There can rarely have been such bizarre scenes at the end of a race as there were at the finish of the 2012 AdvoCare 500 NASCAR
Sprint Cup event at Phoenix International Raceway on Sunday afternoon, which saw Clint Bowyer's pit crew pounce on Jeff Gordon and fists fly amid confusion about whether the race had actually finished or who had won.
And that was all long after the biggest shock of the day with the most serious ramifications as far as this year's championship is concerned: a wreck for Jimmie Johnson that could make it impossible for him to beat Brad Keselowski to his sixth Cup title in next weekend's season finale at Homestead-Miami.
For a race with such a eye-popping, chaotic events in store, proceedings got off to a fairly quiet start as Kyle Busch pulled away from pole position into a comfortable lead, as his Joe Gibbs Racing team mate Denny Hamlin took over second place after Martin Truex Jr. had a premature end to his day after suffering a rare engine failure in his Toyota. However the first caution of the day didn't come until on lap 21 for Mike Bliss in turn 4, and the second until lap 52 when David Gilliland had a tyre go down which sent him scraping the wall in turn 4.
“That was really big, probably the hardest hit I've ever had, tt blew a right-front tyre," admitted Gilliland. "We were just biding our time for the next pit stop where we could come in and work on it. It's too bad. I didn't know you could hit that hard on a mile race track. That was a tough one.”
Mark Martin led the field at the restart but Busch was quickly past him to recover his former lead; it took Denny Hamlin a little while longer to get past the veteran for the second spot. As the race passed the 100-lap mark and green flag pit stops loomed, Busch's tenure at the top started to look under threat: a troublesome piece of debris on the front grille gave him a water temperature headache, and his pace was dropping off compared with Hamlin's the longer the uninterrupted stint of racing went on. Finally, Hamlin took the lead on lap 118, and Busch lost more places before coming in for his stop on lap 128.
Hamlin lasted a couple of laps longer than his team mate while Chase contenders Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson went longer still, staying out until laps 134 and 135 respectively. They'd been having a solid if unspectacular start to the race, Johnson creeping up to run immediately behind Keselowski on the edge of the top ten, partly thanks to an early pit stop snafu for the #2 which saw Keselowski's car stall when it was dropped off the jack and require a push start.
Once the stops had all cycled through, Hamlin was back in charge with Paul Menard in second ahead of Busch. Keselowski was over five seconds behind the leader and running in fourth at the midway point of the scheduled 312-lap race, ahead of Hendrick Motorsports team mates Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne: the third member of the HMS squad, Johnson, was temporarily down in ninth place and almost 14 seconds off the leader.
With the sun now low in the sky, a debris caution on lap 167 allowed the cars to return to pit road under yellow. The JGR duo took two tyres and got back out on the track behind Ryan Newman who had opted not to pit, but the Chase contenders Keselowski and Johnson were still playing safe and cagey by taking four tyres and duly took the restart in eighth and 14th respectively.
Busch quickly took the lead from Newman at the restart on lap 174, but Newman held on to second despite his worn tyres. Meanwhile Hamlin was finding his car too tight at this point of the race and was slipping back, soon pushed down to sixth place after being passed by Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer and Brad Keselowski, while Jimmie Johnson was already back up to tenth place and climbing steadily, getting into position for the all-important final stages of the race.