"At this point I don't know why I got hit, but it shouldn't have happened," said a hugely frustrated Smith. "I was riding along and feeling good about how our Furniture Row Chevrolet was improving and then I got smacked by the #5 car. There was not any reason for it and it did cost us a finish someplace in the teens. Very disappointing to say the least."
David Ragan was also out of the race at this point with a blown engine that he managed to nurse back to pit road. "Right before I lifted to go into turn three, it started vibrating tremendously," he explained. "At first I thought it was the transmission or something like that because it just vibrated so bad and still had decent power, but I shut it off and I saw smoke. Obviously, I got back in here and half of the block is gone where a rod or something threw it, so it's very unfortunate."
Johnson - who had struggled early in the race and nearly gone a lap down at one point - was now running impressively strong and maintained the lead at the restart and almost through to the next, final round of pit stops before Gordon took the top spot back again on lap 276.
Gordon was in first, seven laps later, having rapidly pulled out a 2s lead over Johnson despite complaining of serious vibration in the #24. Once the pit stops had cycled through, Gordon's lead was down to 0.6s - but he soon started to build that up again. It all looked under control when the gap over Johnson hit 1.5s with 25 laps to go.
But then traffic started to take its toll on the leader, and Johnson sensed his opportunity and put everything he had into cutting the gap. By the time they were seven laps from the end they were absolutely together on the track, and Johnson was trying all sorts of different lines and moves on Gordon to work out the best way past.
"I think when [Jimmie] got underneath me and didn't complete the pass, to me that's what allowed me to go, okay, we still are going to win this race. I just can't make mistakes," said Gordon.
On top of this, Johnson's tyres were now shot with the effort of catching the leader in the first place, and he was slipping and sliding all over the track. It was a miracle he didn't wreck, but it meant that it was his Hendrick team mate Jeff Gordon who was able to hang on in the lead and get to the chequered flag in a thrilling finish.
"I just didn't have enough to get by," said Johnson of those last few laps. "I got inside of him a couple times. Got to the outside once. And just didn't have enough regroup to kind of get there and stay there. And the time I got to be outside of him, I felt I was going to be in good shape, but I think we had a lap car get in the way there and use me as a pick a little bit, couldn't complete the pass."
"It was a nail-biter all the way to the end," agreed Gordon. "I think that we're having a lot of fun right now. The race cars are awesome. And we've got a lot of momentum. So we can't wait to get to next week, Richmond, as well as get this Chase started."
Gordon's 85th Cup win breaks a three-way tide in the list of all-time winners, which he had shared with Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison (although Allison claims he has an unacknowledged 85th win as well.) For now, he's officially in third place in his own right, behind the legendary Richard Petty (200 wins) and David Pearson (105).