NASCAR: Round 5 – Food City 500, Bristol Tennessee – 22 March

Bristol is unlike most of NASCAR’s venues: an incredibly short oval at just a half mile in length, it looks like a toy track and feels incredibly claustrophobic even when viewed on a TV screen. The cars are continually turning – drivers can literally get dizzy if racing goes green for longer than a hundred laps – and there are pits on both straights of the oval, so drivers and teams have to be incredibly switched on in the disorientating environment to avoid mistakes with big consequences.

The 50-year-old Mark Martin led the field away at the green flag, but he was quickly usurped at the front by Ryan Newman and then in second by Jimmie Johnson. Johnson then took the lead by deciding not to pit stop when the yellow came out for a slow speed spin by John Andretti on lap 27. The lapped Andretti brought out the second yellow as well when he drifted up into Dave Blaney’s car at the restart and spun the number 66 car at the head of the field – evasive action scattered the field but fortunately no one did any damage in the process. Blaney’s car impacted the water containers on the lead edge of the pit lane wall – a nasty little impact.

Todd Bodine was tapped into a heavy crash by Michael Waltrip coming off turn 4 on lap 60 to bring out the next yellow, and a number of cars including Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick had fairly minor impacts from the field compression that resulted. At the restart, Jimmie Johnson again headed the field – having led more laps already in this event that in the Sprint Cup season to date. But that came to an end for the time being on lap 70 when Kyle Busch used the outside line to get the better of the number 48.

The fourth yellow was on lap 123 when Jamie McMurray spun coming off Turn 1 after a disagreement with Juan Montoya: McMurray had knocked into Montoya, and the Columbian had taken his revenge, receiving a warning from NASCAR as a result. McMurray nonetheless managed to stay n the lead lap, despite getting friendly with the wall again following the restart: Kyle Busch continued in the lead followed by Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, David Reutimann, Marcus Ambrose and Jeff Gordon filling out the top six.

The fifth yellow came out on lap 189, and was once again triggered by Jamie McMurray who this time got into trouble, brushed the wall, saved it – and then was impacted by Sam Hornish Jr to finish the job. Kyle Busch stayed in the lead after the pit stops, followed by Johnson, Hamlin, Gordon, Ambrose and Montoya.

In a long midrace green flag stint lasting 123 laps, Clint Bowyer had worked his way up to 11th with some impressive “threading the needle” moves using a middle groove no one else seemed to know about between two cars in front in a great manoeuvre; while Tony Stewart was going in the other direction, falling to the 22ndh slot and complaining about a loose race car coming off the corners, and his team mate Ryan Newman also lost ground complaining about a vibration. Marcus Ambrose and Denny Hamlin had a bad tempered bump series of bumps before Hamlin finally took 3rd place on lap 249, while Jeff Gordon started falling backwards fast around lap 300 with a suspected front tyre issue, although he remained intent on not pitting prematurely unless he absolutely had to; and Greg Biffle started to fall back as well with a suspected cylinder problem in his engine. The green flag stayed out even when David Gilliland had a close encounter of the wall kind on lap 311.

Kyle Busch continued in the lead with a comfortable margin despite having to lap a lot of slow traffic in the process, lapping Dale Earnhardt Jr on lap 313 to leave only 17 cars on the lead lap at that point, but then Denny Hamlin cut the gap and swept around his team mate Kyle Busch (who was blocked by slow traffic) for the lead almost at the very instant the sixth yellow finally came out on lap 319 for a cut tyre on Brian Vickers’ car, to save the field from the rigors of a green flag pit stop round – the pit stop shuffle put Jimmie Johnson back in the lead ahead of both Hamlin and Busch. And Earnhardt promptly returned to the lead lap courtesy of the free pass.

In the next long green flag stint – 123 laps again – Johnson initially cemented his lead. Busch reasserted himself for 2nd place by nudging Hamlin out of the way on lap 357, and then caught and passed Johnson for the lead on lap 369. Greg Biffle retired on lap 360 – not for his rib injury as expected, but because his engine finally blew up. At the same time Marcos Ambrose started dropping back out of the top 5, telling his team that he suspected they were losing their engine too. With a hundred laps to go, the man on the move was Kasey Kahne who had worked his way up to 4th spot behind Busch, Johnson and Hamlin. Further back and Jeff Burton edged in front of Jeff Gordon for the 8th spot behind Martin, Ambrose and Newman.

