It was a charge that never came.
McMurray held on to the very end at Talladega Superspeedway while Earnhardt held on too long. A final-lap wreck froze the running order a half-lap from the finish line and kept anyone from getting to McMurray.
“It’s all kind of a blur how we ended up second,” Earnhardt said. “I can’t anticipate a caution coming out every time we run a race at Talladega. I was planning my move on the backstretch, I noticed the run stopped. I looked in my mirror and guys were out of control.
“I had a plan. We were going to get a run down the back straightaway with the 14 (Austin Dillon) and whoever else wanted to go. They got together behind me. We had our run formed in the middle of (Turns 1 and 2). We had some pretty good steam.”
The top-six drivers ran in single-file for 11 laps, all waiting for Earnhardt to make the first move. On the final lap, third-place Austin Dillon moved to the center of the track to see if anyone else would join him in a two-car tandem. When nobody joined him, Dillon moved back to the outside to block Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s charge.
That’s when Stenhouse bumped him, turning him sideways in front of on-coming traffic. Dillon then was rear-ended by Casey Mears’ car, lifting his car upside-down at 200 mph. His car landed upright and he eventually drove back to pit road.
By then, McMurray already was celebrating his first victory since 2010.
“I was fully content with being in the lead on the last lap and trying to race for it,” McMurray said. “You never know at the plate tracks if the caution’s going to come out before you get back around. That’s the second race I’ve won here because I was leading when the caution came out on the white flag lap.”
Unlike most races at the 2.66-mile speedway, there weren’t any big crashes. In fact there was just a pair of two-car accidents.
But like most finishes there, one of them came on the final lap. Sunday’s finish was the 11th time in the past 15 races at Talladega where the outcome was decided by a late crash.
“It seems like we always have a wreck on the last lap, so next time when we’re in that situation, we’ll go a lap sooner,” Earnhardt said. “Believe me, I wish I was out front. But I knew I had everything to lose and only one spot to gain. Pulling out early and that not working and finishing 25th wasn’t worth it. Nobody moved so I decided to wait until the very end.
“I’m pretty sure Jamie wasn’t going to just let me go by.”
Said Paul Menard after finishing fourth, “I was waiting for Dale to make something happen.”
Although McMurray admitted Earnhardt was in the best position to win on the final lap, he wasn’t going to give up the spot without a fight.
“The thing about the package now is if you can get a guy third in line to push the second place guy, it’s hard to defend,” he said. “You just have to make your car as wide as you can. Quite honestly, I don’t know.
“I knew it was going to come down to the first three or four cars. It’s unfortunate the caution came out. But for me, I don’t know how I was going to defend that. I was going to play it by ear.”
Stenhouse finished third, followed by Menard in fourth, Kyle Busch in fifth, David Ragan in sixth, David Gilliland in seventh, Martin Truex Jr. in eighth, Ryan Newman in ninth and Clint Bowyer in 10th.
Jimmie Johnson finished 13th to take over the points lead in the Chase for the Championship. He leads Matt Kenseth, who finished 20th, by four points with four playoff races remaining.