With Clint Bowyer’s nose tucked under Jeff Burton’s tail, their power in the closing laps was just too much for the field. Then as they came out of Turn 4 at the end of a day dictated by domestic partnerships, Bowyer wanted a divorce.
He had to get a better view of “the rag drop” and the flood of champagne that would follow.
Bowyer slingshotted past his Richard Childress racing teammate, diving down, then made contact and outran him to the start-finish line.
While Bowyer said he felt bad about the way it played out, he chalked it up to business.
“He told me, ‘Bet you were thinking you were going to pass me on the front straightaway,’” Bowyer said. “I was chuckling — that’s exactly what I was thinking.
“… You hate that it come down to that, but it is what it is. You owe it to your team. You owe it to your sponsors.”
Burton finished second, which in some ways was a decent consolation prize. In 36 career races at the 2.66-mile tri-oval, he’d never reached victory lane and only five times finished in the top five. His average finish was 18.5, as many days he’d left Talladega with a mangled machine.
“So, I was pissed off and happy all at the same time,” Burton said.
Dave Blaney took an unexpected third-place finish followed by Chase driver Brad Keselowski. Red Bull Racing teammates Brian Vickers and Kasey Kahne finished fifth and sixth. Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin, Michael Waltrip and Martin Truex Jr. rounded out the top 10.
Chase leader Carl Edwards finished 11th to extend his lead in the points to 14 over Matt Kenseth, who finished 18th.
The strategies employed Sunday were almost as varied as the number of pairs. When the race’s final caution came out and left only three green-flag laps to get up to speed, playing opossum left many as road kill.
Those in the Hendrick Motorsports camp, namely Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr., decided to lay back. The advantage was to keep them out of harm’s way, giving them time to react if an accident happened in front of them. The disadvantage was there wasn’t enough time left at the end.
“We just put ourselves in a little bit of a hole,” Earnhardt said. “ …we ran off them laps under caution and it got down to the green.
“We’re sitting there way behind on our strategy. We just couldn’t get it figured out in two laps.”
RCR drivers never had a hole to dig out of. Seldom did Bowyer and Burton ever drop outside the top 10, and when five cars got tangled up with nine laps to go, they found themselves in prime position.
“We don’t get paid to run in the back,” Childress said.
The decision for Burton and Bowyer to work together was almost a forgone conclusion. All that was left to work out was how to approach exactly what they did.
Bowyer said the two drivers talked after the customary drivers meeting. They evaluated what they did well and what they needed to improve upon. What they did well, he said, was making a connection and getting ahead of the pack on restarts.
With the finish playing right into their hands, the duo got an extra boost — as if they needed it.
“One of the Red Bull cars hit me in the butt…,” said Bowyer, noting the extra power he gained. “Then I just drove off into the sunset.
“…that’s what ultimately won the race.”
Bowyer said hanging his partner out to dry had nothing to do with recent news. After a mildly successful, six-year run with RCR, the two are parting ways. Earlier this month he signed a deal to drive for Michael Waltrip Racing next season.
And even if he hadn’t, he said, Burton has had his day in the sun — or sunset.
“He’s won 20-something, I think; I’ve won 5,” Bowyer said of Burton. “He’ll be alright.”
Bran Strickland is the sports editor for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3570 or follow him on Twitter @bran_strickland.