NASCAR – Dickies 500 – Texas Motor Speedway – Sunday Nov 2

While Jimmie Johnson once again faced early disaster and a long fight back, Carl Edwards looked to be sweeping to a win – until a late pit strategy miscalculation threw the race wide open.

In a surprisingly yellow flag-free race (there were only five period under caution at this notoriously incident-prone speedway), extended green flag running meant that everything came down to one thing: who had the right set-up and handling, and who did not?

It had very little to do with qualifying performance, let alone championship standings: polesitter Jeff Gordon, who had looked so hooked up on Friday, was struggling from the start and lost the lead to Clint Bowyer as early as lap 15, whereas David Reutimann starting from 12th was having a strong afternoon and by lap 48 was able to take the lead of the race from Bowyer as green flag pit stops began. Juan Montoya was also making up places hand over fist, cracking the top ten by lap 40 after starting a disappointing 26th.

But it was Carl Edwards who really stole the show in those laps. He’s only qualified 16th, but once the green flag pit stops were over it was Cousin Carl who emerged in the lead of the race on lap 55. And, save for the inevitable pit stop shuffles, that’s the way it stayed for the next two hundred laps.

But as good as Edwards’ day was going, it was looking very bad for the championship points leader: no matter what he tried, Jimmie Johnson was sliding backwards. By lap 95 he had fallen to 29th position, the lowest-running Chase contender, and was getting lapped by Edwards. While Johnson had managed to fight back from going a lap down last week, this time he simply didn’t seem to have the car under him to even consider a similar recover. Still, his pit boss Chad Knaus is the smartest guy on pit road and he knows never to give up, always to keep trying things, because you never know.

One of the variables in everyone’s mind was the changing conditions: the Dickies 500 straddles the twilight, changing from the warm afternoon sunshine to the chill of the pitch black evening. A lot of cars were using the early daylight laps as experimentation time, hoping that as the day wore on the track would come back to them. All they had to do was hold on till the track came to them.

The changing conditions didn’t seem to affect Edwards unduly – he sailed on regardless. And nothing much seemed to help Johnson. Everytime he’s emerge from the pits with new tyres and tweaked settings hoping this would be the stint when it would all come together, and it simply … didn’t. True, his fall down the running order was stopped, and he was able to hold position and make up the odd spot, but he never really looked like getting his lap back or even getting into the position for the free pass.

The changing conditions did help Kyle Busch, however. ‘Rowdy’ had started in 29th and moved up during the early laps but never looked like he was blazing a trail. As the race entered the final hundred laps, however, that pace had picked up and the positions gained here and there left him taking second from David Reutimann on lap 247 to run behind the longtime leader Carl Edwards. Was Kyle about to get his first Chase win after such a miserable initial few races?

Up to this point there had only been four yellows, and two of those for slightly nebulous ‘debris’ that felt more like NASCAR’s attempt to close up the field and give everyone a breather rather than genuine cautions. However the first yellow – on lap 57 – was for a very visible engine problem for Reed Sorenson that dumped oil on the track; and the most recent yellow on lap 247 was for a dramatic but harmless spin across the infield by Travis Kvapil after contact with Elliott Sadler.

The fifth yellow was the most dramatic of the day: there had been some bumping between Juan Montoya and David Gilliland who clearly had contrary views about who was doing what to whom. About what happened next, however, there was less doubt: on lap 263 Gilliland suddenly moved down and accelerated into the back of Montoya’s car, sustaining a heavy impact that crumpled the back of the Number 42 and sent it slamming into the wall. It looked like a very determined, very intentional revenge attack – and Gilliland was brought into the pits and told to park up as a result.

Gilliland tried to put the blame on his spotter for not warning him about Montoya driving past him on his inside: “It’s a shame we’ve got some tore up race cars and we got parked,” Gilliland said. “But I got up in front of him – my spotter said I was clear – and I kind of slid up in front of [Montoya] and he jacked my rear wheels off the ground going down the back straightaway and then got into me again going into turn one and two and jacked me up way up the track.

“I was trying to let him go and got a good run off the corner and just kind of misjudged it coming down across him. I was going to let him go, so I feel real bad for those guys. I guess they were running on the lead lap and now our team is parked.”

NASCAR officials didn’t believe him, and pulled him from the track. It was cold comfort to the Colombian, whose own car was wrecked beyond repair: “I was running high the lap before and he went inside of me,” Montoya said. “He (Gilliland) ran straight to the wall and I tried to get away. He put me into the wall. So I went into one and I punted him just a little bit to say, hey, you’re running like 50 laps behind. I hit him a little bit. If I had wanted to wreck him, I would have wrecked him. He came out of four and just wrecked us. It’s very disappointing. It has been great for everybody at Ganassi; we’ve got great cars now. It’s just frustrating to have that happen.”

Montoya had been running as high as fifth and was comfortably running among the top ten when the incident happened, but the retirement meant he was classified dead last in 43rd.

The yellow that this wreck brought out proved to be the most pivotal of the day. Edwards led the field in, took his regular four tyres and fuel – and suddenly found he was no longer in the lead, or even in the top five. Jamie McMurray, Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr, Dale Earnhardt Jr and Greg Biffle all opted to just take two (outside) tyres and it had allowed them to overtake the seemingly dominant Edwards.

