Posts Tagged ‘brian vickers’

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

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.

Jeff Gordon was celebrating his first win in 66 races – almost two years – after managing to hold off Kyle Busch in Phoenix.

Carl Edwards might have been on pole position, but everyone knew that the man to beat at Phoenix in the second round of the NASCAR Sprint Cup series was Kyle Busch, who had already claimed wins in both the Truck and Nationwide events that weekend and now had his sights on a clean sweep.

Kyle rapidly moved into the lead of the race on lap 6 and held it to the first caution of the day on lap 20 for debris. Several drivers opted to pit but others chose to stay out, aware that a scheduled ‘competition caution’ was due on lap 40; in fact, that turned out to be sooner than expected after Robby Gordon spun on lap 34 and NASCAR decided that would do as the competition yellow after all.

That left Carl Edwards in the lead ahead of Clint Bowyer and Kurt Busch; Kyle, meanwhile, was making a bit of a dog’s dinner of the early stages of the race and fell back through the field after a touch from Kevin Harvick sent him up the banking and scraping along the wall on lap 39, although it did not appear to do any lasting damage.

It was not a good day for the younger stars, with Joey Logano off the pace thanks to a valve spring or rocker arm gone bad on the #20 that the team could do nothing about; and on lap 50, Daytona 500 champion Trevor Bayne got a slight connect with Travis Kvapil that caused him to spin, sending him rear-first into the wall and causing extensive damage to the back of the #21.

Kurt Busch stayed out during the ensuing pit stops and duly inherited the lead, while Carl Edwards took two tyres and emerged in the midfield in 15th, soon finding himself in a cluster of cars that included Kyle Busch still in recover mode from his earlier brush. As Edwards passed on the inside, Busch suddenly moved down the track and side-slammed the #99 in what spectators immediately took to be a deliberate move: Edwards was sent on to the infield grass and then slide up the race track, trapping Jeff Gordon against the wall at slow speed in the process while behind other cars had to make evasive action – resulting in Kevin Harvick sliding through an impressive amount of tyre smoke but fortunately avoiding any significant damage.

It looked set to trigger off a new NASCAR feud between Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards: “My first impression was that Kyle was just frustrated that Ryan [Newman] got by me and he turned down [on me on purpose],” Edwards said later. “But I looked at that and it looked like he might have just gotten loose.”

Edwards’ second impression proved correct and Kyle – unusually – was immediately apologetic toward Edwards after the race. “The car got out from underneath me right around the backstretch and I made a mistake and got into Carl Edwards there and completely destroyed his day,” Busch said. “I made a mistake today. I’ve admitted that, I don’t know how many times.”

Any chance that this was going to be the big event of the afternoon was quickly dashed at the restart, which saw Brian Vickers and Matt Kenseth make contact that resulted in Vickers blowing a tyre out of turn 2 and spinning round against the wall: with the field still closed up from the restart, there was mayhem behind as cars dived for cover and made a serious hash of it, tearing up several cars including those of Jamie McMurray and Jeff Burton. In all, at least 14 cars were involved in some sort of collision during the next few seconds: others caught up included Clint Bowyer, Robby Gordon, Andy Lally, David Reutimann and Travis Kvapil.

“We used to not start double-file,” Vickers pointed out, suggesting that starting side-by-side on a tight one mile oval like Phoenix was going to result in problems. “I think they make it exciting for the fans. But, you know, yeah, you’re going to create other situations because of it.”

Jeff Burton, whose #31 was seriously torn up, was annoyed with drivers racing so hard to early in proceedings. “I’m not pointing fingers at anybody. We all race. Certainly if people are wrecking, it’s too aggressive, there’s no doubt about that,” he said. “I can’t control other people; I can only control us … I thought we had a car that could win this race and we’re sitting here in the garage. It’s real disappointing.”

After a red flag period to allow NASCAR to clean up the track, racing was back on, with still more than three quarters of the race length to go. The man with the speed now was Jeff Gordon, who took to the front and pulled out a good lead, but some debris on the front grille caused him to fall away and Tony Stewart led for a while, he and Gordon eventually pulling away from the rest of the pack during a decent period of green flag racing at last.

A sixth caution on lap 127 resulted from a heavy smash into the wall for David Ragan as the result of a blown tyre, which saw the car briefly catch fire. When racing resumed, Gordon and Stewart once again led ahead of Jimmie Johnson and the Busch Boys. The green lasted through the next round of pit stops, which cost Stewart three positions and left him complaining that the adjustments had made the car go loose, meaning that he was one of the happier people on track to see a caution shortly afterwards on lap 218 for the final expiry of Joey Logano’s struggling engine.

The restart saw Jeff Gordon ahead of Kyle Busch with Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart behind them, and Jimmie Johnson back in ninth after a particularly sluggish pit stop – shades of last year’s pit road problems for the #48, it seems, despite the close-season reshuffle at Hendrick Motorsports.

At least such things didn’t appear to be affecting his team mate Jeff Gordon … Except on the very next green flag pit stop on lap 283, Gordon had a poor stop and lost the lead to Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch and the critical moment in the race. Hostilities were postponed for the eighth yellow of the afternoon for Andy Yally going into the wall, and then at the restart Kyle Busch saw his opportunity and blasted past Smoke for the lead – Gordon going with him, but now a distance behind the #18 and faced with the prospect of having to overtake Kyle on track at some point in the remaining 20 laps, a tall order at the best of times.

Yet there was no question that the #24 was the better, faster car and slowly Gordon reeled in Busch and sat on his bumper, finally administering the lightest of taps on the rear of the #18 coming out of turn 4 on lap 303 that forced Busch to run wide out onto the front-straight and gave Gordon a glimpse of daylight ahead. Gordon struggled to hold his line and make the pass, sliding up the track which ironically gave Kyle more trouble than it did Jeff – and as a result, Gordon was back in front and running for the chequered flag.

“I just beat Kyle Busch!” yelled Gordon after the finish, “Pinch me, man. Pinch me!” He was right to be ecstatic. Not only was he the only driver to beat Kyle all weekend, it had brought to an end a 66-race winless streak that last lasted for almost two years to notch up his 83rd career victory – tying the legendary Cale Yarborough in fifth in the all-time race winners rankings.

“God, it feels so amazing,” he said in victory lane. “I can’t tell you how amazing this feels.” He even gave a name check to Twitter, saying: “I’ve been tweeting lately for the first time and all of the stuff that people have been saying, the motivation has been unbelievably inspiring.”

Gordon’s win spearheaded an extremely impressive day for his team and even for the Stewart-Haas team with which Hendrick have a technical partnership, all six cars finishing 13th or better at Phoenix. “As a group we came here and started today with our tail between our legs [after a poor Daytona 500 showing] and it’s nice to finish up the day with one in victory lane and one in third,” said Jimmie Johnson, concluding that it was “a good day for HMS.”

Kyle’s bid for a clean sweep might have been frustrated – “There’s always got to be the one car out there to ruin the whole weekend,” Busch laughed, adding that today “it was the #24” – but he will be happy that the win puts him at the top of the Sprint Cup points standings, 3pts ahead of his brother.

Race results

1. #24 Jeff Gordon Chevrolet 312 laps Running (48/2 pts)
2. #18 Kyle Busch Toyota 312 laps Running (43/1 pts)
3. #48 Jimmie Johnson Chevrolet 312 laps Running (42/1 pts)
4. #29 Kevin Harvick Chevrolet 312 laps Running (41/1 pts)
5. #39 Ryan Newman Chevrolet 312 laps Running (40/1 pts)
6. #4 Kasey Kahne Toyota 312 laps Running (38/0 pts)
7. #14 Tony Stewart Chevrolet 312 laps Running (38/1 pts)
8. #22 Kurt Busch Dodge 312 laps Running (37/1 pts)
9. #43 A.J. Allmendinger Ford 312 laps Running (35/0 pts)
10. #88 Dale Earnhardt Jr. Chevrolet 312 laps Running (34/0 pts)
11. #11 Denny Hamlin Toyota 312 laps Running (34/1 pts)
12. #17 Matt Kenseth Ford 312 laps Running (33/1 pts)
13. #5 Mark Martin Chevrolet 312 laps Running (31/0 pts)
14. #56 Martin Truex Jr. Toyota 312 laps Running (30/0 pts)
15. #2 Brad Keselowski Dodge 312 laps Running (29/0 pts)
16. #9 Marcos Ambrose Ford 312 laps Running (28/0 pts)
17. #27 Paul Menard Chevrolet 312 laps Running (27/0 pts)
18. #13 Casey Mears Toyota 312 laps Running (26/0 pts)
19. #42 Juan Montoya Chevrolet 312 laps Running (25/0 pts)
20. #16 Greg Biffle Ford 312 laps Running (24/0 pts)
21. #47 Bobby Labonte Toyota 310 laps Running (23/0 pts)
22. #34 David Gilliland Ford 310 laps Running (22/0 pts)
23. #9 Bill Elliott Chevrolet 309 laps Running (21/0 pts)
24. #32 Mike Skinner Ford 308 laps Running (0pts)
25. #37 Tony Raines Ford 306 laps Running (19/0 pts)
26. #31 Jeff Burton Chevrolet 276 laps Running (18/0 pts)
27. #33 Clint Bowyer Chevrolet 260 laps Running (17/0 pts)
28. #99 Carl Edwards Ford 252 laps Running (17/1 pts)
29. #0 David Reutimann Toyota 246 laps Running (15/0 pts)
30. #83 Brian Vickers Toyota 238 laps Running (14/0 pts)
31. #71 Andy Lally * Chevrolet 237 laps Running (14/1 pts)
32. #7 Robby Gordon Dodge 236 laps Running (12/0 pts)
33. #20 Joey Logano Toyota 213 laps In Pit (11/0 pts)
34. #78 Regan Smith Chevrolet 213 laps Running (10/0 pts)
35. #1 Jamie McMurray Chevrolet 126 laps In Pit (9/0 pts)
36. #6 David Ragan Ford 125 laps In Pit (8/0 pts)
37. #46 J.J. Yeley Chevrolet 72 laps Out of Race (7/0 pts)
38. #60 Landon Cassill Toyota 68 laps In Pit (0pts)
39. #38 Travis Kvapil Ford 66 laps Running (0pts)
40. #21 Trevor Bayne Ford 49 laps Running (0pts)
41. #66 Michael McDowell Toyota 43 laps In Pit (4/1 pts)
42. #36 Dave Blaney Chevrolet 27 laps Out of Race (2/0 pts)
43. #87 Joe Nemechek Toyota 22 laps Out of Race (0pts)

And so we reach the end of the Race for the Chase. For all but 12 drivers, the season effectively ends here; and some big names were having to come to the realisation that they were left out in the cold.

