NASCAR's second visit of the year to Texas, coming just three races before the end of the season, produced moments of high emotion for several of the drivers and their pit crews, with two Chase contenders coming to blows out on the track, another penalised for obscene gestures, and another needing to switch out his entire pit crew after a series of pit road hold-ups.
Elliott Sadler and Greg Biffle tussled over the lead for the first dozen laps until Joe Nemechek's dying engine brought out the first caution and round of pit stops of the afternoon. Biffle led after the stops, but all eyes were on the Chase contenders having to work their way up from low grid positions - and it was Jimmie Johnson who was on form, moving from 16th at the restart up to 5th by the time the next yellow came out on lap 43 for debris on the backstretch.
Johnson dropped a couple of spots at the pit stop, while Kurt Busch got with with a pit lane speeding penalty. Mark Martin briefly took the lead before Biffle reasserted himself, but it was a brief green flag period before Sam Hornish Jr got into the wall through turns 3 and 4 on lap 58 for the third caution.
Biffle led Martin, Sadler, Clint Bowyer and Johnson at the restart; David Ragan (who had been up to seventh) dropped to 32nd after suffering from loose lugnets, while Jeff Burton - who had gone a lap down after needing to make an extra pit stop under the green for new tyres - was the most relieved man on track when the caution gave him his lap back.
Jimmie Johnson continued his strong run during the next, longer green flag period, moving inexorably up to third place behind Biffle and Martin who traded the lead a couple of times as the race his the hundred lap marker. Johnson briefly took the lead (and all important bonus points) for leading lap 110 as the next round of pit stops cycled through, and when he pitted it was Chase rival Denny Hamlin who succeeded him in the lead next time around before he too came in for fuel and tyres.
That put Martin back in the lead, now with David Reutimann in second ahead of Bowyer, Biffle, Logano and Hamlin who got past Kyle Busch for position on lap 115. Johnson had slipped all the way back to 12th place with a very slow pit stop and was not happy, but he still had the on-track pace to repair the damage.
Martin Truex Jr. triggered the fourth caution, getting loose into turn 4 and hitting the wall before sliding through the infield grass. Joey Logano made a flying stop and emerged on the front row for the restart alongside Biffle, who soon pushed the youngster aside to resume the top spot; they were followed by Martin, Reutimann, Hamlin and Harvick with Johnson down in eighth but once again proving quick on track and working his way up to take fifth from Hamlin just before Truex triggered a second consecutive caution on lap 151, this time with a blown front tyre. Definitely not his day.
The restart was another replay between Logano and Biffle, and Johnson had once again haemorrhaged positions in the pit stop and fallen out of the top ten - the fury in the #48 was building, and Johnson and pit chief Chad Knaus were losing patience with the way they would gain positions on track only to then lose them the minute they came onto pit road. Something had to change.
Johnson had no time to make up positions this time before the sixth caution on lap 159 - Kyle Busch got spun by contact with another car on lap 160 and suffered bodywork damage that sent him to the pits. He thought he'd just managed to exit before the safety car - and hence stay on the lead lap - only to instead get served a pit lane speed violation, costing him a lap. Furious at the combination of getting spun out and then the penalty and emitting a string of expletives over the team radio, Busch gave a very prominent finger to the NASCAR official standing in the #18 pit box monitoring the penalty - which was captured by the in-car camera and transmitted live. NASCAR promptly gave him a further two lap penalty for "unsportsmanlike conduct" after his "inappropriate gestures", and Kyle faces more sanctions from NASCAR post-race, especially coming a day after Kyle stromed out of the media centre following the Nationwide race and swore during two interviews, incensed by his belief that Carl Edwards ahd got away with a jump start at the final restart. Now Kyle's Sprint Cup race was done: while he got back one of the three laps, he still finished the afternoon a disastrous 32nd.
After all that, Biffle and Logano rejoined their battle for the lead on lap 163. Logano eventually took the lead and he, Biffle and Reutimann made a three-car breakaway at the front. Further back, Johnson - after initially gaining a couple of positions - then fell back again, that pit stop hold-up really hurting the #48 now.
Lap 191 saw the seventh caution of the day: accident-prone Truex Jr. was into the wall again at turn 3. But even as the caution came out, back in turn 2 there had been a coming together of the two Jeffs, Gordon and Burton: after an earlier mild confrontation, Gordon had slid up the track in front of Burton, who had then run into the back of the #24 and put it into the wall. If the move had been intentional payback, then it was a very costly one because it also collected Burton's car in the process.
