Posts Tagged ‘denny hamlin’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Race results

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Race results

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

Sprint Cup standings

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

Penske took pole, most laps led and ultimately the win at Kansas Speedway’s inaugural summertime race: but sadly for Kurt Busch, he wasn’t the Penske driver to find victory lane.

Kansas Speedway is hardly a new venue for the NASCAR touring show, but the timing of the STP 400 here certainly is: it’s Kansas’ first time as a summertime event instead of just an autumnal spot in the chase, and as a result the first time Kansas has two spots on NASCAR calendar.

That led to a few questions coming in: how would the track be? It’s pretty slick even in the autumn, but in the stifling heat of the afternoon Kansas summer sun putting air temperatures into the 90s it could be even worse. And how would the attendance hold up with two calls on the region’s fanbase?

The heat did deter a few ticketholders from showing up, but a crowd of 80,000 (in a facility with capacity for 83,000 including 10,000 in the infield area) was still an impressive start. “It was a little warmer than we would have liked for the fans,” track president Pat Warren said. “At any given point in the race, when I was in the grandstands, there were several thousand people trying to get out of the heat under the grandstands. That’s not ideal.”

They were there to watch Kurt Busch lead the field to the green flag at 1.18pm on Sunday afternoon, and if the heat on the grandstand was a problem then spare a thought for the drivers, who were seeing in-car temperatures in the 140s during the day and comparing the situation to sitting in a sauna in a full firesuit for three hours. Just as well Kimi Raikkonen wasn’t about for this one; even hardened southerner Dale Earnhardt Jr. was heard to radio to his pit crew “I’ll be surprised if this heat don’t get me. It’s pretty damn hot,” during the afternoon’s proceedings.

While Busch led the field past the green flag, it was Juan Montoya who claimed the lead at the end of the first lap when Kurt ran up too high, then Kyle Busch took over before Montoya claimed it back again. It wasn’t until lap 18 that Kurt finally got to lead a race lap, having been complaining that the #22 was super-tight at the start. Advised to take to the lower groove by his spotter who had seen it work for Montoya, Kurt did just that and instantly was feeling much the better for it, although he still wanted loosening up at the first opportunity.

Once installed into the lead, Kurt kept it until lap 44 which is the point when he came in for the first green flag pit stop of the day. Behind him, Montoya and Carl Edwards were battling over second place, while further back the big movers were Jimmie Johnson (up to 16th by lap 38 after starting 31st), Jeff Gordon (up to 10th by lap 22 from 22nd) and Brad Keselowski (up to 17th by lap 27 from 25th on the grid); those dropping back included Brian Vickers, Joey Logano and Martin Truex Jr. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was seemingly resolutely stuck in around 25th place.

Kyle Busch’s attempts to put the off-track distractions of Richard Childress behind him weren’t really coming together; he got into wall after the first round of pit stop and pronounced over the team radio that he had “killed” the car. He’d keep going, but a win was perhaps now too much to realistically hope for.

The first caution came on lap 68 for debris, and the top five at the restart consisted of Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Juan Montoya; but the Colombian was off the pace at the restart and quickly fell back to the bottom of the top ten, while the double-file restart saw Kyle join his brother Kurt in leading the race in a Busch 1-2 for a time until Carl Edwards decided he wanted past both of them and duly took the lead on lap 84.

Edwards was still leading when the second caution of the day came out on lap 110 for a carelessly discarded water bottle, and the field came in for some pit stops under the caution: Kyle Busch emerged first from pit road, but soon dropped back at the restart as first Denny Hamlin and then Tony Stewart got past him.

But the track was quickly back under caution on lap 119 when Landon Cassill swiped the wall hard, causing a lot of right-side damage to the #51 that would see him stuck in the garage for over 70 laps. He’d been assisted into the wall by contact from behind by Marcos Ambrose, who sustained only minor front damage from the incident.

None of the leaders needed to return to pit road at this point, so when the green flag came out it was Denny Hamlin, Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon and Carl Edwards in the lead as they neared half-distance for the afternoon. And further back down the field, Dale Earnhardt Jr. had managed to quietly improve to 14th place.

This was not to be a good stint for Montoya, who got up into the wall without causing a caution; or for Kyle Busch who was sliding back down the running order and looking as though he was going to drop out of the top ten entirely, momentarily battling for position alongside Kevin Harvick – but fortunately without incident between them: Rowdy just didn’t need that sort of extra headache today.

Stewart had passed Hamlin for the lead and started to stretch his legs out in front when the fourth caution of the afternoon came out on lap 152: it was for Earnhardt Jr., who had got loose and spun sideways but fortunately managed to keep it off the wall.

“I spun out there that one time trying to find some speed,” he said later. “Just trying to get a little too much there and lost track position.” He blamed the #88 team’s inability to qualify well for putting them under too much pressure to make up places: “We shouldn’t have run second again. We’ve got to fix some things. We’ve got fast cars so we can be fast,” he said. “Just started way back there in the back, man. We ain’t qualified no better than 22nd besides Daytona and Talladega. We need to fix that somehow.” In the meantime he was lucky to still be in one piece and in the race, even if that spin had sent him to the back of the lead lap and given up all those hard-earned places.

Hamlin came out top in the pit lane, and Kyle Busch’s phenomenal #18 crew once again boosted their man’s position on track as they have so many times before: come the restart on lap 157 it was Hamlin, Stewart, Kurt and Kyle and then Jeff Gordon in fifth place.

The green lasted only four laps but it was enough for Kurt and Jeff to make a power play for 1-2 that came off beautifully before a fifth caution on lap 161 for debris in turn 3. It seemed that Hamlin had suffered some rear bumper damage in that brief tussle and he was alone in taking to pit road to have the bodywork sorted out, dropping to 21st as a result before the track went green again on lap 165.

Despite there being just over 100 laps left in the race, it turned out that this had been the last caution of the afternoon and that the race would run green all the way to the chequered flag from here on: that would put pressure on pit crews under the remaining pit stops, while crew chiefs would get caught out by the lack of yellows when it came to plotting fuel strategies.

Once again it was a less than stellar stint for Kyle Busch, who dropped back again, lost another brief battle to Kevin Harvick, and then got demoted to ninth when he was overtaken by Brad Keselowski on lap 194. Keselowski’s Penske team mate Kurt Busch had run away in front, but by the time a round of pit stops beckoned Kurt was being reeled in by Jeff Gordon.

Those first to pit were in on lap 201, and it seemed impossible that they could make their fuel last to the end so a second splash-and-dash was inevitable. Kurt Busch surrendered the lead to Tony Stewart on lap 205 and still seemed too far off the fuel window; Brad Keselowski had an outside chance of making it by pitting on lap 210 while Tony Stewart pitting a lap later clearly had every intention of giving it a go.

But suddenly it was Denny Hamlin looking very much as though he’d lucked into a potentially race-winning situation thanks to that late return to pit lane with rear bodywork damage under the last caution. It meant he was the last to pit on lap 215 along with Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jamie McMurray and Ryan Newman and that meant that they should have enough gas to make it the final 52 laps. Just.

The pit stops having finished cycling through, Kurt Busch was back in the lead well ahead of Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth – and Tony Stewart now in sixth place, arguably the top-placed driver with an outside chance of making it to the finish, although really he needed a yellow or two to make the fuel stretch.

And there was no yellow. The laps continued ticking down, but the fuel situation was now slowly tipping over from “borderline” to “critical” to “no chance”. Even Brad Keselowski, who had pitted later than most and was now up to seventh place despite running in fuel conservation mode, was being told over his radio that he was about three-quarters of a lap short on gas.

Meanwhile Denny Hamlin might not have any fuel headaches, but his handling was shot and he was trundling around in a disappointing 13th position hoping that the strategy situation would swing it for him in the end after all. Earnhardt Jr, who had pitted with him, was tracking him back in 16th – hoping to stalk him all the way to the finish and hopefully ambush him before the chequered flag when everyone else had fallen away into pit road.

Various pit strategies played out as we hit the final 25 laps of the race. Kevin Harvick was one of the first to come in on lap 242 for fuel and two tyres; Greg Biffle took four, both of them hoping that the fresh rubber would help them mack up positions while everyone else ran to the very edge of their fuel window in the hope of a late caution. Clint Bowyer, Paul Menard and Jeff Burton came in on lap 245; David Ragan and Carl Edwards pitted on lap 247.

By lap 250 there were only six cars left on the lead lap: Kurt Busch in the lead followed by Tony Stewart, Brad Keselowski, Brian Vickers, Denny Hamlin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Hamlin and Earnhardt had enough fuel to make it to the end; Kurt certainly didn’t; Stewart was being told he was a lap short on fuel. That left Keselowski very much on the bubble as well, as the car that had come in a lap earlier than the #14. Could Brad win it for Penske or would the cars behind be able to catch and pass him with their fuel being less marginal?

Vickers came in with 15 laps to go, and Stewart opted to pit early on lap 255, then on lap 258 it was Kurt Busch’s turn to come into the pits for fuel; he’d led 152 laps out of the 267 lap race distance, but he was going to be denied the win at the last gasp. Worse, when the #22 returned to the track it turned out that it had been pushed too far on that last tank of gas: the carburettor had run dry just as Busch was dropped off the jack, causing the engine to stutter and sputter around the track apron for the better part of a whole lap before the fuel line refilled with adequate pressure. Kurt finally got up to speed, but he would drop to ninth place by the end of the race, which was an undeserved bitter end to a fabulous race from Kurt.

“I’m proud of the way that this team has run,” Busch insisted after the race. “To have a car to lead laps today and be very competitive, I was all smiles … It was great. There was always something in the back of my mind today that we weren’t going to win.” He added: “It’s just one of those days where you’re on the right side, sometimes you’re not. For all my guys, we’ll take this one and the points. I’m not discouraged at all.”

Kurt had been a massive 20s ahead of his fuel-critical Penske team mate Brad Keselowski when he came in, with ten laps left to run. Earnhardt Jr had pulled off his plan of ambushing Hamlin for second place and was now giving chase to the #2 car, cutting almost a second a lap off Keselowski’s lead so that by the time the two hit the white flag Brad’s lead was just 3.5s.

How Dale – and the whole of Junior Nation – must have been hoping that it was karma payback time. After losing out last week to Kevin Harvick after he himself had run out of gas, surely it was Earnhardt’s turn to be on the fortunate receiving end: he was hoping with all his might that Keselowski would run dry or have to drop so far off the pace that Earnhardt himself could then pull off a Harvick-esque “steal” off the last corner.

The last corner came, went – and Keselowski still had enough gas to keep going, and sufficient pace to take the chequered flag 2.813s ahead of Earnhardt. Once again, the #88 would be the bridesmaid but not the bride, as Dale’s winless streak upped to 106 Cup races.

“It all worked out at the end, and they talk about you when you’re in Victory Lane,” Keselowski said, celebrating his second Cup win in 66 starts. “That’s all that matters.” It’s Penske’s 67th series victory but their first in what had been an underwhelming 2011 season so far – but Kansas definitely shows signs of perking up for both their drivers.

“I didn’t know I was leading until two laps to go,” Keselowski added. “Kind of stretched my neck out, barely caught the scoring pylon to see I was leading. I was instantly mad at my guys for not telling me, but you get over that pretty quick when you cross the start/finish line first!”

Keselowski even had the fuel in reserve to run a victory lap and do a burnout, while Earnhardt and Hamlin confessed that the fuel handling had been tough for them, too, despite their having pitted later.

“I give him a lot [of credit],” Earnhardt said. “I don’t know what his situation was, I don’t know if it was the same as ours, but he obviously had to save a little more than we did, I think. But anytime you win a fuel mileage race you’ve done something as a driver.”

“I think those guys had extremely good fuel mileage,” agreed Hamlin. “They obviously worked on it. He did a great job to save.”

Hamlin held onto third, just a tenth of a second ahead of Jeff Gordon who was the highest finisher of that leading pack that had tried to stay out as long as possible. “We were just trying to maintain second and see what the pit strategy was going to be,” said Gordon. “We played it to the best that we possibly could. If I hadn’t been quite so free, I might have been able to get to third. But all in all, a great top-five [and] a great day in the points for us.”

The win puts Keselowski in with a chance of getting into the Chase on the “wild car” introduced this season – but to be eligible for that, he’ll need to be in the top 20. Even after this week’s victory, he’s still outside that in 21st position, 7pts behind Paul Menard. It means there’s work to do to keep the Chase dream alive, but for the first time for Keselowski this year there’s light at the end of the tunnel to guide his way.

