NASCAR – Bank of America 500, Lowe’s Motor Speedway – Sat Oct 11

Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Brian Vickers all dominated the race for long stints at various points and looked set to win the Bank of America 500 night race at Charlotte, but in the end it was a case of consistency and timing that won the day.

Johnson got off to a good start from pole position after qualifying was rained off at Lowe’s Motor Speedway and the starting order determined by points standing. He pulled out a big lead over Carl Edwards in second, but it was soon clear he was not the fastest car on track and Tony Stewart was cruising up from 7th to take the lead from Johnson on lap 32 as they made their way through back markers.

Jeff Gordon had already hit problems, brushing the wall twice before hitting it more emphatically on lap 5 and sending sparks flying. A visit to the pits to sort out the mess put him a lap down but didn’t bring out a yellow; however, Joe Nemechek’s right front puncture and abrupt visit to the wall on lap 43 most certainly did.

Johnson’s perfect pit position enabled him to get out in the lead once more while Stewart fell back to 4th. Edwards was restored to 2nd by the pit stops but any satisfaction was quickly dispelled when he reported a vibration shortly after the restart and had to be brought back in, going a lap down.

He was exiting the pit land when AJ Allmendinger tried to tread his car through a non-existent gap between Regan Smith and Chad McCumbee, clipped the back of Smith and spun right into a heavy impact with the wall. His race was done. “I feel like an idiot,” he said afterwards. “It’s not what they paid me to do. I wasn’t patient enough. I feel bad.”

Carl Edwards’ crew felt he should get the free pass as he was exiting the pit lane at the time, but NASCAR had frozen the running order before his exit put him a lap down and as a result they awarded it to Jeff Gordon instead. And when the cars came in for a second pit stop, the matter became academic anyway as more bad luck hit the 99 car: problems on the left front tyre forced Edwards to back up so the mechanic could check and tighten the lugnuts. And the, to add the final insult to the injury, his car developed ignition trouble under the next yellow and coasted to a halt, requiring a tow truck to come and pick him up. When the problem was finally sorted, he returned to the track 16 laps down – a huge impact on his Sprint Cup Chase standings.

That third yellow had come out on lap 64 after a mere four laps of green flag racing: Michael Waltrip had clipped the grass, bumped Mike Skinner up who in turn collected Ken Schrader and jammed both of them into the wall.

At the restart on lap 70, Jimmie Johnson led Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle, Jeff Burton and Kyle Busch away; it didn’t take long for Stewart to return to the front on lap 76 and he pulled out a huge lead as we got a decent green flag stint with 33 laps of racing, with his team mate Busch the next fastest car n track slipping past Johnson for second before the next yellow flew on lap 103. That was caused by Dale Earnhardt Jr who was a lap shy of coming in for a pit stop when his front right tyre blew and put him into the wall, the second Chase contender to have an a bad night; he returned after repairs, a distant 45 laps down.

Stewart was less comfortable with his latest set of tyres, getting very loose and surrendering the lead to Busch after the green flag and then losing further places to drop behind Johnson, Burton, David Ragan and Brian Vickers by the time the next yellow came out on lap 120 for a spin by Mike Wallace who got loose and grazed the wall.

Ryan Newman stayed out during the caution and inherited the lead ahead of Johnson, Burton, and Busch with Clint Bowyer in fifth ahead of Ragan and Vickers with Stewart now down to 8th and still struggling. of this pack it was Vickers who emerged as the strongest runner of the ensuing green flag period that lasted 62 laps, passing Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Newman for the lead on lap 134, stretching out an 8s gap over the rest of the field and keeping it right through green flag pit stops initiated by Jeff Burton on lap 175 and pretty much concluded by Vickers’ stop on lap 179, and which saw David Ragan and Regan Smith both caught speeding on pit road and served with drive-thru penalties.

The yellow for debris came out shortly after this on lap 187, so there was no need for the leaders to pit again so soon. The stops had reshuffled the familiar set of top runners so that Vickers was now leading Greg Biffle, Jeff Burton, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch at the restart.

It’s just not NASCAR without at least one multi-car wreck, and tonight this came on lap 194 when Paul Menard pushed Bill Elliott into Tony Raines, turning Raines into the wall while behind the incident Travis Kvapil made contact with Matt Kenseth sending them both into the wall with hard impacts, resulting in significant race-ending damage to both. Kasey Kahne got past the wrecking cars by inches: “Too close for comfort,” exclaimed his spotter over the radio.

