NASCAR: Round 19 – LifeLock.com 400, Chicagoland Speedway, July 11

Things are starting to get serious in the Chase for the Spring Cup now. And this week’s outing at Chicagoland was to have a major effect on the fortunes of some of the leading names, as the points standings close up dramatically.

At the green flag, Brian Vickers took the initial lead from poll for Red Bull, but the 48 of Jimmie Johnson was clearly stronger and passed him on lap 10 for the lead. Vickers’ team mate Scott Speed lost a couple of spots at the start as he ran in unfamiliar territory at the sharp end of the field, but eventually slotted in behind Clint Bowyer and Mark Martin for 5th place.

With the sun still much in evidence and blinding drivers doing into turn 3 there was clearly going to be a lot of changes in car handling as the night came in. Surprisingly a lot of cars were very loose even this early on, with Kyle Busch memorably drifting into David Reutimann as the two of them duelled in the top ten, leaving some nice rubber marks on Kyle’s bodywork.

A yellow came out for debris on lap 39 allowing the field to stream in for pit stops. Mark Martin had been looking the fastest car on track in the preceding laps and his pit crew put in a performance to match, putting him out on track in the lead. Jimmie Johnson’s crew has a mishap with the jack and dropped six places, but was quick to recover and climb back to 2nd as Martin charged off into the distance.

Kyle Busch’s attempt to fix his handling problems at the pit stop proved a disaster, the car unmanageable in the next stint. The 18 car dropped out of the top ten and fell to 25th, the back of the lead lap, and was eventually lapped by the leader. No wonder he was first in to the pits when green flag stops began on lap 95 – not that it seemed to do the 18’s handling any good, however. Subsequently he would lose a cylinder in his engine and fall two laps off the lead – a dismal showing for last year’s winner here.

Kyle was not alone in having a bad day – Juan Montoya was also struggling, and Greg Biffle seemed to be attracting pit lane penalties at every opportunity. But among those having a good day were Kyle’s brother Kurt, along with Tony Stewart were among those making progress in the opposite direction, both climbing from poor qualifying positions into the top ten by the time the race hit lap 100.

After a second yellow for debris on lap 131, the race resumed at sunset with Mark Martin ahead of Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Tony Stewart and Brian Vickers; further back Jeff Gordon and Carl Edwards nearly wiped each other out and narrowly kept their cars off the wall. But no yellow was required and in fact the race then went green for the next 75 laps, including a frantic green flag pit stop sequence around lap 190, but the top five remained remarkably consistent with only Vickers dropping out and Denny Hamlin starting to work his way up and into the top three.

A third yellow came out very conveniently on lap 211 which meant that all the cars could pit one last time and be within striking distance for the finish with the fuel. The pit stops went according to plan with the exception of Tony Stewart, who exited missing a lugnut and had to come back on pit road again, dumping him down to 15th.

At the restart, Martin once again led the field away on lap 215: Johnson, Kahne, Hamlin and Bowyer rounded out the top five. But the green flag racing lasted a scant three laps before Sam Hornish got spun by contact with Joey Logano and sent skidding across the in-field grass until the front hit thudded up against the inside wall.

The green flag flew again on lap 226 and again lasted only three laps until another caution, but this time for a multi-car accident: it started when Dale Earnhardt Jr goot loose and moved up the track, compressing Paul Menard against the wall. The contact blew out Menard’s rear tyre and sent Menard spinning into the wall; the tyre debris was shot backwards and caused other cars to swerve into full-on slides in reaction, including a nasty impact between Scott Speed and Jeff Burton. Jamie McMurray was also involved.

At the restart on lap 232, it was Jimmie Johnson heading up the field – the 48 having sneaked past man of the day Mark Martin in the last brief burst of green flag running. Johnson took the outside line at the double file restart, and Martin got loose down on the inside line which not only allowed Johnson to break away into the distance but also allowed Brian Vickers to snatch second place from Martin at the same time. In all they then managed 14 green flag laps before the sixth caution of the day came out on lap 246, after Juan Montoya and David Reutimann made contact while battling for 12th, sending the double zero into a long scrape against the wall.

Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Newman, Brad Keselowski, Juan Montoya, Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick all chose to gamble for the benefit of fresh rubber over track position, and at the restart on lap 250 Johnson again led Vickers, Martin, Hamlin and Kahne back up to speed. But with just 17 laps to go to the end, this was the moment of do or die – and there were fireworks.

Hamlin pushed Johnson forward, but then Johnson got high and Hamlin was left making a side-by-side play with Vickers for the lead. The battle got physical, contact was made, and in the fall-out Mark Martin got past them both to reclaim the lead for himself once more. Meanwhile, behind the leaders, Johnson was still struggling not to fall back even further and ended up making contact with Kurt Busch; a tit-for-tat exchange followed which saw the two of them beat each other up and Kurt end up with a nasty tyre rub that sent him backwards down the running order, while Brad Keselowski got distracted by all the pushing and ended up against the wall himself. While it didn’t bring out the caution, it did send him to the back of the field and finally to pit road.

As a result of this shakeout, Jeff Gordon emerged in second place ahead of Denny Hamlin, with Kasey Kahne third, Johnson down to fifth, Vickers to seventh and Kurt Busch out of the top ten entirely. Still, none of this brought out a yellow – that was left to Kyle Busch at the back of the running order, whose engine had been struggling for some time since blowing a cylinder and which now gave up the ghost on lap 260, blowing up and sending the car skidding on spilled oil up into the wall at turn 3.

By the time the track was cleaned up, there were just two laps left to run. Mark Martin led them around and took the chequered flag, untroubled for the win as Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon tussled over second place, exchanging places twice in the last two laps before Gordon took the prize.

