NASCAR: Round 22 – Watkins Glen International – 10 August

Thunder and lightning rolled in at the stroke of race time on Sunday afternoon at Watkins Glen, causing drivers and fans to dive for cover and the start to be postponed till Monday for the second consecutive weekend. But on the Monday, things were much better- blue skies and dry track. NASCAR was good to go.

Jimmie Johnson led the field to the start line, but the double file start allowed Kurt Busch to get the jump on him and take the lead straight away, and the blue deuce was able to pull out a comfortable 2.6s lead over Johnson in just three laps.

Johnson wasn’t looking his normal self and was overtaken by Denny Hamlin for second on the following lap, and on lap 11 came under pressure from Marcos Ambrose, Ambrose first dipping his nose down the inside of the 48 early in the lap, and finally pulling off the move for good in turn 11. It was no surprise to hear Johnson subsequently complain of a really loose car – it showed, and Johnson was soon under pressure form Juan Montoya for 4th.

Johnson was saved by the bell – or the first caution of the day on lap 19, for debris on the interloop. Ambrose, Kasey Kahne and Reed Sorenson all opted not to pit but most of the rest came in for their first stop of the day; former leader Kurt Busch emerged back on track in 4th just ahead of his brother Kyle. Hamlin and Jeff Burton was less fortunate with their stops, getting handed a speeding penalty and sent to the back of the pack.

The restart was eventful, with Montoya shuffled to the outside and falling to 10th spot, Patrick Carpentier bumped into a spin in turn 11, but able to get going without triggering another yellow, and Kurt Busch taking third from Sorenson. In fact Sorenson wasn’t having a great time of it, losing 5th place as well when he was passed by an improved Johnson the following lap

The second caution was quick to came on lap 23, when David Stremme got onto the grass coming out of the busstop, spinning and collecting Kevin Harvick and Jeff Gordon in the process. Harvick came out worst and had to take his car to the garage. The caution opportunity lured Kasey Kahne and Reed Sorenson in from 3rd and 6th respectively, leaving Ambrose to lead Kurt and Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Boris Said to the green flag on lap 26.

Ambrose’s lead didn’t last long, with Kurt Busch passing the Aussie the next time through the start/finish straight. But both drivers were coming up on pit stops, with Busch in on lap 29 and Ambrose the next time around as both looked to fuel strategy – 30 laps meant they could just about make it to the end of the race on one more stop. Maybe. Busch opted for fuel and no tyres, giving him a 10s lead over Ambrose back on track; but Marcos had the fresh rubber and was faster, so he was able to work on lowering that gap.

Jimmie Johnson inherited the lead but was struggling with the handling of the 48, wobbling coming out of turn 11 and getting pounced on by Kyle Busch who took the lead on lap 34. Johnson also lost second place to Tony Stewart, who was starting to look confortable and threatening as the race wore on.

Lap 41 saw the third yellow of the afternoon: Dale Earnhardt Jr. lost his brakes trying an overtaking move on Reed Sorenson down the inside of turn 11, and hit the 43 hard on his way through the gravel trap and into a hard frontal impact with the tyre wall. Earnhardt was out, but Sorenson was luckier – he had been spun sideways by the initial impact which helped cut the speed he went into the tyre barrier with the car’s left hand side. He was able to get the car going, find a grass path through the gravel, and get back out on track.

The leaders – Kyle Busch, Stewart, Johnson, Greg Biffle and Boris Said – stayed out, while others including David Reutimann, Brian Vickers, Scott Speed, Joey Logano, Sam Hornish Jr. and David Ragan all pitted. Ambrose opted to come in, running far enough back that there was little to lose and much to gain in terms of fuel stop flexibility.

The track went green again on lap 45, with Tony Stewart taking the lead from Kyle Busch in the esses a lap later. With the cars coming up on the 35-to-go mark that meant they could pit and make it to the end, Boris Said came in on lap 49 with a serious overheating problem – the steam and water pouring out of the car like Old Faithful.

