Dustin Long
Monday April 18th, 2011

Jimmie Johnson lived it. He breathed it in, felt every twitch, shake and shudder. He heard the different pitches from those in his ear to those from the engines. The scene unfolded in a high-speed blur, yet a mix of details remained vivid, despite how quickly the moment passed.

It wasn't until more than an hour after he won Sunday's race at Talladega Superspeedway that Johnson saw the finish as everyone else did. It was then, watching a replay for the first time did he see the last-lap chaos from a fan's point of view. How the two-car tandems collected off Turn 4. How they nearly crashed. How they reformed into a larger pack. How they ran toward the finish beside each other. And how he won.


It was all Johnson could say.

NASCAR's best driver at coming from behind to win was all but left speechless -- and this was the 14th time since 2006 that he had won by taking the lead in the final 10 laps.

His victory was a one-lap drama that featured several characters and numerous actions. Or as Clint Bowyer put it: "Just all hell broke loose.''

Had anything gone differently, it would have resulted in somebody else winning, maybe Bowyer, maybe Kevin Harvick, maybe Jeff Gordon.

Instead, it was Johnson winning by 2-thousandths of a second, tying for NASCAR's closest finish since the advent of electronic scoring in 1993.

How did Johnson emerge from the chaos to win?

As the field took the white flag to begin the final lap around the 2.66-mile speedway, Gordon led with teammate Mark Martin pushing him. The tandems of Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle and Bowyer and Harvick followed. Johnson, with Dale Earnhardt Jr. pushing him, was seventh.

Leading, Gordon worried he was in trouble.

"When we got the lead, coming to the white, it was probably too early," he said. "Those guys were going to get a run on us. We just tried to block the bottom.''

Bowyer and Harvick dove to the bottom in Turn 1 and passed Edwards and Biffle. Johnson and Earnhardt followed two car lengths behind as Edwards and Biffle fell back on the high side in the corner.

On the backstretch, Bowyer and Harvick moved to the high side and ran beside Gordon and Martin, who were protecting the bottom line. Johnson tried to pick a lane.

"I was screaming on the radio to him not to lift no matter what,'' said Earnhardt, referring to how he and Johnson were on the same radio frequency.

Bowyer nosed into the lead in Turn 3, as Johnson and Earnhardt went to the bottom to make their move.

Martin and Gordon blocked Johnson's path.

"I felt like I was out of moves,'' Johnson said after the failed attempt to get by. "I felt like I missed my chance.''

Gordon and Martin were low and Bowyer and Harvick were high. A little over a mile remained.

Johnson's feelings changed as they raced into Turn 4.

"The scenarios were changing so fast there,'' Harvick said. "If it would have been just (Gordon and Martin) on the bottom, I felt like we were going to beat them back, but then (Johnson) and somebody else came up there. You try to make it work but you just do the best you can and adjust on the fly.''

With the four cars running two abreast in front, their momentum slowed.

"We were both stalling one another out,'' Gordon said.

Johnson and Earnhardt closed.

It seemed like a good thing for Bowyer and Harvick, as Harvick's spotter Billy O'Dea radioed them: "You guys got help in your line. Just keep going.''

But they couldn't go any faster.

Johnson was almost too fast. He eased off the accelerator so he could get a bigger push from Earnhardt. His teammate slammed into the rear bumper of Johnson's car, causing it to wiggle as they exited Turn 4.

"See him hit me hard right there,'' Johnson said, watching the final lap of the race. "That's where he was getting into my bumper, so we had the energy. I know it's go time.''

Johnson radioed Earnhardt he was going to the bottom lane and darted left.

"Oh no,'' Bowyer said to himself. "Block 'em, block 'em block 'em.''

Martin again tried to block Johnson and Earnhardt. Martin was too late this time.

"We just had a little too much speed coming,'' Johnson said.

But there was nearly trouble behind him.

Earnhardt said he and Martin hit "real hard.'' Earnhardt said the contact "turned myself sideways and I thought we were going to have a helluva wreck.''

They made it through, but Martin's move sent Johnson to the bottom of the track in the tri-oval, his left-side tires running on the yellow lines that mark NASCAR's out of bounds.

Before each restrictor-plate race, where the yellow line rule is enforced, drivers are reminded of the rule. In a brief video played in the drivers meeting before the race, a narrator explained:

"This is your warning.

"Race above the yellow lines. If in NASCAR's judgment, you go below the yellow lines to improve your position, you will be black-flagged.

"If in NASCAR's judgment, you force someone below the yellow lines in an effort to stop them from passing you, you may be black-flagged.''

While some might debate if Johnson went below the yellow line to pass, NASCAR would not find enough evidence to issue any penalty.

Johnson, Gordon and Bowyer ran three-wide in the tri-oval for the lead. Johnson surged ahead. Gordon fell back, but Bowyer made one last charge on the outside line as they led an eight-car pack across the finish line.

"Did he get me?'' Bowyer said on his radio.

Johnson also didn't know who won. He had been on Earnhardt's radio frequency, so crew chief Chad Knaus or any other team members couldn't tell Johnson he won.

He drove into Turn 1 still not knowing.

Then he heard Earnhardt on the radio.

"Hell, I think (Johnson) won,'' Earnhardt said.

"Then I started going nuts,'' Johnson said.

After his victory lap, Johnson drove up pit road and headed for Victory Lane. Earnhardt saw him coming and ran to congratulate his teammate.

Johnson went to hand Earnhardt the checkered flag.

"Man, I don't want that,'' Earnhardt told Johnson.

"Well, I've got to give you something for the push and working with me,'' Johnson said.

"That's what teammates do.

"Take the damn flag. I'll give you the trophy, too.

"I don't want the trophy. I'll take the flag, though.''

Moments later, Earnhardt handed the flag to crew chief Steve Letarte.

"Hey, take that to the shop,'' Earnhardt said. "I'll sign it and get Jimmie to sign it.''

Bowyer had no such memento. Instead, he left with a place in NASCAR history, tying Kurt Busch for the closest loss. Busch had been victim to Ricky Craven in that dramatic Darlington race in 2003. Now, Busch had company.

"It's never very good to know you made NASCAR history by losing,'' Bowyer said. "Sooner or later, I need to start marking history by winning. (Johnson) has won enough.''

Dustin Long covers NASCAR for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., The Roanoke (Va.) Times and the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C. His blog can be found at here.

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