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Bowyer clinches narrow win over Harvick

The big loser during this restart jockeying was Denny Hamlin, who had fallen back and lost the draft entirely, running by himself back in 32nd place, 26s off the lead - a very dangerous situation for a prime Chase contender. On the radio, Hamlin's team mate Kyle Busch was heard to ask his pit chief whether he needed to fall back and carry out a rescue mission to provide Hamlin with a drafting partner before the pack (closing at a rate of some 2s a lap) put him a lap down, but it was already too late. Hamlin was on his own, and on lap 99 he was finally off the lead lap: worse, with the traffic passing him in a single file, he was desperate to find someone to let him in line before he fell all the way to the back of the field here as well. Finally it was David Reutimann who tapped the brakes and made a space for Hamlin to slot into.

By now, Dale Earnhardt Jr had once again thrilled Junior Nation by being boosted to the front by Jeff Burton on lap 92; he would be deposed eleven laps later by Reutimann, who was pushed to the front by Hamlin returning the #00's good deed letting him back in line. Getting back to the front also meant Hamlin was technically back on the led lap, which did not sit well with Chase rival Kevin Harvick who mounted a determined campaign with the assistance of Clint Bowyer to take the lead and push Hamlin off the lead lap once more.

And then for the next 25 laps, it was leader slot machine all over again: Juan Montoya led lap 105, then Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer, Montoya again, Earnhardt Jr. back to the front on lap 112, then Bowyer was back as many of the cars hit pit road for another green flag sequence of stops. David Reutimann won the race off pit road, then ceded the lead to Aric Amirola: Elliott Sadler, Marcos Ambrose, Harvick, McMurray, Burton, Burton and Montoya all cycled to the top as things remained very fluid and the field extended out four-wide at times. With the race fast approaching its final 50 laps, things were starting to get a lot more serious, the racing tougher, and drafting partners harder to come by.

Considering Talladega's reputation for huge wrecks, it was amazing that the afternoon had seen 133 laps of running with only one caution; but that couldn't last, and sure enough the second caution of the afternoon was out on lap 134. It was sparked by Earnhardt Jr. giving Jeff Burton too much of a shove from behind, sending the #31 down the track where it made light contact with Kevin Harvick; Burton overcorrected, veered up the track and sandwiched Earnhardt Jr between himself and the wall. That sent Burton completely out of control, down the track - mercifully missing everyone on the way - across the grass. The damage to the front end from where it had hit Earnhardt Jr and the wall was extensive - steam and flames coming out in equal measure - and Burton climbed out of the car, furious at the turn of events after having spent much of the race up front. He kicked the car door in frustration on the way out, but it wasn't going to change matters.

Earnhardt Jr took to the garage to get the damage to the #88 sorted out but Harvick was luckier with the damage to his car from the initial hit with Burton pretty light. Ironically, the biggest loser among the Chase contenders from this yellow was Denny Hamlin who hadn't even been involved in the accident itself: unfortunately for Denny, the yellow had come out just seconds after Ryan Newman had gone a lap down, and that meant that Newman and not Hamlin got the lucky dog. Hamlin was still a lap down, a critical blow to his Chase hopes.

Juan Montoya led the field to green but then David Reutimann and Joey Logano teamed up to take the lead on successive laps. Not that the racing continued for long: on lap 141 it was back to a caution, and once again Kevin Harvick was in the thick of it. It started when Kyle Busch made a move down the inside of Marcos Ambrose, leaving Ambrose pinched between the #18 and the #42 of Montoya on the outside, which left him destabilised and just needing to ease off the throttle. That earned him a tap from behind from Clint Bowyer, and it was enough to spin Ambrose to the left and send him down the track - and the first car to plough into the side of the #47 was none other than Kevin Harvick, who got a lot of front end damage. It looked bad, but Harvick was on the radio reassuring his pit crew that there was nothing terminal; further back it was less fortunate for Bill Elliott, who had spun as the field reacted to the wreck ahead of them and ended up with major damage against the wall.

Meanwhile, Denny Hamlin was in the lucky dog position and set to finally get his lap back - until preliminary word from NASCAR suggested that he had been involved in the incident and therefore barred from benefiting. Several minutes later - and a lot of video replays - finally proved that Hamlin had been completely out of the picture when the wreck started and so he could breath again, back on the lead lap at long last.

Joey Logano took the restart in the lead (after Sam Hornish, attempting a fuel-only strategy to put him out front, got hit with a pit lane speeding penalty.) He led through to lap 150 when Martin Truex Jr got pushed to the front by Montoya, and then two laps later there was a fourth yellow for debris. The top 15 opted to stay out under caution but some - including Kyle Busch, Greg Biffle, Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson - opted to pit for fresh rubber to give them a critical edge for the final run to the chequered flag.

And what a difference the lucky dog and fresh rubber made to Hamlin's cause: after Truex Jr led the restart only to see Montoya pushed to the front by Logano, it was Hamlin just three laps later who flew past for the lead with an assist from Kyle Busch: Denny was well and truly back, and with Harvick still running well and Jimmie Johnson never far away, all of a sudden it was looking like a big showdown between the three remaining Sprint Cup contenders was looming.

Kyle Busch had taken over the lead by the time the race entered the final dozen laps, and things were getting serious. Paul Menard took over from Kyle, but just behind it was Jeff Gordon helping Jimmie Johnson to the front to claim what could be five vital points for leading a lap. Suddenly suffering from engine problems, Gordon couldn't stay with the pace and fell back fearing he was about to blow up, so Johnson's lead was for a single lap - but enough to secure him those vital bonus points. Then Clint Bowyer was past for the lead just as Joe Nemechek has a tyre blow on him, shedding debris on the race track and bringing out the fifth caution of the day on lap 181 - seven laps from the chequered.




Related Pictures

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Clint Bowyer at Daytona [Pic credit: Getty for NASCAR]
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Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe`s Chevrolet SS, qualifies second Friday, July 11, 2014 for NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Camping World RV Sales 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, New Hampshire. (Photo by Alan Marler/HHP for Chevy Racing)
 
Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe`s Chevrolet SS, qualifies second Friday, July 11, 2014 for NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Camping World RV Sales 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, New Hampshire. (Photo by Harold Hinson/HHP for Chevy Racing)
 
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