NASCAR: Round 15 – LifeLock 400, Michigan – 14 June

The LifeLock 400 was remarkably uneventful … and also entirely unremarkable for 199 laps. Dull, even. Except that it had a sting in the tale that made that all-important last lap a nail-biting classic sting-in-the-tail.

Kyle Busch quickly passed polesitter Brian Vickers for the lead at the start, shooting off like a canon; but his pace was shortlived and on lap 9 Jimmie Johnson caught him and breezed past to install the 48 into the lead. Kyle was reporting a problem with a vibration and continued to weaken, losing second place to his brother Kurt on lap 31. Meanwhile Jeff Gordon was scorching his way through the field: having started from the rear of the field after blowing an engine in practice, he was up to 17th by lap 34. Mark Martin (who had started 32nd), Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle were also big movers in the right direction.

Having running caution-free from the start, green flag pit stops started on lap 37 which put Kasey Kahne into second ahead of Kyle, Greg Biffle, Kurt and Tony Stewart forming the top six. They were joined during this part of the race by Juan Montoya, who displayed Kurt Busch who was starting to struggle in the Blue Deuce as the race progressed; and Greg Biffle took up residence in second spot, although there was no catching Jimmie Johnson at the front.

Finally the green flag run came to an end on lap 73 with a caution for debris perfectly timed for the second round of pit stops: there were 22 cars left on the lead lap by Johnson’s charge, with Ryan Newman getting the free pass to become the 23rd.

There was no pit road drama for Johnson, Biffle and Kahne who kept their places in the top three, while David Ragan gained five spots to come out behind 4th placed Montoya and ahead of 6th placed Kurt Busch. But Tony Stewart fell five places to 10th with a tyre change problem, and Kyle Busch fell out of the top ten altogether as the crew put in a track bar adjustment that left him 12th on track.

The restart on lap 77 once again saw the double file “shoot-out” style that NASCAR has switched to; no problem for Johnson who led from Biffle, while Montoya used the opportunity to snatch 3rd place from Kahne ahead of Kurt, Matt Kenseth and then the recovering Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch in 7th and 8th. Certainly the cautions having closed everyone up again combined with the new style of restarts makes things more entertaining.

Unfortunately, Johnson’s effortless dominance of the race was not exactly contributing to the excitement. As they reached the halfway point, Johnson was cruising over 2.5s ahead of Biffle and continued to do so until the next round of pit stops that commenced on lap 113, still under green. Carl Edwards stayed out a lap longer than Jimmie Johnson to become only the third person to lead the race all afternoon, but Johnson quickly took up residence at the front once Edwards came in.

Once the stops had worked themselves through, Biffle was still in second followed by Montoya, Kahne, Stewart, Hamlin and Kurt Busch with Edwards now in 8th. Further back, Jeff Gordon had climbed to 10th just ahead of Dale Earnhardt Jr, but Kyle Busch was struggling in a loose car that they seemed unable to cure and was down to 14th. Polesitter was back in 18th, and there were 21 cars on the lead lap.

Almost the minute the green flag stops were finished we got the second caution of the afternoon, once again for debris. Despite having only just completed a round of pit stops a few laps earlier, 13 of the 21 lead lap cars still came in to the pits, among them Kyle who desperately needed something to tighten up his car; Kahne and Gordon were also among those that decided to pit again. But those at the front – Johnson, Biffle and Montoya – were completely happy with their cars and saw no reason to return to pit road so soon.

The cars ran under green through to lap 150, whereupon David Stremme got loose off turn 4, spun and ended up sliding sideways into the heavily padded leading edge of the pit lane boundary wall. At this point, Johnson and Biffle were still in front, but Mark Martin had staged a craftily timed charge up to 3rd. Denny Hamlin had followed him through to 4th, the two of them displacing Montoya to 5th followed by Gordon, Stewart, Edwards, Kurt Busch and Kasey Kahne rounding out the top ten.

The pit stops shook up the running order: Hamlin had the best stop and claimed second behind Greg Biffle who led for the first time today; Johnson dropped to 3rd ahead of Martin, Gordon, Montoya, Stewart, Kahne, Kurt Busch and Jamie McMurray. Now the name of the game was fuel strategy, with only 45 laps to go in a race that had stayed predominantly green – could anyone make it all the way home without the need for another pit stop? It was unlikely, but we’ve seen wild gambles make off with the chequered flag before now.