The Race for the Chase overshadowed the race itself, with the tension tick in the Richmond night-time under the floodlights of Richmond, acting as a high-intensity crucible for the occasion. As Mark Martin got them under way after a short delay while the track was dried after some earlier race, we was one of the eleven drivers yet to mathematically secure their Chase position. Perhaps mindful that a good finish – not a win – was what was really important here, Martin’s time at the top lasted just four lap before Denny Hamlin took over.

In reality, Martin was safe unless there was a serious disaster. The real attention of the evening was on three drivers who were very close in points and all squabbling over the 12th and final position for the Chase: Kyle Busch, Brian Vickers and Matt Kenseth. There could be only one …

And it was clear from early on that the one was not going to be Matt Kenseth. Starting from 28th place, he laboured for much of the day round about that position without making much headway, complaining of poor handling that the crew seemed unable to get to grips with. He didn’t help his own campaign when he overshot his box at the first round of pit stops and had to be hauled back into his own pit stall; it was symptomatic of his evening, and Kenseth – who should have been the favourite to take the final Chase spot after coming in 20pts ahead of his nearest challenges – was emphatically out of contention for the night.

That left the battle between Kyle Busch and Brian Vickers. Kyle had an uneven time of it, with a particularly bad stretch after the first round of pit stops seeing him complain of the handling and dropping backwards, but things looked better after the second sequence of stops and he was usually to be found in the top ten and ahead of Vickers, who was consistent but not continually close enough to Kyle to outpoint him for the Chase. As the race wore on, Vickers seemed to adopt a strategy of shadowing the 18 car: when Kyle moved up a place, Brian would too, keeping the Sprint points difference the same – and himself in the Chase. Could he keep that up down to the wire, though?

Up front, Hamlin settled into the lead that lasted until lap 67, when Jeff Gordon’s car proved too strong after the first round of pit stops. Gordon led Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Mark Martin for nearly a hundred laps, though another pit stop sequence, until Gordon started getting held up by lapped traffic and Hamlin passed him to take the lead again on lap 151.

Gordon retook the lead at the next round of pit stops on lap 176, and then a period of yo-yo-ing lead changes saw Hamlin and Gordon trading the position four times running close on track until the next caution period. Gordon had just reclaimed the lead when the yellows came out on lap 204, but Hamlin took it right back in the pit stops – and this time held firmly on to it.

The running order settled down during this third quarter of the race, with everyone treading very carefully – unwilling to be the cause of or involved in a catastrophic wreck that would undo the Chase hopes of the front runners. Tony Stewart was busy working his way up the running order, and Sam Hornish Jr had a terrific run into the top six, only for both of them to have their efforts undone by poor pit stops; Clint Bowyer was also working up a storm and cracking the top ten. Jimmie Johnson, meanwhile, was suffering handling problems and falling backwards. In the Busch/Vickers Race for the Chase, Vickers’ pit crew pulled off a significant coup in the penultimate pit stop on lap 321 to put their guy out ahead of Busch, gaining three spots.

At the restart on lap 325 it was Hamlin leading Gordon, Bowyer, Kurt Busch and Mark Martin to the green flag; Bowyer and Gordon had a disagreement over the second spot and Gordon came off the worse for it, dropping back to sixth place just before another yellow briefly interrupted proceedings. At the next attempt at a restart it was Kyle Busch suddenly coming on strong and making a bid for he lead he needed to be sure of qualifying for the chase; he made it as high as 4th before starting to fall back again to 8th place, and time was definitely running out for him.

At the final pit stops on lap 382, Busch managed to get off pit road in 6th one spot ahead of Vickers; not enough of a margin to get the Chase spot, and there were only 14 laps of racing to go after the restart. Busch tried and failed to take the 4th spot from Jeff Gordon but the 18 simply didn’t have the pace; the writing was on the wall for Kyle now. Vickers stayed two slots behind, and that meant – as they crossed the finish line – Vickers had taken the final Chase position by a mere 8pts from Busch.

Up front, there really was no one to match Hamlin, although Kurt Busch gave it a solid try in the closing laps. Hamlin had run well at Richmond before but always been thwarted at the last moment from the win; no such problem this time around. After dominating the race, he took the chequered flag and basked in the long-delayed gratification of the win. It meant he finished the Race for the Chase in 4th place, and the win gave him an extra 10pts when the Chase points scheme were applied, consolidating that position for next week.

With everyone being so careful around the Race for the Chase, we had few incidents of any severity for a total of ten yellow flags during the evening: Scott Speed got a tap from Jeff Burton and spun on lap 5; Tony Stewart got loose while three-wide with Reed Sorenson and David Stremme on lap 44, rolling himself and Sorenson into a slow-speed spin; Regan Smith stopped on track on lap 57 with technical problems but was refired back in the pits; and there was debris on lap 106 and 172.

Regan Smith featured in the sixth caution on lap 204 when he blew a tyre and hit the wall; Martin Truex Jr had a tyre go down on lap 278 sending him up into the wall; Jeff Burton suffered a cut tyre on lap 318 from a clash with David Stremme, which brought out a yellow on the next lap as the tyre left debris on the track; Michael Waltrip spun on the front straight on lap 327; and a final yellow with twenty laps to go came out as a result of Brad Keselowski blowing an engine on lap 380.

Race result

Pos  Driver             Car        Laps
 1.  Denny Hamlin       Toyota     
 2.  Kurt Busch         Dodge      
 3.  Jeff Gordon        Chevrolet  
 4.  Mark Martin        Chevrolet  
 5.  Kyle Busch         Toyota     
 6.  Clint Bowyer       Chevrolet  
 7.  Brian Vickers      Toyota     
 8.  Sam Hornish Jr     Dodge      
 9.  Kevin Harvick      Chevrolet  
10.  Ryan Newman        Chevrolet  
11.  Jimmie Johnson     Chevrolet  
12.  Kasey Kahne        Dodge      
13.  Greg Biffle        Ford       
14.  Joey Logano        Toyota     
15.  Carl Edwards       Ford       
16.  Reed Sorenson      Dodge      
17.  Tony Stewart       Chevrolet  
18.  Jeff Burton        Chevrolet  
19.  Juan Montoya       Chevrolet  
20.  David Reutimann    Toyota     
21.  Dale Earnhardt Jr  Chevrolet  
22.  Marcos Ambrose     Toyota     
23.  AJ Allmendinger    Dodge      
24.  David Gilliland    Toyota     
25.  Matt Kenseth       Ford       
26.  David Stremme      Dodge      
27.  Jamie McMurray     Ford       
28.  Paul Menard        Ford       -  1
29.  John Andretti      Chevrolet  -  1
30.  Casey Mears        Chevrolet  -  2
31.  Bobby Labonte      Ford       -  2
32.  Michael Waltrip    Toyota     -  2
33.  David Ragan        Ford       -  2
34.  Elliott Sadler     Dodge      -  4
35.  Joe Nemechek       Toyota     -  4
36.  Scott Speed        Toyota     -  4
37.  Max Papis          Toyota     -  6
38.  Brad Keselowski    Chevrolet  - 24
39.  Martin Truex Jr    Chevrolet  - 75
40.  Regan Smith        Chevrolet  -126
41.  Michael McDowell   Toyota     -187
42.  Mike Bliss         Chevrolet  -262
43.  Dave Blaney        Toyota     -264

Sprint Cup standings

With the end of the Race for the Chase, the points are reset: the top 12 all get 5000pts, plus 10pts for each race win they’ve chalked up. That puts Mark Martin on top of the pile despite how close he came to not making the cut – coincidentally making him the oldest man to ever lead the NASCAR standings – while the only other driver with 4 wins this season, Kyle Busch, is now out of the running. Racing sometimes just ain’t fair!

“It’s very, very frustrating. I’m heartbroken, but the good Lord put me in this predicament for some reason and someday I’ll find out what it is and be able to tell you guys,” said Busch.

“Well, that’s certainly cool,” said Martin about taking the Sprint championship lead. “I’m certainly going to enjoy that for a week here. I feel like a whole new person, huge weight off my shoulders.”

It’s a bad blow for Busch who has made the Chase for the last three years, and in 2008 went into the final rounds as th favourite for the title – before things went terribly wrong, a blow from which he still seems to be dealing with. But it’s an even bigger blow for Matt Kenseth, who has made the Chase in every season he’s competed in NASCAR.

“We just haven’t been competitive,” admitted Kenseth. “So, really since California it’s been a downhill slide for us. We slowly fell back in the points every week, so I can’t say I’m very surprised we didn’t make it.”

But it’s great news for Juan Montoya, who played a careful game at Richmond in order to secure his place in the Chase – the first driver from outside the United States to do so, since the Chase format was introduced in 2004.

“It’s weird,” said Montoya. “We work all year for this and today we run pretty conservative, pits were pretty slow but we did what we had do to get in.

“I should be really pumped up and excited and right now I’m just thinking about [how] we need to run better every week.”

The race for the Chase may be over, but the ten-race Chase itself is just about to begin. That’s where it gets real interesting.

