Sprint Cup Series driver Austin Dillon (14) goes airborne on the backstretch as Jamie McMurray (1) leads cars on the final lap of the race at Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday. (AP Photo/Greg McWilliams)
TALLADEGA, Ala. — Jamie McMurray won at Talladega Superspeedway in a nearly clean race until rookie Austin Dillon lost control on the final lap Sunday, allowing the winner to coast across the line under caution.
McMurray won for the first time in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series since 2010, not even having to worry about an expected charge from Dale Earnhardt Jr. after Dillon spun coming out of the second turn. The only other driver collected in the crash was Casey Mears, who slammed into Dillon’s car and sent it flying into the air before it came back down upright.
A race known for massive crashes 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 flag waved together at the end.
“I was a little discouraged I couldn’t get to the front earlier in the race,” McMurray said. “I felt if I could get there, I had enough speed that it would be hard to pass me.”
He was right.
Earnhardt settled for second, followed by Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Paul Menard and Kyle Busch.
Dillon, who was filling in for injured Tony Stewart in the No. 14 car, wound up 26th after going to the final lap in third.
“Every race here, we have a wreck on the last lap,” Earnhardt said. “For some reason, though, it was a lot calmer the last few laps. Everybody was pretty good about staying in line.”
Jimmie Johnson steered around trouble and finished 13th, emerging from the race with the lead in the Sprint Cup standings. The five-time Cup champion passed Matt Kenseth for the top spot and has a four-point edge with four races remaining.
Kenseth finished 20th. Busch and Kevin Harvick are tied for third, 26 points behind Johnson, with Jeff Gordon — who had hoped Talladega’s unpredictable nature might help him make a big push — made up only two points and is 34 off the lead.
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,” he said. “Typically handling is a non-issue here. We just got loose and I couldn’t even hang on to it. I pretty much had to run in the back for two runs, which was disappointing. 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.
“Our car was a rocket,” Earnhardt said. “I was moving around a little bit to see where I thought the 1 (McMurray) might be going. You’ve got to sort of fake him out. But I looked in the rearview mirror and I saw guys all over the place.
“I guess if we’re in that situation next time,” he added, “we’ll try to go a lap sooner.”
McMurray clearly has a knack for restrictor-plate race. He has won twice each at Daytona and Talladega, accounting for more than half of his seven career victories.
Three drivers — Johnson, Earnhardt and Kenseth — dominated the race until McMurray claimed the top spot after the final round of pit stops began with 25 laps to go. The typical Talladega pack — 25 cars running within 3 seconds of each other — formed the lead train and began plotting ways to get to the front without causing the sort of massive wreck that always seems to occur at the 2.66-mile trioval.
For some reason, the big one never happened.
After racing two- and three-wide, the leaders lined up single file and settled in for a relatively comfortable ride to the finish. With a couple of laps to go, a handful of drivers began dipping to the inside, looking for a way to the front, but no one could figure out a drafting plan to get the needed boost.
That made it easy for McMurray, who led the final 15 laps and didn’t even have to worry about Earnhardt attempting the last-lap slingshot.
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.”
Johnson wound up leading 47 laps, Earnhardt was in front for 38 and Kenseth led 32. McMurray led only one lap until he got ahead at the end.