NASCAR: Round 31 – Banking 500, Lowe’s Motor Speedway, Charlotte – 17 October

Going into Lowe’s for this week’s race, the question on everyone’s lips had to be: “Could anyone stop the Jimmie Johnson steamroller?” He had dominated qualifying and practice, and the only solace his rivals had was the historical stat that the polesitter had not won here in 27 years. Surely Johnson couldn’t beat the tide of history as well as the rest of the field?

Johnson has a slight stutter at the start of the race when he lost the initiative to his team mate Mark Martin, who got the better run around the outside and led the first lap. A quick yellow for a wild spin by Sam Hornish Jr coming off turn 2 on lap 3 gave Johnson a second chance at Martin and he seized it, racing away with the lead while Martin found himself wheel-to-wheel with Kasey Kahne.

Hornish was also the cause of the second caution on lap 9 when he spun again, this time coming out of lap 4. Clearly there was something horribly wrong with the 77, not helped by the hard hit his right rear had taken in his first spin of the day.

After the Hornish cautions there was a decent stint of some 20 laps of green flag running. Kyle Busch – returning after illness last week – was looking very fast and quickly took up the third spot behind Johnson and Martin as the three of them eased away from the rest of the field. When the caution came out again, on lap 34, it was for weather – sprinkles of rain had hit one end of the track, and NASCAR quite rightly took a safety-first approach.

It was early for pit stops (50-60 lap stints had been anticipated) but no one was passing up the opportunity to come in for a stop under yellow and have some fine tuning on their handling. Matt Kenseth went for a two-tyre gambit and moved up seven positions into the lead as a result; while Joey Logano – who had been working his way up nicely into the top five – overshot his pit box and had to back up, losing him a huge number of positions and dumping him back to 38th. But at least Logano’s race pace was still quick, and he was able to start working his way up through the field again. Having a far less fun time were Tony Stewart (who was dropping back lap after lap), Carl Edwards and Dale Earnhardt Jr., both of whom were having handling problems that had left them way off the pace and right at the back of the running order.

The rain cleared quickly and the track went green again on lap 42 ahead of Johnson, Martin, Busch and Denny Hamlin. Johnson quickly went side-by-side with Hamlin, but it was hard work: Johnson started to get loose, fell back again into the clutches of Martin, and it was not until lap 52 that Johnson was finally able to reclaim the lead. But now Hamlin was coming on strong and charging for the lead, and by lap 71 he was past Johnson, Kenseth and Busch to surge past Johnson for the top spot. With Juan Montoya now consistently the fastest man on track, the 42 also broke through into the top five, ejecting Martin and leaving Hamlin ahead of Kenseth, Montoya, Johnson and Busch as green flag pit stops commenced on lap 89.

Despite still being in the top five, Johnson seemed out of sorts, angry and frustrated, snapping at his pit chief Chad Knaus even before another sluggish pit stop with problems on the left rear tyre enabled Casey Mears to edge him out of the pit lane for position – temporarily. Johnson seemed to like the changes the team made during the stop, though, describing the car as “edgy” and adding “I like it” – clearly the handling was coming back to him. And at least his sluggish pit stop had been better than Ryan Newman’s, which dragged on an agonising 21s and haemorrhaged positions all the while.

The race continued green through to lap 119, and it was Kyle Busch who brought out the caution when the 18 simply snapped sideways out of turn 4 for no discernible reason, leaving Kyle driving at right angles down the straight-away and narrowly avoiding hitting Scott Speed on the inside line as he brought the car back under control. The field duly used the opportunity for some pit stops and much needed adjustments – Montoya in particular was complaining that the 42 was as loose as he would ever want to have to drive it. A few drivers opted for a two tyre strategy, which meant that Jeff Gordon, Greg Biffle and Ryan Newman gained around a dozen spots to leap into the top three positions in front of Hamlin and Kenseth, with Tony Stewart up to 6th ahead of Johnson and Jeff Burton, who was also up twelve spots on tyre strategy.

It was a very different field, then, that came to the green flag, and it was a rough restart for several drivers. Dale Earnhardt Jr was extremely slow and had to pit with transmission issues and unable to stay in fourth gear, finally being redirected into the garage area for lengthy diagnosis and repairs that put him some 29 laps down. Further forward, the field seemed to bunch up and jostle with lots of minor impacts: Vickers ended up with bodywork damage that rubbed his front right tear, forcing him into the pits for some field repairs; and Montoya went into the back of Clint Bowyer without too much harm done, but Mark Martin gave Montoya a more emphatic kick up the backside that damaged the 42’s rear fender and seriously affected Montoya’s handling. After losing a bunch of positions, the handling degenerated to the point where Montoya was drifting alarmingly on almost every corner and he finally lost the car altogether exiting turn 4 on lap 163, putting him two laps down to the leaders after such a promising, strong start and serious affecting his Chase campaign. The crew managed to find a replacement quarter panel, albeit coloured the 42’s usual red instead of this week’s blue livery which made for a rather striking junkyard patchwork effect. Martin also suffered: although his handling wasn’t too bad, the subsequent repairs to his hole in the nose of his race car would put him down to 24th position.

