Posts Tagged ‘jeff gordon’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quite right, too.

Race results

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

* Denotes Rookie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Race results

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

* Denotes Rookie

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 “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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Race results

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

Kurt Busch gained pole position for the Daytona 500 with victory in the first Gatorade Duel, while Jeff Burton emerged victorious in the second race ahead of Clint Bowyer.

Victory over Regan Smith in the first Gatorade Duel on Thursday gave Kurt Busch the Daytona 500 pole position that a practice wreck had cost Dale Earnhardt Jr. the day before.

Jeff Burton won the second Duel to complete, which means the front two rows of the grid will consist of Busch and Jeff Gordon, and then Smith alongside Burton.

The second Duel also saw impressive runs for Michael Waltrip and Brian Keselowski (older brother of NASCAR regular Brad), giving them starting positions for Sunday’s Great American Race.

Duel 1 race report

With Dale Earnhardt Jr. dropping to the back of the field at the start of the first Duel race, as penalty for wrecking his race car in Wednesday’s practice session, it was left to Ryan Newman to lead the cars to the green flag for the first of 60 scheduled laps.

Sadly for Newman, his time at the front was to be short-lived and he was turned into a spin by his Stewart-Haas team mate (and boss) Tony Stewart on lap 2 while they were still trying to sort out the rudiments of figuring out how to work together in the new era of two-car drafting on the new paving of Daytona.

Newman’s spin brought out the first yellow of the afternoon although he managed to keep it off the wall and rejoined the field after pitting for new tyres. After the restart on lap 6, the Duel then ran caution-free for the next 50 laps, practically the full distance of the event.

Mark Martin hooked up with Tony Stewart for the restart and quickly got the better of Paul Menard who had led the field to the green flag. Th two of them pulled out a 1.7s lead and could be heard radioing each other directly, arranging strategy for the race to come. Both cars seemed to have problems with overheating after NASCAR’s on-the-fly changes to limit racing speeds in in temperatures reaching 20C, the highest racing conditions seen at Daytona so far this week. Martin was on the radio expressing his concern about the engine temperature, and Stewart’s car was soon steaming water out of the car, so on lap 13 it was Kevin Harvick who moved to the lead with an assist from Matt Kenseth.

Also forming an effective combination were Kurt Busch and Regan Smith, and by working together they were soon in a position where Busch and Harvick were trading the race lead back and forth. As the race passed the 20 lap mark, it was the turn of Juan Montoya and Kasey Kahne to team up and take a turn up front. The lead was exchanged back and forth between this group of drivers – by the end of the race there would be 21 lead changes on the books, a record for the Duels since the event length was raised from 125 to 150 miles in 2005 that would be quickly topped by Duel 2’s 22 lead changes.

That put the race into pit stop territory, and the majority of the field came in together on lap 39, with most drivers opting to take fuel only, although Tony Stewart wanted some right side tyres to go with the gas. After the pit stops shook out, Matt Kenseth was in the lead followed by his drafting partner Kevin Harvick and then Kasey Kahne and Juan Montoya followed by Regan Smith and Kurt Busch, who looked to be suffering from a worrying increase in engine temperature.

The leaders were having to deal with slower traffic as the race entered its final 5 laps, and Kenseth and Harvick looked set to fight it out between themselves for the race win, when fate intervened in the form of an engine blow-up for Michael McDowell on lap 56 that brought out the second caution of the event. That jumbled up the running order, as drafting partners now found themselves having to take the restart alongside each other rather than running line astern, which confused matters while everyone tried to get themselves into the right position to undertake the remaining two-lap dash to the chequered flag.

The situation played out to the advantage of Kurt Busch and Regan Smith, and Busch held on to the lead over an overheating Smith to claim his second win of the week – a clean sweep of the races he has competed in at Daytona so far in 2011. If he were to win on Sunday, he would become the first driver in NASCAR history to win the Budweiser Shootout, a Gatorade Duel and the 500 in the same year.

On the podium, Busch praised and thanked his drafting partner – “To be in those positions you’ve got to have the right drafting partner and I had that today with Regan Smith” – and also to his team for “a great race car”.

Duel 1 results

1. #22 Kurt Busch Dodge 62 laps
2. #78 Regan Smith Chevrolet 62 laps
3. #29 Kevin Harvick Chevrolet 62 laps
4. #17 Matt Kenseth Ford 62 laps
5. #4 Kasey Kahne Toyota 62 laps
6. #42 Juan Montoya Chevrolet 62 laps
7. #43 A.J. Allmendinger Ford 62 laps
8. #5 Mark Martin Chevrolet 62 laps
9. #27 Paul Menard Chevrolet 62 laps
10. #39 Ryan Newman Chevrolet 62 laps
11. #48 Jimmie Johnson Chevrolet 62 laps
12. #14 Tony Stewart Chevrolet 62 laps
13. #88 Dale Earnhardt Jr. Chevrolet 62 laps
14. #83 Brian Vickers Toyota 62 laps
15. #9 Bill Elliott Chevrolet 62 laps
16. #47 Bobby Labonte Toyota 62 laps
17. #46 J.J. Yeley Chevrolet 62 laps
18. #97 Kevin Conway Toyota 62 laps
19. #87 Joe Nemechek Toyota 62 laps
20. #36 Dave Blaney Chevrolet 62 laps
21. #9 Marcos Ambrose Ford 62 laps
22. #71 Andy Lally Chevrolet 60 laps
23. #66 Michael McDowell Toyota 53 laps
24. #34 David Gilliland Ford 40 laps – Out of Race

Duel 2 race report

Half an hour later and Jeff Gordon was leading rookie Trevor Bayne to the green flag for the start of the second Duel. Gordon tried to organise a hook-up with Bayne, but it didn’t ome together and the two quickly fell out of the top ten.