Here’s how the pre-Chase points ended up for the top twelve:

Pos +/- Driver              PTS
1   --  Tony Stewart        3806
2   --  Jeff Gordon         3627
3   --  Jimmie Johnson      3534
4   --  Denny Hamlin        3491
5   +2  Kurt Busch          3322
6   +4  Mark Martin         3291
7   -1  Kasey Kahne         3280
8   -3  Carl Edwards        3280
9   --  Ryan Newman         3272
10  -1  Juan Montoya        3251
11  --  Greg Biffle         3249
12  +1  Brian Vickers       3203

And here’s the standings now that the Chase is underway:

    +/- DRIVER              PTS     BEHIND  ST  P   W   T5  T10
1   +9  Mark Martin         5040    Leader  26  6   4   9   14
2   -1  Tony Stewart        5030     -10    26  0   3   13  18
3   --  Jimmie Johnson      5030     -10    26  1   3   9   15
4   --  Denny Hamlin        5020     -20    26  0   2   9   14
5   +1  Kasey Kahne         5020     -20    26  0   2   5   10
6   -4  Jeff Gordon         5010     -30    26  0   1   12  18
7   --  Kurt Busch          5010     -30    26  0   1   7   14
8   +5  Brian Vickers       5010     -30    26  6   1   4   13
9   -4  Carl Edwards        5000     -40    26  0   0   7   11
10  -1  Ryan Newman         5000     -40    26  1   0   5   12
11  -3  Juan Montoya        5000     -40    26  1   0   2   12
12  -1  Greg Biffle         5000     -40    26  0   0   8   12
======== CHASE FOR THE Sprint CUP - CURRENT CONTENDERS =======
13  +1  Kyle Busch          3195    -1845   26  1   4   7   9
14  -2  Matt Kenseth        3165    -1875   26  1   2   4   9
15  +1  Clint Bowyer        3059    -1981   26  0   0   4   11
16  -1  David Reutimann     3048    -1992   26  2   1   5   8
17  --  Marcos Ambrose      2830    -2210   26  0   0   4   7
18  --  Jeff Burton         2738    -2302   26  0   0   2   6
19  --  Joey Logano*        2705    -2335   26  0   1   1   5
20  --  Casey Mears         2639    -2401   26  0   0   0   3
21  --  Dale Earnhardt Jr.  2628    -2412   26  0   0   2   5
22  +1  Kevin Harvick       2613    -2427   26  0   0   3   5
23  -1  Jamie McMurray      2564    -2476   26  0   0   0   3
24  +1  A.J. Allmendinger   2455    -2585   26  0   0   1   3
25  -1  Martin Truex Jr.    2455    -2585   26  2   0   0   3
26  +1  Sam Hornish Jr.     2434    -2606   26  0   0   2   7
27  -1  Elliott Sadler      2416    -2624   26  0   0   1   3
28  --  Reed Sorenson       2390    -2650   26  0   0   0   1
29  --  David Ragan         2319    -2721   26  0   0   0   1
30  --  Bobby Labonte       2299    -2741   26  0   0   1   1
31  --  David Stremme       2289    -2751   26  0   0   0   0
32  --  Paul Menard         2207    -2833   26  0   0   0   0
33  +1  Michael Waltrip     2018    -3022   24  0   0   0   1
34  -1  Robby Gordon        2015    -3025   25  0   0   1   1
35  --  Scott Speed*        1864    -3176   25  0   0   1   1
36  --  John Andretti       1790    -3250   24  0   0   0   0
37  --  David Gilliland     1473    -3567   24  0   0   0   0
38  --  Regan Smith         1114    -3926   13  0   0   0   0
39  --  Joe Nemechek         979    -4061   21  0   0   0   0
40  --  Brad Keselowski      927    -4113   9   0   1   1   3

After two consecutive weeks of rain delays, NASCAR was looking forward to the clear weather promised by the forecasts. The race duly started on schedule … and ran seven laps before a ninja stealth shower made a direct line for Michigan International Speedway, and dropped its load. It wasn’t a lengthy shower, but it was enough to force NASCAR to throw a red flag and bring the cars in to the pit lane.

Until that point, Mark Martin had been in control of the race, having bested Brian Vickers on the outside line on the first lap. Kurt Busch had followed him threw to take up second, so now Vickers was in third ahead of Jimmie Johnson, Joey Logano and Juan Pablo Montoya. Meanwhile, at the other end of the field, Kasey Kahne, Mike Skinner and Dave Blaney had all been sent to the back of the field for engine changes, and Kahne made quick work of getting through the backmarkers to make up for the damage, working in co-operation with team mate Kyle Busch who had himself started from 39th spot.

So after a red flag lasting a little over 20 minutes, the track was dried and the cars could return to action. A few of the backmarkers opted to come in for a pit stop, including Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon, Marcos Ambrose, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Carl Edwards; 12th-placed Brad Keselowski was the highest-placed car to pit.

And finally, green flag on lap 12: Martin once again commanded from the front, but behind him it was all Jimmie Johnson who quickly established himself in second spot and set about hunting down Martin in the lead. It took until lap 24, but finally he did it, with Martin possibly distracted by intermittent comms problems. Johnson dominated the last race at Michigan and was only defeated by running out of fuel, so it seemed that he had unfinished business here and felt owed one.

Denny Hamlin was having a good stint, moving past Brian Vickers and Kurt Busch (who both came close to brushing the wall on consecutive laps) for 3rd place, with Logano and Montoya in 6th and 7th ahead of Matt Kenseth who was reporting that his engine was “sounding like a tractor” – although his pace remained impressive.

Reed Sorenson heralded the start of green flag stops on lap 38, with most of the front runners in 4-5 laps later. As pit stops cycled through, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon, Clint Bowyer, David Ragan and Carl Edwards all led a lap and gained a valuable 5pts in the Chase in doing so. A rapid pit stop put Denny Hamlin out in the lead, but Jimmie Johnson and Mark Martin quickly teamed up and corrected that state of affairs, taking back the top two spots. Vickers, Logano and Kenseth resumed the rest of the top six positions.

No sooner had the pit stop sequences been completed under green than a yellow came out, after Robby Gordon had a tyre go down and sent his Toyota into a glancing but crunching blow against the wall in turn 1. Surprisingly, almost everyone opted to return to pit road despite only having just been in – the yellow allowed them a longer stop to make adjustments that hadn’t been possible under green, with even the leader Jimmie Johnson reporting handling problems that needed addressing.

Paul Menard stayed out and briefly took the top spot at the restart on lap 58, but of the ‘real’ leaders we had Kenseth, Gordon, Ragan, David Reutimann and Vickers emerging from the pits in front of Johnson, Edwards and Martin. Johnson was quick to move up to take the lead back on lap 65, but Martin was unable to follow him through at the same pace this time. It took until lap 74 until Martin passed Kenseth for second, and Johnson managed to eke out a 3s lead at one point; but Martin continued coming remorselessly, something like the terminator, and at the stroke of the next round of green flag pit stops he passed Johnson for the lead.

The pit stops took place from lap 94 through 98, well short of the 103 lap minimum they needed if they were to make it to the end of the race on one more pit stop – a splash and dash appeared on the horizon for everyone. Johnson had the better pit stop and reclaimed the lead once more ahead of Martin, Kenseth, Bowyer, Vickers and Gordon.

A third caution came out on lap 115 for debris down the backstretch just as Johnson was hitting lapped traffic and finding his lead over Martin getting cut. It also meant that the cars could come in for a pit stop under caution, and only require one more stop after this to reach the end of the race.

Tony Stewart came out of the pits in the lead after taking only two tyres at the stop, jumping up ten spots, but the restart on lap 121 was short lived after David Ragan got spun by the softest of contacts from Kurt Busch. Kurt ended up the worse for it, bumped across the infield into a heavy contact with in the inside wall that did a lot of damage to the blue deuce. While Kurt is relatively safe in the Chase standings in 4th place, it’s not the sort of outing he was looking for at Michigan.

At the next restart on lap 126, Stewart initially resisted Johnson to hold on to the lead but quickly lost it out of turn 4. Stewart fell quickly backwards, and Denny Hamlin also reported vibration problems, and both will have been relieved to see David Ragan sent spinning through the infield for the second time today (this time by Sam Hornish – again, Ragan himself completely blameless) that brought out the fifth yellow of the afternoon on lap 132.

Now the question of whether to pit became acute, with reports of rain heading in proving a critical factor in deliberations, but Stewart and Hamlin obviously needed to come in for fresh tyres to cure their ills. None of the rest of the top 15 came in, but Kevin Harvick, Kasey Kahne and Juan Montoya all came in for fresh rubber.

The restart was held off as light drizzle made a brief appearance in pit lane, but the rain quickly moved off and the race restarted on lap 141. Almost immediately Montoya had a tyre go down and had the entire field stream past him; he managed to avoid contact with anyone or being sent spinning, and limped back to the pits without bringing out a caution. Johnson was leading, and Kenseth found himself under threat and passed by Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin before the next yellow came out on lap 145 for further light rain. Amazingly, Kyle Busch was now up in the top five for the first time all afternoon despite his 39th position start and a car that at times was handling incredibly loose. Carl Edwards rounded out the top 6, with Vickers 7th and Bowyer still strong in 8th.

It was still too far to go till the end of the race – in June, pitting on lap 151 had seen Johnson run dry before the chequered flag with disastrous results. But nonetheless, most of the cars opted to pit with David Reutimann, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Martin Truex Jr., Bill Elliott, Jeff Burton and Michael Waltrip all staying out to take the top eight spots at the restart on lap 152; Earnhardt then brought the crowd to its feet by taking the lead a couple of laps into the green flag stint.

Further back, Vickers, Hamlin and Johnson were scything through the stay-out drivers and heading for the front, but their charge was suspended by the seventh caution when David Stremme got hit into a spin by the 31 of Jeff Burton. Fortunately Stremme didn’t hit anyone or anything, and as a result everyone now had the chance to top up with fuel if they needed and make it to the end of the race. But Vickers, Johnson, Kenseth and Harvick were among the top 14 leaders to gamble on staying out: would it work for them, or would it be another fuel heartbreak for Johnson at Michigan? Kyle Busch won the race off pit road but he was now back in 15th.

