The next NASCAR champion? Brad Keselowski takes the points lead heading into the final race, after a slam-bam Phoenix 500 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Jimmie Johnson just lost the championship, barring something unusual in the Homestead finale next Sunday. And Brad Keselowski all but clinched the NASCAR title.
But what everyone at Phoenix International Raceway may remember are the raucous final moments of the three-hour Phoenix 500.
For most of the beautiful fall afternoon here nothing really happened. Kyle Busch dominated the race, leading comfortably, 237 miles of this 319-miler (which went seven miles into overtime).
Keselowski spent most of that stretch running an easy sixth; Johnson, who qualified poorly, was running 12th to 15th or so, with a car that didn't seem that strong.
Then Keselowsk began making a run at Busch and passed for the lead on lap 233. Just moments later Johnson blew a right-front, perhaps from abusing his brakes, and he hit the fourth turn wall.
Johnson needed more than 20 laps in the garage for repairs, and by the time he returned to the track he was 33rd. He managed to gain only one more spot the rest of the day.
Keselowski had only to keep out of trouble after that. And Busch went back to the lead....but surprisingly challenged suddenly by Kevin Harvick, who hadn't won in well over a year.
Harvick powered to the lead on lap 305, just after a restart. But moments later Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer were getting into it. Gordon, miffed at Bowyer, wrecked him in turn three and four as the pack headed toward the white flag. That crash, however, was a big one, and it brought out the yellow before leader Harvick could cross the line.
Here's the video: here
That set up a green-white-checkered shootout.
However, as safety crews were cleaning up the track, Bowyer's angry crew charged after Gordon, protected by his crew. According to one unconfirmed report Gordon was tackled from behind before his crew picked him and rushed him to safety.
The huge melee prompted NASCAR to red-flag the race for 15 minutes, while officials and sheriff's deputies tried to get the explosive situation under control. Mace was displayed and there were conflicting reports about whether or not it was actually used.
At one point Bowyer himself ran full-speed through the garage area and tried to enter Gordon's truck, only to be restrained by deputies.
And when Gordon, Bowyer and their crew chiefs were in the NASCAR hauler for a post-race discussion, the hauler doors were protected by four sheriff's deputies.
It was all so old-school as to be surreal.
Only last weekend at Texas promoter Bruton Smith had complained that drivers these days were just too nice to each other, and he said they ought to get out of their cars angry enough to punch another one out.
Kurt Busch, in the black car in the middle of this sandwich, bruised his foot in this race-ending crash. Fortunately the injury wasn't any worse (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Later in victory Kevin Harvick could laugh about it all: "The sport was made on fights.
"We should have more fights. I like fights."
At that he laughed, perhaps recalling a few of his own run-ins. "They're not always fun to be in," he conceded. "Sometimes you're on the wrong end.
"But fights are what made NASCAR what it is."
Danica Patrick at the finish (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Keselowski was not happy afterwards, and he ripped his fellow drivers for poor driving. NASCAR's no-call on the Danica Patrick incident that led to a multi-car pileup at the start-finish line the last lap nearly took out Keselowski, whose car was banged up.
"I thought I had gotten this close and I was going to wreck before the start‑finish line, so I just hit the gas as hard as I could, thinking I would just bounce off enough walls, like a game of pong, to make it across the start‑finish line," Keselowski said.
"I don't even know what happened; I've got to watch the replay."
Keselowski earlier figured out Johnson's troubles: "I knew somebody had blown out a right front tire, based on the marks on the wall, and when I saw a black car on pit road and saw the right side tore up on it, and I put two and two together."
Keselowski too had been worried about his right-fronts during the race. "I thought that could very easily be me, and I'd better manage my car and my tires to make sure it's not.
"You certainly can't play defense in this sport because it will bite you, and I wasn't about to play defense. But I was just trying not to be the cause of my own demise."
Clint Bowyer and crew chief Brian Pattie (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
The Gordon-Bowyer incident, though, sent Keselowski through the roof, and he said that fellow drivers criticizing him for hard driving at Texas, in light of what happened here, was aggravating:
"It just drives me absolutely crazy that I get lambasted for racing somebody hard,without there even being a wreck, and then you see stuff like this, and that's okay, from the same people that criticized me.
"And that's okay -- It's okay to just take somebody out.
"But you race somebody hard, put a fender on somebody and try to go for the win, and you're an absolute villain, and that's ridiculous.
"But then we can just go out and retaliate against each other and come back in and smile about it, and it's fine.
"That's not what this sport needs. It needs hard racing, it needs people that go for broke, trying to win races, and putting it all out there on the line...not a bunch of people that have anger issues.
"It really hurt my feelings to be a part of a chase race for the championship and have that jeopardized from people that can't keep control of their emotions."
Kyle Busch was not happy with NASCAR's no-call on Patrick: "There was oil on the exit of turn four, and we all about crashed.
"You would expect they would see all of that and see the oil slick. It wasn't small by any means; it was three feet wide."
Harvick agreed: "You can't throw the caution flag as fast as you can throw it one time, and then just let everybody run through a whole straightaway full of oil.
"Those guys are going to have to look themselves in the mirror, the guy who's calling the races, and decide if they're doing a good job."
Richard Childress, Harvick's car owner, said he was "really disappointed in the way the race was called (by NASCAR officials).
"We take the white flag, she's coming across down here, everybody seen what was happening. I just knew the caution was going to come out... and Kevin races back around and almost wrecks, and we could lose a car and could have hurt a driver.
"I'm just still a little upset about that last not being a caution."
Kurt Busch trailing sparks...Paul Menard about to get clobbered from behind...(Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Ryan Newman said he was " really disappointed in the way NASCAR handled that last lap there. That was not fair to the drivers at all."
Kurt Busch, after coming out of the infield hospital, was still trying to sort things out: “That was a wild ending... not sure at the time what was happening. I just stayed on the gas to get to the finish line.
"Everything was going smoothly and it was looking like a sixth-place finish. All of a sudden all heck broke loose. I saw the door of Greg Biffle come across my left front, and from there I went on to smack the wall."
Patrick, despite all her problems the final mile, finished 17th, her best Cup finish yet.
Her trouble began in a collision with Jeff Burton: "He went down and took the apron got down into turn three, and I did not think he was near close enough to be on me going into three. I left a little bit of room, not a ton of room for sure.
"Tony Gibson (her crew chief) said he went down and talked to him, and he said he just went in too deep. Clipped my left-rear, spun me around... and I just tried to limp back to the line.
"I didn’t know exactly how much damage I had or what it was, but just trying to limp to the line."
Melee in the NASCAR garage, and sheriff's deputies are everywhere (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)