Instead the lead was picked up by the pairing of Richard Childress Racing team-mates Clint Bowyer and Jeff Burton, with Jamie McMurray moving up to third with the help of Kyle Busch before the first caution of the race came out on lap 3 for a blown engine in Casey Mear’s Toyota.

Racing resumed on lap 6 with the same pairings quickly forming and taking the front four positions. The higher temperatures and speed-sapping regulation changes were having an interesting effect on the field, making it slower to run the outside line and hence resulting in more cars running low lines than had been seen during Saturday’s Shootout.

Kyle Busch briefly took the lead on lap 10, then it was Carl Edwards’ turn on lap 13 with an assist from Greg Biffle, before Jeff Gordon returned to the top spot having finally sorted out the parameters of his drafting deal with Trevor Bayne. Gordon was leading when the second caution of the afternoon came out, triggered by Joey Logano hitting the wall and sliding through the grass on lap 15.

Pit stops duly ensued, with most drivers opting for fuel-only but Martin Truex Jr. one of those to opt for fresh rubber as a side order. Carl Edwards led the restart on lap 20 and Clint Bowyer briefly took over before Jeff Gordon returned to the front on lap 25: Gordon had opted to stick with his drafting arrangement with Bayne and turned down the chance to pair up with Kyle Busch, who was left without a partner and who consequently dropped to the rear of the top ten runners.

The Gordon/Bayne pairing seemed to temporarily lose steam and were usurped at the top by a new combination of Truex and Denny Hamlin on lap 27, but it was a short-lived arrangement and the two managed to become detached and suffered for it with a rapid move down the running order. Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle briefly bubbled to the front, and then it was back to the Jeff Burton/Clint Bowyer pairing before Gordon and Bayne got back in form and returned to the front on lap 37.

The third caution of the afternoon came out shortly afterwards on lap 39 when Brad Keselowski got loose while drafting and slide through the grass, doing minimal damage on the way but sending him to pit road for some running repairs. That changed Brad’s focus from any thought of winning the race and more directed toward working with his older brother Brian and pushing him into a qualifying position in the remaining laps, finally managing to propel him to 5th by the finish.

Racing resumed on lap 43 with Jeff Gordon leading the field to the green flag, neatly managing to time his pull down in front of Trevor Bayne to reconnect the drafting arrangement for the final remaining laps. But it was not enough, and instead it was Edwards and Biffle who took control, battling to stay ahead of Burton/Bowyer – over the radio, Burton could be heard giving detailed heads-up information about his actions to Bowyer and the two were working beautifully together, seemingly biding their time before making a decisive move on the lead.

Further back, Kyle Busch had hooked up with Denny Hamlin but the pairing pushed that little bit too hard and Hamlin was sent into a spin trying to avoid going below the double-yellow boundary line, bringing out the fourth caution of the race on lap 46. Racing resumed on lap 49 with an urgent shuffling to resume draft pair formations, Carl Edwards coming out flying to maintain the top spot with Biffle, but Burton and Bowyer soon applying the pressure to run neck and next for the lead.

With six laps to go, a fifth and final caution came out for a wreck involving Todd Bodine and Steve Wallace – taking Bodine out of the running for a starting spot on Sunday, while Wallace was already locked-in thanks to a deal transferring him the owners’ points from San Hornish Jr’s 2010 campaign. The double-file restart put partners Burton and Bowyer alongside each other at the green flag and the duo had to time their move precisely to resume normal drafting formation without giving Edwards and Biffle the opportunity to slip past the clinch the lead again.

The move was perfection, and Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer were able to open up an unassailable lead over the remanding the laps, Burton then just managing to see off a last minute surge from Bowyer to claim the second Duel victory in a photo-finish.

Further back a number of cars had a last lap wreck: and it was triggered by Jeff Gordon hitting the wall coming out of the final corner, which then caught up a number of cars following close behind that included his rookie drafting partner Trevor Bayne and Roush Fenway’s David Ragan. Gordon’s car will have to be repaired between now and Sunday or else like Earnhardt Jr. he runs the risk of being put to the back of the field for the start of the Daytona 500.

Duel 2 results

1. #31 Jeff Burton Chevrolet 60 laps
2. #33 Clint Bowyer Chevrolet 60 laps
3. #115 Michael Waltrip Toyota 60 laps
4. #18 Kyle Busch Toyota 60 laps
5. #192 Brian Keselowski Dodge 60 laps
6. #1 Jamie McMurray Chevrolet 60 laps
7. #2 Brad Keselowski Dodge 60 laps
8. #11 Denny Hamlin Toyota 60 laps
9. #56 Martin Truex Jr. Toyota 60 laps
10. #99 Carl Edwards Ford 60 laps
11. #0 David Reutimann Toyota 60 laps
12. #24 Jeff Gordon Chevrolet 60 laps
13. #38 Travis Kvapil Ford 60 laps
14. #64 Derrike Cope Toyota 60 laps
15. #16 Greg Biffle Ford 60 laps
16. #37 Robert Richardson Jr. Ford 60 laps
17. #7 Robby Gordon Dodge 60 laps
18. #32 Terry Labonte Ford 60 laps
19. #21 Trevor Bayne Ford 60 laps
20. #6 David Ragan Ford 60 laps
21. #60 Todd Bodine Toyota 54 lapsIn Pit
22. #77 Steve Wallace Toyota 54 lapsIn Pit
23. #20 Joey Logano Toyota 15 lapsRunning
24. #13 Casey Mears Toyota 2 lapsOut of Race

Daytona starting positions

The first Duel set the qualifying order for the inside row/odd-numbered positions of Sunday’s Daytona 500. ordinarily that would have put Kurt Busch in third place for the start, but with polesitter Dale Earnhardt Jr. heading to the back of the field before the green flag after wrecking his main car in Wednesday’s practice, Kurt will now be at the head of the inside row and effectively inherit pole position.

