TALLADEGA, Ala. — NASCAR demanded that drivers be on their best behavior at Talladega Superspeedway, where a ban on bump-drafting sanitized what's usually one of the most spectacular races of the Sprint Cup season. But in the end, chaos reigned, as always.
After 450 miles of what resembled a slow Sunday drive, the action at the Amp Energy 500 picked up, and the outcome was much of what fans have come to expect at Talladega: an unlikely winner, two spectacular crashes and an army of drivers frustrated with restrictor-plate rulings.
Jamie McMurray ended an 86-race winless streak by holding on under caution. Jimmie Johnson ended up sixth, likely wrapping up a NASCAR-record fourth consecutive points championship because of the late action.
"I made the comment … it's just going to be luck," McMurray said, "whoever can get in the right row and make the moves."
That's how it usually works at Talladega, where restrictor plates slow the speeds and force drivers to use aggressive maneuvers to plow their way through packs.
But after Carl Edwards' airborne April crash at the track, NASCAR felt pressured to cut down on the bumping and blocking that usually triggers the multicar accidents known as "the Big One." Officials warned at the weekend's start that they didn't want to see drivers shoving each other.
NASCAR president Mike Helton ramped it up Sunday in a prerace lecture that banned all bumping in the corners. He warned that a victory gained through bump-drafting could be stripped.
In response, the field spent much of the day in a single file.
"I think everyone was just content to log laps," driver Denny Hamlin said. "Where is the middle ground between the new NASCAR rule and racing? Let us race. They gave us a car to race; now let the drivers handle it."
They did when it counted, and it got dicey. Ryan Newman's harrowing crash with five laps to go left him upside down, and NASCAR needed a stoppage of almost 13 minutes to cut him from the car.
"It was a boring race and a ridiculous race," Newman said. "The more rules, the more NASCAR is telling us how to drive the cars, the less we can race, and the less we can put on a show for the fans."
His crash set up a two-lap sprint to the finish, and that was halted when title contender Mark Martin flipped across the track. The race ended under caution, with McMurray winning for the first time since Daytona in July 2007.
Because Johnson spent most of the race around the back of the pack, he was in the mid 20s when Newman crashed. Crew chief Chad Knaus sensed a lengthy delay and called Johnson in for gas, a decision that may have clinched the title for him.
When cars ahead of him began to run out of gas because of the delay, Johnson vaulted up in the standings. The finishing order showed him eighth, but he was adamant he was higher. After a lengthy review, Johnson was credited with sixth, a finish that stretched his Chase points lead to 184 over Martin.
Johnson's 17.7 average finish at Talladega is his worst of the 10 Chase races. "I thought I was going to lose points with about three or four (laps) to go," he said. "So to have it turn around and lead with points over the guys, I didn't expect it."
Information from the Washington Post contributed to this report.