NASCAR – Camping World RV 400, Dover International Speedway – Sun Sep 21

The Monster Mile proved a nightmare for some of the Chase contenders and a dream for others: a tense strategic battle midrace between Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards, and a thrilling ultimate duel in the final laps that saw the dark horse ride again.

Led off by polesitter Jeff Gordon, the race got off to a scrappy start, with three quick yellows: on lap 2, when David Gilliland washed up the track and caught Kurt Busch, who rear-ended the wall as a result, while behind them Paul Menard spun avoiding the problems ahead; then on lap 11, Patrick Carpentier spun on the back straight, narrowly missing Jimmie Johnson and actually clipping Carl Edwards who suffered only superficial damage to the front bumper; and then a bit longer under green conditions before Joe Nemechek brought out the third yellow on lap 64 when his front right tyre blew.

That was the sign for most of the cars to come in for their first pit stops. Some had come in on the second yellow, and that included Chase contender Greg Biffle who was finding his car’s handling to be extremely bad: it put him down to 27th, but it was worth it and he was much improved – by the next yellow and set of pit stops he was already back up to 13th.

Jeff Gordon had led the first 30 laps, but then Jamie McMurray had blown past him in scintillating form. However, a sluggish pit stop on lap 65 saw him passed by Matt Kenseth, whose pit crew played a blinder and put him out on track in the lead spot. Denny Hamlin and Elliott Sadler got pit lane speed penalties dumping them back to the end of the lead lap – but in Sadler’s case that was a moot point, as he had just been the recipient of the free pass.

Finally we got a good long stint of 72 green laps, with Kenseth holding the lead and McMurray recovering to second right behind him.

Then on lap 141, trouble hit two of the leading Chase contenders: Kyle Busch’s car suddenly started billowing smoke, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. spun from a blown right rear tyre that also did a lot of bodywork damage. Junior had been struggling in the long green flag stint and worked his way steadily backwards, and this clearly dumped him way down to the back of the field. Kyle’s car was still going, and given that there was little the crew could do with a broken valve, all they could do was keep going till the car quit, which it finally did on lap 172. Another abysmal day for one of the favourites for the Sprint Cup – now almost certainly out of the running despite dominating the Race for the Chase. He was clearly dejected in post-race interviews and even invoked the memory of 2006 when he finished dead last of the Chase contenders, and it was even worse coming the day after a dominant victory in the Nationwide race here.

The latest yellow was well timed for those still in the running, however, as it meant that everyone could make their next stop under caution. Earnhardt’s problems had proven that the tyres were very much at the end of their life expectancy.

This marked another scrappy stop-start sequence in the race: the yellow came out again on lap 156 when A.J. Allmendinger made contact with Kasey Kahne, leaving Allmendinger with some left-rear fender damage; then the yellow was out again on lap 161 when a lapped Robby Gordon washed up and made contact with Jamie McMurray, propelling McMurray into the wall and damaging the steering of the number 26, which was taken to the garage and emerged 16 laps down and forcing further long stops in pit road as the race went on; and on lap 170 when Sam Hornish Jr ended up getting loose behind Brian Vickers, clipping the wall into turn 4 with his rear fender which went flying, and then destablising the car so that Hornish went fully into the wall in turn 1.

Hornish brought out the next yellow, too, when he spun again and distributed sheet metal from his battered car onto the track. This time most of the leaders decided it was time to take the opportunity to pit, where race leader Matt Kenseth dropped a position to Carl Edwards who opted for only right-side tyres, but more importantly the new leader out on track was Jimmie Johnson who had opted to stay out. A shrewd gamble – as long as he didn’t have to pit under green later on. He led an unfamiliar lead pack line-up for Ryan Newman, David Blaney, AJ Allmendinger and Juan Montoya.

Unfortunately for Johnson and the others who stayed out, the race was back into extended caution-free running mode, and they had to pit under a green flag, putting him a lap and a half down. That put Edwards in the lead on lap 239 – the two-tyre strategy having worked very nicely for the 99 – followed by Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle.

Denny Hamlin hit the garage area on lap 243. He had been suffering from leaking fluids since lap 172 (which had sprayed all over poor Greg Biffle’s windscreen when he was running astern, leaving , and now had a flat right-rear tyre, so it was time for damage limitation. He resumed 37 laps down. Regan Smith also limped to the garage area with problems on lap 250 and ended up 33 laps down.

The good luck swung back in Johnson’s favour when no yellows had come out by lap 267 and the leaders, led by Edwards, Kenseth and Biffle also had to come in and make green flag stops, putting Johnson back in the lead again on lap 270, and that meant he was in perfect position when the green flag running finally came to an end on lap 290 for debris on turn 3. Everyone hit the pits this time, bringing the leaders back into sync, with Johnson just beating Edwards and Biffle out of pit road to resume the lead ahead of Matt Kenseth.

Johnson’s lead didn’t last long, with Biffle, Edwards, Kenseth and Mark Martin setting a blistering pace at the restart and quickly passing him. However, Biffle appeared to have prematurely cooked his tyres with that early burst and his handling went off, allowing Edwards to retake the lead on lap 321 followed by a flying Mark Martin. Kenseth however was struggling with a loose car and declared – with 55 laps to go – that “we’ve killed it.”

On lap 350, Juan Montoya obligingly brought out the yellow that the leaders wanted for one final pit stop (Montoya slammed into the wall and blew his front right tyre in the process.) Carl Edwards asked for four tyres – but his pit chief overruled him and he got only too, a controversial and risky move that at least saw him take the restart in first place ahead of Martin, whose rear end was kicking out on him with the new tyres and who quickly dropped two places to Kenseth and Biffle.

