NASCAR: Round 31 – Charlotte – October 16

It was a lovely evening at Charlotte, North Caroline as Jeff Gordon led the field to the start of NASCAR’s last night time race of the 2010 season.

It was an eventful start to proceedings, with a rapid yellow on lap 2 for Ryan Newman who got loose and up into the wall in turn 3, imparting enough damage on his car to put him in the garage for an extended period of repairs. It also caught up his team mate and boss Tony Stewart, and repairs saw him on pit road under the caution and down to 41st for the restart; and Chase contender Denny Hamlin flat-spotted his tyres as he avoided the wreck and was lucky not to do anything more serious.

Carl Edwards was quickly past Gordon for the lead as the green flag came out, but then was quickly overtaken himself by Kyle Busch who, having started in sixth, was looking on strong form already. And Paul Menard was also looking good at the start, taking over second position despite reporting a tight car.

He was able to attend to that during the first widespread round of pit stops under the second caution, which came on lap 24 when Kurt Busch got loose and spun; Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart came close to hitting each other as they came into their pit boxes. Almost everyone opted for two tyres at this stage, and Jeff Gordon pipped Kyle Busch at pit exit to lead at the restart – not that Kyle let him have it that way for very long, back in charge two laps later.

And almost straight away, another yellow – Jimmie Johnson had got loose and spun in the middle of a crowded field. Somehow he kept it off the wall and the rest of the cars avoided hitting him, and he was able to continue after getting new tyres to his immense relief – a retirement this early on would have had disastrous effects on his Sprint Cup chances.

Kyle Busch led the restart but had a three-wide battle to fend off Jeff Gordon and Joey Logano, before the race finally settled into an extended period of calm running. Busch was very happy with the way things were going, carrying a comfortable 2s lead over Gordon; further back, Denny Hamlin had moved up into the top 10 after starting 23rd, and Jef Burton was up to seventh after starting 18th, Juan Montoya, on the other hand, was reporting his engine temperatures because of trash blocking the front grill – he was looking forward to the next round of pit stops to get sorted out; and Kasey Kahne was reporting a worrying vibration.

The pit stops were kicked off by Tony Stewart on lap 75 who was struggling with a loose car at this point; Kyle Busch reclaimed the lead once the stops had cycled through, and the main incident of this sequence of stops was a small fuel fire in Carl Edwards’ pit area that was quickly attended to.

But Kyle was no longer as happy as he had been: he reported that his throttle was sticking and that he was having to use the cut-off switch in order to get around the problem. Kyle was furious with the threat to his potential race win and suspected that some pieces of rubber had got stuck in the mechanism, but the throttle improved over subsequent laps and eventually – after 50 laps – all was well again.

The fourth yellow came out on lap 108 for debris, allowing some of these issues to be taken care of under relatively calm conditions, although Jimmie Johnson and Clint Bowyer still manage to make contact down pit road in the process. At the restart, Kyle was still in charge ahead of Gordon, Montoya, Biffle and Logano, and it was Biffle who was immediately on the pace at the restart and threatened to wrest the lead away from the #18 but Gordon soon rallied and retook second place.

A fifth caution soon followed on lap 123 when Kasey Kahne got loose and found the wall, collecting the innocent bystander Sam Hornish Jr along the way. While most of the leaders duly pitted, Mark Martin led those who stayed out and hence headed the field at the restart with Martin Truex Jr., Jamie McMurray, Juan Montoya and Jimmie Johnson right behind him as the others to opt to go out of sync.

McMurray took the lead from Martin on lap 136 and proceeded to pull out a 4s lead, and Montoya was struggling with a loose car and easy fodder for Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch to blow past him, as the race once again entered a settled period of green flag running that included the next round of pit stops starting on lap 168; McMurray kept the lead through the pit sequence but shortly thereafter was ousted by Jimmie Johnson on lap 189.

Further back, Jeff Gordon had reported a loss of power due to alternator problems, and struggled to get back into pit road, going a lap down in the process; he was lucky that the sixth caution of the night arrived shortly thereafter on lap 203 (Marcos Ambrose spinning near pit road) which gave him a free pass back onto the lead lap. Kyle Busch had one of his trademark blistering pit stops and emerged back into the lead, with Jamie McMurray in second and Jimmie Johnson dropping back to fifth place.

McMurray has clawed back Busch’s lead when the seventh yellow came out on lap 239 when Robby Gordon went for a joy ride through the infield grass; Kyle once again headed the field at the restart and easily maintained the lead ahead of Denny Hamlin, Jamie McMurray, Jimmie Johnson and Greg Biffle. Johnson posed the biggest challenge to Busch’s lead at the restart, but the racing only lasted a brief time before an eighth yellow of the night materialised in the form of Jeff Gordon getting loose and sliding across the track; the car was full of smoke as Burton tried to navigate his way back to pit lane to get the car checked over, which put him the last car on the lead lap as everyone else declined to come in for a service so soon after the last.