No question though about who had been in control of the race pretty much throughout: Mark Martin had once again proved that when it comes to winning NASCAR Sprint Cup events, age and experience are extremely potent and effective weapons. Once again, Martin’s in the Chase.

Race result

Pos  Driver             Car        Laps
 1.  Mark Martin        Chevrolet  267
 2.  Jeff Gordon        Chevrolet  267
 3.  Kasey Kahne        Dodge      267
 4.  Tony Stewart       Chevrolet  267
 5.  Denny Hamlin       Toyota     267
 6.  Ryan Newman        Chevrolet  267
 7.  Brian Vickers      Toyota     267
 8.  Jimmie Johnson     Chevrolet  267
 9.  Clint Bowyer       Chevrolet  267
10.  Juan Montoya       Chevrolet  267
11.  Marcos Ambrose     Toyota     267
12.  David Reutimann    Toyota     267
13.  AJ Allmendinger    Dodge      267
14.  Carl Edwards       Ford       267
15.  Dale Earnhardt Jr  Chevrolet  267
16.  Martin Truex Jr    Chevrolet  267
17.  Kurt Busch         Dodge      267
18.  Joey Logano        Toyota     267
19.  Kevin Harvick      Chevrolet  267
20.  Michael Waltrip    Toyota     266
21.  Bobby Labonte      Ford       266
22.  Jamie McMurray     Ford       266
23.  Matt Kenseth       Ford       266
24.  Reed Sorenson      Dodge      265
25.  David Ragan        Ford       265
26.  David Stremme      Dodge      265
27.  Elliott Sadler     Dodge      265
28.  Casey Mears        Chevrolet  265
29.  Bill Elliott       Ford       265
30.  John Andretti      Chevrolet  265
31.  Greg Biffle        Ford       265
32.  Brad Keselowski    Chevrolet  265
33.  Kyle Busch         Toyota     257
34.  Robby Gordon       Toyota     237
35.  Paul Menard        Ford       226
36.  Scott Speed        Toyota     226
37.  Jeff Burton        Chevrolet  224
38.  Sam Hornish Jr     Dodge      217
39.  Mike Skinner       Toyota     60
40.  Mike Bliss         Dodge      58
41.  Joe Nemechek       Toyota     30
42.  David Gilliland    Chevrolet  11
43.  Dave Blaney        Toyota     10

Sprint Cup standings

Mark Martin’s back in the Chase, but Greg Biffle falls out and Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch are getting awfully close to the cut-off line after a string of poor outings. Only 51pts separate Kasey Kahne in 8th place from 13th-placed Biffle, meaning it’s looking like a lottery as the number of races run out.

It’s worth noting that Martin has the most wins and bonus points – facts that would come into play in the event he makes the Chase.

    +/- DRIVER              PTS     BEHIND  ST  P   W   T5  T10
1   --  Tony Stewart        2884    Leader  19  0   2   11  15
2   --  Jeff Gordon         2709     -175   19  0   1   10  13
3   --  Jimmie Johnson      2672     -212   19  0   2   8   13
4   --  Kurt Busch          2526     -358   19  0   1   6   10
5   +1  Denny Hamlin        2457     -427   19  0   0   6   8
6   -1  Carl Edwards        2438     -446   19  0   0   5   9
7   --  Ryan Newman         2385     -499   19  1   0   5   9
8   +4  Kasey Kahne         2336     -548   19  0   1   3   7
9   +2  Juan Montoya        2321     -563   19  1   0   0   9
10  -2  Kyle Busch          2298     -586   19  1   3   4   6
11  +2  Mark Martin         2296     -588   19  3   4   5   9
12  -2  Matt Kenseth        2295     -589   19  1   2   4   7
======= CHASE FOR THE Sprint CUP - CURRENT CONTENDERS =======
13  -4  Greg Biffle         2285     -599   19  0   0   5   8
14  --  David Reutimann     2219     -665   19  2   1   4   5
15  +1  Clint Bowyer        2169     -715   19  0   0   3   7
16  +1  Brian Vickers       2149     -735   19  5   0   2   8
17  -2  Jeff Burton         2113     -771   19  0   0   2   6
18  --  Marcos Ambrose      2078     -806   19  0   0   2   5
19  --  Jamie McMurray      1960     -924   19  0   0   0   3
20  --  Joey Logano*        1956     -928   19  0   1   1   4
21  --  Dale Earnhardt Jr.  1928     -956   19  0   0   1   3
22  --  Casey Mears         1887     -997   19  0   0   0   2
23  --  Elliott Sadler      1881    -1003   19  0   0   1   3
24  --  Martin Truex Jr.    1845    -1039   19  1   0   0   3
25  +1  Kevin Harvick       1789    -1095   19  0   0   2   2
26  +1  Bobby Labonte       1779    -1105   19  0   0   1   1
27  +2  A.J. Allmendinger   1770    -1114   19  0   0   1   3
28  --  Reed Sorenson       1759    -1125   19  0   0   0   1
29  -4  Sam Hornish Jr.     1754    -1130   19  0   0   0   4
30  --  David Ragan         1708    -1176   19  0   0   0   1
31  +2  Michael Waltrip     1584    -1300   18  0   0   0   1
32  --  David Stremme       1584    -1300   19  0   0   0   0
33  -2  Paul Menard         1562    -1322   19  0   0   0   0
34  --  Robby Gordon        1529    -1355   19  0   0   1   1
35  +1  John Andretti       1274    -1610   17  0   0   0   0
36  -1  Scott Speed*        1273    -1611   18  0   0   1   1
37  --  David Gilliland     1064    -1820   18  0   0   0   0
38  --  Regan Smith          943    -1941   10  0   0   0   0
39  --  Brad Keselowski      787    -2097   7   0   1   1   3
40  --  Joe Nemechek         718    -2166   15  0   0   0   0
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