The position bump filters all the way down the field, so Regan Smith, Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth and Kasey Kahne, etc. will be starting from 3rd, 5th, 7th and 9th respectively. Each Duel race also decides the final two qualifiers for the Daytona 500, and in Duel 1 the honours went to Bill Elliott and J.J. Yeley.

In the second Duel, Jeff Burton claimed victory by narrowly beating his team mate Clint Bowyer to the finish line, while Brian Keselowski was propelled through the field to 5th place by his better known younger brother, NASCAR regular Brad.

The second Duel sets the outside row/even-numbered positions, but Jeff Gordon had already secured the head of that row with his performance in the Sunday qualifying session, so that means Burton will start from 4th place with Bowyer, Michael Waltrip and Kyle Busch starting 6th, 8th and 10th respectively.

Waltrip’s strong Duel performance qualifies him for the Daytona 500 in his own right, which frees up one of the two remaining starting slots for Dave Blaney; Brian Keselowski is the other driver to gain a starting spot for the Great American Race following the Duels.

1. #88 Dale Earnhardt Jr. Chevrolet
2. #24 Jeff Gordon Chevrolet
3. #22 Kurt Busch Dodge
4. #31 Jeff Burton Chevrolet
5. #78 Regan Smith Chevrolet
6. #33 Clint Bowyer Chevrolet
7. #29 Kevin Harvick Chevrolet
8. #115 Michael Waltrip Toyota
9. #17 Matt Kenseth Ford
10. #18 Kyle Busch Toyota
11. #4 Kasey Kahne Toyota
12. #192 Brian Keselowski Dodge
13. #42 Juan Montoya Chevrolet
14. #1 Jamie McMurray Chevrolet
15. #43 A.J. Allmendinger Ford
16. #2 Brad Keselowski Dodge
17. #5 Mark Martin Chevrolet
18. #11 Denny Hamlin Toyota
19. #27 Paul Menard Chevrolet
20. #56 Martin Truex Jr. Toyota
21. #39 Ryan Newman Chevrolet
22. #99 Carl Edwards Ford
23. #48 Jimmie Johnson Chevrolet
24. #0 David Reutimann Toyota
25. #14 Tony Stewart Chevrolet
26. #16 Greg Biffle Ford
27. #83 Brian Vickers Toyota
28. #37 Robert Richardson Jr. Ford
29. #9 Bill Elliott Chevrolet
30. #7 Robby Gordon Dodge
31. #47 Bobby Labonte Toyota
32. #21 Trevor Bayne Ford
33. #46 J.J. Yeley Chevrolet
34. #6 David Ragan Ford
35. #9 Marcos Ambrose Ford
36. #77 Steve Wallace Toyota
37. #71 Andy Lally Chevrolet
38. #20 Joey Logano Toyota
39. #34 David Gilliland Ford
40. #38 Travis Kvapil Ford
41. #87 Joe Nemechek Toyota
42. #36 Dave Blaney Chevrolet
43. #32 Terry Labonte Ford

Did Not Qualify

44. #64 Derrike Cope Toyota
45. #97 Kevin Conway Toyota
46. #60 Todd Bodine Toyota
47. #66 Michael McDowell Toyota
48. #13 Casey Mears Toyota

For the first time in almost half a decade, the Sprint Cup battle will go into its final two races without Jimmie Johnson already having put a strangle hold on the championship. In fact, the 48 has never looked as vulnerable as it does now after losing the points lead to Denny Hamlin at Texas.

NASCAR’s second visit of the year to Texas, coming just three races before the end of the season, produced moments of high emotion for several of the drivers and their pit crews, with two Chase contenders coming to blows out on the track, another penalised for obscene gestures, and another needing to switch out his entire pit crew after a series of pit road hold-ups.

Elliott Sadler and Greg Biffle tussled over the lead for the first dozen laps until Joe Nemechek’s dying engine brought out the first caution and round of pit stops of the afternoon. Biffle led after the stops, but all eyes were on the Chase contenders having to work their way up from low grid positions – and it was Jimmie Johnson who was on form, moving from 16th at the restart up to 5th by the time the next yellow came out on lap 43 for debris on the backstretch.

Johnson dropped a couple of spots at the pit stop, while Kurt Busch got with with a pit lane speeding penalty. Mark Martin briefly took the lead before Biffle reasserted himself, but it was a brief green flag period before Sam Hornish Jr got into the wall through turns 3 and 4 on lap 58 for the third caution.

Biffle led Martin, Sadler, Clint Bowyer and Johnson at the restart; David Ragan (who had been up to seventh) dropped to 32nd after suffering from loose lugnets, while Jeff Burton – who had gone a lap down after needing to make an extra pit stop under the green for new tyres – was the most relieved man on track when the caution gave him his lap back.

Jimmie Johnson continued his strong run during the next, longer green flag period, moving inexorably up to third place behind Biffle and Martin who traded the lead a couple of times as the race his the hundred lap marker. Johnson briefly took the lead (and all important bonus points) for leading lap 110 as the next round of pit stops cycled through, and when he pitted it was Chase rival Denny Hamlin who succeeded him in the lead next time around before he too came in for fuel and tyres.

That put Martin back in the lead, now with David Reutimann in second ahead of Bowyer, Biffle, Logano and Hamlin who got past Kyle Busch for position on lap 115. Johnson had slipped all the way back to 12th place with a very slow pit stop and was not happy, but he still had the on-track pace to repair the damage.

Martin Truex Jr. triggered the fourth caution, getting loose into turn 4 and hitting the wall before sliding through the infield grass. Joey Logano made a flying stop and emerged on the front row for the restart alongside Biffle, who soon pushed the youngster aside to resume the top spot; they were followed by Martin, Reutimann, Hamlin and Harvick with Johnson down in eighth but once again proving quick on track and working his way up to take fifth from Hamlin just before Truex triggered a second consecutive caution on lap 151, this time with a blown front tyre. Definitely not his day.

