The recipe for Talladega Superspeedway’s late-race “big one” – impatient drivers maneuvering their cars sometimes three-wide at 200 mph as the finish line looms – wasn’t cooked up Sunday during the Geico 500.
Instead, Dale Earnhardt Jr. closed out the race with a mostly well-behaved single-file line trailing behind him. Only a few final-lap spins – “little ones’’ – by Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin disturbed the order.
“It was weird to see a single-file line that long,” said runner-up Jimmie Johnson. “But I was just protecting.”
There was a significant accident earlier in the race, when Kurt Busch took the air off Trevor Bayne’s rear end on Lap 47, causing a 14-car dust-up.
But after that, there was nothing that remotely resembled the big one, a wreck that’s become famous at Talladega, which, at 2.67-miles, is NASCAR’s longest, fastest and most treacherous track.
As the race wound down, a single line of cars at the top of the track dutifully followed Earnhardt, headed by Johnson, with Blaney and Hamlin behind. Pulling out of the line and trying to pass wasn’t necessarily an aerodynamically good idea. At Talladega, that means a driver will drop several spots unless another competitor goes with him.
That went on for several laps, until Hamlin decided to make his move. It didn’t work, but it also wasn’t as catastrophic as many wrecks at Talladega often are.
“You’re just protecting your running position,” said rookie Ryan Blaney, who finished fourth. “You don’t want to go out (and try and to pass) too soon, because you don’t know if anybody is going to go with you.”
Johnson said he was going to wait until the final lap to make a move on Earnhardt. But when Hamlin went, Johnson had to protect himself, playing defense. That essentially ended any chances he had of winning.
“I think everybody was just protecting,” said Johnson. “It’s just weird to see one unfold and you stay single file that long. It’s mind-boggling. I knew my best chance was making a move off of (turn) 4. Denny made his move the lap before on Ryan going into three. Our energy of our draft died out and there wasn’t any opportunity.”
All of which was fine with the race winner.
“I was definitely happy there was a single file for those last 20 laps,” said Earnhardt. “That meant that I only had to worry about one lap: the final one.”