The race resumed on lap 250 with another great restart by Kyle Busch easily holding off Johnson at first, but things quickly tightened up between the two of them and McMurray. It was becoming a three-horse race with only just over 80 laps to go – a distance that meant one more round of pit stops awaited everyone. They duly commended on lap 289, after which Kyle was back in the lead ahead of McMurray, Johnson and Denny Hamlin; Jeff Gordon’s day was getting ever worse, however, as he got a pit lane speeding violation penalty to add to his woes and leaving him stuck in the mid-twenties, position-wise.

Busch’s lead over McMurray was starting to falter when the ninth and final caution of the evening came out on lap 308 for debris, a yellow that the leaders weren’t happy to see – and like Clint Bowyer in recent weeks, some were suspecting just how valid some of these “debris” cautions were and how much they might be NASCAR working to “liven up the show” for the grand finish. Kyle Busch in particular wasn’t happy with the call – and the next few minutes proved why.

Kyle still had the lead over McMurray, Johnson, Hamlin and Biffle at the final restart on lap 313 after they all opted not to take up the opportunity of a final pit stop; but the pace of the #18 was not what it was, and Kyle couldn’t make that same rocket launch of a start and build up the same margin he’d enjoyed just a few laps earlier. Next time around, Jamie McMurray cleared Busch on the backstretch and took the lead with just 20 laps remaining – and Kyle didn’t seem to have anything in reserve with which to answer.

Kyle did manage to hold off Jimmie all the way to the chequered flag, but the win had indeed been lost by that late caution and Kyle is never one to be happy with a “mere” second place: “I’m supposed to win,” Busch said afterwards. “That’s the way we’re supposed to run. It still doesn’t matter how good we run; we still figure out how to give it up. Or I figure out how to give it up, I should say.” Although television cameras had indeed picked up on and shown debris on the circuit at the time, he was still seething about the final caution: “I don’t know what the caution was for. You know, apparently there was a mouse that ran across the race track or something,” he complained.

McMurray celebrated the win, but he’s not in the Chase, and while Kyle Busch’s second place has done something to repair the damage of his engine blow-up at Fontana, Jimmie Johnson’s third place only strengthened his hand in the Sprint Cup especially with Jeff Gordon hitting so many problems at Charlotte. “Tonight is a night that reminds me of the last four years, and what made this team champions,” he said afterwards. “I hope that tonight’s performance leads us to a championship. There’s obviously a lot of racing left. No telling what’s going to happen. But when we look back, I hope we are the champions, and I hope we look back and say that Charlotte was the key point for us in the championship battle. We kept our composure.”

Whichever way you look at it, the Sprint Cup Chase has now narrowed to effectively just three runners: Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick. Harvick’s been quiet in the last few races but has stayed out of trouble, but it’s Hamlin who looks to have the momentum to present the best challenge to the #48. However the smart money has to be on Johnson to retain his crown, and it’s up to the others to catch him if they can.

Race results

FIN ST  CAR  DRIVER              PTS/BNS LAPS 
1   27  1    Jamie McMurray      190/5   334   
2   6   18   Kyle Busch          180/10  334   
3   10  48   Jimmie Johnson      170/5   334   
4   23  11   Denny Hamlin        165/5   334   
5   22  16   Greg Biffle         160/5   334   
6   17  17   Matt Kenseth        155/5   334   
7   12  20   Joey Logano         151/5   334   
8   24  29   Kevin Harvick       147/5   334   
9   16  00   David Reutimann     138/0   334   
10  26  6    David Ragan         134/0   334   
11  34  42   Juan Montoya        135/5   334   
12  2   99   Carl Edwards        132/5   334   
13  32  78   Regan Smith         124/0   334   
14  4   5    Mark Martin         126/5   334   
15  13  56   Martin Truex Jr.    118/0   334   
16  14  47   Marcos Ambrose      115/0   334   
17  20  33   Clint Bowyer        117/5   334   
18  7   83   Reed Sorenson       114/5   334   
19  21  82   Scott Speed         106/0   334   
20  18  31   Jeff Burton         108/5   334   
21  29  14   Tony Stewart        100/0   334   
22  30  110  Bobby Labonte       97/0    333   
23  1   24   Jeff Gordon         99/5    333   
24  5   98   Paul Menard         91/0    333   
25  3   43   A.J. Allmendinger   93/5    333   
26  9   19   Elliott Sadler      85/0    332   
27  31  12   Brad Keselowski     82/0    332   
28  36  38   David Gilliland     84/5    332   
29  8   88   Dale Earnhardt Jr.  76/0    331   
30  15  2    Kurt Busch          73/0    331   
31  42  34   Travis Kvapil       70/0    331   
32  41  37   Dave Blaney         67/0    331   
33  39  7    Robby Gordon        64/0    327   
34  38  71   Andy Lally          61/0    315   
35  37  21   Bill Elliott        58/0    305   
36  11  39   Ryan Newman         55/0    272   
37  35  26   Patrick Carpentier  57/5    217   Accident
38  25  9    Kasey Kahne         49/0    214   
39  33  46   Michael McDowell    51/5    127   Rear Gear
40  19  77   Sam Hornish Jr.     43/0    122   Accident
41  43  164  Jeff Green          40/0    91    Transmission
42  28  09   Landon Cassill      37/0    89    Rear Gear
43  40  36   J.J. Yeley          34/0    73    Ignition

