Talladega Thriller: Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin Make Their Move 1 Lap Too Soon

Jim FolsomContributorApril 18, 2011

TALLADEGA, AL - APRIL 17:  Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe's Chevrolet, Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #56 NAPA Toyota, and Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Drive To End Hunger/AARP Chevrolet, lead the field during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway on April 17, 2011 in Talladega, Alabama.  (Photo by John Harrelson/Getty Images for NASCAR)
John Harrelson/Getty Images

Sunday's race at Talladega was your typical restrictor plate race.

It was exciting. It had a lot of lead changes. It had two "Big Ones."

And it had two cagey veterans watching and waiting from a safe distance, knowing they had two of the best cars in the field.

Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin took the green flag and shot out to the lead. They stayed there for the first eight laps and then decided to take it easy for the rest of the day.

They dropped back by about a half lap and just waited.

They avoided the big wrecks. When the two Red Bull cars got together and Brian Vickers spun out, they were no where near it. Later, when several cars got together and Kasey Kahne's car burst into flames, they just slipped on by.

With about 35 laps to go when Kyle Busch spun into Matt Kenseth and wiped about eight cars out, Gordon and Martin tip-toed through that wreckage too.

Then with about 20 to go, here they came. They started picking cars off every lap. At one time, they peaked into the top three and four spots, just to let the rest know they were coming.

Then they laid low again for a while.

With three to go, it looked like they might not have enough after all as they lingered around 10th place. But then with two to go, they rocketed past the filed on the low side and took the white flag in the lead.

Unfortunately, there was still one lap to go.

Now at the time, it looked like a great strategy. What are the odds that the last lap is going to go green all the way? Not too likely.

Then there is also the fact that one would expect at some point that the "pushers" would abandon their dance partners and it would be every man for himself.

In either case, being in the lead would be the recipe for taking the checkers.

That's the way it worked at Daytona in February when Trevor Bayne took the white flag and then won the race.

Today, however, it did not.

The two-car tandems stayed together to the finish and there were no wrecks on the last lap.

For whatever reason, Martin lost contact with Gordon coming to the checkers and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was able to push Jimmie Johnson to the win. Gordon finished a disappointing third.

This loss has to be a painful one for the 24 team.

They played it to perfection. They had the car to beat. Everything went according to plan and yet Jimmie Johnson still won it. That was a microcosm of what has happened in the last five years as Jimmie Johnson now wins these races that Jeff Gordon used to win.

Jeff has now gone from the hated villain to the fan favorite. Every week, he is the Pizza Hut Fan Favorite Driver. That is a sign you are now on your way down.

It happened to Darrell Waltrip. It happened to Dale Earnhardt. It's happening now to Gordon.

Today would have been a big day to get some of his momentum back. Instead, it now looks as the torch has been permanently passed to the 48 team.

Oh well. At least Jeff is now popular.


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