Race results

1. #2 Brad Keselowski Dodge 267 laps 2:55:10.000s (47/1 pts)
2. #88 Dale Earnhardt Jr. Chevrolet 267 laps + 2.813s (42/0 pts)
3. #11 Denny Hamlin Toyota 267 laps + 6.340s (42/1 pts)
4. #24 Jeff Gordon Chevrolet 267 laps + 6.483s (40/0 pts)
5. #99 Carl Edwards Ford 267 laps + 7.997s (40/1 pts)
6. #17 Matt Kenseth Ford 267 laps + 12.081s (38/0 pts)
7. #48 Jimmie Johnson Chevrolet 267 laps + 12.326s (37/0 pts)
8. #14 Tony Stewart Chevrolet 267 laps + 12.451s (37/1 pts)
9. #22 Kurt Busch Dodge 267 laps + 14.716s (37/2 pts)
10. #16 Greg Biffle Ford 267 laps + 17.769s (34/0 pts)
11. #29 Kevin Harvick Chevrolet 267 laps + 19.757s (33/0 pts)
12. #18 Kyle Busch Toyota 267 laps + 20.639s (33/1 pts)
13. #6 David Ragan Ford 267 laps + 21.475s (31/0 pts)
14. #4 Kasey Kahne Toyota 267 laps + 29.681s (30/0 pts)
15. #39 Ryan Newman Chevrolet 267 laps + 30.113s (29/0 pts)
16. #83 Brian Vickers Toyota 267 laps + 30.953s (28/0 pts)
17. #42 Juan Montoya Chevrolet 266 laps + 1 lap (28/1 pts)
18. #33 Clint Bowyer Chevrolet 266 laps + 1 lap (26/0 pts)
19. #27 Paul Menard Chevrolet 266 laps + 1 lap (25/0 pts)
20. #56 Martin Truex Jr. Toyota 266 laps + 1 lap (24/0 pts)
21. #5 Mark Martin Chevrolet 266 laps + 1 lap (23/0 pts)
22. #00 David Reutimann Toyota 266 laps + 1 lap (22/0 pts)
23. #20 Joey Logano Toyota 266 laps + 1 lap (21/0 pts)
24. #78 Regan Smith Chevrolet 266 laps + 1 lap (20/0 pts)
25. #31 Jeff Burton Chevrolet 266 laps + 1 lap (19/0 pts)
26. #9 Marcos Ambrose Ford 266 laps + 1 lap (18/0 pts)
27. #43 A.J. Allmendinger Ford 266 laps + 1 lap (17/0 pts)
28. #47 Bobby Labonte Toyota 266 laps + 1 lap (16/0 pts)
29. #1 Jamie McMurray Chevrolet 266 laps + 1 lap (15/0 pts)
30. #32 Patrick Carpentier Ford 265 laps + 2 laps (0pts)
31. #71 Andy Lally * Ford 265 laps + 2 laps (13/0 pts)
32. #36 Dave Blaney Chevrolet 264 laps + 3 laps (12/0 pts)
33. #34 David Gilliland Ford 263 laps + 4 laps (11/0 pts)
34. #38 Travis Kvapil Ford 243 laps + 24 laps (0pts)
35. #51 Landon Cassill Chevrolet 190 laps + 77 laps (0pts)
36. #7 Johnny Sauter Dodge 101 laps Brakes (0pts)
37. #13 Casey Mears Toyota 100 laps Ignition (8/1 pts)
38. #46 J.J. Yeley Chevrolet 38 laps Brakes (6/0 pts)
39. #30 David Stremme Chevrolet 37 laps Brakes (5/0 pts)
40. #60 Mike Skinner Toyota 34 laps Ignition (0pts)
41. #66 Michael McDowell Toyota 33 laps Electrical (3/0 pts)
42. #181 Scott Riggs Chevrolet 20 laps Rear Gear (0pts)
43. #87 Joe Nemechek Toyota 19 laps Rear Gear (0pts)

Kyle Busch claimed his third successive win of the Crown Royal Presents 400, but other drivers including Jeff Gordon didn’t prove so lucky during an eventful middle section of the race.

Kyle Busch and his Joe Gibbs Racing team mate Denny Hamlin stormed to the front of the field during an opening green flag stint of 107 laps, then managed to survive an eventful mid-section of the race that saw numerous cautions one of which claimed the scalp of Jeff Gordon, and then pursued a knife-edge fuel conservation strategy to get them to the end of an 86-lap green flag finish to the race.

The floodlights were already blazing as polesitter Juan Montoya led the field to the green flag at 7.45pm alongside Regan Smith, both drivers hoping for a famous win at Richmond International Roadway despite it being a traditional stronghold of the Joe Gibbs Racing duo of Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin.

Hamlin was starting from 11th but Kyle was all the way back in 20th and looked to have some work ahead of him, so for the first 25 lap of the race Montoya was able to cruise around untroubled. Smith, on the other hand, was immediately losing positions to Clint Bowyer, Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne.

Montoya had a good lead over Bowyer up to lap 25 when he came up on the back markers. He needed to start negotiating traffic but found his handling too tight to mention. Straight away he was dropping back like a stone and quickly shuffled down to fourth place, with Bowyer and Kahne taking up the lead.

As the race hit lap 60, Kahne, Bowyer and Gordon continued to run in the top three spots, but ominously Denny Hamlin was now up to fourth place – and running right behind him was Kyle Busch, having worked his way steadily up from that disappointing qualifying position. Hamlin continued to apply the pressure, and finally on lap 73 he passed Kasey Kahne at the start/finish line to become the fourth leader of the night.

There had been no caution so far, and with Richmond International Raceway being a scant three quarter mile oval in length the leaders were now starting to lap some big names: Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Marcos Ambrose were already off the lead lap and Hamlin was also soon past Tony Stewart, Bobby Labonte and Jimmie Johnson as the first round of pit stops loomed.

Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch and Kasey Kahne all hit pit road on lap 88, with Hamlin staying out an extra lap and suffering from a slow pit stop. Kyle’s crew were, as ever, lightning fast and so the #18 took over the top spot on lap 90, with Hamlin dropping down to fourth behind Bowyer and Mark Martin. Hamlin managed to pass Martin to reclaim third position as the race topped 105 laps of unbroken green flag racing.

But Ryan Newman and Juan Montoya were about to put a stop to that: they had been racing side-by-side coming onto the backstretch when Newman clipped Montoya’s rear bumper and spun him into hard contact with the outside wall. The incident itself didn’t trigger a caution, but debris from Montoya’s #42 forced race control’s hand and the yellow was out on lap 107.

“He crashed himself, basically,” said an unrepentant Newman afterwards. “I don’t know if he didn’t know he wasn’t clear or what but he crashed himself off of turn 2. I don’t know if he thought it was me on purpose, but the message was delivered that it wasn’t intentional.”

Montoya needed multiple stops under the caution to allow his pit crew time to repair the bodywork, which meant he dropped to 22nd but stayed on the lead lap. The caution also allowed other cars to come in and do some much-needed fine-tuning: Jimmie Johnson needed the #48 tightening up, Bowyer needed an air adjustment – but the JGR duo were completely happy and just took four tyres and gas and were good to go again.

When the caution came out there had been 20 cars on the lead lap, with Brad Keselowski the first car a lap down and duly in line to receive the free pass before the green flag came out, just thwarting Tony Stewart who had been next in line before Keselowski was passed by Busch. Bobby Labonte, Travis Kvapil and Dale Earnhardt Jr. also got back on the lead lap by opting to stay out and take the wave-around rather than pit.

Racing resumed on lap 115 and after a three-wide restart, Kyle Busch once again leapt away in the lead with Denny Hamlin while Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer tussled over third. Busch didn’t have the same edge during this part of the race, however, and confirmed it with a radio message to his pit crew: “We’re a little bit tight on this set of tyres in the centre. A little loose off.”

Another 70-lap green flag stint ensued. Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson made contact early on but without any major consequences, although Johnson was off the lead lap and down into 30th; Montoya (the “wounded #42” as Kyle’s spotter dubbed him) was soon a lap down too, and so were Paul Menard, Bobby Labonte, Brad Keselowski, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and several others. On the plus side, several drivers were quietly plugging away and putting together some very solid performances, such as Jamie McMurray, David Reutimann and Greg Biffle (running around 12th-14th positions).

The next yellow came out on lap 185 for debris coming off the #22 of Kurt Busch that had got up into the wall on the previous lap. Earnhardt Jr was the recipient of the free pass this time around as the leaders hit pit road, and now everyone was having to dial in adjustments to compensate for the cooling evening conditions: Gordon asked for a track bar adjustment, Hamlin a right-rear tweak, and Busch acting on that earlier observation about being tight with an air pressure adjustment.

Kyle certainly looked instantly better for it and leapt away in the lead at the double file restart; Jeff Gordon used the opportunity to follow him through on the inside to get past Denny Hamlin for second, and a few laps later found he had the track position and raw speed to force his way past the #18 as well to take the lead, although Busch fought back and the position see-sawed between the two over the next few laps.

But there was trouble brewing elsewhere on track. Ryan Newman had survived his earlier collision with Juan Montoya with no ill effects and was running a strong eighth position, but he was coming up on the back of Montoya who was two laps down. And Montoya was looking for some payback: sure enough on lap 236 he was able to send the #39 spinning around and into the wall, where he promptly collected a hapless Kurt Busch as well and brought out the third caution of the evening.

“He finished our day off later in the race, on purpose,” said Newman. “I’d say right now it probably isn’t a good time for either of us to talk.”

Denny Hamlin spoke up instead with his view of the situation: “Every time Montoya has damage, you see who did it, they usually end up getting wrecked. You usually know that’s coming, ” he said. “Montoya, I like him, I think he’s a hell of a driver, but you can’t wreck everyone every time you get in an accident. Accidents happen. Guys make mistakes. Why hold grudges? Makes it tough to get in the Chase, too.”

More pit stops, more changes: Jeff Gordon was twiddling with his track bar again, Kyle Busch was making multiple adjustments, but Hamlin only required minor attention and duly got the better pit stop and emerged in front to lead at the restart, followed by Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon, Martin Truex Jr. and Clint Bowyer. Further back, the restart ironically lined up Montoya and Newman side-by-side, but NASCAR made their annoyance with the simmering grudge match known and told Montoya to run clean for the rest of the night or he would be disqualified altogether.

Kyle jumped the restart and had to slow up, which presented Martin Truex Jr. with the opportunity to get past and surge from fourth place into the lead for the first time in the race. But the race was about to turn rather scrappy, with first a collision between Landon Cassill and Marcos Ambrose that Ambrose was lucky to save, and then a clash between Jimmie Johnson and Joey Logano that Logano wasn’t able to save, the #20 sent spinning into contact with the wall that brought out the fourth yellow on lap 255. At least it finally gave Tony Stewart the opportunity he needed to claim the lucky dog and get back on the lead lap at long last.

Matt Kenseth and David Reutimann opted not to take to pit road and duly led the field at the restart, but the race almost immediately went back to yellow after Casey Mears spun in turn 1. The next restart attempt still had Kenseth in the top spot, followed by Kasey Kahne, Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. with Reutimann down to fifth this time and clearly struggling with the older tyres.

The green lasted only nine laps this time before Brad Keselowski and Landon Cassill got together in turn 2. Keselowski was turned around but kept it off the wall, but the sixth caution had already been declared. A number of cars including Dale Earnhardt Jr., David Reutimann, Ryan Newman, Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle, Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart opted to pit at this point, leaving Hamlin at the head of the field leading Truex Jr., Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Kasey Kahne to the restart.

Despite being very friendly as team mates, there was no love lost between Hamlin and Busch as they bumped and tussled side-by-side over the lead until Kyle finally got his way and reclaimed the top spot, and any response from Hamlin was postponed by the seventh caution which was for another spin and a stall by Keselowski; a couple of laps previously there had also been a multi-car clash between David Reutimann, Kurt Busch and Marcos Ambrose that had left Kurt with a nasty tyre rub that needed attention.

The leaders hit pit road leaving Carl Edwards minding the store at the front ahead of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Burton, David Ragan and A.J. Allmendinger. But it proved to be a messy restart, the front getting bunched up and breaking out four-wide and inevitably the confusion had a knock-on effect through the field: with everyone running so close, a multi-car accident was just begging to happen and on lap 300 it duly occurred.

Jeff Gordon was the biggest loser in the ensuing wreck: he got spun and hit the wall hard after Clint Bowyer got into Matt Kenseth’s right rear, which sent Kenseth loose and into Gordon. Menard, Reutimann, Martin, Bobby Labonte and Jamie McMurray all sustained varying levels of damage from the accident; Gordon’s only comment over the radio was “Oh ****, that hurt,” adding later: “It definitely got my attention. That is for sure. It rang my bell.

“It knocked the wind out of me,” added Gordon, ruing the fact that he’d found one of the rare points of the track lacking a SAFER barrier to cushion the blow. “I just saw the corner through my mirror, a car come into my left rear, and around I went in a hurry. I was hoping that I spun quick enough that I wasn’t going to spin to the inside wall. And then I hit really, really hard.”

Gordon was out of the race, while the others involved all limped to pit road for running repairs. Jeff Burton stayed out and led Dale Earnhardt Jr., Greg Biffle, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin away at the restart on lap 313. The drivers would have been forgiven for expecting at least one further caution on the horizon after such a stop-start period in the race, but in fact they had seen their last yellow flag of the evening and the race now ran uninterrupted to the chequered flag. That wasn’t entirely great news, because it meant almost everyone was very marginal on fuel, or just plain short.

Earnhardt Jr. squandered the restart opportunity by spinning his tyres, giving Kyle a free pass into second and from there able to go to the outside to best Jeff Burton as well and reclaim the lead. Burton was no match for Hamlin or Truex Jr. either and promptly dropped back to fourth. Everything now was coming down to fuel: Greg Biffle climbed up to third but would have to make another visit to pit lane as would Burton and Earnhardt Jr., while Kyle Busch was said to be “iffy”. The best-placed drivers seemed to be Denny Hamlin and Kasey Kahne who were said to be good to reach lap 399-400 – and just hoped there wouldn’t be any problems in the final laps extending the race distance through green/white checkered conditions.

Martin Truex Jr. was still in with a chance of making it all the way to the end, but then it all went pear-shaped for the #56 when he found he had a tyre going down on lap 371 and had to come into pit lane anyway; worse, he exited with a missing lugnut and got black flagged to come back in, which ended up with him three laps off the lead and his race irretrievably wrecked.

Kyle had a 1.7s advantage over his team mate with 20 to go, and while Hamlin started to cut into that lead it was the #11’s pit chief Mike Ford that came on the road cautioning his man to save fuel or risk not making it to the finish. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was evidence of how costly this could be, when as predicted he came in for a late pit stop on lap 390 and dropped out of the top ten and two laps off the lead, down to 19th place by the chequered flag.

Everyone held their breath as the cars took the white flag and started their final lap: but there was to be no last minute shocks of cars stuttering to a halt. Everyone left on track now had enough to make that last revolution, and Kyle had enough left in the tank to stop Hamlin from threatening – although not, it turned out, enough to carry out his traditional post-race burn-outs after taking the chequered flag. “We were late to the celebration,” admitted Busch after having to get a push into victory lane, but otherwise was delighted with how it had gone: “This is pretty awesome!”

