London Irish held off a late comeback from Sale to win 39-26 in the Aviva Premiership at Madejski Stadium on Sunday.
The Exiles returned to the summit of the Premiership standing thanks to a last-gasp try from winger Jonathan Joseph.
The hosts appeared to have blown the chance of replacing Northampton at the top of the table following an unlikely comeback from Sale.
But England U18 international Joseph, who started in place of the injured Sailosi Tagicakibau on the left wing, intercepted Chris Jones' pass deep into injury time to secure the bonus point. Sale had looked finished after Ryan Lamb, Joseph and George Stowers had run in tries to help Irish establish a 26-6 lead as the final quarter loomed.
But instead of probing for the bonus point needed to overhaul Northampton, the Exiles were forced to mount a desperate rearguard action.
Sale's fightback began with a 58th-minute try from Anitelea Tuilagi before Ben Cohen added a second shortly after.
With fly-half Nick MacLeod producing a faultless kicking display - he finished with 16 points - Irish were left glancing nervously at a scoreboard that read 26-26.
However, two late penalties from Lamb helped them regain control in the final five minutes before Joseph scored the crucial fourth try amid a frantic finish.
Lamb and MacLeod exchanged early penalties but Sale were in the driving seat during the opening exchanges.
Openside David Seymour broke two tackles before being hauled down by Joseph as the Sharks continued to make inroads with their running game.
Crucially, however, they had failed to make sufficient impact on the scoreboard and Irish pulled level when Lamb rounded off a spell of sustained pressure with a penalty.
Tom Homer limped off, ending a fine opening half-hour from the Exiles full-back, but the home side barely noticed as they took the lead for the first time.
Stretched to breaking point following a raid down the left, Sale's defence finally cracked when Lamb spotted he was up against two forwards and jinked his way to the line before converting his own try.
The tables had turned, a fact confirmed when Irish added a second try with a superb individual score by Joseph two minutes before half-time.
Joseph used the presence of Chris Hala'ufia outside him to create doubt as he weaved his way over the whitewash.
Lamb slotted a drop-goal early in the second half to nudge Irish 21-6 ahead and they were back on the offensive when Cohen sent a kick straight into touch.
A controversial try followed with galloping lock Nick Kennedy halted by Cohen just short of the right corner before play was rapidly switched to the opposite wing.
Centre Daniel Bowden spied the overlap but his forward scoring pass to Stowers was missed by referee Martin Fox.
Sale responded with a beautifully-worked try with smart hands from Karena Wihongi and Cohen sending Tuilagi over for a score converted by MacLeod.
When MacLeod slashed the deficit to 26-16 with just under 20 minutes to go, the Sharks sensed a comeback was possible.
Their self-belief grew when MacLeod booted his fourth penalty and in the 68th minute they drew level with perfect hands from Neil Briggs and Williams giving Cohen the space to score.
MacLeod converted but Lamb slotted two penalties in quick succession before Joseph had the last word.
For London Irish:
Tries: Lamb, Joseph, Stowers, Joseph
Cons: Lamb 2
Pens: Lamb 4
Tries: Tuilagi, Cohen
Cons: Macleod 2
Pens: Macleod 4
London Irish: 15 Tom Homer, 14 Topsy Ojo, 13 Seilala Mapusua, 12 Daniel Bowden, 11 Jonathan Joseph, 10 Ryan Lamb, 9 Paul Hodgson, 8 George Stowers, 7 Chris Hala'Ufia, 6 Kieran Roche, 5 Bob Casey, 4 Nick Kennedy, 3 Alex Corbisiero, 2 David Paice, 1 Clarke Dermody (capt).
Replacements: 16 James Buckland, 17 Dan Murphy, 18 Faan Rautenbach, 19 Matt Garvey, 20 Steffon Armitage, 21 Elvis Seveali'i, 22 Chris Malone, 23 Darren Allinson.
Sale Sharks: 15 Paul Williams, 14 Tom Brady, 13 Chris Bell, 12 Anitelea Tuilagi, 11 Ben Cohen, 10 Nick Macleod, 9 Will Cliff, 8 Kristian Ormsby, 7 David Seymour, 6 Carl Fearns, 5 Nic Rouse, 4 Wame Lewaravu, 3 Karena Wihongi, 2 Neil Briggs (capt), 1 Aston Croall.
Replacements: 16 Marc Jones, 17 Lee Imiolek, 18 Henry Thomas, 19 Chris Jones, 20 Sisaro Koyamaibole, 21 Chris Brightwell, 22 Chris Leck, 23 Rob Miller.
Venue: Madejski Stadium
Referee: Martin Fox
Assistant referees: Nick Carrick, Paul Burton
Assessor: Ashley Reay
Television match official: Roy Marfleet