NASCAR: Round 24 – Sharpie 500, Bristol Motor Speedway – 22 August

The night race on the half mile short oval at Bristol has something of a reputation to it: a real concrete crucible of motorsport, a modern day gladiatorial coliseum where the high banking and claustrophobic conditions promise serious racing action. And even in these hard times financially, Bristol Motor Speedway was once again a sell-out capacity crowd.

Mark Martin had won pole for this, his 1,000th outing, giving him an excellent chance of improving his odds of staying in the Chase as we get close to the cut-off. He led Greg Biffle and Scott Speed to the green flag under the setting sun and glittering spotlights, but Martin quickly got overtaken by both Biffle and Speed as he struggled with a loose car.

Joey Logano found himself at the centre of two early incidents – rear-ended by Dave Blaney on lap 4, and then tapped into a spin against the wall on lap 11 by contact with Reed Sorenson resulting in a blown front left tyre and some bodywork damage. That brought out the first caution of the way, but there were few leaders opting to pit – Tony Stewart in 25th was the highest-placed car to come in – twice – in a vain attempt to fix a problem with his radio affecting car-to-pit comms, which put him a lap down.

Greg Biffle continued to lead ahead of a hard fought battle between Mark Martin and Matt Kenseth for second, with Kurt Busch, Clint Bowyer and Juan Montoya close behind. The race went green until lap 64 whereupon Denny Hamlin – who had surged from 41st at the start to 23rd position – had a tyre go down bringing out the second caution of the night.

This time there were pit stops all around. Biffle emerged back into the lead, but Kenseth dropped three positions in the process and came out 5th. At the restart, Martin was instantly challenging for the lead and the loose handling of the opening laps was well and truly a thing of the past: he finally took the top spot on lap 78. Biffle lost places to Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson, while Kenseth was struggling in this stage of the race and fell to the back of the top ten with tyre air pressure problems affecting handling.

AJ Allmendinger brought out the 3rd caution on lap 135 when his brake rotor shattered, cutting his tyre and laying some debris on the track. After pit stops, Mark Martin continued to lead at the green flag followed by Kurt Busch, Biffle, Jimmie Johnson, Montoya and David Reutimann.

The fourth caution came on lap 163 after Bobby Labonte spun, but fortunately with only the lightest of contact against the infield wall. Matt Kenseth in 10th was the highest-placed driver to pit this time around as he continued to try and fix the handling problems that had been plaguing him, meaning that the restart saw Martin, Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson lead the start, only to come under a blitz attack from Kyle Busch forcing his way into the top three: the brothers had a couple of contacts in the process, showing no love lost between family.

Behind them, a new threat was arising – Marcos Ambrose was storming through, first passing Johnson (radioing in a cheeky “Jimmie Who?!” as he did so) and then separating the bickering Busch brothers by passing Kyle for third. By now, Martin and Kurt was deeply mired in traffic and Ambrose was quickly up to them, making a tight three-way battle for the lead. Further back, another man on the move was Martin Truex Jr., up 21 spots to 8th since getting a pit lane speed penalty back on lap 138 and getting sent to the back of the lead lap.

Mid race, and Martin was still looking invincible outside of backmarkers, followed by Kurt, Ambrose, Kyle, Johnson, Truex Jr up to 6th and then Jamie McMurray and Jouan Pablo Montoya in 8th.

A caution followed shortly afterwards on lap 255 after John Andretti headed up to the wall; although he was able to recover to the pits, he left debris on track that brought out a caution some five laps later. The leaders came in for fresh rubber, and at the restart it was once again Martin who led, this time followed by Johnson, Kurt, Truex Jr., Kyle – and Ambrose falling to 6th after a sluggish stop by the 47 pit crew. Kurt lost several spots at the restart, distracted by a tearaway that was only partially removed in the pits and which now flew off as the cars got back up to speed; he dropped to 5th, leaving Johnson and Truex Jr. battling for the second spot.

Johnson won that one – and then swept past Martin to become the third driver to lead the race today on lap 274 only for Martin to quickly take the position back on the following lap – a nice bit of synchronised teamwork to get Johnson the extra 5pts for leading a lap, but somewhat grudgingly on Martin’s part from the sound of the radio comms. Johnson took the lead again on lap 317 after Martin got caught up behind lapped traffic, and this time Martin wasn’t able to immediately respond. The lapped traffic included Jeff Gordon, who was struggling and has lost more than a dozen places after coming together with the 11 of Denny Hamlin around lap 279, picking up a tyre rub and bodywork damage affecting handling.

Far from storming back in front, Martin now found himself under pressure from Kurt Busch for the second spot, until Kurt himself fell prey to his brother Kyle who was back in the frame and determined to push his way into the top three on lap 342.