But the pit stops proper started on lap 54 with Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr.and Casey Mears on pit road. It came as a couple of incidents threatened a caution: Ryan Newman and Patrick Carpentier got together and spun into Turn 1 on lap 53 and Jimmie Johnson – still struggling with poor handling – also spun in Turn 1 the following lap. That perhaps startled some of the leaders including Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch into diving for the pit in case a caution came out, but the track stayed green throughout. That meant Kurt Busch inherited the lead for lap 57 before coming in for his own final stop next time around.

So far things had been relatively smooth and routine, but that was about to change. When things go wrong on a road course, they can go very wrong very quickly – as Sam Hornish Jr. was about to discover on lap 62.

Hornish was battling with Kasey Kahne into turn 9, with Kahne pushing Hornish right out to the edge of the track as he battled to maintain position. But then Kahne got loose, wobbled, and the effect was to barge Hornish completely off the track and full speed and straight into the angled tyre wall ahead. The tyres bounced Hornish right back onto the track, rotating wildly, and poor Jeff Gordon had no chance to avoid a high speed impact which destroyed both cars in an explosion of metal bodywork. Jeff Burton was also trapped on the inside against the arnco barrier as the wreck developed and got dragged into it, while Andy Lally and Joey Logano got caught by the debris raining down as they tried to get past the wreck itself.

With so much debris all over the place, NASCAR had no choice but to throw a red flag to get the place cleared up. But the good news was that despite the violence of the impact, all three drivers – even Hornish, whose car had been tossed around like a toy by the multiple impacts – were able to walk away.

Deep breath, and – resume.

In the prime position at the restart were Kyle Busch, Tony Stewart, Marcos Ambrose, Greg Biffle, Juan Montoya and Max Papis, but it wasn’t a great stint for Kyle: he opted to take the restart at the head of the outside line, but that was a mistake and allowed Stewart to take the lead into turn 1. A couple of laps later and Kyle outbraked himself into turn 10, locking his brakes and allowing both Marcos Ambrose and Greg Biffle to get past him.

It will have been a relief to Kyle when the fifth caution came out: Elliott Sadler spun and then got hit by Patrick Carpentier in the side. Both cars were able to get going without bringing out an immediate caution, but as he made his way to the pits Sadler’s tyre disintegrated and left the entire carcass lying out on the track, forcing NASCAR to throw a yellow for debris.

Kyle did better this time, taking third place back from Biffle in turn 2 to run third behind Stewart and Ambrose. Biffle also lost third place to Carl Edwards in the same move. Further back, Boris Said’s geyser-style overheating problem finally became terminal, the engine taking up smoking which was very bad for the health of their race prospects – the car headed for the garage.

Kyle’s fortunes took a knock on lap 80 when he ran wide and allowed Edwards to take 3rd place from him into turn 8, only just managing to hold off Biffle from coming through as well. But once the running settled into a pattern, Busch got more comfortable and the positions began to feel locked down for the duration of the race, unless there was some last curve ball courtesy of the weather, or cars running out of fuel, or a final caution.

None of these eventualities came to pass and the race ran untroubled from this point to the chequered flag, with no major developments. Stewart was able to take the win without any real last push from Ambrose who was having to nurse his fuel to the end, and Edwards was well in front of Busch who now had Biffle firmly under control.

Stewart still had enough fuel left in the tank to do a few celebratory burn-outs before celebrating with his team. They’re getting so good at this that it’s hard to remember that they’re a brand new outfit for 2009: it seems like they’ve been in victory road forever, doesn’t it?