The green flag came out on lap 162 and the race was on, but the leaders needed some laps under caution to stave off disaster. Johnson took back the lead on lap 166 and he and Vickers seemed intent on going for a big lead despite the cost in fuel, while on the opposite strategy Martin yielded 3rd to Gordon and subsequently 4th to Edwards as he opted to focus on saving fuel. But if fuel did prove the decisive factor, it was looking increasingly like Dale Earnhardt Jr. – the top car in 6th spot to have pitted the last time around, and the fastest car on track in its own right – was in the box seats, passing the sinking Martin for the 5th spot on lap 181.

The laps ticked down, and tension mounted; and there was no caution. Surely lightning wouldn’t strike Johnson a second time in succession here? Well – yes it would. With two laps to go, the 48 ran dry and crawled into the pits, defeated. Martin was also to run dry before the chequered flag. But Vickers and Gordon had managed to save enough fuel, thwarting Earnhardt’s hope of a return to form to secure 1st and 2nd place at the end of lap 200.

By making his fuel stretch where the reigning champion had been unable to, Vickers took the win – giving Red Bull their first ever Sprint Cup victory, while also giving his own chances of making the Chase a significant boost at a critical moment.

Race result

FIN ST  CAR DRIVER             MAKE      PTS/BNS LAPS  STATUS
1   1   83  Brian Vickers      Toyota    190/5   200   
2   21  24  Jeff Gordon        Chevrolet 175/5   200   
3   15  88  Dale Earnhardt Jr. Chevrolet 170/5   200   
4   32  99  Carl Edwards       Ford      165/5   200   
5   14  77  Sam Hornish Jr.    Dodge     155/0   200   
6   42  07  Casey Mears        Chevrolet 150/0   200   
7   8   20  Joey Logano *      Toyota    146/0   200   
8   23  33  Clint Bowyer       Chevrolet 147/5   200   
9   31  00  David Reutimann    Toyota    143/5   200   
10  16  11  Denny Hamlin       Toyota    139/5   200   
11  10  9   Kasey Kahne        Dodge     130/0   200   
12  22  29  Kevin Harvick      Chevrolet 127/0   200   
13  20  12  David Stremme      Dodge     124/0   200   
14  25  17  Matt Kenseth       Ford      126/5   200   
15  7   39  Ryan Newman        Chevrolet 118/0   200   
16  9   21  Bill Elliott       Ford      115/0   200   
17  18  14  Tony Stewart       Chevrolet 117/5   200   
18  27  31  Jeff Burton        Chevrolet 109/0   200   
19  3   42  Juan Montoya       Chevrolet 106/0   200   
20  17  16  Greg Biffle        Ford      103/0   200   
21  5   1   Martin Truex Jr.   Chevrolet 100/0   200   
22  13  44  A.J. Allmendinger  Dodge     97/0    200   
23  39  18  Kyle Busch         Toyota    94/0    200   
24  12  25  Brad Keselowski    Chevrolet 91/0    200   
25  34  19  Elliott Sadler     Dodge     88/0    200   
26  35  98  Paul Menard        Ford      90/5    200   
27  30  55  Michael Waltrip    Toyota    87/5    200   
28  29  34  John Andretti      Chevrolet 79/0    200   
29  40  43  Reed Sorenson      Dodge     76/0    200   
30  37  6   David Ragan        Ford      78/5    200   
31  2   5   Mark Martin        Chevrolet 75/5    200   
32  19  26  Jamie McMurray     Ford      67/0    200   
33  4   48  Jimmie Johnson     Chevrolet 74/10   200   
34  11  82  Scott Speed *      Toyota    61/0    200   In Pit
35  26  47  Marcos Ambrose     Toyota    58/0    200   
36  6   2   Kurt Busch         Dodge     55/0    146   In Pit
37  24  7   Robby Gordon       Toyota    52/0    97    In Pit
38  28  09  Mike Bliss         Dodge     49/0    62    Out
39  38  187 Joe Nemechek       Toyota    46/0    40    Out
40  36  171 David Gilliland    Chevrolet 43/0    39    In Pit
41  43  36  Mike Skinner       Toyota    40/0    33    In Pit
42  41  66  Dave Blaney        Toyota    37/0    18    In Pit
43  33  96  Bobby Labonte      Ford      34/0    18    Out 

Sprint Cup Standings

The biggest blunder of the day was that of Mark Martin’s team: whereas Johnson is safe in the Sprint Cup standings and could afford to run dry without disastrous consequences, Martin’s very much on the bubble and the fuel gamble could put him out of contention – he’s just 12 pts shy of losing his spot to Brian Vickers.

Kyle Busch’s late race sink down the positions puts him even further out of the Chase especially after the success of Vickers and Clint Bowyer who finished 8th. Kurt Busch’s retirement on lap 146 costs him a couple of places but isn’t as bad as it could have been – he still looks pretty safe with three races still to go.

    +/- DRIVER              PTS     BEHIND  ST  P   W   T5  T10
1   --  Tony Stewart        3500    Leader  23  0   3   13  18
2   +1  Jeff Gordon         3216    -284    23  0   1   11  16
3   -1  Jimmie Johnson      3197    -303    23  1   3   9   14
4   +2  Carl Edwards        2995    -505    23  0   0   7   11
5   --  Denny Hamlin        2986    -514    23  0   1   7   11
6   -2  Kurt Busch          2957    -543    23  0   1   6   12
7   --  Juan Montoya        2887    -613    23  1   0   1   11
8   --  Kasey Kahne         2884    -616    23  0   1   4   9
9   --  Ryan Newman         2845    -655    23  1   0   5   9
10  --  Greg Biffle         2821    -679    23  0   0   7   10
11  +1  Matt Kenseth        2811    -689    23  1   2   4   8
12  -1  Mark Martin         2791    -709    23  4   4   6   11
======== CHASE FOR THE Sprint CUP - CURRENT CONTENDERS =======
13  +1  Brian Vickers       2779    -721    23  6   1   4   11
14  +1  Clint Bowyer        2733    -767    23  0   0   4   10
15  -2  Kyle Busch          2721    -779    23  1   3   5   7
16  --  David Reutimann     2673    -827    23  2   1   4   7
17  --  Marcos Ambrose      2474    -1026   23  0   0   3   6
18  --  Jeff Burton         2459    -1041   23  0   0   2   6
19  --  Joey Logano*        2426    -1074   23  0   1   1   5
20  +1  Casey Mears         2354    -1146   23  0   0   0   3
21  +4  Dale Earnhardt Jr.  2278    -1222   23  0   0   2   4
22  -2  Jamie McMurray      2273    -1227   23  0   0   0   3
23  -1  Kevin Harvick       2251    -1249   23  0   0   2   3
24  -1  Martin Truex Jr.    2217    -1283   23  1   0   0   3
25  -1  A.J. Allmendinger   2206    -1294   23  0   0   1   3
26  +2  Sam Hornish Jr.     2176    -1324   23  0   0   2   6
27  -1  Elliott Sadler      2170    -1330   23  0   0   1   3
28  +1  Reed Sorenson       2087    -1413   23  0   0   0   1
29  -2  Bobby Labonte       2065    -1435   23  0   0   1   1
30  --  David Ragan         2065    -1435   23  0   0   0   1
31  --  David Stremme       1980    -1520   23  0   0   0   0
32  --  Paul Menard         1919    -1581   23  0   0   0   0
33  --  Robby Gordon        1833    -1667   23  0   0   1   1
34  --  Michael Waltrip     1799    -1701   21  0   0   0   1
35  --  Scott Speed*        1600    -1900   22  0   0   1   1
36  --  John Andretti       1571    -1929   21  0   0   0   0
37  --  David Gilliland     1230    -2270   21  0   0   0   0
38  --  Regan Smith          989    -2511   11  0   0   0   0
39  +1  Brad Keselowski      878    -2622   8   0   1   1   3
40  -1  Joe Nemechek         844    -2656   18  0   0   0   0

And so NASCAR arrives at a road course – Infineon Roadway in Sonoma, to be exactly. All of a sudden, the drivers would encounter right hand turns and have to work out how to deal with them: it was going to be a through the looking glass experience for many of them.

Brian Vickers led the field to the first of the side-by-side rolling restarts under NASCAR’s new rules that apply here just as they do to ovals. Vickers sprang away as the green flag came out, but the rest of the field looked like clumsy, lurching giants crawling around the unfamiliar tight turns. It looked less like NASCAR, more like a 20-year-old touring car race. But of course the unfamiliarity and the potential for mistakes and accidents is all a crucial part of the appeal about sending NASCAR out on the road.

No problems for Vickers, while further back Carl Edwards was making notable progress, up nine places by lap 3 toward the back of the pack and Juan Montoya – an obvious road course specialist with his F1 experience – up eight places from 17th by lap 5 and into the top ten.

Sam Hornish made an early pit stop on lap 7, suffering vibrations after locking his brakes and flat spotting his tyres while making a move on AJ Allmendinger for 17th. Allmendinger himself suffered a flat on lap 10 that sent him off onto the dust and gravel at turn 8, limped back to the pits for a tyre change and then incurred a pit lane speeding penalty for his problems. But the first ‘routine’ pit stop was from road specialism Marcos Ambrose who came in on lap 13 to get himself off sequence with the intention of using the clear space he came out into at the back of the back to make up some time and jump a few places when the leaders came in.

The first lead change took place on lap 17 when Kyle Busch muscled Brian Vickers into a mistake and reaped the rewards. And the first yellow was on lap 21 when David Ragan got into one of the tyre stacks defining the final U-shaped corner, causing Jeff Burton to spin behind him. The same corner was going to see spins from Boris Said (a street ‘ringer’, imported for this event) with the help of a little tap from Denny Hamlin, and later on lap 29 Patrick Carpentier and Clint Bowyer also spun out but recovered without triggering a yellow.