The restart was another replay between Logano and Biffle, and Johnson had once again haemorrhaged positions in the pit stop and fallen out of the top ten – the fury in the #48 was building, and Johnson and pit chief Chad Knaus were losing patience with the way they would gain positions on track only to then lose them the minute they came onto pit road. Something had to change.

Johnson had no time to make up positions this time before the sixth caution on lap 159 – Kyle Busch got spun by contact with another car on lap 160 and suffered bodywork damage that sent him to the pits. He thought he’d just managed to exit before the safety car – and hence stay on the lead lap – only to instead get served a pit lane speed violation, costing him a lap. Furious at the combination of getting spun out and then the penalty and emitting a string of expletives over the team radio, Busch gave a very prominent finger to the NASCAR official standing in the #18 pit box monitoring the penalty – which was captured by the in-car camera and transmitted live. NASCAR promptly gave him a further two lap for “unsportsmanlike conduct” after his “inappropriate gestures”, and Kyle faces more sanctions from NASCAR post-race, especially coming a day after Kyle stormed out of the media centre following the Nationwide race and swore during two interviews, incensed by his belief that Carl Edwards ahd got away with a jump start at the final restart. Now Kyle’s Sprint Cup race was done: while he got back one of the three laps, he still finished the afternoon a disastrous 32nd.

After all that, Biffle and Logano rejoined their battle for the lead on lap 163. Logano eventually took the lead and he, Biffle and Reutimann made a three-car breakaway at the front. Further back, Johnson – after initially gaining a couple of positions – then fell back again, that pit stop hold-up really hurting the #48 now.

Lap 191 saw the seventh caution of the day: accident-prone Truex Jr. was into the wall again at turn 3. But even as the caution came out, back in turn 2 there had been a coming together of the two Jeffs, Gordon and Burton: after an earlier mild confrontation, Gordon had slid up the track in front of Burton, who had then run into the back of the #24 and put it into the wall. If the move had been intentional payback, then it was a very costly one because it also collected Burton’s car in the process.

Gordon was furious, and as the two stood by their wrecks waiting for the NASCAR recovery crews and ambulances, Gordon was steamed up enough to let Burton know what he felt. Right there on the backstretch, in front of the entire crowd, words turned into shoves and thrown punches between the two until the NASCAR officials intervened.

“I just lost so much respect for Jeff for doing something like that,” said a fuming Gordon. “That was really stupid.” Burton for his part denied that the wreck had been intentional and said that the setting sun had got into his eyes on the exit of turn 2, momentarily blinding him. Gordon didn’t accept that: “He thought I came up on him and he didn’t mean to wreck me. But I’m sorry. I will never believe that. I’ve been driving a race car long enough to know what your intentions are, and I know what they were right there.”

Bizarrely, NASCAR then opted to put both drivers into the same ambulance rather than separate vehicles as is the norm, but further fights were avoided. NASCAR said that the incident would be reviewed by officials early this week to see whether the drivers would receive any penalties, but it’s not seen as likely. Jeff Burton was subsequently able to go back out for a half dozen laps with a makeshift right hand side, which boosted him a couple of positions up in the points standings in the final classifications.

One driver’s misfortune was another’s opportunity, however: Chad Knause seized upon Jeff Gordon’s retirement to commandeer the entire #24 pit crew to replace his own, such was his and Johnson’s anger at the amount of time lost in the pits today. Johnson was back in 15th as the race got back underway, with Biffle back in the lead.

A solid green flag stint of over almost 100 laps finally gave Johnson the opening to get the car back into the groove, and he was soon passing cars every two or three laps. He was up to sixth by the time the next round of pit stops cycled through under green flag conditions around lap 248, and this time Johnson’s pit stop was much better with his new loaned crew, dropping only a single place despite the ad hoc arrangements.

The next round of pit stops was also under green, after which Greg Biffle was still leading on lap 291 ahead of Chase rivals Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin with David Reutimann, Scott Speed (yet to pit), Jimmie Johnson, Joey Logano, Matt Kenseth and Martin.

Harvick was complaining of a loose car and had lost second spot when a caution for debris came out on lap 300, allowing everyone who wanted to the opportunity to make a quick return to pit road under slightly less high speed conditions. With everyone taking in an assortment of late-race adjustments to compensate for the cooling evening conditions, there was a shakeup in the running order: Mark Martin and Tony Stewart stayed out altogether and made up the front row at the restart ahead of Harvick and Hamlin; Johnson was in eighth, while the big loser this time around was former leader Greg Biffle. Not only had the pit stop itself been slow, but it seemed like there was a problem with his transmission and the car seemed to have mislaid second gear altogether; but he had enough still going for him to keep the car running in the top ten, if not to compete for the win anymore.

At the restart, Hamlin put his two fresh tyres to good use by immediately jumping ahead of the front row duo to take the lead. Even better for his Chase hopes, Kevin Harvick was falling back, quickly overtaken by Matt Kenseth who seemed set to be the strongest threat to Hamlin at this point as he soon passed Tony Stewart and Mark Martin to move up to second place. Jimmie Johnson was also suddenly struggling, his car simply not as strong as it had been in the first half of the race resulting in him finding it hard to make any progress from ninth place.

The race was just six laps shy of the lead when Patrick Carpentier brought out the ninth and final caution on lap 328, setting up a high-stakes restart with everything to play for. Harvick opted to pit for fresh tyres but eight cars stayed out, Hamlin and Johnson among them, meaning Harvick would start from tenth and have to hustle and go three-wide to make up the lost ground in the two laps remaining between the restart and the chequered flag.

Biffle’s gear problems once again played a critical role at the restart: this time hindering Jimmie Johnson. Up front, Hamlin was trying to fend off a spirited charge from Matt Kenseth, and initially it seemed that Kenseth had taken the lead going into the final lap – only for Kenseth to overcook it and make contact with the wall, losing the lead before the scoring line and white flag, and crucially losing momentum that meant Hamlin was able to run the final lap to the finish without further challenge.