“We knew pretty early on, [Kyle] was going to be tough,” said Hamlin. “It’s tough when you share notebooks. You know those guys have got exactly what you got.” Hamlin gave it his all in his effort to make it a double-win weekend after his success in Friday’s Nationwide race, but admitted “It’s all we had. My plan was to really conserve the first part of the last run and let him go out there and run. I was going to just kind of sit back and wait and save my tyres [but] when I tried to make a run, I didn’t have the grip I needed to close in enough.”

The win is a great early birthday present for Kyle, who turns 26 on Monday. He won this race in 2009 and 2010 making this a hattrick of Crown Royal Presents 400 victories, and also makes him only the second driver (alongside Kevin Harvick) to win more than one race in 2011. It’s Kyle’s 21st Sprint Cup series victory in total, and Joe Gibbs Racing’s 90th; and Busch’s number of laps led so far this year (719) is now over twice that of any of his rivals. The win also helps boost him back up to third in the championship, after a difficult outing at Talladega saw him involved in a crash that resulted in him slumping to sixth in the points.

But Carl Edwards still leads the Sprint Cup series after bouncing back from a sluggish start to claim fifth place. “We were hoping we were in the right position there,” he said afterwards. “We had fuel. I thought those guys were going to run out. I didn’t think they would be able to make it but that is the way it goes. We are still leading the points and we have stretched it out a little bit which is great.”

Another driver to stick with it after a dispiriting first half was Jimmie Johnson, down to 30th after clashing with Edwards early on but ending up finishing back on the lead lap in eighth thanks to that messy mid-race period of multiple cautions. “We got a good finish out of it but it was a long, long night,” he said. “Hats off to the team for not giving up, for sticking with it and staying after it. We got the car semi-competitive and then finally got some strategy and finally got back on the lead lap and we went from there. So a frustrating night but a good points night.”

Tony Stewart was another driver to bounceback and finish on the lead lap, but his frustration was evident. “We couldn’t make our car turn for anything. I mean, we have a lot of work to do right now,” he said. “We suck right now. I am embarrassed about how bad our stuff is.” Despite that, Stewart is up two places in the points in tenth position.

Kasey Kahne was more upbeat after finishing in a strong third place – his best since switching to Red Bull Racing – despite recent surgery to his right knee. “It’s actually a little bit tight, a bit swelled up maybe. But other than that, it feels fine. I never thought about it once throughout the race.”

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Juan Montoya was quick to get away from the track as soon as possible without talking to the media, while Ryan Newman was heading for the Sprint Cup officials’ mobile offices to discuss what had happened between himself and the Colombian. He wanted to know “just how to deal with things,” he said going in, and afterwards confirmed “I got a few answers … I’m not really sure the direction it’s going to go, but I got a few answers.”

We wait to see how those answers will play out between them on the track when NASCAR hits Darlington Raceway for another Saturday evening event, the Showtime Southern 500 on May 7.

Race results

PO ST  CAR DRIVER              ENGINE     PTS   LAPS
1  20  18  Kyle Busch          Toyota     48/5  400  3:08:55.000s
2  11  11  Denny Hamlin        Toyota     43/1  400  + 1.805s
3  4   4   Kasey Kahne         Toyota     42/1  400  + 11.066s
4  27  6   David Ragan         Ford       40/0  400  + 11.371s
5  8   99  Carl Edwards        Ford       40/1  400  + 16.379s
6  3   33  Clint Bowyer        Chevrolet  39/1  400  + 19.716s
7  18  43  A.J. Allmendinger   Ford       37/0  400  + 21.771s
8  30  48  Jimmie Johnson      Chevrolet  36/0  400  + 22.715s
9  31  14  Tony Stewart        Chevrolet  35/0  400  + 23.416s
10 37  83  Brian Vickers       Toyota     34/0  399  + 1 lap
11 9   20  Joey Logano         Toyota     33/0  399  + 1 lap
12 12  29  Kevin Harvick       Chevrolet  32/0  399  + 1 lap
13 29  36  Dave Blaney         Chevrolet  31/0  399  + 1 lap
14 5   5   Mark Martin         Chevrolet  30/0  399  + 1 lap
15 23  16  Greg Biffle         Ford       29/0  399  + 1 lap
16 25  31  Jeff Burton         Chevrolet  29/1  399  + 1 lap
17 2   78  Regan Smith         Chevrolet  27/0  399  + 1 lap
18 17  1   Jamie McMurray      Chevrolet  26/0  399  + 1 lap
19 24  88  Dale Earnhardt Jr.  Chevrolet  25/0  398  + 2 laps
20 13  39  Ryan Newman         Chevrolet  24/0  398  + 2 laps
21 33  17  Matt Kenseth        Ford       24/1  398  + 2 laps
22 36  22  Kurt Busch          Dodge      22/0  397  + 3 laps
23 35  9   Marcos Ambrose      Ford       21/0  397  + 3 laps
24 14  47  Bobby Labonte       Toyota     20/0  397  + 3 laps
25 39  34  David Gilliland     Ford       19/0  397  + 3 laps
26 41  71  Andy Lally *        Ford       18/0  397  + 3 laps
27 21  56  Martin Truex Jr.    Toyota     18/1  397  + 3 laps
28 15  13  Casey Mears         Toyota     16/0  396  + 4 laps
29 1   42  Juan Montoya        Chevrolet  16/1  395  + 5 laps
30 28  38  Travis Kvapil       Ford       0     395  + 5 laps
31 19  00  David Reutimann     Toyota     13/0  395  + 5 laps
32 38  32  Ken Schrader        Ford       12/0  394  + 6 laps
33 43  37  Tony Raines         Ford       11/0  393  + 7 laps
34 16  30  David Stremme       Chevrolet  10/0  393  + 7 laps
35 42  7   Robby Gordon        Dodge      9/0   393  + 7 laps
36 7   2   Brad Keselowski     Dodge      8/0   388  + 12 laps
37 10  27  Paul Menard         Chevrolet  7/0   385  + 15 laps
38 34  09  Landon Cassill      Chevrolet  0     360  + 40 laps
39 6   24  Jeff Gordon         Chevrolet  6/1   300  Accident
40 22  66  Michael McDowell    Toyota     4/0   134  Electrical
41 32  60  Mike Skinner        Toyota     0     61   Rear Gear
42 26  87  Joe Nemechek        Toyota     0     40   Brakes
43 40  46  J.J. Yeley          Chevrolet  1/0   38   Electrical

Sprint Cup standings after race 9

POS +/-  DRIVER                 PTS  GAP     ST  P  W  T5  T10
1   --   Carl Edwards           335  Leader  9   2  1  5   7
2   --   Jimmie Johnson         326  -9      9   0  1  4   6
3   +3   Kyle Busch             305  -30     9   0  2  5   6
4   -1   Dale Earnhardt Jr.     301  -34     9   1  0  2   5
5   -1   Kevin Harvick          300  -35     9   0  2  4   5
6   -1   Kurt Busch             289  -46     9   0  0  1   5
7   +3   Clint Bowyer           284  -51     9   0  0  2   5
8   -1   Ryan Newman            277  -58     9   0  0  3   4
9   -1   Matt Kenseth           276  -59     9   1  1  3   4
10  +2   Tony Stewart           275  -60     9   0  0  1   3
11  +4   A.J. Allmendinger      263  -72     9   0  0  0   2
12  -3   Juan Montoya           262  -73     9   2  0  2   4
====== CHASE FOR THE Sprint CUP - CURRENT CONTENDERS =======
13  +1   Mark Martin            256  -79     9   0  0  0   3
14  +2   Greg Biffle            250  -85     9   0  0  1   3
15  -4   Paul Menard            249  -86     9   0  0  2   3
16  -3   Jeff Gordon            240  -95     9   1  1  3   3
17  --   Denny Hamlin           238  -97     9   0  0  1   2
18  --   Kasey Kahne            236  -99     9   0  0  1   4
19  +1   David Ragan            231  -104    9   1  0  1   3
20  +2   Jeff Burton            214  -121    9   0  0  0   0
21  +3   Joey Logano            212  -123    9   0  0  0   1
22  -3   Martin Truex Jr.       210  -125    9   0  0  0   1
23  -2   Marcos Ambrose         209  -126    9   0  0  1   2
24  -1   Jamie McMurray         207  -128    9   1  0  0   1
25  --   Bobby Labonte          198  -137    9   0  0  1   1
26  +2   Brian Vickers          189  -146    9   0  0  0   3
27  -1   David Reutimann        187  -148    9   0  0  0   0
28  -1   Brad Keselowski        179  -156    9   0  0  0   0
29  +1   Regan Smith            169  -166    9   0  0  0   1
30  -1   David Gilliland        168  -167    9   0  0  1   2
31  --   Robby Gordon           137  -198    9   0  0  0   0
32  +1   Dave Blaney            136  -199    9   0  0  0   0
33  -1   Casey Mears            132  -203    8   0  0  0   0
34  +1   Andy Lally*            116  -219    8   0  0  0   0
35  -1   Bill Elliott           100  -235    5   0  0  0   0
36  --   Tony Raines            92   -243    7   0  0  0   0
37  --   Ken Schrader           56   -279    4   0  0  0   0
38  --   Terry Labonte          40   -295    2   0  0  0   0
39  +1   Michael McDowell       29   -306    7   0  0  0   0
40  -1   J.J. Yeley             27   -308    8   0  0  0   0
41  --   Michael Waltrip        20   -315    2   0  0  0   0
42  --   David Stremme          10   -325    1   0  0  0   0
43  -1   Brian Keselowski*      3    -332    1   0  0  0   0
44  -1   Steve Park             2    -333    1   0  0  0   0
45  -1   Trevor Bayne           0    -335    8   0  1  1   1
46  -1   Steve Wallace          0    -335    1   0  0  0   0
47  --   Mike Skinner           0    -335    5   0  0  0   0
48  -2   Landon Cassill         0    -335    8   0  0  0   0
49  -1   Travis Kvapil          0    -335    8   0  0  0   0
50  -1   Hermie Sadler          0    -335    1   0  0  0   0
51  +1   David Starr            0    -335    1   0  0  0   0
52  -1   Dennis Setzer          0    -335    1   0  0  0   0
53  -3   Robert Richardson Jr.  0    -335    1   0  0  0   0
54  -1   Joe Nemechek           0    -335    9   0  0  0   0
55  -1   Todd Bodine            0    -335    1   0  0  0   0
56  -1   Kevin Conway           0    -335    1   0  0  0   0
57  -1   Derrike Cope           0    -335    0   0  0  0   0

Kevin Harvick staged a second consecutive ambush victory in a row to win at Martinsville – but this time his last-minute victim was fan favourite Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Kevin Harvick sealed his reputation as the best “closer” in the Sprint Cup series by staging his second race win snatch-and-grab in a row in the final laps at Martinsville. But he could well have become the most hated man in Virginia that night as a result, as his win came at the expense of crowd favourite Dale Earnhardt Jr.

The half mile oval is the shortest circuit on the NASCAR Sprint Cup calendar, and with 43 cars on it the feeling is one of claustrophobia as you doubt how these cars can manage to get around without crashing into each other. Obviously the short answer is that they can’t, but hey can still get underway without an IndyCar St Pete-style crash fest.

Polesitter Jamie McMurray led the field to the green flag and got the race underway, making a great start and soon pulling out a 2s lead that meant by lap 20 he was already coming up to lap the back of the pack. That had major implications for Matt Kenseth, who had been seen to move lanes before crossing the start line in a rush to get to the coveted inside line. That was a major no-no, and the drive-thru penalty put him a lap down. Once McMurray and the leaders started to lap the tailenders, Kenseth’s chances for a lucky dog free pass faded and he was to spend the next 100 laps off the lead lap as a result. One of the first to go a lap down was Joe Nemechek, who promptly then retired with brake issues.

The early laps were strong for Jimmie Johnson who was soon in the top ten from 17th on the grid. Less happy was Kevin Harvick, who was complaining of a loose car and fervently hoping for an early caution – as was the leader McMurray, whose car was also going loose causing him to relinquish the lead to Kasey Kahne on lap 32. Kahne’s lead was brief before first Ryan Newman and then Denny Hamlin took over in front, while McMurray continued to fall further back: on lap 50 the top five consisted of Hamlin, Newman, Kahne, Johnson and Kyle Busch.

The first caution finally came out on lap 52 when David Gilliland picked up a flat tyre. Jimmie Johnson had a terrific pit stop and took the lead ahead of Newman, Kyle Busch and Hamlin, while the news was less good for Robby Gordon (sent to the back of the field for a commitment line violation) and Brian Vickers (drive-thru for speeding) while Carl Edwards was also facing a tough day ahead when he reported that his power steering was failing. At this point it also seemed like a struggle ahead Kevin Harvick back in 20th, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 16th.

Johnson led from the restart on lap 61 through to lap 78 when he was finally ousted by Kyle Busch, who led until the second caution on lap 107 when Dave Blaney cut a tyre and hit the wall in turn 4. Johnson was once again (somewhat atypically) the fastest car on pit road and resumed the race in the lead ahead of Kyle, Hamlin, David Reutimann and Clint Bowyer.

Kyle struggled to get back to the inside line at the restart and subsequently dropped positions to Hamlin – who went on to take the lead from Johnson – and Bowyer, but it was a short green flag stint before Marcos Ambrose spun and made hard contact into the wall on lap 25 bringing out the third caution. The leaders opted not to pit under the caution (although further back Trevor Bayne took to the garage for a punctured radiator) and resumed in the same order as before, but Clint Bowyer made the best start and blew past Hamlin for the lead on lap 134.

Poor Dave Blaney was once again the cause for a yellow flag on lap 174 with another flat tyre putting him into the wall; to add insult to impact, he was also penalised two laps for deliberately stopping on track to trigger the caution when in fact he could have made it back to pit road. At this point Bowyer had still been in the lead, but Kyle Busch had just taken over from Jimmie Johnson for second – but the pit stops once again put Johnson back to the head of the field in front of Kyle, Bowyer, McMurray and Hamlin.