While several cars pitted under the first yellow, the leaders opted to stay out – preferring instead to stick to the all-important fuel plan that would allow them to reach full distance on just two stops. hence, Busch gave up the chance to put under yellow only to pit under green four laps later on lap 28, and the rest of the field gradually cycled through the pits as well. Tony Stewart inherited the lead for 3 laps before pitting on lap 31, allowing Kasey Kahne to take over for three laps before he too pitted and Denny Hamlin took up the baton. Kurt Busch briefly made a move stick on Hamlin on lap 38, only to then overcook it on the next turn, lock his brakes and allow Hamlin to take the lead right back.

Marcos Ambrose came in again on his off-sequence strategy on lap 41 having worked his way up to 3rd, and was soon setting the fastest laps again after dropping down to 26th as a result. There were some eye-catching but harmless incidents including Elliot Sadler sliding off the track coming out of turn 10 on lap 43, sustaining some rear damage that caused him to get penalised; David Reutimann getting spun around by Jimmie Johnson just before the esses on lap 44; and AJ Allmendinger in the wars again spun around by the leader Denny Hamlin in the U-turn as he went a lap down for the second time having just got his lap back.

He got the lead back with the free pass a few minutes later with the second caution of the afternoon on lap 53, this time for debris on the track at a critical corner. Hamlin stayed out ahead of Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth, Joey Logano and Boris Said – 19 cars in all decided not to pit – but among those opting to come in at the mid race point were Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne, Jimmie Johnson – and Jeff Gordon, who got a pit lane speeding penalty for being too fast on entry and got sent to the back of the lead lap for his troubles.

It was a rough restart, with Brandon Ash knocked into a spin on lap 58 when he tried to turn across Greg Biffle who had the inside line of the double file restart, and Matt Kenseth clouting Mark Martin at the next turn completely wrecking the rear left wheel of the number 5 in the process.

Brian Vickers pulled off a neat overtaking move down the inside of Juan Montoya – not know for allowing anyone to pass him under any circumstances for 8th place, and the Colombian hastily ensured Dale Earnhardt Jr couldn’t follow him through as well. But Vickers hit disaster just seconds later when the group came up on an accident involving Kyle Busch, who had locked his brakes and ploughed into the back of the 77 of Sam Hornish Jr. Vickers braked and went off road avoiding hitting either car, only to then hit Busch as he attempted to rejoin the race. It was a fair disaster for all concerned and had certainly wrecked the potentially race winning strategy of both Vickers and Busch: Vickers was left 38th and last on the lead lap, while Busch was a lap down in 40th.

Hamlin gave up the lead for pit road on lap 67, his second and final refuelling stop of the afternoon, only to get beaten out of the pits by Kurt Busch who had come in at the same time. Others cycling through pit stops included Boris Said (who got a penalty for speeding on exit), Juan Montoya (complaining of a loose car), Jeff Gordon (whose crew dropped a left-rear lug nut, delaying the exit) and Dale Earnhardt Jr (who also had a lug nut issue, albeit more minor.)

That left Tony Stewart in temporary charge at the front, ahead of Kasey Kahne, Robby Gordon, Marcos Ambrose and Kevin Harvick. Kahne was next in on lap 71, and Stewart himself on lap 75. Ambrose came in on the following lap, and when he returned to the track he emerged alongside Bobby Labonte – too close. The two made contact and Labonte was spun around and off onto the gravel. As he hunted around to find the track again, be got lost in the cloud of dust and emerged pointing the wrong way into the oncoming traffic, triggering a hasty yellow – the third caution of the day.

Unfortunately the caution meant that those drivers who had yet to pit – including Robby Gordon who had inherited the lead – now came in and emerged well down (Gordon restarted in 25th). Scott Speed found himself on point, ahead of Kasey Kahne, Joey Logano, Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin; Kahne immediately got the better of Speed at the restart, and Speed subsequently got barged to one side by impact with Joey Logano before finally opting for pit lane and his overdue pit stop.

Things were getting feisty out there as the race headed into its last 30 laps. Ryan Newman got spun around after suspected contact with Hornish, and Paul Menard also spun going into the final U-shaped corner. Finally it was a multi-car accident sparked by Boris Said getting into the U-corner too hot and collecting both Sam Hornish and David Gilliland on lap 83 that brought out the fourth caution of the day. Said and Gilliland drove away from the scene of the crime but Hornish had suffered serious frontal damage on the 77.

At the restart on lap 87 Kasey Kahne led Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch, Juan Montoya, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin all threatening behind in the top six. Kahne got a good jump, while Montoya pulled off a gutsy move on Stewart to claim second only to lose it again to a smart piece of driving by Smoke on the next lap. Further back, however, there was trouble: a heart-stopping moment when Macros Ambrose nearly got driven into the tyres protecting the pit lane blend wall by Denny Hamlin, and then Jimmie Johnson got loose bouncing over kerbs and tapped Kurt Busch into a spin that sent him into the tyres in the esses on lap 90, bringing out the fifth yellow. This time, no one was pitting.

Not such a great restart for Kahne this time around, but he held the lead from Stewart while behind them Montoya and Johnson battled hard for third place, only narrowly avoiding disaster, only to see Marcos Ambrose get the better of both of them. Further behind and the fun was really getting going, with Greg Biffle and Brandon Ashe both spun around and hitting the wall causing major bodywork damage further back. After a breathless few minutes, NASCAR threw the sixth yellow on lap 96 for debris and everyone could breath again – while dreading yet another mayhem-inducing double file restart.

The wild ride resumed on lap 99, and fun broke out all over the place as a combination of dust and dirt kicked onto the track and tyres worn slick at the end of their lives. Kyle Busch threatened to bring out a quick caution by spinning around and stalling mid-track, but managed to get going again; multiple cars had impacts and spins on lap 101, among them Dale Earnhardt Jr and David Ragan; David Stremme spin near the entrance to pit road on the next lap., and Casey Nears spun with a little help from Patrick Carpentier on lap 106. But finally it was Scott Speed’s spin on lap 108 after contact with Boris Said that summed the seventh and final yellow of the afternoon.

From here on it was sudden death, under green-and-chequered conditions – two laps to go or the instant the next caution came out, whichever came first. But it meant that poor old Kasey Kahne had to endure and pull off his fourth straight restart in the lead at Sonoma, and just because it was two laps to go didn’t mean they were spared the double file line-up.

Kahne delivered: he kept the lead ahead of Stewart while Ambrose had to battle with Johnson to maintain third. None of them seemed to have anything in reserve, and that’s how they crossed the finish line, having avoided a final caution for a crash involving Mark Martin and two other cars at the end of the penultimate lap. The race continued to the end without a yellow and the fans certainly got their money’s worth.

NASCAR really should do road races more often, you know.

Race results

 	 	 	 	 	 	
FIN ST  CAR DRIVER              MAKE       PTS/BNS  LAPS
1   5   9   Kasey Kahne         Dodge      195/10   113 
2   4   14  Tony Stewart        Chevrolet  175/5    113 
3   3   47  Marcos Ambrose      Toyota     165/0    113 
4   11  48  Jimmie Johnson      Chevrolet  160/0    113 
5   24  11  Denny Hamlin        Toyota     160/5    113 
6   17  42  Juan Montoya        Chevrolet  150/0    113 
7   20  44  A.J. Allmendinger   Dodge      146/0    113 
8   26  33  Clint Bowyer        Chevrolet  142/0    113 
9   13  24  Jeff Gordon         Chevrolet  138/0    113 
10  8   19  Elliott Sadler      Dodge      134/0    113 
11  38  55  Patrick Carpentier  Toyota     130/0    113 
12  33  113 Max Papis *         Toyota     127/0    113 
13  34  99  Carl Edwards        Ford       124/0    113 
14  23  26  Jamie McMurray      Ford       121/0    113 
15  27  2   Kurt Busch          Dodge      123/5    113 
16  1   83  Brian Vickers       Toyota     120/5    113 
17  7   39  Ryan Newman         Chevrolet  112/0    113 
18  10  17  Matt Kenseth        Ford       109/0    113 
19  12  20  Joey Logano *       Toyota     106/0    113 
20  25  96  Bobby Labonte       Ford       103/0    113 
21  30  98  Paul Menard         Ford       100/0    113 
22  2   18  Kyle Busch          Toyota     102/5    113 
23  21  07  Casey Mears         Chevrolet  94/0     113 
24  9   08  Boris Said          Ford       91/0     113 
25  6   1   Martin Truex Jr.    Chevrolet  88/0     113 
26  35  88  Dale Earnhardt Jr.  Chevrolet  85/0     113 
27  29  09  Ron Fellows         Chevrolet  82/0     113 
28  15  16  Greg Biffle         Ford       79/0     113 
29  16  29  Kevin Harvick       Chevrolet  76/0     113 
30  41  34  John Andretti       Chevrolet  73/0     113 
31  42  00  David Reutimann     Toyota     70/0     113 
32  32  171 David Gilliland     Chevrolet  67/0     113 
33  40  6   David Ragan         Ford       64/0     113 
34  36  31  Jeff Burton         Chevrolet  61/0     113 
35  14  5   Mark Martin         Chevrolet  58/0     113 
36  22  7   Robby Gordon        Toyota     60/5     113 
37  31  187 Scott Speed *       Toyota     57/5     113 
38  18  77  Sam Hornish Jr.     Dodge      49/0     106 
39  39  12  David Stremme       Dodge      46/0     101 
40  28  43  Reed Sorenson       Dodge      43/0      98  
41  43  102 Brandon Ash         Dodge      40/0      94  
42  19  66  Dave Blaney         Toyota     37/0       3   
43  37  204 P.J. Jones          Toyota     34/0       2   

Sprint Cup standings

Serious damage was done to Mark Martin and Jeff Burton’s campaigns, both of whom lose three places after Sonoma. Denny Hamlin was the biggest winner, while Juan Montoya climbs two spots and into the Sprint Cup top twelve for the first time.

