NASCAR: Round 7 – Subway Fresh Fit 500, Phoenix International Raceway – 18 April

At 50, Mark Martin is one of the oldest racers in the NASCAR field. And despite taking several pole positions so far this season, race form itself had eluded him – it had been 97 races (since Kansas in October 2005) since his last race win. Did he have it in him to become the oldest-ever winner at Phoenix?

This is an atypical race: Phoenix International Speedway is a one mile oval, and run over the unusually short distance of just 312 laps. Added to this, the race unusually run over the evening so that the conditions range from late afternoon sunshine with deep shade in two of the four turns; through to early night time with temperatures dropping off rapidly as is usual for a desert setting, and cars changing from loose to tight in a heartbeat. The driver and team that wins here are the ones most able to chase the changing conditions.

The early part of the race before the sun sets is actually rather immaterial – or at least, is an exercise in not going a lap down while fine-tuning the car performance as the temperatures start to fall. So while Mark Martin got off to a perfect start, leading the first 54 laps under green, it was still early days and nothing for the number 5 team to get too excited about.

Kyle Busch started in second, but was complaining of a car that simply wouldn’t turn into the corners and slowly sank back through the field to 8th by the first caution. That last Martin’s nearest challengers as Kurt Busch, Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon, with David Reutimann taking up 5th.

The first caution came on lap 54 courtesy of Sterling Marlin sliding into the wall in turn 3 with a suspected tyre problem, and was ideal for the teams to make pit stops and start fine tuning adjustments into the cars. Mark Martin led for the next stint as well, but at the next set of pit stops (under yellow for debris on lap 102) Kurt Busch emerged from pit lane first and took the top spot.

Lap 138 saw David Stremme lose the car and spin off turn 2, exiting harmlessly onto the grass but bringing out the third caution of the day. Kurt Busch maintained the lead after the pit stops, but Martin Truex Jr popped up into second place courtesy of taking two wheels only and despite a near-miss in pit lane with Stremme.

Busch and Truex led Martin, Reutimann and Stewart away at the green flag, which lasted a scant 8 laps before the next caution on lap 151 for a spin by AJ Allmendinger who tapped the rear of Dale Earnhardt Jr’s car, spun and ended up backing into the wall and inflicting some rear-end damage on his car. It was a particular relief to Jeff Gordon who had been suffering from some severe tyre rub off every turn after clashing with Denny Hamlin and picking up some body work damage on the front left corner of the 24 car, and the caution gave him the chance to return to the pits and deal with the problem beaten out without losing the all-important lap.

There was another quick yellow on lap 167, after Michael Waltrip got loose into turn 4, overcorrected and collected Robby Gordon who got the worst of the deal and made heavy impact with the wall. Many of the cars took the opportunity to come in, although many of them (including Kurt and Kyle Busch, and Tony Stewart) opted for just 2 tyres to maintain track position. However Dale Earnhardt Jr – who had narrowly avoided going a lap down before the second caution period saved him – avoided the pits altogether and stayed out on track to inherit the race lead, joined by Marcos Ambrose, Jeff Gordon, David Stremme and Bobby Labonte, who had all stopped under the previous yellow just ten laps earlier and who also saw no need to return to the pits so soon.

While Earnhardt would hold the lead for some 50 laps, the rest of the non-stoppers were quickly shouldered aside by the ‘real’ front runners. With Kurt Busch suffering from the effects of hitting the wall on lap 175, it fell to his brother Kyle to lead the charge toward the front with the number 18 performing significantly better in the floodlit chill of the night time. But Busch started the feel the effects of only taking two tyres and of setting off at such a blistering pace, and as the 200th lap came around it was the number 6 of Tony Stewart that claimed second place and set its sights on the 99 of Dale Jr. some 4s in front. Mark Martin passed Busch a lap later, cannily keeping close to the back of Stewart while Stewart set about hunting down the leader. Finally on lap 220 Stewart did indeed take the lead from Earnhardt, who coming into the pits for some long overdue fresh tyres.

By lap 230, with no caution in sight, the cars that hadn’t stopped under the previous yellow had to come in for green flag pit stops, leaving them wide open if there was a yellow in the next few laps before the rest of the field had to come in. Jeff Gordon’s race was ruined at this point in any case, when he had to re-pit for a missing lugnut that put him an extra lap down. But to the relief of the early stoppers, no yellow appeared and ten laps later, the rest of the field duly had to follow suit under green. The gamble had worked, and it gave Earnhardt Jr back the lead after brief stints in front for Mark Martin, Jimmie Johnson and Brian Vickers while the pit stops cycled through.

But Earnhardt was having problems, the new set of tyres causing him all kinds of grief. He lost the lead to Martin on lap 255 and continued to drop through the field from there, falling to 8th place just ten laps later before stopping the rot. And finally on lap 300 the handling got away from Dale, he bumped Casey Mears – and spun into the wall, bringing out the 6th and final caution of the day and bringing a 128 lap green flag stint to a finish. Dale was unhappy, and after the race conclusion deliberately tipped Mears into a spin on the misnamed “cool down” lap, only for Mears to catch up and deliberately run into the back of the 99 as the cars came to the pits. Temper temper, boys!

With the exception of Ryan Newman, all the lead cars came in fo a final pit stop to get fresh rubber. Martin narrowly beat Kyle Busch out of the pits, but Kyle was judged to have exceeded the pit lane speed limit and penalised as a result, bumping him all the way back to 17th. And Newman was no problem for Martin at the restart, the number 5 blasting past at the green flag to put the win beyond doubt.