The next green flag stint lasted only a little over 20 laps, but was certainly eventful: Kyle Busch got bumped out of line by Jamie McMurray and dropped to sixth; Tony Stewart got up too high and nearly ended up skating over the loose tyre rubber marbles into the wall on lap 190; and Mark Martin went a lap down from a drive-thru penalty after being judged to have switched lanes before the start/finish line in an echo of Truex Jr.’s race tart misdemeanour. By the time Hermie Sadler went into the wall at turn 3 on lap 203, Johnson had a 2s lead again over Bowyer, Hamlin and McMurray.

This time Johnson’s luck with pit stops deserted him and he fell back to eighth after a slow service, leaving Bowyer in charge at the front. Bowyer had opted for two tyres only, a gambit shared by both Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Juan Montoya who took the restart second and third accordingly ahead of Hamlin and Kyle Busch. Kyle’s brother Kurt was in need of the lucky dog free pass at this point, while Mark Martin opted to stay out of pit road in order to receive a wave-around to similarly get back on the lead lap.

The racing had only just resumed when the most serious accident of the afternoon occurred: he throttle stuck open on the #56 of Martin Truex Jr., and the car suddenly took off into a fearsomely hard impact against the wall, catching Kasey Kahne en route and ending up in a ball of flame erupting from the wrecked car. Remarkably Truex was soon up and about and checking on Kahne despite his car being wrecked – a testament to the effectiveness of the SAFER barrier. However, the clean-up of the debris and fluids required a lot of work, and so the race had to be red flagged for almost 25 minutes.

The intermission inevitably put the drivers out of rhythm, and not surprisingly there were two quick cautions in succession when racing resumed. The seventh yellow was triggered on lap 231 when Kurt Busch got a tap and was sent onto the infield kerbing, and in fighting for control he could not help but make contact with Bobby Labonte causing major damage. With the field still very closely packed, this sparked chaos behind them as drivers worked to avoid the accident – Joey Logano, Robby Gordon and Dave Blaney were among those caught up, and Kevin Harvick’s #29 was also damaged after hitting Brian Vickers.

The restart barely lasted a lap before Paul Menard spun after getting a bump off Brad Keselowski; Menard collected Michael McDowell and Casey Mears going into the corner, although damage to all the cars involved appeared mercifully light, although Menard’s car would start smoking soon after the restart and was black-flagged shortly afterwards.

Finally on lap 247, Clint Bowyer led Juan Montoya, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. to the restart for an extended green flag run. Gordon made a push for the lead but was seen off by Bowyer; needing to get back to the inside line he received no help at all from his team mate Earnhardt Jr. who bumped him out of the way and sent him back down to eighth place, where he started to complain that the car was feeling very loose. Ironically, Clint Bowyer was finding his own car too tight and he lost the lead to Denny Hamlin on lap 260.

Gordon’s slump didn’t last long and as the green flag run wore on and approached pit stop time, he had bounced back to third behind Hamlin and Kyle Busch. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was paying the price for the earlier two tyre stop and was down in ninth, while Jimmie Johnson had dropped out of the top ten after overheating problems.

As the green flag pit stops commenced, the race narrowly avoided two cautions: once on lap 297 when Casey Mears had a tyre go down and sustained damage to the rear of the car when he hit the wall; and again lap 322 when Brad Keselowski slammed the wall in turn 4 and struggled to get to pit road at the same time Clint Bowyer was coming in for his scheduled stop.

When it comes to green flag pit stops, few can hold a candle to Kyle Busch who has the art of in- and out-laps down to a fine art that would make even F1 drivers envious: after the stops cycled through he was in the lead, and by a whopping 4s over Denny Hamlin with Bowyer, Gordon and McMurray rounding out the top five, and only 11 cars now remaining on the lead lap.

A caution did come out shortly afterwards on lap 351 after Trevor Bayne cut a tyre and deliberately caused a yellow after being unable to get to pit road – meaning he got handed a one lap penalty for the infringement. The leaders took to pit road, giving 14 cars the opportunity to take the wave-around; however, Jamie McMurray’s pit stop ended in frustration with a lugnut problem forcing him back into pit lane next time around, which put him to the back of the lead lap as the race went green again on lap 359.

Ryan Newman had already dropped back with an engine problem and feared he was blowing up, when he then had a tyre go down sending him into a spin on lap 370 bringing out the tenth caution of the afternoon just after Jeff Gordon had taken the lead from Kyle Busch. The leaders stayed out, with ninth placed Dale Earnhardt Jr. the first of those coming in for a full four-tyres and fuel stop, which included Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards, Ryan Newman, Jamie McMurray, Mark Martin and Kurt Busch. As a result, Earnhardt was back out on track in his original position, a small triumphant masterstroke from his new crew chief Steve Letarte.

Gordon led the restart but was soon passed by Kyle Busch, with Hamlin and Johnson right behind as the race reached the 100-to-go marker. But the real danger seemed to be emerging further back as Kevin Harvick started to slice through the field, climbing four places to fifth in the course of 20 laps. The long green flag stint suited Busch and Johnson, but was also a threat to them as the absence of any further cautions would almost certainly mean they didn’t have enough fuel to get to the end – unlike Harvick and Earnhardt Jr. who had made that cunning extra stop on lap 372.

Sure enough, Denny Hamlin running in fifth place was forced onto pit road on lap 458 for his final service; and it proved the worst case scenario for him, because shortly afterwards – and before any of his chief rivals followed him onto pit road – the 11th and final caution of the afternoon came out as Ragan Smith spun and hit the wall. After the leaders all came in for their pit stops under caution, and Hamlin duly was one of those to receive the wave-around, the #11 was none the less mired down in 13th place at the restart.

And disaster also hit Jimmie Johnson, after he was penalised for speeding in the pit lane and given a drive-thru that put him back out on the track at the back of the lead lap, immediately behind Hamlin. Johnson was incensed and insisted that he was absolutely, categorically not speeding and that NASCAR had made a huge mistake: “There is just no way. There is just no way. It won’t do me any good to have a conversation, it isn’t going to matter. I guess I just can’t attack pit road like I know I can and like I did every single time before this.”

It was only a day later that a cooler Johnson was able to admit that actually the mistake had been his after all. “The comments I made in the race, and Chad [Knaus, Johnson’s pit crew chief] made, and the comments following the race were made without all the information. And the fact of the matter was, we were wrong,” he later said. “I was misinformed, and was referring to a segment where we could not get busted in. I thought that’s where we were busted. And at the end of the day, that wasn’t the thing we got in trouble on.”

Two of the biggest threats for the race win had been effectively ruled out, which left the front of the field consisting of Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth and Juan Montoya. Dale saw his chance: on lap 480 he bumped Kyle Busch’s rear bumper into turn 2 and unsettled the #18 enough to allow him to force his way through and take the lead. Harvick would also pass Busch half a dozen laps later, and then set his sights on chasing down Dale Jr. who was gunning for the chequered flag with everything he had.

Slow traffic helped Harvick pull right up to the rear bumper of the #88, and then when Earnhardt got loose out of turn 4 with four laps to go. It was enough to put Harvick alongside, and after that there was nothing Earnhardt could do to stop the closer from taking the lead, to the dismay of a highly partial pro-Earnhardt crowd.

“I was catching [Dale] and I’m like, ‘Man, I’m going to be the bad guy here!'” Harvick said of those final laps. “But I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do,” he said, adding: “I’m not going to back down.”

“We had the opportunity there to win a race, and I’m disappointed that I didn’t get the job done,” Earnhardt admitted. “It’ll probably bother me more and more as the night goes on. I’ll probably think about it a million times, what I could have done differently.”

In truth, Harvick simply had the faster car and had seen off everyone else, so Dale should not be too downhearted and not being able to stop “the closer” either. It’s still one of his best races in the last two years and his best finish since he was second in the 2010 Daytona 500.

Kyle Busch held on to third place, philosophically admitting that his car simply didn’t have the pace to see off Harvick over a short run. Despite once more claiming the bonus points for most laps led, he was again unable to seal the deal for the race itself – but third place is nonetheless his best finish at Martinsville and he is the only driver to have top-fives in four of the first six races of the 2011 Sprint Cup season.

Unsurprisingly, then, this consistency puts him at the top of the Sprint Cup points standings, 5pts ahead of Carl Edwards who wrestled his power steering-afflicted #99 to 18th place.

Race results

1. #29 Kevin Harvick Chevrolet 3:32:41.000s Running (47/4 pts)
2. #88 Dale Earnhardt Jr. Chevrolet + 0.727s Running (43/1 pts)
3. #18 Kyle Busch Toyota + 0.741s Running (43/2 pts)
4. #42 Juan Montoya Chevrolet + 2.370s Running (40/0 pts)
5. #24 Jeff Gordon Chevrolet + 3.214s Running (40/1 pts)
6. #17 Matt Kenseth Ford + 3.503s Running (38/0 pts)
7. #1 Jamie McMurray Chevrolet + 4.832s Running (38/1 pts)
8. #6 David Ragan Ford + 5.507s Running (36/0 pts)
9. #33 Clint Bowyer Chevrolet + 6.036s Running (36/1 pts)
10. #5 Mark Martin Chevrolet + 6.251s Running (34/0 pts)
11. #48 Jimmie Johnson Chevrolet + 6.918s Running (34/1 pts)
12. #11 Denny Hamlin Toyota + 9.717s Running (33/1 pts)
13. #20 Joey Logano Toyota + 1 lap Running (31/0 pts)
14. #43 A.J. Allmendinger Ford + 1 lap Running (31/1 pts)
15. #00 David Reutimann Toyota + 1 lap Running (29/0 pts)
16. #22 Kurt Busch Dodge + 1 lap Running (28/0 pts)
17. #83 Brian Vickers Toyota + 1 lap Running (27/0 pts)
18. #99 Carl Edwards Ford + 1 lap Running (27/1 pts)
19. #2 Brad Keselowski Dodge + 2 laps Running (25/0 pts)
20. #39 Ryan Newman Chevrolet + 2 laps Running (25/1 pts)
21. #16 Greg Biffle Ford + 2 laps Running (23/0 pts)
22. #32 Ken Schrader Ford + 3 laps Running (22/0 pts)
23. #7 Robby Gordon Dodge + 3 laps Running (21/0 pts)
24. #31 Jeff Burton Chevrolet + 5 laps Running (20/0 pts)
25. #37 Tony Raines Ford + 7 laps Running (19/0 pts)
26. #09 Landon Cassill Chevrolet + 7 laps Running (0pts)
27. #47 Bobby Labonte Toyota + 11 laps Running (17/0 pts)
28. #71 Hermie Sadler Chevrolet + 12 laps Running (0pts)
29. #9 Marcos Ambrose Ford + 13 laps Running (15/0 pts)
30. #36 Dave Blaney Chevrolet + 14 laps Running (14/0 pts)
31. #78 Regan Smith Chevrolet + 24 laps Running (13/0 pts)
32. #66 Michael McDowell Toyota + 30 laps Running (12/0 pts)
33. #34 David Gilliland Ford + 32 laps Running (11/0 pts)
34. #14 Tony Stewart Chevrolet + 38 laps Running (10/0 pts)
35. #21 Trevor Bayne Ford + 40 laps Running (0pts)
36. #13 Casey Mears Toyota + 43 laps Running (8/0 pts)
37. #38 Travis Kvapil Ford after 443 laps Drive Shaft (0pts)
38. #27 Paul Menard Chevrolet after 261 laps Overheating (6/0 pts)
39. #4 Kasey Kahne Toyota after 219 laps Accident (6/1 pts)
40. #56 Martin Truex Jr. Toyota after 219 laps Accident (4/0 pts)
41. #46 J.J. Yeley Chevrolet after 33 laps Brakes (3/0 pts)
42. #60 Mike Skinner Toyota after 31 laps Brakes (0pts)
43. #87 Joe Nemechek Toyota after 25 laps Brakes (0pts)

Kyle Busch dominated the race – right until the moment that Kevin Harvick came out of nowhere and led just one lap out of 200 at Fontana. The only one he needed to claim the his first race win of 2011.

If you think California is non-stop sunshine, then think again – the Golden State has been going through some very “interesting” weather of late, including a thorough soaking by rain storm after rain storm in the week leading up to the Auto Club 400 at Fontana. That delayed track activities on Friday as NASCAR soaked up some troublesome “weepers” (problems with track drainage) on the two mile oval, and ended up with Kyle Busch wrecking on the wet track and forcing him to take to a back-up car for the rest of the weekend.

Fortunately by 3pm on race day the weather was behaving, if hardly outstanding. Under leaden skies and with temperatures in the mid-50s Fahrenheit, Juan Montoya led the field to the green flag in his first top ten start of the season so far alongside Denny Hamlin. Behind them, Kyle Busch was immediately feeling racy coming off his latest Nationwide series race win the day before, and moved up from eighth on the grid to tuck into third ahead of David Ragan after pushing Denny Hamlin hard for second. Further back, Daytona winner Trevor Bayne survived an early scare when he brushed the wall and left a lot of his paintwork on the safety barrier in the process, while Tony Raines’ race hopes went up in smoke very early.

Hamlin soon declared his intentions to lead and eventually passed Montoya on lap 7, with Kyle Busch then passing the Colombian on lap 12 leaving the #42 to do battle with the #31 of Jeff Burton for third. Kyle briefly took the lead from his team mate Denny Hamlin on lap 20, the two of them passing the lead back and forth through to the first round of pit stops commencing on lap 33.

By lap 37 the pit stops had cycled through and Kyle was back out in clean air; there had been no real dramas and everyone had gone for four tyres. Jimmie Johnson had gone for a chassis adjustment as well which had slowed his stop down a little, since after initially climbing up into the top ten at the start of the race he had fallen back over the subsequent laps and clearly felt the car lacked that vital edge so far.