Just as green flag pit stops looked likely after 90 laps of caution-free racing, David Gilliland obligingly look off and hit the wall on lap 355 to bring out the sixth caution, particularly welcomed by last week’s race winner Brian Vickers who had just gone a lap down and who now got the free pass. Kyle got revenge on his brother by leapfrogging him in the pits, but Johnson still led ahead of Martin Kurt, Kyle, Hamlin, Truex Jr., Ambrose – and early leader Biffle in 8th. Now everyone technically had enough fuel to makeit to the end of the race without another pit stop – but would the siren call of fresh rubber prove more important than staying out if there was another caution?

Kyle briefly burst through to 2nd position at the restart before getting slapped down again by Martin, but there was no stopping Johnson in the lead now – he was doing a much better job of disposing of the laped traffic than Martin had done in earlier laps, even risking threading through the middle of a three-wide move to lap Brian Vickers on lap 398.

As the race hit 80 to go, the seventh caution of the evening came out (incidentally giving Vickers the free pass for the second time this race) – and it was for rain. That’s despite the forecasts having put the chance of rain at less than 10%, not unlike last week which saw the race delayed a whole day by “10% rain”. Now the leaders had to roll the dice – risk staying out for position, or come in for fresh tyres? Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief Chad Knaus called the 48 in for four new tyres, setting the tone for the leaders, but it didn’t go smoothly for Johnson who had to pit a second time for a replacement right rear tyre after the first one didn’t go on properly, a potential disaster for the race leader as it put him to the back of the lead lap in 21st position.

Michael Waltrip opted to stay out – a triumph of hope over sense in case the race was called at this point – and Ryan Newman climbed ten places to second place after opting for two tyres only while everyone else took four. Behind those two we had the familiar line up of Martin, Kyle and Kurt Busch and Juan Montoya in 6th followed by Dale Earnhardt Jr and Marcos Ambrose. Despite concerns that the race was still a bit too slick, the green flag was thrown on lap 431.

Kyle Busch again got a great burst from the second row at the double file restart and led for the first time of the day. His brother Kurt had a considerably worse time and fell back to 11th, when a series of minor touches sparked off a multi-car incident on lap 438: Sam Hornish Jr. bumped Casey Mears causing Mears to get into Kurt Busch turning Busch around causing some serious damage to the blue deuce; Kevin Harvick also got some serious damage from a separate incident ahead of this with Jamie McMurray, while Jimmie Johnson and Clint Bowyer were also involved. A disillusioned Johnson pitted again for another set of fresh tyres – a “why not?” move more than anything – while Tony Stewart’s dire evening went from bad to worse when the 14 died out on track and had to be pushed back into the pit lane by a NASCAR truck to be refired.

So, Kyle Busch led the field back to green flag racing on lap 450 and blasted off into the distance as Martin and Newman battled over third behind Montoya holding up the rest of the field. Montoya got loose and started to drop like a stone, but the green stint was short as Sam Hornish Jr. skidded up into the wall on lap 457 after his engine started overheating and shed water onto his front tyres.

Another restart, then, on lap 463 and again Kyle took off like a rocket – but this time, Martin went with him and stayed glued to the 18’s rear fender. Further back, Montoya’s problems continued as the entire field streamed past him, forcing the Colombian to bring the 42 into the pits for an emergency two-tyre change for a suspected puncture. Even worse off was Truex Jr. whose front left tyre blew out after contact with Jamie McMurray, causing extensive bodywork damage to the number 1 and resulting in the tenth caution of the night on lap 478.

Inching its way to full race distance, time for another restart on lap 486, with Kyle getting a lead over the battle between Mark Martin and Greg Biffle for second spot. But again, racing was short-lived with another caution out on lap 491 when Michael Waltrip had a tyre blow out after rubbing with David Reutimann, spinning him into the wall; as Waltrip came to rest, Clint Bowyer spun trying to avoid him and instead ended up backing straight into the stationary 55 causing extensive damage to Waltrip’s car which started to shed fluids down the banking.

With only eight laps to run and so much to clean up, NASCAR had no option but to throw a red flag to allow the crews to do their work. And just to add a little extra spice to things, it was also raining again! Tension was high, mixed with a tinge of frustration at the stop-start nature of the closing laps: “Man why did they have to wreck?” wailed Martin. “Wish we coulda just raced for it. Instead of all this jockeying.”

So the straightaway under the red flag, the cars were parked up with Kyle Busch ahead of Martin, Biffle, Ambrose, Earnhardt Jr., Hamlin, Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman – with Jimmie Johnson dangerously lurking in 9th having made his way up from 21st despite the stop-start nature of the most recent laps. FInally the cars re-fired after ten minutes of inactivity and started to circulate under the yellow once more: it would give them only four laps of green flag racing to the chequered flag, so it was little more than a final one minute burst of racing action.