With 58 laps to go to the end, Kevin Harvick’s car suddenly took off toward the wall with a tyre down to bring out the seventh caution just as the drivers were starting to get nervous again about possible green flag pit stops. Busch and Hamlin came out in front, while Johnson dropped to 5th behind Kahne and Martin in order to get some changes to fix increasingly tight handling. Oh, and for the second time tonight, Dale Earnhardt – who had just been lapped – got the lucky dog to return to the lead lap.

The next green flag stint lasted a mere 4 laps before David Stremme got loose going into turn 3 and spun, with an extra bit of help from Earnhardt. Once the restart came, Kyle again eased away into a comfortable lead with Hamlin just about staying in touch. Behind them, Kahne’s fine turn of speed came to an end and he found himself slumping from 3rd to 5th after coming out the loser from hard fought duels with Johnson and Gordon.

With Kyle looking assured of the win with ten to go, the only possible uncertainty/excitement came from the prospect of Kyle getting held up in slow backmarker traffic. But just as that started to materialise, the yellow was out for a blown engine in the number 20 car of Joey Logano with seven to go.

That left a short 30s two-lap blast in overtime to the chequered flag once the track went green again, and everyone was safe as long as they didn’t screw up the restart. No one did: Kyle controlled it perfectly to take the win, while Denny Hamlin held off a big challenge from Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon secured fourth place from Kasey Kahne.

Not the most exciting or incident-packed race, but very satisfying for Kyle Busch who makes it a trio of consecutive wins for Busch Bros Inc., and also a timely return to the podium positions for Johnson who has been rather underwhelming so far in 2009.

Race result

   ST CAR DRIVER              MAKE        PTS/BNS LAP STATUS
1  19 18  Kyle Busch          Toyota      195/10  503 Running
2  24 11  Denny Hamlin        Toyota      175/5   503 Running
3  3  48  Jimmie Johnson      Chevrolet   170/5   503 Running
4  10 24  Jeff Gordon         Chevrolet   160/0   503 Running
5  5  9   Kasey Kahne         Dodge       155/0   503 Running
6  1  5   Mark Martin         Chevrolet   155/5   503 Running
7  2  39  Ryan Newman         Chevrolet   151/5   503 Running
8  40 31  Jeff Burton         Chevrolet   142/0   503 Running
9  12 42  Juan Montoya        Chevrolet   138/0   503 Running
10 13 47  Marcos Ambrose      Toyota      139/5   503 Running
11 32 2   Kurt Busch          Dodge       130/0   503 Running
12 6  00  David Reutimann     Toyota      132/5   503 Running
13 31 33  Clint Bowyer        Chevrolet   124/0   503 Running
14 34 88  Dale Earnhardt Jr.  Chevrolet   121/0   503 Running
15 38 99  Carl Edwards        Ford        118/0   503 Running
16 26 44  A.J. Allmendinger   Dodge       115/0   503 Running
17 15 14  Tony Stewart        Chevrolet   112/0   503 Running
18 17 28  Travis Kvapil       Ford        109/0   503 Running
19 29 12  David Stremme       Dodge       106/0   503 Running
20 22 19  Elliott Sadler      Dodge       103/0   503 Running
21 35 7   Robby Gordon        Toyota      100/0   501 Running
22 36 96  Bobby Labonte       Ford        97/0    501 Running
23 7  43  Reed Sorenson       Dodge       94/0    501 Running
24 37 07  Casey Mears         Chevrolet   91/0    501 Running
25 42 98  Paul Menard         Ford        88/0    501 Running
26 20 1   Martin Truex Jr.    Chevrolet   85/0    501 Running
27 41 6   David Ragan         Ford        82/0    500 Running
28 11 82  Scott Speed *       Toyota      79/0    500 Running
29 27 83  Brian Vickers       Toyota      76/0    499 Running
30 30 29  Kevin Harvick       Chevrolet   73/0    499 Running
31 25 77  Sam Hornish Jr.     Dodge       70/0    499 Running
32 21 55  Michael Waltrip     Toyota      72/5    497 Running
33 33 17  Matt Kenseth        Ford        64/0    497 Running
34 39 34  John Andretti       Chevrolet   61/0    495 Running
35 18 8   Aric Almirola       Chevrolet   58/0    494 Running
36 14 171 David Gilliland     Chevrolet   55/0    493 Running
37 9  26  Jamie McMurray      Ford        52/0    491 Running
38 23 20  Joey Logano *       Toyota      49/0    490 In Pit
39 4  16  Greg Biffle         Ford        46/0    326 Out of Race
40 43 09  Sterling Marlin     Dodge       43/0    91  In Pit
41 28 187 Joe Nemechek        Toyota      40/0    82  In Pit
42 16 64  Todd Bodine         Toyota      37/0    58  In Pit
43 8  66  Dave Blaney         Toyota      34/0    33  Running
* Denotes Rookie

