NASCAR: Kenseth finds his way back to victory road

The sun was just going down over Fort Worth at the end of a typically hot and balmy Texan day when David Ragan led the field to the green flag for the start of the Samsung Mobile 500 on the 1.5-mile oval Texas Motor Speedway.

In the first ten laps, Ragan was able to maintain the lead and pull out a 1s lap over Matt Kenseth who had quickly taken over second spot from Carl Edwards; Marcos Ambrose has a strong start too and was up into the top five, while the big loser was Jimmie Johnson who fell from sixth on the grid to 14th place in the space of the opening two laps.

An early caution came out for Tony Raines blowing up, allowing the leaders to come in for an early tune-up on lap 11. Tony Stewart was involved in a pit lane collision with Dave Blaney, and needed to pit again to have some damage sorted out but there was nothing terminal to stop him continuing. The car wasn’t exactly the fastest one in the field, but if the team could find some clever strategy then he was still in with a shot of a good result or even a race win despite the early blunder.

Having opted not to pit at this stage of the race, Penske team mates Kurt Busch and Brad Keselowski led the field to the restart, with Matt Kenseth soon moving up past David Ragan to take up the chase in third, ahead of fellow Roush Fenway drivers Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards in fifth and sixth.

Kenseth managed to pass Busch relatively quickly, but Keselowski proved a different matter and the two were still jockeying for the front position when the track went yellow on lap 45 for David Gilliland finding a wall after a tyre went down on the #34. This was excellent news for Keselowski and Busch as they were now back on the same pit strategy – the decision to stay out during the first caution had been vindicated.

Kenseth had the best of the yellow flag pit stops and emerged in the lead, while it proved s costly one for David Reutimann and Joey Logano who collided in pit road. Both had damage from the hard contact requiring further work on the cars, and to rub salt in the wound for Logano the #20 was then penalised for having too many pit crew over the wall and was duly sent to the back of the lead lap. Reuitmann was equally gloomy: “We’re pretty well done, aren’t we Rodney?” he radioed to his pit crew chief Rodney Childers. He would later end up hitting the wall on lap 77 inflicting more damage on the #00, fortunately without bringing out a caution but costing him laps as he took to pit lane.

Restarting from second spot on lap 50, Greg Biffle got a great jump on Kenseth at the restart and claimed the lead, but within 10 laps the #16’s handling went off and he was complaining of the car getting loose as the evening slipped into cooler, darker conditions under the floodlights and started changing the handling characteristics. It meant Matt Kenseth resumed the lead again, with David Ragan, Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch and Carl Edwards rounding out the top six as they completed 65 laps out of the race distance of 334.

Kurt Busch didn’t have the pace during the next stint and started to slide back, losing positions to Edwards and Marcos Ambrose. Further back, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was nibbling on the edge of the top ten and Denny Hamlin was also advancing smoothly, taking 13th spot on lap 86.

The green flag stint lasted 63 laps – the longest caution-free run at Texas in five years – which meant that Matt Kenseth in the lead started to have to deal with lapping slower traffic. He also had concerns about his engine, which was showing a spike in water temperatures and fluctuations in oil temperatures, but it didn’t seem to interfere with his ability to keep putting in the fastest lap times.

A round of pit stops cycled through under green without drama – the biggest note being that Carl Edwards was reported as being very unwell and needing extra water and some medicine to keep him going. As the race wore on, he ended up psychically sick but managed to carry on just about to the end of the race. It would later be diagnosed as food poisoning: “I hate to throw my mom under the bus but she cooked something last night that I don’t think was too good,” he said after the race.

Finally the green came to an end on lap 113 when Ken Schrader suffered a cut tyre and shed rubber debris over the track. Unsurprisingly after such a long green period, everyone was eager to get into the pits for a check-up – and for the second time this evening, Penske duo Kurt Busch and Brad Keselowski opted for some sharp alternative strategy, taking two tyres apiece to emerge back on track in first and second for the restart on lap 118 ahead of Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin and David Ragan.