It was a smart, mature display from Hamlin, working his way through the field, sticking close to the top ten throughout, never feeling the need to barge his way to the front until the final 28 laps when it really mattered. It deservedly puts him at the top of the Sprint Cup standings, and while 33pts is far from safe in a series where the winner can claim 200pts in a weekend it’s certainly a boost to his championship hopes at the most critical time of the year. And Kevin Harvick is far from out of contention in third place, just 59pts back.

Meanwhile, going into the final two races from behind rather than out in front will come as a major shock to Johnson and Knaus, whose aura of Chase infallibility takes a dent following the need to swap out the entire pit crew midrace – a moment of ruthlessness, or of blind panic? Either way could have serious consequences to the team in the final two weeks.

Race results

1   30  11   Denny Hamlin        190/5   334   
2   19  17   Matt Kenseth        175/5   334   
3   9   5    Mark Martin         170/5   334   
4   20  20   Joey Logano         165/5   334   
5   2   16   Greg Biffle         165/10  334   
6   26  29   Kevin Harvick       155/5   334   
7   7   33   Clint Bowyer        146/0   334   
8   5   6    David Ragan         142/0   334   
9   17  48   Jimmie Johnson      143/5   334   
10  12  98   Paul Menard         134/0   334   
11  11  14   Tony Stewart        130/0   334   
12  32  47   Marcos Ambrose      127/0   334   
13  24  83   Kasey Kahne         124/0   334   
14  10  43   A.J. Allmendinger   121/0   334   
15  18  00   David Reutimann     118/0   334   
16  25  1    Jamie McMurray      115/0   334   
17  28  21   Trevor Bayne        112/0   334   
18  27  77   Sam Hornish Jr.     109/0   334   
19  3   99   Carl Edwards        106/0   334   
20  14  39   Ryan Newman         103/0   334   
21  13  9    Aric Almirola       100/0   334   
22  8   78   Regan Smith         97/0    334   
23  1   19   Elliott Sadler      99/5    333   
24  6   2    Kurt Busch          91/0    333   
25  22  88   Dale Earnhardt Jr.  88/0    333   
26  35  13   Casey Mears         90/5    333   
27  23  82   Scott Speed         82/0    333   
28  4   42   Juan Montoya        79/0    333   
29  33  38   David Gilliland     81/5    333   
30  31  110  Bobby Labonte       73/0    333   
31  37  26   Patrick Carpentier  75/5    333   
32  29  18   Kyle Busch          67/0    332   
33  36  12   Brad Keselowski     64/0    332   
34  40  71   Andy Lally          66/5    331   
35  39  7    Robby Gordon        63/5    240   Engine
36  16  31   Jeff Burton         55/0    192   Accident
37  15  24   Jeff Gordon         52/0    190   Accident
38  21  56   Martin Truex Jr.    49/0    188   Accident
39  38  66   Mike Bliss          51/5    45    Rear Gear
40  43  09   Landon Cassill      43/0    35    Vibration
41  41  34   Travis Kvapil       40/0    25    Overheating
42  42  37   Dave Blaney         37/0    23    Overheating
43  34  87   Joe Nemechek        34/0    12    Engine

Sprint Cup standings

POS +/-  DRIVER             PTS   BEHIND ST  P  W  T5 T10
1   +1   Denny Hamlin       6325  Leader 34  2  8  14 18
2   -1   Jimmie Johnson     6292  -33    34  2  6  15 21
3   --   Kevin Harvick      6266  -59    34  0  3  15 24
4   +2   Carl Edwards       6008  -317   34  2  0  7  17
5   +3   Matt Kenseth       6000  -325   34  0  0  6  13
6   -2   Jeff Gordon        5994  -331   34  1  0  11 17
7   -2   Kyle Busch         5986  -339   34  2  3  10 18
8   -1   Tony Stewart       5962  -363   34  2  2  9  16
9   +2   Greg Biffle        5953  -372   34  0  2  8  17
10  +2   Clint Bowyer       5928  -397   34  0  2  7  18
11  -2   Kurt Busch         5890  -435   34  2  2  9  16
12  -2   Jeff Burton        5852  -473   34  0  0  6  15
============= SPRINT CUP CHASE CONTENDERS ==============
13  +1   Mark Martin        4107  -2218  34  1  0  7  10
14  -1   Jamie McMurray     4091  -2234  34  4  3  9  11
15  --   Ryan Newman        3986  -2339  34  1  1  3  12
16  +1   Joey Logano        3974  -2351  34  1  0  6  15
17  -1   Juan Montoya       3945  -2380  34  3  1  6  14
18  --   David Reutimann    3890  -2435  34  0  1  6  9
19  --   Dale Earnhardt Jr. 3750  -2575  34  1  0  3  8
20  +1   A.J. Allmendinger  3734  -2591  34  1  0  1  7
21  +1   Kasey Kahne        3733  -2592  34  3  0  7  9
22  -2   Martin Truex Jr.   3663  -2662  34  1  0  1  7
23  --   Paul Menard        3594  -2731  34  0  0  1  6
24  --   David Ragan        3408  -2917  34  0  0  0  3
25  --   Brad Keselowski    3324  -3001  34  1  0  0  2
26  --   Marcos Ambrose     3240  -3085  34  0  0  2  5
27  --   Elliott Sadler     3081  -3244  34  1  0  0  1
28  --   Sam Hornish Jr.    3056  -3269  34  0  0  0  1
29  --   Scott Speed        3026  -3299  34  0  0  0  2
30  --   Regan Smith        3023  -3302  34  0  0  0  0
31  --   Bobby Labonte      2378  -3947  34  0  0  0  0
32  +1   David Gilliland    2308  -4017  30  0  0  0  0
33  -1   Travis Kvapil      2304  -4021  32  0  0  0  0
34  --   Robby Gordon       1964  -4361  26  0  0  1  1
35  --   Kevin Conway*      1757  -4568  27  0  0  0  0
36  +1   Casey Mears        1418  -4907  19  0  0  0  0
37  -1   Reed Sorenson      1355  -4970  16  0  0  0  1
38  --   Joe Nemechek       1321  -5004  30  0  0  0  0
39  --   Dave Blaney        1309  -5016  27  0  0  0  0
40  --   Brian Vickers      1158  -5167  11  0  0  0  3
41  --   Bill Elliott       989   -5336  12  0  0  0  0
42  --   Mike Bliss         970   -5355  15  0  0  0  2
43  --   Max Papis          907   -5418  18  0  0  0  0
44  --   Michael McDowell   879   -5446  24  0  0  0  0
45  --   David Stremme      825   -5500  11  0  0  0  0
46  --   J.J. Yeley         779   -5546  15  0  0  0  0
47  --   Landon Cassill     631   -5694  14  0  0  0  0
48  --   Tony Raines        479   -5846  8   0  0  0  0
49  +1   Patrick Carpentier 474   -5851  6   0  0  0  0
50  +1   Aric Almirola      462   -5863  7   0  0  0  0
* Denotes Rookie 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Race results

