The race for the Sprint Cup championship and the race for the Amp Energy Juice 500 victory were equally close Sunday.
Clint Bowyer edged Richard Childress Racing teammate Kevin Harvick for the win as a last-lap caution froze the field with the Chevrolet drivers virtually in a dead heat and charging toward the checkered.
NASCAR needed several minutes to review videotape of the lap before declaring Bowyer the winner. Computer monitors put Harvick ahead on the lap, but videotape and review of track loops placed Bowyer barely ahead when the caution lights were displayed for a massive crash that sent AJ Allmendinger onto his roof and into the air as the race finished.
Harvick’s second-place finish and following runs by Hamlin (who finished seventh) and Johnson (eighth) made the point race remarkably close with only three races remaining. Johnson leads Hamlin by 14 points and Harvick by 38. Races remain at Texas, Phoenix and Homestead, FL.
Juan Pablo Montoya was pushing Bowyer at the end of the race, while David Reutimann was shoving Harvick. It was a pair of duos wrestling for the front.
Then traffic bogged down behind them, and Allmendinger’s car shot out of the pack and tumbled onto the infield apron, causing the caution.
“It was an unbelievable day,” said Bowyer, who won for the second time in the Chase. “Kevin was coming on the outside and Juan was pushing me. I’ve got to thank him. What a wild day.”
Bowyer did a burnout on the frontstretch while he and Harvick waited on NASCAR’s decision.
“Sure it would be nice to win, but it’s a great day for RCR,” Harvick said. “We’re not going to complain about running second.”
Montoya finished third, followed by Reutimann and Joey Logano.
Harvick’s Chevrolet received significant front-end damage with 48 laps to go when Marcos Ambrose slid in heavy traffic and turned left into Harvick’s path. Harvick hit Ambrose’s car in the left front, and Harvick’s car appeared to have enough wounds to limit his power the rest of the way.
But Harvick used drafting partners to perfection over the closing miles and hooked up with Reutimann in the final laps to challenge for the win. “It [the wreck] definitely didn’t help, but we still were able to get up in the right position,” Harvick said.
As predicted, the race’s intensity picked up considerably in the final 15 laps as lead-group drivers picked partners and tried to draft toward the front.
Hamlin’s championship hopes were shaky for a while as he fell off the lead lap about halfway through the race. He returned to the lead lap a few minutes later, however, as he received the free pass after a caution flag that flew after the Ambrose-Harvick incident.
The race was unusually quiet most of the way. Various duos ran to the front and led the way in two-car drafts before dropping back into the pack and leaving the lead to someone else.
The race’s second caution appeared on lap 135 as Dale Earnhardt Jr. bumped into the rear of Jeff Burton’s car in the heart of a turn, causing Burton to lose control and slam side-to-side into Jamie McMurray.
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 28 years. He has written several books on NASCAR, including "NASCAR: The Definitive History of America's Sport" and "Then Tony Said To Junior: The Best NASCAR Stories Ever Told". He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.