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MOTOR RACING

Jimmie Johnson just keeps moving forward

Johnson all but clinches his fourth straight Sprint Cup season title by avoiding crashes to finish sixth in a full-contact restrictor plate race at Talladega.

November 02, 2009|Tania Ganguli

TALLADEGA, ALA. — It was shortly after Ryan Newman's No. 39 Chevrolet flipped and landed on its roof, crushing the roll cage onto his helmet and preventing him from getting out of his car, that Jimmie Johnson all but won the 2009 NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.

Until then Johnson's strategy for the afternoon wasn't working at all. He hovered near 30th place for most of the Amp Energy 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, planning to make a move late. With bump drafting outlawed in the turns, single-file racing ensued for the first 100 laps. Drivers complained of boredom, and Johnson could not find a way to the front.

Then suddenly the boredom ended. Two spectacular wrecks in the race's final 10 laps sent cars upside down and drivers to the infield care center, unharmed but shaken. The first set up a green-white-checkered finish and the second ended it with Roush Fenway Racing's Jamie McMurray as the winner.

Johnson finished sixth and extended his points lead in his quest for an unprecedented fourth consecutive championship. He leads second-place Mark Martin by 184 points. That means Johnson can't lose the lead next week, no matter what happens during the race.

"I'm still in shock," said Johnson, who was in 24th place 10 laps from the finish. ". . . It was such a relief to finish and make up points. I'm trying to keep it back because I do feel bad that the guys crashed coming to the finish."

Martin finished 28th, falling victim to a 13-car crash.

NASCAR's previous two restrictor-plate races -- at Daytona in the summer and at Talladega in the spring -- both ended with the leaders involved in violent last-lap crashes. No drivers were hurt, but seven fans were injured in April when Carl Edwards' No. 99 Ford hit the catch fence and sent debris into the stands.

To improve fan safety, Talladega raised fence heights eight feet. To lessen the chances of that kind of wreck, NASCAR mandated smaller restrictor plates to lower cars' horsepower and outlawed bump drafting through Talladega's turns.

The result: Drivers drove even more cautiously than normal in the early laps of a restrictor-plate race.

"I'm as bored as [fans] are sitting in the car," Denny Hamlin said mid-race after his engine failed on Lap 137. "Let us race. They gave us a car to race, now let the drivers handle it."

As the race progressed, they became more aggressive, especially on straightaways where they were still allowed to push each other. Newman's crash began that way with two bumps from Marcos Ambrose on Lap 183.

The No. 39 Chevrolet turned backward and went airborne, then flipped into the grass with the roll cage trapping Newman inside. He waited about seven minutes as NASCAR righted the car and pried off the roof.

"The more rules, the more NASCAR is telling us how to drive the race cars, the less we can race and the less we can put on a show for the fans," Newman said.

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tganguli@orlandosentinel.com

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