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Vickers spins leaders to steal Talladega win

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TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) _ Jimmie Johnson's jaw was locked tight, the emotion in his eyes hidden behind dark sunglasses. He searched for the right words to explain the breach of trust he'd just experienced, but wasn't sure what to say.

``I just can't believe it,'' he offered. ``I had a great chance to make up some points, and I end up getting wrecked by a teammate.''

That's how it unfolded Sunday on the final lap at Talladega Superspeedway, when Brian Vickers stole his first Nextel Cup victory by nudging Johnson, his teammate, into race leader Dale Earnhardt Jr., then skirting by the two spinning cars on the last lap at Talladega Superspeedway.

It robbed what looked to be a victory for Earnhardt and a solid chance for Johnson to resurrect his fading Nextel Cup title hopes. And it certainly spoiled what should have been a crowning moment for Vickers, who has just six races left in his Hendrick ride before his impending defection to a Toyota team.

``I got into Jimmie and I hate it,'' Vickers said. ``The last thing I wanted to do was wreck either one of those guys, but what happened, happened. It wasn't intentional.

``It's definitely mixed emotions for me, being my first win, but also what happened with Jimmie because he is my friend and also a teammate, as well.''

But a rift has apparently been brewing since Vickers asked out of his Hendrick contract in June, and was locked out of team meetings shortly after.

Johnson, who wasn't going to finish lower than second, wound up 24th and struggled to understand why the accident happened.

``Knowing the situation we're all in, I would hope that someone would be a little more patient than they were back there,'' he said. ``I know he was trying to get his first win, but he was in a position to finish second or third the way that was, and he gave me one hell of a push from behind and pushed me into (Earnhardt) and off we went.''

The dramatic ending capped what had been a curiously calm event on Talladega's sleek new asphalt. The race was incident free until 50 laps to go, when an 11-car melee crippled Jeff Gordon's championship hopes.

A second accident set up a final restart with 10 laps to go and Earnhardt out front. Then points leader Jeff Burton got a flat tire and had to make a desperate pit stop while the championship board tightened up considerably.

With Earnhardt chugging along _ and only 20 points out of the championship lead _ the finish seemed secure.

But the two Hendrick drivers apparently had a game-plan of hooking up to run down Earnhardt. They moved low together, and Earnhardt threw a huge block to prevent the pass. Vickers pushed, Johnson bobbled and as he was drilled in the back bumper, he slid into Earnhardt for the two-car crash.

Vickers defended the move, saying if he hadn't have given Johnson a push they would have had zero chance of running Earnhardt down.

``If I would have not touched him and laid off of him, we would have finished 1-2-3, Junior, Jimmie and me,'' Vickers said. ``I apologize, that is the last thing I want to do is to get into Jimmie. But when the 8 chopped him, and Jimmie swerved, I just got him.''

It started a debate through the garage, with everyone choosing sides, including a crowd that showered Vickers with boos.

Earnhardt seemed to side with Vickers.

``Brian was just excited there,'' he said. ``I'm not really that upset, I mean, that's just the way racing goes here and sometimes you come out on the good end of those deals and sometimes you don't.''

Kasey Kahne and Kurt Busch, who finished second and third because of the wild ending, both seemed to sympathize with Vickers.

``Vickers was in a Catch-22, whether to go for the win for himself or to help his teammate,'' Busch said. ``He had every intention of helping his teammate. It just didn't turn out that way.''

But not everyone was so forgiving, particularly within Johnson's team.

``I honestly don't think Brian was trying to wreck us, I think he was trying to help us,'' crew chief Chad Knaus said. ``I just don't think he has the talent to understand what he has underneath him.''

The wreck dropped Earnhardt to a 23rd-place finish, Johnson to 24th and prevented either from making any gains in the Chase for the championship. Although Burton's lead was cut to six points over Matt Kenseth, Earnhardt is 106 back in sixth place and Johnson is 156 out in eighth place.

Even more disconcerting for Hendrick is that Gordon also took a huge hit in the standings.

After leading seven times for 27 laps, he was denied a chance to run for the win when he received the worst of the first accident in the race. It came with 50 laps to go when contact between Carl Edwards, Joe Nemechek and Johnson set off a melee that collected Gordon.

He wound up 36th and is seventh in the standings, 147 points out.

``I've said all along that if it's meant to be, it's meant to be,'' he said. ``And it just doesn't seem meant to be. Right now I am not even thinking about it because I am just so bummed out because I know that our chances are pretty slim of winning this championship, if not completely done.''

NASCAR slapped smaller restrictor plates on the cars Saturday because speeds on the repaved track were nearing 200 mph during two early practice sessions. The new plates were designed to slow the cars, and they did in qualifying.

But many of the average speeds throughout the race were still over 200 mph.

``I think we'll visit the speeds after we've had a chance to look at everything and go through all the lap sheets from every lap,'' NASCAR spokesman Jim Hunter said.
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