Only Room for One
David Poole, Charlotte Observer
For 497 miles in what turned out to be a Jimmie Johnson victory
at Talledega Superspeedway, Monday's Aaron's 499 was a Hendrick
Motorsports group hug.
Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Brian Vickers had run at or near the
front of the pack all day, helping each other draft whenever
They had done it so well that as they steamed toward the white
flag they'd eliminated just about everyone except Tony Stewart
from contention at the season's second restrictor-plate race.
Then the teamwork ended.
"When it comes down to the end of the race, a 1-2-3 finish is great," said
Vickers, who led at the white flag as he sought his first Cup victory. "But
all three of us wants to be 1."
Stewart, who cooled his heels well back in the pack for most
of the afternoon before coming to the front near the end of
a race that saw 56 lead changes - the most here since July
1984 - wanted that No. 1 spot, too.
Stewart led with nine laps to go. But when the Hendrick trio
laid back on the restart, Stewart was overwhelmed down the
backstretch and fell out of the top 10 before working back
And so, those four cars swept under the white flag with Vickers
in front trying to figure out who to block and the other three
trying to guess which way they should go to get around him.
It was merely a matter of picking his poison for Vickers. When
he went to the outside to blunt Gordon's momentum, Johnson
was on the low side and gaining steam with a drafting push
from Stewart. Gordon tried to counter by going even lower,
but broke his momentum and he spent the final lap fading to
Vickers tried to go back to thwart Johnson's charge, but was
too late. With Stewart pushing the No. 48, Johnson cleared
Vickers and was gone. Stewart followed him through into second
and Vickers had to settle for third.
A whole lot more happened on a sunny afternoon following Sunday's
rainout. A 15-car wreck took out several potential front-runners
on Lap 9, and a seven-car incident on Lap 174 set up the final
In between, there was a good bit of three-, four- and even
five-wide racing that makes Cup events at this 2.66-mile track
so compelling and so frightening.
Kasey Kahne, one of the drivers involved in the early wreck,
wasn't cleared to get back in his car once repairs were made,
but neither he nor anyone else was seriously injured.
Stewart was 18th on a restart on Lap 157 and still 10th on
another one 14 laps later. Three laps after that green flag,
though, he was leading and might have been hard to catch had
it not been for that final yellow.
"I just kind of rode around and at the end when it was
time to go, we did,"
said Stewart, for whom the runner-up finish was the sixth of
his career - without a win - at this track. "There were
two or three guys in particular up there today I didn't want
to be anywhere near on the track. It's amazing that these guys
haven't figured it out. They get up there and race their guts
out all day, beat themselves up and get in trouble."
Stewart, though, nearly had that strategy backfire. When Dale
got loose and spun on Lap 88, Stewart ran into the No. 8, and
did minor damage to the nose of his car.
Earnhardt Jr. fought back, and was in contention until he lost
an engine and fell out, finishing 31st.
Johnson led Laps 123-124, but while he didn't fall back as
far as Stewart did, he still tried to stay out of trouble until
it was time to hand out the trophy.
That restrictor-plate lesson came hard for Johnson, who got
blamed for his roles in big wrecks in both of last year's races
here. But he made patience pay off in winning the Daytona 500
this season, and now he's two-for-two in plate races this season.
"There were so many times today that I decided not to block somebody or
make a move," said Johnson, for whom the win was his third overall this
year, the 21st of his career and his first at this track. "I'd get pushed
back but I just dealt with it and fought my way back through there."
The car Johnson drove in winning the Daytona 500 in February
is on display at a museum at that track for a year. So the
car built by crew chief Chad Knaus, who missed Johnson's trips
to Victory Lane at Daytona and Las Vegas while serving a suspension,
was new. It had never been to the wind tunnel and, Knaus said,
the paint was still drying before the trip here.
With the race on the line, Johnson knew
he'd have to keep Vickers from getting his first win. "I
know how hard they've been working for a win,"
Vickers never expected Johnson, Gordon or anyone else to cut
him any slack.
"Do I wish Jimmie had helped me win?" he said. "Hey
I wish that there were
42 guys who would have helped me. But if Jimmie wouldn't have
tried to pass me for a win, I don't know that I would have
And he certainly didn't expect it.
Not as long as there's only one "1" in the end.