Kevin Harvick snapped a 44-race winless streak and Brad Keselowski captured the points lead in what turned out to be a wild and chaotic Sprint Cup Series race at Phoenix International Raceway.
Sunday's AdvoCare 500 at Phoenix ran relatively incident and drama-free until lap 235 when points leader Jimmie Johnson blew his right-front tire and smacked the outside wall, damaging the front suspension on his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. Johnson, who entered this race with a seven-point advantage over Keselowski, spent 38 laps in the garage for repairs before he returned and then finished 32nd.
Keselowski finished sixth and took a 20-point lead over the five-time Sprint Cup champion. Keselowski will clinch his first championship in NASCAR's premier series if he finishes 15th or better in next Sunday's season-ending race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, regardless of Johnson's performance.
"We still have to go to Homestead and race, and anything can happen down there," Johnson said. "It's not the position we want to be in leaving Phoenix. I feel terrible for my team and how hard these guys work. I just hate how our day turned out."
Johnson's late-race crash was just the start of the drama that occurred at this flat one-mile racetrack.
In the closing laps of this scheduled 312-lap race, Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon made contact while battling for position. Gordon had a tire go down and then hit the wall.
Right after the incident, Gordon retaliated against Bowyer by intentionally wrecking him between turns three and four. Both drivers ended up crashing, with Joey Logano and Aric Almirola being caught up in the wreck. The caution came just before Harvick crossed the line to take the white flag and complete the second-to-last lap as the leader.
A huge brawl between the crew members of Bowyer and Gordon's team ensued on pit road. Bowyer drove to pit road, hopped out of his heavily-damaged car and then sprinted towards Gordon's hauler, but NASCAR officials prevented another incident between the two from happening.
"For (Gordon) to act like that, I barely touched him, and then he tried to get into turn three and turn me, but he missed," Bowyer said. "Next thing I know I'm being told on the radio that he's waiting on me. It makes us all look like a bunch of retards. It's pretty embarrassing for a four-time champion and what I consider as one of the best this sport has ever seen to act like that. It was completely ridiculous."
Gordon and Bowyer as well as their crew chiefs were summoned to the NASCAR hauler for a discussion. Several police officers stood guard outside the hauler as the meeting took place.
"Things have escalated over the year, and I have just had it," Gordon said. "Clint has run into me numerous times, wrecked me and he got into me on the back straightaway, pretty much ruined our day. I've had it, and I was fed up with it and got him back."
NASCAR will further investigate the incident later this week before deciding to issue any penalties.
"There's a lot of tension out there when you're running for the points and the championship, and things like that happen," NASCAR vice president of competition Robin Pemberton said. "We'll continue to talk to the drivers and get them to work it out. That was surely a shame."
The four-car crash forced NASCAR to halt the race briefly. While under the red flag, Harvick's No. 29 Richard Childress Racing team argued with NASCAR that Harvick crossed the line before the caution, and therefore the race should have ended under caution. He passed Kyle Busch for the lead just after a restart on lap 304.
Harvick's team was also concerned that he might run out of fuel before the finish.
The race concluded with a green-white-checkered finish. After the final restart, Harvick pulled away from the field in turn one, but Danica Patrick spun around in turn three. NASCAR did not display the caution flag.
"Obviously, we didn't want to see the red flag," Harvick said. "We were about five feet. Someone can tell me where the caution came out. But when I came by, I saw the caution light come on, and I saw the flag before we had gotten to the start-finish line. At that point, you think about, man, it's 2012, what's going to go wrong and where are we going to run out of gas.
"Once I got those thoughts out of my head, I just wanted to get a good restart and be able to get into turn one and not have any mistakes and knew if we could get through there without any mistakes that we could at least have a fighting chance of taking control of the bottom of the racetrack in turn three and four."
As Harvick crossed the finish line in first, another multi-car accident occurred on the frontstretch. Keselowski avoided being caught up in the crash.
"I raced pretty hard last week at Texas and a couple of guys gave me flack for it, but there's a difference between racing hard and what we saw today," Keselowski said. "That was borderline ridiculous at times. But we survived, and I'm proud of my team for that. I felt very lucky to make it through all the carnage today."
Harvick claimed his 19th career Sprint Cup victory but his first since Sept. 2011 at Richmond. It was also team owner Richard Childress' maiden victory of the season in Cup.
"It was an interesting day to say the least," Harvick said.
Denny Hamlin finished second, while Busch ended up in third. Busch started on the pole and dominated most of this race by leading 237 of 319 laps.
Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman rounded out the top-five.
Greg Biffle, Kurt Busch, Paul Menard and Mark Martin finished seventh through 10th, respectively.