    +/- DRIVER             POINTS   BEHIND  ST  P   W   T5  T10
1   --  Tony Stewart        2364    Leader  16  0   1   8   12
2   --  Jeff Gordon         2280    -84     16  0   1   8   11
3   --  Jimmie Johnson      2207    -157    16  0   2   7   10
4   --  Kurt Busch          2084    -280    16  0   1   4   8
5   +1  Carl Edwards        2051    -313    16  0   0   4   8
6   -1  Ryan Newman         2046    -318    16  1   0   5   8
7   +3  Denny Hamlin        2009    -355    16  0   0   4   6
8   -1  Greg Biffle         1992    -372    16  0   0   5   8
9   --  Kyle Busch          1962    -402    16  1   3   4   5
10  +1  Matt Kenseth        1957    -407    16  1   2   4   6
11  -3  Mark Martin         1926    -438    16  3   3   4   8
12  +2  Juan Montoya        1917    -447    16  1   0   0   7
CHASE FOR THE Sprint CUP - CURRENT CONTENDERS
13  +2  Kasey Kahne         1914    -450    16  0   1   2   5
14  -1  David Reutimann     1877    -487    16  2   1   3   4
15  -3  Jeff Burton         1871    -493    16  0   0   2   6
16  --  Clint Bowyer        1852    -512    16  0   0   3   6
17  --  Brian Vickers       1794    -570    16  4   0   2   6
18  +2  Marcos Ambrose      1704    -660    16  0   0   2   4
19  --  Jamie McMurray      1669    -695    16  0   0   0   3
20  -2  Dale Earnhardt Jr.  1640    -724    16  0   0   1   3
21  --  Casey Mears         1617    -747    16  0   0   0   2
22  --  Martin Truex Jr.    1590    -774    16  1   0   0   3
23  +4  Elliott Sadler      1570    -794    16  0   0   1   2
24  +1  Joey Logano*        1551    -813    16  0   0   0   3
25  -2  Kevin Harvick       1537    -827    16  0   0   2   2
26  -2  Sam Hornish Jr.     1496    -868    16  0   0   0   3
27  -1  Reed Sorenson       1487    -877    16  0   0   0   1
28  +1  Bobby Labonte       1474    -890    16  0   0   1   1
29  +2  A.J. Allmendinger   1467    -897    16  0   0   1   3
30  -2  David Ragan         1447    -917    16  0   0   0   1
31  +1  David Stremme       1362    -1002   16  0   0   0   0
32  -2  Michael Waltrip     1338    -1026   15  0   0   0   1
33  --  Paul Menard         1337    -1027   16  0   0   0   0
34  --  Robby Gordon        1273    -1091   16  0   0   1   1
35  --  Scott Speed*        1093    -1271   15  0   0   1   1
36  --  John Andretti        999    -1365   14  0   0   0   0
37  --  David Gilliland      941    -1423   15  0   0   0   0
38  --  Regan Smith          734    -1630   8   0   0   0   0
39  --  Joe Nemechek         592    -1772   12  0   0   0   0
40  --  Dave Blaney          551    -1813   13  0   0   0   0
41  +4  Max Papis*           502    -1862   7   0   0   0   0
42  -1  Brad Keselowski      479    -1885   4   0   1   1   2

On a day that saw the world’s most glamorous motor race (the Monaco GP) and biggest spectator attendance (the Indy 500), NASCAR was set to respond with the longest event on its calendar: the 600-mile event at Lowe’s Motor Speedway going from daylight through dusk to a night time finish. And then it rained.

Everyone toughed it out for a few hours, but the day was lost and NASCAR had to abandon the attempt and move it to daytime on Monday instead, in front of a considerably diminished crowd. Added to all this, the track was now washed completely clean of all the rubber the cars had been putting down – no one knew how it was going to behave once the green flag came out.

The weather prospects were only slightly more promising for Monday than they had been the previous day, and sure enough, no sooner did the race finally get underway just after midday on the holiday Monday than a yellow came out on lap 7 for a slight shower. This was going to be a touch and go event, and exactly how long they would actually be able to go was a big question.

The first yellow was a brief affair, but there was a longer second yellow on lap 17 when Kevin Harvick – already damaged following contact with Sam Hornish a couple of laps earlier – then lost handling and hit the wall. The third yellow was a pre-scheduled competition yellow on lap 40 to allow the teams to come in and adjust to the new conditions.

At this point, we’d had two leaders. Polesitter Ryan Newman had led only a lap before Kyle Busch took over in front; Kyle was complaining of the smell of electrical burning and an instrumentation problem, suggesting that the heavy rain the previous day had infiltrated the car’s systems, but that didn’t stop him from running out in front seemingly effortlessly until he could pit under the yellow for a reboot.

Busch dropped to 2nd after the pit stops behind Jimmie Johnson and ahead of Mark Martin, Kurt Busch and Denny Hamlin, but Kyle quickly took the lead back and Johnson got shuffled down to third by Martin before dropping even further down the field complaining the number 48 was now very loose.

Other cars having early problems were Jeff Gordon (down to 16th) and former leader Ryan Newman, who had been forced to pit twice under the competition yellow with lugnut problems and now found himself stuck in 33rd. Dale Earnhardt Jr was even worse off in 36th and falling. On the way up, on the other hand, Tony Stewart had climbed from 28th to 14th.

The rain returned in some strength on lap 71, a “thunder shower” as it was described meaning a lengthy delay in proceedings, with the caution going to red on lap 73 and everyone parking up in the pit lane. The forecast and local radar were not looking good, showing lots of pockets of rain in the area just waiting to pounce, and the intermission lasted over an hour before racing was able to resume.

Kyle leapt away from Carl Edwards, David Reutimann, Jamie McMurray and Joey Logano at the restart; Mark Martin had been sent to the back of the lead lap for a loose tyre bouncing across pit lane in the last stop and had to make his way back up through the field. Ryan Newman had bounced back into the top 20 after taking only two tyres, and up and down the field there was some hard racing going on – even three-wide, as the drivers sensed that the race would be closer to 200 laps than 400 with all the rain delays, and that there was no time to waste.

Jimmie Johnson’s problems had been cured with some quality pit time and he was heading back into second and set about catching Kyle. But Dale Jr.’s car was a disaster, with the 88 now running 42nd and practically undriveable finally going a lap down on lap 112.

As the longest green flag stint of the afternoon wore on, Johnson and Busch both started to fade somewhat and it was Brian Vickers who blasted past them both to take the lead with Juan Montoya following him through to take up second. That was on the stroke of green flag pit stops that took place around lap 131, and Kyle had the best of the pit stops and emerged in the lead once again. But Vickers proved that whatever happened in the pit stops, the number 83 had the pace on track – and he retook the lead on lap 145 with comparative ease. Montoya also repeated his run into second on lap 158 as Kyle struggled with traffic.

The yellows came out again on lap 162, for an unprecedented 3pm observance on US Memorial Day; the cars cut their engines for a moment on the track to join the minute of silence. That was unfortunate for Jimmie Johnson, who was unable to refire his car afterwards and required a push start – the second time the 48 had proved problematic today – but no lasting harm was done.

Of course, everyone used the opportunity to pit – and with dark clouds building once again, with only a little over thirty laps to go to half distance and a valid race if red flagged, it looked as though it could well prove to be the “money stop”. No one was taking any chances with tactics like two tyres this time: it was serious. Kyle Busch was once again fastest off pit lane ahead of Kasey Kahne, Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards, Juan Montoya and Joey Logano. Vickers had dropped to 8th as a result of his stop.

The restart was held off as rain hit the outskirts of the race complex, and the yellow finally went red on lap 175 – 25 laps shy of a valid race distance. The cars returned to pit lane and got covered up with plastic, although the drivers were being told to stay inside them; the fear was that another strong thunder shower was less than 10 miles away from the circuit.

This time it was over half an hour before the green came out again and we got back to racing. And everyone was going for is, now assuming that half distance would be the de facto race length and it was only 20 laps away. Johnson was fast now and set after Kyle Busch, and Carl Edwards also battling Kasey Kahne for third and was looking quietly confident and significantly improved. Meanwhile Juan Montoya was finding his car getting tight and dropped back, and Kurt Busch found a vibration problem so severe that he was forced to pit under green on lap 194, which put him a lap down.

Lap 200! Half distance, and a valid race. Kyle led Johnson, Kahne and Edwards.

As the green flag stint wore on, Busch and Johnson again started to fade under sustained running, Kyle getting very sideways on lap 220 as Kasey Kahne emerged as the fastest man on track and was catching the number 18 in leaps and bounds. Before he could pounce, however, there was the sixth caution – once again for rain. All of the leaders (somewhat surprisingly) opted to pit rather than try and stay out and retain track position: clearly the weather radars weren’t suggesting a race-ending shower at this point. But David Reutimann, Ryan Newman, and Robbie Gordon did all stay out, with Card Edwards fastest out of pit lane in 4th followed by Brian Vickers and then Kyle Busch, who had opted to take four tyres this time around.

But was pitting the right move? The minutes ticked by … and rain came down heavier … the track went from “damp” to “we lost it” and the jet driers were recalled until the rain abated. Everyone stood around, not knowing whether to celebrate and pack up, or prepare for another 170+ laps. Lots of mixed emotions; but the stands were emptying, as spectators had to pack up and head for home after the holiday weekend. Time was running out.

The weather was also closing in: whatever clear spells the radar data had been showing were consistently failing to show up. The rain fell, abated enough to bring out the jet dryers, only for the rain to fall again and cause the jet dryers to lose the battle and have to return to base to refuel. It was an increasingly frustrating and fruitless exercise, and the only person happy about it all was David Reutimann who was increasingly looking like he had stolen it from long-time leader Kyle Busch, all because of the decision to pit or not to pit. There was a sense that NASCAR weren’t happy with someone coming from no where to fluke a win either, and that was part of the reason they were working so hard to restart the race and get at least a few last laps in so that a lucky pit stop call wasn’t the final decider of the race.

But as valiantly as they tried to turn back the tide of showers, they were facing a losing battle and just had to accept the twist of fate that had put Reutimann out front at the vital moment. Just before six thirty local time, NASCAR finally called the race: it was indeed David Reutimann’s victory. The long national nightmare of the terminally rain-delayed 50th Coca-Cola 600 was finally over, and Reutimann was rewarded for his gamble with his first ever Sprint Cup win.

