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.
Keselowski got the message and moved up to third place, which became second when Newman finally came in for his deferred pit stop on lap 209 which put Johnson correspondingly up into sixth place behind Hamlin as the race reached the hundred-to-go mark. Busch continued to lead, but once again his pace started to wane the longer the green flag run lasted and soon Keselowski was baring down on him and slicing into his lead: car owner Roger Penske was on the team radio to remind Keselowski "Big picture here," and the driver promised in turn to be "a good boy" as he pulled off a clean pass for the lead on lap 233.
The ball was in Jimmie Johnson's court to respond: and he did it in just the worst way possible just seconds later when the #48 went into the wall on lap 235 after his right front tyre blew out on him from excessive brake heat.
“We were cruising along and I think we would have had a top five day or a top ten day if things worked out at the end," Johnson explained. "I had a slight vibration starting in the right front - I didn't really know where it was coming from but clearly now it was the right front. And as I was coming off of turn four, it went down and I went straight in the wall. If I were another 30 or 40 feet around the corner, I probably would just have had a flat and not hit the wall. But, where it let go, I had a direct line to the wall and knocked it down.”
It had indeed been a hard, destructive hit and Johnson was on the radio to crew chief Chad Knaus to say that the brakes had been damaged - this would be no quick bodywork patch-up job with duct tape, and instead Johnson was ordered to take the car straight to the garage for repairs. It was undeniably a major setback for Johnson's hopes of a sixth championship: providing Keselowski could bring home the #2 safely from here then it gave Keselowski the whip hand in the Chase going into the season finale next weekend.
Meanwhile, the field was able to pit under the ensuing caution, with Busch once again coming out at the front ahead of Hamlin and Harvick as Keselowski dropped back to fourth place ahead of Menard and Kahne. At the green on lap 241 Busch disappeared into the distance ahead of the field, but Keselowski was by no means putting up his feet and cruising to the finish now that Johnson was out of the picture - instead he was fighting Hamlin hard for second place.
A fifth yellow came out for David Ragan hitting the wall in turn 3 on lap 272, and Ragan was puzzled by what had caused the damage to his tyre that had precipitated the accident. "We had no tyre issues all day. Everything looked good on our car. I very well could have run over something, but I don't really know what happened," he said. "I cut a tyre going into turn three and that was ultimately the end of our day."
Ragan's accident occurred at the same moment that Johnson re-emerged from the garage with the patch-up repairs to the #48 sufficient to put him back out on the track albeit 38 laps down and with only the meagre prospect of picking up a single spot in the remaining 40 laps of the day's event by overhauling the stricken Ragan in the race standings.
Eight cars opted not to pit under the caution, including race leaders Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin who took the restart with 35 laps to go ahead of Harvick, Kahne, Bowyer and Gordon. No such reckless thoughts of staying out for Keselowski, who pitted for fresh tyres lest the same fate befall him as had so recently happened to the #48 and duly fell to seventh place.
A quick return to yellow for a spin by Tony Stewart at least put Danica Patrick back on the lead lap on a free pass in 20th, as well as meaning another restart attempt on lap 284. The race ran green to lap 300, at which point Sam Hornish Jr. tangled with Patrick which ended up with a tyre going down on the #22 that sent him slamming into the wall in turns 3 and 4 to bring out the seventh caution of the day.
The restart came with eight laps remaining in the race, and Busch's crew chief Dave Rogers was on the radio to tell his man, "Don't overthink it, just do what you do," adding: "Happy thoughts, happy thoughts. This is a walk in the park." Unfortunately the couching didn't prevent Busch from losing the lead to Kevin Harvick at the green flag on lap 314, while behind them Jeff Gordon's run in third place ended with the #24 sliding into the wall after light contact with Bowyer left Gordon with a puncture.
There was no immediate caution for Gordon's incident, and despite being shown a black flag ordering him into the pits he stayed out long enough to hunt down Bowyer in order to deliver some "Boys have at it" street justice. That went quite badly wrong for both, causing a huge wreck coming out of turn 4 on the penultimate lap of the race that wiped out both cars. With Bowyer in third place in the points standings and in line to pick up a place and move into second in the championship on the back of Johnson's earlier wreck, this was a piece of retaliation with major repercussions - and Bowyer and the Michael Waltrip Racing crew were incensed.
