TALLADEGA, Ala. — NASCAR's three title contenders hoped the tightest championship in seven years wouldn't be derailed by the typically chaotic racing at Talladega Superspeedway.
They got what they wanted Sunday.
Columbia native Carl Edwards finished in 17th place. He remains in sixth place in the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship.
There was a photo-finish win for Clint Bowyer, and a traffic jam at the top of the standings featuring Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick with three races left in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
Harvick was the runner-up to his Richard Childress Racing teammate; Johnson was seventh; and Hamlin rallied to finish ninth. They now head to Texas with four-time defending champion Johnson leading Hamlin by 14 points and Harvick 38 back.
"It's going to be an awesome championship battle all the way to Homestead, and I'm really looking forward to it," said Johnson, the four-time defending champion.
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, which every driver considered the wild card of the 10 Chase races.
The goal was to set a strategy that would prevent mayhem at Talladega. 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 stop the bleeding. 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 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'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."
Hamlin made no mention of 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."