It might have been the shortest race in the event’s history in terms of mileage, but in terms of how much time they tried running it for it must have been one of the longest NASCAR events of all time, over 24 hours from scheduled start to final declaration. It made the Le Mans 24 look like a sprint race: it had been exhausting and not really satisfying, but it certainly hadn’t been forgettable!

Race results

FIN ST  CAR  DRIVER              MAKE       PTS/BNS LAPS
1   21  00   David Reutimann     Toyota     190/5   227 
2   1   39   Ryan Newman         Chevrolet  175/5   227 
3   37  7    Robby Gordon        Toyota     170/5   227 
4   19  99   Carl Edwards        Ford       160/0   227 
5   8   83   Brian Vickers       Toyota     160/5   227 
6   2   18   Kyle Busch          Toyota     160/10  227 
7   6   9    Kasey Kahne         Dodge      146/0   227 
8   9   42   Juan Montoya        Chevrolet  142/0   227 
9   14  20   Joey Logano *       Toyota     143/5   227 
10  30  17   Matt Kenseth        Ford       134/0   227 
11  13  11   Denny Hamlin        Toyota     130/0   227 
12  20  96   Bobby Labonte       Ford       127/0   227 
13  5   48   Jimmie Johnson      Chevrolet  129/5   227 
14  3   24   Jeff Gordon         Chevrolet  121/0   227 
15  10  21   Bill Elliott        Ford       118/0   227 
16  26  77   Sam Hornish Jr.     Dodge      115/0   227 
17  4   5    Mark Martin         Chevrolet  112/0   227 
18  18  82   Scott Speed *       Toyota     109/0   227 
19  28  14   Tony Stewart        Chevrolet  106/0   227 
20  16  16   Greg Biffle         Ford       103/0   227 
21  33  26   Jamie McMurray      Ford       100/0   227 
22  35  12   David Stremme       Dodge      97/0    227 
23  12  1    Martin Truex Jr.    Chevrolet  94/0    227 
24  34  6    David Ragan         Ford       91/0    227 
25  40  31   Jeff Burton         Chevrolet  88/0    227 
26  11  187  Joe Nemechek        Toyota     85/0    227 
27  23  47   Marcos Ambrose      Toyota     82/0    227 
28  29  171  David Gilliland     Chevrolet  79/0    227 
29  25  66   Dave Blaney         Toyota     81/5    227 
30  31  98   Paul Menard         Ford       73/0    227 
31  39  55   Michael Waltrip     Toyota     75/5    227 
32  15  19   Elliott Sadler      Dodge      67/0    227 
33  38  44   A.J. Allmendinger   Dodge      64/0    227 
34  36  07   Casey Mears         Chevrolet  61/0    227 
35  42  43   Reed Sorenson       Dodge      58/0    227 
36  24  33   Clint Bowyer        Chevrolet  55/0    227 
37  17  2    Kurt Busch          Dodge      52/0    227 
38  27  88   Dale Earnhardt Jr.  Chevrolet  49/0    225 
39  43  36   Scott Riggs         Toyota     51/5    225 
40  41  34   Tony Raines         Chevrolet  48/5    225 
41  22  29   Kevin Harvick       Chevrolet  40/0    224 
42  32  113  Max Papis *         Toyota     37/0    219 
43  7   09   Mike Bliss          Dodge      34/0    43  
* Denotes Rookie 

Sprint Cup standings

POS +/- DRIVER               PTS   BEHIND ST  P  W  T5 T10
1   --  Jeff Gordon          1722  Leader 12  0  1  6  8
2   --  Tony Stewart         1678  -44    12  0  0  5  8
3   --  Kurt Busch           1598  -124   12  0  1  3  6
4   --  Jimmie Johnson       1594  -128   12  0  1  5  7
5   --  Denny Hamlin         1575  -147   12  0  0  2  4
6   +1  Kyle Busch           1540  -182   12  1  3  4  5
7   +1  Ryan Newman          1538  -184   12  1  0  4  6
8   -2  Jeff Burton          1472  -250   12  0  0  2  5
9   +1  Matt Kenseth         1460  -262   12  1  2  3  5
10  -1  Greg Biffle          1448  -274   12  0  0  3  6
11  +1  Carl Edwards         1431  -291   12  0  0  2  5
12  -1  Mark Martin          1428  -294   12  3  2  3  6
===== CHASE FOR THE Sprint CUP - CURRENT CONTENDERS ====
13  +2  David Reutimann      1422  -300   12  1  1  2  3
14  --  Juan Montoya         1397  -325   12  1  0  0  4
15  +1  Kasey Kahne          1351  -371   12  0  0  1  3
16  +1  Brian Vickers        1348  -374   12  2  0  2  5
17  -4  Clint Bowyer         1319  -403   12  0  0  3  4
18  +1  Martin Truex Jr.     1238  -484   12  1  0  0  3
19  -1  Dale Earnhardt Jr.   1231  -491   12  0  0  1  3
20  --  Marcos Ambrose       1213  -509   12  0  0  1  2
21  +3  Jamie McMurray       1168  -554   12  0  0  0  3
22  --  Casey Mears          1165  -557   12  0  0  0  1
23  -2  Kevin Harvick        1149  -573   12  0  0  2  2
24  -1  Reed Sorenson        1148  -574   12  0  0  0  1
25  +5  Joey Logano*         1145  -577   12  0  0  0  3
26  +1  David Stremme        1136  -586   12  0  0  0  0
27  +2  Bobby Labonte        1134  -588   12  0  0  1  1
28  -2  Elliott Sadler       1126  -596   12  0  0  1  1
29  -4  A.J. Allmendinger    1123  -599   12  0  0  1  2
30  +1  Sam Hornish Jr.      1113  -609   12  0  0  0  2
31  -3  Michael Waltrip      1092  -630   12  0  0  0  1
32  --  David Ragan          1089  -633   12  0  0  0  1
33  --  Paul Menard          1030  -692   12  0  0  0  0
34  --  Robby Gordon         1017  -705   12  0  0  1  1
35  --  Scott Speed*         865   -857   11  0  0  1  1
36  --  John Andretti        743   -979   10  0  0  0  0
37  --  David Gilliland      728   -994   11  0  0  0  0
38  --  Regan Smith          573   -1149  6   0  0  0  0
39  +2  Joe Nemechek         499   -1223  9   0  0  0  0
40  -1  Brad Keselowski      479   -1243  4   0  1  1  2
41  -1  Aric Almirola        451   -1271  7   0  0  0  0
42  --  Scott Riggs          445   -1277  8   0  0  0  0
43  --  Dave Blaney          379   -1343  9   0  0  0  0
44  +3  Bill Elliott         346   -1376  4   0  0  0  0
45  +1  Max Papis*           317   -1405  5   0  0  0  0
46  -2  Travis Kvapil        292   -1430  4   0  0  0  0
47  -2  Jeremy Mayfield      288   -1434  5   0  0  0  0
48  +3  Tony Raines          170   -1552  4   0  0  0  0
49  --  Mike Bliss           157   -1565  4   0  0  0  0
50  -2  Todd Bodine          123   -1599  3   0  0  0  0

Kurt Busch was undoubtedly the top performer at Atlanta this weekend, leading the vast majority of laps and only occasionally under pressure from the likes of Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon and Brian Vickers, and despite a couple of brushes with the wall. But when it came to the end, everything depended on fuel – and a final, critical yellow flag with three to go that put the cat among the proverbial pigeons.

Mark Martin led the Kobalt Tools 500 away, but was quickly overtaken by Busch starting from second place, who clearly had a fast and responsive car right from the start, while almost everyone else seemed extremely loose. He built up a 8.7s lead over Denny Hamlin by lap 53 and carving his way through over a dozen backmarkers in the process.

Reed Sorenson was a vary early casualty, suspension problems sending him into the wall at the end of the first ap bringing out the first caution of the day, and Bobby Labonte brought out the second on lap 12 with a slow, loose spin going into turn 3. that allowed all the drivers to come in for full pit stops given the abrasive nature of the Atlanta Motor Speedway circuit. After that it was green all the way to

That meant the second round of pit stops started under green on lap 61. But before it could be completed, and with just six cars left to pit the yellow was thrown when a tyre got loose in pit lane and made a break for the track, pursued by a rash member of Marcos Ambrose’s pit crew. That meant that there were six cars on the lead lap proper with five more at the tail end of the lap behind the safety car looking easy prey for the leaders: it was devastating for the chances of top drivers such as Greg Biffle, Kyle Busch (suffering from poor grip all day) and Tony Stewart, all of whom were pretty much written off by the yellow in mid-pit stops.

At the restart, Kurt Busch fell to 5th after returning to his pit box for a second time, so Jimmie Johnson led the restart ahead of Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr – and Carl Edwards, who quickly established himself as the fastest man in the lead pack and blasted his way to the front.

Bobby Labonte also brought out the fourth caution on lap 103 when he seemed to get pushed into a spin by the turbulence of Juan Montoya’s car passing him on the outside. That allowed for a more orderly pit stop, although Robby Gordon got a penalty for taking the gas can with him when he exited his pit box; Brian Vickers got a speeding penalty; and Dale Earnhardt Jr got back on the lead lap with the free pass.

The stops put Kurt Busch in the lead again and once again he quickly sped away from the rest of the pack led by Carl Edwards in second during another extended green flag stint that saw many cars getting increasingly lose – Sam Hornish Jr in particular hanging on to the number 77 car by some wild seat of the pants driving.

David Stremme and Robby Gordon had hit pit road for their green flag stops when the yellow flag came out for fluid on the track at turn 2 on lap 156, but it didn’t stop Kurt Busch from maintaining the lead. However, ten laps after the restart it was Jeff Gordon who popped up into second spot and gave Kurt the hardest battle so far in the race to maintain the top slot. Kurt saw off the challenge and reasserted the lead, but as the next yellow came out on lap 184 (for debris form the ailing 47 of Marcos Ambrose) Kurt’s number 2 suddenly looked unstable and brushed the wall – a pit stop was urgently required and the timing of the yellow was a blessing for the longtime race leader.