The developing brawl between the drivers on track was picked up by open warfare between the #15 and #24 crews on pit lane as proceedings disintegrated into a wild maelstrom of flying fists and general confusion as Bowyer's crew jumped on Gordon to dispense their own brand of retaliation after he climbed out of his wrecked car on pit road, while Bowyer himself sprinted the length of pit lane seeking to confront Gordon until he was restrained and held back from the mêlée by NASCAR officials.
"It's pretty embarrassing for a four-time champion - and what I consider one of the best the sport's ever seen - to act like that," raged Bowyer. "It's completely ridiculous."
He denied that he'd intentionally made contact with Gordon in the first place: "I get under him and he comes back, and I literally just barely rubbed him," Bowyer insisted. "And then all of the sudden I feel him trying to retaliate. I don't know if he missed and hit the wall, but he made himself look like a fool.
"That was my opportunity to get myself back into the championship hunt," Bowyer added. "When you disrupt a championship hunt like that, it's too bad. They ask us not to do that at the drivers meeting and there's usually a lot of respect there. It's crazy. I didn't even need to pass him."
"What a sad act that was by Jeff Gordon ... Cowardly, chicken and sad," fumed Bowyer's car owner Michael Waltrip as security staff attempted to control the pit lane fracas. "They barely brushed on the back straightaway and he waits - he purposely waits - and tells everybody he's waiting and wrecks our car and our hopes for racing for a championship."
But Gordon's crew chief Alan Gustafson was unrepentant. "We got used up by Clint several times this year, and enough is enough," he said. "If you're going to mess with the bull, you're going to get the horns."
"Thing just got escalated over the year, and I'd just had it," contributed Gordon himself. "Clint has run into me numerous times, wrecked me and he got into me on the back straightaway and pretty much ruined our day. I've had it," he said, adding: "And I got him back."
Gordon could face post-race penalties for wrecking Bowyer, with Bowyer's crew chief Brian Pattie suggesting that Gordon should be forced to sit out the season finale at Homestead-Miami just as NASCAR parked Kyle Busch for wrecking a rival in a Truck race at Texas in 2011. Meanwhile, Bowyer and his team could also face serious sanctions for their pit lane retaliation.
The wreck had also caught up Joey Logano and seen Aric Almirola spin broadside into the accident, and it all took place right ahead of Keselowski who was simply trying to mind his own business and get safely to the finish. Keselowski did manage to escape disaster, but he was deeply unimpressed by what he'd seen erupted around him.
"It's just f***ing ridiculous, and they should be ashamed. It's embarrassing," he said after the race. "What offends me is the double standard - I spent a whole week being bashed by a half-dozen drivers about racing hard at Texas and how I'm out of control and have a death wish, and then I see bullsh*t like that,"
"These guys just tried to kill each other," he continued. "You race hard and I get called an asshole for racing hard and called with a death wish, and I see sh*t like that and it just p*sses me off."
Others were taking a more laid back view of the brawl: "The sport was made on fights," said Harvick. "We should have more fights. I like fights," he added, suggesting tongue-in-cheek that the only downside was that he'd been stuck out on the track in his car when it all kicked off, and hadn't been able to pitch in himself.
"Who won the fight?" quipped Hamlin afterwards. "I mean, the race?"
Good question: the race wasn't actually yet over. According to NASCAR, the resulting caution had come out with Harvick just yards from the white flag that would have sealed the race win for him. Harvick's team owner Richard Childress - worried about the car's fuel levels despite the race being put under a 15 minute red flag stoppage while the situation was resolved - protested that the #29 had already crossed the line before the caution, but TV replays backed the official view.
That meant Busch had one last chance to duel Harvick for victory under green-white chequered conditions, but Harvick was able to keep in front and claim the win - despite the fact that further back there were wrecks going on all over the place, seemingly started by one for Danica Patrick who was speared into the wall in turns 3 and 4 by contact with Jeff Burton which caused the #10 to lay down oil on the track that caught out others, wrecking the #78 of Kurt Busch and the #27 of Paul Menard in the aftermath.
