Though Kyle Busch dominated the greater part of the AdvoCare 500 at Phoenix International Raceway it was Kevin Harvick who got the better of a late race restart, and then rode out a wild end to the race to score the first Sprint Cup victory for a Richard Childress Racing team this year in the week in which his departure to Stewart-Haas for 2014 was announced.
Meanwhile, the importance of it almost submerged, beneath the on an off track melees that will, unfortunately, define the race Brad Keselowski moved into a 20 point lead in the championship with just the final race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway remaining on the calendar.
Keselowski began the race seven points behind Jimmie Johnson in the standings, but as soon as the green flag dropped the margin between the two championship rivals only looked destined to contract. Keselowski almost always remaining ahead of Johnson as the pair fought their way up into the top ten, the order on track only briefly altered when Brad stalled the #2 pulling away from his first pitstop.
Though always cutting the deficit to Johnson Keselowski was seldom ahead, finally moving into the provisional championship lead, passing Busch for the lead on lap 234 of the posted 312.
If, and it remains an if, Keselowski goes on to clinch the championship. The events of the following lap will be put forth as the fulcrum in the chase for the championship.
Already fighting a tight car and struggling for pace – he had just have to surrender a position to Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne – the front-right tyre on Jimmie Johnson’s car blew exiting the final corner, pitching him into the outside wall.
The incident brought out the fourth caution of the race as Johnson limped back to the garage. The damage to the left side of the Lowe’s Chevrolet – and the front corner in particular – was severe, but not race ending. Johnson’s tyre had clung on until further round the corner than David Gilliland’s had nearly 200 laps earlier.
That incident spelled the end of Gilliland’s afternoon, while the Hendrick crews were able to repair the #48, returning him to the track 38 laps down, limiting the damage as much as possible.
The caution for Johnson’s spill brought to an end a long run of green flag racing, and limited Keselowski’s spell in the lead, resuming the race in third place behind Busch and Denny Hamlin.
In the final 40 laps of the race there were a total of four cautions, the first of which when caused when David Ragan became the latest visitor to the wall flanking turns 3 and 4 (he would not be the last). Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe elected to pit, taking new left tyres only leaving the driver mired in traffic battling for the positions in the lower half of the top ten.
Sam Hornish Jr. hit the wall after sustaining damage in his latest on track skirmish with Danica Patrick, bringing out another full course caution with just a dozen laps remaining. On the restart Busch, who led a total of 237 laps, lined up inside of Harvick but it was the Chevrolet pilot who took the lead for final 15 laps of the race.
Behind the lead battle, on the fringes of the top five Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon clashed twice through the track’s distinctive dogleg, the contact leaving Gordon limping towards the checkered flag with a flat tyre.
As Harvick rounded turn four towards the white flag Gordon lurked on the low line awaiting the arrival of Bowyer. Almost certainly aware of the nature of what was to follow Bowyer tried to duck below Gordon, only for the four time champion to purposely turn into Bowyer, sending both cars back up the track in front of Keselowski and into the path of an innocent Joey Logano, on his own way to collecting a welcome top ten finish in his penultimate race with Joe Gibbs Racing, with Aric Almirola spinning into the crash while trying to avoid the accident.
While the wreckage on track was cleared under a red flag the action spread to the paddock Gordon and Bowyer’s teams involved in a brawl at the rear of Gordon’s hauler, with Bowyer himself making his way to the same location. Needless to say both drivers – and teams – were called to the officials to account for their actions.
Harvick and the Childress crew were also making their feelings known during the pause in racing, convinced, incorrectly, that Harvick had begun the final lap before the yellow flag appeared to the unfolding mess behind. Had that have been the case the race would have been over, but instead Busch was given a final chance to grab the lead back, and Keselowski given an extra two laps to survive before his attentions could turn to Florida in a week’s time.
In turn one Keselowski heart stoppingly fell through the middle of Paul Menard and Greg Biffle from sixth back to ninth. Harvick was escaping back into the lead, Gibbs teammates Hamlin and Busch squabbling over second.
Through turn three Danica Patrick spun into the outside wall after contact with Jeff Burton, Patrick’s car spinning back down the track ahead of half the field, but the white, rather than yellow flag was displayed and the race continued, Hamlin taking second from Busch at the kink on the final lap, though both Toyotas looked close to spinning out.
Patrick had moved away from the middle of the track, but her car was trailing fluid. Harvick slid through the final corner but held on to win, Hamlin, Busch and Kahne following across the line.
Biffle drove into the final corner had, a late attempt to take sixth place from Kurt Busch, but Biffle slid wide on Patrick’s fluid or simply as a by-product of his tight line in the close pack, the front of his car tipped Ryan Newman into a spin – he would finish fifth crossing the line backward – the rear forcing Busch into the wall, the #78 bouncing off the wall in Keselowski who somehow stayed straight, completing a miraculous escape in finishing sixth.
The errant Busch collected Paul Menard, the pair hit Newman and Patrick, Newman’s still spinning car collecting Mark Martin as he tried to avoid the chaos having already crossed the line.
Biffle, Busch, Menard and Martin filled the final spots in the top ten. Patrick credited with 17th as the first driver off the lead lap. Burton, meanwhile finished 13th.
The extra laps were less eventful for Johnson, though they allowed him to gain a final point overtaking David Ragan to record a 32nd place finish.