Archive for the ‘NASCAR’ Category

Stewart-Haas blows away recent frustrations with a triumphant team one-two led by Ryan Newman, amid problems for Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Coming into this weekend’s Cup race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, the word most commonly used by everyone to describe Tony Stewart was “frustrated.”

“Yes, he is frustrated,” agreed Stewart’s team mate Ryan Newman on Friday. “For that matter, I’m ahead of him in points and I’m frustrated, too.”

“I am frustrated because I keep having to answer the question,” said a frankly surly Stewart in the routine round of pre-race interviews on Friday. “‘Are you happy when things aren’t going the way you like it to go? Makes you frustrated, doesn’t it?’ So yes, we’re frustrated.”

The weekend’s Lenox Industrial Tools 301 at Loudon was widely described as make-or-break for Stewart-Haas’s season and for any hopes either driver might still have of making the Chase. Partly that’s because New Hampshire has always been a strong venue for Stewart, who has won on the low-banked one mile “true” oval twice and only missed out in last year’s autumn race because of a mis-call on the fuel pit strategy.

As team owner, Stewart recently took action about Stewart-Haas’ malaise by shaking up personnel, axing one of the team’s senior stalwarts in director of competition Bobby Hutchens at the start of June. But it hadn’t seemed to do anything to improve the situation, with Stewart even starting to talk about not wanting to make the cut for the Chase at all if the team wasn’t in a position to win races and be genuinely competitive in the Cup championship play-offs.

“Ultimately, we want to be first or second in either order, so yeah, I’m sure he’s frustrated,” Newman said. “This is crunch time and this has usually been his time, but it hasn’t been this year.”

Against that background, Stewart-Haas’ front row lock-out in qualifying at Loudon on Friday afternoon raised a few eyebrows and came as rather a surprise, as both Newman and Stewart broke the old track record for the circuit in the process. Of course, claiming first and second place on the starting grid is a long way from genuine race success, but it was a leap in performance that got people wondering.

As the Stewart-Haas cars led the field to the green flag in the gorgeous Sunday afternoon sunshine and pleasant 70 degree Fahrenheit summer temperatures, there was still a very long way (301 laps to be precise) between a fleeting qualifying success and lasting race triumph. And history was not on Stewart-Haas’ side, as it had been over five years since the last time the top two cars in qualifying had taken the chequered flag in the race in the same order (Denny Hamlin and Kurt Busch at Pocono in June 2006, since you’re wondering.)

Kurt Busch made an early attempt to break up the Stewart-Haas front row, but Tony Stewart saw him off and then took the lead from Newman and who would lead from there until the first caution of the race on lap 29 for debris just as Stewart was starting to put straggling backmarkers like Joe Nemechek and Michael McDowell a lap down.

Already we were seeing good progress for Jimmie Johnson (recovering from a poor qualifying position that saw him start from 28th), AJ Allmendinger, Jeff Gordon and Brad Keselowski who gained four spots in the ensuing pit stops under caution. Less happy were Juan Montoya and also Kevin Harvick, who seemed stuck going nowhere at the bottom of the top 20.

But without a doubt the man having the worst of things was Kyle Busch who had a scare with the wall and a narrow save on lap 9 and then took two visits in pit lane under the caution – once for major set-up changes, the second for four tyres – that put him to the back. “We made some big changes there on that pit stop,” he explained. “We came back and got four just to make sure we got all the changes we wanted to.”

Despite all that work he seemed no happier in the next green flag stint, and on lap 59 his right front tyre blew and the #18 slammed into the wall at turn 2 to bring out the second caution of the day. “Just blew a bead, I guess, transferring too much brake heat through the wheel,” he said, referring to the tyre edge.

He denied that the crash had been due to any contact with Dale Earnhardt Jr.: “Nice try at making up a story,” Busch replied. “There’s contact with everybody out there. It had nothing to do with anybody else … Nothing else besides that.” The repairs to the car took some 76 laps and meant that Busch would finish in 36th place, dropping from the lead of the Cup points standings to fifth some 20pts off the new leader as a result.

In the meantime, Jamie McMurray had briefly led the race before being ousted by Newman, but it was really Kurt Busch who took charge between the two yellows. After Busch’s crash it was Mark Martin who led the restart on lap 65, but once again Newman was quick to take charge again with Tony Stewart once more slotting into second place through to the third caution (for debris) on lap 100.

Jimmie Johnson opted to stay out of pit lane for temporary track position while those that did come in opted mainly for two tyres, which did not seem to suit the Stewart-Haas duo nearly as well at this point and they slipped back, allowing Jeff Gordon, Jeff Burton and Kasey Kahne to take up the top three positions as Johnson started to fade on worn rubber and eventually come in for an off-sync green flag stop on lap 135.

Gordon’s lead was all the more impressive given that his #24 was having battery problems and was definitely the fastest car on the track during this midrace stage. “We knew we were losing the power to the engine from an alternator standpoint,” he said. “These new gauges have warning lights on them that the whole gauge lights up.” The problems meant he had to shut down the cooling system, including the cooling to the brakes.

Surprisingly Gordon opted not to switch out the twin batteries at the next round of stops that took place after Brad Keselowski cut a tyre in turn 3 on lap 144, a particularly useful caution for Jimmie Johnson as it gave him a much-needed wave around. Gordon would rue the decision to risk the batteries when he lost all power shortly after the restart on lap 154 and dropped to the back of the lead lap; he was saved when a rapid fifth caution materialised for debris on lap 161 allowing him to come in for the battery exchange under yellow.

Kurt Busch had taken the lead during the previous round of pit stops and kept it despite a strong challenge at the restart on lap 169 from Brian Vickers, but the race was quickly back under yellow with the sixth caution of the day after Denny Hamlin got helped into a spin by AJ Allmendinger. Again, the main beneficiary of the caution was Jeff Gordon, who got the lucky dog back onto the lead lap after his lengthy battery exchange pit stop.

Busch was still leading at the restart on lap 174 and this time the green flag racing lasted only ten laps before Mark Martin spun out of 14th position with a cut tyre in turn 2. Kurt continued to lead at the restart on lap 189, but Tony Stewart was now awake again and charging, passing Carl Edwards for second on lap 191 and then taking the lead from Busch down the inside on lap 194, his team mate Ryan Newman not far behind in fourth.

At this point teams were looking ahead to the end game and feverishly calculating fuel loads and possible tyre strategies: Dale Earnhardt Jr. had been religiously taking four new tyres at every pit stop so far while Juan Montoya’s #42 team were planning on two tyres only from here on, while Busch’s #22 team were planning fuel strategies to see off the #99 of Edwards, while Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon were now running 6th and 7th after their earlier problems although somewhat off-sync in terms of stops. But Tony Stewart was looking particularly strong, having found the best compromise between handling through the corner apex (albeit describing the #14 as a little tight) versus getting out of the corner cleanly and allowing him to put the power down early giving him maximum speed and chances for overtaking traffic.

A debris caution on lap 214 allowed everyone the opportunity to pit under yellow, with a wide variety of strategies emerging including Joey Logano opting to stay out altogether and assume the lead and Clint Bowyer gaining ten spots with a fuel-only approach. Jimmie Johnson must have wished he could have gone fuel-only too when his own pit stop ended up with a missing lugnut, an irritatingly frequent recurring theme for the #48 over the past year which meant he had to return to pit lane and fall to the back of the lead lap.

At the restart, Marcos Ambrose surged past Logano to lead lap 222 with Montoya looking strong behind them, but Brian Vickers’ strong day was about to come to a premature end when he spun on the front straight and hit the wall on lap 225. Vickers headed to the garage for lengthy repairs, Logano finally headed in for fuel, Mark Martin got the free pass and Clint Bowyer assumed the lead followed by Ryan Newman and Jeff Burton.

Bowyer’s old tyres were no match for Newman’s fresh ones and the polesitter duly reassumed the lead, with Greg Biffle moving past Bowyer into second place. At this point the critical factor was emerging as fuel, with Biffle being told he was eight laps short of going full distance and Kurt Busch similarly advised he was five laps shy of making it to the chequered flag.

If it was a caution they needed then Jimmie Johnson duly obliged by hitting the wall on turn 2 on lap 240 after getting hit by Juan Montoya, bringing out the tenth (and ultimately final) yellow of the afternoon. “We had some issues on pit road,” said Johnson, “And then the #42 – I don’t think of the three times he’s wrecked me it’s been intentional, but he’s out of mulligans and I’ve had enough of, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, and you’re spun out.’ It’s happened way to often.”

Greg Biffle decided there was no chance of being able to make it all the way to the end without a further stop and duly came in, as did Dale Earnhardt Jr. who had been suffering a suspected tyre rub on his left front; unfortunately he then picked up a tyre violation that put him to the back of the leap lap in 33rd. Earnhardt had already been unhappy with the change of tyre compounds this weekend, which Tony Stewart had earlier praised as being “grippier” and the key to his team’s qualifying success but which met with less success on the #88.

“We struggled all weekend,” admitted Earnhardt. “In practice we just didn’t really have the speed we had last year. We’ve just got to figure out why. What’s the difference in this tyre and try to figure it out. I mean, every damn week they change the tyre … I guess [NASCAR] is getting on ’em about how they build them or something, and they had to bring a new one here. Some kind of new construction. I didn’t like it.”

Stewart-Haas had learned from last year’s autumn race at New Hampshire and knew that track position was crucial at this point of proceedings, so Newman stayed out in the lead ahead of Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin as the race resumed on lap 245 with 56 laps to go to the chequered. Busch was looking strong going into the corners, but critically Newman was faster out of them which allowed him to get the power down and pull away out of trouble to keep the lead.

The focus from this point was on the continuing surge of Jeff Gordon who was back up to fourth, and a strong recovery by Jimmie Johnson after the lugnut and spin problems. There was also the relentless rise of Tony Stewart, back into the top ten after the restart and passing Carl Edwards (who had dropped back to fifth) 20 laps later.

Most people however were having to run with one eye on the fuel gauge: a rare exception was Newman himself who didn’t seem to be sparing the horsepower as he pulled out a lead of nearly 2s over Kurt Busch before the #22 was forced to give up the chase and fell to fifth in extreme fuel conservation mode – he would eventually run dry on the last lap and finish in tenth. That allowed Tony Stewart up another place, then past Gordon on lap 286 and finally swooping on Denny Hamlin for second place on lap 294. In the remaining seven laps Stewart put his foot down and did everything he could to close on his team mate who was now encountering lapped traffic and worrying about his fuel load, which allowed the #14 to cut the lead back to under a second.

“I can promise you, I didn’t leave anything out there,” Stewart said. “That was as hard as I could run ’til the end. I couldn’t get the rest of the way. I couldn’t get any further than that.”

And indeed, Newman had just enough pace – and just enough fuel – to make it home in first place with Stewart in second, recreating that qualifying order performance and blasting Stewart-Haas to their first 1-2 finish in the team’s three season history.

“One hell of a day, boys. One hell of a day!” yelled a proud and no longer remotely frustrated team owner over the radio. Labelling it “a perfect weekend for Stewart-Haas Racing,” Stewart went on: “I’m so damn proud I can’t see straight. I’m proud of my buddy there standing on top of his car. He deserved it. He did an awesome job this weekend.”

“We backed up what everybody said we couldn’t back up, and that was our qualifying effort on Friday … We knew we were capable of it,” said an emotional Newman as he dedicated the win by the #39 – sponsored by the US Army – to military personnel and their friends and relatives. “We were so close so many times this year.”

Stewart wanted to give special thanks to his pit crew chief Darian Grubb who had been ailing this weekend. “They told him yesterday he’s got pneumonia,” Stewart said. “He’s battling through a weekend like this, never missed a beat on the box today.”

Denny Hamlin hung on to finish in third place, admitting that his own crew chief Mick Ford had been “screaming that we’ve got to back off. At that point, you have to think about the risk versus reward … As bad as I wanted to go up there and race those guys, I had to make the smart move and finish the race.”

Sadly there was one late-race casualty when Jeff Gordon’s fightback ended with a blown right front tyre on the final lap, which meant that he fell from fourth to 11th in the final seconds.

“What did not happen to us today?” said Gordon. “It was a pretty crazy day for us, but certainly a lot to smile about with how great our car was. My goodness, our car was so good … That long of a run on tyres, I should have been a little bit more conservative,” he suggested: “I saw Hamlin starting to check up trying to save fuel and we had a shot of getting to him, so I started charging the corner a little bit harder and we put too much temperature and that’s what blew the right front tyre.”

Gordon suggested that his earlier battery problems which had forced him to turn off the car’s cooling systems may well have played a part in the tyre failure at the end. “We had so many issues thrown at us today that I wasn’t really thinking a whole lot about what kind of temperature we were putting into the brakes when those blowers were off or when we had to turn them on and turn them off,” he said.

Instead, Joey Logano’s earlier off-sync pit strategy was rewarded with fourth place just ahead of the recovering Jimmie Johnson in the #48. “I’m arguing with myself whether I should be frustrated or proud,” said Johnson. “We finished awfully good with everything we went through today.”

Although he was understandably angry with Montoya – “It’s painful to get spun out on the race track” – Johnson’s main source of annoyance seemed to lie more with his team after yet another lugnut issue. “When it’s key times for stops, we have mistakes. I’ve been real patient all year trying to build. I’m running out of patience. I care for these guys deeply for going over the wall and I know they’re very talented guys, but we’re getting into my livelihood in a little bit when we get into this Chase and we’ve got to be right.”

Up front, Ryan Newman had richly deserved the win, leading the most laps of anyone – 119 of the race total of 301 compared with 66 for Kurt Busch and 48 for Tony Stewart. It’s his 15th Cup win in 351 starts, ending a 47-race winless streak, making him the 13th different winner in the 19 races so far in the 2011 season (there were only 13 different winners in the whole of 2010) and marks the first time that a team has claimed the top two spots in both qualifying and the race since Hendrick Motorsports managed it at the Daytona 500 all the way back in 1989 with Darrell Waltrip and Ken Schrader.

It’s not a magic wand for the team – as with Penske’s recent resurgence, the proof will only come if they can build on it and make this sort of strong showing a routine week-in, week-out occurrence on a range of circuits. Nor does it miraculously revive the Stewart and Newman’s Chase chances (Newman is provisionally in with eighth place and now has a win that may see him claim one of the wildcards if it comes to it, but Stewart is still on the outside looking in with 11th.)

But really, when it comes to sudden sightings of the light at the end of the tunnel, it doesn’t come any more blinding than this 1-2 for Tony Stewart and his race winning driver Ryan Newman. They’ll be hoping it gives them just the momentum they need going into one of the biggest Cup races of the year, the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in two weeks time.

