TALLADEGA, Alabama - Jimmie Johnson retained his lead -- now 14 points over Denny Hamlin -- and Kevin Harvick made a big gain to close within 34 points.
So now the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship will go to Texas Motor Speedway next week in the closest three-way race in the history of the playoff format.
But at different stages on Sunday it looked like each of the three championship leaders were in deep, deep trouble on this Halloween edition of the AMP Energy Juice 500 at Talladega Superspeedway.
The difference maker turned out to be a wreck that none of the three were involved.
When A.J. Allmendinger's No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford got airborne after a bump from David Gilliland's No. 37 Ford within sight of the finish line on the final lap, Harvick's incredible push to come back after he had badly damaged his car's front end in a spin with 47 laps to go was over.
Clint Bowyer -- his teammate at Richard Childress Racing -- had inched ahead of him just as the caution came out.
"We came here to obviously lead some laps and run up front and try to win the race ... but we beat the guys we needed to," Harvick said.
And talk about comebacks -- Hamlin looked like he was about to have his worst finish of the 10-race Chase when his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota lost the lead-lap draft on lap 77.
Hamlin found himself down a lap with not much chance to redeem himself. Even his team on pit road appeared consigned to the worst as radio silence spoke volumes about what was happening on the track.
Johnson -- who is seeking his fifth consecutive Sprint Cup trophy -- ran at the back of the lead lap in his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet for almost the entire race before hooking up with teammate Jeff Gordon with 16 laps to go.
But just as the two made a dash to the front, Gordon's No. 24 Chevrolet started to overheat, leaving Johnson on his own. And he soon discovered that without a teammate he didn't have any friends out there.
Regardless, Johnson should be confident going into two of his best tracks -- Texas and Phoenix.
The big difference that Sunday made was that for the first time in his four-year championship run Johnson will very likely go into the final race at Homestead Miami Speedway needing a top-five finish.
"For me, we've always really approached each race with the mentality that we needed to win," Johnson said. "We need maximum points. Of course, it's a little bit more forgiving or easy on your team and yourself with a big points lead. But we don't have that this year. We're going to have to race, and we're ready for it."
Sad day at Talladega with the passing of legendary NASCAR public relations boss Jim Hunter. I don't know if Hunter ever knew my name because he always just called me 'Canada' ... Robby Gordon's stunt of plastering his personal vehicle with his SPEED energy drink decals then driving through the garage to his motorhome lot smacked of guerilla marketing. He knew the car would be towed -- after all, AMP Energy Juice had paid an estimated $1 million U.S. for the right to be the race sponsor -- and Gordon alerted the media that the tow job was going to happen. .. Talk about domination at NASCAR's biggest track: Chevrolets have won 20 of the last 24 races at Talladega Superspeedway.