NASCAR

Big finishes mark Talladega races

Clint Bowyer, Kevin Harvick
Who won? It's often hard to tell.
SceneDaily.com JEFF OWENS
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When you think about the most memorable races at Talladega Superspeedway, one thing typically comes to mind: big, spectacular crashes.

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Jeff Owens

Massive pileups that wipe out large portions of the field and leave carnage spread far and wide. Astonishing, jaw-dropping crashes that fray the nerves and remind you of the dangers of auto racing.

It is the track NASCAR drivers fear most and the races they most dread.

But NASCAR’s largest and fastest track is also known for something else, an element that often gets overlooked in the chaos: fantastic finishes.

Thrilling, frantic, mad dashes to the checkered flag that leave fans on the edge of their seats and breathless when it’s all over.

That’s what restrictor-plate racing at Talladega Superspeedway is all about. The melees and pileups are just part of the sideshow.

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Nowhere on the Sprint Cup circuit is the racing more thrilling than at Talladega, the 2.66-mile behemoth where stock cars roar around the high-banked oval like a freight train.

They race bumper to bumper and door to door, packs of 20, 30 and sometimes 40 cars locked together like they are carrying magnets, creating an immediate and continuous sense of excitement and danger. Watching a 40-car pack roaring off Turn 4 and racing down the Talladega frontstretch, separated by mere inches, is one of the most thrilling spectacles in sports.

And it’s even more exciting when the checkered flag is in the air.

Of the 30 closest finishes in NASCAR Sprint Cup history, eight of them came at Talladega Superspeedway. Take away special events like the qualifying races at Daytona and the season-opening Budweiser Shootout (also at Daytona), and Talladega has eight of the closest 23 finishes.

Dale Earnhardt’s victory over Ernie Irvan by 0.005 of a second in the 1993 DieHard 500 at Talladega was the closest finish in NASCAR history at the time — a record that stood until Mike Skinner nipped Earnhardt by 0.004 of a second in a Daytona qualifying race in 2001.

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Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch now own the closest finish in history, bumping and banging their way across the finish line only 0.002 of a second apart at Darlington in 2003.

The Earnhardt-Irvan finish at Talladega is now tied for third with Jamie McMurray’s victory over Kyle Busch in the 2007 Pepsi 400 at Daytona and Jeff Burton’s win over teammate Clint Bowyer in one of the Gatorade Duels back in February.

Of the 30 closest finishes in NASCAR Cup history, 19 came at either Daytona or Talladega, two big, high-banked tracks where restrictor plates and the aerodynamic draft create the closest racing on the circuit. And there’s a good chance another one joins the list every time the series takes the green flag at the two tracks.

The two races at Talladega last year both featured fantastic finishes and the closest margins of the season.

Kevin Harvick, who won the closest Daytona 500 in history (over Mark Martin in 2007), nipped McMurray by 0.011 of a second at Talladega last spring — a race that featured a record 88 lead changes among 29 drivers. Harvick and McMurray hooked up in a two-car draft and pulled away from the lead pack on the final lap. Then, during the final sprint down the front straightaway, Harvick slipped to the inside of McMurray and nipped him by inches at the finish line.

Not to be outdone, the fall race created an even closer finish. When a caution flag flew on the final lap, signaling the end of the race, Harvick and Richard Childress Racing teammate Clint Bowyer were side by side — so close that it resulted in a photo finish that took NASCAR officials a while to sort out. Ultimately, after reviewing video of their positions when the caution flag waved, Bowyer was declared the winner — by inches. (There was no official margin since the race ended under caution.)

But perhaps the most spectacular — and controversial — finish at Talladega came in April 2009, when Brad Keselowski pulled off a huge upset while driving for a part-time team.

Keselowski and Carl Edwards were racing toward the checkered flag nose to tail when Keselowski darted to the inside and the two cars touched, sending Edwards’ car flying through the air, landing on the hood of Ryan Newman’s car and then ricocheting into the frontstretch catchfence, ripping it apart.

Keselowski won the race while Edwards literally jogged across the finish line after climbing from his mangled car. Keselowski officially won the race by .175 over Dale Earnhardt Jr., but it would have been much closer had Edwards’ car not gone sailing into the fence.

The fall 2009 race at Talladega also was headed for a thrilling finish when chaos erupted again. After Jamie McMurray took the white flag, a massive pileup broke out behind him, sending nearly a dozen cars spinning and wrecking, including Mark Martin's car, which flipped and slid down the straightway on its roof.

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For a while, McMurray’s first victory in two years seemed like an afterthought amid the calamity on the final lap and Martin’s car flipping and skidding.

Unfortunately, that seems to be the norm at Talladega — the big crash overshadowing a fantastic finish.

When Earnhardt nipped Irvan in 1993, it was an afterthought amid the chaos of the day. The car driven by Neil Bonnett, who was returning to the track after recovering from a serious head injury, lifted into the air and sailed into the catchfence, nearly tearing it down.

Later, during a wild, multicar crash, Jimmy Horton’s car flipped and rolled over the Turn 1 wall. OVER THE TURN 1 WALL. It sailed right out of the track and rolled down a hill, where Horton miraculously climbed out uninjured.

Stanley Smith wasn’t so lucky. He slammed into the wall in the same crash and suffered a severe head injury that required him to be airlifted to a local hospital during the race.

After such spectacular and frightening crashes, it’s easy to forget or overlook one of the closest finishes in NASCAR history.

In a way, that’s a shame. While the wild, nerve-racking crashes are a big part of the mystique and popularity of Talladega, it is the breathtaking racing and fantastic finishes that make the track special.

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