This time the leaders pitted, with Martin Truex Jr opting to stay out and take the top spot for the restart ahead of two other non-stoppers, Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin. Jeff Burton and Greg Biffle led the group who had come in to pit row, running in 4th and 5th. The green flag lasted only long enough for Gordon to take the lead before the next yellow; several cars got loose and very sideways coming out of turn 4, most dramatically Jimmie Johnson who just about held it, but behind him Michael Waltrip was less successful and tapped Bobby Labonte, sending them both sliding across the grass and forcing Casey Mears to drive through the infield to avoid them. No lasting harm was done, however, and nothing obvious was found on the track to cause the sudden spate of handling problems in that part of the track.

At the restart, Jeff Gordon – his recovery from those horrible opening laps now well and truly accomplished – led the field to the green flag. He fought off Martin’s attempt to take the lead, and as the cars got up to full speeds again Martin fell prey to Greg Biffle who took up residence in second.

The race ran for 55 green laps at this point, although a caution was touch and go on lap 232 when Denny Hamlin got loose after a tap fro Clint Bowyer, lightly hitting the wall going into turn 2 and sustaining some right-rear damage – but he managed to keep the can under control and no yellow was necessary. Another driver getting up close and personal with the wall was Brian Vickers, making heavier impact than Hamlin but again managing to keep the car up high and off the racing line and bring it into the pits for running repairs, so that once again no yellow was needed.

With such an extended caution-free period, green flag pit stops loomed. Gordon surrendered the lead to Biffle to pit on lap 250, having stayed out under the previous yellow, but the rest of the field were only a few laps later coming in – starting with Biffle on lap 255

The pit stops were almost finished by the time the ninth yellow came out on lap 264 as a result of a tyre blow-out for Robby Gordon on the backstretch: he had flat spotted his tyres coming into pit road a couple of laps earlier but the crew had only been set up to change the right hand tyres, so it was the compromised left-front that consequently failed. The pit stops also saw drive-thru penalties for team mates Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch for breaking the speed limit, and a spin coming into pit lane by David Reutimann whose rear brakes locked solid when he tried to slow down at the entrance.

Reed Sorenson was leading at this point by virtue of not having made his pit stop, which he did now under yellow – along with Jeff Gordon who, despite only having stopped 15 lap earlier, opted to come in for a full set of tyres and fuel. Although it put him ito the back of the lead lap, there were only 12 cars in that group by this point so it was a reasonable gamble to take to give him the option of only taking two tyres at the final remaining stop.

That left Biffle in the lead of the race for the restart on lap 269 ahead of Burton, Mark Martin, Johnson and Bowyer. Burton had been hanging around the sharp end of the race all evening, rarely out of the top five, and you had to wonder what he had in reserve. After a few unsuccessful attempts, on lap 277 Burton finally showed his hand by driving around Biffle for the lead. Even though there were 57 laps to go to the end and at least one more pit stop, we had just seen our last lead change of the race.

Behind Burton, Kasey Kahne popped up in the top ten after a calm and assured run, nothing spectacular but always improving and moving forward. And already high up in 4th was Jamie McMurray, who was also having a strong late race, while Kurt Busch was also very embedded among the leaders in 8th while brother Kyle was stuck down in 13th after his pit lane penalty.

It was Kurt who contributed to the final yellow of the day when he got into a lengthy bump-and-grind with the number 42 of Juan Montoya. Montoya backed off and the incident appeared to have no repercussions, but a couple of laps later Montoya’s left front tyre blew and put him into the wall, bringing out the caution.

And now with 37 laps to go, it came down to strategy. It ranged from Jeff Burton – who took gas only and exited on his old tyres – to Jeff Gordon, who took gas and four brand new tyres. That assured Burton the lead ahead of Johnson who took the middle line of fuel and two tyres.

At the restart, Jimmie Johnson went all-out to take the lead from Burton, as they went side-by-side for several consecutive laps until finally Burton came out in front. Despite Johnson having the fresher tyres, it seemed that Johnson had overcooked his tyres and in the final ten laps of the race his handling went off badly, allowing him to sink from 2nd all the way back to 6th with big consequences for the Sprint Cup points standings – although 6th is still a solid day’s work and keeps him in firm control of the points standings.

