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Harvick nips McMurray for closest finish since 1993; Keselowski wins Nationwide race

Photo by Todd Warshaw

Photo by Todd Warshaw

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Kevin Harvick executed the pass exactly how his team drew it up in the playbook.

With a last-second slingshot past Jamie McMurray, Harvick snapped a 115-race winless drought with an overdue victory Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway. It was the payoff for perfect strategy devised in conversations over the weekend with crew chief Gil Martin and their Richard Childress Racing team.

Harvick lurked behind in traffic, trying to move his way into second place as the race hit the closing laps. His plan was to set himself up for one attempt at the lead, which he made roughly 500 yards from the finish line by sliding inside of McMurray then drag-racing him to the checkered flag.

"We made a plan, and I'm telling you, every piece of it played out exactly how we wanted to play it," Harvick said. "Coming into to the last lap, that's exactly how we planned it out on paper."

The win gave Harvick his first victory since the 2007 season-opening Daytona 500, and it came in the longest Talladega race in Sprint Cup history. Because NASCAR's new overtime rule allows for three attempts at its version of overtime, the race went 12 laps past the scheduled distance of 188 trips around the 2.66-mile superspeedway.

It covered a record 88 lead changes among a record 29 drivers, and the final pass was the one that had everyone talking.

"I hate to show my age, but that was a tremendous pass just like the old days, like you would have seen Buddy Baker or Cale Yarborough," Martin said. "That was a tremendous pass, and it was timed perfectly."

McMurray, this year's Daytona 500 winner after winning the October race at Talladega, couldn't hide his disappointment at misplaying the final half-lap. Seeking his third consecutive restrictor-plate victory, he stretched his fuel tank to the bitter end while racing wide-open to the finish line.

He held the bottom line, one eye on the finish line and the other in his rearview mirror, certain that Harvick's lone attempt to pass would be on the outside.

He was wrong.

"I really thought that Kevin was going to go high," McMurray said after his second-place finish. "I felt like I was close enough to the yellow line that there was a lot more racetrack to the right. I was really guarding against the outside. It's hard to explain to you guys that aren't in cars, but when there's someone directly behind you and they pull their car out of line really fast, it's like you pull a parachute in your car.

"It literally feels like you lose three or five miles an hour immediately, and when that happens, the car that's doing the passing just has the momentum."

The margin of victory of 0.011 seconds was the eighth-closest in NASCAR since it began using electronic scoring in 1993.

But Felix Sabates, co-owner of McMurray's Earnhardt Ganassi Racing team, questioned whether Harvick's pass was even legal. Because McMurray left so little real estate below him, Sabates believed Harvick dipped below the yellow out-of-bounds line.

"He passed Jamie under the yellow line and the rule is very specific," Sabates argued.

Harvick's victory celebration was a short one.

Because rain postponed the Nationwide Series race Saturday, the winner had to hustle across the garage to run another 312 miles. He was joined in the Nationwide field by nine other Cup drivers doing double-duty, including a weary McMurray, who asked his crew for aspirin to treat a headache on an early pit stop in the second event.

They almost finished 1-2 again in the second event, but a frightening last-lap crash triggered when McMurray tried to squeeze in behind Harvick in a tight pack of traffic. Harvick settled for third, while McMurray was 14th.

Juan Pablo Montoya, teammates with McMurray at EGR, finished third and silently watched a replay of the finish as he waited to start his post-race interviews.

"Wow," he said with a sympathetic shrug for his teammate.

It was the first victory at Talladega for team owner Richard Childress since October 2000 in what was the final win of the late Dale Earnhardt's career.

The race was fairly clean for the first 465 miles, as drivers simply tried to ensure they'd be around at the end. That's when the chaos usually breaks out at Talladega, and Sunday was no exception.

Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson tangled on the track in the second consecutive race. Gordon believes Johnson squeezed him down the track late in the race, triggering a crash that took Gordon out of contention, and Gordon didn't mask his anger after the race.

"The 48 is testing my patience, I can tell you that," said Gordon, who finished 22nd. "It takes a lot to make me mad. I am (mad) right now. I don't know what it is with me and him right now."

Johnson was later involved in his own accident, tangling with Greg Biffle on the second attempt at overtime. Biffle had been second on that restart, but struggled taking off and dropped back through the field. Johnson had thought he cleared him, but then drifted into his lane to trigger a crash that sent the defending four-time champion hard into the inside retaining wall.

That set up the third and final "green-white-checkered" finish. Before this season, NASCAR made one attempt at a two-lap sprint to the finish. The week of this year's season-opener, though, NASCAR decided it would allow up to three attempts to finish a race under green.

That tweak to the rules cost Harvick the Daytona 500 -- he would have won the opener if the rules had not been changed -- but benefited him Sunday. The three restarts gave him opportunity to slice his way through traffic; he was in seventh on the first attempt, fifth on the second and third on the final restart.

He immediately hooked on with McMurray, while Denny Hamlin lined up with Montoya.

"I had a really good restart, and I'm like, 'We got him. I'm with (Hamlin), I'm going to win this,'" Montoya said. "All of a sudden, the inside just took off."

With Harvick pushing hard on his bumper, McMurray pulled him far ahead in a two-car breakaway that ultimately cost him the race.

Harvick had rehearsed his next move several times this weekend, knowing what he'd do and where on the track he'd do it if in position to win the race.

"He made the move to the outside and I jerked left, so I was going the opposite way that he was going," he said. "It's kind of like that old theory, if you're the car leading the race, you don't want to be the one that makes that call. He made the move to the right and I just went left."

It gave Harvick a victory just days after sponsor Shell Oil Company announced it was leaving the driver and owner Richard Childress at the end of the season to move to Penske Racing. The sponsor shift means Childress, who is trying to re-sign Harvick, must also shop for funding that can keep the driver at RCR.

"I think it's great karma with everything that has happened this week with the sponsor and everything," Harvick said. "I think it's kind of funny in itself. The karma thing is the best part."

Hamlin finished fourth and was followed by Mark Martin, David Ragan and Clint Bowyer. Kurt Busch was eighth, while Kyle Busch and Mike Bliss rounded out the top 10.