Sprint Cup Standings

    +/- DRIVER              PTS         ST  P   W   T5  T10
1   --  Jeff Gordon         794 Leader  5   0   0   3   4
2   +1  Kurt Busch          718 -76     5   0   1   2   3
3   -1  Clint Bowyer        715 -79     5   0   0   2   3
4   +3  Kyle Busch          709 -85     5   1   2   3   3
5   -1  Carl Edwards        665 -129    5   0   0   1   2
6   +3  Kasey Kahne         639 -155    5   0   0   1   2
7   -1  Tony Stewart        633 -161    5   0   0   0   3
8   +6  Denny Hamlin        631 -163    5   0   0   1   2
9   +4  Jimmie Johnson      627 -167    5   0   0   1   3
10  -5  Matt Kenseth        610 -184    5   0   2   2   2
11  +1  David Reutimann     607 -187    5   0   0   1   1
12  -4  Kevin Harvick       584 -210    5   0   0   2   2
CHASE FOR THE Sprint CUP - CURRENT CONTENDERS
13  +2  Jeff Burton         579 -215    5   0   0   1   2
14  -3  Brian Vickers       553 -241    5   1   0   1   3
15  +6  Juan Montoya        546 -248    5   0   0   0   1
16  +4  A.J. Allmendinger   532 -262    5   0   0   1   1
17  --  Elliott Sadler      530 -264    5   0   0   1   1
18  -8  Greg Biffle         526 -268    5   0   0   1   2
19  +5  Dale Earnhardt Jr.  518 -276    5   0   0   0   1
20  -1  Martin Truex Jr.    508 -286    5   1   0   0   1
21  -5  Michael Waltrip     506 -288    5   0   0   0   1
22  +4  David Stremme       502 -292    5   0   0   0   0
23  --  Bobby Labonte       500 -294    5   0   0   1   1
24  +4  Marcos Ambrose      500 -294    5   0   0   0   1
25  --  Casey Mears         488 -306    5   0   0   0   0
26  -4  David Ragan         487 -307    5   0   0   0   1
27  +5  Ryan Newman         475 -319    5   0   0   0   1
28  -10 Jamie McMurray      475 -319    5   0   0   0   1
29  -2  Reed Sorenson       457 -337    5   0   0   0   1
30  -1  Robby Gordon        442 -352    5   0   0   0   0
31  +3  Mark Martin         441 -353    5   2   0   0   1
32  -1  Sam Hornish Jr.     398 -396    5   0   0   0   0
33  -3  John Andretti       397 -397    5   0   0   0   0
34  -1  Joey Logano*        370 -424    5   0   0   0   0
35  +2  Scott Speed*        335 -459    5   0   0   0   0
36  -1  Aric Almirola       335 -459    5   0   0   0   0
37  -1  David Gilliland     331 -463    4   0   0   0   0
38  --  Paul Menard         326 -468    5   0   0   0   0
39  +1  Travis Kvapil       292 -502    4   0   0   0   0
40  -1  Regan Smith         206 -588    2   0   0   0   0
41  +2  Joe Nemechek        165 -629    4   0   0   0   0
42  -1  Bill Elliott        149 -645    2   0   0   0   0
43  -1  Scott Riggs         143 -651    2   0   0   0   0
44  +2  Dave Blaney         111 -683    3   0   0   0   0
45  -1  Jeremy Mayfield     104 -690    2   0   0   0   0
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