"[Burton] said 'I'm sorry, I just bonzaied. I just went in too deep," explained Patrick. "The #31 clipped me, I spun around, got it going again. Was on fire I think, and I was trying to get across the line. I was literally trying to drive into the wall then drive along it because I couldn't see. I don't know exactly what happened. I heard there might have been oil from me, or something. If so, I definitely wasn't intending to make a mess!" she added.
“That was a wild ending, not sure at the time what was happening,” said Kurt Busch. "I saw the door of Biffle's car come across my left front, and from there I went on to smack the wall. I kept on going and was able to nudge Menard at the finish line for eighth ... I just stayed on the gas to get to the finish line."
"It was very dangerous," said Richard Childress, angry that NASCAR had not thrown a caution at this point, even if had ultimately been in his driver's favour in terms of the race result. "I'm really disappointed in the way the race was called ... Kevin almost wrecked coming off of 4. We take the white flag, she's coming across down here, everybody seen what was happening. I just knew the caution was going to come out, and he races back around and almost wrecks and we lose a car and could have hurt a driver, so I'm just still a little upset about that last not being a caution."
"There was more oil than there was asphalt, I can guarantee you that, and it was very visible," added Harvick. But NASCAR insisted that they had simply been unaware of the hazard until it was too late to react with a caution.
"At the time, [Danica] came all the way around and was out of harm's way," explained NASCAR's vice president of competition Robin Pemberton of why no caution materialised. "We didn't see any fluid or anything. She rode around on the apron and when she pulled up on the racetrack, there was smoke [but] it looked like tyre smoke.
"It's easy to look back on it, obviously, and wish that you did something different," added Pemberton, tacitly admitting that with 20-20 hindsight the call may have been the wrong one. "But at the time, it didn't appear like there was any fluid that was coming out of the car."
But the race was finally done, and Harvick was in victory lane. It was rather ironic that Harvick should emerge the winner in a Childress car at Phoenix, given that the weekend had started with a shock ESPN report that Harvick had signed a deal to join Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014 after the end of his current contract with Childress at the end of next season - something neither man was willing to comment on in post-race interviews.
Kyle Busch ended up losing second spot to his team mate Denny Hamlin at the line, and Busch took the blame for not nailing the final restart attempt.
"Great day. Guys gave me an awesome car. Just gave it away at the end. Just didn't pick the right lane. It's my fault. So, it seems to be the way the year goes," he sighed. "Kevin got out a little bit on me. Denny got alongside of me. Just made me really loose trying to battle with the #11 so I couldn't even drive forward at all. We just basically handed the race on a silver platter to the #29."
"The track is just so slick. We're running on such hard tires. You can't get a grip on it and it makes for exciting racing like we saw today," added Hamlin. "Everyone's just sliding around and sliding into each other. Of course, it makes for excitement on TV, but obviously it also makes for championship implications as well."
Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman came home in fourth and fifth, and then it was Brad Keselowski, with slight damage to his Dodge from one of the final lap wrecks but still safely classified in sixth place which meant that he would be 20pts ahead of Johnson going into the final race of the year at Homestead-Miami next weekend. All other drivers are now mathematically out of contention for the 2012 title.
"It's way, way out of our control," admitted Johnson of where this leaves his hopes for a sixth Cup title. "We still have to go to Homestead and race and anything can happen down there. But this is not the position we want to be in late in Phoenix ... I just hate for our day to turn out as it did today. But, that's racing and we'll go to Homestead and do all we can down there and see how things pan out.”
But Keselowski wasn't getting ahead of himself, and was all too aware that a battle that could swing so far in one direction one week could easily swing right back again at the next race.
“Nothing is over until it's over, and the same problems that Jimmie had today we could have next week at Homestead," he pointed out. "So we just need to keep our head down and focus on what lays ahead."
Full race results, Saturday practice times
and Sprint Cup Championship standings