Montoya’s woes at least allowed the rest of the field the relative luxury of a round of pit stops under caution. Hamlin was able to take the lead after the pit stops but Gordon quickly passed him at the restart, with Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson and Greg Biffle continuing to fill out the rest of the top five as the race passed half distance. Montoya was also the cause of the sixth caution of the day – this time by virtue of his depositing a large, clearly recognisable piece of red metalwork on the track with a conspicuous Target logo on it.

This was on lap 188, and with only 20 laps or so having been run since the last round of pit stops almost everyone opted for the two tyre strategy this time – with Kasey Kahne going even further and opting for fuel only which put him up into 5th spot behind Kenseth, Johnson, Kurt Busch and Gordon at the restart. Unfortunately for Denny Hamlin, who had been strong all evening, his car had developed engine problems: it was audibly misfiring and seemed to have lost a valve, putting him into the garage, his race wrecked. With his second consecutive DNF (after his error last week while among the leaders at Fontana), his Chase campaign has been badly derailed.

It was Kasey Kahne who was flying in the next stint, surging past the top four (including Johnson, who was distracted trying to get some debris off his front grill before it caused his engine to overheat) to take the lead from Kenseth on lap 223. He held on to the lead through to the green flag pit stops that commenced around lap 242, despite a heart-stopping moment for him when his ignition failed as he tried to get back up to speed out of the pit lane and he had to quickly switch to a backup system. Once the stops cycled through, Kahne was nonetheless still back in charge ahead of Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon; Kahne’s lead over Johnson was up to 6.5s and on lap 288 he lapped Mark Martin who had struggled his way back to 18th position after the 5’s earlier handling problems from bodywork damage.

The seventh caution was for the death of Max Papis’ engine on lap 290, and Johnson beat Kahne out of the pits by the narrowest possible margin to assume the lead with Gordon 3rd, Kenseth 4th and Bowyer 5th. The green flag didn’t last long before David Gilliland got loose and hit the wall hard on lap 299, which at least allowed Mark Martin to get the free pass and get back on the lead lap once more.

Once established, the stop-start staccato rhythm became frustratingly embedded in proceedings: the next restart on lap 303 came to a swift yellow when Carl Edwards blew up and left a trail of fluid behind him; the next restart on lap 307 fared little better, coming to the tenth yellow of the afternoon on lap 312 when David Stremme hit the wall, bounced into slight contact with Greg Biffle which in turn caused Biffle to make further light contact with Ryan Newman who was running on the inside which was the last straw, tipping Biffle into a wild spin across the track and the grassy infield, narrowly avoiding collecting Mike Bliss along the way.

But once the race restarted on lap 317, it ran the remaining 17 laps to the end without further interruptions. Johnson led Gordon, Kahne, Kenseth and Mears to the green, and Johnson had a battle royal with his Hendrick Motorsports team mate Jeff Gordon to keep the top spot, but once Johnson got a good run on the low-side to edge Gordon on lap 321, Gordon dropped back to fourth and the 48 was able to build an unassailable lead.

Sure enough, Johnson took the chequered flag. So much for the stats: if anyone can overturn a 27-year precedent then it’s Jimmie Johnson. And with Mark Martin and Juan Montoya having poor weeks, his lead in the Sprint Cup standings was starting to look very, very healthy indeed.