Race result

Pos  Driver               Make        Laps
 1.  Tony Stewart         Chevrolet   90
 2.  Marcos Ambrose       Toyota      90
 3.  Carl Edwards         Ford        90
 4.  Kyle Busch           Toyota      90
 5.  Greg Biffle          Ford        90
 6.  Juan Montoya         Chevrolet   90
 7.  Kurt Busch           Dodge       90
 8.  Max Papis            Toyota      90
 9.  Clint Bowyer         Chevrolet   90
10.  Denny Hamlin         Toyota      90
11.  Brian Vickers        Toyota      90
12.  Jimmie Johnson       Chevrolet   90
13.  AJ Allmendinger      Dodge       90
14.  Matt Kenseth         Ford        90
15.  Casey Mears          Chevrolet   90
16.  Joey Logano          Toyota      90
17.  Kasey Kahne          Dodge       90
18.  Robby Gordon         Toyota      90
19.  Paul Menard          Ford        90
20.  Bobby Labonte        Ford        90
21.  Ryan Newman          Chevrolet   90
22.  Scott Speed          Toyota      90
23.  Mark Martin          Chevrolet   90
24.  David Ragan          Ford        90
25.  David Reutimann      Toyota      90
26.  David Stremme        Dodge       90
27.  Andy Lally           Chevrolet   90
28.  Martin Truex Jr      Chevrolet   90
29.  Ron Fellows          Chevrolet   84
30.  John Andretti        Chevrolet   84
31.  Reed Sorenson        Dodge       78
32.  Elliott Sadler       Dodge       78
33.  Patrick Carpentier   Toyota      78
34.  Boris Said           Ford        74
35.  Kevin Harvick        Chevrolet   68
36.  Sam Hornish Jr       Dodge       61
37.  Jeff Gordon          Chevrolet   61
38.  Jeff Burton          Chevrolet   61
39.  Dale Earnhardt Jr    Chevrolet   60
40.  Jamie McMurray       Ford        58
41.  PJ Jones             Toyota      13
42.  Dave Blaney          Toyota      11
43.  Tony Ave             Dodge        8

Sprint Cup Standings

It’s not quite a mathematical certainty, but Tony Stewart is all but assured of his seeding for the Sprint Cup series play-off with his third victory of the season and his fifth ever at Watkins Glen.

Despite his 4th place this weekend, Kyle Busch still sits outside a Chase position – and time is running out.

Pos Driver              Points
1   Tony Stewart        3383
2   Jimmie Johnson      3123
3   Jeff Gordon         3041
4   Kurt Busch          2902
5   Denny Hamlin        2847
6   Carl Edwards        2830
7   Juan Pablo Montoya  2781
8   Kasey Kahne         2754
9   Ryan Newman         2727
10  Greg Biffle         2718
11  Mark Martin         2716
12  Matt Kenseth        2685
==== Race for the Chase ====
13  Kyle Busch          2627
14  Brian Vickers       2589
15  Clint Bowyer        2586
16  David Reutimann     2530
17  Marcos Ambrose      2416
18  Jeff Burton         2350
19  Joey Logano         2280
20  Jamie McMurray      2206
21  Casey Mears         2204
22  Kevin Harvick       2124
23  Martin Truex Jr.    2117
24  A.J. Allmendinger   2109
25  Dale Earnhardt Jr.  2108
26  Elliott Sadler      2082
27  Bobby Labonte       2031
28  Sam Hornish Jr.     2021
29  Reed Sorenson       2011
30  David Ragan         1987
31  David Stremme       1856
32  Paul Menard         1829
33  Robby Gordon        1781
34  Michael Waltrip     1712
35  Scott Speed         1539
36  John Andretti       1492
37  David Gilliland     1187
38  Regan Smith          989
39  Joe Nemechek         798
40  Brad Keselowski      787
41  Dave Blaney          773
42  Massimiliano Papis   644
43  Bill Elliott         622
44  Aric Almirola        451
45  Scott Riggs          448
46  Tony Raines          389
47  Patrick Carpentier   351
48  Travis Kvapil        292
49  Jeremy Mayfield      288
50  Sterling Marlin      258
51  Mike Bliss           243
52  Ron Fellows          158
53  Terry Labonte        155
54  Boris Said           152
55  Mike Skinner         126
56  Todd Bodine          123
57  Andy Lally            82
58  Dexter Bean           55
59  P.J. Jones            40
60  Brandon Ash           40
61  Mike Wallace          34
61  Tony Ave              34
Pos Constructor Points
1   Chevrolet   171
2   Toyota      123
3   Ford        100
4   Dodge        90

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