Race results

1. #39 Ryan Newman Chevrolet 301 laps 03:06:08s (48/2 pts)
2. #14 Tony Stewart Chevrolet 301 laps + 0.773s (43/1 pts)
3. #11 Denny Hamlin Toyota 301 laps + 3.488s (41/0 pts)
4. #20 Joey Logano Toyota 301 laps + 8.125s (41/1 pts)
5. #48 Jimmie Johnson Chevrolet 301 laps + 8.481s (40/1 pts)
6. #4 Kasey Kahne Toyota 301 laps + 8.504s (39/1 pts)
7. #47 Bobby Labonte Toyota 301 laps + 12.211s (37/0 pts)
8. #56 Martin Truex Jr. Toyota 301 laps + 12.486s (36/0 pts)
9. #9 Marcos Ambrose Ford 301 laps + 12.731s (36/1 pts)
10. #22 Kurt Busch Dodge 301 laps + 13.082s (35/1 pts)
11. #24 Jeff Gordon Chevrolet 301 laps + 14.325s (34/1 pts)
12. #43 A.J. Allmendinger Ford 301 laps + 16.529s (32/0 pts)
13. #99 Carl Edwards Ford 301 laps + 16.844s (32/1 pts)
14. #6 David Ragan Ford 301 laps + 17.943s (30/0 pts)
15. #88 Dale Earnhardt Jr. Chevrolet 301 laps + 18.960s (29/0 pts)
16. #31 Jeff Burton Chevrolet 301 laps + 21.169s (28/0 pts)
17. #33 Clint Bowyer Chevrolet 301 laps + 21.572s (28/1 pts)
18. #16 Greg Biffle Ford 301 laps + 21.871s (27/1 pts)
19. #00 David Reutimann Toyota 301 laps + 22.044s (25/0 pts)
20. #17 Matt Kenseth Ford 301 laps + 22.302s (24/0 pts)
21. #29 Kevin Harvick Chevrolet 301 laps + 22.506s (23/0 pts)
22. #5 Mark Martin Chevrolet 301 laps + 22.848s (23/1 pts)
23. #38 J.J. Yeley Ford 301 laps + 25.965s (21/0 pts)
24. #27 Paul Menard Chevrolet 301 laps + 26.420s (20/0 pts)
25. #34 David Gilliland Ford 301 laps + 26.916s (19/0 pts)
26. #51 Landon Cassill Chevrolet 300 laps + 1 Lap (0pts)
27. #7 Scott Wimmer Dodge 300 laps + 1 Lap (0pts)
28. #71 Andy Lally * Ford 300 laps + 1 Lap (17/1 pts)
29. #36 Dave Blaney Chevrolet 300 laps + 1 Lap (15/0 pts)
30. #42 Juan Montoya Chevrolet 300 laps + 1 Lap (14/0 pts)
31. #1 Jamie McMurray Chevrolet 300 laps + 1 Lap (14/1 pts)
32. #32 Mike Bliss Ford 299 laps + 2 Laps (0pts)
33. #78 Regan Smith Chevrolet 298 laps + 3 Laps (11/0 pts)
34. #83 Brian Vickers Toyota 283 laps + 18 Laps (10/0 pts)
35. #2 Brad Keselowski Dodge 257 laps + 44 Laps (9/0 pts)
36. #18 Kyle Busch Toyota 224 laps + 77 Laps (8/0 pts)
37. #30 David Stremme Chevrolet 159 laps Engine (7/0 pts)
38. #13 Casey Mears Toyota 83 laps Brakes (6/0 pts)
39. #46 Erik Darnell Chevrolet 72 laps Brakes (5/0 pts)
40. #66 Michael McDowell Toyota 46 laps Brakes (4/0 pts)
41. #87 Joe Nemechek Toyota 37 laps Brakes (0pts)
42. #60 Mike Skinner Toyota 17 laps Electrical (0pts)
43. #55 Jeff Green Ford 11 laps Brakes (0pts)

* Denotes Rookie

Sprint Cup standings

PO CHG DRIVER                 PTS  GAP   ST  P  W  T5 T10
1  +1  Carl Edwards           652        19  2  1  10 13
2  +3  Jimmie Johnson         645  -7    19  0  1  7  12
3  +1  Kurt Busch             641  -11   19  3  1  4  11
4  -1  Kevin Harvick          637  -15   19  0  3  6  10
5  -4  Kyle Busch             632  -20   19  0  3  10 11
6  --  Matt Kenseth           626  -26   19  1  2  6  10
7  --  Jeff Gordon            587  -65   19  1  2  6  8
8  +1  Ryan Newman            586  -66   19  1  1  6  9
9  -1  Dale Earnhardt Jr.     577  -75   19  1  0  3  8
10 --  Denny Hamlin           570  -82   19  0  1  4  7
11 --  Tony Stewart           570  -82   19  0  0  2  7
12 --  Clint Bowyer           542  -110  19  0  0  3  8
13 +2  David Ragan            524  -128  19  1  1  3  6
14 +3  Kasey Kahne            523  -129  19  1  0  3  7
15 -1  Greg Biffle            523  -129  19  0  0  1  5
16 +2  A.J. Allmendinger      515  -137  19  0  0  1  4
17 -4  Juan Montoya           511  -141  19  2  0  2  6
18 +2  Joey Logano            510  -142  19  1  0  3  5
19 -3  Paul Menard            506  -146  19  0  0  3  5
20 -1  Mark Martin            500  -152  19  1  0  1  5
21 +1  Marcos Ambrose         495  -157  19  0  0  3  6
22 +1  Martin Truex Jr.       485  -167  19  0  0  0  6
23 -2  Brad Keselowski        475  -177  19  1  1  2  4
24 --  David Reutimann        448  -204  19  0  0  1  2
25 --  Jeff Burton            445  -207  19  0  0  0  0
26 --  Brian Vickers          415  -237  19  0  0  1  5
27 --  Regan Smith            410  -242  19  0  1  1  3
28 +1  Bobby Labonte          400  -252  19  0  0  1  2
29 -1  Jamie McMurray         400  -252  19  1  0  0  2
30 --  David Gilliland        347  -305  19  0  0  1  2
31 +1  Dave Blaney            275  -377  19  0  0  0  0
32 -1  Casey Mears            267  -385  18  0  0  0  0
33 --  Andy Lally*            215  -437  16  0  0  0  0
34 --  Robby Gordon           193  -459  14  0  0  0  0
35 --  Tony Raines            123  -529  11  0  0  0  0
36 --  Bill Elliott           100  -552  5   0  0  0  0
37 +3  J.J. Yeley             77   -575  16  0  0  0  0
38 -1  Ken Schrader           73   -579  5   0  0  0  0
39 -1  Terry Labonte          68   -584  4   0  0  0  0
40 -1  Michael McDowell       68   -584  17  0  0  0  0
41 --  David Stremme          34   -618  7   0  0  0  0
42 --  Michael Waltrip        20   -632  2   0  0  0  0
43 --  Andy Pilgrim           18   -634  1   0  0  0  0
44 --  Chris Cook             17   -635  1   0  0  0  0
45 --  Boris Said             16   -636  1   0  0  0  0
46 --  Brian Simo             11   -641  1   0  0  0  0
47 --  Geoffrey Bodine        6    -646  1   0  0  0  0
48 --  T.J. Bell*             5    -647  2   0  0  0  0
49 --  Erik Darnell           5    -647  1   0  0  0  0
50 -1  Brian Keselowski*      3    -649  1   0  0  0  0
51 -1  Steve Park             2    -650  1   0  0  0  0

You know that a race hasn’t been the most exciting of affairs when all the next-day headlines are about the traffic getting to Kentucky Speedway rather than the cars going 175 mph on it in the Quaker State 400 race itself.

It was the inaugural Cup race at the venue, and in order to win the contract to add a Cup race to its existing Truck and Nationwide Series line-up the facility had needed to expand from its previous 66,000 capacity to something more in the region of 107,000 – and it achieved this rather magnificently, it has to be said.

Unfortunately what no one seemed to have thought through was the impact on the surrounding infrastructure in the city of Sparta where the Speedway is located, and the traffic backlogs started hours before the Saturday night race was scheduled to start. Not only was a normal 30-60 minute drive taking the better part of five hours, some fans never made it at all – and many who did arrived too late for the start, only to be told there was no parking left anywhere in the area after the track organised some 33,000 parking spots that proved to be woefully inadequate. One of the fans who was caught out was the president of the state senate, who said afterwards that he would convene an official enquiry into what had happened; the fact that he’s rumoured to be lined up to run for state governor is surely purely coincidental.

The whole debacle was a serious embarrassment for all concerned, with both the track management and NASCAR itself moved to apologise to fans. “While NASCAR was thrilled by the incredible response to our inaugural NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race in Kentucky, we also are extremely disappointed by the traffic problems and inconveniences endured by fans who wanted to be part of our races,” said NASCAR chairman Brian France on Monday. “This situation cannot happen again.”

The controversy even caught up the Cup drivers themselves, with Ryan Newman hoping that fans would give them a chance to put things right next year and Denny Hamlin finding himself gridlocked on the way in with everyone else: “Bad news is I’m prolly not going to make the drivers meeting in 3 hours because I’m in this traffic with everyone else,” he tweeted from his stationary car. “Good news, I’m starting in the back anyway [because of an engine change.]”

The fact that the traffic situation hogged all the headlines after the race does rather confirm that the race itself was the closest thing you’ll see to a “routine dull day at the office” as you’ll get in motorsport. The drivers all worked hard, but there was little to show for it at the end of the night.

Going into the race all the talk had been about the track condition. The track management’s focus up till then had been on expanding capacity, but now raceday loomed it was clear that the Speedway surface itself was in a less than optimal situation with the drivers worried about all the bumps in the surface: Jeff Gordon spoke of tracks that “just absolutely have to be repaved – this one would be one of them. It is very rough here.” And sure enough, the track management have said that they will look into a complete repaving of the circuit in the next year or so.

Drivers didn’t think that the bumps would have a great effect for the Cup race itself, but were worried about the impact on qualifying – so it was rather ironic that the qualifying session was aborted midway through because of rain showers and we never got to see that play out, or else we might have got a more interesting mixed up grid for the Quaker State 400 than we did.

Kyle Busch inherited pole position as a result based on earlier practice session times. Busch had Nationwide and Truck experience at Kentucky and so wasn’t phased at all by the prospect of the first new Cup venue on the calendar in ten years, and indeed most of the big names like Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson were similarly familiar with the Speedway in some car or other. Carl Edwards had even taken his first national-level carrer victory here in Trucks, while Joey Logano was particularly expected to build on recent momentum given that he had been the winner of the last three years of Nationwide races – although he could finish only tenth this year in a race won by Brad Keselowski.

In the Cup race, Kyle took the green flag in the late day sunshine alongside Juan Montoya, but it was his brother Kurt who got the best drive off the final corner to break through and run alongside the #18 , finally getting a nose in front to officially lead the first lap, the two running side-by-side and exchanging the lead through a lap for the next several minutes before Kurt finally got past and put some clean air in between him and Kyle, the two of them pulling out a comfortable lead over the rest of the field.

Because of the recent rain, NASCAR had already announced a competition caution for lap 30 for the teams to check over how the cars were faring, and Kasey Kahne led at the restart only to get trounced by Kyle Busch who was once again the king of the restarts, with Kurt soon up to second but over 2s behind Kyle as the field embarked on a green flag stint that would last 111 laps and which would see over half the 43-car field go a lap down.

There was little change in the top six which saw Kahne, Johnson, Edwards and Keselowski playing back up roles to the Busch brothers in the top six. Green flag pit stops started around lap 80 (save for Marcos Ambrose who needed to pit earlier after a miscommunication with his team in the earlier stop) and Kyle Busch cycled back to the front once they were complete. Brian Vickers got a speeding drive-thru penalty, Dave Penalty needed to come back in for a missing lugnut, Kahne was complaining of a mystery vibration that the team couldn’t trace and told him simply to deal with it, and Jimmie Johnson was back to his perennial chronic problem of slow stops.

With little to report on track other than David Reutimann cracking the top five and Denny Hamlin impressing by getting within sight of the top ten having started from the rear because of that overnight engine change, it was almost a relief when green flag pit stops loomed once more, starting on lap 120 with Kasey Kahne but not seeing leader Kyle Busch hit pit road for another nine laps, after which he resumed in the lead with nearly 9s lead over Carl Edwards now in second.

With the darkness now well set in and track conditions changing fast, the second yellow of the night – and the first “proper” caution – came out on lap 139 for debris. While most cars took the chance to come into pit lane, Brad Keselowski and Tony Stewart opted to stay out and assumed first and second position for the restart ahead of Kyle and Kurt Busch and Kasey Kahne in fifth.

This green flag lasted only six laps before another caution, this time for oil on the track after David Ragan was seen skidding at a very wild angle and lucky to save the #6 from a wreck. A few cars opted to take the latest opportunity to pit, including Kahne who still needed that vibration taking care of, but the leaders as a whole stayed out on track and in the restart on lap 158 there was a three-wide battle between Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski for the lead before Keselowski finally stamped his authority on the matter.

Not that it was all going so well for Keselowski: he was suffering from radio problems, receiving nothing from pit lanes and only intermittently able to talk with his spotter, forcing him to rely on using old school hand signals to relay information to his pit chief Paul Wolfe about whether the car needed adjustments for understeer of oversteer at the next pit stop. Keselowski was also forced to keep track of fuel mileage and make his own call on when he needed to come into the pits, and to his credit pulled this all off with aplomb.

Having gone off-sync in their previous pit stops, Stewart was in on lap 180 and Keselowski on lap 187, while Kyle Busch was able to stay out with the main field until lap 193. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Denny Hamlin had just come into the pits – handing the lead temporarily to David Ragan – when Jamie McMurray’s #1 car suddenly suffered an engine failure on lap 200 and expired in a trail of smoke, triggering the fourth yellow of the evening which allowed Ragan to come in for a more leisurely yellow flag stop, rejoining in tenth place.

Keselowski resumed in the lead ahead of Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart when the green flag came out again on lap 210, but all the leaders would have to pit for one last splash and dash before the end of the race.

Still off-sync, Stewart was the first of those to take to pit road under green on lap 233, surprising many by opting to elongate his stop by taking four tyres where others were set to gamble on taking only two. It was a callback to the traditional approach of using the fresh rubber to stream back up through the field to recover any places lost because of the longer stop, but the changes to cars and tyres this year have repeatedly demonstrated that this tactic no longer works on medium-length “cookie-cutter” ovals such as this and that track position is far more evaluable than fresh tyres – and it was no different here at Kentucky. Stewart would pay for that call by crew chief Darian Grubb and would finish in 12th place, although Stewart himself put the blame down to the #14’s pace at restarts: “We just couldn’t get going on the restarts,” he said. “Beyond frustrating.”

Keselowski was still in the lead by Kyle Busch was not slashing the gap between them and looked set to make a jump, when instead he dived for pit lane on lap 239 and the #18 crew put in their predictably phenomenal job in turning their man around and getting him back out on track. Keselowski came in next time around and had a less speedy stop, which – while by no means bad – meant that after coming in a second ahead of Busch, he returned to the track three seconds behind.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was among the last of those to pit, and as he exited pit lane the left front tyre – which hadn’t been changed during the flying stop – suddenly exploded on him, taking an awful lot of bodywork with it as the rubber flailed around, depositing debris on the track that forced the fifth caution of the evening.

Earnhardt Jr. denied that it has been a case of worn tyres that they should have spotted and changed in the pit stop just seconds earlier. “No, I slid the left front tyre real bad coming on to pit road. It was all my fault.”

It hadn’t been the best of nights for the fan favourite in any case. “We didn’t ride the bumps good. The car didn’t cut the corner good. We could change the balance but it wouldn’t make us go faster; when we were too loose and we would tighten it up, we wouldn’t find any speed in that,” he said afterwards. “So we just didn’t have a good set-up in there for whatever reason. And we would have finished well if we could have gotten some track position … We were just so slow all night we could never take any chances on track position and stuff like that. We were just too slow.”

It’s the latest blow to Earnhardt’s Chase hopes. After a strong run of performances earlier in the season that saw him up to third place in the points standings, a recent string of poor finishes has wiped out all that good work and slumped him down to eighth and at risk of not making the cut; and without a race win this season (or indeed for an uncomfortably long time of over three years despite coming agonisingly close several times in 2011 only to be pipped at the post, twice by Kevin Harvick.)

David Reutimann had been in the lead when the caution came out, but he needed to hand that lead back to Kyle Busch in order to come into pit lane, returning to take the restart on lap 259 in third place behind Busch and Matt Kenseth and just ahead of Jimmie Johnson.

The green flag lasted only three laps before another caution: Clint Bowyer spun the #33 after losing a tyre, hitting the wall with his rear and then struggling to get the car pointing the right way and get going again on the steep Kentucky Speedway banking. It was surprisingly almost the only impact that any of the Richard Childress Racing drivers had made on the race all evening, RCR looking oddly anonymous here with even their standard bearer Kevin Harvick only managing a mediocre 16th.

That set up a two-lap shootout for the race win with Kyle Busch ahead of Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch, David Reutimann and Brad Keselowski. Unusually for Kyle – who typically dominates restarts – this time he struggled with a touch of wheel spin and Johnson was able to stay right alongside him through the first turns and threatened to take the lead, which would have been the race decider.

“Did Jimmie and them come get tires on that one restart?” asked Kyle at the post-race press conference. “I knew he had fresher rubber than I did for a restart. I tried to do the best I could … but I overshot my acceleration just by a little bit and spun my tyres a fuzz. That allowed him to get a little bit of momentum on me. He got a good start. We had to race down into turn 1 side-by-side rather than me getting a jump on him.

“I was just hoping that the outside lane would prevail, I could get a run through there, carry my momentum and clear him down the backstretch, race him into turn three. It was certainly a tense moment there for a second. But after I took the white, I saw the #00 coming on the #48 and getting there to make a move on him. I was like, ‘C’mon, Reuty!'”

Once the #18 proved to have the edge and managed to pull ahead, Johnson faltered and fell back into the clutches of Reutimann who looked particularly strong in these final minutes. With the #48 and the #00 locked in battle for second place it gave Busch all the time he needed to pull out a safe gap at the front and cruise to a comfortable win in the end having led 125 of the 267 race laps.

“I was able to hang with the #18 inside of turns 1 and 2, and he just cleared me going down the back,” said Johnson said. “If I could have stayed inside of him, it would have been one heck of a finish at the end … but it didn’t happen that way, and then he cleared me and went on, and then I had my hands full with the #00. David was probably the best car at the end, and if he had cleared me sooner, I think he would have been up there with the #18 racing for the win.”

“It was hit or miss the first part of the race,” said Reutimann. “We would make it better, then make it worse. Every time we put four tires on, we couldn’t go anywhere, too tight.” But as the race had gone on, the set-up changes started to kick in and suit the cooling night time conditions: “We unfortunately have a bit of a history of being fast when it doesn’t really matter. Tonight worked out where we were fast at the end of the race, which is evidently what you got to do!”

Reutimann pipped Johnson for second while a late dive to the inside line rewarded Ryan Newman with fourth ahead of Edwards and Kenseth. Meanwhile, having led for 79 laps, Brad Keselowski couldn’t hide his frustration at finishing seventh which was poor reward for all that work. “Disappointed in the results. It’s just a product of double-file restarts,” he said. “At the end, the restarts are just a crapshoot … There’s a reason why the leader takes the high lane on the restart,” he went on. “If you get the bottom lane, you’re going backwards. I kept getting in an odd position and just kept getting on the bottom lane. Every restart just kept playing against us.”