Keselowski got a poor start and was quickly moved aside by Kenseth for second. All those who had gone for two tyres soon started to struggle: Hamlin was struggling and fell to to ninth within six laps of the restart, while Kurt Busch’s initial pace was better but soon started to suffer as well. That left Matt Kenseth free to take up the lead again ahead of David Ragan, with Kyle Busch running well in this part of the race and popping up into third place after having spent much of the race will this point at the bottom of the top ten, but the handling of the #18 went off soon after and he would fall back again, his place in the top three taken up by Clint Bowyer.

With no caution in sight, another round of green flag pit stops cycled through around lap 162, which ended up with Bowyer taking second spot and Kyle feeling better in fourth with adjustments helping the handling, but Kenseth now well out in front of David Ragan.

But there was a problem for Kenseth when his pit crew radioed him with the news that they had failed to give him a full shot of fuel during that stop: he would have to pit early. Surely the dominant driver of the evening so far wasn’t going to have his chance of a first win in over two years (and 76 races) yanked away from him by such a needless pit lane stumble?

With the race still remarkably caution-free, Kenseth came in for his second consecutive green flag pit stop on lap 200 ahead of the rest of the field, but in fact most everyone duly filed in as well over the next few laps so the fuel fumble didn’t seem to have had any major effect on the race: Kenseth still came out in the lead and now had a massive 13s lead over Clint Bowyer. There were no collisions on pit road, although the sickly Carl Edwards locked up his brakes to avoid Kurt Busch and Regan Smith got hit with a drive-thru penalty after a changed tyre got away from the pit crew and went for a stroll into the grass.

Shortly afterwards, on lap 208, the third caution of the evening was out for debris. Ater a remarkable 90 lap green flag stint, everyone was relieved and even though everyone had just been into the pits for tyres and fuel, many cars streamed right back in to pit lane for less frenzied stops and more tactical adjustments: Tony Steward, Joey Logano and David Reutimann all came in to have ongoing issues with bodywork damage taken care of, while further up the field Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Paul Menard, Juan Montoya and Kurt Busch all pitted. Kyle Busch was in as well, complaining of vibration after that previous stop.

The restart on lap 212 saw Bowyer get the better start and take the lead from Kenseth, and Marcos Ambrose get a great jump into third place. But racing was shortlived, as the newly packed-together field was ripe for a multi-car accident, and it duly took place on lap 214 after Brad Keselowski checked up in front of Martin Truex Jr.: Truex also braked, and then got sideways after light contact with Kevin Harvick that ended up catching out Mark Martin and Regan Smith in a bone-jarring impact that ended with Truex, Martin and Smith heading to the garage with heavy damage. Among those making lucky escapes from being caught up in the wreck were Jamie McMurray and AJ Allmendinger.

The restart on lap 220 saw Bowyer leading Matt Kenseth, Marcos Ambrose, Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch, with Paul Menard and David Ragan battling over sixth spot. There was no repeat of the multi-car wreck at the previous restart, and in fact there would be no further cautions for the rest of the evening as the race finished with an eye-popping 114 green flag run.

Race leader Clint Bowyer almost triggered a sixth caution when he was being held up trying to lap Brian Vickers while being acutely aware of Kenseth bearing down on him. Bowyer ended up sliding up the track and side-swiping the #83, sending his own car extremely sideways at 170mph. Somehow he managed to save it from wrecking, but it was a pivotal moment in the race.

“Dang it,” Bowyer said. “That was my fault, totally my fault. You come up on those lappers, and they hold you up so bad. Matt started to catch me, and I was pressing, trying to get around [Vickers]. He gave me room. I just slid up and got into him,” he said, admitting: “Man, I thought it was going to end our day completely.”

The lack of any further cautions also meant more pit stops under green on the way. The first of these started on lap 249 with Kenseth, now leading, heading to pit road. Lots of drivers including Biffle, Allmendinger and Jeff Burton wanted some big adjustments to cope with the much cooler conditions. Kurt Busch stretched it to lap 271, hoping and praying for a caution to come out in the meantime, but one never came and instead he lost a lot of time continuing to circulate on old tyres while Kenseth (now in front of Bowyer) and the rest closed on their fresher rubber.