Busch and Hamlin had pulled away in front from Brian Vickers and Martin Truex Jr. – a good, solid run from Vickers for almost the first time since his return to the sport after an enforced year off for heart surgery. And as the green flag stint wore on, Busch only got stronger and started to pull away even from Hamlin, achieving an almost 5s lead by lap 50; there was a 15s margin between first place and tenth (Matt Kenseth), and 30 cars remained on the lead lap with Robby Gordon the first car a lap down.

The race was still green as the next round of pit stops came up from lap 68, surpassing the track record for green flag running. Despite having an impressive lead at this point Kyle was still thinking hard and asking for a track bar adjustment and small air change from the team. But at least he was broadly happy with the #18; Greg Biffle, by contrast, hated everything about his #16 as he settled for a chassis adjustment, while Hamlin was complaining that the changes made in the last pit stop had gone too far and needed scaling back, having lost second place on track to Truex Jr. Truex himself said his #56 was loose but that was fine and he didn’t want any changes – shortly afterwards he would even declare that he was in love with his car right now.

The pit stops had just cycled through when the first yellow came out on lap 75 for debris in turn 3, which saved the blushes of Jeff Burton who was about to be put a lap down by Kyle at the time. Almost all of the field bar Tony Stewart took the chance to put again – Vickers overshooting his own pit box in the process – and at the restart Stewart led Ryan Newman, Mark Martin (who had taken just two tyres during the stop) and Kyle Busch to the green flag on lap 80.

Newman quickly dispatched Stewart for the lead and managed to hold off Kyle’s attempt to get back on front, but on lap 89 Tony Stewart was finding his feet and blew past both Newman and Busch to retake the lead, sounding positively ecstatic in his pit communications with the team about the state of the #14 an the decision to stay out. Of course it didn’t last, and Busch was back in front on lap 93 and Stewart started to fade after that, clearly in need of a quick caution to get him back into sync on tyres.

It looked as though Denny Hamlin might be the cause of that caution: as early as lap 83 he was slowing up and on the radio telling the team something was seriously wrong with the #11’s engine. He traded gauge readings with the pit crew as they attempted to trouble shoot via radio, and eventually the diagnosis came down that they needed to change out the ignition switch at the earliest opportunity. All the while, Hamlin had fallen back to 27th and last on the lead lap, but at least he was still going – even if he, too, desperately needed a yellow as soon as possible.

Stewart and Hamlin’s wish came true on lap 103 when David Gilliland hit the wall, bringing out the second caution of the afternoon. After everyone had pitted, Kyle Busch was in the lead ahead of Brian Vickers, Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart, so the risky strategy had paid off for Stewart and he was now back in sync. Alas, there was no such good news for Hamlin, who headed for the garage for the #11 to be tended to … and never came back out again. “It’s in the motor, it’s smoking now,” crew chief Mick Ford gloomily announced. “It looks like the thing is burned up. There’s smoke coming up out of the air box.”

“Obviously it was another engine failure,” said Hamlin, agreeing that it was “disappointing, for sure.” The ¢11 team has needed to change engines twice before races this season (Daytona and Las Vegas) but their decision not to do so again here cost them a good race showing and points to a more serious problem with engines at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Back on track, Kyle found Tony Stewart the main threat as racing got under way again. Smoke was quickly up into second and pressing hard but not quite good enough to beat Rowdy just yet. Vickers and Newman contested third and fourth while behind them Kevin Harvick had risen unnoticed to fifth place. Further back, the lower top ten positions were being fought over by the likes of Clint Bowyer, Paul Menard (who had gambled on a two tyre strategy last stop), Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Juan Montoya, Carl Edwards and a much happier Greg Biffle.

The track was still green when the cars started to come in for their next pit stops on lap 138. Kyle had a characteristically flawless pit stop and emerged 6.3s ahead of Stewart in the lead; Stewart set about closing the gap, but it was all looking rather like a done deal at this point. Surely no one could stop Kyle from climbing back to back victories?

But Kyle knows as well as anyone that the first three quarters of the race are merely prelude: as the lap counter ticked over 150, he was determined to keep up the pace and stop anyone getting too close to mount a major threat in the closing laps. Someone like Jimmie Johnson, who was ominously up to fourth place now. Busch and Johnson were soon the fastest cars on the track, and emphatically the men to beat this afternoon.

The final round of pit stops commenced on lap 167 with Kenseth who had been running in sixth. Busch, Stewart and Johnson were in next time around, and in seemed that the cooler conditions as the afternoon turned into early evening were causing Kyle to fret. He complained that the car was tight and needed a chassis adjustment, whereas Johnson couldn’t have been happier and described the #48 as free and fast and needing only the requisite tyres and fuel to be good to go – for once, no pit stop fumbles blighting his day.

But Kyle’s pit stop had also been flawless and fast and he was once again back out in front when the third yellow of the day came out on lap 172 for a spin by Andy Lally. It was not what Kyle wanted to see – the huge lead he had eked out over the course of the last 64 laps evaporated instantly as the pack closed up once again. Moreover, the other drivers – Stewart, Johnson, Harvick in fourth and Bowyer in fifth – all knew that this restart could be their one and only chance to strike and topple Busch. They couldn’t do it – Kyle once again stretched out a lead, although for his part he found he found Stewart and Johnson starting to reel him back in. When finally Busch did start to break away it was Johnson who was best able to stay with him even as they started to drop Stewart, Harvick, Bowyer and Newman.

But the race was interrupted one final time by a caution, on lap 186 when Bobby Labonte hit the wall at turn 2, the #47 even subsequently catching fire as Labonte tried to bring it back to pit road. That delayed the opening of pit road, and with only ten laps left in the race the six leaders all decided that the right call was to stay out – while Matt Kenseth from seventh led others to pit lane in pursuit of the critical edge offered by a couple of fresh, sticky new tyres.

The green came out on lap 191. Kyle still had the speed to see off Johnson, who was right on his rear bumper, while Stewart’s pace was shot and he plunged out of the top ten to be replaced in the top three by his team mate Ryan Newman.

It seemed to be all about Kyle and Jimmie: Jimmie went low but Kyle was too fast on the outside; Jimmie tried again and on lap 198 made the pass stick. He was actually going to steal the win: sure, Matt Kenseth was on fresher tyres and thundering toward them, but surely he was too far back to make it by the chequered flag. And if Kenseth couldn’t make it, then – well, there was no one else who had displayed anything like the raw speed required to upset Johnson’s day, surely? Okay, Kevin Harvick was suddenly popping up into third and closing fast, but …

The chequered flag came out, and the race was won. Only – it wasn’t Johnson who crossed the finish line first. Instead, a penultimate-lap near-contact with the wall for Kyle Busch had given Kevin Harvick an opening to floor it and claim second – and somehow the move had taken on a life and momentum all its own, putting him right onto the back bumper of Johnson. He gave the lightest, tenderest of rubs to the #48 which made Johnson just that little bit too fast for his liking into the final turns 3 and 4 – and Harvick blasted past on the outside line to the chequered flag. It left an awful lot of puzzled faces who hadn’t seen that one coming: less “whodunnit” than “howthehellhedunnit”.

“I was really nervous about that last call – staying out – but it all worked out in our favor, and we were able to make up ground,” said Harvick. “The more laps we got on our tires, the better we were.”

Johnson lamented not being able to pass Busch a lap or two sooner, which would have made all the difference. “[Then] I would have had enough of a margin to hold off the #29, but he was rolling on the top,” Johnson said. “I did all I could. I was dead sideways. I think I hit the fence one time off of 2.”

But the most disappointed man at the end had to be Kyle Busch, who had led a whopping 151 of the 200 laps and lost to a driver who had led only one lap the entire day. “Just real, real unfortunate and frustrating and disappointing all in one that we weren’t able to seal the deal today,” said Busch afterwards. “You ask a little bit more from your race car at the last moments, [but] it doesn’t have anything left to give. You’re essentially a sitting duck waiting for those guys to drive by you. Couldn’t get any more out of the car. That was it.”

Harvick’s win makes him the fifth winner of a 2011 Sprint Cup so far (alongside Trevor Bayne, Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch) and restores him into the top 12 “Chase” positions, nicely getting his championship back on track as well after a rather subdued start to the 2011 season after ending 2010 so strongly and narrowly missing out on beating Johnson to the title.

It really just proved how much you have to watch the quiet ones. They’re always the most dangerous when it comes down to the wire…

Race results

1. #29 Kevin Harvick Chevrolet 2h 40m 08s (47/1 pts)
2. #48 Jimmie Johnson Chevrolet + 0.144 (43/1 pts)
3. #18 Kyle Busch Toyota + 1.158 (43/2 pts)
4. #17 Matt Kenseth Ford + 1.358 (40/0 pts)
5. #39 Ryan Newman Chevrolet + 2.066 (40/1 pts)
6. #99 Carl Edwards Ford + 3.084 (38/0 pts)
7. #33 Clint Bowyer Chevrolet + 3.774 (38/1 pts)
8. #83 Brian Vickers Toyota + 4.009 (36/0 pts)
9. #4 Kasey Kahne Toyota + 4.097 (35/0 pts)
10. #42 Juan Montoya Chevrolet + 5.284 (35/1 pts)
11. #16 Greg Biffle Ford + 5.397 (33/0 pts)
12. #88 Dale Earnhardt Jr. Chevrolet + 5.408 (32/0 pts)
13. #14 Tony Stewart Chevrolet + 5.586 (32/1 pts)
14. #43 A.J. Allmendinger Ford + 6.245 (30/0 pts)
15. #31 Jeff Burton Chevrolet + 6.610 (29/0 pts)
16. #27 Paul Menard Chevrolet + 7.117 (28/0 pts)
17. #22 Kurt Busch Dodge + 7.339 (27/0 pts)
18. #24 Jeff Gordon Chevrolet + 7.472 (26/0 pts)
19. #00 David Reutimann Toyota + 7.639 (25/0 pts)
20. #5 Mark Martin Chevrolet + 7.903 (24/0 pts)
21. #56 Martin Truex Jr. Toyota + 7.966 (24/1 pts)
22. #6 David Ragan Ford + 8.153 (22/0 pts)
23. #1 Jamie McMurray Chevrolet + 10.654 (21/0 pts)
24. #09 Landon Cassill Chevrolet + 13.485 (0pts)
25. #20 Joey Logano Toyota + 33.172 (19/0 pts)
26. #2 Brad Keselowski Dodge + 1 Lap (18/0 pts)
27. #78 Regan Smith Chevrolet + 1 Lap (17/0 pts)
28. #9 Marcos Ambrose Ford + 2 Laps (16/0 pts)
29. #13 Casey Mears Toyota + 2 Laps (15/0 pts)
30. #21 Trevor Bayne Ford + 2 Laps (0pts)
31. #34 David Gilliland Ford + 2 Laps (13/0 pts)
32. #71 Andy Lally * Chevrolet + 2 Laps (12/0 pts)
33. #32 Ken Schrader Ford + 3 Laps (11/0 pts)
34. #7 Robby Gordon Dodge + 3 Laps (10/0 pts)
35. #38 Travis Kvapil Ford + 4 Laps (0pts)
36. #37 Tony Raines Ford + 10 Laps (8/0 pts)
37. #36 Dave Blaney Chevrolet + 12 Laps Out of Race (7/0 pts)
38. #47 Bobby Labonte Toyota + 18 Laps Running (6/0 pts)
39. #11 Denny Hamlin Toyota + 95 Laps Out of Race (6/1 pts)
40. #60 Todd Bodine Toyota + 150 Laps In Pit (0pts)
41. #46 J.J. Yeley Chevrolet + 153 Laps Out of Race (4/1 pts)
42. #87 Joe Nemechek Toyota + 161 Laps In Pit (0pts)
43. #66 Michael McDowell Toyota + 168 Laps Out of Race (1/0 pts)

Sprint Cup standings

POS +/-  DRIVER                 PTS  GAP     ST  P  W  T5  T10
1   +1   Carl Edwards           187  Leader  5   2  1  3   4
2   +2   Ryan Newman            178  -9      5   0  0  3   4
3   -2   Kurt Busch             177  -10     5   0  0  1   4
4   +2   Kyle Busch             176  -11     5   0  1  3   4
5   +2   Jimmie Johnson         173  -14     5   0  0  3   3
6   -3   Tony Stewart           170  -17     5   0  0  1   2
7   -2   Paul Menard            164  -23     5   0  0  1   2
8   --   Juan Montoya           161  -26     5   1  0  1   3
9   +6   Kevin Harvick          157  -30     5   0  1  2   3
10  +3   Matt Kenseth           157  -30     5   1  0  2   2
11  +1   Kasey Kahne            157  -30     5   0  0  0   3
12  -3   Dale Earnhardt Jr.     156  -31     5   1  0  0   2
======== CHASE FOR THE SPRINT CUP ==========================
13  -3   Martin Truex Jr.       147  -40     5   0  0  0   1
14  -3   Mark Martin            147  -40     5   0  0  0   1
15  +1   A.J. Allmendinger      137  -50     5   0  0  0   1
16  +3   Jeff Gordon            130  -57     5   0  1  1   1
17  +7   Clint Bowyer           122  -65     5   0  0  0   1
18  --   Marcos Ambrose         121  -66     5   0  0  1   1
19  -5   Bobby Labonte          121  -66     5   0  0  1   1
20  +3   Greg Biffle            119  -68     5   0  0  0   1
21  -4   Denny Hamlin           112  -75     5   0  0  0   1
22  -2   David Ragan            111  -76     5   0  0  0   0
23  -2   Brad Keselowski        107  -80     5   0  0  0   0
24  +7   Brian Vickers          105  -82     5   0  0  0   2
25  +4   Jeff Burton            103  -84     5   0  0  0   0
26  -4   David Gilliland        101  -86     5   0  0  1   1
27  +1   David Reutimann        100  -87     5   0  0  0   0
28  -2   Jamie McMurray         97   -90     5   0  0  0   0
29  +1   Joey Logano            93   -94     5   0  0  0   0
30  -3   Regan Smith            92   -95     5   0  0  0   1
31  -6   Bill Elliott           82   -105    4   0  0  0   0
32  --   Robby Gordon           69   -118    5   0  0  0   0
33  --   Casey Mears            67   -120    4   0  0  0   0
34  +1   Andy Lally*            61   -126    5   0  0  0   0
35  -1   Dave Blaney            58   -129    5   0  0  0   0
36  --   Tony Raines            52   -135    4   0  0  0   0
37  --   Terry Labonte          30   -157    1   0  0  0   0
38  --   J.J. Yeley             20   -167    5   0  0  0   0
39  +12  Ken Schrader           11   -176    1   0  0  0   0
40  -1   Michael McDowell       9    -178    4   0  0  0   0
41  -1   Dennis Setzer          6    -181    1   0  0  0   0
42  -1   Michael Waltrip        4    -183    1   0  0  0   0
43  -1   Brian Keselowski*      3    -184    1   0  0  0   0
44  -1   Trevor Bayne           0    -187    5   0  1  1   1
45  -1   Steve Wallace          0    -187    1   0  0  0   0
46  -1   Mike Skinner           0    -187    2   0  0  0   0
47  --   Landon Cassill         0    -187    4   0  0  0   0
48  -2   Travis Kvapil          0    -187    5   0  0  0   0
49  -1   Robert Richardson Jr.  0    -187    1   0  0  0   0
50  -1   Joe Nemechek           0    -187    5   0  0  0   0
51  +2   Todd Bodine            0    -187    1   0  0  0   0
52  -2   Derrike Cope(i)        0    -187    0   0  0  0   0
53  -1   Kevin Conway(i)        0    -187    0   0  0  0   0

Kurt Busch won NASCAR’s 2011 curtain-raiser event after Denny Hamlin was penalised for crossing the line and Carl Edwards and Dale Earnhardt Jr. crashed out early on.