Surely Edwards’ dominant form and his fresh full set of rubber would give him the edge? Well – no, it didn’t seem to. The cars on two new tyres were every bit as fast as Edwards and Busch on four new tyres, so tyre wear simply didn’t seem to be an issue. And these guys were proving a match in pace for Edwards in the chilly after-dark conditions. All of a sudden, Edwards’ seemingly undeniable win was in doubt all because he and his team didn’t see the two-tyre strategy coming from his rivals.

With some 69 laps to go from this pit stop to the end of the race, could Edwards undo the damage with his final pit stop or was this a race-losing blunder? It was starting to look like the latter, because when the final pit stops commenced Jamie McMurray, David Reutimann, Greg Biffle and the rest all came in purely for fuel and two tyres despite the length of green flag running they had now done on the inside set of rubber. And it still wasn’t affecting their pace.

That left Edwards in the lead, pending his pit stop, at which point he would drop to 6th or lower just as Kyle Busch had after running second to Edwards but who had made the same miscall in that crucial pit stop. And so Edwards did the only thing he could: he stayed out. Despite the fuel usage indicating that 50-55 laps was about the longest a car could stay out, Edwards was going to cut his pace back to an absolute minimum and see if he could eke it out an unprecedented 69 laps instead. No one really believed that was viable, and everyone was amazed that the one pit stop strategy miscall had meant that Edwards’ dominant drive had come down to this – a fuel conservation crawl to the line.

And so we waited for Edwards to run dry and for him to tumble down the standings and hand all those critical championship points he had looked like making up back to Jimmie Johnson, who was still stuck back in 15th. Dale Earnhardt Jr running in second was trying the same tactic, and sure enough he ran dry with 6 laps to go, limping into the pits for a splash and dash and falling all the way to 20th as a result.

Earnhardt’s team mate Jeff Gordon – the polesitter who had faded early on and never looked in contention – was joining Edwards in the great gamble and was running second. The laps counted down, and the backmarkers streamed past the cruising Edwards. But Edwards was still moving .. he hadn’t run dry … It was a true test of nerve, and everyone was holding their breath. The pit crew was trying to propel their man along by willpower alone if it would save on gas.

The chequered flag fell – and it was on the number 99 (with Gordon limping in behind him for an excellent second). Carl even had enough fuel in the tank to do a couple of donuts on the infield before heading to pit road. It was in every sense of the phrase a last gasp victory, but there’s no denying that any other victor here would have been very cruel on Edwards who had dominated the race so emphatically and for so long.

That in the end it had been a test of the whole team, of strategy and of nerve just made it somehow sweeter than if he’d just blasted his way to the win on the track by himself.

Race result:

Pos  Driver              Car        Laps
 1.  Carl Edwards        Ford        334
 2.  Jeff Gordon         Chevrolet   334
 3.  Jamie McMurray      Ford        334
 4.  Clint Bowyer        Chevrolet   334
 5.  Greg Biffle         Ford        334
 6.  Kyle Busch          Toyota      334
 7.  Kevin Harvick       Chevrolet   334
 8.  Martin Truex Jr     Chevrolet   334
 9.  Matt Kenseth        Ford        334
10.  David Reutimann     Toyota      334
11.  David Ragan         Ford        334
12.  Mark Martin         Chevrolet   334
13.  Jeff Burton         Chevrolet   333
14.  Casey Mears         Chevrolet   333
15.  Jimmie Johnson      Chevrolet   333
16.  Tony Stewart        Toyota      333
17.  Denny Hamlin        Toyota      333
18.  Brian Vickers       Toyota      332
19.  Brad Keselowski     Chevrolet   332
20.  Dale Earnhardt Jr   Chevrolet   332
21.  Marcos Ambrose      Toyota      332
22.  Paul Menard         Chevrolet   332
23.  Sam Hornish Jr      Dodge       332
24.  Kasey Kahne         Dodge       331
25.  Scott Riggs         Chevrolet   331
26.  A.J. Allmendinger   Dodge       331
27.  Michael Waltrip     Toyota      331
28.  Ryan Newman         Dodge       331
29.  Dave Blaney         Toyota      331
30.  Ken Schrader        Toyota      331
31.  Bill Elliott        Ford        330
32.  Travis Kvapil       Ford        330
33.  Scott Speed         Toyota      330
34.  Regan Smith         Chevrolet   329
35.  Elliott Sadler      Dodge       329
36.  Robby Gordon        Dodge       329
37.  Reed Sorenson       Dodge       328
38.  Joe Nemechek        Chevrolet   328
39.  Bobby Labonte       Dodge       328
40.  Joey Logano         Toyota      327
41.  Kurt Busch          Dodge       267
42.  David Gilliland     Ford        266
43.  Juan Montoya        Dodge       262

Chase For The Cup – Points Standing:

Pos  Driver              Change  Points
 1.  Jimmie Johnson               6366
 2.  Carl Edwards                 6260  +106
 3.  Greg Biffle                  6223  +143
 4.  Jeff Burton                  6154  +212
 5.  Jeff Gordon           +1     6111  +255
 6.  Clint Bowyer          +1     6099  +267
 7.  Kevin Harvick         -2     6087  +279
 8.  Matt Kenseth          +1     5973  +393
 9.  Tony Stewart          -1     5962  +404
10.  Kyle Busch            +2     5938  +428
11.  Dale Earnhardt Jr     -1     5937  +429
12.  Denny Hamlin          -1     5935  +431
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