As Burton cruised in front – with his pit chief gnawing his fingers worrying out fuel loads – it was Kasey Kahne who was proving to be the big surprise. He’d started off with an evil handling car, even going a lap down at one point and needing the lucky dog on lap 187, and he’d had that narrow escape at the multi-car wreck a few laps later. But in this final stint, with one final track bar adjustment during the pit stop, the team achieved the ideal result – a car that, with a few laps extra, would have claimed the win. As it was they were delighted with second.

“We just had some clean air,” said Kahne. “We got up towards the front – the car was pretty good. I was real loose into the corner, I tried catching him (Jeff Burton), but came up a little bit short. It was a fun run. This track is great. You can move all over and do a lot of things at this racetrack. It was a fun race. I wish we could have got him.”

Kurt Busch was equally thrilled by 3rd, while brother Kyle had an exceptionally strong final stint, recovering from his pit lane speeding penalty to power his way up to 4th place by the time the chequered flag flew, easily his best result of the Chase and finally giving him a more respectable position in the points standing after his disastrous start to the season climax.

But it was Burton who pulled off the no tyres, low fuel strategy for team owner Richard Childress. “Well, obviously it’s a big night for us,” Burton said. “(Crew chief) Scott Miller did a great job, made that call there at the end. That’s what won the race. More importantly, they got the car in the last two runs the best it was all night. We went up and passed Biffle for the lead, and never gave it back.

“Came on pit road, the guys did a great job with fuel. We picked up spots on pit road pretty much all night tonight. Had the car right at the right time. It all worked out for us.”

With Carl Edwards having a bad day, and Greg Biffle only managing 7th, it propelled Burton into second spot in the Sprint Cup. Things are getting mighty interesting as we hit the midway point of the Chase: only five races to go before we find out who the 2008 champion will be. Anyone NOT fancy a bet on Burton after tonight?

Pos  Driver              Car        Laps
 1.  Jeff Burton         Chevrolet   334
 2.  Kasey Kahne         Dodge       334
 3.  Kurt Busch          Dodge       334
 4.  Kyle Busch          Toyota      334
 5.  Jamie McMurray      Ford        334
 6.  Jimmie Johnson      Chevrolet   334
 7.  Greg Biffle         Ford        334
 8.  Jeff Gordon         Chevrolet   334
 9.  Mark Martin         Chevrolet   334
10.  David Ragan         Ford        334
11.  Tony Stewart        Toyota      334
12.  Clint Bowyer        Chevrolet   334
13.  Kevin Harvick       Chevrolet   334
14.  Martin Truex Jr     Chevrolet   334
15.  Reed Sorenson       Dodge       334
16.  Denny Hamlin        Toyota      334
17.  Bobby Labonte       Dodge       333
18.  Brian Vickers       Toyota      333
19.  Scott Riggs         Chevrolet   333
20.  Elliott Sadler      Dodge       333
21.  Ryan Newman         Dodge       333
22.  Sam Hornish Jr      Dodge       332
23.  Regan Smith         Chevrolet   332
24.  Michael Waltrip     Toyota      332
25.  David Gilliland     Ford        332
26.  Paul Menard         Chevrolet   331
27.  Dave Blaney         Toyota      331
28.  Bill Elliott        Ford        330
29.  Casey Mears         Chevrolet   330
30.  Robby Gordon        Dodge       328
31.  Mike Wallace        Dodge       326
32.  David Reutimann     Toyota      321
33.  Carl Edwards        Ford        317
34.  Juan Montoya        Dodge       296
35.  Chad McCumbee       Dodge       296
36.  Dale Earnhardt Jr   Chevrolet   289
37.  Joe Nemechek        Chevrolet   278
38.  Ken Schrader        Toyota      255
39.  Mike Skinner        Toyota      254
40.  Tony Raines         Chevrolet   203
41.  Matt Kenseth        Ford        194
42.  Travis Kvapil       Ford        194
43.  A.J. Allmendinger   Toyota       52

Chase For The Cup – Points Standing:

Pos  Driver              Change  Points
 1.  Jimmie Johnson               5878
 2.  Jeff Burton           +2     5809  + 69
 3.  Greg Biffle                  5792  + 86
 4.  Carl Edwards          -2     5710  +168
 5.  Clint Bowyer                 5693  +185
 6.  Kevin Harvick                5671  +207
 7.  Tony Stewart                 5650  +228
 8.  Jeff Gordon                  5633  +245
 9.  Kyle Busch            +2     5552  +326
10.  Dale Earnhardt Jr            5524  +354
11.  Matt Kenseth          -2     5518  +360
12.  Denny Hamlin                 5498  +380
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