Cup contenders survive scary Talladega

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Take a deep breath. The monster is behind them.

The three Chase contenders -- Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick -- played to a virtual draw at Talladega Superspeedway, avoiding a disastrous moment in another stunning show on the giant Alabama oval that you have to see to believe.

Harvick almost won -- almost as in not knowing if he won or finished second until five minutes after the checkered flag. He settled for No. 2 to RCR teammate Clint Bowyer. NASCAR officials determined Bowyer's car was in front when a yellow flag flew on the last lap as AJ Allmendinger flipped on his roof behind them.

Johnson and Hamlin were just happy they didn't lose. Yes, they lost the race, but they didn't lose a tight grip on their title hopes. With 50 laps to go, it didn't look good.

But this place defies logic. It's racing on a roulette wheel. Pick a number and let it spin at 200 mph. The Amp Energy Juice 500 had 87 lead changes among 26 drivers.

Who knows where you'll end up?

Hamlin was a lap down in 30th place with 50 laps to go.

"I didn't get to race as hard as I would have liked," said Hamlin, who finished ninth. "But it's hard not to be happy with our day. I'm fortunate the way things turned out."

Johnson was biding his time near the back of the field, gambling he could get to the front when crew chief Chad Knaus decided the time was right. His call worked well. Johnson finished seventh.

Now we're left with a Texas three-step, the closest three-man Chase ever with three races to go, heading to Texas Motor Speedway next weekend.

Johnson is 14 points ahead of Hamlin and 38 points ahead of Harvick.

"This is what I asked for," Hamlin said after the race. "Nobody got killed here, so we can settle it on the racetrack in the last three races, where our cars and our teams can make a difference. That's what we've got."

I believe Hamlin was using the word killed figuratively, not literally, although either application fits at Talladega.

But all three men survived both interpretations. And all three had a chance to win in the final laps.

Hamlin and Johnson employed the sandbagging strategy, laying back and playing it safe. It was safe for Johnson; not for Hamlin. He lost the lead draft midway through the race and went a lap down.

"I was being too laid-back and not paying attention to what I had to do," Hamlin said. "It was disappointing, but I knew we could get our lap back."

Ironically, Hamlin got the lucky dog when Harvick was involved in a wreck with Marcos Ambrose. Hamlin made his move once he was back on the lead lap.

Hamlin was in the lead with 30 laps to go before getting shuffled back. He was charging again in the final laps when his drafting partner did what was best for Hendrick Motorsports and Johnson.

"We were in great position to win with two [laps] to go," Hamlin said. "I had a push from the 5 [Mark Martin]. But as soon as we passed the 48 [Johnson], he stopped pushing. It killed us. That's what I would expect of a teammate, but we weren't around teammates at the end."

Johnson also got abandoned by his drafting partner, but this one was his teammate -- Jeff Gordon.

Johnson was 20th and Gordon 21st when Knaus gave the command to head to the front with fewer than 16 laps remaining.

"Do it now," Knaus said on the radio. "Let's go."

Four laps later, Johnson was in the lead, thanks to Gordon's push. But Gordon backed off when he thought he had an engine problem. The motor made it to the end and Gordon finished eighth.

So what was it?

"We'll have to get in there and find out," Gordon said. "All of a sudden it felt like the engine was blowing up. I smelled oil and saw a lot of smoke inside the car."

Gordon also felt they made their move too soon, but Knaus had his reasons.

"I felt everybody was going to go at the same time a little later," Knaus said. "I wanted to try to get up front and get clean early so we would have some room when those guys started mixing it up behind us."

All in all, it was a success. The No. 48 Chevy team did what it wanted to do -- leave Talladega still No. 1 in the standings.

"Now it's on," Knaus said. "We'll see what happens."

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.