Kurt Busch won NASCAR’s first event of the season, the annual invitation-only Budwesier Shootout at the Daytona International Speedway – but only after Denny Hamlin had crossed the finish line in first place and then been black-flagged by NASCAR officials.

Dale Earnhardt Jr had drawn the pole position for the Shootout ahead of Tony Steward, Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin, with Kurt Busch starting relatively far down in 17th. Earnhardt got a good start but it was Clint Bowyer making the best getaway of all the front-runners, taking the lead from 7th spot before pairing up with the #88 to continue running at the front as the field started to work out that two cars were better than one when it came to drafting on the newly repaved Daytona track.

Denny Hamlin was soon seeking a drafting partner of his own, first trying Kasey Kahne out for size but the #4 Red Bull abruptly faed from contention with an engine problem and headed to the pits on lap 7, leaving Hamlin to knock on Tony Stewart’s door to allow the pair to run third and fourth.

The status quo at the front did not last for much longer. Jimmie Johnson, Kurt and Kyle Busch and Jeff Burton were all on the move to the front, and it was Burton who surged into the lead, working with Tony Stewart and briefly boosting the #14 into the lead as well before Dale Earnhardt Jr hooked up with Kyle Busch (of all people) to return to the lead on lap 17. Kyle decided he wanted a turn in front too and led for four laps before Jeff Burton once again took charge into the first yellow of the day at lap 25, a scheduled caution that allowed all the cars to come in for some adjustments and to take a short break before the final 50-lap sprint to the end.

When racing resumed after a ten minute hiatus, Burton led Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson to the green flag – but racing did not last long, as the old idiom “cautions breed cautions” was proven once more.

Carl Edwards went for a particularly aggressive strategy at the restart and paid for it in a big way, initially getting turned by contact with the #78 of Regan Smith that sent him into a major accident with crowd favourite Dale Earnhardt Jr. and spinning it into the wall. With all the cars still tightly packed form the restart, it was inevitable that the wreck would catch out others as well – and Joey Logano, Juan Montoya and Kevin Conway all got collected. Jimmie Johnson also sustained right-side damage, but at least his pit crew were able to fix it up and get him back out on the road.

“We were three- or four-wide back there and I was going between the #88 and the #78, and I don’t think the #78 knew I was in there,” explained Edwards. “He kept coming down, and I just had enough of my car in there. I laid up against the #88 and then the #78 got me in the right-front.”

The race ran under yellow for seven laps before restarting on lap 34, but once again there was a rapid yellow – this time caused by a collision between Mark Martin and Kyle Busch on lap 36 which sent them both to the pits. Although Kyle thought the damage was minimal at first, he pulled in again on lap 42 and headed for the garage, his day done.

The race went green again, and the most effective drafting pair initially proved to be between the leader Jeff Burton and Kevin Harvick, while behind them Kurt Busch hooked up with Jamie McMurray and Jimmie Johnson paired up with Greg Biffle to provide the strongest challenges.

Johnson and Biffle had taken over the lead when the fourth caution came out for a solo accident by Michael Waltrip, who got loose and found the wall on lap 48. It was only a brief yellow before racing resumed on lap 50, 25 to go, with just 14 cars remaining on track out of the initial 24-strong field.

The lead continued to change around as drafting pairs came together, tried out, then went their separate ways. Burton lost the support of Harvick who slumped back to eighth place, but was joined instead by Clint Bowyer as he, Johnson (still with Biffle) and Kurt Busch (with amie McMurray) alternated in the lead. Denny Hamlin was also running fast and up at the front but was in need of a drafting partner, which finally materialised in the form of Ryan Newman as the race entered its final dozen laps.

Newman hit the lead with Hamlin’s help, and proved remarkably resilient in that top spot and would not be shifted for ten of the last 12 laps. The race finally saw a four-car breakaway at the front, with Newman and Hamlin leading Busch and McMurray and the foursome as a whole more than 2s ahead of the rest, and it all came down to the final two laps and who had the best on-track strategy to pass his partner and the rival pairing and get to that chequered flag first.

Busch and McMurrary continued to act together, McMurray pushing Kurt all the way to the finish, but Hamlin decided to go solo and broke away from Newman, cutting underneath him on a low line through the final turn and claiming the chequered flag by inches from the others. But it proved to be a Pyrrhic victory, because cutting so low and dipping under the yellow line is a strict no-no at Daytona, and Hamli was inevitably penalised for the infraction which put him to the back of the lead lap – all the way down to 12th, handing Kurt Busch the win.

Hamlin said afterwards that he took the move deliberately on safety grounds. “That yellow line is there to protect us and the fans in the stands, and I just chose to take the safer route,.

“A win in the Shootout is not worth sending the #39 [Newman] through the grandstands,” he said, adding that he was sure that if “I got into his left rear, that car will go airborne.”

Overall, the Budweiser Shootout offers valuable data to the drivers and teams on how to tackle the newly-repaved Daytona International Speedway aead of the start of the Sprint Cup season here next weekend, with two-car drafting proved to be very much the new order of the day rather than the old style of multi-car packs running in big groups, only for cars to drop back dramatically once the drafting pair separate to allow the pushing vehicle to get some air into its radiator.

“What an unbelievable experience, this two-car draft,” said the victorious Kurt Busch. “I had no idea what to expect going in. I was just going to take it one lap at a time and see how it played out.”

“It’s completely different plate racing than we’ve ever had,” agreed his drafting ‘team mate’ for the night, Jamie McMurray. “I hope it was exciting for the fans to watch. But from the driver’s seat, it was actually really exciting to push two-by-two and do the side draft.”

The Shootout was as much about auditioning dance partners for next week’s race as it was about the day’s racing and prize money in its own right. Kurt Busch and McMurray, and Harvick and Burton were both effective double acts, and remarkably so were the odd couple of Earnhardt Jr. and Kyle Busch, although Dale was later heard saying that the #18 “jacks my car around like he has Velcro on that thing.”

The Shootout marks the start of a week-long series of events at the venue, including the Gatorade Duel on Thursday and all the practice and qualifying sessions for the Daytona 500, the traditional curtain-raiser to the NASCAR Sprint Cup season and regarded as the most important and prestigious race of the entire year, not to mention the one carrying the most prize money.

The Daytona 500 is on Sunday, February 20 from 1pm local time.

Shootout results

FIN ST  CAR  DRIVER             LAPS  STATUS
1   17  22   Kurt Busch         75    
2   14  1    Jamie McMurray     75    
3   8   39   Ryan Newman        75    
4   23  48   Jimmie Johnson     75    
5   11  16   Greg Biffle        75    
6   12  24   Jeff Gordon        75    
7   18  29   Kevin Harvick      75    
8   15  31   Jeff Burton        75    
9   7   33   Clint Bowyer       75    
10  6   47   Bobby Labonte      75    
11  2   14   Tony Stewart       75    
12  4   11   Denny Hamlin       75    
13  19  17   Matt Kenseth       74    
14  9   64   Derrike Cope       73    
15  10  115  Michael Waltrip    47    Accident
16  21  18   Kyle Busch         41    Accident
17  20  5    Mark Martin        36    Accident
18  22  20   Joey Logano        27    Accident
19  1   88   Dale Earnhardt Jr. 27    Accident
20  13  42   Juan Montoya       27    Accident
21  3   99   Carl Edwards       27    Accident
22  24  78   Regan Smith        27    Accident
23  16  97   Kevin Conway       26    Accident
24  5   4    Kasey Kahne        7     Engine

Thirty five races over ten and a half months, and coming into the final race the outcome of the 2010 Sprint Cup Championship was still too close to call. Denny Hamlin led in points, but Jimmie Johnson was close behind and then there was Kevin Harvick looking to pull off a dark horse victory. Three remaining contenders, one last race: it would prove to be quite literally a case of whoever made the least mistakes.

Kasey Kahne brought the field round to the green flag, his first pole position since his mid-season switch to the Red Bull team following his abrupt departure from Richard Petty Motorsports. But there would be no fairy tale ending to the season for Kahne, and he lost the lead after just four laps to Carl Edwards who was already looking in strong and possibly unbeatable form.

But in truth, all eyes were on the Sprint Cup contenders: Jimmie Johnson quickly moved into the top five and was soon battling AJ Allmendinger for third place which he finally achieved on lap 12, while Denny Hamlin was up nine spot into 28th after just four laps of running and Harvick was making slower but stead progress through the midfield.

David Reutimann was having less joy, hitting the wall on lap 12 but able to keep running that time only to make a return visit on lap 17 which brought out the first yellow of the afternoon and gave the drivers a chance for an early visit to pit road for some fine-tuning. Allmendinger beat Johnson out of pit road, so at the restart the three Cup rivals were 4th, 15th and 18th for Johnson, Harvick and Hamlin respectively.

But the next restart was to change the entire outlook of the Sprint Cup showdown: Hamlin made contact with the rear of the #16 of Greg Biffle on lap 23 and was sent spinning into the infield grass area. Hamlin was on the radio, howling about Biffle having moved down on him, but the replays clearly showed that it had been Hamlin who had shot up the track coming out of the corner, clipping the back of Biffle’s car with his front right nose which was now looking a mess. More importantly the front splitter was affected by the impact and the run through the grass: Hamlin’s pit crew immediately got to work on it, and Hamlin’s pit chief Mike Ford was reassuring everyone that they had overcome worse, but the plain truth was that the car’s handling had been permanently and adversely affected. Despite multiple goes at correcting the damage over ensuing pit stops, the #11 would handle loose for the rest of the day.

But there still seemed to be reason to hope for Hamlin, as he quickly made up 15 spots and improved to 22nd after the restart. Meanwhile Jimmie Johnson was up in fourth place, easily enough to overtake Hamlin’s slender points advantage and claim the title. By lap 50, there were still 38 cars on the lead lap and despite posting ever-faster laps, Johnson had been bested for fourth by Martin Truex Jr., but that was fine given that Harvick was fighting with Matt Kenseth for 11th and Hamlin was making the low side work for him in his efforts to take 17th from Clint Bowyer.

Green flag pit stops were looming, but Denny Hamlin had a more pressing problem with a tyre going down that forced him in early on lap 66. Carl Edwards pitted on schedule on lap 70, which allowed Jimmie Johnson to take the lead for a lap – giving him a possibly vital 5pts for doing so – before he too came in. After the pit stops cycled through it was Martin Truex Jr.who emerged in the lead followed by Edwards, with Harvick having cracked the top ten in ninth and Denny Hamlin having made it up to 16th place; but Jimmie Johnson’s pit stop had been a terrible 15s affair that had dropped him down several spots and now meant he was only just in front of Harvick. Suddenly the tension levels were cranked way up.

The next yellow came on lap 98 for debris, allowing the cars back on to pit road which meant Hamlin’s crew could have another crack at that front splitter. Johnson had no better luck with his pit stop this time around and emerged in 10th spot, don three, while Harvick was now up two positions to sixth and getting a nice push from Kyle Busch into fifth place at the restart. Meanwhile Hamlin was still outside the top ten, and after running in 16th he then started to lose positions and fell back to 19th.

Truex Jr had emerged from the pit stops still in the lead but the #56 didn’t seem as strong in this stint and he lost the lead to Edwards, and second to Jamie McMurray who was even strong enough to challenge Edwards for the lead as racing resumed. Edwards was able to hold him off, and by lap 112 he had opened out a 1.26s lead over the rest.

Johnson was working his way back from the disappointing pit stop and was fighting Kyle Busch over seventh position, but Kyle was obstinate as ever and refused to yield. Even so, Johnson was happy enough with the car and was conferring with his pit chief Chad Knaus over the next set of adjustments they could run on the #48.

Despite complaining that his car was too tight, Martin Truex Jr. was proving unbeatably fast and on lap 129 he retook the lead from Carl Edwards, before Marcos Ambrose went for a spin on lap 135 to bring out the fourth caution of the day and spark the next round of yellow flag pit stops. Hamlin’s crew got to work on the #11’s splitter once more while Johnson’s crew decided against any adjustments – Knaus telling his driver to adjust his line instead – and benefited from a good stop for once putting him back up four spots in 4th place, just behind Harvick in third. The restart didn’t last long before Joey Logano got pitched into a spin by Juan Montoya, which saw the #20 take on a lot of damage. Logano would be in the garage for the next 40 laps.

