By Paul Newberry/The Associated Press
TALLADEGA, Ala. — Jimmie Johnson won a Talladega two-step Sunday, edging Clint Bowyer by about a foot with a big push from Dale Earnhardt Jr.
The official margin was 0.002 seconds, tied for the closest finish in NASCAR Sprint Cup history.
The tag-team race came down to an eight-car sprint — actually, four pairs of cars — with only the guys at the front of the duos having a chance to win.
After laying back most of the day, five-time series champion Johnson came on strong at the end for his 54th career victory.
Coming out of the fourth turn, the No. 48 car dipped right next to the yellow line, surged past Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin and got to the finish line just ahead of Bowyer in a four-wide dash.
“What a bummer,” said Bowyer, who led a race-high 38 laps. “I saw him coming.”
Earnhardt finished fourth and essentially gave up a chance to claim his first win since 2008 by deciding he was more comfortable pushing Johnson than getting pushed.
Kevin Harvick, who was Bowyer’s pusher, wound up fifth. Carl Edwards almost got into the mix as well, going right up against the outside wall with Greg Biffle on his bumper but didn’t have enough room to pull it off, finishing sixth.
Biffle was seventh, while Martin dropped back to eighth.
The finish matched the closest since NASCAR went to electronic timing — Ricky Craven edging Kurt Busch in 2003 at Darlington — and made up for a day of lackluster racing with this new tandem style, which the drivers began using at the season-opening Daytona 500 and really perfected at this 2.66-mile trioval.
Twenty-six leaders swapped the top spot 88 times, tying the record set in last year’s spring race at Talladega. Many of those changes were carefully choreographed by pairs that were merely trying to stay out of trouble, conserve their cars and give themselves a chance at the end.
“If you didn’t like that finish and forget about the race, there’s something wrong with you,” Bowyer said. “It always seems to fix itself at the end of these restrictor-plate races. We always have a hell of a finish.”