AVONDALE, Ariz. – Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski were the big winners following a bizarre NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Phoenix Int’l Raceway Sunday afternoon.
Harvick, who started the weekend having to answer questions after a report from ESPN indicated he’d be leaving Richard Childress Racing after 2013, scored his first victory of the year following a wild series of events in the final laps of Sunday’s AdvoCare 500.
Kyle Busch dominated much of Sunday’s event, leading a race-high 237 laps. However, a crash on lap 300 involving Sam Hornish Jr. allowed second-place Harvick to close that gap. The field returned to racing with eight laps left and Harvick took advantage, driving around Busch on the high side to grab the lead.
That is when things got interesting.
As Harvick was making his way to the white flag, Jeff Gordon made deliberate contact with Clint Bowyer in turn four. Gordon, apparently upset with Bowyer over contact the two made some laps prior, ended up taking out Bowyer, Joey Logano and Aric Almirola in the incident.
NASCAR displayed the red flag after the crash to clean up the resulting mess, but things didn’t settle down in the garage area. A scuffle broke out between Gordon and Bowyer’s crews as Gordon exited his damaged Chevrolet. Bowyer joined the scuffle after parking his damaged Toyota on pit road and running into the garage in search of Gordon.
Both drivers and their crew chiefs were called to the NASCAR garage to discuss the incident.
Meanwhile, Harvick and the rest of the Sprint Cup field were preparing for a green-white-checkered restart. Harvick got the jump on Busch and pulled away from the field in turns one and two. In turn three Danica Patrick spun into the outside wall, but NASCAR did not wave the caution flag.
Harvick completed the final lap and scored his first victory of the year, but nearly wrecked exiting turn four in fluid dropped by Patrick. Others weren’t so lucky, as Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch, Paul Menard and several others crashed at the exit of turn four on the final lap.
Denny Hamlin chased Harvick to the finish line, followed closely by Busch, Kasey Kahne and the wrecked machine driven by Newman. Keselowski, also involved in the last-lap crash, squeezed through to finish sixth.
“I was just thinking about not overdriving the first corner, whether we were going to run out of gas or not and how far the 18 (Kyle Busch) was going to drive it in,” Harvick said in referencing to the final restart of the race. “They were real quick to throw the caution, then they just let us race through oil.
“It has been a struggle for the year and it has been an interesting weekend to say the least. I know all these guys want to win and I know Richard (Childress) wants to win and regardless of what happens in 2014, we’ve got the end of this year and we’ve got all of next year. We want to win races and we want to be competitive and that is what we are here to do.”
The late-race mayhem was par for the course for Keselowski, who assumed the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship lead thanks to some bad luck from five-time champion Jimmie Johnson.
Johnson was running along in the top 10 on lap 235 when he suddenly slammed the wall at the exit of turn four, the victim of a flat right-front tire. Johnson’s crew repaired the damaged No. 48 Chevrolet and Johnson completed the race in 32nd position, but the damage was done.
As a result, Johnson now trails Keselowski by 20 points heading to the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway next weekend. If Keselowski can finish 15th or better next weekend, he will win his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship no matter what Johnson does.
“I raced pretty hard last week at Texas and a couple guys gave me flack for it, but there is a difference between racing hard and what we saw today,” Keselowski said. “Borderline ridiculous at times. We survived and I’m proud of everyone on the Miller Lite team for that.
“Obviously there are no guarantees. We could go next week to Homestead, have the same problem (Jimmie had today) and Jimmie could take the point lead back over. No guarantees, but we’re very proud to have that point lead heading into next week.”
Johnson admitted after the race that while winning the championship isn’t impossible, he’ll certainly need a lot of help if it is going to happen.
“It is way, way out of our control,” said Johnson post-race, referencing his odds of winning the 2012 championship. “We still have to go to Homestead and race and anything can happen down there, but not the position we wanted to be in leaving Phoenix.”