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Bowyer scores win, Chase leaders survive
By Matt Taliaferro
It was the race that kept Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick awake at night. The three drivers left to settle the 2010 Chase for the Sprint Cup knew the Amp Energy Juice 500 from Talladega Superspeedway would be the ultimate wild card race in a tight championship battle.
After 188 white-knuckle laps with giant packs of cars in tight drafting quarters, the trio of contenders escaped unscathed, and more incredulously, all with top 10s. In fact, one — Harvick — came within a foot of winning.
Instead, it was Harvick’s Richard Childress Racing teammate, Clint Bowyer, who won the lottery after finding the right draft to get him in the right position at the right time and have just enough of an advantage over Harvick when a caution was displayed after the leaders had taken the white flag.
AJ Allmendinger’s frightening spin, flip and head-on contact with the inside wall triggered a yellow flag as four leaders entered Turn 1 in two-by-two formation. Bowyer edged out Harvick and David Reutimann with drafting assistance from Juan Pablo Monotya to score his second win of the season, both having come in the Chase.
"Just very, very happy for a lot of reasons," Bowyer said. "Everybody at RCR has worked very hard to get us back. To have Kevin racing for a championship is where obviously Jeff [Burton] and I wanted to be. But to have him still in a shot at winning a championship, that's very important. To be able to win two races in a Chase for our race team is very important."
Despite Bowyer’s win, he remains 12th in the standings after being penalized 150 points after an infraction found after the New Hampshire event, which Bowyer won. But the focus of the point standings now centers on the top three, where Johnson, who finished seventh, holds a 14-point lead over Hamlin, who ran ninth on Sunday. Harvick remains third, just 38 points out of the lead.
Harvick suffered nose damage to his No. 29 Chevy with 46 laps remaining, when Bowyer spun the car of Marcos Ambrose while racing in the pack. The contact dented Harvick’s nose, but the crew repaired the car with duct tape and Bondo and, miraculously, the aero-sensitive car seemed unaffected.
"When I saw him start to spin, I didn't want to spin out," Harvick explained of the accident with Ambrose. "I didn't want to come back up the racetrack. I didn't want to spin backwards and have a chance of getting in the wall.
"He just kind of rolled across the nose. I was able to just kind of not keep hitting him. I was able to just kind of go back on the gas and push him off of me. That was the best way I knew at that point to minimize the damage on the nose.
"[The crew] did a great job fixing it. Got the fenders pulled out. As long as we were in the middle of the pack, we were fine."
Johnson laid back at the tail end of the field for a large portion of the race, waiting patiently with teammate Jeff Gordon to make one last mad dash through the field near the end. When the duo decided to go with 16 laps remaining, neither expected to slice through the field as quick as they did. Within two laps they drove from 26th and 27th to first and second, only to get shuffled back when Gordon dropped back due to what he believed to be an engine issue. Without his drafting partner, Johnson plummeted through the field, but Gordon’s engine came back to life and the two recovered to finish seventh and eighth, respectively.
"We had a strategy [and] stuck to our game plan," Johnson said of riding in the back and making a late charge. "In the end, I had a shot at winning the race, which is what we were after. Unfortunately, the 24 [Gordon] felt like he had an engine problem developing once we got to the front [and] kind of pulled out of the way so he wouldn't blow an engine in front of me or the field. In the end, he was pumping some oil out and didn't have an engine problem.
"Where things kind of went wrong for us was on that restart. Things must have shuffled around behind the 77 [Sam Hornish Jr.]. The 77 and I were the only ones in the middle lane, which was the outside lane at the restart. The inside lane was well-organized. The outside lane, I think Kevin and some of those guys were hooked up and motoring on by. At that point we were just trying to get back up in there for a decent finish. On my way sliding backwards, I found the 24 again. He pushed me [and] we made our way up through the center."
Hamlin struggled as well, only to rebound late. Employing the same sandbagging strategy as Johnson, Hamlin rode in the back but at one point lost the draft and went one lap down. He wasn’t able to get back on the lead lap until the Harvick/Ambrose incident, but once there, hooked up with his teammate, Kyle Busch, and drafted to the front. However, the Joe Gibbs Racing duo sat atop the pylon too early — with 30 laps to go — opening the door for others to pair up and draft by.
"We were in great position to win with two to go," Hamlin said. "I had a push from the 5 [Mark Martin], but as soon as we passed the 48 [Johnson], he stopped pushing. It killed us. That's what I would expect of a teammate, but we weren't around teammates at the end."
The three points leaders are now prepared to settle the championship over the last three races — at Texas, Phoenix and Homestead. And with a 38-point spread, it’s still anyone’s title.
"We need to be as competitive and as fast as we can possibly be at this point," Johnson said of the final trio of stops. "We're going to three tracks that are good for all three competitors. You're going to have to run in the top 5 to stay in the game then, obviously, take advantage of things and win if you can.
"Ten extra points from first to second are going to be important. Leading laps, leading the most laps, you're going to have to be on you’re A-game from here on out."