At the restart on lap 192, Kurt led Johnson, Gordon, Mark Martin, Brian Vickers, Clint Bowyer, Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin, Dale Earnhardt Jr, Martin Truex Jr. and Kasey Kahne as the 11 cars still on the lead lap. Further back, Greg Biffle made the save of the day when tapped on the rear by his team mate David Ragan who then glanced the wall; both managed to keep it going forward.

Jeff Gordon briefly usurped Kurt Busch in the lead on lap 198 when Kurt once again kissed the wall only for Busch to get ahead before the seventh yellow came out on lap 204following the end of Sam Hornish’s wild ride of the day with a visit to the wall, and in the process he collected Bill Elliot on the way down causing them both to sustain heavy damage. In the ensuing pit stops, Jeff Gordon beat Kurt and Jimmie Johnson by the narrowest of margins to claim the lead and held it with ease through the restart. Kurt went even further down (to 5th) when the field pitted again under the 8th caution on lap 214 when Mark Martin’s rear right tyre went down putting him into the wall. The damage to the car left debris scattered on the track as Martin limped the car back to the pits.

Kurt took his time getting around Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer and Jimmie Johnson to climb to second, and didn’t seem to have anything left to close the 2s lap to the leader since his brushes with the wall. But then with the green stint nearing pit stops, Kurt suddenly put on an astonishing turn of speed – literally afterburner stuff – to power past Jeff Gordon on lap 251 to retake the race lead. The caution (the 9th, for debris from Robby Gordon’s car) came out seven laps later just in time for the field to pit under yellow after all.

Kurt retained the lead after the stops, while Jimmie Johnson emerged second – at the cost of a pit lane speeding penalty. But it was good news for Tony Stewart who got the free pass putting him on the lead lap for the first time since lap 61. And now there were 61 laps to go till the end – just out of reach of a single tank of fuel, or at least that’s what conventional wisdom said. Would anyone try and stretch it, or would further yellows render the question moot?

A yellow was quickly out two laps later: Scott Speed came up on the track out of turn 4 and into David Ragan; the rookie got turned into the wall, and as the field behind took evasive action Greg Biffle got shunted from behind and into a very heavy impact with the wall. About half the lead lap cars came in; the rest stayed out, including Kurt Busch, Brian Vickers and Clint Bowyer. Would they have enough fuel to last till the end?

The fuel situation became critical with a 47 green flag stint pushing cars to the limit. Kurt Busch maintained the lead but seemed to be struggling to maintain pace and handling as Brian Vickers started chasing the number 2 down. And then with three to go, the yellow came out after Robby Gordon shredded a tyre and send debris all over the place: the race would end under a green and chequered flag once the debris was cleared, which would take some time – and that meant that anyone marginal on gas before was now certifiably screwed. And that included Kurt Busch, who had to come in to the pits for tyres and fuel. Fortuntaley for Kurt, Vickers and Gordon also had to come in, while Carl Edwards also pitted and came out ahead of the others for the restart.

And then the final restart: Edwards’ car just wasn’t strong enough to hold back the number 2 of Kurt Busch, and Jeff Gordon tried and failed to mount his own challenge but fell short. The driver who had dominated the race managed to pull it off and claim the chequered flag: Kurt Busch was a deserved winner.

Kobalt 500 result

FIN ST  CAR  DRIVER             MAKE       PTS/BNS  LAPS STATUS
1   2   2    Kurt Busch         Dodge      195/10   330  Running
2   16  24   Jeff Gordon        Chevrolet  175/5    330  Running
3   29  99   Carl Edwards       Ford       170/5    330  Running
4   10  29   Kevin Harvick      Chevrolet  160/0    330  Running
5   17  83   Brian Vickers      Toyota     155/0    330  Running
6   21  33   Clint Bowyer       Chevrolet  150/0    330  Running
7   13  9    Kasey Kahne        Dodge      146/0    330  Running
8   11  14   Tony Stewart       Chevrolet  142/0    330  Running
9   7   48   Jimmie Johnson     Chevrolet  143/5    330  Running
10  23  1    Martin Truex Jr.   Chevrolet  139/5    330  Running
11  20  88   Dale Earnhardt Jr. Chevrolet  130/0    330  Running
12  30  17   Matt Kenseth       Ford       127/0    330  Running
13  6   11   Denny Hamlin       Toyota     124/0    329  Running
14  15  31   Jeff Burton        Chevrolet  121/0    329  Running
15  3   26   Jamie McMurray     Ford       118/0    328  Running
16  25  07   Casey Mears        Chevrolet  115/0    328  Running
17  38  44   A.J. Allmendinger  Dodge      112/0    328  Running
18  9   18   Kyle Busch         Toyota     109/0    327  Running
19  39  6    David Ragan        Ford       106/0    327  Running
20  14  19   Elliott Sadler     Dodge      103/0    327  Running
21  37  8    Aric Almirola      Chevrolet  100/0    327  Running
22  12  39   Ryan Newman        Chevrolet  102/5    327  Running
23  28  12   David Stremme      Dodge      94/0     326  Running
24  31  171  David Gilliland    Chevrolet  91/0     326  Running
25  24  55   Michael Waltrip    Toyota     88/0     326  Running
26  19  7    Robby Gordon       Toyota     85/0     326  Running
27  4   42   Juan Montoya       Chevrolet  82/0     325  Running
28  33  98   Paul Menard        Ford       79/0     325  Running
29  41  34   John Andretti      Chevrolet  76/0     325  Running
30  42  20   Joey Logano *      Toyota     73/0     324  Running
31  1   5    Mark Martin        Chevrolet  75/5     316  Running
32  18  00   David Reutimann    Toyota     67/0     305  Running
33  32  43   Reed Sorenson      Dodge      64/0     264  Running
34  5   16   Greg Biffle        Ford       61/0     262  Accident
35  26  82   Scott Speed *      Toyota     58/0     262  Accident
36  35  21   Bill Elliott       Ford       55/0     201  Accident
37  36  77   Sam Hornish Jr.    Dodge      52/0     199  Accident
38  34  47   Marcos Ambrose     Toyota     49/0     179  Engine
39  8   187  Joe Nemechek       Toyota     51/5     110  Wheel Bearing
40  40  96   Bobby Labonte      Ford       43/0     103  Engine
41  27  66   Dave Blaney        Toyota     40/0     82   Electrical
42  22  28   Travis Kvapil      Ford       37/0     32   Engine
43  43  09   Mike Bliss         Dodge      34/0     21   Overheating

* Denotes Rookie

Sprint Cup points standing

RANK +/- DRIVER              PTS  BEHIND  ST PO W  T5 T10
1    --  Jeff Gordon         634  Leader  4  0  0  2  3
2    --  Clint Bowyer        591  -43     4  0  0  2  3
3    +4  Kurt Busch          588  -46     4  0  1  2  3
4    +5  Carl Edwards        547  -87     4  0  0  1  2
5    -2  Matt Kenseth        546  -88     4  0  2  2  2
6    +2  Tony Stewart        521  -113    4  0  0  0  3
7    -1  Kyle Busch          514  -120    4  1  1  2  2
8    +3  Kevin Harvick       511  -123    4  0  0  2  2
9    +4  Kasey Kahne         484  -150    4  0  0  0  1
10   -6  Greg Biffle         480  -154    4  0  0  1  2
11   +6  Brian Vickers       477  -157    4  1  0  1  3
12   -7  David Reutimann     475  -159    4  0  0  1  1
CHASE FOR THE Sprint CUP - CURRENT CONTENDERS
13   +6  Jimmie Johnson      457  -177    4  0  0  0  2
14   --  Denny Hamlin        456  -178    4  0  0  0  1
15   +3  Jeff Burton         437  -197    4  0  0  1  1
16   -4  Michael Waltrip     434  -200    4  0  0  0  1
17   -1  Elliott Sadler      427  -207    4  0  0  1  1
18   +4  Jamie McMurray      423  -211    4  0  0  0  1
19   +7  Martin Truex Jr.    423  -211    4  1  0  0  1
20   +1  A.J. Allmendinger   417  -217    4  0  0  1  1
21   -6  Juan Montoya        408  -226    4  0  0  0  0
22   +2  David Ragan         405  -229    4  0  0  0  1
23   -13 Bobby Labonte       403  -231    4  0  0  1  1
24   +5  Dale Earnhardt Jr.  397  -237    4  0  0  0  1
25   +2  Casey Mears         397  -237    4  0  0  0  0
26   -3  David Stremme       396  -238    4  0  0  0  0
27   -2  Reed Sorenson       363  -271    4  0  0  0  1
28   -8  Marcos Ambrose      361  -273    4  0  0  0  0
29   +2  Robby Gordon        342  -292    4  0  0  0  0
30   --  John Andretti       336  -298    4  0  0  0  0
31   -3  Sam Hornish Jr.     328  -306    4  0  0  0  0
32   +1  Ryan Newman         324  -310    4  0  0  0  0
33   -1  Joey Logano*        321  -313    4  0  0  0  0
34   --  Mark Martin         286  -348    4  1  0  0  0
35   +3  Aric Almirola       277  -357    4  0  0  0  0
36   +1  David Gilliland     276  -358    3  0  0  0  0
37   -1  Scott Speed*        256  -378    4  0  0  0  0
38   +1  Paul Menard         238  -396    4  0  0  0  0
39   -4  Regan Smith         206  -428    2  0  0  0  0
40   --  Travis Kvapil       183  -451    3  0  0  0  0
41   +2  Bill Elliott        149  -485    2  0  0  0  0
42   -1  Scott Riggs         143  -491    2  0  0  0  0
43   +2  Joe Nemechek        125  -509    3  0  0  0  0
44   -2  Jeremy Mayfield     104  -530    2  0  0  0  0
45   -1  Terry Labonte       91   -543    1  0  0  0  0




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