Denny Hamlin claimed his eighth win of the season and the lead in the Sprint Cup standings in an eventful race at Texas Motor Speedway on Sunday.
For the first time since 2006, a driver other than Jimmie Johnson will lead the Chase heading into the penultimate race of the season, following another impressive showing from Hamlin, who now holds a 33-point margin over the reigning champion in the championship.
From 30th on the grid the Joe Gibbs racer was able to charge his way through the field, biding his time to launch his attack following the penultimate restart with 30 laps remaining, lining up fourth after taking two new tyres for the final sprint.
Hamlin quickly moved up and two laps later grabbed the lead, pulling away and out of reach from his rivals. However, a late caution with seven laps to go made him took away a healthy lead, giving Roush Fenway's Matt Kenseth a shot at victory after his team-mate Greg Biffle had led two-thirds of the race before losing second gear for the penultimate restart.
As the green waved for the last time with three laps to go, Kenseth put the pressure on Hamlin, racing him side-by-side until he cleared him on the penultimate lap in the middle of turns one and two. However, right after putting his car ahead of the No. 11 Toyota, he drifted wide on the exit of turn 2, forcing him to lift and allowing Hamlin back in front.
29-year-old Hamlin, who won earlier this year at Texas only a couple of weeks after having surgery on his left knee for a torn ligament, became only the second driver to sweep the year's races at Texas with his 16th career win.
"I was pretty confident I would be OK, but restarts have been my Achille's heel all Chase long," said Hamlin about the final laps. "When [Kenseth] cleared me off of [turn] 2 he did it by really gassing it very aggressive and early and I knew it was going to be hard for him to exit the corner that way.
"Obviously, he ran out of racetrack and it opened up the door for us to cross over. It was very gratifying to win a race that way."
Hamlin's title rivals both finished in the top-ten but not without overcoming different issues. Richard Childress Racing's Kevin Harvick looked strong in the final third of the race until losing balance on his car following his last pitstop, eventually hitting the wall with less than 15 laps remaining., but salvaged a sixth-place finish to remain in contention for the title.
"It was actually a pretty mellow day," said Harvick. "We had a good car. I didn't think we'd be anywhere in the hunt to tell you the truth after practice and they did a great job getting the car ready. When it got dark, we just got really loose and we got in the wall, twice actually. They fixed that and everything went as good as it could."
Jimmie Johnson also seemed to have the speed to contend at the front at times but another bad day for his pit crew had him charging back to the front for most of the night.
Eventually his crew chief Chad Knaus made the call to swap pit crews with Jeff Gordon's team, as the four-time champion was out of the race on lap 191 after being spun into the wall by RCR's Jeff Burton right after the seventh caution of the day was waved.
While the crew swap worked for Johnson, his stops improving immediately, he was unable to get back in contention for victory, crossing the finish line in ninth place in a tight battle with Richard Petty's Paul Menard and Tony Stewart.
"It was just a long day," said Johnson. "We had speed in the car and we would work our way forward and we had some issues on pitroad and I feel terrible for my guys and that we had to make a change but the #24 guys came in and did a great job but we just gave away so much track position at the beginning and it was just tough for us to get back to where we needed to.
"Then at the end we were coming along pretty well and the caution kind of came at a time where we didn't need it... it is what it is and it's a team sport and we didn't do our job today but we'll come back at Phoenix and give it a try again."
Gordon and Burton's clash caused a stir in the stands as the four-time champion confronted his RCR rival physically for what he took as an intentional wreck, Burton responding to Gordon's attack until NASCAR officials split the fuming pair. Both drivers were driven to the track's care centre in the same ambulance, where officials kept them apart on their way to the infield.
Kyle Busch also raised some attention after making an obscene gesture to a NASCAR official following a penalty for speeding in the pits. The JGR driver was trying to stay on the lead lap during a caution, after being involved in an incident that caused damage to his race car.
His hand gesture was caught live on TV by the on-board camera on his car and he faces further penalties besides being held in the pits for two laps in the aftermath.
Kenseth matched his best result of the year ahead of Hendrick's Mark Martin, who also led the race looking strong in the early going. Joey Logano and Greg Biffle rounded out the top five.
Pos Driver Car Laps
1. Denny Hamlin Toyota 334
2. Matt Kenseth Ford 334
3. Mark Martin Chevrolet 334
4. Joey Logano Toyota 334
5. Greg Biffle Ford 334
6. Kevin Harvick Chevrolet 334
7. Clint Bowyer Chevrolet 334
8. David Ragan Ford 334
9. Jimmie Johnson Chevrolet 334
10. Paul Menard Ford 334
11. Tony Stewart Chevrolet 334
12. Marcos Ambrose Toyota 334
13. Kasey Kahne Toyota 334
14. A.J. Allmendinger Ford 334
15. David Reutimann Toyota 334
16. Jamie McMurray Chevrolet 334
17. Trevor Bayne Ford 334
18. Sam Hornish Jr Dodge 334
19. Carl Edwards Ford 334
20. Ryan Newman Chevrolet 334
21. Aric Almirola Ford 334
22. Regan Smith Chevrolet 334
23. Elliott Sadler Ford 333
24. Kurt Busch Dodge 333
25. Dale Earnhardt Jr Chevrolet 333
26. Casey Mears Toyota 333
27. Scott Speed Toyota 333
28. Juan Montoya Chevrolet 333
29. David Gilliland Ford 333
30. Bobby Labonte Chevrolet 333
31. Patrick Carpentier Ford 333
32. Kyle Busch Toyota 332
33. Brad Keselowski Dodge 332
34. Andy Lally Chevrolet 331
35. Robby Gordon Toyota 240
36. Jeff Burton Chevrolet 192
37. Jeff Gordon Chevrolet 190
38. Martin Truex Jr Toyota 188
39. Mike Bliss Toyota 45
40. Landon Cassill Chevrolet 35
41. Travis Kvapil Ford 25
42. Dave Blaney Ford 23
43. Joe Nemechek Toyota 12