Hamlin's win only part of Texas fun

FORT WORTH, Texas -- Monkeys, which were on hand to sell programs, did not run down the frontstretch shooting off bottle rockets.

Other than that, take your pick for the unpredictable moments in Sunday's race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Brawling drivers, angry gestures, bold statements and a pit crew change on the fly. This race had it all.

And, shock of all shocks, someone is leading the Chase with two races to go other than Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 Chevy team, which didn't end the race as a team.

Denny Hamlin was the winner and becomes the new Chase leader.

"I did what I had to do," Hamlin said. "It's a big deal. In the beginning of the race, we couldn't go anywhere. But as soon as night started, the car just took off."

Hamlin made a brilliant slide move and blew by Matt Kenseth on the backstretch with two laps to go, a thrilling finish to a day of actions and reactions that can best be described as "You can't be serious?"

"Have at it, boys" reached a new height. Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton exchanged blows on the track after a wreck, the best fistfight at TMS since old A.J. Foyt slapped Arie Luyendyk out of Victory Lane 13 years ago after an IndyCar race.

TMS president Eddie Gossage probably is printing fight posters already to promote the April race.

And the main event in the AAA Texas 500 had a preliminary show when Kyle Busch gave the one-finger salute to an official, bringing the rare unsportsmanlike conduct penalty (two laps) from NASCAR.

Just as rare was the crew swap, which happened when Gordon's boys moved to Johnson's pit stall after Gordon's wreck in the No. 24 Chevy.

Bad stops early in the race sent Johnson's crew to the showers. Like a basketball coach angry with his starters, crew chief Chad Knaus replaced the whole bunch in the middle of the race.

"It's sad to have to do that, but we needed to do something," Knaus said. "The 24/48 shop has always worked as a team. I hope to get back the 48 guys and get everyone's confidence up next week."

Knaus sent a message to the four-time championship crew: Buck up boys, or hit the pine. But Mike Ford, Hamlin's crew chief, said he thinks it was a surprising message.

"Their team got them to this point, and they pulled them out," Ford said. "They took their team out of it. So it's more about winning the championship than the team."

So take that, Chad. You've been served.

"We've watched them play mind games in the past," Ford said. "I couldn't care less about that. I'm not going to tiptoe around them. I think our race team is better."

Ford elected a pit stall for Hamlin at TMS right in front of Johnson's.

"We've found when we pit the two crews toe-to-toe, it makes [the 48 team] make mistakes," Ford said. "We did it today, and those guys faltered to the point of making changes."

It will be an interesting week at Hendrick Motorsports. That fifth consecutive championship is an uphill battle now, but it's still a three-man show with two races to go.

Kevin Harvick, who finished sixth, is 59 points behind Hamlin in third. Johnson, using Gordon's crew for his last three stops, finished ninth and trails Hamlin by 33 points in second.

"It was just a long day," Johnson said. "We had speed in the car, but had issues on pit road. I feel terrible for my guys, but the 24 crew came and did a great job."

Johnson thought he could move up on the final restart with three laps remaining, but had the wrong car in front of him. Greg Biffle's car didn't have first or second gear. Biffle couldn't get going, and Johnson had nowhere to go.

Harvick also was hoping for better before fading under the lights when his No. 29 Chevy got loose. Harvick was second with 50 laps to go, but dropped back when the track cooled at night.

Johnson and Harvick didn't have it at the end. Hamlin did.

He started 30th in the No. 11 Toyota and spent the first 50 laps struggling in the middle of the field.

"I don't get excited anymore and don't let things get to me," Hamlin said. "Before, I would have probably panicked. Over the last year, I've gotten a lot more mentally tough to figure out what it takes to win."

And for the first time, Hamlin is the man in front with two races to go.

"I'm going to race at Phoenix as if I'm 33 behind," Hamlin said. "There is no comfortable margin. I'm not going to be conservative."

Neither will Johnson, who now must fight back and regain his team's composure if he hopes to become the champion again.

"This is racing, and nothing comes easy," Johnson said. "I promise you this. I'm trying as hard as I can and so is my team."

It should be quite a show with two to go, but nothing could top this one. It started with monkeys, and the circus just kept on going all the way to the end.

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.