No such problems for the only man to lead more laps than the rejuvenated #2 Penske, race winner Kyle Busch.

“It was certainly a fun night for us. Couldn’t be happier to be here in victory lane. This one ranks right up there with the best of them,” said Busch, who is not traditionally all that strong on the 1.5 mile ‘cookie cutter’ ovals and who is yet to win one of the ‘major’ NASCAR flagpole events despite all his series success. “I haven’t won any of the big races, unfortunately, yet. But, you know, it ranks right up there with Las Vegas being another of my prestigious wins that I feel like I’ve accomplished so far.”

Kyle gave a lot of the credit for the night’s win to his crew chief Dave Rogers, who has been uncomfortably in the spotlight himself recently with fines for a ride height violation and an unapproved oil pan on the #18 during a financially costly June.

“I was telling him the car is good, but he would still make a change knowing what the track is going to do,” said Kyle. “That’s just experience. Knowing this racetrack pretty well, for us it worked well. We kept up with it. We stayed up front all the night, made it seem easy, but certainly it wasn’t. There at the end there was a couple tense moments, but we prevailed.”

The victory put Kyle Busch in the record books, and it’s an entry that unlike all the other “greatest” and “fastest” stats in the record books will never be overturned – there will only be one first-ever winner of the Cup race at Kentucky, and for now and all time that will be Kyle Busch.

Not that Busch thinks in terms of records or making history, he’s too busy looking ahead to the next race – in this case, despite having driven three complete NASCAR races with all the attendant practice and qualifying sessions on top, he was off to compete in a fourth race of the weekend on Sunday night: the Miller Lite Nationals Super Late Model event on the 0.2 mile Slinger Super Speedway in Wisconsin. When asked what the most important aspect of Saturday’s win was, he replied without hesitation: “That I won on the way to Slinger … I’m going to stay here tonight, chill out and get a good night’s sleep, get out of here in the morning and head up there and, hopefully, win a Late Model race.”

Of course, Kyle being Kyle, he did indeed win when he passed Dave Feiler after a restart with 26 laps to go to take the win by 2.171s; Matt Kenseth’s son Ross Kenseth finished sixth, and Nationwide Series driver Kelly Bires was seventh.

And Kyle being Kyle, he was as thrilled by that minor league win as he had been about his 22nd career Sprint Cup win in 240 starts, his third of 2011 and his 99th national series career victory at Kentucky that had given him the lead of the Cup points standings.

Actually, come to think of it, that minor league win was probably a lot more fun to race in and to watch than the inaugural Quaker State 400 proved to be …

Race results

1. #18 Kyle Busch Toyota 267 laps 2:56:30.000s (48/2 pts)
2. #00 David Reutimann Toyota 267 laps + 0.179s (43/1 pts)
3. #48 Jimmie Johnson Chevrolet 267 laps + 0.233s (41/0 pts)
4. #39 Ryan Newman Chevrolet 267 laps + 0.887s (40/0 pts)
5. #99 Carl Edwards Ford 267 laps + 1.158s (39/0 pts)
6. #17 Matt Kenseth Ford 267 laps + 1.398s (38/0 pts)
7. #2 Brad Keselowski Dodge 267 laps + 1.506s (38/1 pts)
8. #6 David Ragan Ford 267 laps + 1.544s (37/1 pts)
9. #22 Kurt Busch Dodge 267 laps + 1.576s (36/1 pts)
10. #24 Jeff Gordon Chevrolet 267 laps + 1.971s (34/0 pts)
11. #11 Denny Hamlin Toyota 267 laps + 1.972s (34/1 pts)
12. #14 Tony Stewart Chevrolet 267 laps + 2.270s (33/1 pts)
13. #4 Kasey Kahne Toyota 267 laps + 2.374s (32/1 pts)
14. #20 Joey Logano Toyota 267 laps + 2.702s (30/0 pts)
15. #42 Juan Montoya Chevrolet 267 laps + 2.737s (29/0 pts)
16. #29 Kevin Harvick Chevrolet 267 laps + 2.852s (28/0 pts)
17. #78 Regan Smith Chevrolet 267 laps + 3.069s (27/0 pts)
18. #56 Martin Truex Jr. Toyota 267 laps + 3.380s (27/1 pts)
19. #31 Jeff Burton Chevrolet 267 laps + 3.496s (25/0 pts)
20. #9 Marcos Ambrose Ford 267 laps + 3.544s (24/0 pts)
21. #16 Greg Biffle Ford 267 laps + 3.682s (23/0 pts)
22. #5 Mark Martin Chevrolet 267 laps + 3.962s (22/0 pts)
23. #51 Landon Cassill Chevrolet 267 laps + 6.157s (0pts)
24. #27 Paul Menard Chevrolet 266 laps + 1 lap (20/0 pts)
25. #13 Casey Mears Toyota 266 laps + 1 lap (19/0 pts)
26. #47 Bobby Labonte Toyota 266 laps + 1 lap (18/0 pts)
27. #83 Brian Vickers Toyota 265 laps + 2 laps (17/0 pts)
28. #43 A.J. Allmendinger Ford 265 laps + 2 laps (16/0 pts)
29. #38 Travis Kvapil Ford 265 laps + 2 laps (0pts)
30. #88 Dale Earnhardt Jr. Chevrolet 265 laps + 2 laps (14/0 pts)
31. #34 David Gilliland Ford 264 laps + 3 laps (13/0 pts)
32. #71 Andy Lally * Ford 264 laps + 3 laps (12/0 pts)
33. #36 Dave Blaney Chevrolet 264 laps + 3 laps (11/0 pts)
34. #32 Mike Bliss Ford 264 laps + 3 laps (0pts)
35. #33 Clint Bowyer Chevrolet 259 laps Accident (9/0 pts)
36. #1 Jamie McMurray Chevrolet 198 laps Engine (8/0 pts)
37. #7 Scott Wimmer Dodge 90 laps Electrical (0pts)
38. #37 Tony Raines Ford 38 laps Vibration (6/0 pts)
39. #87 Joe Nemechek Toyota 37 laps Brakes (0pts)
40. #46 J.J. Yeley Chevrolet 35 laps Transmission (5/1 pts)
41. #66 Michael McDowell Toyota 32 laps Electrical (3/0 pts)
42. #181 Scott Riggs Chevrolet 28 laps Brakes (0pts)
43. #60 Mike Skinner Toyota 17 laps Electrical (0pts)

Race report: how David Ragan made the most of drafting strategy and survived some huge multi-car wrecks to claim a long-overdue maiden win in the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona.

Just a little over four months ago, David Ragan left Daytona International Speedway in a state of despair, after his much-sought maiden Cup series victory evaporated before his eyes after he was penalised for changing lanes too soon while in the lead at the penultimate restart of February’s Daytona 500.

Trevor Bayne went on to win that race, becoming the youngest winner in the illustrious event’s history and an overnight star in the process; Ragan, on the other hand, was left to slip anonymously away wondering what might have been.

The Coke Zero 400 might not be up there in prestige with the Daytona 500, but when it comes to setting the record straight, proving a point and moreover opening his ‘race wins’ account in Sprint Cup racing at a key time with regards to future job security, it will do very nicely indeed.

Ragan had already qualified a very strong fifth place on Friday evening, and headed to the start line for the green flag behind a front row consisting of Mark Martin and Trevor Bayne, and a second of Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon. Ragan himself had Dale Earnhardt Jr. alongside him, and more crucially rookie Andy Lally immediately behind – as two-car drafting was already clearly going to be the order of the day, and Ragan needed someone to partner with pretty quickly or risk haemorrhaging early track positions.

Ahead, experienced campaigners Martin and Gordon teamed up to make a good getaway while Bayne and Bowyer attempted to hook up on the inside; but for Bowyer it was a purely casual fling and he quickly dropped Bayne to check in with his Richard Childress Racing team mate Jeff Burton as soon as possible, leaving Bayne casting around for assistance as he started to drop back. He thought he’d found it with Brad Keselowski and the two managed to hook up as they headed down the frontstretch into lap 5, but they hadn’t got the rhythm right and disaster for Bayne ensued.

“I was kind of falling through the field, we found the #2 car,” explained Bayne. “He got to us and was pushing us down the frontstretch. I was still kind of lifting a little bit, letting him get to my bumper, and then I got back to the gas wide-open … I don’t know if I turned down more getting in or if he kind of came up across our bumper, but, either way, our bumpers caught wrong and it sent us spinning. You know that can happen here. It happens all the time, but it’s tough that it was our car.”

Bayne’s #21 went nose-first into the wall at turn 1 and was out of the race with extensive front-end damage, classified in 41st position – the worst finish for a driver who had won the same year’s Daytona 500 since Cale Yarborough in 1983, which is at least prestigious company for the 20-year-old current Nationwide regular only recently back to active duty after his six-week medical hiatus.

Clint Bowyer, Bobby Labonte and Jamie McMurray were among those with some damage and who came in to pit road for a check-over during the ensuing caution. The leaders stayed out, but pretty much everyone from Jeff Burton (in 18th) on down took the opportunity to come in. Brad Keselowski escaped significant damage, but his reputation was temporarily affected and he found himself with few takers for drafting alliances and by lap 22 he was running a lonely last on the track before finally going a lap down, such is the consequence for unintentionally wrecking someone on such a teamwork-reliant circuit.

Mark Martin led Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and David Ragan to the restart on lap 8, but Johnson and Earnhardt had poor restarts and briefly fell back, and instead it was Ragan who was in hot pursuit of the two leaders now that he himself had connected with Matt Kenseth for drafting services. Alongside them, Carl Edwards had hooked up with Greg Biffle while further back the drafting pairs forming included Tony Stewart and David Gilliland in 13th/ 14th, and Kurt Busch with Regan Smith.

Johnson and Earnhardt had also got their act sorted, and the #48 propelled Earnhardt past Martin for the lead on lap 16, but then they got disconnected and became easy prey for Kurt Busch and Regan Smith to steam past, and then a couple of laps later it was Carl Edwards’ turn to lead. But on lap 23, it all went horribly wrong for Edwards: he and Biffle moved to the outside to avoid contact with Busch/Smith, and Edwards rubbed across the front of Biffle’s bumper and the contact sent him spinning into the inside wall out of turn 4.

“It was just the timing of everything. I was being aggressive and kind of having a little bit of fun, but that’s what we decided we were gonna try to do,” he said afterwards. “We were gonna go out there and race a little harder this time. We had the points lead and not a lot to lose.”

The damage was extensive, the right-side crush panels broken and the damaged exhaust venting carbon monoxide into the car and sending temperatures in the #99 soaring. Edwards kept on circulating but fell further and further off the lead lap as the team continually brought him into the pits for running repairs to try and prevent their driver either suffocating or parboiling to death.

In the end he would finish in 37th place, 26 laps off the lead, and as a result, Edwards lost the Cup series points lead despite coming into Daytona with a 25pt advantage over Kevin Harvick – a major hit in anyone’s book.

“It’s no big deal. It is what it is,” he insisted. “We just have to make sure we do well in the Chase.” And making the Chase is still in no doubt whatsoever – not only is it highly unlikely he’ll fail to finish in the top ten, he also has a race win that should assure him of the two wildcard entries to the post-season shoot-out stage if it were really necessary.

With Edwards out of the picture, Kevin Harvick won the race off pit road to lead at the restart on lap 26 with drafting assistance from Paul Menard, quickly joined at the front by Ragan and Kenseth and also by Martin Truex Jr. who led the race for the first time on lap 31 after hooking up with David Reutimann.

Brad Keselowski was also back at the front, after having got the lucky dog free pass under the second caution and then hooking up with his Red Bull team mate Brian Vickers, before then getting separated and ending up forming an alliance with the only other driver to have accidentally spun his drafting partner out of the race – Greg Biffle. It was a marriage made of slightly unfortunate convenience.

When the third caution of the afternoon came out on lap 48 – when Dave Blaney hit the wall in turn 2 – the top 18 had string out to single file and it happened to be Matt Kenseth’s turn in the lead when the yellow flag came out. After pit stops, Truex Jr. soon picked up the lead with Reutimann, then Smith and Busch, then Kenseth with Ragan, and then Kasey Kahne who had now been able to relocate his team mate Brian Vickers. No one was able to hold on to the lead for long though, and having to swap a drafting pair’s running order to stop the pushing car from overheating quickly resulted in a drop in position for everyone.

Other drivers and teams were opting for a different strategy: looking unlikely to run at the front at this stage, they decided instead to seek refuge at the back of the lead lap and aim to stay out of trouble. Ryan Newman and Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer and Jeff Burton and the Richard Petty Motorsports duo of AJ Allmendinger and Marcos Ambrose were among those to take this approach.

Tony Stewart and David Gilliland had been resolutely mid-pack for the first third of the race but suddenly turned the power up and took the lead for the first time on lap 70; others starting to find their rhythm included Travis Kvapil and Joe Nemechek who cracked the top ten at around the same stage of the evening, and Joe Gibbs Racing pair Kyle Busch and Joey Logano who had made it into the top five by lap 80, having had very poor qualifying positions after foregoing qualifying speed set-ups in practice to focus instead on drafting tactics. Terry Labonte and Andy Lally were another interesting pairing in the top ten at this stage, while further back the bigger names and more experienced drivers seemed to be biding their time – Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson in the mid-teens and former leaders Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin opting to lurk just outside the top 20 close to Juan Montoya and Jamie McMurray.

On lap 91 the Red Bull duo of Vickers and Kahne were the first of the leaders to pit under green for tyres and fuel, and the rest of the field followed suit without incident over the next ten laps, after which Kahne and Vickers took fright and decided to head for the rear of the lead lap for safety for a while.

With 40 laps to go there was a definite change in the feel of the race. Newman/Hamlin and Montoya/McMurray all took this as a sign to go to the front, while all four Richard Childress Racing cars looked ominously hooked up and ready to pounce. The lengthy green flag spell had inevitably had its casualties and a number of cars had been dropped off the lead pack and were struggling some 10 seconds down, among them Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon, Marcos Ambrose, AJ Allmendinger, Brad Keselowski and Greg Biffle, but there were still 22 cars in the lead pack as of lap 127.

More green flag pit stops kicked off as the laps reached 130 with 30 to go: afterwards, the leaders consisted of the pairings of Harvick/Menard, Newman/Hamlin and Kyle Busch with Joey Logano, despite the JGR team’s concerns that Logano’s radiator fan might have actually melted.

With 10 laps to go of the scheduled 160 laps, Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon had managed to recover their position during the pit stops and make it back into the top ten, leaving Tony Stewart, David Gilliland, Keselowski, Biffle, Joe Nemechek and Travis Kvapil over 20 seconds back and urgently needing a caution if they were to have any hope of featuring at the end, while Ambrose, Allmendinger, Andy Lally and Terry Labonte had all slipped a lap down. Surely there had to be a caution soon, after more than a hundred laps of green flag running?

Jeff Gordon obliged on lap 157 just three laps shy of the scheduled race distance. He went for a huge 45-degree sideways slide after contact from Kahne and somehow managed the save of the day to keep the #24 off the wall.

“Everybody was just really getting anxious and it was time to go and somebody got outside of me and Mark coming off of two which made it three wide and had the #83 and #4 on the inside,” said Gordon. “Went into three and I don’t know somebody got in the back of the #4 and pushed him up into me and I had nowhere to go. Then the car came around and luckily I straightened it out somehow and came back and fixed it and got four tires.

“I felt it start to catch and lose momentum and it started to straighten out. The [31-degree] banking pretty much did most of the work, maybe a little side force in the car, too. We were just lucky we didn’t get hit, I straightened it up and away we went. That was pretty cool and pretty lucky all at the same time.”

“Jeff Gordon did an awesome job of working with me and I thought we were doing really, really good and he just got run into,” lamented his team mate and drafting partner Mark Martin.

Behind Gordon, it triggered the usual knock-on collisions as the closely-packed field stood on the brakes and made evasive manoeuvres, with Kyle Busch damaging the #18 when he ran up into the wall. Gordon and Kyle Busch both had to head for the pits for lengthy repairs before the race got set for its first green-white-chequered finish. This meant they were disconnected from the long-time drafting partners and had little recourse other than to hook up with each other if they wanted to achieve anything.

“I just got with the #24 who was behind me and he never lifted, I don’t think, the last two laps. So, we just dug a hole through the bottom side and made it up there,” said Kyle later, of a successful scratch pairing that propelled them both in the top six by the end. However, Kyle was sorry that he hadn’t been able to see the race through with his JGR team mate: “I wish I could’ve worked with Joey and him or I could’ve won this thing, but still it was a good day.”

Gordon, on the other hand, would have reason to be thankful to be apart up from his Hendrick Motorsports team mate Mark Martin for the final laps, because things were about to get very interesting up at the front centring around the #5.

The restart on lap 162 saw Newman in front with Hamlin, then Ragan and Kenseth followed by the Red Bull duo of Vickers and Kahne newly restored from the back of the pack. But Joey Logano tried squeezing through a gap between Mark Martin and Brian Vickers and almost immediately sent Martin into a serious hit against the wall in turn 2.

