That wasn't a desert mirage emerging from Phoenix International Raceway late Sunday afternoon. Those crazy images were real. Hard as it is to believe, that actually was Jimmie Johnson having bad luck during a Chase race and slamming into the wall. That was indeed a brawl worthy of a soccer crowd breaking out between the team members of Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer, with Bowyer doing his best Usain Bolt impersonation down pit road in an attempt to join in. And that was Kevin Harvick, of all people, celebrating in Victory Lane for the first time in more than a year, and merely days after reports came out that he is leaving Richard Childress Racing, but not until 2014.
Once the smoke cleared and the tempers cooled, the most important thing to happen Sunday was that Brad Keselowski departed Phoenix with a 20-point lead over Johnson in the Sprint Cup standings heading into next week's season-finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. But it certainly wasn't the most interesting.
Here are five of the things we learned at Phoenix on a day when there were probably 25 things to talk about:
1. The No. 48 team no longer has a golden horseshoe stuck in its rear. That was the off-color charge made by Harvick in 2010, when good fortunate seemed to always fall upon Johnson and his team on the way to a fifth consecutive Sprint Cup championship. It is one of the reasons so many people assumed Johnson would win the trophy again this year. Whenever he is in a battle for the title, the breaks always seem to go Johnson's way.
But not this time. With 77 laps to go, Johnson's right front tire went flat just as he was coming out of turn four and he slid hard into the wall. Had the flat occurred just a few seconds later, Johnson would have been on the front straightway and probably could have saved the car without it making any contact. Instead, the wreck caused enough damage that Johnson had to take the car to the garage area for 40 laps worth of repairs. He finished 32nd, 26 spots behind Keselowski, and his championship hopes are all but over.
"It's way, way out of our control now," Johnson said. "We still have to go to Homestead and anything can happen there, but obviously it's not the position we want to be in. ... It's the way it goes. Anything can happen in racing. I hate to see it potentially end this way, but again, it's racing. I've been doing this a long time. I've won a few championships and I've lost a lot. Losing isn't any fun. We'll be back next weekend and next year hungrier than ever."
2. Brad Keselowski is close to winning his first championship, and he is angry. Keselowski's ire isn't about his 20-point lead in the standings. It stems from the incident involving Gordon and Bowyer, where Gordon intentionally wrecked Bowyer in retaliation for earlier contact from Bowyer (more on that later). Keselowski was criticized by some drivers last week at Texas for what they considered to be his excessively aggressive driving. In the media center following Sunday's race, Keselowski went into a profanity-filled rant at the criticism he received when compared to what took place on the track Sunday between Gordon and Bowyer.
"What offends me is the double-standard that I spent a whole week being bashed by a half-dozen drivers about racing hard at Texas and how I'm out of control and have a death wish. And then I see (bleep) like that," Keselowski said. "That's (bleeping bleep). That's all you can call that. These drivers just tried to kill each other. ... It's just (bleeping) ridiculous. And they should be ashamed."
3. Jeff Gordon is ready to rumble. While Johnson vs. Keselowski was supposed to be the main event Sunday, Gordon vs. Bowyer turned out to be an extremely entertaining undercard. The fun began near the end of the race, when Bowyer and Gordon made contact that led to Gordon hitting the wall. A few laps later, Gordon slowed and waited for Bowyer to circle the track and catch back up to him, at which point Gordon intentionally cut down into Bowyer and caused an accident that also swept up innocent bystander Joey Logano into the mess and nearly took out Keselowski as well.
A huge fracas involving crew members for both drivers ensued moments later, and the drivers and their crew chiefs were called into the NASCAR hauler for separate post-race meetings. Initial indications are that no penalties will be handed down to either driver, though Gordon said afterward he didn't care if there were.
"I've just had it," Gordon said. "Clint's run into me numerous times (in the past), wrecked me. He got into me on the back straightway (Sunday) and pretty much ruined our day. I was fed up with it and got him back."
When asked if he was worried about any penalties from NASCAR, Gordon replied, "They got to do what they've got to do, just like I had to do what I had to do."
4. Clint Bowyer is in great shape. Not in the point standings, where any remote chance Bowyer had of winning the championship ended with the Gordon incident. Bowyer is now 52 points out of the lead and is mathematically eliminated from title contention.
No, we're talking physical shape. After racing for nearly three hours and then being involved in a serious accident, Bowyer still had the stamina to sprint from his wrecked car, down pit road and all the way to Gordon's hauler. It was magnificent advertising for his primary sponsor, 5-hour Energy drink, though afterward Bowyer seemed embarrassed by the entire situation.
"It's a shame. The last person in the world I want to get into anything with is Jeff Gordon," Bowyer said. "You're out there racing, the track is extremely slick, we're all on old tires. ... All I was doing was riding around biding my time. So for him to act like that. I barely touched him. Then he tried to turn me in turn three, and he missed. And then the next thing I know (the spotter) is telling me on the radio that (Gordon) is waiting on me.
"It makes us all look like a bunch of retards. It's pretty embarrassing for a four-time champion and what I consider one of the best the sport has ever seen to act like that. It's completely ridiculous."
5. Oh yeah, somebody won the race, too. If it hadn't been for the drama surrounding Johnson's misfortunate and the Gordon-Bowyer spat, Kevin Harvick's victory would have been a compelling story line. A report surfaced a few days before Sunday's race that Harvick plans to leave RCR, the team he has been with his entire Cup career, for Stewart-Hass Racing beginning with the 2014 season. Childress, whose three drivers had not won a race all season, reacted angrily to the report. It certainly did not seem like it was going to be a good time for Harvick to break the team's winless streak. But Harvick got a good jump on the green-white-checkered restart and pulled away from Kyle Busch for his first Cup victory since September of last year.
"It has been a struggle this year, and it has been an interesting weekend to say the least," Harvick said with a smile. "But I know these guys all want to win. I know Richard wants to win. Regardless of what happens in '14, we have the end of this year and all of next year, and we want to win races."