When the Subway Fresh Fit 500 rolled into overtime because of a late-race caution flag, many in the crowd assumed there would be a bang-up finish matching leader Carl Edwards and either Jimmie Johnson or Brad Keselowski, his key challengers over the closing miles.
Instead, the hot action happened in the second-place battle – one staged by Johnson and surprising Denny Hamlin, who suddenly appeared to test Johnson in the race’s final moments.
The battle for second turned dramatic after Edwards got a great restart at the final green flag and set sail for the final two-lap run to the finish.
Meanwhile, on the final lap, Hamlin dropped to the apron on the backstretch to take a shortcut other drivers used occasionally during the race. That route makes the distance traveled shorter, but returning the car to the racing groove can be tricky.
Hamlin gunned it and roared across the apron to re-enter the main part of the racing surface alongside Johnson. They squeezed Keselowski back to fourth place and raced side by side, fenders touching, to the finish line.
Johnson took the position by a few feet.
“At the end, it got a little crazy, especially that last lap,” Johnson said. “Denny got a huge run, cut the corner down there and cleared us both, but I felt like I still had a chance if I just hung on on the outside around turns three and four, and I was able to do that and just kind of beat him back to the finish.
“I didn’t expect Denny to get up in front of us like he did. I thought we were going to enter three wide, and I was going to be in the worst spot. The clean line turns away from me, so I was looking out my window, and I could see a lot of the 11 (Hamlin).
“I thought, ‘Well, I'm not sure really what's going to happen here, sure not going to let off,’ and the 2 (Keselowski), gave him some room, and we all rolled in there without wrecking. When I first heard that we were three wide, I was pretty concerned that I wasn't going to have a clean lane to race in.”
Hamlin said he planned the last-lap move far ahead.
“There was nothing I was going to do that was going to back out,” he said. “I just hoped that I would have slid in front of the 48 (Johnson), but then you risk getting punted and spun and your whole day you worked everything for gets taken away in a corner.
“I held my line and really thought I did the right thing to get those guys still an opportunity to pass me back, and, obviously, one of them did.
“Brad was driving so hard, eventually he was going to slide up, and he knew he was going to slide up, and he did and opened the door for me.”
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 31 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.