Sprint Cup standings

POS +/-  DRIVER              PTS   BEHIND  ST  P  W  T5  T10
1   --   Jimmie Johnson      5843  Leader  31  2  6  14  18
2   --   Denny Hamlin        5802  -41     31  1  6  12  15
3   --   Kevin Harvick       5766  -77     31  0  3  13  21
4   --   Jeff Gordon         5687  -156    31  1  0  11  16
5   +4   Kyle Busch          5666  -177    31  2  3  9   17
6   -1   Tony Stewart        5666  -177    31  2  2  9   16
7   --   Carl Edwards        5643  -200    31  2  0  7   16
8   +2   Greg Biffle         5618  -225    31  0  2  7   16
9   -3   Kurt Busch          5606  -237    31  2  2  9   16
10  -2   Jeff Burton         5604  -239    31  0  0  6   14
11  --   Matt Kenseth        5587  -256    31  0  0  5   12
12  --   Clint Bowyer        5543  -300    31  0  1  6   16
====== CHASE FOR THE Sprint CUP - CURRENT CONTENDERS ======
13  +1   Jamie McMurray      3786  -2057   31  4  3  9   11
14  -1   Ryan Newman         3711  -2132   31  1  1  3   12
15  --   Mark Martin         3632  -2211   31  1  0  5   8
16  --   Juan Montoya        3590  -2253   31  2  1  5   13
17  --   David Reutimann     3520  -2323   31  0  1  5   8
18  +2   Joey Logano         3499  -2344   31  1  0  4   12
19  -1   Dale Earnhardt Jr.  3455  -2388   31  1  0  3   7
20  +1   A.J. Allmendinger   3419  -2424   31  1  0  1   7
21  -2   Kasey Kahne         3398  -2445   31  3  0  7   9
22  --   Martin Truex Jr.    3383  -2460   31  1  0  1   6
23  --   Paul Menard         3207  -2636   31  0  0  1   5
24  --   David Ragan         3054  -2789   31  0  0  0   2
25  --   Brad Keselowski     2987  -2856   31  1  0  0   0
26  --   Marcos Ambrose      2981  -2862   31  0  0  2   5
27  +1   Elliott Sadler      2777  -3066   31  0  0  0   1
28  +1   Scott Speed         2774  -3069   31  0  0  0   2
29  -2   Sam Hornish Jr.     2736  -3107   31  0  0  0   1
30  --   Regan Smith         2729  -3114   31  0  0  0   0
31  +1   Bobby Labonte       2222  -3621   31  0  0  0   0
32  -1   Travis Kvapil       2206  -3637   30  0  0  0   0
33  --   David Gilliland     2111  -3732   27  0  0  0   0
34  --   Kevin Conway*       1757  -4086   27  0  0  0   0
35  --   Robby Gordon        1690  -4153   23  0  0  1   1
36  --   Reed Sorenson       1355  -4488   16  0  0  0   1
37  --   Casey Mears         1189  -4654   16  0  0  0   0
38  +2   Dave Blaney         1180  -4663   24  0  0  0   0
39  -1   Joe Nemechek        1160  -4683   27  0  0  0   0
40  -1   Brian Vickers       1158  -4685   11  0  0  0   3
41  +2   Bill Elliott        946   -4897   11  0  0  0   0
42  -1   Mike Bliss          919   -4924   14  0  0  0   2
43  -1   Max Papis           907   -4936   18  0  0  0   0
44  +1   Michael McDowell    871   -4972   23  0  0  0   0
45  -1   David Stremme       825   -5018   11  0  0  0   0
46  --   J.J. Yeley          733   -5110   14  0  0  0   0
47  --   Landon Cassill      551   -5292   12  0  0  0   0
48  --   Boris Said          448   -5395   6   0  0  0   1
49  --   Tony Raines         412   -5431   7   0  0  0   0
50  --   Patrick Carpentier  399   -5444   5   0  0  0   0
* Denotes Rookie 
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