If you like the wild and the unpredictable, the AAA Texas 500 was the NASCAR Sprint Cup race of the season to watch.
Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton, two of the most mature drivers in all of racing, nearly coming to blows? Check.
Kyle Busch flipping off a NASCAR official? Check.
Race-winning crew chief Mike Ford calling out Hendrick Motorsports? Check.
A 19-year-old rookie scoring a top-20 finish in his first Cup race? Check.
And, last but not least, Denny Hamlin making a late-race charge to victory that appeared to put him in perfect position to win his first NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.
Yes, it was that kind of afternoon, a race unlike anything the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series has had in, well, maybe forever.
Greg Biffle dominated the first third of the race in his Roush Fenway Racing Ford. But the big story early on was the poor performance of Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports pit crew, which consistently cost the four-time defending champion key positions on the track.
Johnson’s first green-flag pit stop just past the 100-lap mark took 16.5 agonizing seconds, while his competitors were all stopping in the 12.5-13.5 second range.
After Martin Truex Jr. hit the wall a second time to bring out a caution on Lap 152, Johnson had another disastrous pit stop, falling from sixth to 13th.
On Lap 159, Kyle Busch spun in the middle of Turn 4 to bring another yellow out. Busch was held for a lap for speeding on pit road. He showed his displeasure with an upraised middle finger to a NASCAR official, earning another two laps in the penalty box for unsportsmanlike conduct.
Then things got positively chaotic.
On Lap 191, Truex crashed on the backstretch to bring out another caution. Under caution, Burton drilled Gordon hard, sending the No. 24 Hendrick Chevrolet nose first into the wall. That led to an angry confrontation on the backstretch, Gordon shoving Burton a couple of times before cooler heads prevailed.
“That kind of stuff is just ridiculous and uncalled for,” Gordon said afterward. “Jeff and I — I just like the guy too much and we'll be able to go on and race one another and stuff like that. I just couldn't believe how much respect I lost for a guy like Jeff to do something like that. I thought it was really stupid. Sometimes I can't hold my emotions back and believe it or not I was holding them back right there.”
“I knew he was going to be mad and I don't blame him for being mad,” added Burton, who took responsibility for the incident. “He didn't do anything that he shouldn't have done. He was upset and he should have been upset. I wrecked him under caution. I didn't mean to wreck him but I wrecked him under caution. He meant to tell me he was upset and that was OK. I don't have a bit of problem with what he did. He was mad. He should have been mad.”
With Gordon out of the race, Johnson crew chief Chad Knaus huddled with Gordon crew chief Steve Letarte and made a shocking decision: Knaus took all of Gordon’s over-the-wall crew to service the No. 48 for the rest of the race.
“Ultimately it is my decision obviously, but we needed to do something,” Knaus said. “This is a team. The 24/48 shop has always operated as a team and that is the way that we see it. It is sad that we had to do that but in interest of Hendrick Motorsports.”
Biffle had the fastest car, but a broken gear in his transmission made him a sitting duck on restarts, and Hamlin was able to take over the lead on Lap 306 and hold on for the final 28 circuits of the race, to win over Matt Kenseth, Mark Martin, Joey Logano and Biffle. Young Trevor Bayne, driving the iconic No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford, finished 17th in his Cup debut.
Johnson, helped by three fast stops performed by Gordon’s crew, rallied from deep in the field to finish ninth, but the 14-point lead he had over Hamlin coming into Texas turned into a 33-point deficit.
“The last four years, we’ve been in a different position,” Johnson said. “I’ve lost plenty of championships in the past, and this is racing, and it doesn’t come easy, and you are not going to get what you want every single year and every single weekend.
“I can promise you this: I am trying as hard as I can. I know my team is. We’re doing everything we can. Thirty-three points back is not where we want to be, but we’re going to work to get back on top.”
As for Hamlin, he appeared perfectly positioned to take the title from Johnson. “For me we're on the cusp of trying to get our first championship, and as long as we keep doing what we've been doing, we should be OK,” he said.
But it was Hamlin’s crew chief, Mike Ford, who unleashed the most incendiary post-race comments. “You put the two pit crews toe to toe and those guys are going to make mistakes,” Ford said of Johnson’s crew. “We've seen it this year, and we went beside them, and those guys faltered, and it made them panic and push to the point where they made changes.”
And he was just getting started.
“I'll be honest with you, I stayed focused on what we needed to do,” Ford said. “We did see all that go on, saw them making mistakes, saw them studying us real hard, and when you put your focus on watching other people, you make mistakes, so I was glad to see that they are watching us and paying attention. That means they are chasing. And they made mistakes in doing so.
“We played our game. I stayed focused on what we needed to do, and I feel like the — you know, that's possible going in, and you watch it, so I think it was kind of a desperation move. But it's something that — I won't say that race team — that Jimmie, Chad and Rick (Hendrick) needed to do if they wanted to win a championship because they just took their team out of it. They removed their team. Their team got them to this point and they pulled them out, so this is more about trying to win a championship for the company and not the team.”
Ultimately, what Ford said fired up the Hendrick squad and Johnson would stage a furious comeback over the final two races of the season to score his fifth consecutive championship.
But on this day in Texas, the spoils went to Hamlin, Ford and the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team.
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100 and e-mail him at Jensen is the author of “Cheating: The Bad Things Good NASCAR Nextel Cup Racers Do In Pursuit of Speed,” and has appeared on numerous television and radio shows. Jensen is the past President of the National Motorsports Press Association and an NMPA Writer of the Year.