Hamlin undid all the good pit work by spinning his tyres at the restart and dropping four spots, allowing Mark Martin to slip past both him and Jimmie Johnson to take up 2nd place behind Biffle and looking worryingly like the man who could wreck what had seemed to be Jimmie Johnson’s predestined cruise to victory.

Johnson finally edged out Martin for 2nd with 22 laps to go and started closing on Biffle for the lead, but things were getting tight on fuel for everyone as no further caution laps materialised. Johnson waited for the key moment to stage his move, and on lap 7 attempted to take the lead from Biffle only to find the 48 too loose to pull it off and the two nearly collided. Next lap around, however, Johnson pulled it off and when Biffle tried to take the lead back, he just didn’t have enough to pull it off. Johnson was indeed going to win.

Unless …

As the cars hit the final lap, Johnson suddenly slowed. When he started desperately weaving the car to try and pick up the last drops of fuel, there was no question: he was empty, and done. The gamble hadn’t worked. After leading for 146 of 200 laps, Johnson had failed to lead the most important lap of the day. Biffle sailed past into the lead, set for the chequered flag and a famous victory.

Unless …

Half a lap to go, and Biffle also suddenly slowed. He too started to weave desperately; he too was all out of luck.

Which left …

Mark Martin sailed past both Johnson and Biffle and took the chequered flag, a famous and entirely unexpected victory that had set an otherwise dull race on fire for at least the last of 200 hitherto turgid laps. And despite it all, Martin’s victory made it all worth while.

Biffle managed to crawl past the finish line in 5th place behind Gordon, Hamlin and Edwards which was reasonable reward; but poor Jimmie Johnson didn’t complete the final lap and as a result ended up classified 22nd, cruel luck indeed for the man who had completely dominated the day. But that’s motor racing, and for once the usually flawless Johnson/Knaus combo had called it wrong and paid the price. It does indeed happen to the best of us.

Race result

FIN ST  CAR DRIVER             MAKE        PTS/BNS LAPS STATUS
1   32  5   Mark Martin        Chevrolet   190/5   200  Running
2   27  24  Jeff Gordon        Chevrolet   170/0   200  Running
3   14  11  Denny Hamlin       Toyota      170/5   200  Running
4   29  99  Carl Edwards       Ford        165/5   200  Running
5   20  16  Greg Biffle        Ford        160/5   200  Running
6   7   42  Juan Montoya       Chevrolet   150/0   200  Running
7   11  14  Tony Stewart       Chevrolet   146/0   200  Running
8   5   2   Kurt Busch         Dodge       142/0   200  Running
9   1   83  Brian Vickers      Toyota      138/0   200  Running
10  9   33  Clint Bowyer       Chevrolet   134/0   200  Running
11  31  26  Jamie McMurray     Ford        130/0   200  Running
12  25  19  Elliott Sadler     Dodge       127/0   200  Running
13  2   18  Kyle Busch         Toyota      129/5   200  Running
14  30  88  Dale Earnhardt Jr. Chevrolet   121/0   200  Running
15  23  6   David Ragan        Ford        118/0   200  Running
16  15  21  Bill Elliott       Ford        115/0   200  Running
17  13  7   Robby Gordon       Toyota      112/0   200  Running
18  12  29  Kevin Harvick      Chevrolet   109/0   200  Running
19  4   00  David Reutimann    Toyota      106/0   200  Running
20  16  17  Matt Kenseth       Ford        103/0   200  Running
21  8   9   Kasey Kahne        Dodge       100/0   200  Running
22  3   48  Jimmie Johnson     Chevrolet   107/10  200  Running
23  18  39  Ryan Newman        Chevrolet   94/0    199  Running
24  37  07  Casey Mears        Chevrolet   91/0    199  Running
25  24  20  Joey Logano *      Toyota      88/0    199  Running
26  22  31  Jeff Burton        Chevrolet   85/0    199  Running
27  28  43  Reed Sorenson      Dodge       82/0    199  Running
28  17  96  Bobby Labonte      Ford        79/0    199  Running
29  34  77  Sam Hornish Jr.    Dodge       76/0    198  Running
30  36  55  Michael Waltrip    Toyota      73/0    198  Running
31  33  47  Marcos Ambrose     Toyota      70/0    198  Running
32  35  171 David Gilliland    Chevrolet   67/0    198  Running
33  10  34  John Andretti      Chevrolet   64/0    198  Running
34  38  98  Paul Menard        Ford        61/0    197  Running
35  43  113 Max Papis *        Toyota      58/0    193  Running
36  19  1   Martin Truex Jr.   Chevrolet   55/0    192  Running
37  21  82  Scott Speed *      Toyota      52/0    174  Running
38  26  12  David Stremme      Dodge       49/0    159  In Pit
39  6   44  A.J. Allmendinger  Dodge       46/0    144  Running
40  39  66  Dave Blaney        Toyota      43/0    23   Out 
41  42  09  Sterling Marlin    Dodge       40/0    23   Out 
42  40  187 Joe Nemechek       Toyota      37/0    20   Out 
43  41  37  Tony Raines        Dodge       34/0    17   Out 
* Denotes Rookie 

