The car of Sprint Cup Series driver Austin Dillon (14) goes airborne with… (Greg McWilliams / Associated…)
TALLADEGA, Ala. -- The perfect storm was shaping up as the lead pack shuffled into the last lap Sunday at Talladega.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was second, his front bumper on top of leader Jamie McMurray. Earnhardt started to make a move on McMurray, but then looked in his rear-view mirror and saw the pack slowing down. It was only a two-car dustup between Austin Dillon and Casey Mears, but for Earnhardt it was game over.
McMurray won under caution on the final lap and the frustration of Earnhardt and his fans will spill over for at least another week.
"It's frustrating because the worst part about it really is you go home and you'll spend months thinking about what you could have done to not be second," Earnhardt said.
Earnhardt has four second-place finishes this Cup season and his winless streak at Talladega extends to 2004.
The news was not all lousy for the Hendrick Motorsports team, though, as Jimmie Johnson went from four points down to four points ahead of Matt Kenseth in the scramble for the Chase for the Cup title. Barring a bizarre turn of events for Johnson and Kenseth, no other driver has a realistic shot at the title with four races left.
"It was an incredibly disappointing day," said Kenseth, frustrated that not enough cars tried to make a run at the bottom of the track in the final laps. "They must be still thinking about it because no one made one."
Johnson finished 13th and Kenseth 20th, and Johnson picked up a precious point by leading the most laps, 47. But at least they left Talladega with their championship hopes intact. The threat of a multi-car pileup always looms large in Talladega, but this was one of those deals comparable to a few raindrops in anticipation of a thunderstorm.
The last 10 laps were mostly single-file racing, with no one making a significant run and uneventful until Ricky Stenhouse Jr., running in the top five , tried to make a move as the final lap approached.
But Stenhouse lost control on the second turn and got tangled with Dillon, who likely would have lined up with Earnhardt to try to make a run at McMurray. Dillon ended up collecting Casey Mears, who went airborne to create the most indelible image of the day.
That left McMurray all alone and coasting to victory. McMurray said he spent the last 20 laps looking at his rear-view mirror for a move that never came.
"I was getting ready to start swerving to try to get in front of him," he said. "I don't know. It would have been interesting to see if he could have broken the plane of our bumper where we would have ended up."
It was McMurray's first Cup victory since 2010 and brought tears of joy to a man who risks getting labeled the "Dick Vermeil of NASCAR" for his emotional outbreaks after winning.
McMurray celebrated in Victory Lane with his wife Christy and almost 3-year-old son Carter and 8-month-old daughter Hazel. The winner had to bribe Carter with chocolate to get him to smile for the cameras.
"To have that with my family was really cool," McMurray said.
Earnhardt played it as best he could, considering he was in good shape in second for the closing laps, but all that control vanished in his rear-view mirror.
"It's all kind of a blur as to how we ended up in second, but I had no reason to make a move before the last lap being in second place," Earnhardt said. "I was in perfect position to be patient and wait as long as I wanted to. ... I knew that I had everything to lose and really one spot to gain by going early, so I waited until the last lap."