Title still up for grabs
TALLADEGA, Ala. — It was wild, all right, it just wasn’t decisive. NASCAR’s three title contenders left Talladega Superspeedway with their championship chances intact, as Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, and Kevin Harvick remained locked at the top of the tightest points fight in seven years after a typically chaotic race.
Clint Bowyer edged Harvick, his Richard Childress Racing teammate, in a photo-finish yesterday. But Harvick was just fine settling for second because it’s the big picture that matters now.
Johnson, the four-time defending champ, left Talladega with a 14-point lead over Hamlin. Harvick was 38 back with three races left in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
“We’ve gone through seven races, and you can throw a blanket over the three of us,’’ Harvick said. “It’s going to just come down to dotting the Is, crossing the Ts, keeping that performance level where it needs to be.’’
“It’s going to be an awesome championship battle all the way to Homestead, and I’m really looking forward to it,’’ Johnson echoed.
All three went to Talladega hoping it wouldn’t be the wild card of the 10-race Chase.
Although it was wild, it didn’t disrupt the Chase.
The race was marked by 87 lead changes, second most in NASCAR history, and a multicar accident that sent AJ Allmendinger’s car flipping across the track as the leaders roared toward the white flag. NASCAR threw the caution for Allmendinger’s accident, and nobody had any idea who was out front when the yellow waved.
It took several minutes of reviews for NASCAR to declare Bowyer the victor. He jumped the gun with celebratory burnouts, then stuck his hand out his window for a congratulatory high-five with Harvick, who waited in his parked Chevrolet for the NASCAR call.
While Bowyer celebrated in Victory Lane, the title contenders tried to make sense of the day. Johnson hovered around a TV monitor in the infield media center to watch replays of the final two laps, while a wide-eyed Harvick was later distracted by another view.
“Oh, I didn’t know somebody flipped,’’ he said.
That’s how it usually goes at Talladega, and the drivers went into the race with strategies to avoid the mayhem. For Johnson and Hamlin, it was riding around the back most of the day then hooking up with a teammate for help for a final push.
Only Hamlin lost the draft and fell behind the pack and dropped a lap down. He needed to wait for the field to catch him, then slid inside a promised hole from fellow
One of the cautions that helped Hamlin hurt Harvick. He raced hard all day but damaged the nose of his Chevrolet midway through the race in a multicar accident on the backstretch.
A quick pit-road repair job put him back in contention, and he continued his hard push. 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 behind the RCR drivers and Juan Pablo Montoya. “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 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.’’
For Bowyer, the winner, it was a redemption of sorts. He stormed out of the gates at the start of the Chase by winning the opener at New Hampshire, only to be stripped of 150 championship points when NASCAR said his car was illegal.