Bump helps Vickers tap first Cup victory

Last-lap move sends Earnhardt Jr., Johnson spinning

NASCAR Nextel Cup

October 09, 2006|By Ed Hinton | Ed Hinton,Orlando Sentinel

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Midway through the final lap yesterday, more than 150,000 people gave out the strangest crowd reaction to a finish in the 37-year history of Talladega Superspeedway.

They went nearly completely silent, gazing blankly at a cloud of dust rising from the backstretch.

Seconds earlier they'd been jubilant but anxious as their favorite, Dale Earnhardt Jr., tried to hold off Jimmie Johnson for the win in the UAW-Ford 500.

Either way it turned out, Earnhardt and Johnson both seemed sure to gain badly needed ground in the standings and liven up the Chase for the Nextel Cup.

Then both were wrecked by a non-contender for the championship.

Johnson's teammate was trying to help him. And indeed, Brian Vickers bump-drafted Johnson up alongside Earnhardt.

But then Vickers knocked Johnson right into the side of Earnhardt, sending both spinning.

Then Vickers was declared the winner after NASCAR's electronic scoring system froze the field a moment after the wreck. That gave Kasey Kahne and Kurt Busch, who finished second and third, respectively, no chance to race Vickers back to the flag.

The win was the first of Vickers' Nextel Cup career, and "not the way I'd planned it," he said. "But what happened, happened. And it's still nice to get this win."

Said Johnson: "I got a run on the 8 [Earnhardt] and got in front of him, and just got hit from behind and it turned me into the 8, and then off we went. I just can't believe it. Here we go all day long and I've got a chance to make up some points and I end up getting crashed by a teammate."

Earnhardt led going into the final lap, and had led the most laps in the race, 37. But he knew he was a sitting duck to the two Hendrick Motorsports teammates lined up behind him in the draft.

"They had a good run coming at the end," Earnhardt said. "I knew there was really not going to be much I could do. He [Johnson] went inside and I tried to block him a little bit, but once I understood he was there, I didn't push the issue anymore, and the 25 [Vickers] turned him into me.

"Brian just got excited," Earnhardt said. "I hate it for the 48 [Johnson] and I hate it for our team. I'm not really that upset. That's just the way racing goes here."

Earnhardt had been annoyed Saturday when NASCAR had refused to add a practice session after abruptly ordering smaller restrictor plates in the middle of the weekend. That was to slow cars from the 198-mph speeds they'd reached in practice Friday. But even with a smaller plate Sunday, Earnhardt clearly had the strongest car until it went spinning at the end.

"I'm not going to deny I got into the back of [Johnson]," Vickers said. "And I hate it. But it wasn't intentional. I was trying to push Jimmie to a win."

Vickers' side of the story was more detailed and complicated than that of the two victims.

"Jimmie had a heck of a run and I was pushing him," Vickers said. "Then when he turned down to pass the 8, I got off of him, and the 8 just kept pushing him down, and when he [Johnson] jerked to avoid the 8 trying to block him, I just got into the back of him.

"I apologize. The last thing I wanted to do was get into Jimmie and have all that take place. But when the 8 chopped him and Jimmie swerved, I just got him. That's not the way I wanted to win it."

Earnhardt countered that "I threw a small block, but nothing major because they were coming so fast it was kind of pointless."

In further self-defense, Vickers pointed out that without his bump-drafting, Johnson would have had no chance to beat Earnhardt one-on-one.

"He could say, `Well, man, I wish you wouldn't have been bumping me,'" Vickers said. "But he's not going to. Because he knows as well as I do that if I hadn't been bump-drafting him he wouldn't have had a shot to pass Junior. It is what it is. This is Talladega. If I'd laid off him, we would have finished 1-2-3 - Junior, Jimmie and me."

In the end, Earnhardt, Johnson and the crowd would have taken that.

Earnhardt and Johnson wound up 23rd and 24th, respectively. Johnson remained mired in eighth place in the Chase standings. Earnhardt actually managed to climb a notch to sixth in the Chase standings, but is now 108 points behind leader Jeff Burton.

Burton was lucky to keep the lead, considering a late flat tire that cost him 22 positions in the race. But, "It's hard to feel lucky when you're running fifth with 10 laps to go and then end up 27th," Burton said.

The day was even worse for four-time champion Jeff Gordon, who got caught up in the biggest wreck of the day, a 13-car pileup 51 laps from the end. Gordon wound up 36th after leading the second-most laps in the race, 27, and dropped to seventh in the standings, 147 points behind.

Ed Hinton writes for the Orlando Sentinel.

Chase standings

The NASCAR Nextel Cup points standings through 30 of 36 races. Only the top 10 qualified for the Chase for the Nextel Cup. (Note: Previous position in parentheses.)

Top Top

Rk. Driver Pts. Won 5s 10s

1. J. Burton (1) 5,598 1 6 18

2. M. Kenseth (4) 5,592 4 14 19

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