Gordon was furious, and as the two stood by their wrecks waiting for the NASCAR recovery crews and ambulances, Gordon was steamed up enough to let Burton know what he felt. Right there on the backstretch, in front of the entire crowd, words turned into shoves and thrown punches between the two until the NASCAR officials intervened.
"I just lost so much respect for Jeff for doing something like that," said a fuming Gordon. "That was really stupid." Burton for his part denied that the wreck had been intentional and said that the setting sun had got into his eyes on the exit of turn 2, momentarily blinding him. Gordon didn't accept that: "He thought I came up on him and he didn't mean to wreck me. But I'm sorry. I will never believe that. I've been driving a race car long enough to know what your intentions are, and I know what they were right there."
Bizarrely, NASCAR then opted to put both drivers into the same ambulance rather than separate vehicles as is the norm, but further fights were avoided. NASCAR said that the incident would be reviewed by officials early this week to see whether the drivers would receive any penalties, but it's not seen as likely. Jeff Burton was subsequently able to go back out for a half dozen laps with a makeshift right hand side, which boosted him a couple of positions up in the points standings in the final classifications.
One driver's misfortune was another's opportunity, however: Chad Knause seized upon Jeff Gordon's retirement to commandeer the entire #24 pit crew to replace his own, such was his and Johnson's anger at the amount of time lost in the pits today. Johnson was back in 15th as the race got back underway, with Biffle back in the lead.
A solid green flag stint of over almost 100 laps gave Johnson the opening to get the car back into the groove, and he was soon passing cars every two or three laps. He was up to sixth by the time the next round of pit stops cycled through under green flag conditions around lap 248, and this time Johnson's pit stop was much better with his new loaned crew, dropping only a single place despite the ad hoc arrangements.
The next round of pit stops was also under green, after which Greg Biffle was still leading on lap 291 ahead of Chase rivals Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin with David Reutimann, Scott Speed (yet to pit), Jimmie Johnson, Joey Logano, Matt Kenseth and Martin.
Harvick was complaining of a loose car and had lost second spot when a caution for debris came out on lap 300, allowing everyone who wanted to the opportunity to make a quick return to pit road under slightly less high speed conditions. With everyone taking in an assortment of late-race adjustments to compensate for the cooling evening conditions, there was a shakeup in the running order: Mark Martin and Tony Stewart stayed out altogether and made up the front row at the restart ahead of Harvick and Hamlin; Johnson was in eighth, while the big loser this time around was former leader Greg Biffle. Not only had the pit stop itself been slow, but it seemed like there was a problem with his transmission and the car seemed to have mislaid second gear altogether; but he had enough still going for him to keep the car running in the top ten, if not to compete for the win anymore.
At the restart, Hamlin put his two fresh tyres to good use by immediately jumping ahead of the front row duo to take the lead. Even better for his Chase hopes, Kevin Harvick was falling back, quickly overtaken by Matt Kenseth who seemed set to be the strongest threat to Hamlin at this point as he soon passed Tony Stewart and Mark Martin to move up to second place. Jimmie Johnson was also suddenly struggling, his car simply not as strong as it had been in the first half of the race resulting in him finding it hard to make any progress from ninth place.
The race was just six laps shy of the lead when Patrick Carpentier brought out the ninth and final caution on lap 328, setting up a high-stakes restart with everything to play for. Harvick opted to pit for fresh tyres but eight cars stayed out, Hamlin and Johnson among them, meaning Harvick would start from tenth and have to hustle and go three-wide to make up the lost ground in the two laps remaining between the restart and the chequered flag.
Biffle's gear problems once again played a critical role at the restart: this time hindering Jimmie Johnson. Up front, Hamlin was trying to fend off a spirited charge from Matt Kenseth, and initially it seemed that Kenseth had taken the lead going into the final lap - only for Kenseth to overcook it and make contact with the wall, losing the lead before the scoring line and white flag, and crucially losing momentum that meant Hamlin was able to run the final lap to the finish without further challenge.
It was a smart, mature display from Hamlin, working his way through the field, sticking close to the top ten throughout, never feeling the need to barge his way to the front until the final 28 laps when it really mattered. It deservedly puts him at the top of the Sprint Cup standings, and while 33pts is far from safe in a series where the winner can claim 200pts in a weekend it's certainly a boost to his championship hopes at the most critical time of the year. And Kevin Harvick is far from out of contention in third place, just 59pts back.
Meanwhile, going into the final two races from behind rather than out in front will come as a major shock to Johnson and Knaus, whose aura of Chase infallibility takes a dent following the need to swap out the entire pit crew midrace - a moment of ruthlessness, or of blind panic? Either way could have serious consequences to the team in the final two weeks.