This time, Kyle wasn’t able to break Mark Martin at the restart, and Martin was right on the back of the 18 as they got away from the rest of the field. It was a two-horse race, and as martin put his nose down the inside time and again it looked as though he had it – only for Kyle to emerge out of the turn in front again. If Martin wasn’t so much of a gentlemen and prepared to tap Kyle into a spin, he could have won it; but that’s not his style, and he played utterly fair – even if that meant Kyle Busch took the chequered flag ahead of him.

The 18 crew and driver were ecstatic: it was the result they needed to keep their hopes of making the Chase alive. Game very much on for Kyle, while for Martin any disappointment about not taking the win can be weighed against a result that boosts him two spots in the standings and relative safety,

Just two races to go before the Chase is decided; but you have to wait two weeks to the next one!

Race results

Pos  Driver              Make        Laps
 1.  Kyle Busch          Toyota      500
 2.  Mark Martin         Chevrolet   500
 3.  Marcos Ambrose      Toyota      500
 4.  Greg Biffle         Ford        500
 5.  Denny Hamlin        Toyota      500
 6.  Ryan Newman         Chevrolet   500
 7.  Kurt Busch          Dodge       500
 8.  Jimmie Johnson      Chevrolet   500
 9.  Dale Earnhardt Jr   Chevrolet   500
10.  Matt Kenseth        Ford        500
11.  Jamie McMurray      Ford        500
12.  Brian Vickers       Toyota      500
13.  Casey Mears         Chevrolet   500
14.  David Ragan         Ford        500
15.  Scott Speed         Toyota      500
16.  Carl Edwards        Ford        500
17.  David Reutimann     Toyota      500
18.  Jeff Burton         Chevrolet   500
19.  Reed Sorenson       Dodge       500
20.  David Stremme       Dodge       500
21.  Clint Bowyer        Chevrolet   500
22.  Martin Truex Jr     Chevrolet   500
23.  Jeff Gordon         Chevrolet   499
24.  Paul Menard         Ford        498
25.  Juan Montoya        Chevrolet   498
26.  Elliott Sadler      Dodge       498
27.  Regan Smith         Chevrolet   498
28.  Kasey Kahne         Dodge       497
29.  Scott Wimmer        Chevrolet   496
30.  John Andretti       Chevrolet   494
31.  Michael Waltrip     Toyota      490
32.  Robby Gordon        Toyota      490
33.  Tony Stewart        Chevrolet   489
34.  Joey Logano         Toyota      484
35.  Sam Hornish Jr      Dodge       472
36.  Bobby Labonte       Ford        461
37.  AJ Allmendinger     Dodge       452
38.  Kevin Harvick       Chevrolet   438
39.  David Gilliland     Chevrolet   354
40.  Terry Labonte       Toyota      244
41.  Joe Nemechek        Toyota       48
42.  Tony Raines         Dodge        27
43.  Dave Blaney         Toyota        8

Sprint Cup standings

The victory was vital for Kyle Busch, who jumps up to 13th spot in the standings with just two races to go, and only 34ths adrift of the all-important 12th spot. Not only was the victory a sweet one for Busch, but the relative poor showings of key rivals Kahne, Kenseth, Vickers and Bowyer – all of whom drop places in the standings – was equally vital for Kyle’s prospects.

Although Mark Martin jumps up to 10th spot, the standings are so tight that he’s by no means safe yet.

Pos Driver              Points
1   Tony Stewart        3564
2   Jimmie Johnson      3344
3   Jeff Gordon         3310
4   Denny Hamlin        3141
5   Carl Edwards        3110
6   Kurt Busch          3103
7   Ryan Newman         2995
8   Greg Biffle         2986
9   Juan Pablo Montoya  2975
10  Mark Martin         2971
11  Kasey Kahne         2963
12  Matt Kenseth        2945
13  Kyle Busch          2911
14  Brian Vickers       2906
15  Clint Bowyer        2833
16  David Reutimann     2785
17  Marcos Ambrose      2639
18  Jeff Burton         2568
19  Joey Logano         2487
20  Casey Mears         2478
21  Dale Earnhardt Jr.  2416
22  Jamie McMurray      2403
23  Martin Truex Jr.    2314
24  Kevin Harvick       2300
25  A.J. Allmendinger   2258
26  Elliott Sadler      2255
27  Sam Hornish Jr.     2234
28  Reed Sorenson       2193
29  David Ragan         2186
30  Bobby Labonte       2120
31  David Stremme       2083
32  Paul Menard         2010
33  Robby Gordon        1900
34  Michael Waltrip     1874
35  Scott Speed         1718
36  John Andretti       1644
37  David Gilliland     1276
38  Regan Smith         1071
39  Joe Nemechek         884
40  Brad Keselowski      878
41  Dave Blaney          844
42  Bill Elliott         737
43  Massimiliano Papis   644
44  Aric Almirola        451
45  Scott Riggs          448
        
Pos Constructor Points
1   Chevrolet   183
2   Toyota      141
3   Ford        108
4   Dodge        96
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