The caution heard 'round the circuit
Kevin Harvick's engine died with 21 laps to go Sunday in the final Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.
Less than 10 laps after the leaders made what they thought would be the final pit stop in the 367-lap thriller, the caution flag came out and pit road opened on lap 347, inviting the title contenders onto its narrow stretch for a second chance at Nextel Cup redemption.
Of the three, Earnhardt had to be happiest. Junior wasn't laying down scorching times, but he was fighting for a top 10 finish after those lap 337 pit stops. Only five laps later, Junior's battery died.
The No. 8 crew instructed him to turn off everything he could spare in the car and grimly told him his title hopes would depend on limping home the final 27 laps in decent shape.
Not a pretty picture, and Junior was steaming. He couldn't believe his bad luck. But no sooner had the woe-is-me set in than Junior caught the caution flag of his season. Harvick's motor croaked, the yellow flag unfurled and the Chase leaders exhaled. While Junior was in the worst shape with the dead battery, they all needed tires.
And Junior bounced back from his free fall toward 20th place to salvage 11th on the day. And instead of falling to a triple-digit deficit in the points race, Junior stayed 72 points out (in fourth) and within striking distance of Kurt Busch with one race to go.
"We got lucky the caution came out and gave us a chance to change that battery," Junior said, "or we was going to be in bad shape."
And though it was everything for Junior, it was also huge for Gordon because he was on the verge of being 50 points out after Sunday's race.
Gordon and Co. had pitted on lap 337 with the other leaders. But his pit crew, which had clicked so well all day long, hit a snag. The crew dropped his car on an air hose as a crewman tried to move from the right side to the left and Gordon got hung up in the pits.
He had entered first; he left in seventh, fully distraught over the rare error by the No. 24 car's pit crew.
"We made a mistake and it cost us the win," Gordon said. "Mistakes happen. I've made them. Everybody makes them. But right now at this time in the game in this championship, that cost us a lot."
Frustrated, Gordon vented over the team radio. But his anger subsided when the glorious yellow unfurled on lap 346. Gordon got out of the pits fast, with fresh tires and a renewed -- albeit long -- shot at winning the race.
Though he fell short of winning a race he dominated (leading the most laps), his third-place finish brought him within 21 points of Busch.
"I'm only 21 points down and I'm only three points behind Jimmie," said Gordon, who sits in third in the closest Cup points race ever. "So I've got to finish in the position that gives me 21 or 22 points on Kurt Busch and three on Jimmie. Basically, we're racing to win -- just like we did this weekend and last weekend. As good as Jimmie runs and Kurt runs and Mark (Martin) runs, we have to get a win."
But as relieved as Gordon is to have a legitimate title shot next weekend, he is crushed to miss the checkered flag Sunday. He's hoping he can carry that disappointment into Homestead-Miami Speedway as some extra fuel for his determination.
"I'm just disappointed right now that we didn't get a win," he said. "I felt like we had the car and that we had a shot at winning the race. You just don't get that opportunity that many times. I was glad to make up some points. We led a lot of laps. We've got a shot at this championship at Homestead. We're hungry and I'm glad I'm mad right now because I'm looking forward to going to Homestead really mad."
One man who won't go mad into that final is Johnson, winner of four of the past five races. Johnson upped his season wins total to a series-high eight, and he did so thanks in part to that final caution.
Although Johnson had won the race to pit road on the earlier pit stops, Busch came out high, too, and his car was a rocket after those stops.
But when the caution came for Harvick's motor, Busch radioed asking for an adjustment. Thing is, he asked for the wrong adjustment. He came off of pit road second to Johnson by inches, but with the wrong adjustment to his car, he faded to sixth by race's end.
Those were precious points lost for Busch, and huge points gained by Johnson. After the race, Johnson's crew chief Chad Knaus gave credit to Johnson for taking advantage of the final caution.
"The biggest thing that helped us there was just track position," he said. "We were able to get out ahead of those guys (off pit road) and it worked out. On that last pit stop actually, I told Jimmie to stay out. He took it upon himself to come down pit road because he saw those guys lined up behind him (ready to pit).
"So that was all Jimmie, otherwise we would have ended up probably fourth or something," he said.
Certainly, a sixth-place finish for Busch shows why he's in the hunt for the title because he managed to finish high on another difficult day. He ran into another car earlier in the race when the sun was in his eyes. Also, he had an ill-handling hot rod at the start of the race. But he fought from as far back as 27th to within inches of the lead.
For Johnson, Harvick's misfortune was perhaps an even bigger break because it lifted him two spots in the standings and pulled him within 18 points of the coveted Nextel Cup with a ton of momentum flowing his way.
Given that Harvick wasn't happy with Johnson on Sunday, the poetic nature of the turn of events is striking.
"I have no idea (why Harvick was angry) and I look forward to finding out myself soon," Johnson said. "Going down pit road before the race started, he was barking something at me and I couldn't understand what he was saying but I knew he wasn't wishing me good luck. And then throughout the race, he was trying to crowd me and race me and try to run me into the fence. I have no idea what his problem is. We'll find out soon. I'm confused."
Confused, but not dazed. Johnson's sweep of Darlington sends him to Miami as the hottest driver on the circuit.
It's entirely possible, and -- given Busch's ability to salvage great finishes from messy days -- perhaps even probable that Busch will pull this championship out next weekend.
But if he doesn't, whoever wins it will look back to lap 346 of the 55th and final Southern 500 as the savior. That was the moment that allowed Johnson to solidify a win, Gordon to storm back to third and Junior to stay in the hunt.
"It's going to be a heck of a shootout," Johnson said. "NASCAR got what they wanted here."
Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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