“It was on the restart. I was shooting on the centre, and Mark was trying to come down in front of me,” said Logano afterwards. “In the race I was wide open, I didn’t care. And he was coming down across me. We were going to try to team up there if we were able to do that, but I was going to go in there guns blazing and see what the heck happened on the other side and try to find a partner once I got over there.”

“It was going to come to this at the end, but it was a blast ’til the end,” said Martin, who is well known as being no fan of restrictor plate racing. “He got up against me and I got a little loose and I could’ve saved it, but there was just too many cars. There were cars everywhere and they all started clacking together and so the wreck was on.”

With the pack still so closely bunched together, the fall-out from this was inevitable, immediate and extensive. As well as Martin, Logano and Kahne, another ten cars were caught up in the wreck: Martin Truex Jr., Clint Bowyer, Landon Cassill, Brian Vickers, Regan Smith, Kurt Busch, Joe Nemechek, Casey Mears, Tony Stewart, David Reutimann were all involved in the mayhem.

So much for the first of up to three green-white-chequered attempts at finishing. It had left David Ragan at the front of the field for the next attempt on lap 168 with his Ryan Newman alongside him, and their respective drafting partners Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin in perfect position to do the business right behind them. In contrast, Kevin Harvick found himself starting alongside his drafting partner Paul Menard on the third row of the grid, which meant they would have to orchestrate falling into line before they could think of charging for the lead – which not only put them at a disadvantage but also meant it was unlikely that anyone further back would be able to make a go of it from the green flag either.

So it seemed to have come down to a four-car shoot-out, and when the green flew it was Kenseth who brilliantly powered his Roush Fenway Racing team mate David Ragan into the lead, comprehensively out-gunning Newman and Hamlin from the get-go as they got disconnected and fell backwards. The win was Ragan and Kenseth’s for the taking, assuming that this green-white-chequered counted and wasn’t aborted for any more wrecks.

There was a wreck – but not until seconds after the white flag came out making the running order the official race result. Ragan had indeed won, putting to rights that agonising near-miss at the Daytona 500 at the start of the season. Moreover, it finally gave Ragan his first Cup series win after the painfully long 163 race wait since his NASCAR series championship début.

“It would have been tough to lose another one. I thought about that, actually, under that last caution. I said, ‘Man, if we don’t win this thing, I’m not going to talk to anyone afterward!'”, he said. “This is a great race. It does ease the pain [of February], and so we’ll think about this one a lot more than we’ll think about the Daytona 500.”

Ragan follows Bayne and Regan Smith as the third first-time winner in 2011, a year that’s seen 12 different winners in 17 races. It also means that all three restrictor plate races have had different winners (Bayne at Daytona, Johnson at Talladega, and now Ragan) and that there have been eight different winners in the last eight Daytona races.

Joey Logano emerged in third place when the final caution flag came out signalling the end of the race, after the #20 hooked up with Kasey Kahne running in fourth place; the Kyle Busch/Jeff Gordon scratch pairing had squeaked through the last two wrecks to claim fifth and sixth after restarting at the back of the top 30, while Harvick and Menard had managed to hold on to seventh and eighth.

“I’m just amazed that we were able to come back to sixth,” said Gordon. “We were what, 30th, 31st on that second-to-last restart?”

Among those caught up in the chaos on the penultimate lap – which had involved 15 cars in two separate incidents – were Newman and Hamlin. Jamie McMurray had made contact with Earnhardt Jr. and ended up hitting his Earnhardt Ganassi team mate Juan Montoya, also catching up AJ Allmendinger, Jeff Burton and Jimmie Johnson in the wreck. The #42 was just about able to stagger to the finish line in ninth with Allmendinger following in tenth.

Earnhardt claimed that McMurray “just drove into the side of me and turned me onto the apron,” adding: “I had it saved, and then he came on and got him another shot … Brought the KO punch the second time and spun us around.” Earnhardt’s cause hadn’t been helped by being separated from his drafting partner Jimmie Johnson in the pits: “I’m driving my car, do what I’m told,” a heated Earnhardt said. “They decided to do something different. I can’t run the whole damn thing from the seat of the damn race car.”

Junior Nation fans were blaming the #48 for abandoning their idol. “I didn’t leave Jr hanging, you people are crazy,” Johnson responded on Twitter. “When my crew tells me to pit, I pit. Steve [Letarte, Earnhardt’s crew chief] and Chad Knaus, Johnson’s crew chief] sort out the details.”

But really, Earnhardt was incandescent about the whole draft-style racing and the need for pairing up in the first place, and made his feelings well and truly known: “You guys need to get your own frickin’ opinions and write what y’all think about it,” he said. “Because I think they’re pretty damn close to mine. So stop putting my damn foot in my mouth with y’all and getting my ass in trouble. Y’all write what y’all think, man. C’mon. Y’all are good. Y’all got an opinion about it; I read y’all’s shit.”

The other incident that occurred on that final lap was at the back of the pack and involved Marcos Ambrose, David Reutimann, Landon Cassill, Brian Vickers and Tony Stewart, who commented: “That last wreck we were caught about eight back behind where it all started trying to dodge all the guys that got wrecked.”

But as the dust settled from the final lap carnage, the day belonged emphatically to first time winner David Ragan who was clearly in seventh heaven:

“There’s no better place to win your first race than Daytona, it couldn’t be any better … There’s not a better night to win. This is awesome!” he said. “I probably won’t go to sleep tonight. I’m going to get back and watch some of the race – and just stare at that trophy, maybe, for a little while.”

Quite right, too.

Race results

1. #6 David Ragan Ford 170 laps 2:39:53.000s (47/4 pts)
2. #17 Matt Kenseth Ford 170 laps + 0.059s (43/1 pts)
3. #20 Joey Logano Toyota 170 laps + 0.150s (41/0 pts)
4. #4 Kasey Kahne Toyota 170 laps + 0.208s (41/1 pts)
5. #18 Kyle Busch Toyota 170 laps + 1.090s (40/1 pts)
6. #24 Jeff Gordon Chevrolet 170 laps + 1.276s (39/1 pts)
7. #29 Kevin Harvick Chevrolet 170 laps + 1.533s (38/1 pts)
8. #27 Paul Menard Chevrolet 170 laps + 1.634s (37/1 pts)
9. #42 Juan Montoya Chevrolet 170 laps + 3.611s (36/1 pts)
10. #43 A.J. Allmendinger Ford 170 laps + 5.096s (34/0 pts)
11. #14 Tony Stewart Chevrolet 170 laps + 6.317s (34/1 pts)
12. #83 Brian Vickers Toyota 170 laps + 6.465s (32/0 pts)
13. #11 Denny Hamlin Toyota 170 laps + 6.466s (32/1 pts)
14. #22 Kurt Busch Dodge 170 laps + 9.419s (31/1 pts)
15. #2 Brad Keselowski Dodge 170 laps + 9.420s (30/1 pts)
16. #34 David Gilliland Ford 170 laps + 11.347s (28/0 pts)
17. #9 Marcos Ambrose Ford 170 laps + 12.467s (27/0 pts)
18. #16 Greg Biffle Ford 170 laps + 13.843s (27/1 pts)
19. #88 Dale Earnhardt Jr. Chevrolet 170 laps + 13.844s (26/1 pts)
20. #48 Jimmie Johnson Chevrolet 170 laps + 17.109s (24/0 pts)
21. #31 Jeff Burton Chevrolet 170 laps + 28.508s (24/1 pts)
22. #1 Jamie McMurray Chevrolet 170 laps + 29.140s (23/1 pts)
23. #39 Ryan Newman Chevrolet 170 laps + 34.364s (23/2 pts)
24. #78 Regan Smith Chevrolet 170 laps + 39.819s (21/1 pts)
25. #00 David Reutimann Toyota 170 laps + 41.937s (19/0 pts)
26. #51 Landon Cassill Chevrolet 169 laps + 1 lap (0pts)
27. #71 Andy Lally * Ford 169 laps + 1 lap (17/0 pts)
28. #32 Terry Labonte Ford 169 laps + 1 lap (16/0 pts)
29. #38 Travis Kvapil Ford 169 laps + 1 lap (0pts)
30. #87 Joe Nemechek Toyota 169 laps + 1 lap (0pts)
31. #47 Bobby Labonte Toyota 168 laps + 2 laps (13/0 pts)
32. #13 Casey Mears Toyota 164 laps + 6 laps (13/1 pts)
33. #5 Mark Martin Chevrolet 164 laps + 6 laps (12/1 pts)
34. #7 Robby Gordon Dodge 163 laps + 7 laps (10/0 pts)
35. #56 Martin Truex Jr. Toyota 162 laps Accident (10/1 pts)
36. #33 Clint Bowyer Chevrolet 162 laps Accident (9/1 pts)
37. #99 Carl Edwards Ford 144 laps Resumed running (8/1 pts)
38. #135 Geoff Bodine Chevrolet 143 laps Wheel Bearings (6/0 pts)
39. #36 Dave Blaney Chevrolet 47 laps Accident (5/0 pts)
40. #60 Mike Skinner Toyota 5 laps Wheel Bearings (0pts)
41. #21 Trevor Bayne Ford 4 laps Accident (0pts)
42. #66 Michael McDowell Toyota 2 laps Electrical (2/0 pts)
43. #97 Kevin Conway Toyota 1 laps Rear Gear (0pts)

* Denotes Rookie

After failing to convert three consecutive pole positions to a race win, Kurt Busch finally dominates in his first Cup victory of 2011 on the unlikely road course setting of Infineon.

NASCAR cars are so precision-made for their natural oval habitat, that to see them on a road course instead is mildly disconcerting; it’s like the elephant in the room suddenly wearing ballerina’s slippers, it’s just not right watching the behemoth stock cars try to delicately tip-toe around the winding track at Infineon Raceway at Sears Point, near Sonoma in California.

Just as the cars aren’t really suited to the environment, so the same can be said for many of the drivers – many of whom, one feels, have arrived at NASCAR because they are feeling the invasion of road course events into other series such as IndyCar. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is one such driver who can’t wait to be over and done with Sonoma, while even championship leader Carl Edwards came into this year’s race here with deep misgivings about the impact that a bad showing on the road course might have for his title aspirations, cancelling his planned run at Road America in the Nationwide Series in an attempt to focus on this Cup race instead.

Traditionally the same names come up when trying to pick a winner: the regular NASCAR line-up boasts Marcos Ambrose – probably the best of all the current field on road courses – and Juan Montoya, a former Champ Car and F1 racer with huge amounts of road course experience. Add to that the “ringers” like the talented road specialist some car owners bring in just for this race and its bookend at Watkin’s Glen and it’s no wonder that the hard core oval drivers would just as well sit this one out.

Kurt Busch is not one of those drivers who anyone would pick as a winner on a road course – after all, he’d never done it before – but the Penske driver’s run of three consecutive poles showed that he was in top form, and impressive showings in the three practice sessions (first, second and third respectively) showed that he was well up to the challenge. Unfortunately, on this of all courses – where track position is so vital – he made a couple of costly mistakes on his qualifying run and ended up starting from 11th, while the even-more unlikely Joey Logano emerged on top in pole position to lead the field to the green flag for the start of the Toyota/Save Mart 350 alongside Jamie McMurray, with Paul Menard and Denny Hamlin forming the second row just behind them.

McMurray went for a quick trip through the grass but maintained position on the very first lap which proved a little messy for many of the cars, all them finding the road surface slick in the opening laps. That helped some drivers, with Kurt Busch up five spots to sixth in the first four laps and then taking fifth place from AJ Allmendinger next lap around. Juan Montoya was also working his way up the field, while among the drivers going in the opposite direction was Brian Vickers who was down ten spots in six laps, having started tenth.

McMurray finally lost second place to Denny Hamlin on lap five, who went on to then take the lead from the #20 through turn 11 a couple of laps later; Logano was starting to struggle getting loose and carried on losing positions over the next few laps as he sank out of contention.

One of those to pass him was Kurt Busch, who slipped past Ryan Newman for third on lap 10 and was second the lap after that, 2.7s behind Hamlin. Two laps later and Kurt had wiped out that advantage and was right on the back of the #11’s bumper as they went into turn 4 – and the #22 quickly slipped past and exited the turn with the lead, a stunning 13 laps’ worth of driving.

By lap 20, Busch has pulled out a comfortable lead over Hamlin in second, with Newman, Ambrose, Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne making up the top six. Several of them were unhappy with their cars – Ambrose complaining that his was too tight, Johnson not happy with the #48 – and lined up the adjustments they wanted at the first round of green flag pit stops as they looked set for a three-stop race. However, Kurt Busch stretched his first stint out far longer than anyone else, ending up with a lead of over 20 seconds over his team mate Brad Keselowski who was also looking to make this into a two-stop race if he possibly could, watching and waiting while everyone else made the call into pit road over the ensuing laps.

Finally on lap 33 Busch’s hand was forced when he heard that Casey Mears was about to run out of gas; having the field pack up behind the safety car at this point before he could get into pit road for his own first stop would have been a disaster, so Kurt dived in just before the first caution of the day did indeed come out. It was a very good call, and Busch emerged from pit lane right behind Denny Hamlin – but effectively a stop up on the #11 – as other cars took the opportunity for a second stop.

The race went green again on lap 37 but almost immediately there was a multiple-car accident as drivers tried to make the most of the overtaking opportunities the bunched-up field presented. Brian Vickers got a sustained hard shove from behind by Tony Stewart into turn 11 which propelled him down the track on locked-up tyres for a skid of some 20 feet, collecting other cars along the way – including inflicting serious damage onto the side of the #88 of Dale Earnhardt Jr. which holed his radiator and led to the engine blowing.

“I’m not a big fan of the place, but maybe one of these days,” Earnhardt said, who lost three hard-won places in the Sprint Cup standings as a result of his early retirement from the race.

Stewart was unapologetic about the crash and didn’t deny that it had been intentional. “I’ve been complaining about the way guys have been racing all year,” Stewart said. “I like Brian. I’m not holding it against him at all. I don’t care if it was Ryan Newman; I would have dumped him, too. If they want to block, that’s what is going to happen to them every time for the rest of my career.”

Vickers, however, refuted the accusation that he had been blocking and instead pointed to an accident that was unfolding ahead of him, in which Kyle Busch’s attempt to overtake Juan Montoya had ended up with the #18 in the grass and spraying up the dirt.

“I wasn’t blocking him. That may have been his perception from where he was sitting, but the #18 went off the race track in front of me,” Vickers said. “He was going off in the dirt and then coming back in front of me on the race track, and I was trying to avoid him. The cars in front of me were slow. I was inside of the guy in front of me … I think when [Stewart] sees the replay and he realises why I went low – if he looks at it out of my front windshield – he’ll realise it had nothing to do with him. It had to do with the #18 almost wrecking me, and a couple of other guys running slow up top.”

Both cars were able to continue, although with some degree of bodywork damage – Vickers’s #83 looking particularly shopworn.

The brief green flag running had been long enough to allow Kurt Busch to pass Denny Hamlin for the lead, so it was the #22 who led the field round for the next restart on lap 42, followed by Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr. and David Gilliland – who was quickly passed for position by Allmendinger, who then went three-wide through turn 11 for second place with Hamlin and Truex. It couldn’t end well, and it didn’t: Truex was sent spinning and Hamlin, while Allmendinger slipped through fo the position and Hamlin himself found his #11 damaged by Allmendinger’s play. There was no immediate caution for the contact, but one followed on lap 46 for debris in that same area.

Kurt Busch led the field back to racing on lap 51, only to lose the lead when Clint Bowyer made a nice dive in front out of turn 2. Behind them, Tony Stewart got past Jimmie Johnson for third with Brad Keselowski behind them in fifth.

Despite Robby Gordon making contact with the barrier after contact with Joey Logano – who just seemed to lose patience with the #7 – there was no new immediate yellow flag, and next time around Kurt Busch was able to pass Bowyer to reclaim the lead at turn 11; over the ensuing laps, Tony Stewart was able to pass Bowyer to take up the chase and he was starting to close in when the fourth caution of the afternoon came out for Bobby Labonte hitting the wall with a little assist from Michael McDowell and leaving fluid on the front stretch of the track that took a lengthy five lap caution to properly clear up before racing could resume.

That allowed a number of cars to come into the pits, including Denny Hamlin whose car was still struggling with damage from that earlier contact with Truex and Allmendinger. Jamie McMurray had already been into the pits just before the caution came out because of a flat tyre, and while he reported that the car was “really good right now”, it had blown the team’s two-stop strategy that the leader Kurt Busch was still on line to achieve especially after this length mid-race caution.

The green came out on lap 65 with Busch leading Tony Stewart, Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr. and Jimmie Johnson – but Kurt’s brother Kyle was swiftly up into fourth place, Further back there was contact between Matt Kenseth and Joey Logano that left Kenseth pointing in the wrong direction and having to wait for everyone to stream past him before he could resume in last place on the lead lap, which meant there was no return to caution.

