look when NASCAR returns next spring.
The track is reconfiguring the grandstands from the end of Turn Four through Turn One, part of a plan that calls for widening the seats at the massive 2.66-mile tri-oval.
Track president Rick Humphrey said widening the seats and the aisles will reduce capacity by about 13,500 to around 130,000. Humphrey added the renovation is designed to make the fan experience at the 40-year-old venue more comfortable.
The two-part project will begin on Monday when demolition begins on seats in Turn Four. Half of the renovation is expected to be done in time for the 2010 spring race at the track, with the remaining portion done before the fall race.
The track will also slash the price of select ticket packages. A two-day ticket in the Allison Tower next year will go for $49, down from $60.
HAPPY RETURN: Blake Bobbitt returned to Talladega on Sunday, six months after being seriously injured during Carl Edwards’ last-lap crash during the spring race.
The Alabama teenager’s jaw was crushed when debris from Edwards’ last-lap wreck struck her as she sat in the grandstands. She had surgery and lost several teeth before spending several weeks with her jaw wired shut. She’ll need another surgery to move a bit of bone from her jaw.
Bobbitt visited with Edwards — who she has become text message buddies with — in his hauler then was escorted to the drivers’ meeting by track president Rick Humphrey. She chatted briefly with NASCAR president Mike Helton before meeting Bobby Labonte while television crews documented her every move.