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Buddy system pays dividends for Bowyer

Regan Smith’s car (top left) spins out during a crash on Turn 2 with eight laps remaining in the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Talladega. The accident required repairs to the wall. Regan Smith’s car (top left) spins out during a crash on Turn 2 with eight laps remaining in the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Talladega. The accident required repairs to the wall. (Dave Martin/Associated Press)
By Jenna Fryer
Associated Press / October 24, 2011

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TALLADEGA, Ala. - Teamwork meant very little in the closing laps at Talladega Superspeedway.

Unless, of course, you were driving a Ford.

Clint Bowyer bailed on teammate Jeff Burton on the last lap of yesterday’s race, pulling around him when the checkered flag was in sight to pick up his first win of the season and the 100th in the Sprint Cup Series for Richard Childress Racing.

“You hate that it comes down to that,’’ Bowyer said with a shrug. “You owe it to your team, to your sponsors to go out and win the race. Unfortunately, it came down to that situation.’’

Burton and the RCR bunch understood that’s how the game is played.

The grumbling was far behind the leaders, where Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne ditched Jeff Gordon because Bayne was part of a pact made by Ford drivers to only push fellow Ford drivers in an effort to help Roush Fenway Racing drivers Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth in the championship race.

Gordon was seventh on the final restart and thought Bayne was committed to pushing him over the last two laps. Instead, Bayne backed off, and Gordon, with no help, faded to 27th. An animated Bayne went immediately to Gordon’s car after the race, then posted his thoughts on Twitter.

“I’m not happy about what this has become,’’ he posted on Twitter in reference to Talladega’s two-car drafting style and the reliance on partners.

“It’s too premeditated. We should be able to go with whoever is around us. I would have rather pulled over and finished last than tell [Gordon] I would work with him and then be strong-armed into bailing.’’

Gordon said he was deceived.

“The Fords made it very clear about what they were doing in working with one another,’’ Gordon said. “So I didn’t expect him to commit to me on the radio. I expected him to say, ‘Man, I’m sorry, I can’t.’ And when he said, ‘Yeah, I’m pushing you, we’re good,’ I believed him. I think they had a different plan.’’

The race at NASCAR’s biggest and fastest track finished roughly 30 minutes after the memorial service for two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon ended in Indianapolis. Wheldon was killed in the IndyCar season finale a week ago at Las Vegas, and NASCAR honored him with decals on all the cars and a moment of silence before the start of the race.

The Wheldon death made for some poignant moments during prerace ceremonies, as Kevin Harvick clung tightly to wife DeLana, and many drivers were seen giving long embraces to loved ones.

And as expected, the race heated up in the closing laps.

Drivers jockeyed for position and partners in the new two-car drafting system. Although the race was not marred by a serious incident, there was a series of accidents, and the last, with eight laps remaining, was a hard hit by Regan Smith that required repairs to the SAFER barrier.

It made for a shake-up in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship standings. Harvick and Kyle Busch were both in accidents, and five-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson finished 26th as he and partner Dale Earnhardt Jr. never made their charge to the front.

Edwards, who came into the race up 5 points over Harvick, finished 11th and saw his lead swell to 14 points over Roush Fenway Racing teammate Matt Kenseth.

There were hard feelings after the race as drivers were upset at etiquette in the closing laps. Tony Stewart had been working with RCR driver Paul Menard during the second half of the race, but Menard wasn’t able to push him to the win when the race restarted after Smith’s accident with two laps to go.

Instead of contending for the win, Stewart finished seventh.

But Richard Childress said Menard was there to help Stewart, a fellow Chevrolet driver.

“I went on Paul’s radio and told him go up there and push Tony and try to win the race,’’ Childress said. “I wanted him to win the race, but I also wanted him to push Tony. That was just the way it was.’’

If Stewart had been a Ford driver? “We were going to help Chevy try to win,’’ Childress said.

That’s what made Bowyer’s move easier to swallow for Burton. When the two of them pulled away from the pack, and it became clear the race to the win was only between the two of them, Burton knew he was going to be challenged on the last lap.

“I knew he was going to make a move,’’ Burton said. “He was supposed to make a move. He ain’t expected to push me to the win.’’