TALLADEGA, Ala. – The Big One didn't come, the winner didn't immediately know who won, and the Chase didn't break wide open. So anyone who came to Talladega looking for fireworks or finality didn't get a sniff of either.
But as Kevin Harvick showed Sunday with some bare bond tape and some guts, championships can certainly be won without a lot of exclamation points.
Most race fans and pundits expected a gigantic wreck to alter not only the Halloween race here, but the entire Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. The strategy among Chase leaders Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick was to avoid the carnage and sneak over the finish line without blowing the season.
And while all three had their share of drama – Hamlin lost the draft and went a lap (and nearly 100 points) down, while Johnson was abandoned during his late charge up front when teammate Jeff Gordon's overheating engine forced the No. 24 car to peel off – Sunday's big winner, ironically, ended up being the guy who actually did get into a wreck.
"I looked in the mirror and saw Kevin was tore up and I was sick," Bowyer said. "You don't want to be the guy who costs RCR a championship."
But Harvick somehow steadied his chassis and kept his nose straight if not clean.
"When I saw [Ambrose] start to spin, I didn't want to spin out," Harvick said. "I didn't want to come back up the racetrack. I didn't want to spin backwards and have a chance of getting in the wall. He rolled across the nose and I was able to not keep hitting him. I was able to go back in gas and push him off me."
That bit of artistry saved Harvick the race and maybe the season. He would lose the cap off the front of his car and he even had a flat tire as he rolled down pit road, but "as long as we were in middle of pack," Harvick said, "we were fine."
His car sure didn't look fine. His crew slapped the entire front with 200-mph bear bond tape, heavy glue, and some green tape on top of that tape. Suddenly, one of the coolest cars on the planet looked like one of Meat Loaf's old concert amps.
But Harvick kept on and as the race entered the final 10 laps, there he was being pushed up the inside by David Ragan. Harvick remained near the front and then, with two laps left, David Reutimann ushered him past Johnson and into a four-wide mess at the front.
That would have been a predictable time for the shrapnel to fly and chaos to reign, and it did, sort of. It wasn't a Big One – a multi-car crash that takes out half the field. No, it was AJ Allmendinger and only AJ Allmendinger flipping toward the back of the pack.
Allmendinger's wreck, which came right after the white flag, brought out a caution. With that, the race was over. But who was ahead?
At the time, Bowyer and Harvick were nose-and-nose at the front of the pack. Harvick declared himself the victor. Still, there was no word from NASCAR. As the two waited on the track, Bowyer decided to do a burnout. Then, the two drove up to each other, driver's side door to driver's side door and shook hands.
Finally word came down. Bowyer was the winner.
As far as the Chase goes, so was Harvick.
"We beat the guys we needed to beat," said Harvick, who trimmed 24 points off his deficit to Johnson (who came in seventh) and now trails by just 38. Hamlin finished ninth and is 14 points back.
Now it's on to Texas and Phoenix before the finale at Homestead, Fla.
"I feel good about the last three tracks," Harvick said. "For me, it's all about not making a mistake. You're going to have to run in the top five and have a chance to win. Forcing it usually leads to mistakes."
That plan has worked fine for No. 29. He has 23 top-10 finishes in 33 starts this season, and although the near-misses have irked him a bit – "about six inches and we would have won every speedway race there was this year" – he knows there's a bigger fish waiting in Florida next month.
"No offense to [Johnson], but somebody else needs to win," he said after the race, with the four-time champ sitting next to him. "I like Jimmie as good as anybody, but for the sake of the sport, one of the two of us [himself or Hamlin] needs to make something happen."
Harvick made something happen Sunday at Talladega. And he might make something bigger happen in the final three races – even if nothing exciting happens at all.
- Kevin Harvick