NASCAR: Round 34 – Dickies 500, Texas Motor Speedway – 8 November

Jimmie Johnson has had some incredible luck over the years – and none more so than the race last week at Talladega, where damage limitation ended up successful beyond his wildest dreams. But luck can turn bad in an instant, and at the start of the Dickies 500 the bullet that Johnson felt he’d dodged last week caught him square in the chest within minutes of the start.

Johnson was three-wide alongside Sam Hornish Jr and David Reutimann on lap 2 when the 77 got loose after slight contact with the 00. Hornish twitched, then connected with the 48 sending Johnson sliding up into the wall. So far, nothing too bad – as long as Johnson could keep it under control and not hit anything else. He almost pulled it off, but then came back down the track and tapped the 77 for a second time, which sent them both spinning. Johnson ended up impacting the inside wall hard, on at least three of the four corners, and the car looked horribly beat-up as it crawled to the garage for emergency – and lengthy – repairs. As well as the obvious bodywork damage, the suspension and driveshaft looked horribly deranged. Suddenly that championship-clinching margin Johnson came into this race with was evaporating before his eyes.

Jeff Gordon led for the first 12 laps before Kurt Busch took over, with brother Kyle (who had already swept the NASCAR Nationwide and Truck races at Texas this weekend) taking up residence in third and then slipping past Gordon for second on lap 19. Dale Earnhardt Jr, Tony Stewart and Reutimann rounded out the top 6.

To add insult to Johnson’s injuries, the race went green for the next 78 laps giving him no breaks about how many laps down he might be if and when he came back out. It also meant that the first round of pit stops starting from lap 52 were under green flag conditions. Kurt Busch was one of the last of the leaders to come in, holding a 4s lead over his brother, but when the pit stops cycled through it was Kyle who had managed the best stop and come out in front of the field. Jeff Gordon meanwhile had a slow stop following a problem with one of the rear tyres, and had slipped back out of the top ten.

The second yellow when it did come on lap 87 was for Sam Hornish Jr. again, who had been struggling ever since that collision with Johnson and more than once been seen sliding through corners sideways. he was an accident just waiting for a place to happen, and sure enough he spun through turn 2 into the inside wall with three flat tyres. The rest of the field were relieved, able to take a pit stop under caution and get into some fine-tuning at last. At the restart, Kyle and Kurt led Reutimann, Stewart, Marcos Ambrose with Denny Hamlin making up the top six.

Finally, as the leaders hit lap 113, Jimmie Johnson emerged back onto the track, the car so thoroughly rebuilt that it looked unnaturally pristine, albeit starkly black as the new bodywork was devoid of the usual livery. The car was quickly back into the pits for additional quick fixes to a tyre rub and then set off again to demonstrate that it could make the minimum speed requirement. Although now 117 laps down after all this, Johnson did still have some low-hanging fruit to aim for – Mike Skinner, Joe Nemechek and Michael McDowell had all retired very early on, and even Johnson’s nemesis Sam Hornish Jr. was now down over thirty laps stuck in the garage after his own crash, so Johnson could reasonably target 39th place. Not great, but at least better points-wise than 43rd – albeit only by about 12pts in total. Still, titles have been won by slimmer margins.

The sun was going down and the track beginning to cool, which meant that handling was starting to change. Benefiting from the new conditions were Marcos Ambrose – up to 3rd and challenging Kurt for second spot – and Mark Martin, who had finally cracked the top ten on lap 122 to make the most of the chance to cut Johnson’s points lead in the Sprint Cup. Of the other top contenders, Gordon’s day was going south fast – down to 14th on lap 126 – while Juan Montoya was in 8th place with room for improvement.

The leaders were in for their next round of green flag pit stops on lap 146, Kyle’s crew once excelling to put their man out with a 4s lead, double what it had been before the pit stops. Dale Earnhardt Jr. had crept up into 4th with the fastest car on track at this point running just behind Ambrose, with Reutimann and Stewart ahead of Montoya in 7th. However Jeff Gordon had dropped to 18th and was at risk of going a lap down when he was saved by a caution for debris at turn 1 on lap 167.

