After crashes, McMurray takes the flag at Talladega

Sunday, November 1, 2009 | 8:26 p.m. CST; updated 8:32 p.m. CST, Sunday, November 1, 2009
Mark Martin (5) flips during an accident in the AMP Energy 500 on Sundayat Talladega Superspeedway.

Talladega, Ala. — Ryan Newman offered plenty of thanks after emerging unscathed from his horrific crash Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway, where his rear-ended Chevrolet did a back flip, landed on a rival's hood, spun around on its roof and then rolled side-over-side before coming to rest in an upside-down, mangled heap.

For nearly 10 minutes Newman, the 2008 Daytona 500 winner, dangled bottom-up in his seat as rescue-workers righted his pancaked car and sheared away its roof so that he could be extricated.

Edwards Watch

Carl Edwards finished in 14th place at the track where he crashed earlier in the season. He remains 10th in the Sprint Cup standing.

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After being examined and released from the infield medical-care center, Newman thanked everyone who had constructed the equipment that kept him safe, from his racecar's chassis designer to its seat-belt manufacturer.

But he had no kinds words for NASCAR, whose efforts to prevent a repeat of April's last-lap horror at the 2.66-mile superspeedway, in which seven spectators were injured by flying debris after a car sailed into the front-stretch fence, produced a race that was 90 percent single-file tedium and 10 percent mayhem.

"It was a boring race and a ridiculous race," Newman said. "The more rules, the more NASCAR is telling us how to drive the cars, the less we can race, and the less we can put on a show for the fans."

This time, no spectators were injured. But two drivers' cars got airborne in the crashes that erupted over the last five laps — Newman's in a five-car pileup, and Mark Martin in a 13-car, last-lap melee that also snared fellow championship contenders Jeff Gordon and Juan Pablo Montoya.

Roaring on to take the checkered flag was Jamie McMurray, 33, in a Roush Fenway Racing Ford. He was followed across the finish by Kasey Kahne in a Dodge and rookie Joey Logano in a Toyota owned by Joe Gibbs Racing.

In terms of the battle for NASCAR's 2009 championship, the wild finish amounted to an early Christmas present for Jimmie Johnson, who's seeking a record fourth consecutive Sprint Cup title.

Johnson entered Sunday's race with a 118-point lead over Martin. And for the first time this season, Johnson employed a conservative strategy, dropping to the rear of the field during the early laps in hopes of steering clear of the multi-car wrecks that invariably erupt at Talladega.

Johnson didn't even try to make his way to the front until 20 laps remained in the 188-lap event. For a moment, it looked as if he had badly misplayed his hand, mired back in traffic and unable to find a drafting partner to help him gain speed by hooking up nose-to-tail for an aerodynamic boost.

Suddenly the best cars started crashing or running out of gas. And Johnson ended up sixth, padding his lead over Martin, who finished 28th and is 184 points in arrears with three races left.

Gordon, who finished 20th, is 192 points back.

Johnson could scarcely believe his luck and credited crew chief Chad Knaus for calling him to the pits late in the race for a final splash of gas. But along with McMurray, he was one of the few happy with the day's proceedings.

From the vantage point of most drivers, the race was a bore. And for those who wrecked, it was an aggravation, to boot.

Part of the problem is the nature of racing at Talladega, NASCAR's biggest, most treacherous track, which was built in 1969 and is ill-suited to the horsepower of present-day V-8 engines.

Speeds are so fast at Talladega that cars are apt to get airborne if they spin. To prevent that, NASCAR mandates carburetor restrictor plates that choke the air to the engine and keep cars under 200 mph. That appeases insurers, but the unhappy upshot for drivers is that it bunches up the cars in tight packs, increasing the likelihood of multi-car crashes.

While drivers dread the roulette-like aspect of racing at Talladega, NASCAR fans love it, flocking to it for the near-certainty of a close finish and at least one spectacular crash.

That said, NASCAR officials tried to slow cars further for Sunday's race by mandating smaller openings in the restrictor plates. It was clear after Friday's practices that the change (an extra 1/64th of an inch) was too small; speeds were barely affected.

So in Sunday's pre-race drivers' meeting, NASCAR President Mike Helton warned against overly aggressive driving and said that bump-drafting — the practice of intentionally ramming a car from behind to give both an aerodynamic boost — wouldn't be tolerated in the speedway's sweeping corners, where it tends to cause cars to spin out instead.

Drivers complied. And for the first 185 laps, Sunday's race was as orderly as a funeral procession. In fact it was so tame that one driver cracked over his radio that he needed No-Doz; another asked for an iPod.

But with 20 laps to go, a high-speed fracas broke out.

Gordon, who ran out of gas during the caution laps that followed Newman's crash, rejoined the race, only to get caught up in the 13-car wreck on the last lap.

"I guess I'm glad we were able to run out (of gas) when we did," Gordon said. "We were at least able to get back out there and destroy our car."


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