TALLADEGA, Ala. — Teamwork meant very little in the closing laps at Talladega Superspeedway.
Unless, of course, you were driving a Ford.
Clint Bowyer bailed on teammate Jeff Burton on the last lap of Sunday’s race, pulling around him when the checkered flag was in sight to pick up his first win of the season and the 100th in the Sprint Cup Series for Richard Childress Racing.
“You hate that it comes down to that; it is what it is,” shrugged Bowyer. “You owe it to your team, to your sponsors to go out and win the race. Unfortunately, it came down to that situation.”
Burton and the RCR bunch understood that’s how the game is played.
The grumbling was far behind the leaders, where Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne ditched Jeff Gordon because Bayne was part of a pact made by Ford drivers to only push fellow Ford drivers in an effort to help Roush Fenway Racing drivers Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth in the championship race.
Gordon was seventh on the final restart and thought Bayne was committed to pushing him over the last two laps. Instead, Bayne backed off, and Gordon, with no help, faded to 27th. An animated Bayne went immediately to Gordon’s car after the race, then posted his thoughts on Twitter.
“I’m not happy about what this has become,” he posted on Twitter in reference to Talladega’s two-car drafting style and the reliance on partners.
“It’s too premeditated. We should be able to go with whoever is around us. I would have rather pulled over and finished last than tell (Gordon) I would work with him and then be strong armed into bailing.”
The race at NASCAR’s biggest and fastest track finished roughly 30 minutes after the memorial service for two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon ended in Indianapolis.
Wheldon was killed in the IndyCar season finale a week ago at Las Vegas, and NASCAR honoured him with decals on all the cars and a moment of silence before the start of the race.
Gordon said he was deceived.
“The Fords made it very clear about what they were doing in working with one another,” Gordon said. “So I didn’t expect him to commit to me on the radio. I expected him to say, ’Man, I’m sorry, I can’t.’ And when he said, ’Yeah, I’m pushing you, we’re good,’ I believed him. I think they had a different plan.”
The Wheldon death made for some poignant moments during pre-race, as Kevin Harvick clung tightly to wife, Delana, and many drivers were seen giving long embraces to loved ones.
And as expected, the race heated up in the closing laps.
Drivers jockeyed for position and partners in the new two-car drafting system. Although the race was not marred by “the big one,” there was a series of accidents, and the last, with eight laps remaining, was a hard hit by Regan Smith that required repairs to the SAFER barrier.
It made for a shake-up in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship standings. Harvick and Kyle Busch were both in accidents, and five-time defending series champion Johnson finished 26th as he and partner Earnhardt never made their charge to the front.
Edwards, who came into the race up five points over Harvick, finished 11th and saw his lead swell to 14 points over Roush Fenway Racing teammate Matt Kenseth.
There were hard feelings after the race as drivers were upset at etiquette in the closing laps. Stewart had been working with RCR driver Paul Menard during the second half of the race, but Menard wasn’t able to push him to the win when the race restarted after Smith’s accident with two laps to go.
Instead of contending for the win, Stewart finished seventh.
But team owner Richard Childress said Menard was there to help Stewart, a fellow Chevrolet driver.
“I went on Paul’s radio and told him go up there and push Tony and try to win the race,” Childress said. “I wanted him to win the race, but I also wanted him to push Tony. That was just the way it was.”
If Stewart had been a Ford driver?
“We were going to help Chevy try to win,” Childress said. “I’ve been Chevy all my life. It’s kind of hard to change an old dog.”
That’s what made Bowyer’s move easier to swallow for Burton. When the two of them pulled away from the pack, and it became clear the race to the win was only between the two of them, Burton knew he was going to be challenged on the last lap.
“I knew he was going to make a move,” Burton said. “He was supposed to make a move. He ain’t expected to push me to the win.”
It was redemption for Bowyer, too. He lost the spring race here when Dale Earnhardt Jr. pushed Jimmie Johnson past the Bowyer-Burton tandem and Bowyer settled for second. At New Hampshire last month, he led late but ran out of gas in the closing laps as Tony Stewart took the victory.
Bowyer, the defending race winner, snapped a 34-race losing streak and thanked Burton from Victory Lane.
“We just were really good together. We thought about it, we talked about it a lot before the race and things really did play out just how we planned,” said Bowyer, who is moving to Michael Waltrip Racing at the end of the season.
“It was a pretty calm day, to be honest, kind of methodical. We wanted to stay up front. I told him we needed to stay up front, that way when the time comes, we’re ready for it and we can race the way we should race. I was trying to figure out where to pass him, and said ’I’m at least going to give a shot at it.’ And I knew it was going to be a drag race.”
Kurt Busch, who was involved in an accident with Bobby Labonte, also griped about the tandem racing after his 36th-place finish. Busch ran directly into Labonte, partly because he was pushing another car and didn’t have any time to see Labonte spinning ahead.
“Our championship hopes are done just because of this two-car Talladega draft,” said Busch, who is sixth in the standings, 50 points behind Edwards.
Burton finished second, his best finish in what was supposed to be a terrific season but turned south when his engine blew in the season-opening Daytona 500.
Dave Blaney worked with Brad Keselowski the entire race, and they finished third and fourth. Keselowski, who drives for top IndyCar owner Roger Penske, had “In Memory of Dan” across his back bumper.
“I’m very proud of the effort, proud to have a good day and very fortunate to have missed all the wrecks,” Keselowski said. “It must have had something to do with (Wheldon) on the back of the car. It was a great day for us, and I just want to say a shout-out to him and his family.”