Finally, the perennial runner-up was victorious once again, and everyone seemed delighted for Mark Martin.

Race result

Pos  Driver               Make        Laps
 1.  Mark Martin          Chevrolet   312
 2.  Tony Stewart         Chevrolet   312
 3.  Kurt Busch           Dodge       312
 4.  Jimmie Johnson       Chevrolet   312
 5.  Greg Biffle          Ford        312
 6.  Denny Hamlin         Toyota      312
 7.  Martin Truex Jr      Chevrolet   312
 8.  David Reutimann      Toyota      312
 9.  Sam Hornish Jr       Dodge       312
10.  Carl Edwards         Ford        312
11.  Jamie McMurray       Ford        312
12.  Reed Sorenson        Dodge       312
13.  Kasey Kahne          Dodge       312
14.  Marcos Ambrose       Toyota      312
15.  Jeff Burton          Chevrolet   312
16.  Ryan Newman          Chevrolet   312
17.  Kyle Busch           Toyota      312
18.  David Stremme        Dodge       311
19.  Brian Vickers        Toyota      311
20.  Casey Mears          Chevrolet   311
21.  Joey Logano          Toyota      311
22.  David Ragan          Ford        311
23.  Paul Menard          Ford        311
24.  Juan Montoya         Chevrolet   311
25.  Jeff Gordon          Chevrolet   311
26.  Clint Bowyer         Chevrolet   311
27.  Matt Kenseth         Ford        311
28.  Regan Smith          Chevrolet   311
29.  Bobby Labonte        Ford        311
30.  Kevin Harvick        Chevrolet   311
31.  Dale Earnhardt Jr    Chevrolet   310
32.  Elliott Sadler       Dodge       310
33.  David Gilliland      Chevrolet   310
34.  Scott Speed          Toyota      310
35.  AJ Allmendinger      Dodge       309
36.  Scott Riggs          Toyota      307
37.  Michael Waltrip      Toyota      307
38.  John Andretti        Chevrolet   307
39.  Robby Gordon         Toyota      243
40.  Sterling Marlin      Dodge       117
41.  Joe Nemechek         Toyota       76
42.  Dave Blaney          Toyota       59
43.  Tony Raines          Dodge        56

Sprint Cup standings

    +/- DRIVER              PTS     GAP     ST  P   W   T5  T10
1   --  Jeff Gordon         1242    Leader  8   0   1   5   6
2   --  Jimmie Johnson      1157    -85     8   0   1   4   6
3   --  Kurt Busch          1144    -98     8   0   1   3   5
4   +1  Tony Stewart        1138    -104    8   0   0   3   6
5   +1  Denny Hamlin        1088    -154    8   0   0   2   4
6   -2  Clint Bowyer        1052    -190    8   0   0   3   4
7   --  Kyle Busch          1026    -216    8   1   2   3   3
8   --  Carl Edwards        1023    -219    8   0   0   1   4
9   +2  David Reutimann      992    -250    8   1   0   1   2
10  --  Kasey Kahne          975    -267    8   0   0   1   2
11  +1  Jeff Burton          953    -289    8   0   0   1   3
12  -3  Matt Kenseth         946    -296    8   0   2   3   3
CHASE FOR THE Sprint CUP - CURRENT CONTENDERS
13  +5  Mark Martin          937    -305    8   3   1   1   4
14  +1  Greg Biffle          930    -312    8   0   0   3   4
15  -2  Juan Montoya         910    -332    8   0   0   0   2
16  -2  Kevin Harvick        869    -373    8   0   0   2   2
17  --  Ryan Newman          863    -379    8   0   0   0   2
18  +1  Brian Vickers        848    -394    8   1   0   1   3
19  -3  Dale Earnhardt Jr.   843    -399    8   0   0   0   2
20  +2  David Stremme        829    -413    8   0   0   0   0
21  +3  Martin Truex Jr.     818    -424    8   1   0   0   2
22  +1  Casey Mears          791    -451    8   0   0   0   0
23  -3  A.J. Allmendinger    789    -453    8   0   0   1   2
24  +3  Jamie McMurray       788    -454    8   0   0   0   2
25  -4  Michael Waltrip      778    -464    8   0   0   0   1
26  +2  Marcos Ambrose       777    -465    8   0   0   0   1
27  +3  Reed Sorenson        751    -491    8   0   0   0   1
28  -2  Bobby Labonte        744    -498    8   0   0   1   1
29  -4  Elliott Sadler       734    -508    8   0   0   1   1
30  -1  David Ragan          723    -519    8   0   0   0   1
31  --  Sam Hornish Jr.      709    -533    8   0   0   0   1
32  --  Paul Menard          637    -605    8   0   0   0   0
33  +2  Joey Logano*         610    -632    8   0   0   0   0
34  -1  John Andretti        589    -653    8   0   0   0   0
35  -1  Robby Gordon         577    -665    8   0   0   0   0
36  --  David Gilliland      526    -716    7   0   0   0   0
37  --  Aric Almirola        451    -791    7   0   0   0   0
38  --  Scott Speed*         447    -795    7   0   0   0   0
39  +1  Regan Smith          355    -887    4   0   0   0   0
40  -1  Travis Kvapil        292    -950    4   0   0   0   0
41  +1  Scott Riggs          271    -971    4   0   0   0   0
42  +1  Joe Nemechek         245    -997    6   0   0   0   0
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