Busch wasn’t the last driver to stop for fuel, either – Tony Stewart pushed it a massive 58 laps before pitting on lap 276 (exactly 58 laps to the end as well …) If he could stretch this out to the end of the race without another stop, and if the tyres didn’t degrade so massively as to make him a sitting duck for Kenseth and the rest, then there was just a glimmer of a hope that he would be able to win this on strategy rather than actual pace … until he got hit with a pit lane speeding penalty and ordered to make a drive-thru. “Sorry, I knew I did it,” a sheepish Stewart confessed over the radio.

In the meantime, Kyle Busch had also returned to pit road – on lap 271, the same as his brother, despite having pitted as part of the routine round of green flag stops just 20 laps earlier. It was too early to be trying to ape Stewart’s strategy to stretch out fuel to the end, so this meant a costly extra stop with no upside for the #18: it turned out to be a second left rear tyre vibration of the night resulting from another loose wheel, a very unusual situation for the crew that’s usually the fastest and most reliable on pit lane. “I knew our rear-tyre changer’s head was in the sand anyway, so just tried to pep him up a bit and give him some words of encouragement,” said Kyle after the race. “I’ve got the fastest pit crew on pit road every single week. Every time we get on the race track and we come down pit road, I look forward to coming down pit road because I know my boys can pick me up some spots on the race track. So [this] was just an off-night.” As a result Kyle was now almost two laps off the lead and his hopes for a another strong finish had evaporated under the floodlights.

The final green flag pit stop for Matt Kenseth came on lap 295 with Clint Bowyer in next time around. The out-of-sync stops left Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman in the lead ahead of Kenseth, with Kyle Busch temporarily up into fourth before his final delayed stop (which wasn’t required until lap 322) ahead of Tony Stewart, who was still hoping that stretching this last tank of fuel could allow him to overcome that pit lane speeding penalty and pull off a good result.

With Kurt trying to eke out his fuel as far as possible and so many green flag laps being run, several drivers including David Ragan and Dale Earnhardt Jr. got the chance to unlap themselves. Newman fell away with his late pit stop on lap 301, and finally on lap 321 Kurt could wait no more and had to his pit road, his hopes of a win swept away by the lack of any late cautions.

That put Matt Kenseth in the lead by over 8s ahead of Clint Bowyer with just a dozen laps to go. Bowyer tried to cut the lead and appeared to be closing, but in the end Kenseth was able to manage the situation and ensure Bowyer never got close to launch any sort of major challenge for the race win.

“Show me where to park this thing!”, Matt Kenseth yelled over the radio to his crew chief Jimmy Fennig in acknowledgement of just how long it’s been since his last wins (back-to-back victories at the Daytona 500 and Auto Club Speedway in February 2009). “I’ve said it after every win, but especially after over two years, I didn’t know if I’d ever have a chance to get here again.”

Behind Kenseth and Bowyer, Tony Stewart was in third place hoping his fuel would be sufficient to keep him ahead of Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle and Paul Menard. Stewart was having to lean off the fuel as far as possible and was running slowly enough for Edwards to be gaining fast. But in the end, on the final lap of the day, relative pace performance became moot: Stewart’s engine ran dry and he was abruptly coasting his way around the remaining 1.5 mile revolution, as the other cars on the lead lap all streamed past him to take the chequered flag ahead of him. He had gambled, and just fallen short.

“You know, it took almost the whole race to crack the top-10, so to be in the position we were in there at the end, I guess is a good thing,” Stewart said. “But when you’re in that position and you can’t capitalize, it’s pretty frustrating. Speeding on pit road didn’t exactly help the cause either.”

Matt Kenseth’s victory means a climb of six places to third in the Sprint Cup standings. Kyle Busch is knocked off the top of the standings by Carl Edwards, whose third place in the circumstances (suffering horribly from food poisoning) was quite possibly the performance of the night.