By lap 72, the window for the final pit stop to get to the chequered flag opened, and sure enough Kurt Busch was into pit lane ceding the lead to Tony Stewart. Kurt was still confident, but reporting that the car was generally a little loose but at the same time too tight in turn 1. He returned to the field in 12th place and was soon moving up the positions, but differing pit stop strategies meant that he would not see the lead again for another 16 laps, as the position was assumed in turn by Stewart, Juan Montoya, David Gilliland, Kevin Harvick and Regan Smith until their own final pit stops cycled through.

After his earlier conflagration with Tony Stewart, Brian Vickers had impressively worked his way back up into the top five during this stage; then on lap 87 he seemed to falter and drop back, which put him right on track behind Stewart again. It wasn’t a coincidence.

“He made his bed at that moment [on lap 39], and he had to sleep in it,” Vickers said bluntly, not concealing the payback nature: “He wrecked me, and I dealt with it.”

He ploughed into the back of Stewart’s #14 into turn 11 – fittingly, the same place as the earlier incident – and sent Stewart backwards so that it ran into and onto the tyre barrier, coming to rest with the crumpled back of the #14 propped up at a thirty degree angle. It took a lengthy time for the safety workers to get the #14 down from its precarious perch, and the car beyond repair while Vickers was able to continue albeit with a lot of wrecked bodywork stripped off.

Stewart less less angry than resigned about the payback – and resolute. “I dumped him earlier for blocking and he got me back later on,” Stewart said. “If they block, they are going to get dumped. It is real simple. I mean, I don’t blame him. I don’t blame him for dumping us back.

“I don’t race guys that way. I never have. If guys want to block. then they are going to wrecked every time. Until NASCAR makes a rule against it, I am going to dump them every time for it. He did what he had to do and I don’t blame him. There is nothing wrong with it.”

Vickers also felt that there was nothing personal about it and it was just on-track business that wouldn’t have any lasting after-taste: “We were joking and laughing last week and had a great race,” he said, recalling that their last serious spat had been right here at Sonoma in that same turn 11. “I’m not angry. I’d rather have been racing for the win and worrying about something like that.”

Several cars now pitted, but Kurt Busch wasn’t about to give up on his two-stop goal even with the allure of a fresh set of tyres for the final 18 laps or the safety blanket of a little extra fuel, and so he stayed out and assumed the lead again at last for the restart on lap 92. Behind him for the green flag was Martin Truex Jr., Kasey Kahne, Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski – a particularly good showing for Edwards who had started off on Friday in shocking form until he’d decided to eliminate his Nationwide distraction. At the green flag, Edwards was quickly up into second and Keselowski into third place.

Further back, Juan Montoya had been one of those cars to pit for fresh rubber for the final stint and was now doing battle for sixth with Jeff Gordon. Winning that one, Montoya then went after Kasey Kahne – and proceeded to send the Red Bull onto the grass as the Colombian turned up the aggression factor to 11, and paid for it by losing a couple of positions. Not discouraged, Montoya’s next target was David Gilliland, and hard as Gilliland tried to hold him off – including some light contact – there was no stopping Montoya’s single-minded charge and he was through back to sixth place again.

With ten laps to go, the order at the top was Kurt Busch followed by Edwards and Keselowski, then Jeff Gordon, Martin Truex, Montoya, Kyle Busch, Harvick, Bowyer and Marcos Ambrose, who a few laps earlier had spun Dave Blaney around through turn 7 as he tried to assert his own road racing credentials.

All those cars that had stopped right at the start of the fuel window – Busch and Edwards in particular – were good for 110 laps but not for any more should a green-white-chequered situation arise, so everyone was on tenterhooks to see whether there would be any late cautions extending the race distance.

If there was going to be a caution then the most likely caused looked to be Montoya, who was doing raging against anyone in his way. On lap 102 it was a fierce battle with Truex who refused to give way, and on lap 104 Montoya was up against Brad Keselowski: Montoya tried to force him onto the grass in order to take the position, but Keselowski turned the tables and dumped Montoya on the approach into turn 4, dropping the #42 all the way down to 12th – but he then fell back to 22nd place by the end of the race because of the state of his tyres: “I just killed the tyres when I spun,” he explained afterwards.

“We got through the corner, and I just got on his bumper a little bit and moved him a little,” Montoya said of the incident with Keselowski. “Got a good run, and I guess he didn’t like it … he just plain and simple wrecked us.” The incident also caught up Kyle Busch who spun as well and would finish just outside the top ten in 11th right behind Keselowski.

For his part, Keselowski was unrepentant: “I don’t take any pride in all that stuff, but at some point, you’ve got to run your own deal,” he said. “It was pretty obvious that it was eat or be eaten, and I wasn’t going to be eaten.”

That seemed to take the fight out of the race at the front, and despite running on the same set of tyres for the final 38 laps Kurt Busch continued with a commanding lead all the way to the chequered flag; behind him, a nice calm surge from Jeff Gordon put the #24 into second place after he won a final lap battle with Carl Edwards, with Clint Bowyer taking fourth ahead of another good road performance from the specialist Marcos Ambrose.

It had proved an amazingly dominant win for Kurt Busch, despite being his first victory on a road course and his first Cup win in 2011, the 23rd in his series career. Busch credited it to the strategy that he and crew chief Steve Addington had devised and followed immaculately despite the distractions going on around them.

“We stuck to it. We had a game plan,” Addington said. “Kurt said he was going to try to get a couple of positions there at the start, gain a couple positions. I was thinking, okay, if we start 11th, we’ll get to seventh or eighth. Drove by, took the lead. That made it easier on me and my guys to make a decision!”

“We developed the strategy from practice,” Busch said. “It gave us the calculations we needed, and it showed that we could make it on two stops [even though] a lot of guys said that they couldn’t make it on two stops.

“It was an unbelievable set-up,” he continued.”Once we got into the groove with this car, it seemed to get better after lap five or six. Our cars have never done that before.”

Second-placed Jeff Gordon was all praise for the elder Busch, who in recent seasons has been somewhat eclipsed by his younger brother Kyle – unfairly, Gordon clearly feels. “A guy, really, who is as talented as he is, every guy that competes in this series who has won on ovals wants to win on a road course to kind of prove something to themselves and the rest of the competitors,” Gordon said after the race. “When you do that the first time, I know how much it means. I know it meant a lot to him.”

With an impressive third place, Carl Edwards increased his lead in the Sprint Cup points standings, validating his decision to pull out of the Nationwide race at Road America to concentrate on Infineon.

“It was tough to watch the race [at Road America]. But I think staying was the right decision,” Edwards said Sunday. “It paid off. It was a good call. We could have finished poorly here, ended up on the fence over there like Tony did or something. Anything can happen. It turned out to be the right call and it paid off, so it was a great move.”

Whether there will be a new outbreak of driver feuds and hostilities as a result of some of the wrecks seen during the Toyota/Save Mart 350 remains to be seen: Stewart and Vickers certainly seemed to be trying to calm down the situation between them without backtracking on their respective positions, but Montoya certainly seemed to have stirred fights with Brad Keselowski and Kasey Kahne while Joey Logano was just as unhappy with Robby Gordon for their own mid-race encounter.

But that’s road course racing for you, and especially when you try and do road course racing with oval-racing cars and oval-racing drivers. As Jeff Gordon summed it up best: “Man, it was nuts out there.”

Yes, it was. But also a hugely entertaining change from the norm.

Race results

1. #22 Kurt Busch Dodge 110 laps Leader (48/2 pts)
2. #24 Jeff Gordon Chevrolet 110 laps + 2.685s (42/0 pts)
3. #99 Carl Edwards Ford 110 laps + 3.851s (41/0 pts)
4. #33 Clint Bowyer Chevrolet 110 laps + 10.188s (41/1 pts)
5. #9 Marcos Ambrose Ford 110 laps + 11.462s (39/0 pts)
6. #20 Joey Logano Toyota 110 laps + 11.901s (39/1 pts)
7. #48 Jimmie Johnson Chevrolet 110 laps + 12.744s (37/0 pts)
8. #56 Martin Truex Jr. Toyota 110 laps + 14.826s (36/0 pts)
9. #29 Kevin Harvick Chevrolet 110 laps + 19.994s (36/1 pts)
10. #2 Brad Keselowski Dodge 110 laps + 20.748s (34/0 pts)
11. #18 Kyle Busch Toyota 110 laps + 21.751s (33/0 pts)
12. #34 David Gilliland Ford 110 laps + 24.449s (33/1 pts)
13. #43 A.J. Allmendinger Ford 110 laps + 24.863s (31/0 pts)
14. #17 Matt Kenseth Ford 110 laps + 30.580s (30/0 pts)
15. #1 Jamie McMurray Chevrolet 110 laps + 32.003s (29/0 pts)
16. #78 Regan Smith Chevrolet 110 laps + 32.511s (29/1 pts)
17. #27 Paul Menard Chevrolet 110 laps + 33.286s (27/0 pts)
18. #7 Robby Gordon Dodge 110 laps + 34.662s (26/0 pts)
19. #5 Mark Martin Chevrolet 110 laps + 35.042s (25/0 pts)
20. #4 Kasey Kahne Toyota 110 laps + 35.969s (24/0 pts)
21. #31 Jeff Burton Chevrolet 110 laps + 37.962s (23/0 pts)
22. #42 Juan Montoya Chevrolet 110 laps + 40.640s (23/1 pts)
23. #16 Greg Biffle Ford 110 laps + 42.686s (21/0 pts)
24. #00 David Reutimann Toyota 110 laps + 46.806s (20/0 pts)
25. #39 Ryan Newman Chevrolet 110 laps + 47.082s (19/0 pts)
26. #46 Andy Pilgrim Chevrolet 110 laps + 47.887s (18/0 pts)
27. #37 Chris Cook Ford 110 laps + 48.192s (17/0 pts)
28. #51 Boris Said Chevrolet 110 laps + 49.637s (16/0 pts)
29. #6 David Ragan Ford 110 laps + 51.915s (15/0 pts)
30. #66 Michael McDowell Toyota 110 laps + 52.518s (14/0 pts)
31. #36 Dave Blaney Chevrolet 110 laps + 54.194s (13/0 pts)
32. #32 Terry Labonte Ford 110 laps + 55.053s (12/0 pts)
33. #181 Brian Simo Ford 109 laps + 1 Lap (11/0 pts)
34. #13 Casey Mears Toyota 108 laps + 2 Laps (10/0 pts)
35. #71 Andy Lally * Ford 104 laps + 6 Laps (9/0 pts)
36. #83 Brian Vickers Toyota 103 laps + 7 Laps (8/0 pts)
37. #11 Denny Hamlin Toyota 99 laps + 11 Laps (8/1 pts)
38. #47 Bobby Labonte Toyota 91 laps + 19 Laps (6/0 pts)
39. #14 Tony Stewart Chevrolet 88 laps In Pit (6/1 pts)
40. #87 Joe Nemechek Toyota 66 laps In Pit (0pts)
41. #88 Dale Earnhardt Jr. Chevrolet 45 laps In Pit (3/0 pts)
42. #60 Mike Skinner Toyota 10 laps In Pit (0pts)
43. #177 P.J. Jones Dodge 5 laps In Pit (1/0 pts)

* Denotes Rookie

Strong rumours that Red Bull is to quit NASCAR at the end of the current season have sent shockwaves through the sport – and the wider world of motorsport sponsorship.

According to reports by The Associated Press, Red Bull is set to announce that it is quitting NASCAR Sprint Cup competition at the end of the 2011 season.

The story from The Associated Press says that “multiple people familiar with the decision” have confirmed that a team executive was dispatched to Michigan International Speedway this weekend to inform NASCAR officials and other industry representatives of the decision and that an official announcement will follow once the team and its employees have been formally told.

It’s unclear why Red Bull have made the decision: one theory is that a fall in NASCAR viewer numbers has particularly hit the 18-34 demographic which is the Austrian energy drinks giant’s core market.

Red Bull is involved in a wide number of motorsport sponsorships around the world, including F1 with its championship-winning team led by Sebastian Vettel, and the concern is that underlying pressures because of the world economic situation are forcing them to reign in their more costly sports operations.

The fear is that as a result, Red Bull may look at the most costly owner/sponsorship of all their sporting involvement – and could even decide that one or both of its two F1 teams, Red Bull Racing and Toro Rosso, can no longer be justified. While the main F1 team has been immensely successful, it’s not unknown for corporate sponsors to decide to quit while on top when faced with balance sheet pressures.

It’s possible that the current NASCAR team management headed up by Jay Frye might seek buyers for the team and find some way to carry on NASCAR operations into 2012, but with all teams suffering from chilly financial times at present it’s hard to see who has the sort of financial resources to step in if the likes of Red Bull are calling it a day.

The sources quoted by AP had no information on what would happen to the team’s operation or staff, or what exactly the reason for the pull-out is, nor whether their pull-out from NASCAR will affect just the main team or all their other sponsorships in NASCAR series, such as Cole Whitt in the Truck Series, and which could impact the decision of whether or not Kimi Raikkonen makes any further forays into the sport.

In NASCAR, Red Bull is both the team owner and primary sponsor of the two-car operation which currently fields Brian Vickers and Kasey Kahne. The team has not had much success in NASCAR since entering Cup competition in 2007, which started with a debut year that saw Vickers fail to qualify for a third of the races and ultimately end up placed 38th in the championship, and AJ Allmendinger miss 19 races and place 43rd.

Allmendinger was fired toward the end of 2008 in order to make room for Scott Speed after Red Bull ousted him from their Toro Rosso junior F1 team and offered him the NASCAR slot as compensation. That relationship eventually broke down altogether and Speed is now suing Red Bull as a consequence, after he was in turn ejected from the team to make way for the return of Brian Vickers from medical leave. Vickers won a race in 2009 and made the all-important Chase that year, and both of its current drivers have five top-ten finishes apiece so far this season.

There have been rumours that Red Bull – thought until today to have deep pockets and a solid commitment to winning in NASCAR – have been circling Carl Edwards, Juan Montoya or even Kimi Raikkonen as potential replacements for Vickers, whose current contract expires at the end of this year. Kahne is on loan from Hendrick Motorsports and due to return to that team at the end of the year as Mark Martin steps down.

In response to the AP story, Red Bull published the following statement:

Red Bull Racing Team is currently seeking outside investors as we evaluate next steps in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. We are not at liberty to comment on details while negotiations are under way.

Red Bull fully supports NASCAR and will continue its investment in America’s premier form of motorsports for the remainder of the 2011 season. The team’s focus will not waiver as we fight for victories and a position in the 2011 Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Denny Hamlin was a force to be reckoned with in 2010, but was finding victory lane hard to gain access to his year – until finally it all came good at Michigan International Speedway.

Denny Hamlin has come close to winning in 2011, only for it to fall apart at the last minute because of fuel issues, pit calls or problems with pit stops. What he needed was one race without all those frustrating niggles: and this weekend in the Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips 400, he and the #11 team finally got exactly that.

Hamlin was starting from tenth position for the 400 mile race at the 2-mile at Michigan International Speedway oval, a significant improvement on his 2010 starting position when he went on to win the race regardless – an ominous sign for the rest of the field. Up ahead, Kurt Busch leading the field to green from his third consecutive pole position for Penske Racing alongside David Reutimann. Joey Logano had been sent to the back of the field after making an engine change overnight.

One driver who has never felt comfortable at Michigan is the reigning Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, and after qualifying a rather lowly 21st he then managed to spin the #48 on lap eight to bring out the first caution of the afternoon as he got caught in a three-wide out of turn 2 that sent the car loose and skidding sideways into the infield where he blew out three of his four tyres but managed to keep it off the wall, although he soon found that his sway bar was broken and needed urgent repair, putting him two laps down.

Surprisingly given how early in proceedings this was, the leaders opted to come in. Crew chief Jimmy Fennig told his driver “A lot of guys are going to do two tyres but I think we should do four,” but Matt Kenseth opted to go with the majority view of just two tyres at this stage. David Ragan was forced into a second pit stop after making contact with Dale Earnhardt Jr. in pit lane, and Regan Smith also had problems that forced a long delay in the pits.

By contrast, Ryan Newman opted to stay out and duly inherited the lead on the race track, but then promptly spun his tyres at the restart and caused all sorts of four- and five-wide chaos behind him and allowed Greg Biffle and Kurt Busch to move briskly past him into the lead.

A second yellow came out on lap 26 when Robby Gordon spun in turn 3 and hit the wall, which allowed the leaders to came back in for new pit stops. Greg Biffle and Kurt Busch resumed in the lead while Kyle Busch had worked his way up to third ahead of Matt Kenseth; Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were also safely in the top ten in seventh, ninth and tenth respectively.

Kenseth worked his way up to second – and Biffle even kindly allowed his team mate to lead a lap for the bonus point – before the next round of pit stops commenced under green on lap 60. Biffle and Kenseth resumed in the top positions followed by Kyle Busch – brother Kurt starting to lose touch and falling back now – but Kenseth was furious when his pit crew sheepishly came onto the radio to inform him that they hadn’t managed to get all the fuel they needed on board and he would be stopping early next time around, much as happened just the other week at Texas.

In fact a blown tyre for Brad Keselowski sending the #2 into the wall on lap 84 made the fuel issue moot as everyone was able to come in next time around under yellow, although Kenseth’s longer stop did drop him down to eighth which took a few laps to redress. Biffle still had the lead at the restart, but on the stroke of the midway point he suddenly found Kyle Busch’s advances could no longer be held off and the #18 took over control of the race.

