In a race dominated early by Matt Kenseth and later by fellow title contenders Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jamie McMurray got to the front at the right time, led the last 15 laps and grabbed victory in Sunday's Camping World RV Sales 500 at Talladega Superspeedway.
McMurray was out front, leading Earnhardt in the sixth Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup race of the season, when a slight tap from Ricky Stenhouse Jr.'s Ford sent Austin Dillon's Chevrolet spinning into the outside wall on the backstretch.
Impact from Casey Mears' Ford launched Dillon's car into the air and severely damaged both machines.
The resulting third caution of the race froze the running order with McMurray in front for his first victory of the season (and first since 2010), Earnhardt second and Stenhouse a career-best third.
For the second time in as many weeks, a non-Chase driver went to Victory Lane in a Chase race, the first time non- Chasers have won consecutive Chase races since Tony Stewart won back-to-back at Atlanta and Texas in 2006.
That McMurray won at Talladega for the second time in his career, however, should come as no surprise at all. Four of McMurray's seven career wins have come at restrictorplate tracks.
In the last 20 laps, the field spread out single-file in the top lane, and in fact, McMurray — with his Cessna-sponsored No. 1 Chevrolet adorned in Auburn University colors — had surged into the lead from the outside on Lap 174, moving up the track in front of Stenhouse and Earnhardt as the outside line began to move.
"At the plate tracks, to get the right line, it requires a lot of risk, and I felt like I was pretty patient all day, and I saw the 17 (Stenhouse) and the 88 (Earnhardt) coming on the top," McMurray said. "It just seemed the top was the better place to get hung out than if you got hung out on the bottom. Fortunately, I was able to get myself in position.
"I don't know how the last lap would have played out, because I could see the 88 trying to set me up and trying to figure out where he could get a run on me, but then I saw the caution come out behind me. Honestly, I wanted to see it end under green, but at the same time, I said if there was a caution, I would be OK with that right now, too."
Paul Menard came home fourth, followed by Kyle Busch. David Ragan, the winner at Talladega in May, ran sixth. David Gilliland, Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Newman and Clint Bowyer completed the top 10.
Jimmie Johnson finished 13th, despite leading a race-high 47 of 188 laps, but took over the series lead from Matt Kenseth, who fought an ill-handling car during the second half of the race and finished 20th after dodging the last-lap wreck. Johnson leads Kenseth, who led 32 laps, by four points with four races left in the Chase.
Junior's last lap victory plans go up in smoke
In the late-race heat of the final laps of the Camping World RV Sales 500 Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway, Dale Earnhardt Jr. seemed to be in the preferred seat.
Then the legs were kicked out from under him.
Earnhardt Jr. was running second to eventual winner Jamie McMurray over those closing miles, and fellow Chevrolet driver Austin Dillon was in third – all at the front of a long single-file Talladega draft. The assumption along pit road – and the anticipation in the track's sweeping grandstands – was that Junior would pull out of line on the backstretch on the last lap, Dillon would follow him and they would sweep past McMurray to produce what would have been a very popular Earnhardt Jr. victory.
In an instant, that idea dissolved.
On the final lap, Dillon, driving in place of the injured Tony Stewart in the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet, lost control of his car. Casey Mears plowed into the rear of Dillon's car, shooting it into the air and sparking a big wreck. That brought out the day's third and final caution, "freezing" the field immediately and dropping the win into McMurray's lap without a challenge from Earnhardt Jr. or anyone else.
"I had no reason to make a move before the last lap," Earnhardt Jr. said. "Being in second place, I was in perfect position to be patient and wait as long as I wanted to. I can't anticipate a caution coming out every single time we run a Talladega race. I assume we're racing to the checkered."
Earnhardt Jr. finished second, in front of Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Paul Menard and Kyle Busch.
Junior said he planned to attempt to pass McMurray on the back straightaway.
"We let the 1 car (McMurray) get out there," he said. "I got a run with the 14. I was moving around a little to where the 1 thought I might be going. I knew I had to sort of fake him out. Then I noticed the run stopped."
The run stopped because Dillon's car had sailed into the air.
"I don't know what Austin would have done, for sure," Junior said. "But I thought he was probably going to help me once, and, after that, you're on your own. We hadn't really talked to the 14. We were just waiting to the last lap to make a run. That's what we were trying to do."
Because of the pattern of late-race crashes in recent races at Talladega, Earnhardt Jr. said he might adjust his thinking about the proper time to be aggressive.
"We have a last-lap wreck every time," he said. "I guess next time we're in that situation we'll try to go a lap sooner."
Although drivers raced two- and three-wide most of the afternoon, the top dozen were in single file over the closing laps, a situation that mystified several contenders, including Earnhardt Jr.
Asked why the pattern of the field changed late, he said, "I don't know. We raced like hell all day long."
By Mike Hembree Special to the NASCAR Wire Service