Race result

Pos  Driver             Car        Laps
 1.  Jimmie Johnson     Chevrolet  334
 2.  Matt Kenseth       Ford       334
 3.  Kasey Kahne        Dodge      334
 4.  Jeff Gordon        Chevrolet  334
 5.  Joey Logano        Toyota     334
 6.  Clint Bowyer       Chevrolet  334
 7.  Casey Mears        Chevrolet  334
 8.  Kyle Busch         Toyota     334
 9.  Martin Truex Jr    Chevrolet  334
10.  Kurt Busch         Dodge      334
11.  Ryan Newman        Chevrolet  334
12.  Brad Keselowski    Chevrolet  334
13.  Tony Stewart       Chevrolet  334
14.  Jeff Burton        Chevrolet  334
15.  David Reutimann    Toyota     334
16.  Greg Biffle        Ford       334
17.  Mark Martin        Chevrolet  334
18.  Kevin Harvick      Chevrolet  334
19.  David Stremme      Dodge      334
20.  David Ragan        Ford       334
21.  Reed Sorenson      Dodge      334
22.  Marcos Ambrose     Toyota     333
23.  AJ Allmendinger    Dodge      333
24.  Mike Bliss         Chevrolet  333
25.  David Gilliland    Toyota     333
26.  Elliott Sadler     Dodge      332
27.  Paul Menard        Ford       332
28.  Scott Speed        Toyota     332
29.  Bill Elliott       Ford       332
30.  Robby Gordon       Toyota     332
31.  Bobby Labonte      Ford       331
32.  Michael Waltrip    Toyota     331
33.  Jamie McMurray     Ford       331
34.  Brian Vickers      Toyota     330
35.  Juan Montoya       Chevrolet  330
36.  John Andretti      Chevrolet  330
37.  Terry Labonte      Toyota     329
38.  Dale Earnhardt Jr  Chevrolet  304
39.  Carl Edwards       Ford       299
40.  Sam Hornish Jr     Dodge      298
41.  Max Papis          Toyota     286
42.  Denny Hamlin       Toyota     192
43.  Joe Nemechek       Toyota      26

Sprint Cup standings

    +/- DRIVER              PTS     BEHIND  ST  P   W   T5  T10
1   --  Jimmie Johnson      5923    Leader  31  3   6   13  20
2   --  Mark Martin         5833      -90   31  7   5   12  18
3   +2  Jeff Gordon         5788     -135   31  0   1   15  22
4   --  Tony Stewart        5768     -155   31  0   4   15  21
5   +1  Kurt Busch          5746     -177   31  0   1   8   18
6   -3  Juan Montoya        5728     -195   31  2   0   6   16
7   --  Greg Biffle         5655     -268   31  0   0   9   14
8   +2  Ryan Newman         5635     -288   31  1   0   5   14
9   +2  Kasey Kahne         5592     -331   31  0   2   6   13
10  -2  Carl Edwards        5582     -341   31  0   0   7   13
11  -2  Denny Hamlin        5551     -372   31  1   2   11  16
12  --  Brian Vickers       5438     -485   31  6   1   4   13
======= CHASE FOR THE Sprint CUP - CURRENT CONTENDERS ========
13  +1  Matt Kenseth        3774    -2149   31  1   2   6   11
14  -1  Kyle Busch          3755    -2168   31  1   4   8   11
15  --  Clint Bowyer        3699    -2224   31  0   0   4   14
16  --  David Reutimann     3644    -2279   31  2   1   5   9
17  --  Marcos Ambrose      3371    -2552   31  0   0   4   7
18  +1  Casey Mears         3269    -2654   31  0   0   0   4
19  -1  Jeff Burton         3256    -2667   31  0   0   2   6
20  --  Joey Logano*        3197    -2726   31  0   1   2   6
21  --  Kevin Harvick       3141    -2782   31  0   0   3   6
22  --  Dale Earnhardt Jr.  2986    -2937   31  0   0   2   5
23  +2  Martin Truex Jr.    2985    -2938   31  2   0   0   4
24  --  A.J. Allmendinger   2959    -2964   31  0   0   1   4
25  -2  Jamie McMurray      2941    -2982   31  0   0   0   3
26  +1  Elliott Sadler      2891    -3032   31  0   0   1   4
27  -1  Sam Hornish Jr.     2850    -3073   31  0   0   2   7
28  --  David Ragan         2776    -3147   31  0   0   0   2
29  --  Reed Sorenson       2758    -3165   31  0   0   0   1
30  --  David Stremme       2753    -3170   31  0   0   0   0
31  --  Bobby Labonte       2684    -3239   31  0   0   1   1
32  --  Paul Menard         2611    -3312   31  0   0   0   0
33  --  Michael Waltrip     2388    -3535   29  0   0   0   1
34  --  Robby Gordon        2350    -3573   30  0   0   1   1
35  --  Scott Speed*        2283    -3640   30  0   0   1   1
36  --  John Andretti       2192    -3731   29  0   0   0   0
37  --  David Gilliland     1649    -4274   27  0   0   0   0
38  --  Regan Smith         1260    -4663   15  0   0   0   0
39  +2  Brad Keselowski     1183    -4740   11  0   1   1   3
40  -1  Joe Nemechek        1179    -4744   26  0   0   0   0
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