It took officials a long, long time studying video and timing screen evidence before they could declare Clint Bowyer in the #33 Chevrolet as winner of the AMP Energy Drink 500 race at Talladega in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship, just inches ahead of his Richard Childress Racing teammate, Kevin Harvick. Mind you, Bowyer didn’t wait for the official result before he celebrated with the traditional burn out in front of the packed stands, his attitude summed up with his post-race comment, “Hell yeah! Claim that one before somebody else does!”

Just as Bowyer and Harvick took the white flag at the start of the last lap a five car crash, triggered by Jimmie Johnson getting into a slide which sent A J Allmendinger airborne and upside down into the inner wall before the #43 Valvoline Ford flew again to land on its wheels, brought out the sixth yellow caution flag of the race. Under NASCAR rules if the yellow is shown on the white flag lap the result will be taken from the position of the cars at the moment the caution is shown. All videos and timing monitors are time-stamped at that exact moment and then have to be examined to establish the finishing order.

Approaching the line towards the white flag were three pairs of cars bump drafting for a two-and-a-half mile sprint to the checkered flag. Bowyer was on the inside line being pushed very hard by Juan Pablo Montoya  in the Target Chevrolet whilst on the high line Harvick was being pushed by David Reutimann in the Aaron’s Dream Machine Toyota. A Toyota pushing a Chevy? As Reutimann said afterwards, in an ideal world he would have found a Toyota to push put when there wasn’t one there he either pushed the car which he thought gave him the best chance of winning himself or he fell back into the pack. So Harvick it was then. Behind these four cars was the Toyota pair of Joey Logano being bump drafted by Martin Truex Jr., the pair of them hoping to gatecrash the party ahead.

Without a doubt as they crossed the line Harvick was just ahead of Bowyer but as they rounded turn one so the Bowyer-Montoya combo inched ahead – fortuitously just as the yellow was shown.

The result was given as Bowyer ahead of Harvick followed by Montoya, Reutimann, Logano and Truex Jr. Seventh was Johnson followed by teammate Jeff Gordon who had worked well together, bump drafting their way from deep within the pack up to the front until Gordon thought his engine was going to blow. Turned out it wasn’t, but it was too late by the time he realised. The top ten was completed by Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski.

Hamlin, along with Jimmie Johnson, had elected to run at the rear of the pack for the majority of the race to avoid the notorious Talladega multi-car wrecks – only the wrecks didn’t happen – well, not the big ones, anyway. The philosophy worked well for Johnson who could have been a genuine contender for the win if Gordon hadn’t pulled out of the draft and stayed with him for the duration. The speed with which the pair of them powered from the rear of the pack to the lead was testament enough that bump-drafting was the only way to win at the Alabama track.

For Hamlin that same philosophy very nearly bit him in the backside. He managed to drop off the rear of the pack and as soon as he lost the draft he fell away at the rate of four seconds per lap from the field. The Toyota teams discussed someone dropping back to help him draft his way back to the pack but the consensus was that he had fallen too far behind. That left him with no choice but to struggle on until the leaders caught him. Logano let him back into the line running on the outside, but now a lap down he needed to get in the Lucky Dog position where he could get himself back onto the lead lap at the next caution. He failed that when the yellows came out on lap 135 for a turn four accident between Jeff Burton and Dale Earnhardt Jr. when Earnhardt misjudged getting the #88 onto the back of Burton’s #31 Chevy and spun him out. Earnhardt was profuse with his apologies, Burton magnanimous in his acceptance of a racing accident.

A strong day for Jeff Burton was ended after a mistimed bump-draft

Hamlin got the Lucky Dog free pass next time round on lap 142 which got him back on to the lead lap and in a position to fight his way forward. He was clearly disappointed with his ninth place, feeling he could and should have done better, but can take consolation from knowing he didn’t ruin his championship chances. In fact all three of the contenders for the title couldn’t have given the fans a better result with Hamlin just fourteen points behind Johnson and Harvick closing up on the leader so 35 points cover all three with just three races to go, starting Sunday at Texas, followed by Phoenix and then the finale at Homestead, Miami in less than three weeks.

That’s two 1.5 mile ovals where all three have run well sandwiching the one mile Arizona track where Johnson has had some extraordinary success. But none of these tracks are likely to surpass Talladega’s track record, last night seeing 26 different drivers lead the race at one point or another with a total of 87 changes for the lead at the finish line! That number doesn’t include the innumerable changes elsewhere on the track. That is the second highest number of lead changes in history. And the highest? Why, Talladega, of course. Just six months ago.

This Sprint Cup Series championship really looks like it could go down to the wire.