That brief green period had been enough for Carl Edwards to just edge out Truex Jr. for the lead. When the green came out again on lap 143; Johnson was soon overtaken by McMurray and Ryan Newman and dropped to seventh, while Harvick lost third place to Kyle Busch and Hamlin was up to 15th, a situation that would give Johnson the title by 18pts. Up front, Edwards again lost the lead to Truex after four laps and continued up front until the next yellow on lap 164 which was sparked by a spin from Kevin Conway.

Truex had a slow stop and lost three spots, so it was Edwards, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick who formed the top three at the restart, while Jimmie Johnson had another over-15s stop that dumped him out of the top ten for the restart and right alongside Denny Hamlin. The two were among a series of battles and three-wides that saw Johnson end up down in 12th and Hamlin finally in the top ten, taking ninth from Aric Almirola on lap 170: he was back in the points lead for the title at last.

Truex recovered from his poor pit stop and was back up in second behind Edwards hen the seventh yellow of that afternoon came out, for debris on the track. For once, Johnson got a decent pit stop and was out quickly, but it was Harvick who initially appeared to have had the best of it as he gained two spots and took the lead of the race. But then NASCAR decreed that he had done so by speeding in the pit lane, and he was handed a drive-thru penalty that put him to the back of the lead lap – and he even lost the points for leading the lap under yellow. Harvick was outraged, pointing out that “I don’t know how you can be speeding when you’re on the bumper in front of you if the other guy is not speeding,” adding: “I don’t think that penalty will ever settle in my stomach.”

To add physical injury to the emotional one, he had even managed to clip the rear tyre-changer working on Kasey Kahne’s car on the pit pox ahead as he’d exited, leaving the crew member needing to be removed by medical staff with suspected injuries to the right lower leg and ankle.

The track went green and then yellow again almost immediately as Dave Blaney hit the wall, and a still-fuming Harvick was alone in coming in for new tyres since he was at the back anyway. The track went green again on lap 198 but again it didn’t last long: first Martin Truex Jr had a tyre go down sending him plummeting through the pack, and then seconds later Jeff Gordon blew an engine which finally brought out the ninth yellow of the day, during which Joey Logano – now back out on track – indulged himself in a helping of revenge by targeting the #42 car of the man who had spun him out originally, Juan Montoya.

Denny Hamlin missed the call to pit, which saw him take the restart battling for ninth with Kevin Harvick; the start-stop sequence of cautions had proved a big help for Jimmie Johnson, who was now back up battling for third place with Kyle Busch with Edwards leading Matt Kenseth. Johnson finally dispatched Busch and then got into second place thanks to an assist from Tony Stewart, but by lap 220 Edwards had a 2.58s lead and his tally of 150 laps led was enough to clinch the extra bonus points. Still, second place was just fine with Jimmie now that Harvick had been neutralised by the speeding penalty and Hamlin was continuing to suffer from handling problems thanks to that damaged splitter – it was all shaking out just fine for the reigning champion.

The pit call Hamlin missed had seemed innocuous, but it was about to prove the final nail in his championship hopes: Hamlin was in slightly early on lap 238, still under green, for his final pit stop of the day. If Hamlin had made that late top-up then he might have stretched this stint to lap 243 when there was the tenth and final caution of the afternoon while the pit stops were cycling through, resulting in Hamlin finding himself a lap down under the yellow.

The caution was for collision involving Kevin Harvick: Kyle Busch had just passed him for 14th coming out of the turn, but then misjudged how far ahead of the #29 he actually was and slid up to the outside line right in front of Harvick, who was still accelerating out of the turn. As a result, Harvick hit the rear of the #18 and sent Busch spinning toward the inside wall nose-first, causing heavy damage. While just about still under power, the car was crabbing all over the place as Kyle tried to drive it back to the pits.

But the damage was worse than even Kyle realised: although the inside of the car was filling with smoke, he was seemingly unaware that the rear and underside of the car were now engulfed in a raging fire from broken oil lines, as he continued to try and coax the car back to pit road. His crew were quickly on the radio to yell “You gotta get out of it! You gotta get out of it, man!” at him and there was rising anxiety until Kyle realised the danger, parked and then struggled to climb out in the smoke, helped by one of the NASCAR personnel from the fire truck that was quickly on scene.

The seven cars yet to pit were able to do so, but Hamlin lost the option of coming in for fresh tyres if he wanted the wave-around that would put him back on the lead lap. He opted for the latter which meant that he restarted in 18th and then dropped three spots to those on fresher rubber – it had all gone miserably wrong, and unless he got a move on he wouldn’t even retain second place in the championship over Harvick.

Up front, Edwards had the lead – and Johnson was nicely tucked into second place, the two of them breaking away from Harvick in third place. Jimmie had done everything required of him, and overcome still more pit lane glitches, to put the car exactly where he needed it to be. With no further accidents or cautions before the chequered flag, the podium positions were decided – Edwards led Johnson and Harvick over the finish line.

Where was Hamlin? The title was beyond him now, but he still gave it everything he had to gain enough positions to keep hold of the runners-up position. Finally he managed to pass the #21 of Bill Elliott for 14th position with seven laps to go, and that sealed the deal – he edged out Harvick in the championship by just 2pts. It was poor compensation for the driver who had hoped to put an end to Johnson’s record-breaking run of consecutive championships, but it was at least something.

And that was it. Carl Edwards had won back-to-back victories and celebrated with back-to-back back-flips, while Johnson basked in making NASCAR history. “Pretty damn awesome, I can tell you that,” he said when asked how it felt. “I’ve always told you guys that the first championship – first win – that stuff has meant the most to me,” said Johnson. “This one, I think this takes the lead,” he said, not least because of how tough the battle had been right down to the wire.

Johnson’s ever-loyal pit chief Chad Knaus led the praise for the champion whom he described as “a fantastic driver who really has not got the praise that he deserves,” explaining: “No disrespect to any of our elders or whatever you want to call them – the guys that raced back in the day, the Earnhardts, the Waltrips, the Pearsons, the guys like that; you hear a lot of what they say about the tenacity of those drivers and how aggressive they were and how they could do things with the race car that nobody else could do. I think if you really sat back and looked at what this guy can do with a race car, you would be pretty impressed.”

The Johnson-Knaus partnership has been together since Johnson’s first full Cup season in 2002 and as well as their five Cup victories they can also boast 51 race wins – results only bettered by Richard Petty’s pairing with Dale Inman. In the series’ 62 seasons, Johnson is the only driver to win five consecutive titles and only the third driver in its history to win five or more in their career – Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt each won seven. Johnson won his fifth championship in his ninth full-time season, while Petty’s fifth came in his 16th season and Earnhardt in his 13th. In his Sprint Cup career to date, Johnson has never finished outside the top five at the end of the year.

And naturally, Johnson’s not done yet but is looking at making more history come 2011: “I’m now looking at those marks that the greats have put out there and hopeful to get up there to them,” he said, before sending chills down his rivals’ spines with the words: “We’ll enjoy five for the off season and come back and start working on six next year.”

It takes a brave person to bet against Johnson to do just that. And we’ll start to find out then NASCAR arrives at Daytona in the middle of February for a whole new championship.

Race results

							
FIN ST  CAR  DRIVER              PTS/BNS  LAPS  STATUS
1   2   99   Carl Edwards        195/10   267   
2   6   48   Jimmie Johnson      175/5    267   
3   28  29   Kevin Harvick       165/0    267   
4   24  9    Aric Almirola       160/0    267   
5   5   43   A.J. Allmendinger   155/0    267   
6   1   83   Kasey Kahne         155/5    267   
7   23  39   Ryan Newman         146/0    267   
8   31  14   Tony Stewart        147/5    267   
9   13  17   Matt Kenseth        143/5    267   
10  27  16   Greg Biffle         134/0    267   
11  25  56   Martin Truex Jr.    135/5    267   
12  17  33   Clint Bowyer        127/0    267   
13  18  12   Brad Keselowski     124/0    267   
14  37  11   Denny Hamlin        121/0    267   
15  4   21   Bill Elliott        118/0    267   
16  8   5    Mark Martin         115/0    267   
17  10  78   Regan Smith         112/0    267   
18  15  2    Kurt Busch          109/0    267   
19  16  98   Paul Menard         106/0    267   
20  9   6    David Ragan         103/0    267   
21  3   1    Jamie McMurray      100/0    267   
22  32  09   Bobby Labonte       97/0     267   
23  41  82   Scott Speed         94/0     267   
24  26  77   Sam Hornish Jr.     91/0     267   
25  38  37   David Gilliland     88/0     267   
26  20  47   Marcos Ambrose      85/0     267   
27  22  88   Dale Earnhardt Jr.  82/0     267   
28  12  19   Elliott Sadler      79/0     267   
29  35  71   Andy Lally          76/0     266   
30  42  7    Kevin Conway *      73/0     263   Out Of Fuel
31  14  31   Jeff Burton         75/5     253   
32  33  18   Kyle Busch          67/0     242   Accident
33  34  13   Casey Mears         64/0     233   Transmission
34  39  34   Travis Kvapil       61/0     231   Rear Gear
35  40  42   Juan Montoya        58/0     231   Accident
36  36  38   Dave Blaney         55/0     203   Accident
37  11  24   Jeff Gordon         52/0     199   Engine
38  7   00   David Reutimann     49/0     185   
39  19  20   Joey Logano         46/0     166   Accident
40  43  164  Landon Cassill      43/0     35    Vibration
41  29  87   Joe Nemechek        40/0     29    Transmission
42  21  36   J.J. Yeley          42/5     25    Brakes
43  30  66   Mike Bliss          34/0     10    Electrical
* Denotes Rookie 

Final Sprint Cup Championship standings

POS +/- DRIVER              PTS   BEHIND ST  P  W  T5 T10
1   +1  Jimmie Johnson      6622  Leader 36  2  6  17 23
2   -1  Denny Hamlin        6583  -39    36  2  8  14 18
3   --  Kevin Harvick       6581  -41    36  0  3  16 26
4   --  Carl Edwards        6393  -229   36  3  2  9  19
5   --  Matt Kenseth        6294  -328   36  0  0  6  15
6   +2  Greg Biffle         6247  -375   36  0  2  9  19
7   +2  Tony Stewart        6221  -401   36  2  2  9  17
8   -1  Kyle Busch          6182  -440   36  2  3  10 18
9   -3  Jeff Gordon         6176  -446   36  1  0  11 17
10  +1  Clint Bowyer        6155  -467   36  0  2  7  18
11  -1  Kurt Busch          6142  -480   36  2  2  9  17
12  --  Jeff Burton         6033  -589   36  0  0  6  15

13  --  Mark Martin         4364  -2258  36  1  0  7  11
14  --  Jamie McMurray      4325  -2297  36  4  3  9  12
15  --  Ryan Newman         4302  -2320  36  1  1  4  14
16  --  Joey Logano         4185  -2437  36  1  0  7  16
17  --  Juan Montoya        4118  -2504  36  3  1  6  14
18  --  David Reutimann     4024  -2598  36  0  1  6  9
19  +1  A.J. Allmendinger   3998  -2624  36  1  0  2  8
20  +1  Kasey Kahne         3961  -2661  36  4  0  7  10
21  -2  Dale Earnhardt Jr.  3953  -2669  36  1  0  3  8
22  --  Martin Truex Jr.    3916  -2706  36  1  0  1  7
23  --  Paul Menard         3776  -2846  36  0  0  1  6
24  --  David Ragan         3599  -3023  36  0  0  0  3
25  --  Brad Keselowski     3485  -3137  36  1  0  0  2
26  --  Marcos Ambrose      3422  -3200  36  0  0  2  5
27  --  Elliott Sadler      3234  -3388  36  1  0  0  1
28  +1  Regan Smith         3229  -3393  36  0  0  0  0
29  -1  Sam Hornish Jr.     3214  -3408  36  0  0  0  1
30  --  Scott Speed         3178  -3444  36  0  0  0  2
31  --  Bobby Labonte       2583  -4039  36  0  0  0  0
32  +1  David Gilliland     2445  -4177  32  0  0  0  0
33  -1  Travis Kvapil       2426  -4196  34  0  0  0  0
34  --  Robby Gordon        2028  -4594  27  0  0  1  1
35  --  Kevin Conway*       1830  -4792  28  0  0  0  0
36  --  Casey Mears         1573  -5049  21  0  0  0  0
37  --  Dave Blaney         1416  -5206  29  0  0  0  0
38  +1  Joe Nemechek        1361  -5261  31  0  0  0  0
39  -1  Reed Sorenson       1355  -5267  16  0  0  0  1
40  --  Brian Vickers       1158  -5464  11  0  0  0  3
41  +1  Bill Elliott        1107  -5515  13  0  0  0  0
42  -1  Mike Bliss          1050  -5572  17  0  0  0  2
43  --  Max Papis           907   -5715  18  0  0  0  0
44  +1  J.J. Yeley          891   -5731  17  0  0  0  0
45  -1  Michael McDowell    879   -5743  24  0  0  0  0
46  --  David Stremme       825   -5797  11  0  0  0  0
47  --  Landon Cassill      717   -5905  16  0  0  0  0
48  --  Aric Almirola       704   -5918  9   0  0  1  1
49  --  Tony Raines         534   -6088  9   0  0  0  0
50  --  Patrick Carpentier  474   -6148  6   0  0  0  0
* Denotes Rookie 

Carl Edwards was back in victory lane after a gap of 70 races after making his fuel stretch to the end. Denny Hamlin couldn’t manage to do the same, and loses over half of his Sprint Cup points lead.

If you’re in Avondale, Arizona and the temperature is struggling to reach the mid-70s in the afternoon, you know it’s late in the year. And that means it’s very late in the 2010 Sprint Cup season, with the Kobalt Tools 500 the penultimate race of the year. It was virtually impossible for this race to actually decide this year’s champion, but it could have gone a long way to singling out the favourite to win at next week’s season climax: instead, it did just the opposite.

