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Last year Jimmie Johnson couldn’t catch a break on any of the four restrictor-plate races on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule, failing to finish three of the four and wrecking on the last lap in the final one. But things are different this year.
Johnson’s 13th-place finish in the Camping World RV Sales 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race Sunday at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway capped a year in which Johnson swept the two races at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway and managed to come home with the fenders still intact on his No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet SS in the spring at Talladega in addition to Sunday’s performance. More importantly, Johnson left the 2.66-mile oval Sunday at Talladega as the leader in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, overtaking Matt Kenseth by four points with four races to go.
Johnson led 10 times for 47 laps, earning a coveted bonus point for leading the most laps. Despite exciting three- and four-wide racing throughout the event, Johnson ran a fairly uneventful race at the wildly unpredictable superspeedway. He raced up front for most of the 188 laps, leading for the first time on lap 50 and battling for the lead throughout most of the race.
During green flag stops on lap 121, Johnson took four tires early in the pit cycle. He rejoined the field mid-pack, running 17th on lap 126, but took the lead again on lap 132. On lap 160, Johnson brought the Lowe’s Chevy down for service for the final time under green. After a slight chassis adjustment and taking only right-side tires, he was running 10th as pit stops cycled. With seven laps to go, the field was running single file for nearly the first time all day. Johnson pulled out of formation to start a new line. But no other cars followed, and Johnson slipped to 17th place.
“We had a great race car and led a lot of the race,” said Johnson, who has two wins at Talladega (April 2006 and 2011). “At the end there, the No. 1 (Jamie McMurray) decided to run the top and took the bulk of cars with him. As that happened, the middle lane that I was in quickly became the bottom lane and then quickly didn’t exist. I dropped like a rock for a while and was able to get in the outside lane and start making some spots back and fortunately missed the big pile-up on the backstretch.”
Despite getting shuffled out of line, Johnson held on for what was a wild final lap that included a wreck between Austin Dillon and Casey Mears. Johnson pulled through unscathed in his Lowe’s machine to finish 13th and passed Kenseth for the points lead with four races remaining before the 2013 NASCAR champion is crowned.
“I feel that the races forward now are up to where the competitors go earn it,” Johnson said. “You don’t have this luck issue that can take place at plate tracks. So I am happy to have the points lead, and we went through a lot of work to get there. We were just getting one point at a time, and we got a few more than normal today and were able to get the lead. We just go racing from here, and that is the thing I am most excited for. Great racetracks, great racecars, and it’s just going to be a dogfight to the end.”
Jamie McMurray won the Camping World RV Sales 500 to score his seventh career Sprint Cup victory, his first of the season and his second at Talladega.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished second behind McMurray under caution, while Ricky Stenhouse, Paul Menard and Kyle Busch rounded out the top-five. David Ragan, David Gilliland, Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Newman and Clint Bowyer comprised the remainder of the top-10.
There were three caution periods for 10 laps, with seven drivers failing to finish the 188-lap race.
With four races remaining before a champion is crowned after the season finale Nov. 17 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the top-13 drivers competing for the title rank as follows:
The next event on the Sprint Cup schedule – the seventh race of the 10-race Chase – is the Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500 Oct. 27 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway. The race begins at 1:30 p.m. EDT, with live coverage provided by ESPN beginning with a pre-race show at 1 p.m.