TALLADEGA, AL (Sports Network) – With pushing help from Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the final lap, Jimmie Johnson edged Clint Bowyer by the slimmest of margins to win Sunday’s Aaron’s 499 at Talladega Superspeedway.
Johnson, the five-time defending Sprint Cup Series champion, worked with his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Earnhardt Jr., in a two-car tandem for a majority of the 500-mile race.
Earnhardt Jr. pushed Johnson on the inside lane, while Richard Childress Racing teammates Kevin Harvick and Bowyer and the Hendrick duo of Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon ran on the outer lanes through turns three and four on the last lap around the 2.66-mile superspeedway.
Johnson pulled ahead of Bowyer for the lead just yards away from the finish line, and then beat Bowyer to the line by only 0.002 seconds for his second Talladega win. His first victory here came in May 2006.
Johnson’s margin of victory tied the closest race finish in NASCAR’s top-tier series since the sanctioning body began using electronic timing and scoring in 1993. Ricky Craven beat Kurt Busch by the same margin in the 2003 spring race at Darlington.
“We got hooked up and rolling, and then all of the sudden, there were two groups in front of us,” Johnson said. “We had a big run on the backstretch. Then I just rode through three and four, and I’m thinking, ‘We’ll get another chance I hope.’ They were all worried about each other in the second and third lane and left the bottom lane open. We had some big momentum on our side and off we went. It was great how the plan worked out.”
Johnson claimed his 54th career Cup victory, but his first since last September at Dover (15 races ago).
Bowyer was attempting to win his second straight Talladega race. Last October, he nipped Harvick in a chaotic finish here.
“We did everything we could do,” said Bowyer, who led the most laps with 38. “I saw them [Johnson and Earnhardt Jr.] coming in the mirror. I was saying, ‘The 24 [Gordon] better start blocking those guys, and they were too worried about racing us. Just all hell breaking loose. That’s what happened.”
Jeff Gordon, the pole sitter, finished third, while Earnhardt Jr. took the fourth spot and Harvick, who won this race one year ago, came in fifth.
“I was more comfortable pushing Jimmie, and I thought we were the faster combination that way,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “We just kind of hung in there together. We got clear of the pack coming to the white [flag], and I told Jimmie to not lift no matter what happens.”
Earnhardt Jr.’s winless streak in the series is now 101 races.
“If I couldn’t win the race, I wanted Jimmie to win it, because I was working with him all day long,” he added.
Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle, Martin, David Gilliland and Joey Logano completed the top-10.
The margin among the top-eight finishers was just 0.145 seconds in a race that featured a NASCAR record-tying 88 lead changes. There were the same amount of lead swaps in last year’s spring race at Talladega.
Three of the six cautions in the race came for multi-car wrecks, including one for a six-car incident just before the halfway point.
Brad Keselowski spun and then collided into David Ragan after he was hit from behind by his Penske Racing teammate Kurt Busch. Ragan’s engine blew just before Keselowski ran into him.
“It was wild ride, but it’s just part of racing at Talladega,” said Keselowski, who won the spring race here in 2009.
Trevor Bayne, the Daytona 500 champion, and Kasey Kahne were among those caught up in the crash. The rear of Kahne’s car erupted into flames when he drove onto pit road. He quickly exited the car unharmed.
“I saw [Ragan’s] car blow up in front of me, and then saw fire come out from underneath it,” Bayne said. “[Biffle] did a good job getting off the back of me. At the same time, somehow the 2 car [Keselowski] got hooked. So I just went down to the bottom and got on the apron. Then somebody caught me in the rear.”
A five-car crash occurred with 49 laps remaining. Kyle Busch got hit from behind by his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Logano, while the two were drafting. Busch spun around and took out Matt Kenseth, who won last weekend’s race at Texas. A.J. Allmendinger was also involved in the incident.
“I was following Kurt [Busch], and we were making some good moves up there,” Kenseth said. “All I could see was the guy’s spoiler and nothing else moving at 200 m.p.h., which is not the safest environment.”
Edward remained the points leader, holding a five-point advantage over Johnson.