The star closer of the previous two races, Kevin Harvick, never really featured at Texas, after being hit with a penalty for a tyre violation during the very first round of pit stops and then finding his car too loose early on and as a result falls in position to ninth. Mark Martin takes a five place tumble in the standings after wrecking on lap 214, but Clint Bowyer’s second place finish at Texas pushes him into the Chase positions along with Paul Menard.

The next race is a restrictor plate affair at the famous Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama on April 17, which will require drivers to select their partners for some high speed drafting for the first time since the Daytona 500 in February.

Race results

   ST CAR DRIVER             ENGINE     PTS        TIME
1  4  17  Matt Kenseth       Ford       48/2  3:21:26.000s  
2  3  33  Clint Bowyer       Chevrolet  43/1  +  8.315s      
3  2  99  Carl Edwards       Ford       42/1  + 17.158s     
4  9  16  Greg Biffle        Ford       41/1  + 18.066s     
5  19 27  Paul Menard        Chevrolet  39/0  + 19.217s     
6  7  9   Marcos Ambrose     Ford       39/1  + 21.267s     
7  1  6   David Ragan        Ford       38/1  + 21.548s     
8  6  48  Jimmie Johnson     Chevrolet  36/0  + 22.034s     
9  28 88  Dale Earnhardt Jr. Chevrolet  36/1  + 22.663s     
10 10 22  Kurt Busch         Dodge      35/1  + 24.216s     
11 12 31  Jeff Burton        Chevrolet  33/0  + 27.168s     
12 26 14  Tony Stewart       Chevrolet  33/1  + 32.770s     
13 14 42  Juan Montoya       Chevrolet  31/0  +   1 lap       
14 16 39  Ryan Newman        Chevrolet  30/0  +   1 lap       
15 23 11  Denny Hamlin       Toyota     29/0  +   1 lap       
16 11 18  Kyle Busch         Toyota     28/0  +   1 lap       
17 18 21  Trevor Bayne       Ford       0     +   1 lap       
18 27 2   Brad Keselowski    Dodge      27/1  +   1 lap       
19 15 43  A.J. Allmendinger  Ford       25/0  +  2 laps      
20 29 29  Kevin Harvick      Chevrolet  24/0  +  2 laps      
21 13 4   Kasey Kahne        Toyota     23/0  +  2 laps      
22 17 1   Jamie McMurray     Chevrolet  21/0  +  2 laps      
23 32 24  Jeff Gordon        Chevrolet  23/1  +  2 laps      
24 8  20  Joey Logano        Toyota     20/0  +  3 laps      
25 34 47  Bobby Labonte      Toyota     19/0  +  3 laps      
26 22 13  Casey Mears        Toyota     18/0  +  3 laps      
27 30 83  Brian Vickers      Toyota     17/0  +  4 laps      
28 24 09  Landon Cassill     Chevrolet  0     +  4 laps      
29 25 00  David Reutimann    Toyota     15/0  +  5 laps      
30 38 36  Dave Blaney        Chevrolet  15/1  +  5 laps      
31 39 7   Robby Gordon       Dodge      14/1  +  6 laps      
32 43 71  Andy Lally         Ford       12/0  + 10 laps     
33 41 32  Ken Schrader       Ford       11/0  + 15 laps     
34 42 37  Tony Raines        Ford       10/0  + 15 laps     
35 31 56  Martin Truex Jr.   Toyota     9/0    213 laps  Accident
36 21 5   Mark Martin        Chevrolet  8/0    213 laps  Accident
37 5  78  Regan Smith        Chevrolet  7/0    212 laps  Accident
38 33 195 David Starr        Ford       0      122 laps  Accident
39 37 87  Joe Nemechek       Toyota     0       60 laps  Clutch
40 20 66  Michael McDowell   Toyota     4/0     56 laps  Electrical
41 35 46  J.J. Yeley         Chevrolet  3/0     52 laps  Electrical
42 40 34  David Gilliland    Ford       2/0     44 laps  Accident
43 36 60  Mike Skinner       Toyota     0       36 laps  Rear Gear