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

Sprint Cup standings

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

A chill was in the air in Kansas as the Sprint Cup Chase contenders made ready for the green flag: a reminder that its getting late in the year that this is the third race in the Chase, and only once since the format’s inception has the eventual champion not been in the top two post-Kansas. Everyone was highly motivated for success this afternoon – time was running out.

Kasey Kahne led the field across the starting line, and for the first two dozen laps there was the usual sorting-out of the running order as cars who had fared poorly – or flatteringly too well – found their natural level. Greg Biffle and Paul Menard were among those who fell back initially, while Jeff Gordon took up residence in second and duly took over the lead from Kahne on lap 28.

Gordon had worked up a 3.5s lead by the time the first caution came out on lap 41, trigged by Juan Montoya hitting the wall harmlessly in turn 3. The yellow gave everyone the opportunity for a well-timed pit stop, and at the restart the top five were Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman, Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth and Tony Stewart. Jimmie Johnson, who had been working his way up from a grid position of 21st, suddenly found himself back down there again after getting boxed in on pit lane; his car was looking distinctly average this afternoon.

The restart only lasted six laps before another caution was out on lap 52: this time, contact between David Reutimann and Kyle Busch had sent Reutimann spinning in turn 2, although he managed to keep the double zero off the wall and the field managed to avoid hitting him at the same time. But he still needed an extended pit stop that put him three laps down, and driver and team were furious for what they saw as an intentional act by Busch. Something would have to be done to get payback …

Matt Kenseth took the lead from Gordon at the restart on lap 56, and Gordon soon lost second place as well to Tony Stewart who went on to successfully challenge Kenseth for the lead on lap 81. Further back, Jimmie Johnson was continuing to slog his way through the field, and on lap 76 passed a sluggish Denny Hamlin for 15th place, while another Chase contender – Clint Bowyer – was plummeting backwards through the field to 35th place. He was soon able to pick up speed again but now he was struggling to stay on the lead lap – just another rotten day for Bowyer in his 2010 Chase campaign.

Pits stops were due, and there was no convenient caution this time; after the stops had cycled through, Stewart was in the lead ahead of Biffle, Kenseth, Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton and the race was over half distance.

By this point Kyle Busch was running in the top ten and had probably put thoughts of his earlier collision with David Reutimann out of his mind. But Reutimann hadn’t, and on lap 154 it was time for that payback. Reutimann sent the 18 into the wall, causing major damage to the car: Reutimann paid for it by spinning himself.

Almost all of the drivers pitted again under the ensuing yellow – Kyle making an extended stay on pit road to repair the considerable damage to his car, but the team managed to work it so that he stayed on the lead lap, albeit back in 22nd. While the car was running, it wasn’t going to win any beauty prizes – or many championship points. A damage limitation exercise kept Kyle circulating, but he made up only a single place between here and the end of the race, and duly ended up the worst placed of all the Chase drivers – a costly outcome indeed.

Kevin Harvick had stayed off pit road along with Mark Martin (who had started the afternoon being sent to the back of the field after having an engine change) and Ryan Newman; Tony Stewart and Greg Biffle were the first of the stoppers, in fourth and fifth place as the track went green again on lap 159, but racing only lasted five laps before a fourth caution of the afternoon came out for a heavy hit against the wall by Kasey Kahne in turn 4.

That brief run had been enough to pop Tony Stewart onto the front row for the double file restart on lap 170, and he made the most of it by immediately passing Kevin Harvick down the backstretch for the lead. Greg Biffle followed Stewart, as Harvick looked unable to maintain the pace up front and struggled to hold on to third.

Kevin Conway’s engine blew on lap 186, bringing out the fifth caution and giving the whole field the opportunity to make a pit stop under caution that no one could say no to. Jamie McMurray and Paul Menard opted to take two tyres only, and as a result of their fast pit stops they lined up at the head of the field for the restart, with Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth and Tony Stewart ready to pounce from behind.

Instead, it was Menard who got the best restart and leapt away from the competition. McMurray had no way of running at this pace and fell back, leaving Kenseth and Biffle fighting over second place – which Biffle finally did on lap 206, going on to snatch the lead from Menard the very next lap. Biffle looked very comfortable in the clean air, and over the next twenty laps he built up a 3.2s lead ahead of the final round of pit stops, which started around lap 235 with just 32 laps to go to the chequered flag.

There were no dramas in pit road, and most everyone stuck with the four tyre option rather than risk running on old rubber, so once the pit stops had worked their way through it was still Biffle in charge, ahead of Stewart, Kenseth, Johnson and Harvick: Johnson had been working his way up, one place at a time, agonisingly slowly in his mediocre car, but it was paying off: he was past Kenseth for third place on lap 245 and then went side-by-side with Stewart for the second spot with ten laps to go. The matter was finally decided when Stewart got loose and fell back, but by this point their prolonged battle had given Greg Biffle the chance to take off into the distance, out of reach of any rivals.