Everyone took the opportunity to come in, and Kyle Busch emerged from pit lane a country mile ahead of the rest, but Marcos Ambrose had a slow stop with attention needed to one of his shocks dumping him down 15 positions as a result. That left Kyle leading brother Kurt, Earnhardt Jr., Reutimann, Clint Bowyer and Stewart as the top six with Mark Martin now up to 7th and Montoya down a spot to 9th. Johnson meanwhile was in 40th, creeping up on the still-garaged Sam Hornish Jr.’s position but now 120 laps down after additional running repairs on pit road, and pit chief Chad Knaus sounding resigned as he cautioned Johnson not to push it if anything started to feel wrong with the rebuilt 48.

The green flag lasted only two laps before Juan Montoya got loose and hit the back of Carl Edwards, sending them both up into the wall. Brad Keselowski then ran right into the back of Montoya’s broken car coming back down the track. Edwards came off especially badly damage-wise, but it was Montoya’s damage that had considerably more impact to the Chase situation as he brought the 42 to the garage for extensive repairs. Jeff Gordon was among those caught up in spins as they tried to avoid the accident, but at least in Gordon’s case it was a simple slide that merely required new tyres – the team opting to come in straight away even while the pit lane was officially closed, and taking the penalty. After all, being put down to the end of the lead lap was little change for Gordon at this point.

Kyle had a poor restart on lap 181, allowing Kurt to retake the lead at long last while only just fending off Reutimann for the second position. Jeff Gordon, in 18th, was still the last car on the lead lap. The green flag lasted 25 laps before the fifth caution of the afternoon came out for Reed Sorenson, who had the front right tyre go down on him sending him on a sudden snap against the wall, and then – to add insult to injury – he ricocheted down and hit the inside wall as well before being called into the garage area for repairs. That gave Jimmie Johnson another potential place to make up for if he could keep running; as the track came back to green Johnson made up another place to 39th after overhauling the absent Sam Hornish Jr., but now the best he could finish was 35th even if every single car wrecked right away.

At the restart on lap 212 it was Kyle Busch back at the front after a better pit stop than brother Kurt, and this time he was able to get away cleanly from Kurt and Reutimann. Stewart, Matt Kenseth and Martin made up the rest of the top six, Denny Hamlin having dropped well back after sliding through his pit box. The pressure was building on Martin: with the positions as they stood, Johnson would still come out of Texas with an 80pt lead despite the second lap disaster: with Montoya in the garage and Gordon simply not performing, it was all on the veteran. Once again, even when Johnson gave his rivals the chance, they didn’t seem to be around and able to pick it up and run with it.

The race passed two thirds distance as the sun set over the Motor Speedway; would the change to dusk and night time upset the dominance of the Busch brothers, who had led all but 13 laps to this point? It certainly seemed to have had an adverse effect on Dale Earnhardt Jr, who had fallen back to 8th place; Mark Martin on the other hand had finally cracked the top five behind the Busch brothers, Reutimann and Stewart, and he then slipped past Stewart for 4th on lap 247. The darker and cooler it got, the more Mark Martin came alive it seemed: perhaps Johnson wasn’t going to get away with it this time after all. In the end, 38th would prove to be the best Johnson would be able to manage with Keselowski, Sorenson and Montoya all doing enough to stay ahead of the 48 in the final standings.

Now attention turned to fuel strategies: Kyle Busch’s new pit chief Dave Rogers admitted that they were short on fuel by a few laps, and that applied to almost all of the runners still in contention. How they coped with that – and whether any cautions came out to change the outlook – was becoming key to the outcome of the race.

It emerged that Kurt Busch had the whip hand when he was able to stay out two laps longer than the other leaders on the penultimate stint, finally pitting (under green once more) on lap 271 for what he hoped would be the last time today. Kurt was worried about a vibration and urged his crew to “take their time” on the pit stop and make sure everything was okay, meaning he dropped back to 6th place after the stops worked their way through. The vibration fears were oddly echoed by brother Kyle after his own pit stop when he started to fear a loose wheel might be to blame: everyone on the crew was consulted and were sure that all the tyres were secure, so Kyle stayed out.