Busch’s strong run was odd considering Kyle himself was feeling rather poorly, to the point where the team readied standby driver Scott Riggs to take over. Kyle was complaining of chest pains and difficulty breathing – alarming symptoms to say the least – and all crew chief Dave Rodgers could do was dose his driver up with Tums antacids and water.

“I don’t know what it was,” he said. “Just a centre chest pain I had early in the race. It was really hard to breathe. Couldn’t tell you what it was, I’ve never felt that before … It was just hard to breathe. I had to take real short breaths. Felt like I was running a 400-mile marathon, which essentially I was. But I felt like I was running on my feet instead of in a race car.”

Even so, it was clear that they would have to prise the steering wheel of the #18 out of Kyle’s cold, dead hands before he was going to give up. And he wasn’t about to hand the lead back to Greg Biffle anytime soon, either. The next round of pit stops commenced on lap 117 (the only drama being Brad Keselowski nearly skidding straight through his pit box) and once everyone had been through pit road it was still Kyle who led the field by some 1.2s over Biffle. He would eventually lead 59 of the 200 laps, but still not quite good enough to take the bonus for most laps led – that went to Biffle who had clocked up 68 laps in the lead in the first half of the race, but none in the second half.

All the signs were that this was coming down to a fuel conservation strategy battle, and the cars that were forced into the pits for fuel from lap 150 – kicked off by Jamie McMurray – weren’t going to be able to make it the full remaining 50 laps to the end. Kasey Kahne stayed out until lap 155 but that proved to be a huge mistake, the #4 running completely dry and coughing to a dead stop in the pit box, which meant frantic efforts to feed in gas into the fuel lines to get the engine re-fired – a process that kept Kahne in pit lane for a torturous whole minute. His Red Bull team mate Brian Vickers was in next time around and narrowly escaped a similar fate.

It could have been worse. And for Juan Montoya it was, as he suddenly ran dry just as he passed the entry point for pit lane. The #42 abruptly slowed up, and then Andy Lally came screaming off turn 4 at race speed and simply wasn’t expecting a slow car that high up on the track and ran straight into the back of him. Montoya was sent spinning through the grass (and, ironically, onto pit road after all) which Lally had a seriously crumpled front end and an engine that shouldn’t be in that many pieces.

That brought out the fourth caution of the afternoon and interrupted the in-progress sequence of pit stops; Biffle had already been in but now got his lap back, while Kenseth had also been in and just managed to stay on the lead lap, and now took advantage of the opportunity that presented itself to come in for a quick top-up and emerge in the lead, with an eye to making it all the way to the finish in 40 laps’ time in fuel conservation mode.

Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch led the field to the green flag on lap 163 but it was Carl Edwards who got the best start and blew by both of them to take the lead, looking very strong indeed as did Denny Hamlin who slotted into second place ahead of Kenseth who had suffered some wheel spin at the get-go. But just about everyone was studying their fuel gauges very nervously – the leading pair figured they could just about make it all the way to the end, but most couldn’t without a caution. And a green/white/chequered extended finish would screw up literally everyone.

Where was that vital caution? Kevin Harvick nearly caused it by getting up high and scraping along the wall in the final 20 laps, but NASCAR stubbornly refused to even twitch at bringing out a caution. Nor did they when Mark Martin drifted up high on the track toward the wall without realising that his Hendrick team mate Dale Earnhardt Jr. – who had already been into the wall earlier in the race and required some pit lane attention to sort out the damage – was working to recover his position and using the outside line to come past; Martin pinched him against the wall and Dale made contact with front right of the #88 against the concrete but was able to continue. Again it seemed that the caution had been avoided as there was no debris that required a yellow.

But that changed a few laps later: the impact against the wall had caused some bodywork damage to the #88 which in turn led to a cut right front tyre, and on lap 191 Dale was into the wall again – this time seriously enough to bring out the fifth and final caution of the afternoon.

Dale was furious with his team mate: “If the tables were turned, I’d have been smarter and given him plenty of room,” said Dale. “He’s older than me, been racing forever, he’s forgot more stuff than I’ll ever know. But still, I take better care of people [on the track] than that.”

“It was an accident. We had an accident,” said Martin, somewhat bemused by Dale’s heat over the incident. “I had my front wheels cut and I let off the gas, and that’s all I could do at that point … It was my mistake.”

Later, the two talked it over and Dale was calmer. “I feel better,” he said, adding that “Mark wouldn’t lie to me.” He went on: “He got tight off the corner – I had the same thing happen to me [earlier.] I can’t tell when he’s pushing… He was out of the gas, wasn’t nothing he could do.”

The caution gave everyone a chance to pit, and no one – even those who had earlier thought they might be able to make it all the way – was willing to risk it, especially with the dreaded prospect of a green/white/chequered still in the air. The question now was: who would come out in the lead with control of the race at the restart?

It was Denny Hamlin, the first time he had led all afternoon, although in the process he had nearly collected one of his pit crew and taken him along for the ride for the final eight laps. Still, no harm done – and more importantly, no foul or penalty was handed down.

Hamlin got a great start when the green came out, while Kenseth – still not the best at restarts – needed a boost from his Roush Fenway team mate Carl Edwards to propel him back into second spot. “I got a bad restart, and Carl pushed me back to clean air, which was real nice of him, and I got back to Denny, but I couldn’t get around him,” confirmed Kenseth. Behind them, Kyle Busch got a predictably flying start and jumped from sixth past Edwards into third place.

Kenseth pushed for all he was worth for those last eight laps, but Hamlin seemed to just about have him covered whether he tried the high line or the low. But proof – if any were needed – that Kenseth was pulling out all the stops to take the win was clear in the way he slid in the past run through turn 4 and practically lost the back end to go skidding into the infield, only to just catch it in time and keep it pointing in the right direction to retain second place ahead of Kyle and Paul Menard who had just edged Carl for fourth.

After so many near-misses in recent races, Hamlin was jubilant at finally clinching his first win in 2011 and his 17th Cup career victory in 202 starts – which puts him into the Cup points top ten for the first time since Vegas.

“We got it done. Everyone knows that we’ve been strong. Today we didn’t look as strong as what we normally do here, but we got it working there at the end,” he said in victory lane. “We made a magic adjustment, and the car took off. This is the point of the season where we really need to start hitting our stride, and hopefully we’ve got another good 10 weeks before the Chase starts.”

Considering Kenseth came a strong second place, you’d expect the #17 team to be reasonably happy with their days work, but they looked as crest-fallen as a newly-neutered mongrel. “I’m really happy we ran second, don’t get me wrong,” Kenseth said. “But it’s frustrating when you think you have a car that’s capable of winning and you don’t win with it.”

His crew chief, Jimmy Fennig, also thought they should have been in with a better chance of a win. “It was a fuel mileage deal and we’re not getting the best fuel mileage,” he said. “So that more or less cost us the whole event, because if we could’ve raced at the end instead of trying to save gas.”

Kenseth couldn’t understand why time and again the #17 is either left waiting on fuel or leaving the pit box short-filled. “Everyone has the same piece of equipment to work with. I don’t think we have an equipment problem, I think we have a problem getting it plugged in right away and making the [fuel can] exchange fast enough.

“We’re getting our tires changed so much faster than the fuel,” he continued. “Everybody else on pit road doesn’t seem to be waiting for fuel. We drop the jack before it’s full. I think that’s a problem we have to keep working on internally, I don’t think that’s a rule or NASCAR problem … That’s up to us to figure out how to do that as good or better than everybody else.”

In the Cup standings, Johnson’s early misfortune left him mired down in 27th place by the end. “We lost a couple laps from that and we were just kind of in a hole at that point and couldn’t get caught back up,” Johnson said.

Combined with Carl Edwards’ return to top five form after last week’s anomaly, that means all the ground that the #48 had made up on the #99 goes right out the window – and indeed, Johnson even drops three places in the points standing to fifth, being displaced by Kevin Harvick, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kyle Busch.

One driver not affected by the Cup points battle is Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne, back in the Wood Brothers’ #21 for the first time since April, returning from his extended medical leave for an undiagnosed inflammatory condition. He had an uneventful race to finish in a satisfactory 16th place, and was just happy to be proved match-fit again after taking part in both the Cup and Nationwide events this weekend.

“I feel fine, so I’m ready and I’m back, and it was good to finally get back in the Cup car,” Bayne said, explaining that he’d lost time on pit road in the early stages. “It wasn’t too bad for our first run back there … This team is doing a really great job this year.”

Race results

1. #11 Denny Hamlin Toyota 200 laps Running (47/1 pts)
2. #17 Matt Kenseth Ford 200 laps + 0.281s (43/1 pts)
3. #18 Kyle Busch Toyota 200 laps + 0.853s (42/1 pts)
4. #27 Paul Menard Chevrolet 200 laps + 1.391s (41/1 pts)
5. #99 Carl Edwards Ford 200 laps + 1.828s (40/1 pts)
6. #39 Ryan Newman Chevrolet 200 laps + 2.735s (39/1 pts)
7. #14 Tony Stewart Chevrolet 200 laps + 2.922s (37/0 pts)
8. #33 Clint Bowyer Chevrolet 200 laps + 3.797s (36/0 pts)
9. #5 Mark Martin Chevrolet 200 laps + 3.952s (35/0 pts)
10. #83 Brian Vickers Toyota 200 laps + 4.435s (34/0 pts)
11. #22 Kurt Busch Dodge 200 laps + 4.586s (34/1 pts)
12. #51 Landon Cassill Chevrolet 200 laps + 4.613s (0pts)
13. #43 A.J. Allmendinger Ford 200 laps + 4.691s (31/0 pts)
14. #29 Kevin Harvick Chevrolet 200 laps + 4.698s (31/1 pts)
15. #16 Greg Biffle Ford 200 laps + 4.898s (31/2 pts)
16. #21 Trevor Bayne Ford 200 laps + 5.182s (0pts)
17. #24 Jeff Gordon Chevrolet 200 laps + 5.347s (27/0 pts)
18. #20 Joey Logano Toyota 200 laps + 5.435s (26/0 pts)
19. #1 Jamie McMurray Chevrolet 200 laps + 6.773s (25/0 pts)
20. #6 David Ragan Ford 200 laps + 6.900s (24/0 pts)
21. #88 Dale Earnhardt Jr. Chevrolet 200 laps + 7.145s (23/0 pts)
22. #47 Bobby Labonte Toyota 200 laps + 8.076s (23/1 pts)
23. #9 Marcos Ambrose Ford 200 laps + 8.549s (21/0 pts)
24. #31 Jeff Burton Chevrolet 200 laps + 8.750s (20/0 pts)
25. #2 Brad Keselowski Dodge 200 laps + 24.035s (19/0 pts)
26. #56 Martin Truex Jr. Toyota 199 laps + 1 lap (18/0 pts)
27. #48 Jimmie Johnson Chevrolet 199 laps + 1 lap (17/0 pts)
28. #4 Kasey Kahne Toyota 199 laps + 1 lap (16/0 pts)
29. #34 David Gilliland Ford 199 laps + 1 lap (15/0 pts)
30. #42 Juan Montoya Chevrolet 199 laps + 1 lap (14/0 pts)
31. #38 Travis Kvapil Ford 199 laps + 1 lap (0pts)
32. #32 Mike Bliss Ford 199 laps + 1 lap (0pts)
33. #78 Regan Smith Chevrolet 199 laps + 1 lap (11/0 pts)
34. #36 Dave Blaney Chevrolet 198 laps + 2 laps (10/0 pts)
35. #00 David Reutimann Toyota 180 laps + 20 laps (9/0 pts)
36. #71 Andy Lally * Ford 155 laps Accident (8/0 pts)
37. #7 Robby Gordon Dodge 80 laps Vibration (7/0 pts)
38. #13 Casey Mears Toyota 51 laps Electrical (7/1 pts)
39. #46 J.J. Yeley Chevrolet 47 laps Brakes (5/0 pts)
40. #87 Joe Nemechek Toyota 44 laps Vibration (0pts)
41. #30 David Stremme Chevrolet 39 laps Clutch (3/0 pts)
42. #181 Scott Riggs Chevrolet 30 laps Brakes (0pts)
43. #66 Michael McDowell Toyota 28 laps Electrical (1/0 pts)

F1 driver Lewis Hamilton got to try out one of NASCAR’s stock cars, while Tony Stewart was also given the chance to take the McLaren-Mercedes F1 car around historic Watkins Glen.

Lewis Hamilton got to try out one of the NASCAR “Car of Tomorrow” stock cars on Tuesday when he took Tony Stewart’s #14 Mobil 1/Office Depot Chevrolet around the Watkins Glen International road course as part of a car swap exhibition event.

In return, Tony Stewart managed to squeeze into the rather more cramped cockpit of a Vodafone McLaren Mercedes MP4-23 for a few circuits of his own, and said that he enjoyed not only the F1 experience but also the opportunity to test out parts of The Glen that NASCAR races don’t normally reach on their visits.

“It’s not the same. They’re completely different,” said Hamilton when asked to compare the F1 and NASCAR vehicles. “The weight – I was trying to calculate that before, because you do everything in pounds here, we do it in kilos. I think I measured it, it’s three times the weight of a F1 car. It actually doesn’t feel that heavy. I think the brakes were surprisingly very good.

“But the driving skills that you learn, the braking into corners, throttle shifting, that’s all very, very similar. That’s why I think it was easier to pick it up quicker than perhaps I would. I think it’s the same for Tony. He went straight out there and picked it up. It was no problem for him. I could definitely see myself having some fun with it a little bit more!”

Hamilton said that he’d had a very good impression of the NASCAR stock car. “I was really, really surprised. I was thinking this could be rolling quite a lot. I didn’t know how stiff it was going to be,” he said. “I tell you what, it handles really well. It’s absolutely fantastic. The shifting and the engine, the way it’s pulling through the RPM was fantastic.”

Stewart described piloting the F1 car as “truly an experience of a lifetime” and said that “It’s just amazing what the capabilities of the car are. I told the guys on pit road out there that it’s probably going to make my crew chief a little more stressed during the weekends because I’m going to want [the #14] to handle like that all the time!

“The first thing I’d have to do is lose about 25 pounds right off the bat. I would actually have to go and work out in a gym again!” he said.

Stewart admitted that he had trouble just getting underway at the start. “The funny part is I couldn’t even get it up high enough in the revs to get it to pull away in first gear. It goes into a default stall mode. [But] once we got rolling, it was unbelievable. The good thing is you have somebody like Lewis that can sit there and guide you through it.”

The wet track conditions did mean that Stewart was far from finding the limits of the F1 car. “I never got to full potential of what the car was capable of doing in a braking zone,” he said, admitting that “You may back it off a little bit just to enjoy the experience more.

“I don’t want to wreck any racecar, much less somebody else’s car,” Stewart said. “As a competitor you want to go out and find the limit, but at the same time, you realize that, if you make a mistake, the penalty for that mistake is probably going to be pretty large here.

“It’s just amazing how far you can charge the corner. It’s easy to see why it’s hard for these guys to overtake because it’s not a long distance from the time you get off the throttle on the brakes to where you’re changing directions. It gives you a much greater appreciation for how hard it is for these guys to overtake each other, what that car’s actually capable of.”

Hamilton seemed to be having a lot more fun in the stock car. “I just feel like a kid today,” Hamilton said. “Whilst driving a F1 car is very fun, the competitive side of it is so serious.” But by the time he’d finished his laps in a stock car, Hamilton was on the radio to declare “That was fun, man!” and to try out some celebratory burnouts – while his McLaren support crew looked on with concern in case he managed to damage the #14 in the process.

Not that Tony Stewart, the car- and team-owner of the #14, was worried. “The part I was worried about he was done by then,” he said. “The good thing is, when you see somebody doing a burnout like that, you know they’re having a good time. That was kind of the icing on the cake.”

The event was held at the New York state road course that hosted the US Grand Prix for 20 years until 1980. “It was definitely good that I got to go out in the F1 car just to kind of get an idea of where the track went,” said Hamilton. “The track is absolutely fantastic. It feels like a real classic. It just feels historic when you’re driving around. They don’t make tracks like that nowadays. When they build new Formula One circuits, they don’t build them like this.”

The Glen is just a short hop across the Canadian border from this weekend’s F1 Grand Prix event in Montreal that included a stunning, dramatic win for Hamilton’s team mate Jenson Button – but a less successful experience for Hamilton himself.

“I was feeling the tough weekend this morning,” Lewis admitted. “But as the excitement built up, and when I got in the car, and once I got out, I completely forgot about last weekend.”

The ride swap exhibition drew an estimated audience of 10,000 along with a lot of excitable motorsports media. The event was organised by Mobil 1, one of Tony Stewart’s primary Cup series sponsors and the ‘Official Motor Oil of NASCAR’, and was a major ambition of Watkins Glen president Michael Printup to bring an F1 car back to the circuit, who admitted: “This was my dream come true.”