There was no time left, and no more cautions to close up the field: Biffle took the win with a commanding 7s margin, his 16th Sprint Cup career victory and maintaining a strong record at Kansas – being the only driver to score eight consecutive top-15 finishes here. More importantly, it slashes the gap between him and leader from 140pts to just 85pts.

“It was a great day for us,” Biffle said. “The car ran flawless. [Crew chief Greg] Erwin just made great calls in the pits, and the car just kept getting better and better and better.” The car was initially too loose and Biffle resisted suggestions to have it tightened up as he was running in the top three at the time and feared losing the performance that he did have: “But they tightened it up, and off it went, man. All it needed was a little bit of wedge in it to take off.”

Meanwhile the identify of the championship leader had changed: Johnson’s second place was enough to overhaul Denny Hamlin in the points, and it’s exactly this sort of “something from nothing” – or at least something from mediocre, and refusing to ever give up – that is the bedrock of Johnson’s past successful championship campaigns.

With all of the top seven places taken by Chase contenders, Kansas has really closed up the points overall and made the Sprint Cup the closest we’ve yet seen three races in; but it was a bad day for Kyle Busch, whose feud with non-Chase driver Reutimann cost him four championship positions as his 21st place was the lowest of all the Chase contenders: even the ill-starred Clint Bowyer had recovered from going a lap down at one stage to battle back to 15th.

In reality, Bowyer is the only one of the top dozen no longer in with any realistic chance of winning the Sprint Cup. The rest are covered by a margin of less that 150pts – and the top eight are covered by just 85pts, the three on the unlikely margins being Jeff Burton, Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth despite the latter two’s strong showing this weekend.

It shows that there is still all to play for, and that it’s too early to start thinking about the winner coming from one of the top two no matter what the history books say.

Race result

1   5   16   Greg Biffle         190/5    267   
2   16  48   Jimmie Johnson      170/0    267   
3   13  29   Kevin Harvick       170/5    267   
4   8   14   Tony Stewart        170/10   267   
5   1   24   Jeff Gordon         160/5    267   
6   18  99   Carl Edwards        155/5    267   
7   4   17   Matt Kenseth        151/5    267   
8   7   98   Paul Menard         147/5    267   
9   3   39   Ryan Newman         138/0    267   
10  27  43   A.J. Allmendinger   134/0    267   
11  24  1    Jamie McMurray      135/5    267   
12  15  11   Denny Hamlin        127/0    267   
13  6   2    Kurt Busch          124/0    267   
14  23  5    Mark Martin         121/0    267   
15  26  33   Clint Bowyer        118/0    267   
16  21  6    David Ragan         115/0    267   
17  9   20   Joey Logano         112/0    267   
18  10  31   Jeff Burton         114/5    267   
19  31  82   Scott Speed         106/0    267   
20  20  56   Martin Truex Jr.    103/0    267   
21  14  18   Kyle Busch          100/0    266   
22  25  88   Dale Earnhardt Jr.  97/0     266   
23  32  12   Brad Keselowski     94/0     266   
24  34  13   Casey Mears         91/0     266   
25  22  21   Bill Elliott        88/0     266   
26  29  78   Regan Smith         85/0     266   
27  36  26   Patrick Carpentier  87/5     266   
28  19  19   Elliott Sadler      79/0     266   
29  12  42   Juan Montoya        76/0     266   
30  30  83   Reed Sorenson       73/0     265   
31  41  38   Dave Blaney         70/0     261   
32  35  37   David Gilliland     67/0     261   
33  38  34   Travis Kvapil       64/0     261   
34  28  47   Marcos Ambrose      61/0     257   
35  11  00   David Reutimann     58/0     256   
36  17  77   Sam Hornish Jr.     55/0     245   
37  2   9    Kasey Kahne         57/5     218   Accident
38  42  7    Kevin Conway *      49/0     180   Engine
39  40  71   Tony Raines         46/0     87    Electrical
40  33  46   Michael McDowell    48/5     60    Transmission
41  39  09   Bobby Labonte       40/0     58    Transmission
42  37  36   J.J. Yeley          37/0     49    Electrical
43  43  164  Landon Cassill      34/0     33    Rear Gear
* Denotes Rookie 

