TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) — Kevin Harvick sat patiently in his parked car waiting for NASCAR to declare a winner at Talladega Superspeedway.
There was no disappointment when the victory went to teammate Clint Bowyer.
It’s the big picture that counts now, and Sunday’s race did little to clear up a crowded Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
“I think it’s going to be a small margin all the way to the end,” said four-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson.
Right now it’s the smallest margin in the seven years since the Chase began.
NASCAR’s three title contenders all left Talladega with their championship chances intact, as Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Harvick remained locked at the top of the points standings. The race ended with a photo-finish and three relieved title contenders.
Johnson has a 14-point lead over Hamlin, while Harvick is 38 back with three races remaining.
“We’ve gone through seven races, and you can throw a blanket over the three of us,” Harvick said. “It’s really 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 Sunday 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 Toyota driver David Reutimann to finally stop losing ground. From there, Hamlin needed cautions to get back on the lead lap and into position to keep his title chances alive.
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 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 (drivers’) 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 did not mention 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.
But he 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 racetracks where our cars and our teams can make a difference and us as drivers can make a difference. And that’s what we got.”
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.
Bowyer has been stalled in last place in the 12-driver Chase field, eager to prove his team is better then where they are ranked. Although he’s still 12th after Sunday’s win, he’s only 50 points out of seventh place.
“To be able to win, it is redemption,” Bowyer said. “It finally puts that behind me as a racecar driver, as a person, and us as a race team.”