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Contenders still in a bunch




Steve Mickey

Steve Mickey

Entering Sunday’s Amp Juice 500 at Talladega, the Sprint Cup Series was enjoying its closest Chase after six races since its inception in 2004. All of that was supposed to change as Talladega has this history of taking away the championship dreams of many drivers. Talladega’s strategy for achieving this is very simple, it always comes in the form of the ‘big one’ that seems to collect a couple of drivers that are still in the hunt for the championship.

Sunday’s race had Jimmie Johnson holding a slim six-point lead over Denny Hamlin, and Kevin Harvick, in third, was 62 points from the top spot. The race for the title had come down to those three drivers after the first six races of the Chase had separated them from the rest of the 12-man Chase field.

Talladega has always been labeled as the ‘wild card’ race on the 10-race Chase schedule as many a championship dream has been wiped away after 188 white-knuckle laps on its high- banked track. This year’s trip to the Alabama track proved to be diff erent, as the ‘big one’ never did materialize and the point chase going into Texas this weekend is now the closest that it has ever been after the first seven races of any Chase.

The diff erence between Johnson in first and third-place Harvick is now 38 points; that is 24 points less than it was at the beginning of the day. Hamlin actually lost some ground to Johnson as he began the day just six points out of the top spot, but his ninth-place finish on Sunday was two behind Johnson and that stretched Johnson’s lead to 14.

Hamlin had to work for his ninth-place finish as he went a lap down early in the race after he lost the draft. He had to slowly move his way back up to the front and, more importantly, work his way into position to get the wavearound from NASCAR, putting him back on the lead lap. His ninth-place finish had him feeling disappointed after the race as he said he had to race safe for much of the day just to get the finish he did.

While Hamlin was fighting to get back on the lead lap, Harvick and his Richard Childress Racing teammate Clint Bowyer got into a wreck with Marcos Ambrose on lap 141. Both drivers received damage on the front of their Chevrolets, but it was Harvick that sustained the heaviest damage.

Harvick’s damage included a huge dent in the front valence that would play havoc with the car’s aerodynamics, but his pit crew took a long pit stop to shore up the front end with layers of tape. The result was a car that was going to need a lot of help if it was going to stay up near the lead as the final laps went off the board.

Both Harvick and Bowyer headed back on the track needing help, but this was Talladega and every driver needs help if they want to get to the front and stay there. After some laps of staying in line, Harvick found his partner in David Reutimann. The two had success earlier in the race as drafting partners, so Reutimann put his bumper to the rear of Harvick’s battered Chevy and the two began their march to the front. On their way to the front, Harvick put his heavily taped front bumper behind Martin Truex Jr.’s rear end and used him to clear a path to the front, where he found himself racing teammate Bowyer for the win. Bowyer had made his way to the front with the drafting help of Juan Pablo Montoya.

In a race that had 87 lead changes among 26 drivers, you just knew that the final lap would produce a surprising finish — and sure enough it did. Harvick actually took the white flag signaling the final lap but as he and Bowyer were battling for the win in turn one, A.J. Allmendinger flipped going down the front stretch bringing out the caution that, by NASCAR rules, froze the field and the final finishing order. It was several minutes before NASCAR announced the final results showing that at the moment the field was frozen, Bowyer was ahead and he was declared the race winner.

Harvick finished an amazing second to stay in the title hunt and with only three races remaining, he has to feel like he has dodged the bullet that could have cost him the title.

Race Preview — Event: AAA Texas 500

Track: Texas Motor Speedway (1.5-mile oval, 24 degrees of banking in the turns)

Date: Nov. 7, 3 p.m. TV: ESPN Radio: PRN Defending champ: Kurt Busch

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