TALLADEGA, Ala. - Everyone expects the big one to happen at Talladega Superspeedway.
For some reason, it never occurred Sunday.
Oh sure, there was a wreck on the final lap, which allowed Jamie McMurray to coast to the victory under caution.
But by the standards of this place, it was about as clean as can be.
“Once you get toward the end, it usually gets more intense and everybody starts taking bigger risks,” McMurray said. “I was listening to my spotter and he would say, `A line is forming, but it’s not very organized and they’re not making up any ground.’ I’m really surprised they couldn’t put something together to make more of a run. I’m shocked by that, actually. I thought guys would take bigger chances at the end.”
McMurray won for the first time in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series since 2010, snapping a 108-race winless streak, and didn’t even have to worry about a planned last-lap charge from Dale Earnhardt Jr. after Dillon spun coming out of the second turn.
The only other driver collected in the crash was Casey Mears, who slammed into Dillon’s car and sent it flying into the air before it came back down upright. Everyone was OK.
“I was trying to go for the win there,” said Dillon, who was filling in for injured Tony Stewart in the No. 14 car and competing in just his 12th Sprint Cup race. “A wild ride. I just have to thank NASCAR for everything they have done for safety. That hit was fine. I got to drive the car back” to the garage, though he settled for 26th after going to the final lap in third.
A race known for massive crashes was essentially trouble free. There was a minor wreck early on when Marcos Ambrose got loose in front of the main grandstand and took out Juan Pablo Montoya, and 103 consecutive laps under green until the yellow and checkered flags waved together at the end.
Earnhardt settled for second, followed by Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Paul Menard and Kyle Busch.
“For some reason,” Earnhardt said, “it was a lot calmer the last few laps.”
Jimmie Johnson steered around trouble and finished 13th, emerging from the race with the lead in the Sprint Cup standings. The five-time Cup champion passed Matt Kenseth for the top spot and has a four-point edge with four races remaining.
Kenseth finished 20th. Busch and Kevin Harvick are tied for third, 26 points behind Johnson, with Jeff Gordon - who had hoped Talladega’s unpredictable nature might help him make a big push - made up only two points and is 34 off the lead.
“Thirteenth isn’t the best finish,” Johnson said, “but with what we are trying to do and win a championship, we beat the competition today. That is good.”
After running strong early in the 188-lap race, Kenseth dealt with an ill-handling car and lost several spots when he attempted to make a move late in the race.
“It was really bizarre. Typically handling is a non-issue here,” Kenseth said. “We finally got it fixed that last run, but we only had 20 laps to get back up there. I really needed to be up there like we were early and feeling I was controlling the race more.”
McMurray, who isn’t part of the Chase, won for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing and took a phone call in victory lane from car owner Chip Ganassi, still in California celebrating Scott Dixon’s championship in the IndyCar series the previous night.
Earnhardt, a huge fan favorite at Talladega, had hoped to make his move going down the back straightaway on the final lap.
He never got the chance.
“I guess if we’re in that situation next time,” Earnhardt said with a shrug, “we’ll try to go a lap sooner.”
Johnson wound up leading 47 laps, Earnhardt 38 and Kenseth 32.
McMurray led only one lap until he got to the front with 15 to go. He held that spot the rest of the way, showing again his knack for restrictor-plate racing. He has won twice each at Daytona and Talladega, accounting for more than half of his seven career victories.
Three drivers - Johnson, Earnhardt and Kenseth - dominated the race until McMurray claimed the top spot after the final round of pit stops began with 25 laps to go. The typical Talladega pack - 25 cars running within 3 seconds of each other - formed at the front and began plotting ways to make a move without causing the massive wreck that always seems to occur at the 2.66-mile trioval.
There was a bit of two- and three-wide jockeying before the leaders lined up single file, settling in for what turned out to be a relatively comfortable ride to the finish for McMurray.
Even if the caution had not come out, Earnhardt wasn’t sure if he had enough momentum to pass the leader.
“I didn’t have the greatest run,” he said. “I wish I was in front.”