Edwards’ gamble didn’t pay off, and he was unable to keep Kenseth and Biffle behind him during a dozen laps of three-way nose-to-bumper racing that finally saw Edwards drop back (although the tyre disparity did seem to lessen towards the end of the race and Edwards once again became a factor – if not the leading contender any more – in the final laps.)

The last 20 laps were some of the best racing we’ve seen for some time in NASCAR, with Kenseth doing everything he could to keep the Biff behind him. But Greg had tested the limits of hsi tyres in the previous stint and knew how to hold  them back, ready for a final thrust inside the last ten laps just like last week in new Hampshire, and that’s exactly what he did. There was a heart stopping moment for Jack Roush as the two team mates bumped and threatened to throw each other into a wreck, but they held it together and Biffle eased away to take his second consecutive win – to jump him into equal second in the Sprint Cup championship with the best possible start to the Chase he could possibly have imagined.

And next week they head to Kansas, where Biffle won in 2007 albeit in controversial circumstances. A good omen for a Biffle hat-trick?

Pos St  Car Driver          Make        Pts/Bns Lap STATUS
1   5   16  Greg Biffle     Ford        190/5   400 Running
2   8   17  Matt Kenseth    Ford        180/10  400 Running
3   22  99  Carl Edwards    Ford        170/5   400 Running
4   2   8   Mark Martin     Chevrolet   160/0   400 Running
5   20  48  Jimmie Johnson  Chevrolet   160/5   400 Running
6   24  29  Kevin Harvick   Chevrolet   155/5   400 Running
7   1   24  Jeff Gordon     Chevrolet   151/5   400 Running
8   6   07  Clint Bowyer    Chevrolet   147/5   400 Running
9   21  31  Jeff Burton     Chevrolet   138/0   400 Running
10  40  55  Michael Waltrip Toyota      139/5   400 Running
11  33  20  Tony Stewart    Toyota      130/0   400 Running
12  37  22  Dave Blaney     Toyota      127/0   400 Running
13  19  12  Ryan Newman     Dodge       124/0   400 Running
14  42  43  Bobby Labonte   Dodge       121/0   400 Running
15  31  5   Casey Mears     Chevrolet   118/0   400 Running
16  30  84  AJ Allmendinger Toyota      115/0   400 Running
17  14  44  David Reutimann Toyota      112/0   398 Running
18  23  6   David Ragan     Ford        109/0   398 Running
19  7   38  David Gilliland Ford        106/0   398 Running
20  16  1   Martin Truex Jr.Chevrolet   103/0   398 Running
21  34  15  Paul Menard     Chevrolet   100/0   397 Running
22  41  7   Robby Gordon    Dodge        97/0   397 Running
23  15  28  Travis Kvapil   Ford         94/0   396 Running
24  10  88  Dale Earnhardt  Chevrolet    91/0   396 Running
25  32  66  Scott Riggs     Chevrolet    88/0   396 Running
26  36  9   Kasey Kahne     Dodge        85/0   396 Running
27  12  19  Elliott Sadler  Dodge        82/0   396 Running
28  13  70  Tony Raines     Chevrolet    79/0   395 Running
29  28  00  Michael McDowellToyota       76/0   394 Running
30  39  41  Reed Sorenson   Dodge        73/0   394 Running
31  18  83  Brian Vickers   Toyota       70/0   394 Running
32  29  21  Marcos Ambrose  Ford         67/0   394 Running
33  43  96  Ken Schrader    Toyota       64/0   393 Running
34  4   2   Kurt Busch      Dodge        61/0   393 Running
35  27  78  Joe Nemechek    Chevrolet    58/0   387 Running
36  9   26  Jamie McMurray  Ford         60/5   368 Running
37  26  01  Regan Smith *   Chevrolet    52/0   364 Running
38  3   11  Denny Hamlin    Toyota       49/0   361 Running
39  35  42  Juan Montoya    Dodge        46/0   351 In Pit
40  38  45  Kyle Petty      Dodge        43/0   348 Running
41  17  10  Patrick Carer * Dodge        40/0   347 Running
42  25  77  Sam Hornish Jr. Dodge        37/0   304 In Pit
43  11  18  Kyle Busch      ta           34/0   172 Out of Race

Chase For The Cup – Points Standing

Horrific day for Kyle Busch who has gone from leading coming into the Chase, to now running dead last. And Also for Denny Hamlin and Dale Earnhardt Jr who also had nightmare days and drop five places in the standings.

Pos Chg Driver              Pts   Gap     Starts  Poles Wins Top 5 Top 10
1   --  Carl Edwards        5390  Leader  28      1     6    13    21
2   --  Jimmie Johnson      5380  - 10    28      4     4    11    16
3   --  Greg Biffle         5380  - 10    28      2     2    10    13
4   +1  Jeff Burton         5308  - 82    28      0     1    5     14
5   +5  Kevin Harvick       5289  -101    28      0     0    6     14
6   +3  Clint Bowyer        5284  -106    28      0     1    4     13
7   --  Tony Stewart        5277  -113    28      0     0    9     14
8   +3  Jeff Gordon         5272  -118    28      3     0    9     13
9   -5  Dale Earnhardt Jr.  5261  -129    28      1     1    9     14
10  +2  Matt Kenseth        5223  -167    28      0     0    7     16
11  -5  Denny Hamlin        5197  -193    28      1     1    9     15
12  -4  Kyle Busch          5180  -210    28      2     8    15    17
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