TALLADEGA, Ala. — It was wild, all right, it just wasn't decisive.
NASCAR's three title contenders left Talladega Superspeedway with their championship chances intact, as Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick remained locked at the top of the tightest points fight in seven years after a typically chaotic race.
Clint Bowyer edged Harvick, his Richard Childress Racing teammate, in a photo finish Sunday. But Harvick was fine settling for second because the big picture matters more now.
Johnson, the four-time defending series champion, finished seventh and left with a 14-point lead over Hamlin, who finished ninth. Harvick is 38 back with three races left in the Sprint Cup Chase for the Championship.
"We've gone through seven races, and you can throw a blanket over the three of us," Harvick said. "It's really going to just come down to dotting the I's, crossing the T's, keeping that performance level where it needs to be."
"It's going to be an awesome championship battle all the way to Homestead (the season finale), and I'm really looking forward to it," Johnson echoed.
The Amp Energy 500 had 87 lead changes, second most in NASCAR history — one fewer than the spring race here this year. A multicar accident sent AJ Allmendinger's car flipping across the track as the leaders took the white flag. NASCAR threw the caution and nobody had any idea who was out front when the yellow waved.
It took several minutes for NASCAR to call Bowyer the victor. As Bowyer celebrated, a wide-eyed Harvick saw a replay of the final laps.
"Oh, I didn't know somebody flipped," he said.
That's how it usually goes at Talladega, and the drivers went into Sunday with strategies to avoid the mayhem.
Johnson and Hamlin rode around the back most of the day. But Hamlin lost the draft, fell behind the pack and dropped a lap down. He needed to wait for the field to catch him, then slid inside a promised gap from fellow Toyota driver David Reutimann of Zephyrhills. From there, Hamlin needed cautions to get back on the lead lap.
One caution that helped Hamlin hurt Harvick, who damaged the nose of his Chevrolet midway through the race in a multicar accident.
A quick repair put him back in contention, and a debris caution set up a restart with four laps left. Harvick received unusual help from Reutimann, who as a Toyota driver probably shouldn't have pushed Hamlin's competition to the front.
"If you had your preference of helping a Toyota, if you have a choice, I think we would try to pick a Toyota," said Reutimann, who finished fourth behind the RCR drivers and Juan Montoya. "But sometimes you don't have a choice and you have to go with whatever's going to benefit your team the most."
Hamlin did not mention Reutimann's help of Harvick, but despite rallying to the top-10 finish, he seemed disappointed with the final result.
"It wasn't very fun. I didn't get to race as hard as I'd like to at times," he said.
But he took solace in how tight the race is as the series moves on to Texas, where Hamlin won in April.
"It's what I asked for," he said.
Sprint Cup points
With three races to go. Only these drivers are eligible in the Chase for the Championship.
Jimmie Johnson 6,149—
Denny Hamlin 6,135 14
Kevin Harvick 6,111 38
Jeff Gordon 5,942 207
Kyle Busch 5,919 230
Carl Edwards 5,902 247
Tony Stewart 5,832 317
Matt Kenseth 5,825 324
Kurt Busch 5,799 350
Jeff Burton 5,797 352
Greg Biffle 5,788 361
Clint Bowyer 5,782 367
Note: Points unofficial; NASCAR posts official standings today
Texas 500, 3 p.m. Sunday, Texas Motor Speedway, Fort Worth TV: ESPN