Monday November 2nd, 2009

Five things we learned at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway on a crisp fall afternoon:

1. Jimmie Johnson will be the 2009 Sprint Cup champion. The only way anyone was going to catch Johnson, who held a 118-point lead heading into Sunday, was if he either wrecked or had a mechanical problem at Talladega. Well, neither happened. For Johnson, the key moment of the race took place when the second big wreck of the afternoon erupted with one lap left. Mark Martin got the worst of it -- he ended up airborne -- while Johnson expertly navigated his way through a slew of spinning cars and emerged unscathed. This is exactly what he was able to do last year at 'Dega and it propelled him to the championship. Here we go again.

Johnson now has a 182-point lead over Martin. Considering that the last three tracks on the schedule -- Texas, Phoenix and Homestead -- are three of Johnson's best, this Chase is essentially over. "I'm not going to let up and lose focus to the job I need to do and allow the championship to be in the forefront of my mind until it's mathematically locked up," Johnson said. "I can still lose 165 points next week if I miss a shift and blow the engine at the start of the Texas race and Mark has a perfect day.

"So with all that in mind, yes, I am feeling much better about things. I was so concerned about this race. I thought I was going to lose points with about three or four [laps] to go. So to have it turn around and leave with points, I didn't expect it.

"It's a very, very good situation we're in."

Yes it is. Johnson is poised to make history as the first driver to win four straight Cup championships.

2. NASCAR needs to figure out a way to keep the cars on the ground. For the second straight race at Talladega, a car ended up going airborne. In one of the most horrifying wrecks of the year, Ryan Newman's No. 39 Chevy spun around and hurled backwards down the track at 190 mph. It then launched into the air, landed on its roof, skidded upside down for several hundred yards, and slammed into the wall. It was the kind of wreck that drivers might not walk away from, but Newman did because, thankfully, the car's safety features worked properly.

After every wreck, NASCAR takes the damaged car to its R&D center in Concord, N.C., to examine every inch of the vehicle. Certainly, one question the engineers and safety experts will try to address is what more can be done to keep the cars from going at airborne at restrictor-plate tracks. The roof flaps on Newman's Chevy did deploy, but that didn't keep Newman from heading skyward. Something, clearly, needs to be done. Otherwise, someone will soon be seriously injured -- or worse -- at Talladega.

3. Jamie McMurray notched a much-needed victory. At the end of the season McMurray will lose his ride at Roush-Fenway Racing, which is trimming its number of cars from five to four. McMurray is the odd man out on the team, and for good reason: he's underperformed. In his four years with Roush, McMurray hasn't finished higher than 16th in the standings.

Still, McMurray's always been an outstanding restrictor-plate racer, and on Sunday he showed that again. Late in the race, he rode the draft to the front and then held on as the two Big Ones happened behind him. This ended an 85-race winless streak and put some life into what has been a miserable season. Word around the garage is that he'll be moving to the No. 1 car next year at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing.

4. Aside from the last few laps, Sunday's race was a snooze fest. You know a race is boring when even the drivers admit that they're having trouble staying awake, which is what Tony Stewart announced over the radio on Sunday. But that's what happens when NASCAR prevents drivers from bump-drafting in the corners. Instead of racing each other hard this weekend, drivers simply played follow-the-leader for the majority of the afternoon.

What should be done? Well, it would cost millions of dollars, but if the banking in the corners, which is 33 degrees, were flattened out, then drivers would have to use their brakes. This would spread the cars out, lessen the importance of aerodynamics and the draft, create an atmosphere for better racing, and, obviously, reduce speeds. An ancillary benefit of doing this: the racing would be safer.

5. Jimmie Johnson will win next Sunday at Texas. To find out why, check back on Friday.

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