Watkins Glen hosts one of NASCAR’s two road course events in a season of 36 races – the Cup field will be racing there again on August 14, when hopefully the conditions will be rather nicer than the dull and wet weather the car swap faced this week. However, the NASCAR event normally omits the mile-long section of the course dubbed “the boot” and Stewart would like to see that change in the future.

“I enjoyed the long course,” Stewart enthused. “I’d never been around it till today. I told [NASCAR competition director] Brett Bodine when we got out of the car after our setup runs that I would like the opportunity to see us having a shot at running the long course … I think it would create more passing opportunities, for sure, and it’s just such a historic racetrack, and there are some really cool corners down there that we don’t get a shot to run on a Cup weekend.”

Current Cup champion Jimmie Johnson has said much the same thing after running a Grand-Am race at the Glen last year, and Michael Printup said he would flag this up to NASCAR president Michael Helton right away.

“I’ve asked them over and over again, and I think this was just the real live testimonial that it can happen,” he said. “Our races are becoming shorter now [in duration], because we’ve paved all the gravel traps, and we’ve taken out a lot of the mishaps and [lost a lot] of track time. Now we just have to pave 8, which is down in the heel of the boot, and I think we could have some great racing.

“Like Tony and I were talking after the [car swap], it’s just going to give us a lot more opportunity to pass,” Printup continued, saying that the trade-off would see a reduction in the number of overall laps. “I think that would make it more exciting for the fans, and it opens up another major section where fans love to view racing.”

At 40, there’s no chance any more of Tony Stewart ever making the move to F1, but a future career in NASCAR may be something that 26-year-old Lewis Hamilton considers whenever he decides his time in F1 is up.

He would be in good company, with former F1 world champion Jacques Villeneuve and Hamilton’s predecessor Juan Pablo Montoya already having gone down that road with varying degrees of success – Montoya already having made history by becoming the first non-American driver to make it through to the post-regular season Chase.

“I’m good friends with Juan,” said Stewart. “I like talking to him about what we did in IndyCar racing, his stint in F1. He’s a great competitor in the Cup Series. My driver on our team [Ryan Newman], they had a little run-in earlier this year which put me in a bad spot because I’m friends with both of them.

“It’s fun to watch guys like [Montoya]. We had him at our [Prelude to the Dream] charity dirt race a couple years ago. He had never been on a dirt track, never driven that type of racecar. To watch him adapt to that type of car so quickly, it shows there’s great racecar drivers around the world. It’s a matter of where do they want to be, do they have opportunities.”

Stewart made an offer to Hamilton about dirt tracking, should he be interested and available in 2012: “If he wants to come run The Prelude next year, I will personally pay for a brand-new car to come there. If he wants it, he’s got it. We’ll have him a brand-new one sitting there ready to go!

“Guys like Juan and Nelson [Piquet Jr. in the Truck Series] being able to have the success they’re having will create other opportunities for other foreign drivers to come into the series. Our sport has evolved so much over the last 15, 20 years, it used to be a regional sport in the States, now it’s nationwide and worldwide. I think NASCAR welcomes everybody with open arms.”

Hamilton admitted that “I’ve not been to a NASCAR race, but I would love to go and get a feel and sense … I’m sure around the world there’s things that we all can learn from each other.” But Lewis knows that to turn up to watch a NASCAR race anytime soon would most likely set all sorts of rumours about imminent series defection swirling, much as a meeting with Christian Horner in Montreal had convinced many F1 pundits that a switch for him to Red Bull was on the cards.

“I have spoken to a lot of people during the weekend,” insisted Hamilton. “I know all the mergers, the bosses, all the teams. I know Stefano Domenicali … I know Christian.” But he insisted he was happy where he was: “I’m again just very fortunate to be a part of McLaren. It’s one of the best teams there, again with great history. We have a car that is capable of winning, as my teammate showed at the weekend.”

The Hamilton/Stewart car swap was planned and announced before Kimi Raikkonen – another former McLaren driver – made his foray into the world of NASCAR Trucks and Nationwide series events. The 2007 F1 world champion is now back in Europe with his WRC team and has yet to say whether he will pursue more NASCAR appearances in the future.

In another inter-series Ganassi car swap event in mid-March this year, former IndyCar champion and Indy 500 winner Scott Dixon briefly traded cars with NASCAR’s Jamie McMurray in an non-publicised event. Dixon ran a stock car at Talladega Superspeedway while McMurray got to try out an IndyCar at Barber Motorsports Park.

‘I didn’t want to come in,” said McMurray afterwards, who drives for Earnhart Ganassi Racing in NASCAR Sprint Cup. “I was excited to drive an IndyCar but I had no idea the experience would be like that. It felt as if I never turned the wheel, it was that smooth.”

Ganassi IndyCar driver Dixon found just getting in the most surprising part of a stock car. “They’re definitely pretty hard to get in and out of,” he said at the time. “I thought ours would be more difficult, but you just come from the top and slide. Here you’ve got to ‘Dukes of Hazzard’ style and slide through the window. And then get your legs in, and there’s things you can hit your head on.”

Seems like each series has its own unique set of challenges!

Kyle Busch and his team have been penalised six championship points and his crew chief Dave Rogers fined $25,000 for a technical infringement with the #18 at Pocono Raceway.

Kyle Busch has lost six Sprint Cup championship points after his #18 car failed technical inspection after the 5-Hour Energy 500 at Pocono Raceway on Sunday afternoon.

The car’s owner, Joe Gibbs Racing, also loses six championship owner, while the #18’s crew chief has been fined $25,000 for the rule infraction.

Kyle Busch had escaped early on-track harassment by Richard Childress Racing driver Kevin Harvick to finish in third place at Pocono on Sunday, only to fall foul of the post-race technical inspection that found that the #18 had a height issue on the left-front which was 1/16th of an inch lower than allowed. The car was removed to the NASCAR R&D Center for further investigation before the penalty was announced on Monday.

Previous infringements for cars have seen even greater points deducted and crew members suspended for lengthy periods as a result if intentional wrong-doing is suspected, so the penalties are relatively minor in comparison and suggest that NASCAR believe it to be an accidental matter – but nonetheless a rule violation.

The six point deduction – the equivalent of a loss of six places in a race – doesn’t do much harm to Busch’s Cup season, reducing him from 467pts to 461pts but still in fifth place ahead of his brother Kurt. The Pocono race result is unaffected by the infringement.

The specific rule violated was section 12-1 of the 2011 NASCAR rule book pertaining to actions detrimental to stock car racing, specifically sub-sections 12-4-J regarding “any determination by NASCAR officials that race equipment used in the event does not conform to NASCAR rules” and sub-section 20-12.8.1B covering “body height requirements — car failed to meet the minimum front car heights”.

“It’s disappointing,” Busch’s pit chief Dave Rogers said on Sunday evening. “I can’t tell you a whole lot right now. … I don’t have any excuses for you. We’re going to go back to the shop and try to figure it out.”

He speculated that race damage might be to blame. “There is a lot of damage if you look at the left-front fender. You can see we bottomed out,” said Rogers. “We got into the fence on the right side a little bit. There is plenty of damage, but nothing that I could look at and say, ‘Hey, NASCAR, here’s a problem.’

“I didn’t present anything to tech that hasn’t been through tech before—several times. These days, bump stops control your attitude. Every car out there is sitting on bump stops, so you don’t expect to go through tech too low,” said Rogers.

He said that it was a “huge surprise”, describing how “My boy is here, and I walked him through tech to show him the process—smiling, happy with a third-place finish” before getting the nasty shock.

Kyle Busch, Dave Rogers and Joe Gibbs Racing did not immediately comment on the NASCAR penalties.

Jeff Gordon saw off challenges from Juan Montoya and Kurt Busch to win the 5-Hour Energy 500 Pocono Cup race, after Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin both hit problems.

Prior to the start of the 5-Hour Energy 500 at Pocono Raceway, the big talking point – apart from who punched who, and who was fined how much for doing what exactly – had been about the changes to transmission gear ratios and rear-end gear ratios mandated by NASCAR for the race.

It certainly added a little spice to a long-distance event (the race lasted almost three and a half hours, only a little shorter than the entire rain-affected span of the Canadian Grand Prix) that frankly has lacked excitement in recent years.

Previously Pocono – a 2.5-mile triangle – had been classified as an oval event, a decision that mandated settings which essentially invalidated third gear and frankly meant shifting was all but useless;- many drivers no longer bothered shifting anymore. But this year NASCAR reconsidered that and announced settings treating Pocono more like a road course event, and drivers had to consider exactly what that would mean

“I think that we’re really only shifting in one corner, in turn 1,” said Denny Hamlin who has won at Pocono twice in the last three years. “I do think it’s going to be tough on the reliability of these race cars for 500 miles. Shifting takes its toll on engines, for sure. Somebody will break one.”

Fuel economy could be another factor, if the race comes down to fuel conservation as we’ve seen at Charlotte and Kansas. “I think you use more fuel shifting and getting into third gear and then lifting and standing on it again going into fourth you burn more fuel shifting,” pointed out Carl Edwards.

Brett Bodine, NASCAR’s research and development director of competition, thought it would have more impact: “To me, it does have the potential to make the action from turn 2 to the third turn more interesting. [It] adds an element for mistakes, which would allow some drivers to capitalise on those mistakes.”

But when it came down to it, no one could be sure until the green flag fell for the start of the race at 1.20pm exactly what was going to happen or who the new settings would most benefit.

Kurt Busch led to the green flag but he was rapidly pushed aside by Denny Hamlin who surged into the lead from the second row of the grid. He opened up a 2.3s lead by lap 9 despite complaining that his clutch pedal wasn’t feeling right with the gear shifting; at which point a caution for debris came out. It didn’t stop Hamlin from continuing to lead in the next short stint before a second debris yellow came out on lap 18.

Juan Montoya took over the lead for the restart after opting for only two tyres during the round of pit stops, but was quickly overwhelmed by Hamlin who screamed back to the lead from fifth place and simply would not be denied.

Further back, Kyle Busch had been powering through the backmarkers to 12th place after qualifying in the 34th spot, but it was clear that trouble lay in store for him: Kevin Harvick was conspicuously stalking him over the race track, repeatedly crowding him as they battled for position and then later following Busch to the inside and staying glued to the #18’s bumper. NASCAR told both teams to stop fooling around and concentrate on the racing, which infuriated Busch.

“The #29 is all over me!” Busch retorted, and his crew chief Dave Rogers sought to calm his driver down by agreeing. “Keep your composure in that race car, bud,” Rogers replied; “I’ve lost mine about four times already.”

When Harvick backed off, it seemed that the word had gone out to his team mate Jeff Burton to take over: clearly the Richard Childress Racing team were carrying on their boss’s vendetta with Kyle onto the track. “He knows he has one coming,” Harvick told ESPN.com. “I just wanted him to think about it.”

Busch, though, was trying to keep away from all the mind games and resisted being lured into retaliation. “I was running my own race – it was another car I had to pass,” Busch said after the finish.”Seemed like he was trying to make it awfully difficult on me. There’s a couple times where I just had to back off and wait, got back to him and tried to pass him again … Maybe kind of shows his character and who he is, how he feels he needs to race on the racetrack,” Busch said of Harvick’s aggression. “But it’s not my fight. He’s trying to turn it into one.”

Once NASCAR handed the warning to everyone involved, the feud simmered down and racing got back to the business at hand; Harvick himself ended up on pit road early after failing to get a full shot of fuel during his previous stop, which helped put some track distance between #29 and #18.

Before the green flag pit stops came around on lap 47, Hamlin’s lead had grown to almost 4s ahead of Juan Montoya and Kurt Busch, with Carl Edwards, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon closest to him. Hamlin quickly picked up the lead again after the stops cycled through and continued to lead for the next 27 laps with only Juan Montoya managing to hold on despite his two-tyre gambit as Hamlin stretched his command of the race; Kurt Busch by contrast was fighting a loose #22.

Pretty soon Carl Edwards was not among those in pursuit: he took the #99 onto pit lane on lap 60 reporting that the car’s engine had a terminal problem. “One of the valves got in an argument with something in the engine and lost,” Edwards explained. “We broke one valve. We don’t think it was from an over-rev or anything. We just think it was a parts failure.”

He said it didn’t seem to be related to the return of the need for drivers to shift gears during the Pocono event, following that change NASCAR made to gear ratio settings for the race. “No, I don’t think that had anything to do with it. I was trying really hard to be easy on the engine and only shifting in one and two and I was short shifting into fourth. I didn’t want to over rev it.”

Edwards’ retirement would have major consequences for the Sprint Cup championship. He’d arrived at Pocono walking away with the lead by 40pts, but afterwards his lead would be slashed to just 7pts following his classification in 37th place here. “That is racing I guess. What good is the point lead if you don’t use it? We are using it today and we are going to need every bit we can to get out of here with the lead today.”

While Edwards wondered off and took up residence as an unexpected addition to the TNT commentary team, among others failing to make race distance were Sam Hornish Jr. – returning to Cup racing for the first time this year – and Marcos Ambrose.

“Obviously that’s not how we wanted our day to go,” admitted former Indy 500 champion Hornish. “The car was loose but we were working on trying to get it better when the oil line went. So obviously we lost a bunch of time in the garage getting that repaired. It’s disappointing, of course. But, it was good to be back in a Cup car this weekend and hopefully I’ll be back again soon.”

For his part, Ambrose reported a series of problems with the #9. “I had a vibration in third gear for about 25 laps and we tried to save it but we lost third gear and then trying to leave the pits in fourth gear we lost the clutch too. It is just a bad day.”

Hamlin was still in the lead for his next green flag pit stop on lap 77, but a sticking lugnut cost him valuable seconds and when he came back out on track it was in second place to Montoya. Hamlin was faster on track but first had to overcome a 7s deficit to the Colombian; he was also cutting back on the gear shifts in order to make his fuel last, the team thinking fuel strategy even before the midway point of the race.

After an overcast few days at Pocono, finally the sun decided to put in an appearance, and immediately the increased track temperature had an effect: Matt Kenseth found his car suddenly much more to his liking, while Kasey Kahne was also happier but at the same time keeping a wary eye on his temperature gauges. Paul Menard reported that his car’s behaviour was swinging wildly even as heavily affected as the sun going in and out of the clouds; but Brad Keselowski was reporting that the #2 had developed a nasty case of the shakes and the team tried to decide whether this was indicating a tyre problem or problems with the driveshaft or shock absorbers.

The race neared halfway point without any more cautions and it was time for pit stops again; Hamlin’s stop was much better this time but he still came out from his stop behind Juan Montoya. It was an even less happy outcome for Brian Vickers who was given a drive-thru for speeding in pit lane … and then, irony of ironies, a second drive-thru for speeding on the first.

After the pit stops – and past the halfway point – the leaders were Montoya, Hamlin, Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson despite some problems on pit road for the #48. SHortly afterwards drivers reported fluid on the track at turn 2 which may or may not have been related to Jamie McMurray heading to the garage with a broken third gear around the same time, and then the yellow went out for debris on lap 111 which gave AJ Allmendinger the lucky dog as he had just been passed by the leader.

Montoya opted for two tyres again at the pit stop in order to preserve his lead, but Denny Hamlin was among the overwhelming majority of those who went for four. Sure enough, Montoya struggled at the restart and lost positions to both Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon as well as Hamlin at the restart on lap 116 but just about clung on to fourth place for the time being, ahead of Johnson and Tony Stewart.

“It was a bad decision,” admitted Montoya’s crew chief Brian Pattie. “I figured more people would take two just to get the track position from the back. I was trying to gap us with some others who I thought would take two and the guys who I thought were going to take four tires further back … It probably cost us two or three spots in the end.”

“We took two tyres and that kind of hurt us. But once we got going again, we were OK,” insisted Montoya of the fumble that likely cost him a shot at the eventual race win. “I thought our Target Chevy ran good all day long … We were really good on the long run. We just need a little more pace in our race cars, you know?”

Polesitter Kurt Busch was finally back where he had started the race – in the lead – and he liked it so much that he decided to stay there for the next 22 laps with Gordon in support; surprisingly, Hamlin was some way off their pace having dialled in too much rear brake during the pit stop.

At least he was better off than Tony Stewart, who radioed in to his pit crew on lap 126 that he had lost third gear, as the shifting and gear ratio changes did indeed start to take a mounting toll on the cars. “I had a vibration in third gear for about 25 laps and we tried to save it but we lost third gear and then trying to leave the pits in fourth gear we lost the clutch too. It is just a bad day,” he said.

There had been problems in the #14 from even earlier: a broken sprint meant that every time he wanted to roll off the throttle, the pedal wouldn’t retract unless Stewart had pulled it back manually by hooking his foot into the toe loop and doing it himself. It was not Stewart’s best day, and a lot of effort resulted in a disappointing 21st place by the end of the day.

His team mate Ryan Newman also lost third gear, but later in the race where he was more able to massage the car to the end and stay in the top ten. “With 21 laps to go, we lost third gear in the transmission,” said Newman’s crew chief Tony Gibson. “And we thought we were going to be OK, but the transmission started running hot and started pumping fluid out. We didn’t know it at the time. It smoked a little bit in the corners, but then it cleared up and went away and we ran the last 15 laps with no smoke.