Polesitter Carl Edwards led the race from the green flag, but there was a quick yellow on lap 2 after a right front tyre blow-out meant Brendan Gaughan introduced the #71 to the wall, and at the restart Kurt Busch proved to have the faster race car and led until Edwards got the top spot back on lap 28, during which time both Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick were making quick work of the midfield and had cracked the top ten after starting 17th and 29th respectively, although Harvick gave the wall a glancing blow in the process. Jimmie Johnson, starting from 21st, was taking things a little more slowly but still knocking on the door by lap 33 as he tussled with Tony Stewart over 11th spot.

There was no sedateness to Hamlin’s determined rise, however, and it was clear that he was on a mission to give himself as much of a Sprint Cup cushion going into the final race as he could by maximising his points here. He was into the top five on lap 30, passed AJ Allmendinger for third on lap 41 and took over second spot from Kurt Busch on lap 52.

Hamlin closed to within a second of Edwards by the time the second caution of the afternoon came out on lap 59, following a blown tyre for Brad Keselowski that led to a hard hit for him against the outer wall. That gave the field the chance to pit under yellow, which was much needed: the ageing surface of the Phoenix International Raceway was really tearing up the tyres, resulting in a 2s drop-off in lap times from the start of a tyre stint to the end, a huge margin on a track with an average qualifying lap in the 27s range. The track is to be resurfaced after the February 2011 Sprint Cup event, but in the meantime the drivers were just relieved to be back on fresh rubber.

At the restart Edwards and Hamlin lined up on the front row followed by Kurt Busch and his brother Kyle on the second (Kyle having had a serious brush against the wall earlier in the race on lap 31) and Martin Truex Jr. just behind. Given that opportunity there was no way that Hamlin wasn’t going to blast away into the lead, leaving Edwards to struggle unsuccessfully to hold onto second spot from Kurt. Hamlin built up a comfortable lead of over two seconds before the next caution on lap 101 for debris, but lost the lead in the ensuring pit stops so that the restart line-up was Edwards, Hamlin, Kurt and Kyle Busch and then Ryan Newman in fifth. But once again, Hamlin’s superior pace at the green flag quickly put matters to rights and he was off into the lead again; but he didn’t have the same pace as before and his pit chief conceded that the half-round down adjustment had been a miscall and needed to be reversed come next stop.

By lap 140 it was still Hamlin in the lead, with Edwards shadowing him in second, then Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart making up the top five and Kevin Harvick staying in touch in eighth. The top four remained unchanged through a sequence of green flag pit stops around lap 170 which had little effect on the key runners, although Kasey Kahne suffered the embarrassment of leaving the pit box with the gas can still inserted into the fuel tank, forcing him to slowly go round a full pap and come back in to have it removed. Johnson’s pit stops were noticeably faster this week following the debacle at Texas, having made the switch of crews between himself and Jeff Gordon a permanent one for the remainder of 2010, but Tony Stewart dropped out and Harvick was promoted into fifth place. That meant that all three Sprint Cup contenders were now running in the top five for the first time that afternoon.

On lap 217 Hamlin formally clinched the bonus points for number of laps led, by which time Kyle had taken over the second spot from Edwards and Jimmie Johnson had been fading, squeezed out of the top five by surges from Harvick and Tony Stewart and under threat from Jeff Burton for sixth when the fourth caution of the afternoon came out on lap 222 for a spin by Robby Gordon.

Kyle got the better pit stop and led the cars to the restart, but then quickly lost out to Hamlin and then failed to hold off Carl Edwards for second before the field went rapidly back to yellow: this time, a spin by Travis Kvapil on lap 233. The top eight declined the lure of pit lane, but Harvick had lost ground in the previous pit stops after having to come back into the pits because of a missing lug nut which put him well down the running order. That gave him the opening to be among those to come in for some fine tuning adjustments on the track bar and more air in the rear tyres that left him down in 16th place, but crucially it meant he could make it all the way to the end of the race even if there were no further cautions; neither Hamlin nor Johnson could safely say the same.

Hamlin again led at the restart on lap 239 and seemed to be having a reasonably comfortable time of it over Edwards; but 20 laps into the green flag stint and Edwards was coming on strong in the higher temperatures of late afternoon and was pulling right up on the tail of Hamlin. Edwards tried move after move down the inside on Hamlin and almost looked to have the pass done, only for Hamlin to emerge faster off the turns and just hold on, until at last on lap 266 Edwards completed the move and took the lead for the fifth time during the afternoon.

Freed up and in clear air, Edwards demonstrated just how much faster he could run than Hamlin by quickly pulling away. With no yellow flags in sight, Hamlin was now worried about the looming need for a quick fuel stop; remarkably, Edwards – despite also not stopping since lap 225 – seemed confident that he could make it all the way on fuel along with those who had pitted ten laps later such as Harvick who was doing all he could to fight his way back up the running order after that lug nut issue. He was held up for a lengthy period behind Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Clint Bowyer who were side-by-side having a fierce battle over 14th position: Bowyer came close to losing the #33 and creating a big wreck with Harvick first in line for damage, but Bowyer held on to it somehow and Harvick could breath again and finally get past and out of danger.

Jimmie Johnson was also clearly in fuel conservation mode and dropping back, hoping to lean out the fuel just enough to get to the end even though it eventually meant turning off the fans and staying off the brakes as much as possible in the final laps as he ran on fumes. There was no such hope for Hamlin, and it was starting to look serious for his Sprint Cup strategy. He desperately sought some sort of caution, and reported debris on track at turn 2 on lap 287 in the hope that it would bring out the yellow flags; but it didn’t. Finally he pulled into pit road on lap 298 for two tyres and fuel, a stop of 7.6s which put him back out on track in 19th spot, a lap down and only a dozen laps to make up for lost ground. It was a big ask, even with so many of those ahead having to nurse their fuel to the line.

With Edwards among those having to stretch their fuel to almost impossible lengths, Hamlin had no difficulty in passing Edwards on lap 301 to get back on the lead lap and was then passing the backmarkers on the lead lap in a desperate attempt to make up positions before the chequered flag came out: on lap 302 he was past AJ Allmendinger for 18th; he gained another place the following lap when Jeff Burton was among those to concede defeat on fuel and take to the pits; and seven laps later Hamlin was passing Dale Earnhardt Jr for 14th.

But the laps were running out: another place was gained when Clint Bowyer had to dive in for a splash and dash on lap 310, and still another the following lap when Juan Montoya ran dry. But that still left Hamlin an achingly distant 12th place as the cars came around the final turn to take the finish, while Johnson’s fuel conservation strategy had left him with 5th just ahead of Harvick in 6th.

“Bad strategy at the end,” said a frustrated Hamlin. “Usually we have the best fuel mileage. That part I don’t understand.” In terms of Sprint Cup points, this was indeed bad for Hamlin, his lead over Johnson cut from 33pts after Texas to just 14pts now, and Harvick also closer if still 46pts back. But it could have been a lot worse, and Hamlin still goes into the final race weekend in the lead in the points.

The celebrations in victory lane were all about Carl Edwards, who celebrated with his trademark backflip off the car just as he had done the previous day when he had also won the Nationwide Series event here: today had been almost exclusively a two-horse battle, and when Hamlin had dropped the ball on fuel it left Carl Edwards the deserving winner after far too long away from the top spot on the podium.

But even as the celebrations went on, everyone’s minds turned to Homestead-Miami in one week’s time, and the realisation that – with the tightest-ever finish to the Sprint Cup in its modern Chase format – for the first time, we genuinely have no idea who is favourite to win out of Hamlin, Johnson and Harvick. So much for Phoenix proving to be a decider; and the NASCAR season finale is all the better for the lack of certainty.

Race results

							
FIN ST  CAR  DRIVER             PTS/BNS LAPS  STATUS
1   1   99   Carl Edwards       190/5   312   
2   19  39   Ryan Newman        170/0   312   
3   10  20   Joey Logano        165/0   312   
4   4   16   Greg Biffle        160/0   312   
5   21  48   Jimmie Johnson     155/0   312   
6   29  29   Kevin Harvick      150/0   312   
7   15  17   Matt Kenseth       151/5   312   
8   28  5    Mark Martin        142/0   312   
9   3   2    Kurt Busch         143/5   312   
10  5   1    Jamie McMurray     134/0   312   
11  22  24   Jeff Gordon        130/0   312   
12  17  11   Denny Hamlin       137/10  312   
13  7   18   Kyle Busch         129/5   312   
14  31  88   Dale Earnhardt Jr. 121/0   312   
15  11  56   Martin Truex Jr.   118/0   312   
16  35  42   Juan Montoya       115/0   312   
17  20  14   Tony Stewart       112/0   312   
18  2   43   A.J. Allmendinger  109/0   312   
19  40  31   Jeff Burton        106/0   312   
20  26  09   Bobby Labonte      108/5   311   
21  14  33   Clint Bowyer       100/0   311   
22  13  47   Marcos Ambrose     97/0    311   
23  8   78   Regan Smith        94/0    311   
24  24  13   Casey Mears        91/0    311   
25  12  6    David Ragan        88/0    310   
26  6   00   David Reutimann    85/0    310   
27  9   9    Aric Almirola      82/0    310   
28  23  19   Elliott Sadler     79/0    310   
29  18  98   Paul Menard        76/0    310   
30  25  83   Kasey Kahne        73/0    310   
31  33  26   J.J. Yeley         70/0    309   
32  16  77   Sam Hornish Jr.    67/0    309   
33  34  7    Robby Gordon       64/0    308   
34  38  38   Travis Kvapil      61/0    308   
35  27  82   Scott Speed        58/0    307   
36  42  34   Tony Raines        55/0    306   
37  32  36   Dave Blaney        52/0    306   
38  37  37   David Gilliland    49/0    274   Brakes
39  36  55   Mike Bliss         46/0    193   Overheating
40  39  164  Landon Cassill     43/0    191   Rear Gear
41  43  81   Terry Labonte      40/0    190   Electrical
42  30  12   Brad Keselowski    37/0    58    Accident
43  41  71   Brendan Gaughan    34/0    1     Accident

Sprint Cup standings

POS +/-  DRIVER              PTS   BEHIND  ST  P  W  T5  T10
1   --   Denny Hamlin        6462  Leader  35  2  8  14  18
2   --   Jimmie Johnson      6447  -15     35  2  6  16  22
3   --   Kevin Harvick       6416  -46     35  0  3  15  25
4   --   Carl Edwards        6198  -264    35  3  1  8   18
5   --   Matt Kenseth        6151  -311    35  0  0  6   14
6   --   Jeff Gordon         6124  -338    35  1  0  11  17
7   --   Kyle Busch          6115  -347    35  2  3  10  18
8   +1   Greg Biffle         6113  -349    35  0  2  9   18
9   -1   Tony Stewart        6074  -388    35  2  2  9   16
10  +1   Kurt Busch          6033  -429    35  2  2  9   17
11  -1   Clint Bowyer        6028  -434    35  0  2  7   18
12  --   Jeff Burton         5958  -504    35  0  0  6   15

13  --   Mark Martin         4249  -2213   35  1  0  7   11
14  --   Jamie McMurray      4225  -2237   35  4  3  9   12
15  --   Ryan Newman         4156  -2306   35  1  1  4   13
16  --   Joey Logano         4139  -2323   35  1  0  7   16
17  --   Juan Montoya        4060  -2402   35  3  1  6   14
18  --   David Reutimann     3975  -2487   35  0  1  6   9
19  --   Dale Earnhardt Jr.  3871  -2591   35  1  0  3   8
20  --   A.J. Allmendinger   3843  -2619   35  1  0  1   7
21  --   Kasey Kahne         3806  -2656   35  3  0  7   9
22  --   Martin Truex Jr.    3781  -2681   35  1  0  1   7
23  --   Paul Menard         3670  -2792   35  0  0  1   6
24  --   David Ragan         3496  -2966   35  0  0  0   3
25  --   Brad Keselowski     3361  -3101   35  1  0  0   2
26  --   Marcos Ambrose      3337  -3125   35  0  0  2   5
27  --   Elliott Sadler      3155  -3307   35  1  0  0   1
28  --   Sam Hornish Jr.     3123  -3339   35  0  0  0   1
29  +1   Regan Smith         3117  -3345   35  0  0  0   0
30  -1   Scott Speed         3084  -3378   35  0  0  0   2
31  --   Bobby Labonte       2486  -3976   35  0  0  0   0
32  +1   Travis Kvapil       2365  -4097   33  0  0  0   0
33  -1   David Gilliland     2357  -4105   31  0  0  0   0
34  --   Robby Gordon        2028  -4434   27  0  0  1   1
35  --   Kevin Conway*       1757  -4705   27  0  0  0   0
36  --   Casey Mears         1509  -4953   20  0  0  0   0
37  +2   Dave Blaney         1361  -5101   28  0  0  0   0
38  -1   Reed Sorenson       1355  -5107   16  0  0  0   1
39  -1   Joe Nemechek        1321  -5141   30  0  0  0   0
40  --   Brian Vickers       1158  -5304   11  0  0  0   3
41  +1   Mike Bliss          1016  -5446   16  0  0  0   2
42  -1   Bill Elliott        989   -5473   12  0  0  0   0
43  --   Max Papis           907   -5555   18  0  0  0   0
44  --   Michael McDowell    879   -5583   24  0  0  0   0
45  +1   J.J. Yeley          849   -5613   16  0  0  0   0
46  -1   David Stremme       825   -5637   11  0  0  0   0
47  --   Landon Cassill      674   -5788   15  0  0  0   0
48  +2   Aric Almirola       544   -5918   8   0  0  0   0
49  -1   Tony Raines         534   -5928   9   0  0  0   0
50  -1   Patrick Carpentier  474   -5988   6   0  0  0   0




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