A series of yellow-flag stops near the halfway point of the Advocare 500 at Phoenix International Raceway has jumbled up the order, with Jeff Gordon now leading the way after choosing not to pit and staying out on track.
The opening lap of the race was a chaotic one for pole sitter Jimmie Johnson, who found himself fighting three-wide for the lead going down the backstretch and then lost more spots after contact with Joey Logano briefly got him sideways. Johnson kept it going, but fell all the way back to sixth by the end of Lap 1.
With Johnson out of the way for the time being, Hamlin settled into the lead for a brief period before Jeff Gordon came up to challenge him for the lead at Lap 12. The two battled for multiple laps before Hamlin cleared Gordon to retain the lead at Lap 16. But four laps later, Gordon finally assumed the point, beating Hamlin down the backstretch into Turn 3.
Gordon would lead the way for the rest of that green flag stint, while Hamlin proceeded to tumble all the way into the 20th-25th place range before spinning in Turn 2 at Lap 50 to bring out the yellow.
On the subsequent pit stops, the Top 10 all took two tires and Gordon was able to keep his lead by winning the race off pit road. But off the restart at Lap 56, Harvick powered past Gordon on the outside to take P1. Meanwhile, Johnson continued to recover from his Lap 1 scare as he rose up to second behind Harvick during the second green run of the day.
However, Matt Kenseth (who trails Johnson by seven points for first in the championship) had yet to make an impact thanks to an ill-handling car. He started 14th, but had only been able to move up a few positions to 12th before the caution came out at Lap 100.
Harvick opted for four tires during pit stops under that yellow, causing him to fall from the lead to seventh. The top four off pit road – Kasey Kahne, Brad Keselowski, Carl Edwards, and Paul Menard – all took two tires. Johnson and Gordon wound up fifth and sixth after the stops, because they, like Harvick, also took four.
Kahne was able to keep Keselowski behind him after the restart at Lap 106, while Johnson once again had a poor restart and lost a couple of positions.
The yellow came back on Lap 116 for an incident involving Timmy Hill, and Kenseth took advantage of it to come to pit road for four tires and a chassis adjustment to try and cure his handling woes. However, he fell all the way back to 28th after doing so.
Keselowski leaped ahead of Kahne to grab the lead off the restart at Lap 121, while Kenseth set about trying to climb through the field. Ten laps later, at Lap 131, Travis Kvapil appeared to have a motor let go and Dave Blaney spun out behind him to bring out another yellow flag.
With some drivers choosing to pit, Kenseth stayed out and rose up to 15th during the caution. But on the restart at Lap 137, he promptly lost multiple spots and then fell out of the Top 20 at Lap 140.
A four-car pileup at Lap 145 triggered the caution, with Cole Whitt taking the most severe damage in the melee. Also involved were Danica Patrick, Justin Allgaier and David Reutimann.
Keselowski, Harvick and Johnson were among the front-runners that opted to pit in this yellow, while Gordon chose to stay out and take over the lead. Kenseth also stayed out, enabling him to move back up to 10th.
However, Johnson has been told that he can make the finish on just one more stop, which could prove critical later on.