Clint Bowyer was declared the winner of Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup round at Talladega as the race ended under caution while he battled for the lead with teammate Kevin Harvick on the final lap.
In typical Talladega fashion, the battle for victory unfolded in a four-lap sprint to the finish, following the fifth caution of the race which waved for debris on the track.
Leader Bowyer and reigning champion Jimmie Johnson took the green flag from the front row, Bowyer strategically selecting the inside lane to be right ahead of Earnhardt Ganassi's Juan Pablo Montoya, who had worked well with him in the draft earlier.
The pair eventually motored away from the field in a two-car tandem, looking set to battle it out between them for the victory. However, restarting from 13th, Harvick got up a head of steam while pushed by Michael Waltrip Racing's David Reutimann, both actually catching the leading duo with two laps to go in a two-for-two battle.
The two pairs raced head-to-head, Bowyer running on the inside pushed by Montoya while on the outside Harvick's car ran pushed by Reutimann despite a battered front end from two incidents he was involved in. Harvick kept the pressure on his Richard Childress Racing teammate, setting up a nail-biting final lap, where the Montoya and Reutimann duo were also timing their respective moves.
However, as the leaders entered the last 2.6 miles of racing, chaos was triggered behind them with a multi-car incident which included AJ Allmendinger flipping over and crashing against the inside wall, and getting airborne again after the impact. The crash forced the caution to wave for the final time, causing confusion as to who had actually won the race.
As per NASCAR rules, once the leader crosses the white flag for the final lap, the race may finish under caution if an incident occurs. Finally, after NASCAR reviewed video evidence and with Bowyer having already begun a celebratory burnout, Bowyer was handed victory as his car was slightly ahead of Harvick's entering Turn 1 when the caution was thrown.
"Hell yeah! Claim that one before somebody else does!" joked Bowyer about his somewhat early celebration. "I knew I had Juan behind me. I just wanted to have ECR power pushing me and I knew I had a good shot at it. Certainly we did that with Juan.
"I didn't know if his motor was going to last but we were fixing to find out. He wasn't going to let off me and I appreciate his help today. Kevin coming up on the outside...I thought we were good and gone and nobody was going to come and here they came on the outside..."
Despite missing out on a Talladega sweep this year, Harvick was happy to finish second after surviving two incidents where contact damaged the front end of his car. He also closed on Johnson's lead in the championship and Denny Hamlin's second place, as the Chase developed its closest battle for the title with three races remaining, the top three split only by 38 points.
"I knew the double-zero car [Reutimann] was a good pusher behind me," said Harvick. "I could feel him hitting the front of his car into my car. It was one of those deals where it was time to go. You've just got to keep pushing and hope for the best there.
"[It was] cool that it came down to myself and Clint. We didn't know who won. I knew that we had beat him to the start/finish line, but I didn't know when the caution had come out."
Polesitter Montoya drove probably his best restrictor-plate race ever, placing himself in the right spot to launch a last-lap attack for victory. However, the final caution left him wondering what might have been, having led the race eight times and for 18 laps, before finishing third in the end.
"The best chance I had to win the race was [to] push Bowyer up front, when we got to the line, try to make a move," said Montoya. "I've been twice here, I've been running second or third, whatever. Every time you're there, a caution comes out on the last lap. If you make a move, then it doesn't come out and you finish 20th! It's what it is."
Johnson got shuffled back to seventh place in the end, saving his car in a sideways moment on the final lap, the very action that ignited chaos and the last caution. Hamlin made a great recovery from dropping a lap down after losing the draft to finish ninth, and now trails Johnson in the points by 14 points.
Brad Keselowski and Jeff Gordon rounded out the top-10, the four-time champion losing momentum in the closing stages after launching an attack with Hendrick teammate Johnson. The pair got to the front of the field with Gordon ahead, but their tandem ended when Gordon suspected an engine failure (that didn't transpire), forcing Johnson to find a new drafting partner.
Crowd favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. led the most laps and was one of 26 different leaders, who swapped the front of the field 87 times, the second highest shift in the lead during a single race in series history.
Pos Driver Car Laps
1. Clint Bowyer Chevrolet 188
2. Kevin Harvick Chevrolet 188
3. Juan Pablo Montoya Chevrolet 188
4. David Reutimann Toyota 188
5. Joey Logano Toyota 188
6. Martin Truex Jr Toyota 188
7. Jimmie Johnson Chevrolet 188
8. Jeff Gordon Chevrolet 188
9. Denny Hamlin Toyota 188
10. Brad Keselowski Dodge 188
11. Mark Martin Chevrolet 188
12. Regan Smith Chevrolet 188
13. Paul Menard Ford 188
14. Elliott Sadler Ford 188
15. Sam Hornish Jr Dodge 188
16. Matt Kenseth Ford 188
17. Carl Edwards Ford 188
18. Robby Gordon Toyota 188
19. Greg Biffle Ford 188
20. Aric Almirola Ford 188
21. David Ragan Ford 188
22. Chad McCumbee Chevrolet 188
23. Ryan Newman Chevrolet 188
24. Casey Mears Toyota 188
25. Kyle Busch Toyota 188
26. Kasey Kahne Toyota 188
27. Joe Nemechek Toyota 188
28. Michael Waltrip Toyota 188
29. Scott Speed Toyota 188
30. Kurt Busch Dodge 188
31. Tony Stewart Chevrolet 188
32. AJ Allmendinger Ford 187
33. David Gilliland Ford 187
34. Marcos Ambrose Toyota 187
35. Michael McDowell Chevrolet 186
36. Jamie McMurray Chevrolet 183
37. Robert Richardson Jr Ford 180
38. Bobby Labonte Chevrolet 172
39. Dale Earnhardt Jr Chevrolet 163
40. Bill Elliott Ford 140
41. Jeff Burton Chevrolet 133
42. Dave Blaney Chevrolet 12
43. Jeff Fuller Toyota 2