It was another typical day of close racing at Talladega Superspeedway. And once it was all over, the top of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series point standings was just as close.
There were 87 lead changes among 26 drivers during Sunday's running of the AMP Energy Juice 500, just one shy of the Sprint Cup Series record of 88 set at Talladega Superspeedway back in April during the Aaron's 499. The 175 lead changes between the spring and fall race is the most ever in one year at a race track in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series history.
The final lead change occurred on the final lap, when Clint Bowyer managed to sneak in front of Richard Childress Racing teammate Kevin Harvick seconds before a race-ending caution flag came out. The race was so close that for several minutes afterward, neither Bowyer nor Harvick knew who had won.
The only thing that was certain was that an RCR driver would be celebrating in Victory Lane. "We didn't know which one had won it," Childress said. "And then my grandson Austin (Dillon) said, ‘Come on, we know we (RCR) won the race. Let's go to the winner's circle.' I was sitting there kind of numb until he said that."
Bowyer and Harvick both sat in their cars near the start-finish line while waiting for the verdict from NASCAR. Eventually, Bowyer began doing a celebratory burnout in front of the cheering fans, even though he had not yet officially been declared the winner.
"I thought I'd claim that baby before somebody else does," Bowyer said with a wide smile. It was Bowyer's second victory of the season and the first of his career at Talladega. Harvick finished second followed by Juan Pablo Montoya in third, David Reutimann fourth, Joey Logano fifth, Martin Truex Jr. sixth, Jimmie Johnson seventh, Jeff Gordon eighth, Denny Hamlin ninth and Brad Keselowski 10th.
Even though he did not win the race, Harvick gained ground in the Sprint Cup point standings on both Johnson and Hamlin. Johnson left Talladega with only a 14-point lead over Hamlin and a 38-point edge over Harvick. It is the closest margin between first and third with only three races left in the season since the inception of the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship format in 2004.
All three drivers held the lead at some point during the frenetic final 30 laps of the 188-lap race. Hamlin grabbed the front spot on lap 159 after spending much of the race trying to battle back from losing the draft and falling a lap down.
"I was just being too lazy back there and not paying attention to what I needed to do," Hamlin said. "We were fortunate to be able to get back on the lead lap and get back up there." Johnson, meanwhile, motored to the front on lap 178 thanks to a strong push from teammate Jeff Gordon.
"Maybe we got to the front a little early, but I thought we could hang on to it," Johnson said. "At the end, when you come around with two or three to go, you're in the hornet's nest. It's fun to race like that."
Bowyer grabbed the lead from Johnson, relinquished it to Harvick a few laps later, and then reclaimed it at the most important moment of all. "I'm very, very happy for a lot of reasons," Bowyer said. "Everybody at RCR has worked very hard to get us back. Really, you couldn't ask for a better day."