‘Wild Asphalt Circus’ on tour

Harvick victorious at Phoenix; Keselowski up 20 points on Johnson

jutter@charlotteobserver.comNovember 11, 2012 

— Eddie Gossage, the president of Texas Motor Speedway, billed last weekend’s stop of the Sprint Cup Series as the “Wild Asphalt Circus.”

Apparently, it’s hit the road.

Long after Sunday’s AdvoCare 500 at Phoenix International Raceway was over, track workers were literally still cleaning up from what NASCAR’s latest race left behind.

With the dust not yet settled, Kevin Harvick ended a 44-race winless streak, holding off Denny Hamlin to capture his first win of the season just days after reports surfaced he was leaving Richard Childress Racing at the end of next season.

Jeff Gordon intentionally wrecked Clint Bowyer on the second-to-last lap, which led to both teams’ crews brawling on pit road as ESPN cameras caught Bowyer running through the garage in an effort to confront Gordon.

But wait, there’s more.

Five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, who seemed well on his way to winning title No. 6, blew a tire due to excessive brake heat and handed the series points lead over to Brad Keselowski with one race remaining.

How to sum all this up?

“Yeah, you know, it was an interesting day to say the least,” said Harvick, in what may rank as the biggest understatement of the year.

The victory was a much-needed one for Harvick, who qualified for the Chase but had struggled much of the season to run up front and contend for wins.

Harvick and team owner Richard Childress didn’t directly address the reports, but both said they planned to approach next season on the same page.

“When we actually get to get into our element we all do our jobs regardless, and we all don’t want to go out and embarrass ourselves and not run good,” Harvick said.

“We want to be exactly where we are, right here, in Victory Lane and doing the things that make us all happy. It’s been a frustrating year, but two races to go, here we are.”

Sunday, Harvick passed Kyle Busch with eight of the scheduled 312 laps remaining – the first time he led in the race.

His win seemed assured when a caution – for the Gordon/Bowyer incident – came out as Harvick was taking the white flag. NASCAR, however, ruled the caution lights had been triggered before Harvick took the flag.

That meant at least one two-lap overtime period. Even though he was running low on fuel, Harvick easily moved out to a big lead on the restart and grabbed the win.

Johnson, who entered the race with a seven-point advantage over Keselowski, slammed the wall hard on Lap 235 and was forced to the garage for repairs.

He now trails Keselowski by 20 points entering the season finale and a sixth series championship suddenly looks much less likely.

“We still have to go to Homestead and race and anything can happen down there. But this is not the position we want to be in late in Phoenix,” Johnson said after the race.

“Across the board there has been a huge effort put in to try to get us a championship and I just hate for our day to turn out as it did.”

Johnson ended up 32nd.

Kyle Busch finished third, Kasey Kahne was fourth and Ryan Newman was fifth.

Keselowski at one time was leading the race and finished sixth. He was one of several drivers who was in a wreck after the race.

Danica Patrick twice hit the wall on the final lap but NASCAR did not display the caution flag. She slid down the frontstretch as cars were taking the checkered flag.

“You know, I raced pretty hard last week at Texas and a couple guys gave me flack for it but there’s a difference between racing hard and what we saw today,” Keselowski said. “That was borderline ridiculous.”

Regardless, Keselowski finds himself in excellent position to win his first series title in just his fourth full-time season. A Cup title would also be a first for his team owner, Roger Penske.

“It’s really tough to just survive a race like that physically and mentally and I felt very lucky to do so,” Keselowski said. “It makes me feel like that could happen the other way around next week and we could be right back out of this thing.”

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