Sprint Cup Standings

His last gasp win puts Mark Martin firmly in the chase for the Sprint Cup, boosting him from 13th well into the safe area of 8th in the standings. David Reutimann is the casualty.

    +/- DRIVER            POINTS  BEHIND  ST  P   W   T5  T10
1   --  Tony Stewart      2189    Leader  15  0   1   7   11
2   --  Jeff Gordon       2142     -47    15  0   1   8   10
3   --  Jimmie Johnson    2047    -142    15  0   2   6   9
4   +1  Kurt Busch        1961    -228    15  0   1   4   8
5   -1  Ryan Newman       1934    -255    15  1   0   5   8
6   --  Carl Edwards      1927    -262    15  0   0   4   8
7   --  Greg Biffle       1913    -276    15  0   0   5   8
8   +5  Mark Martin       1868    -321    15  3   3   4   8
9   --  Kyle Busch        1860    -329    15  1   3   4   5
10  +2  Denny Hamlin      1849    -340    15  0   0   3   5
11  -3  Matt Kenseth      1848    -341    15  1   2   4   6
12  -2  Jeff Burton       1810    -379    15  0   0   2   6
CHASE FOR THE Sprint CUP - CURRENT CONTENDERS
13  -2  David Reutimann   1807    -382    15  2   1   3   4
14  +1  Juan Montoya      1767    -422    15  1   0   0   6
15  -1  Kasey Kahne       1719    -470    15  0   0   1   4
16  --  Clint Bowyer      1710    -479    15  0   0   3   5
17  --  Brian Vickers     1674    -515    15  3   0   2   6
18  +2  Dale Earnhardt Jr 1555    -634    15  0   0   1   3
19  +3  Jamie McMurray    1548    -641    15  0   0   0   3
20  -2  Marcos Ambrose    1539    -650    15  0   0   1   3
21  --  Casey Mears       1523    -666    15  0   0   0   2
22  -3  Martin Truex Jr   1502    -687    15  1   0   0   3
23  +3  Kevin Harvick     1461    -728    15  0   0   2   2
24  -1  Sam Hornish Jr    1447    -742    15  0   0   0   3
25  --  Joey Logano*      1445    -744    15  0   0   0   3
26  -2  Reed Sorenson     1444    -745    15  0   0   0   1
27  --  Elliott Sadler    1436    -753    15  0   0   1   1
28  +3  David Ragan       1383    -806    15  0   0   0   1
29  -1  Bobby Labonte     1371    -818    15  0   0   1   1
30  +2  Michael Waltrip   1338    -851    15  0   0   0   1
31  -2  AJ Allmendinger   1321    -868    15  0   0   1   2
32  -2  David Stremme     1316    -873    15  0   0   0   0
33  --  Paul Menard       1237    -952    15  0   0   0   0
34  --  Robby Gordon      1213    -976    15  0   0   1   1
35  --  Scott Speed*      1036    -1153   14  0   0   1   1
36  --  John Andretti      926    -1263   13  0   0   0   0
37  --  David Gilliland    874    -1315   14  0   0   0   0
38  --  Regan Smith        734    -1455   8   0   0   0   0
39  --  Joe Nemechek       592    -1597   12  0   0   0   0
40  +1  Dave Blaney        514    -1675   12  0   0   0   0
41  -1  Brad Keselowski    479    -1710   4   0   1   1   2
42  +2  Bill Elliott       461    -1728   5   0   0   0   0
43  -1  Aric Almirola      451    -1738   7   0   0   0   0
44  -1  Scott Riggs        448    -1741   8   0   0   0   0
45  --  Max Papis*         375    -1814   6   0   0   0   0
46  --  Travis Kvapil      292    -1897   4   0   0   0   0
47  --  Jeremy Mayfield    288    -1901   5   0   0   0   0
48  --  Tony Raines        239    -1950   6   0   0   0   0
49  +1  Sterling Marlin    209    -1980   5   0   0   0   0
50  -1  Mike Bliss         200    -1989   5   0   0   0   0
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