Denny Hamlin had the fastest car but he still had to fight hard to claim his first victory of the season in a rain-delayed race on Monday at Pocono Raceway.
The 28-year-old led 91 laps - nearly half the distance - on his way to a win that looked straightforward at one point. However when fuel strategy came into play in the closing stages, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver lost track position as drivers opting for different fuel and tyre choices moved ahead of him.
Following his final stop under caution, Hamlin started his charge, moving up to sixth place by the time the final caution came out only 13 laps from the chequered flag.
On the double-file restart from the third row, Hamlin made the move that probably won him the race, moving up to second place behind Clint Bowyer.
Juan Pablo Montoya, who had restarted from fourth and was fighting for second into Turn 1 with Kasey Kahne, got sideways after the Richard Petty driver hit the left rear corner of his Chevrolet, allowing Hamlin to drive past both of them.
Hamlin timed his pass over Bowyer cautiously, finally grabbing the lead for good with 10 laps remaining, while behind them Montoya recovered from his moment to put the Richard Childress driver under pressure.
While the leader pulled away, Montoya took a lap more to move into second place, and although he was able to keep the leader honest for the last few laps, he could not prevent Hamlin from scoring his third career victory at the 2.5-mile tri-oval.
"This is what we didn't get to show last week at the Brickyard and this is what we didn't get to show the first lap here in the summer race in June," said Hamlin, who cried when he got out of his car due to the recent passing of his grandmother.
"I think our race team has been really good the last couple months. I feel like we've been the closest car to the Hendricks. We've been slowly but surely been working on it in the race shop and on pit road and we've just been getting there slowly but surely and today was a good day for us."
Behind him Montoya scored his best result of the season a week after seeing his hopes of victory dashed at Indianapolis. The second place tasted like a win for the Colombian, who made the most of a break he got when he pitted for the last time right before the eighth caution came out.
When the field pitted for the last time, Montoya stayed out to jump from a top-20 placing up to fourth place. His result allowed him to move up to eighth place in the drivers' standings and closer to his goal of making the series' play-off.
"We were running like sixth at the beginning and I came in and overshoot the pits a little," said Montoya. "It wasn't a big deal you know, I lost a couple of places and went out running and felt like we had a loose tyre. So we came in and fixed that.
"You know, to get the ground back, it's so hard to pass people. We were making ground, but we had a great strategy. We had good fuel mileage and everyone on this team did an amazing job today."
Bowyer scored his team's best result since he finished runner-up at Las Vegas earlier this year. Running a similar strategy to Montoya he was able to get ahead and lead the field on the last three restarts.
However earlier contact with Ryan Newman, which damaged the right-side and rear panel of his car, didn't do him any favours in the deciding final laps while fighting for his squad's first victory of the year.
"We had track position but I felt like we had a lot better car if we could have had all four fenders on it," said Bowyer. "That's what we needed. We need these top-fives to try to fight our way back into this Chase.
"I'm really proud of my team for digging deep and sticking with it and making a good call there at the end."
Sam Hornish Jr, also running on a similar sequence as Montoya and Bowyer, scored his best career result with fourth place, impressively fending off Kahne in the end after the former Pocono race-winner had been one of the top-contenders for most of the afternoon, leading 35 laps during the race.
Points leader Tony Stewart was unable to repeat his charge from the back to win at Pocono, going a lap down early on due to a very loose car. Although he was able to finish 10th, he was never at ease with his back up machine after crashing his primary one during practice.
Reigning champion Jimmie Johnson also bounced back from being several laps down due to an engine problem, which put him out of contention close to halfway through.
He had led the race at the start and looked on course to fight it out with Hamlin up for victory until the engine issues made him lose all his pace and forced him to multiple visits to the pits.
Johnson remains second in the standings behind Stewart, and while Montoya was the biggest gainer in the points moving up two spots, David Reutimann, who ran second at one point, was the biggest loser dropping from 13th down to 16th.
He was probably not pleased to see Hamlin on victory lane at the end of the race, as the eventual race-winner caused him to spin and wreck against his team-mate Marcos Ambrose only 26 laps from the end.
Robby Gordon and David Stremme had a number of exchanges on the racetrack, which ultimately caused NASCAR to hold them in the pits for five laps.
Pos Driver Make Laps
1. Denny Hamlin Toyota 200
2. Juan Montoya Chevrolet 200
3. Clint Bowyer Chevrolet 200
4. Sam Hornish Jr Dodge 200
5. Kasey Kahne Dodge 200
6. Brian Vickers Toyota 200
7. Mark Martin Chevrolet 200
8. Jeff Gordon Chevrolet 200
9. Kurt Busch Dodge 200
10. Tony Stewart Chevrolet 200
11. Matt Kenseth Ford 200
12. Kevin Harvick Chevrolet 200
13. Jimmie Johnson Chevrolet 200
14. Ryan Newman Chevrolet 200
15. Greg Biffle Ford 200
16. Kyle Busch Toyota 200
17. AJ Allmendinger Dodge 200
18. Carl Edwards Ford 200
19. Martin Truex Jr Chevrolet 200
20. Jamie McMurray Ford 200
21. Jeff Burton Chevrolet 200
22. David Ragan Ford 200
23. Scott Speed Toyota 200
24. Elliott Sadler Dodge 200
25. Casey Mears Chevrolet 200
26. Paul Menard Ford 200
27. Joey Logano Toyota 200
28. Dale Earnhardt Jr Chevrolet 200
29. David Reutimann Toyota 200
30. John Andretti Chevrolet 200
31. Michael Waltrip Toyota 198
32. David Stremme Dodge 196
33. Robby Gordon Toyota 195
34. Marcos Ambrose Toyota 192
35. Reed Sorenson Dodge 185
36. Bobby Labonte Ford 180
37. Patrick Carpentier Toyota 38
38. Sterling Marlin Dodge 36
39. Joe Nemechek Toyota 30
40. Dave Blaney Toyota 26
41. David Gilliland Chevrolet 24
42. Tony Raines Dodge 17
43. Mike Wallace Toyota 13