Sprint Cup championship points

POS +/- DRIVER              PTS  GAP    ST P  W  T5 T10
1   +1  Carl Edwards        256  Leader 7  2  1  4  5
2   -1  Kyle Busch          247   -9    7  0  1  4  5
3   +6  Matt Kenseth        243   -13   7  1  1  3  4
4   -1  Jimmie Johnson      243   -13   7  0  0  3  4
5   -1  Kurt Busch          240   -16   7  0  0  1  5
6   +2  Dale Earnhardt Jr.  235   -21   7  1  0  1  4
7   -1  Ryan Newman         233   -23   7  0  0  3  4
8   -1  Juan Montoya        232   -24   7  1  0  2  4
9   -4  Kevin Harvick       228   -28   7  0  2  3  4
10  +1  Tony Stewart        213   -43   7  0  0  1  2
11  +2  Paul Menard         209   -47   7  0  0  2  3
12  +4  Clint Bowyer        201   -55   7  0  0  1  3
====== CHASE FOR THE Sprint CUP - CURRENT CONTENDERS =======
13  +1  A.J. Allmendinger   193   -63   7  0  0  0  1
14  -2  Jeff Gordon         192   -64   7  0  1  2  2
15  -5  Mark Martin         189   -67   7  0  0  0  2
16  -1  Kasey Kahne         186   -70   7  0  0  0  3
17  +1  David Ragan         185   -71   7  1  0  0  2
18  +2  Greg Biffle         183   -73   7  0  0  1  2
19  +3  Marcos Ambrose      175   -81   7  0  0  1  2
20  -1  Denny Hamlin        174   -82   7  0  0  0  1
21  -4  Martin Truex Jr.    160   -96   7  0  0  0  1
22  +3  Brad Keselowski     159   -97   7  0  0  0  0
23  -2  Bobby Labonte       157   -99   7  0  0  1  1
24  -1  Jamie McMurray      157   -99   7  1  0  0  1
25  +3  Jeff Burton         156  -100   7  0  0  0  0
26  -2  Brian Vickers       149  -107   7  0  0  0  2
27  -1  David Reutimann     144  -112   7  0  0  0  0
28  -1  Joey Logano         144  -112   7  0  0  0  0
29  --  David Gilliland     114  -142   7  0  0  1  1
30  --  Regan Smith         112  -144   7  0  0  0  1
31  --  Robby Gordon        104  -152   7  0  0  0  0
32  +1  Casey Mears          93  -163   6  0  0  0  0
33  +1  Dave Blaney          87  -169   7  0  0  0  0
34  -2  Bill Elliott         82  -174   4  0  0  0  0
35  --  Tony Raines          81  -175   6  0  0  0  0
36  --  Andy Lally*          73  -183   6  0  0  0  0
37  --  Ken Schrader         44  -212   3  0  0  0  0
38  --  Terry Labonte        30  -226   1  0  0  0  0
39  --  J.J. Yeley           26  -230   7  0  0  0  0
40  --  Michael McDowell     25  -231   6  0  0  0  0
41  --  Michael Waltrip       4  -252   1  0  0  0  0
42  --  Brian Keselowski*     3  -253   1  0  0  0  0
43  --  Trevor Bayne          0  -256   7  0  1  1  1
44  --  Steve Wallace         0  -256   1  0  0  0  0
45  --  Landon Cassill        0  -256   6  0  0  0  0
46  --  Mike Skinner          0  -256   4  0  0  0  0
47  --  Travis Kvapil         0  -256   6  0  0  0  0
48  --  Hermie Sadler         0  -256   1  0  0  0  0
49  --  David Starr           0  -256   1  0  0  0  0
50  -1  Robert Richardson Jr. 0  -256   1  0  0  0  0
51  -1  Dennis Setzer         0  -256   1  0  0  0  0
52  -1  Joe Nemechek          0  -256   7  0  0  0  0
53  -1  Todd Bodine           0  -256   1  0  0  0  0
54  -1  Kevin Conway          0  -256   0  0  0  0  0
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