Sporting News Wire Service
TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Just in case, Clint Bowyer started his celebratory burnout several minutes before NASCAR declared him the winner of Sunday's Amp Energy Juice 500 at Talladega Superspeedway.
A multi-car crash behind the leaders at the start of the final lap had thrown the outcome in doubt, and it wasn't until Bowyer drove a quarter-mile and stopped his No. 33 Chevrolet at the entrance to the garage that shouts and high-fives from the crew that surrounded the car let the crowd know Bowyer indeed had won his second race in the Chase.
If the win was vindication for Bowyer, whose victory in the opening Chase race at New Hampshire was tainted by a 150-point penalty when his car failed inspection at NASCAR's tech center, it was little more than a push for points leader Jimmie Johnson and second-place Denny Hamlin.
Johnson and Hamlin dodged trouble Sunday and finished seventh and ninth, respectively, allowing Johnson to expand his lead over Hamlin from six to 14 points. Kevin Harvick, Bowyer's teammate at Richard Childress Racing, came home second despite sustaining damage in a multi-car wreck on Lap 141 and cut his deficit to Johnson from 62 to 38 points.
"It's going to be an awesome championship battle all the way to Homestead, and I'm really looking forward to it," said Johnson, the four-time defending champion.
Bowyer had nosed ahead of Harvick in Turn 1 on the 188th and final lap when a violent wreck behind them sent A.J. Allmendinger upside down into the inside wall, causing the fifth caution of the race and freezing the field.
With a push from David Reutimann, Harvick had led at the start/finish line on Lap 187, but a shove from third-place finisher Juan Montoya sent Bowyer back in front by a nose as the cars rolled into Turn 1 and the caution lights came on.
"I thought we had it for sure," Bowyer said. "When two cars hook up, they just drive off from them and they [Harvick and Reutimann] were coming on the outside and ran us down, and then I quit dragging my brakes and we kind of took off again.
"Door to door there and all of a sudden ... [spotter Mike] Dillon is yelling at me in my ear that the caution was coming out. I looked over to make sure I was ahead of him. I thought I was, but I didn't know."
"About 6 inches ..." said Harvick, who won at Talladega in April. "It's just one of those deals where we've won a few by a few inches and we've lost a few. It's hard to complain because you can wind up on the wrecker pretty easy."
Bowyer's first victory at a restrictor-plate track was the fourth of his career.
"Happy we kept the trophy at RCR," Harvick added. "If you're going to lose to somebody, it's good to lose to your teammates and keep the trophy and the money in the right house."
A caution for debris set up a restart with four laps remaining, and Harvick received unusual help from Reutimann, who as a Toyota driver probably shouldn't have pushed Hamlin's competition to the front.
"If you had your preference of helping a Toyota, if you have a choice, I think we would try to pick a Toyota," explained Reutimann, who wound up fourth. "But sometimes you don't have a choice and you have to go with whatever's going to benefit your team the most."
Harvick wasn't all that surprised to get the push from Reutimann.
"It's hard when you line all those cars up at the end," Harvick said. "When you get down to the end, I mean, unless you're just going to let off, I just don't think that's in many's nature that sits behind the wheel of these cars. You have to just push whoever's in front of you and go for it."
Hamlin made no mention of Reutimann's help of Harvick, but despite rallying to the top-10 finish, he seemed disappointed with the final result.
"It wasn't very fun. I didn't get to race as hard as I'd like to at times," he said.
Anxious moments for Hamlin began on Lap 77 when he was shuffled to the back of the field and lost the draft. Falling behind at a rate of almost 4 seconds per lap, Hamlin's No. 11 Toyota went a lap down when Harvick passed him through Turns 1 and 2 on Lap 105.
Hamlin didn't recover the lost circuit until Lap 144, when he got a free pass back to the lead lap under caution for a seven-car wreck on the backstretch that damaged the front end of Harvick's No. 29 and the rear of Johnson's No. 48. The damage, however, wasn't sufficient to hurt either car significantly, and throughout the remainder of the race, all three drivers worked their way toward the front.
Hamlin knew it could have been worse, and took solace in how tight the race is as they move on to Texas, where Hamlin won in April.
"It's what I asked for," he said. "I asked for nobody to really get killed [in the standings] here this weekend, and let us settle it on the race tracks where our cars and our teams can make a difference and us as drivers can make a difference. And that's what we got."
The race was marked by 87 lead changes, second most in NASCAR history.