Defender Steven Whittaker was the unlikely saviour for the visitors as his 89th-minute strike earned Neil Adams’ men a point on Saturday.
Norwich’s first equaliser came from Cameron Jerome early in the second half, after Johnny Russell had netted just before half-time to give Derby a lead they barely deserved.
The Canaries were not on level terms for long though as their former striker Chris Martin quickly restored the Rams’ lead from the penalty spot.
Derby looked like they had done enough to go two points clear at the summit ahead of the afternoon kick-offs, but Whittaker was on target to give Norwich the share of the points their performance warranted.
Carlos Cuellar and Craig Bryson both collected early bookings before Martin got across his marker to head over the crossbar from a Omar Mascarell corner after 18 minutes in what was Derby’s first effort at goal.
Norwich were enjoying a lot of the ball without really creating too much. But it concerned Rams head coach Steve McClaren enough for him to vacate his viewing position in the stand to join first-team coach Paul Simpson by the side of the pitch in the technical area.
The Canaries had the ball in the net just after the half-hour mark. Alex Tettey, and the majority of the 27,974 inside the iPro Stadium, thought he had given the visitors the lead with a low shot from the edge of the penalty area.
However, a very late flag spoiled the celebrations, with the referee’s assistant ruling that Jerome had been offside in front of goalkeeper Lee Grant.
Russell saw a shot from the right-hand side of the area deflected into the arms of John Ruddy after Derby were arguably guilty of over-playing the ball, with Jordan Ibe and Martin passing up opportunities to shoot before the Scot obliged.
Bradley Johnson narrowly missed the top corner of the net after he was allowed to advance goalwards as Norwich looked the more likely to score.
But it was Derby who went into half-time ahead. Some brilliant centre-forward play by Martin saw him bring a long ball down on his chest before turning and getting into the penalty area, where he laid on a square pass for Russell who poked his shot beyond the helpless Ruddy from point-blank range.
Norwich probably felt aggrieved at their deficit but they equalised six minutes into the second half when the unmarked Jerome swept home a shot at the far post from Jonny Howson’s low ball across the six-yard box.
The visitors were level for just two minutes though. Cuellar brought down Martin just inside the area and the big striker picked himself up to score from the penalty spot, sending Ruddy the wrong way with his confidently-struck right-foot shot.
As in the first half, Norwich had lots of possession as they searched for another equalising goal. Jerome and substitute Nathan Redmond threatened before Whittaker’s 20-yard effort skimmed the side-netting.
It looked like Derby would hold on for a win that would take them back to the top of the table, for a few hours at least, but after the Rams failed to clear a corner, Whittaker struck with a shot that went in off the inside of a post.
Jerome almost snatched victory for the Canaries in injury time but he blazed his shot over the crossbar from 12 yards out.