TALLADEGA, Ala. -- There is one simple rule when it comes to racing at Talladega Superspeedway.
The guy who has your back can always end up kicking you in the butt.
That was evident during the final two laps of Sunday's Good Sam Club 500. Clint Bowyer tucked in tight on the rear bumper of Jeff Burton on a late restart and pushed the duo well ahead of the rest of the pack. Then with the finish line in sight and Burton only seconds away from winning his first race in three years, Bowyer dropped to the low side of the track and passed Burton for the victory.
It was yet another example that, despite all the talk of teammates in NASCAR, this remains an individual sport. The current restrictor-plate rules at Talladega and Daytona mandate that drivers have a drafting partner, somebody they can depend on to provide that aerodynamic boost lap after lap. When the checkered flag flies, however, it's every man for himself, which is something that a 19-year Cup veteran like Burton knows all too well.
"I was going to ask him to give an old man a break, but I knew better than that," Burton said afterward. "I knew he was going to make a move. We had broken off from everybody, and I knew he was going to try something. He's not supposed to push me to the win. He's supposed to go and try to win."
As Burton and Bowyer pulled away down the backstretch, Burton went on the radio and said to Bowyer, "I bet you're thinking about where you're going to pass me on the front straightaway."
"That's exactly what I was thinking," Bowyer said with a laugh. "I already felt bad for him when we were going down the backstretch. But you owe it to your team and to yourself to go out and win the race."
Every Sprint Cup winner of 2011 season
Here are five things we learned from Talladega:
1. Carl Edwards just might win the championship. Despite having only one victory all season, Edwards is now in excellent position to capture his first Sprint Cup Series championship. Edwards has a 14-point lead over Matt Kenseth with only four races remaining. It's not a huge advantage, but it's enough that it probably will take a bad race by Edwards for somebody to catch him.
And Edwards simply has not been having any bad races lately. Sunday's 11th-place finish broke a streak of eight consecutive top-10s for Edwards. He has finished outside the top 15 only once since early July.
"I don't know that I've ever been so excited about 11th place," Edwards said. "We came in here with a small points lead (five points), and we're leaving with a bigger one, and that's a huge day for us. Even though it's not a win, it's a very, very good day."
Still, Edwards said he is far from comfortable.
"We'd have to have about 100-point lead for me to take a breath," he said.
2. Jimmie Johnson's championship streak is over. Johnson finished 26th and is now 50 points out of the lead. The only way he is not eliminated from the championship is mathematically. Realistically, Johnson's amazing title streak is about to come to an end at five.
A decision apparently was made before the race for Johnson and his drafting teammate, Dale Earnhardt Jr., to hang out near the back of the pack most of the day, avoid any potential trouble and make their move near the end. That strategy has worked for teams in the past at Talladega, but it backfired on Johnson and Earnhardt this time. They were still too far back near the end and were unable to work their way toward the front.
Richard Childress, the owner of Bowyer and Burton's cars, criticized that type of racing during the post-race news conference.
"All of our RCR cars raced to give these fans a show," Childress said. "We didn't sit in the back and ride and wait until the last minute. Our cars raced all day long. That's what we get paid for. We don't get paid to ride in the back."
3. The regular-season champs are also out of the title hunt. Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch entered the Chase tied for first place with four victories each. But both drivers were caught up in a midrace wreck that effectively knocked them out of championship contention. Harvick finished 32nd, and Busch came in 33rd. Harvick is now in fifth place, 26 behind Edwards, and Busch is 40 points out of the lead.
The wreck had to be particularly frustrating for Harvick, who entered the race only five points behind leader Carl Edwards. Harvick had posted four top-10s in the first five Chase races and had yet to finish worse than 12th. If he could have made it through Talladega with another top-10 finish he would have been in good shape to capture his first championship.
4. Tandem racing is already tiresome. The two-car tandems were an interesting novelty at first, but they are quickly becoming something you never would have associated with Talladega -- boring. The first three-fourths of the race are almost irrelevant. It's all about setting things up for the final 20 to 25 laps.
You can't blame the drivers for doing whatever it takes to circle the track as quickly as possible, and there is no question that under the current setup tandem racing is the fastest possible option. Tandems were hitting nearly 200 mph during Friday's practice session. Then Mark Martin captured the pole on Saturday with a single-car speed of 181.
There is no easy solution, but something needs to be done. It's one of those situations where NASCAR should ask WWET: What Would Earnhardt Think? It is doubtful that the late, great Dale Earnhardt would consider tandem racing to be real racing.
5. NASCAR is safer than ever. In the wake of Dan Wheldon's death in last week's IndyCar race, the overriding topic this week at Talladega was safety. In a way it is understandable, because auto racing by its nature is dangerous, regardless of the series.
But the safety issues involved in open-wheel racing, in which the driver literally is exposed to outside dangers, are not close to the same in NASCAR. The development of the HANS head-and-neck support device, the introduction of a sturdier car and the installation of SAFER barrier retaining walls have made NASCAR racing safer than ever.
A prime example of that was the accident Regan Smith was involved in late in Sunday's race. The rear of Smith's car was clipped by Martin's car entering turn 2, and Smith's car immediately shot directly into the wall. It was a stunningly hard hit, the type that would have seriously injured and possibly even killed a driver 10 years ago. Instead, Smith walked away from his car unscathed and 10 minutes later was being interviewed.