Reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson claimed his first win of the season by snatching victory from Clint Bowyer in a photo-finish at Talladega.
Hendrick Motorsports followed a plan through the 188 laps of drafting, having swept the top-four spots on the grid during Saturday's qualifying session. Johnson started the race from the front row and had Dale Earnhardt Jr glued to his rear bumper as the green flag waved. Both led a number of laps in the first half of the race, but then dropped back in the pack to save their best for last.
The pair never left each other, they timed their pitstops in synchrony and even got bodywork damage on their cars after banging fenders while trying to avoid a multi-car incident on lap 90. Both dropped back in the order after getting repairs but as the green flag waved with 12 laps remaining they went into attack mode, as did their team-mates Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin, also working in tandem all the way.
The last two laps of the race became a battle of seven two-car drafts, which narrowed down to four pairs on the last lap, as Gordon led pushed by Martin. Richard Childress Racing's Bowyer pushed by team-mate Kevin Harvick seemed to get the momentum at the right time to challenge for the lead along the backstretch, but from behind Johnson and Earnhardt also had a head of steam.
As they entered Turn 3 Johnson tried to dive on the inside but could not find a way through. He then moved behind the RCR duo on the outside but as they came out of Turn 4 Gordon tried to side-draft Bowyer and Harvick. That opened the inside to the second Hendrick tandem, Johnson passing Gordon with Earnhardt's push to pull ahead and beat Bowyer's car by two thousandths of a second, matching the closest NASCAR finish in history.
"That was crazy," said Johnson. "With maybe one and a half, two [laps] to go, I thought we were in trouble and it wasn't going work out. And then we got hooked back up; I think [Dale Earnhardt] Junior was overheating and we got disconnected one time and those two lead groups started side-drafting and slowed each other up.
"I had a good run into [Turn] 3 but nowhere to go with it and then by the time we got back to the tri-oval, we had another big run going and those guys were worried about side-drafting each other towards the top of the track and left that bottom wide open for us and we rallied our way through there."
Four cars were actually side by side on the finish line as besides the Hendrick tandems and RCR's, Carl Edwards tried to pass on the outside while being pushed by the Roush Fenway Ford of his team-mate Greg Biffle. Six cars were within a tenth of a second as they crossed the finish line.
"Man, it was close enough this time, I looked over and I didn't know," said Bowyer, who was not sure if he had beaten Johnson to the finish line. "Sometimes you really can't tell, but I had no clue. I saw him coming even through the mirror through Harvick, I saw [Johnson] coming.
"I was hoping the #24 [Gordon] and the #5 [Martin] were going to give him a block, but they were racing us, trying to drag off of us and we were trying to drag off of them. All hell breaks loose right there. That is what happens at Talladega."
Behind Johnson and Bowyer, Gordon was credited with third place ahead of Earnhardt and Harvick as Chevrolets swept the top six followed by Edwards' Ford. Biffle and Martin were next, ahead of the Front Row Ford of David Gilliland in ninth while Joey Logano was the best Toyota in 10th.
As usual at Talladega there were plenty of incidents, although the race turned dull at times as the pack got very spread out following green-flag pitstops, with some drivers also dragging behind for most of the distance trying to stay out of trouble.
Three out of six cautions were caused by incidents involving Kurt Busch, who turned around Phoenix Racing's Landon Cassill on lap 28, then his Penske team-mate Brad Keselowski on lap 90 and finally Dave Blaney in the closing laps.
"Restrictor plate racing and this two-car draft is really tough and I was in the middle of a bunch of incidents," said Busch. "I feel bad for wrecking a bunch of cars, especially my team-mate Brad. We got shuffled out to finish 18th. I ran with the #20 [Logano], #36 [Blaney] and then the #14 [Tony Stewart] at the end and just got separated a bit and shuffled back."
Kyle Busch got turned around by his Joe Gibbs Racing team-mate Logano, with Texas winner Matt Kenseth also getting involved in the incident.
Earnhardt Ganassi's Jamie McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya were also among the late contenders, but the pair's draft was broken when Ryan Newman got turned into Montoya by Joe Gibbs Racing's Denny Hamlin, causing damage to the right front of his car. Montoya stayed on the track hoping for a caution which came after Newman spun shortly after, but by then the Colombian's car had already massive damage after the right front tyre blew up.
Edwards retained the lead of the championship, with Johnson moving up to second place thanks to his victory, followed by team-mate Earnhardt.
Results - 188 laps:
Pos Driver Team/Car Time/Gap
1. Jimmie Johnson Hendrick Chevrolet 3h12m01.000s
2. Clint Bowyer Childress Chevrolet + 0.002s
3. Jeff Gordon Hendrick Chevrolet + 0.039s
4. Dale Earnhardt Jr Hendrick Chevrolet + 0.058s
5. Kevin Harvick Childress Chevrolet + 0.064s
6. Carl Edwards Roush Fenway Ford + 0.074s
7. Greg Biffle Roush Fenway Ford + 0.130s
8. Mark Martin Hendrick Chevrolet + 0.145s
9. David Gilliland Front Row Ford + 1.066s
10. Joey Logano Gibbs Toyota + 1.123s
11. AJ Allmendinger Petty Ford + 1.274s
12. Paul Menard Childress Chevrolet + 1.314s
13. Martin Truex Jr Waltrip Toyota + 1.376s
14. David Reutimann Waltrip Toyota + 1.434s
15. Regan Smith Furniture Row Chevrolet + 1.449s
16. Jeff Burton Childress Chevrolet + 1.570s
17. Tony Stewart Stewart Haas Chevrolet + 2.103s
18. Kurt Busch Penske Dodge + 2.116s
19. Andy Lally TRG Chevrolet + 5.212s
20. Robby Gordon Gordon Dodge + 5.239s
21. Jamie McMurray Earnhardt Ganassi Chevrolet + 5.269s
22. Casey Mears Germain Toyota + 5.297s
23. Denny Hamlin Gibbs Toyota + 9.033s
24. Bobby Labonte JTG Daugherty Toyota + 11.392s
25. Ryan Newman Stewart Haas Chevrolet + 11.422s
26. JJ Yeley Whitney Chevrolet + 15.448s
27. Dave Blaney Baldwin Chevrolet + 22.294s
28. Michael Waltrip Waltrip Toyota + 1 lap
29. Travis Kvapil Front Row Ford + 4 laps
30. Juan Pablo Montoya Earnhardt Ganassi Chevrolet + 11 laps
31. Landon Cassill Phoenix Chevrolet + 18 laps
32. Marcos Ambrose Petty Ford + 31 laps
33. Brad Keselowski Penske Dodge + 34 laps
Terry Labonte FAS Lane Ford 152 laps
Kyle Busch Gibbs Toyota 144 laps
Matt Kenseth Roush Fenway Ford 139 laps
Kasey Kahne* Red Bull Toyota 139 laps
Brian Vickers* Red Bull Toyota 115 laps
David Ragan Roush Fenway Ford 89 laps
Trevor Bayne Wood Brothers Ford 89 laps
Joe Nemechek NEMCO Toyota 5 laps
Steve Park Baldwin Chevrolet 4 laps
Kevin Conway NEMCO Toyota 1 lap
* Running again at chequered flag