TALLADEGA, Ala. --- It was difficult for Kevin Harvick to ride at the back of the pack during the first half of Sunday's Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway.
It was even more difficult for him to follow race leader Jamie McMurray for most of the final lap without pulling out of line.
But when he got 500 yards short of the finish line, Harvick made a race-winning pass look easy.
Harvick rode against McMurray's back bumper coming through the tri-oval for the final time until McMurray's car twitched to the right. Harvick immediately steered left and won the drag race to the checkered flag by only 3 feet.
The race featured 88 lead changes among 29 drivers. There were big crashes and a continuation of the heated rivalry between champions and teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. There also was a NASCAR record three green-white-checkered re-starts that pushed the race 12 laps into overtime.
And it was exactly how Harvick planned it.
"We made a plan before the race, and I'm telling you every piece played out like we planned," Harvick said after ending a 115-race drought and winning for the first time since the 2007 Daytona 500. "This is how we planned it out on paper. It was all about timing. It worked out exactly like we wanted. I wanted to be second in the tri-oval and we were. He moved right; I moved right and that was it."
NASCAR returned to the rear spoiler for the first time in three years, replacing the wing that allowed cars to get airborne during crashes. The sanctioning body also allowed bump-drafting all the way around the 2.66-mile raceway. The result was a race where nobody led for very long. Forty-eight of the 88 lead changes lasted only a single lap, including Harvick's dramatic pass at the end.
A day after the threat of tornadoes and severe weather throughout the Southeast closed the track, the new rules proved to be the perfect storm for the record books. The old record for lead changes was 78, and that was broken with David Ragan's run to the front 45 laps short of the scheduled finish.
Sunday's race, however, will be hard to beat. Even McMurray, who opened the season by winning the Daytona 500, was impressed.
"It was actually a lot of fun out there," he said. "We had such a good rules package with the wing here you didn't know how this was going to work. They did a really good job of picking the blade and the right (spoiler) and made the cars racy.
"You make your move there; you hope you go the way he does. You really only get one direction to go, and I thought I was low enough and he couldn't get underneath me, so I was more guarding the outside. When he swerved his car to the left, it pulled my car around. As soon as I realized he got underneath me, I was more concerned with side-drafting to the start/finish line."
Juan Pablo Montoya finished third, followed by Denny Hamlin, Mark Martin, Ragan, Clint Bowyer and Kurt Busch.
Gordon and Johnson had harsh words for each other after they bumped at Texas last week. When Johnson veered left Sunday on the backstretch to force Gordon off the track and onto the apron, it prompted Gordon to get angrier.
There was a 10-car crash just short of mid-race when Kyle Busch rear-ended Johnny Sauter in the tri-oval, turning Sauter's car sideway into on-coming traffic.
The real messes came during the stretch drive, pushing NASCAR to use all three of its green-white-checkered attempts. The first overtime came after Gordon, Jeff Burton, Scott Speed, Mike Bliss and Kasey Kahne crashed. The second green-white-checkered was created by a nine-car crash that started with Joey Logano's hard bump of Ryan Newman in the fourth turn. The third re-start came after Gordon and Greg Biffle spun off course on the backstretch.
Despite being involved in two of the green-white-checkered cautions, Gordon drove his damaged car to a 22nd-place finish.
Harvick was third for the final re-start, but he quickly got to second place by hooking up with McMurray on the bottom groove. Montoya and Hamlin went high, but they couldn't keep up with the lead tandem.
Harvick fought the temptation to make his move too soon, knowing any advantage he gained by using the calm air behind McMurray's car for a running start wouldn't last long.
Reach Don Coble at email@example.com.