Now speeds were cut as everyone made fuel conservation their top priority: Kurt still seemed to be two laps short unless he could work miracles with the fuel conservation, while others including Mark Martin were even further adrift and up to half a dozen laps shy of full race distance. Nor would there be any cautions to help them eke out the fuel to the end: the race was running all the way to the very end without any more yellow flags.

Cars started to give up and peel off onto pit road as early as lap 313 when Matt Kenseth came in for a splash and dash. Greg Biffle, AJ Allmendinger and Stewart were in on lap 315, Martin and Newman on lap 317. But Kyle was stubbornly staying out, stretching his lead over Reutimann even further, while pit chief Dave Rogers kept urging his man to slow down or run dry. Meanwhile brother Kurt’s team were much happier now with their man’s fuel conservation, and assured him that Kyle would be no problem – the 18 was short. The 02 wasn’t; or at least, that’s what they calculated. They were betting the farm on being right.

Jeff Gordon gave up and pitted for fuel on lap 323, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. was in on lap 327. Still the leaders tried to tough it out … until David Reutimann finally ran out of fuel on lap 329 and crawled painfully down pit road to his pit box. And the next lap, just as his brother’s team had calculated, Kyle too was out of fuel and had to take to pit road. His dream of taking the NASCAR’s first-ever ‘trifecta’ was gone, and Kyle was clearly bitterly disappointed and left the complex without a word to the press after finally ending up 11th despite having the best car and having led 232 of the 334 laps.

That only left one question to be answered: could Kurt make it to the chequered flag? Everyone held their breath – but the 02 team had calculated it brilliantly, and Kurt Busch did indeed cross the finish line almost a full lap – 25.6s – ahead of anyone else. In the fuel conservation lottery, Denny Hamlin ended runner-up and Matt Kenseth popped up into third place, but more significant to the Chase was Mark Martin ending up in 4th place which meant that he had made major in-roads into Jimmie Johnson’s Sprint Cup lead.

Suddenly this championship has got interesting again – a fourth consecutive Jimmie Johnson title might not be such a done deal after all.

Race result

FIN ST  CAR DRIVER             MAKE       PTS/BNS LAPS  STATUS
1   3   2   Kurt Busch         Dodge      190/5   334   
2   25  11  Denny Hamlin       Toyota     175/5   334   
3   30  17  Matt Kenseth       Ford       165/0   334   
4   7   5   Mark Martin        Chevrolet  160/0   334   
5   24  29  Kevin Harvick      Chevrolet  155/0   334   
6   4   14  Tony Stewart       Chevrolet  150/0   334   
7   10  33  Clint Bowyer       Chevrolet  146/0   334   
8   8   16  Greg Biffle        Ford       142/0   334   
9   42  31  Jeff Burton        Chevrolet  138/0   334   
10  16  44  A.J. Allmendinger  Ford       134/0   334   
11  5   18  Kyle Busch         Toyota     140/10  334   
12  26  39  Ryan Newman        Chevrolet  127/0   334   
13  1   24  Jeff Gordon        Chevrolet  129/5   334   
14  27  1   Martin Truex Jr.   Chevrolet  121/0   334   
15  19  47  Marcos Ambrose     Toyota     118/0   334   In Pit
16  13  00  David Reutimann    Toyota     115/0   334   
17  17  6   David Ragan        Ford       112/0   332   
18  31  82  Scott Speed *      Toyota     109/0   332   
19  14  20  Joey Logano *      Toyota     106/0   332   
20  22  26  Jamie McMurray     Ford       103/0   332   
21  36  07  Casey Mears        Chevrolet  100/0   332   
22  33  19  Elliott Sadler     Dodge      97/0    332   
23  40  55  Michael Waltrip    Toyota     94/0    331   
24  41  34  John Andretti      Chevrolet  91/0    331   
25  9   88  Dale Earnhardt Jr. Chevrolet  88/0    331   
26  15  83  Brian Vickers      Toyota     85/0    331   
27  29  7   Robby Gordon       Toyota     82/0    331   
28  21  202 David Gilliland    Toyota     79/0    331   
29  39  98  Paul Menard        Ford       76/0    331   
30  38  96  Erik Darnell       Ford       73/0    331   
31  28  171 Bobby Labonte      Chevrolet  70/0    331   
32  32  78  Regan Smith        Chevrolet  67/0    330   
33  2   9   Kasey Kahne        Dodge      64/0    330   
34  43  21  Bill Elliott       Ford       61/0    311   In Pit
35  35  12  Brad Keselowski    Dodge      58/0    262   
36  18  43  Reed Sorenson      Dodge      55/0    248   
37  20  42  Juan Montoya       Chevrolet  52/0    231   
38  12  48  Jimmie Johnson     Chevrolet  49/0    205   
39  6   99  Carl Edwards       Ford       46/0    174   In Pit
40  11  77  Sam Hornish Jr.    Dodge      43/0    88    In Pit
41  37  36  Michael McDowell   Toyota     40/0    20    In Pit
42  34  187 Joe Nemechek       Toyota     37/0    13    Out
43  23  170 Mike Skinner       Chevrolet  34/0    6     In Pit 