“I think what happened was it just kind of dumped all the fluid out of the transmission. It just got hot and started pumping it out. So, we were just very, very lucky today to finish this race. For once, a break went our way.”

Newman briefly ran as high as second behind Kyle Busch as the next round of green flag pit stops cycled through after lap 140, but once everyone had been in the leaders remained the same – Kurt Busch, Jeff Gordon and Denny Hamlin with plenty of space back to Juan Montoya back in fourth.

A belated caution finally materialised on lap 156 after drivers reported some metal debris in turn 2, and the drivers came in for another round of stops – Montoya once again deploying the two-tyre strategy and coming out in the lead. But the strategy didn’t work out any better this time around, and on the restart he fell back to fourth behind Jeff Gordon who got an excellent restart and took the lead for the first time outside of pit stop sequences despite having run the entire afternoon around the top five, followed by Kurt Busch and his bother Kyle who were quickly ahead of Montoya.

What about Hamlin? His winning prospects has suddenly soured, after a flat tyre blamed on a missing valve stem ended up doing some serious damage before Hamlin could limp back for a costly green flag pit stop. “When [the tyre blew], it sheared the tyre and wrapped it around the housing and broke the brake line. So I had no brakes,” Hamlin said. “It was just a slew of problems there at the end.” The blown tyre had done some major damage to the bodywork and left Hamlin limping around for the remainder of the race, no longer a factor in the race result.

There were no further cautions for the rest of evening despite incidents such as a spin for Greg Biffle out of turn 3 on lap 167, but he kept it off the wall and made it into pit lane without the need for a yellow flag so the track was still green as they hit lap 175 which was the trigger point for many to come in for their final pit stops on the evening.

Montoya came in a little earlier – this time conceding the need for four tyres – in an effort to pull off a little magic in the pits, but Jeff Gordon and Kurt Busch were in four laps later for four tyres and maximum fuel and came out ahead of the #42, with the lead now held by Landon Cassill who had yet to pit. Gordon won the battle for the lead with Kurt in second and Kyle Busch in third, while Montoya was struggling with a malfunctioning third gear and lost fourth place to Jimmie Johnson while Dale Earnhardt was moving up to sixth place behind him and it was only a matter of time before he further demoted the #42.

Gordon put his foot to the floor and stretched the lead up to 2.6s with four laps to go: no one had enough to go with him. Sure enough, he was untouchable and there were no dramas as he took first the white and then the chequered flag for his second win in 2011 and his 84th career victory in his 631st race in Sprint Cup. It’s also his fifth Pocono victory in 37 races here, tying him with Bill Elliott’s track record.

He was clear that it was the pit stop that had been the decider for him: “You guys won that one in the pits,” Gordon radioed to his crew after crossing the finish line. “Way to go!” he added.

“I’m just so excited to be a part of this sport,” said Gordon, pointing out that he was practically a senior citizen in NASCAR terms these days with a significant birthday coming up on August 4: “I’m going to be 40 this year. I’m an old man now!”

Kurt Busch was disappointed not to have been able to put up a better fight at the end. “I thought we could gain on him after 15 laps into the run. We were able to do that most of the day. We were able to do that again at the end, but we just couldn’t close the gap far enough. The old ‘Golden Boy’ had it in him today.”

Gordon becomes only the fourth driver with more than one win in the 2011 Cup season, putting him in a strong position when it comes to the Chase – if the points don’t work out, then one of the Chase wildcards for drivers with the most wins not otherwise qualified should be a dead cert.

Meanwhile, Kyle Busch had escaped his early on-track dramas with Kevin Harvick only to fall foul of the post-race technical inspection, which found that the #18 had a height issue on the left-front which was 1/16th of an inch lower than allowed. The car was removed to the NASCAR R&D Center for further investigation, and Kyle Busch lost six Sprint Cup championship points as a result. The car’s owner, Joe Gibbs Racing, also loses six championship owner, while the #18’s crew chief has been fined $25,000 for the rule infraction.

“It’s disappointing,” Busch’s pit chief Dave Rogers said. “I can’t tell you a whole lot right now. … I don’t have any excuses for you. We’re going to go back to the shop and try to figure it out.” He speculated that race damage might be to blame. “There is a lot of damage if you look at the left-front fender. You can see we bottomed out,” said Rogers. “We got into the fence on the right side a little bit. There is plenty of damage, but nothing that I could look at and say, ‘Hey, NASCAR, here’s a problem.’

“I didn’t present anything to tech that hasn’t been through tech before—several times. These days, bump stops control your attitude. Every car out there is sitting on bump stops, so you don’t expect to go through tech too low,” said Rogers. He said that it was a “huge surprise”, describing how “My boy is here, and I walked him through tech to show him the process—smiling, happy with a third-place finish” before getting the nasty shock.

Life is never dull around Kyle Busch, it seems; but the atmosphere was definitely happier in the #24 garage around Jeff Gordon, who with 84 career cup wins is now tied in third place the NASCAR record book along with Darrel Waltrip and Bobby Allison – only Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty have won more.

“I’m so excited to get that win and see what we’ve been working on,” said Gordon. “We’ve had fast racecars at times, then the strategy didn’t fall our way or the cautions don’t fall our way or we didn’t have the fastest racecar. So today to see it all come together, to have a fast racecar, great pit stops, calling the race right, good restarts, those types of things, I was so caught up in that, I was so excited, plus I have my family here to celebrate it with – I didn’t even think about 84 till they reminded me!

“I really can’t even express in words what it means to tie Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison at 84 wins because I just never thought it would ever happen for me, or really when I got in this sport for anybody to win that many races is amazing.”

Of course, now all he wants is the 85th win – maybe next week at Michigan?

Race results

1. #24 Jeff Gordon Chevrolet 200 laps Running (47/1 pts)
2. #22 Kurt Busch Dodge + 2.965s Running (43/1 pts)
3. #18 Kyle Busch Toyota + 6.387s Running (42/1 pts)
4. #48 Jimmie Johnson Chevrolet + 7.519s Running (41/1 pts)
5. #29 Kevin Harvick Chevrolet + 13.422s Running (39/0 pts)
6. #88 Dale Earnhardt Jr. Chevrolet + 14.204s Running (38/0 pts)
7. #42 Juan Montoya Chevrolet + 16.789s Running (38/1 pts)
8. #17 Matt Kenseth Ford + 17.050s Running (36/0 pts)
9. #39 Ryan Newman Chevrolet + 20.908s Running (35/0 pts)
10. #56 Martin Truex Jr. Toyota + 21.419s Running (34/0 pts)
11. #20 Joey Logano Toyota + 22.708s Running (33/0 pts)
12. #4 Kasey Kahne Toyota + 27.447s Running (32/0 pts)
13. #00 David Reutimann Toyota + 32.050s Running (31/0 pts)
14. #27 Paul Menard Chevrolet + 32.471s Running (30/0 pts)
15. #78 Regan Smith Chevrolet + 32.925s Running (29/0 pts)
16. #33 Clint Bowyer Chevrolet + 34.542s Running (28/0 pts)
17. #6 David Ragan Ford + 35.212s Running (27/0 pts)
18. #5 Mark Martin Chevrolet + 38.210s Running (26/0 pts)
19. #11 Denny Hamlin Toyota + 40.744s Running (27/2 pts)
20. #31 Jeff Burton Chevrolet + 40.777s Running (24/0 pts)
21. #14 Tony Stewart Chevrolet + 41.603s Running (24/1 pts)
22. #83 Brian Vickers Toyota + 47.591s Running (22/0 pts)
23. #2 Brad Keselowski Dodge + 52.535s Running (21/0 pts)
24. #51 Landon Cassill Chevrolet + 56.551s Running (0pts)
25. #43 A.J. Allmendinger Ford 199 laps Running (19/0 pts)
26. #36 Dave Blaney Chevrolet 199 laps Running (18/0 pts)
27. #16 Greg Biffle Ford 199 laps Running (17/0 pts)
28. #47 Bobby Labonte Toyota 199 laps Running (16/0 pts)
29. #34 David Gilliland Ford 199 laps Running (15/0 pts)
30. #13 Casey Mears Toyota 198 laps Running (14/0 pts)
31. #32 Mike Bliss Ford 197 laps Running (0pts)
32. #71 Andy Lally * Ford 194 laps Running (12/0 pts)
33. #1 Jamie McMurray Chevrolet 189 laps Running (11/0 pts)
34. #9 Marcos Ambrose Ford 154 laps Running (10/0 pts)
35. #38 Sam Hornish Jr. Ford 140 laps Running (0pts)
36. #37 Tony Raines Ford 124 laps Brakes (8/0 pts)
37. #99 Carl Edwards Ford 59 laps Running (7/0 pts)
38. #7 Scott Wimmer Dodge 51 laps Brakes (0pts)
39. #150 T.J. Bell * Toyota 33 laps Electrical (0pts)
40. #87 Joe Nemechek Toyota 29 laps Ignition (0pts)
41. #66 Michael McDowell Toyota 29 laps Electrical (4/1 pts)
42. #46 J.J. Yeley Chevrolet 23 laps Brakes (2/0 pts)
43. #181 Scott Riggs Chevrolet 17 laps Brakes (0pts)

Sprint Cup standings

1  --  Carl Edwards           492  Leader  14  2  1  7  10
2  --  Jimmie Johnson         486  -6      14  0  1  5  9
3  --  Dale Earnhardt Jr.     482  -10     14  1  0  3  8
4  --  Kevin Harvick          481  -11     14  0  3  6  8
5  --  Kyle Busch             461  -25     14  0  2  7  8
6  --  Kurt Busch             457  -35     14  2  0  3  8
7  --  Matt Kenseth           448  -44     14  1  2  4  7
8  +1  Clint Bowyer           419  -73     14  0  0  2  6
9  -1  Tony Stewart           417  -75     14  0  0  1  5
10 --  Ryan Newman            417  -75     14  0  0  4  6
11 +2  Jeff Gordon            411  -81     14  1  2  5  5
12 -1  Denny Hamlin           408  -84     14  0  0  2  5
13 +2  Juan Montoya           395  -97     14  2  0  2  5
14 -2  Greg Biffle            394  -98     14  0  0  1  5
15 -1  Mark Martin            383  -109    14  0  0  1  4
16 +1  David Ragan            371  -121    14  1  0  2  4
17 +1  Kasey Kahne            371  -121    14  1  0  2  5
18 -2  A.J. Allmendinger      371  -121    14  0  0  1  3
19 +1  Paul Menard            361  -131    14  0  0  2  3
20 +2  Martin Truex Jr.       358  -134    14  0  0  0  4
21 -2  Marcos Ambrose         348  -144    14  0  0  2  4
22 -1  Brad Keselowski        345  -147    14  1  1  2  2
23 +2  Joey Logano            333  -159    14  0  0  1  2
24 -1  David Reutimann        332  -160    14  0  0  0  1
25 -1  Jeff Burton            325  -167    14  0  0  0  0
26 --  Brian Vickers          314  -178    14  0  0  1  4
27 +2  Regan Smith            311  -181    14  0  1  1  3
28 --  Bobby Labonte          303  -189    14  0  0  1  1
29 -2  Jamie McMurray         301  -191    14  1  0  0  2
30 --  David Gilliland        239  -253    14  0  0  1  2
31 --  Dave Blaney            221  -271    14  0  0  0  0
32 --  Casey Mears            212  -280    13  0  0  0  0
33 +1  Andy Lally*            152  -340    11  0  0  0  0
34 -1  Robby Gordon           150  -342    11  0  0  0  0
35 --  Tony Raines            117  -375    10  0  0  0  0
36 --  Bill Elliott           100  -392    5   0  0  0  0
37 --  Ken Schrader           73   -419    5   0  0  0  0
38 --  J.J. Yeley             46   -446    13  0  0  0  0
39 +1  Michael McDowell       44   -448    12  0  0  0  0
40 -1  Terry Labonte          40   -452    2   0  0  0  0
41 --  David Stremme          24   -468    5   0  0  0  0
42 --  Michael Waltrip        20   -472    2   0  0  0  0
43 --  Brian Keselowski*      3    -489    1   0  0  0  0
44 --  Steve Park             2    -490    1   0  0  0  0
45 --  Trevor Bayne           0    -492    8   0  1  1  1
46 --  Ricky Stenhouse Jr.    0    -492    1   0  0  0  0
47 --  Steve Wallace          0    -492    1   0  0  0  0
48 +1  Mike Skinner           0    -492    9   0  0  0  0
49 -1  Landon Cassill         0    -492    13  0  0  0  0
50 --  Travis Kvapil          0    -492    12  0  0  0  0
51 --  Mike Bliss             0    -492    3   0  0  0  0
52 --  Hermie Sadler          0    -492    1   0  0  0  0
53 --  Patrick Carpentier     0    -492    1   0  0  0  0
54 --  Sam Hornish Jr.        0    -492    1   0  0  0  0
55 --  Johnny Sauter          0    -492    1   0  0  0  0
56 -2  David Starr            0    -492    2   0  0  0  0
57 -1  T.J. Bell*             0    -492    2   0  0  0  0
58 --  Robert Richardson Jr.  0    -492    1   0  0  0  0
59 -2  Scott Wimmer           0    -492    2   0  0  0  0
60 -1  Dennis Setzer          0    -492    1   0  0  0  0
61 -1  Joe Nemechek           0    -492    14  0  0  0  0
62 -1  Todd Bodine            0    -492    1   0  0  0  0
63 -1  Scott Riggs            0    -492    2   0  0  0  0
64 -1  Kevin Conway           0    -492    1   0  0  0  0
65 -1  Derrike Cope           0    -492    0   0  0  0  0

Team owner Richard Childress has been fined $150,000 and put on probation for the rest of the year following an altercation with Kyle Busch in the garage area of Kansas.

NASCAR team order Richard Childress has been fined $150,000 following his altercation with Kyle Busch after the end of the O’Reilly Auto Parts 250 Truck Series race at Kansas Speedway on Saturday evening.

Childress has also been put on NASCAR probation for the rest of the year.

The NASCAR statement announcing the penalty said that the penalties had been applied for violating Section 12-1 – “actions detrimental to stock car racing – involved in an altercation in the garage area” – of the 2011 NASCAR rule book.

The probation covers all NASCAR-sanctioned events until December 31, including Sprint Cup, Nationwide Series and Camping World Truck Series races.

However, Childress has escaped being excluded from any forthcoming races, which had been seen as a possibility after NASCAR president Mike Helton had admitted that ejecting Childress from Kansas Speedway on Sunday had indeed been considered.

In the end Childress was subjected to “territorial” limitations which essentially meant that he was kept out of pit lane and the garage area and restricted to working on and around the tean’s hauler. NASCAR said that he had been allowed to stay because “there’s not a second-level authority present this weekend for his organisation” and theory were worried about anyone else being able to maintain discipline and stop any further hostilities breaking out.

“The penalty we have announced today for Richard Childress reflects NASCAR’s response to the incident at Kansas Speedway on Saturday,” said NASCAR’s statement. “We feel this action is appropriate and are confident all parties involved understand our position on this matter and will move forward appropriately.”

Richard Childress released a statement after the penalties were announced in which he accepted that “First of all, I’m responsible for my actions, plain and simple.

“As you know, I am a very principled person and have a passion for what we do at Richard Childress Racing. I believe passionately in defending my race teams and my sponsor partners. In this instance, I let that passion and my emotions get the best of me.

“I accept the penalty NASCAR announced today and, as a company, we will now focus on this week’s races at Pocono Raceway and Texas Motor Speedway.”

For his part, Kyle Busch had already indicated that he would leave the matter in NASCAR’s hands and not pursue other avenues of redress – which could have included reporting the matter to the police for possible criminal assault.

“NASCAR is taking the situation seriously and is looking into it, and making their decisions based what facts they can discover … “Whatever they feel best to protect their sport and to protect what we have going on here is to their best discretion,” said Busch. “I’m all for whatever they decide to do.”

He concluded: “I’m going to leave it up to NASCAR and let them decide what they feel is best.”

Busch himself remains on probation until June 15 for an unrelated disciplinary matter dating from a pit lane clash with Richard Childress Racing driver Kevin Harvick at Darlington in May. Both drivers were found at fault and additionally fined $25,000.

Asked about whether Saturday’s incident represented the latest step in an ongoing feud that had been brewing between the Childress and Busch camps, Kyle replied: “That’s not something I can answer. I wasn’t the aggressor or the instigator here. All I can say is I was just trying to head back to my hauler and deal with my own business.”

The altercation started after Kyle Busch, driving the #18 truck for his own Truck Series team, had been unhappy with the way that RCR rookie Joey Coulter overtook him for fifth place on the final lap and gave him a bump on the cool-down lap after the chequered flag.

Childress showed up at the Busch garage 30 minutes after the end of the race having reportedly taken offence at Busch’s comments, then handed his watch to his grandson Austin Dillon (another competitor in the Truck series) – and allegedly got the 26-year-old Busch in a headlock before proceeding to hit him multiple times in the face. Busch fell to the ground and curled up “in a defensive position” but when he tried to get up, the 65-year-old Childress again tried to hit him.





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