Bump 'n' Done
Headed for victory at Talladega, Dale Earnhardt Jr.—and his title hopes—took a hit as Brian Vickers banged past to win
DALE EARNHARDT JR. pulled his Budweiser baseball cap low to shield his eyes from the setting Alabama sun as he walked through the garage at Talladega Superspeedway late on Sunday afternoon. Thirty minutes earlier Junior had been leading on the final lap of the UAW-Ford 500. Had the race finished then, he would have climbed to within 16 points of first place in the championship standings. The rabidly pro-Earnhardt crowd of 160,000 had been on its feet as Little E charged at 190 mph on the high line—his trademark—into Turn 3. But then Jimmie Johnson, running hard on Earnhardt's bumper with his Hendricks Motorsports teammate Brian Vickers just behind, pulled out to take one last shot at the win. Vickers, seeking to bump Johnson past Earnhardt, instead hooked the right rear of Johnson's Chevy, sending it into Earnhardt's car. As Little E and Johnson spun down off the high banking and into the infield, Vickers raced past to the checkered flag. Even before Junior refired his engine, his shot at the 2006 Nextel Cup had gone up in the cloud of smoke that swirled around him.
Yet now he was oddly upbeat. "I ain't that mad," said Earnhardt, who is sixth in the standings after finishing 23rd at Talladega. "It was just hard racing, and I got caught up in it. We're in a hole right now, no doubt, but you never know. Crazier things have happened."
October 15, 2006
The big winners at Talladega—aside from Vickers, whose first career victory brought a rain of boos and beer bottles from the grandstands—were Matt Kenseth (who finished fourth) and Mark Martin (eighth), who are both closing fast on the back bumper of points leader Jeff Burton. With six races left, the field of championship contenders has been whittled to five: Burton, Kenseth (who trails by six points), Martin (10 points), Kevin Harvick (33 points) and Denny Hamlin (51 points). The only way Earnhardt (106 points), Jeff Gordon (147 points) and Johnson (156 points) can race their way back into the title picture is if the leaders falter, which is unlikely given how relentlessly consistent the current top five have been over the last two months, especially Burton and Kenseth.
"I'm just bummed," said Johnson. "We've had cars worthy of a championship, but crazy things have happened at the end."
In the garage after the race Earnhardt approached Johnson, who was standing in front of his hauler. The pair leaned in close together like two kids sharing a secret. Neither driver blamed the other for their last-lap collision—all fingers in the garage were pointed squarely at Vickers—and before Earnhardt walked away, he shared a sentiment that succinctly summarized the ending to his day, to Johnson's day and to most of the red-clad crowd's day:
"That," Junior said, "sucked."
A Star Is Born?
Last Friday at Talladega, Juan Pablo Montoya made the most anticipated NASCAR debut in years, and it was likely that no one's heart was beating faster than that of owner Chip Ganassi, who stood a few feet from his driver before the start of the Food World 250 in the ARCA series, which is the Double A of NASCAR.
"When I asked Juan Pablo to race for me, I thought he was kidding when he said he'd do it," says Ganassi. "I'm still stunned."
Montoya, 31, who won the 2000 Indy 500 while driving for Ganassi, has spent the last 51/2 years in Formula One, winning seven races. But in June, Montoya—a native of Bogotà, Colombia, who lives in Miami—told Ganassi that he would like to become the first F/1 driver to jump to NASCAR and compete full time in the Nextel Cup series. A few weeks later he signed a multiyear contract to drive Ganassi's number 42 Dodge beginning in 2007. In his first stock car race last Friday, Montoya showed tantalizing potential. After starting second, he dropped as low as 31st but then worked back up through the field to finish third.
"I'm having fun," said Montoya. "I'm actually passing cars, which hardly ever happens in Formula One."
More NASCAR analysis from Lars Anderson at SI.com/racing.
Vickers (25, and inset right) sent Junior (8, and inset left) and Johnson on a last-lap ride.