Sprint Cup standings after race 34 of 36

    +/- DRIVER              PTS     BEHIND  ST  P   W   T5  T10
1   --  Jimmie Johnson      6297    Leader  34  3   6   14  22
2   --  Mark Martin         6224      -73   34  7   5   13  20
3   --  Jeff Gordon         6185     -112   34  1   1   16  23
4   +2  Kurt Busch          6126     -171   34  0   2   9   19
5   --  Tony Stewart        6119     -178   34  0   4   15  23
6   -2  Juan Montoya        6061     -236   34  2   0   7   17
7   --  Greg Biffle         6050     -247   34  0   0   10  16
8   +3  Denny Hamlin        5975     -322   34  1   3   13  18
9   -1  Ryan Newman         5973     -324   34  2   0   5   15
10  -1  Kasey Kahne         5898     -399   34  0   2   7   14
11  -1  Carl Edwards        5857     -440   34  0   0   7   13
12  --  Brian Vickers       5777     -520   34  6   1   4   13
======== CHASE FOR THE Sprint CUP - CURRENT CONTENDERS =======
13  --  Kyle Busch          4183    -2114   34  1   4   9   12
14  --  Matt Kenseth        4151    -2146   34  1   2   7   12
15  --  Clint Bowyer        4078    -2219   34  0   0   4   15
16  --  David Reutimann     3969    -2328   34  2   1   5   9
17  --  Jeff Burton         3677    -2620   34  0   0   3   8
18  --  Marcos Ambrose      3637    -2660   34  0   0   4   7
19  --  Joey Logano*        3600    -2697   34  0   1   3   7
20  --  Casey Mears         3571    -2726   34  0   0   0   4
21  --  Kevin Harvick       3535    -2762   34  0   0   4   8
22  --  Jamie McMurray      3389    -2908   34  0   1   1   5
23  --  Dale Earnhardt Jr.  3285    -3012   34  0   0   2   5
24  --  Martin Truex Jr.    3260    -3037   34  2   0   0   4
25  --  Elliott Sadler      3231    -3066   34  0   0   1   5
26  --  A.J. Allmendinger   3218    -3079   34  0   0   1   5
27  --  David Ragan         3097    -3200   34  0   0   0   2
28  --  Reed Sorenson       3019    -3278   34  0   0   0   1
29  +1  Bobby Labonte       3012    -3285   34  0   0   1   2
30  -1  Sam Hornish Jr.     2991    -3306   34  0   0   2   7
31  --  David Stremme       2919    -3378   33  0   0   0   0
32  --  Paul Menard         2818    -3479   34  0   0   0   0
33  --  Michael Waltrip     2706    -3591   32  0   0   0   2
34  --  Robby Gordon        2556    -3741   33  0   0   1   1
35  --  Scott Speed*        2544    -3753   33  0   0   1   1
36  --  John Andretti       2472    -3825   32  0   0   0   0
37  --  David Gilliland     1779    -4518   29  0   0   0   0
38  --  Brad Keselowski     1388    -4909   13  0   1   1   4
39  --  Regan Smith         1373    -4924   17  0   0   0   0
40  --  Joe Nemechek        1299    -4998   29  0   0   0   0
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