Sprint Cup standings

POS +/- DRIVER              PTS   GAP    ST  P  W  T5 T10
1   +1  Jimmie Johnson      5503         29  2  6  12 16
2   -1  Denny Hamlin        5495  -8     29  1  6  11 13
3   +2  Kevin Harvick       5473  -30    29  0  3  13 19
4   +2  Carl Edwards        5450  -53    29  2  0  7  16
5   +3  Jeff Gordon         5445  -58    29  0  0  11 15
6   -2  Kurt Busch          5433  -70    29  2  2  9  16
7   -4  Kyle Busch          5423  -80    29  2  3  8  16
8   +1  Greg Biffle         5418  -85    29  0  2  6  15
9   -2  Jeff Burton         5402  -101   29  0  0  6  14
10  --  Tony Stewart        5376  -127   29  2  1  8  15
11  --  Matt Kenseth        5354  -149   29  0  0  5  11
12  --  Clint Bowyer        5251  -252   29  0  1  5  15
13  --  Ryan Newman         3501  -2002  29  1  1  2  11
14  --  Jamie McMurray      3479  -2024  29  3  2  8  10
15  +1  Mark Martin         3346  -2157  29  1  0  5  7
16  -1  Juan Montoya        3329  -2174  29  2  1  5  13
17  +1  Dale Earnhardt Jr.  3259  -2244  29  1  0  3  7
18  -1  David Reutimann     3248  -2255  29  0  1  5  6
19  +2  A.J. Allmendinger   3220  -2283  29  1  0  1  7
20  --  Joey Logano         3218  -2285  29  1  0  4  11
21  -2  Kasey Kahne         3189  -2314  29  3  0  6  8
22  --  Martin Truex Jr.    3156  -2347  29  1  0  1  6
23  --  Paul Menard         3014  -2489  29  0  0  1  5
24  +1  David Ragan         2853  -2650  29  0  0  0  1
25  +1  Brad Keselowski     2820  -2683  29  1  0  0  0
26  -2  Marcos Ambrose      2802  -2701  29  0  0  2  5
27  +2  Scott Speed         2577  -2926  29  0  0  0  2
28  -1  Sam Hornish Jr.     2575  -2928  29  0  0  0  1
29  -1  Elliott Sadler      2568  -2935  29  0  0  0  1
30  --  Regan Smith         2473  -3030  29  0  0  0  0
31  --  Bobby Labonte       2076  -3427  29  0  0  0  0
32  --  Travis Kvapil       2052  -3451  28  0  0  0  0
33  --  David Gilliland     1919  -3584  25  0  0  0  0
34  --  Kevin Conway*       1687  -3816  26  0  0  0  0
35  --  Robby Gordon        1626  -3877  22  0  0  1  1
36  +2  Reed Sorenson       1159  -4344  14  0  0  0  1
37  -1  Brian Vickers       1158  -4345  11  0  0  0  3
38  -1  Joe Nemechek        1108  -4395  26  0  0  0  0
39  --  Casey Mears         1101  -4402  15  0  0  0  0
40  --  Dave Blaney         1037  -4466  22  0  0  0  0
41  --  Mike Bliss          919   -4584  14  0  0  0  2
42  --  Max Papis           907   -4596  18  0  0  0  0
43  +1  Bill Elliott        888   -4615  10  0  0  0  0
44  -1  David Stremme       825   -4678  11  0  0  0  0
45  --  Michael McDowell    774   -4729  21  0  0  0  0
46  --  J.J. Yeley          662   -4841  12  0  0  0  0
47  +1  Landon Cassill      471   -5032  10  0  0  0  0
48  -1  Boris Said          448   -5055  6   0  0  0  1
49  --  Tony Raines         412   -5091  7   0  0  0  0
50  +1  Patrick Carpentier  342   -5161  4   0  0  0  0

Where else could NASCAR head to for Independence Day weekend than Daytona? If there’s a Sprint Cup circuit more completely suitable for the most patriotic weekend of the year, and more likely to put on a suitably dramatic show for the fans, then we’re not seeing it.

Rain haunted the night time race, however, after qualifying had been rained off and the radar screens flashed warnings of rain clouds in the area that could bring a premature end to the racing. Hence, NASCAR went into “hurry up” mode to get he racing underway – and fortunately the rain stayed away and didn’t wreck the occasion.

Kevin Harvick was in charge at both the start and the end, but it was a wild ride at times in between those points. While Harvick led the field to the green flag from pole position, he was immediately usurped by Jimmie Johnson for four laps. Harvick took the lead back on lap 5 but then lost it to Jeff Gordon on lap 10, but then Harvick took it back again. Greg Biffle briefly assumed the lead on lap 14 before Kyle Busch then had his turn, just as a competition caution came out on lap 15 which gave Harvick the lead back after the pit stops.

The lead continued to change with slot machine rapidity – Elliot Sadler, then Kyle Busch, Sadler again, then Kurt Busch, Harvick briefly before Kurt overtook him and held on to the lead for a relatively stable eight laps until a duelling Elliott Sadler and Sam Hornish vied for the top position over the course of the next dozen laps.

Juan Montoya had just found the front as the leaders started to pit when the second caution of the night came out for debris from JJ Yeley’s car. Jeff Gordon beat Montoya at the restart, but there were only a couple of laps of green flag running before the third yellow came out on lap 67 – AJ Allmendinger had got loose and connected with Kyle Busch before sliding down the track and into the wall.

The lead continued to be unstable, with Jeff Gordon taking the field to the restart but then getting beaten by an aggressive Brad Keselowski; Gordon got him back next time around but then succumbed to Juan Montoya, who in turn fell a couple of laps later to Denny Hamlin. Two laps on and it was Hornish back in front, holding off Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson.

Busch seemed unaffected by the earlier contact with Allmendinger and duly took charge of the race on lap 86, and holding on to the lead for the next 17 laps – quite an achievement here at Daytona. But that achievement came to a disastrous end when he came up to lap Juan Montoya, who had been in for a green flag pit stop: Montoya collided with Busch, and this time Kyle’s luck did not hold. He was into the wall and the car was mortally wounded. He would play no further role in the evening, and it’s a big dent in his Sprint Cup standing.

Mark Martin stayed out of the pits during the ensuing caution, but although he led at the restart the #5’s handling was off and he was quickly overtaken by Montoya, then Jeff Burton got past them both and found the front.

Three laps on and David Ragan got loose and hit the wall on lap 116, which also saw Martin Truex Jr. and Jamie McMurray sliding across the track and Matt Kenseth get a puncture that required a visit to pit road under the ensuing fifth caution of the evening. When the green flag came out again it was Tony Stewart who found himself leading the pack at the restart.

The lead then changed with almost every lap: Stewart tussled with Burton, then Clint Bowyer, Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch all had a go before Burton came out top again as the sixth caution came out following David Stremme’s hit against the wall that saw him and Robert Richardson Jr. sliding through the grass as a result; Kurt Busch got the best pit stop and led the field at the restart, only too Harvick get a push from Clint Bowyer to take the lead straight away.

The seventh yellow came out almost immediately, as further back in the pack Mark Martin and Matt Kenseth slid through the track, and Greg Biffle also caught the wall in a separate incident. There was no need for anyone to pit, and the green came out again on lap 145.

The green flag period lasted long enough for Clint Bowyer to assume the lead, but on lap 148 Jeff Burton made contact with Kurt Busch while the two were battling near the front, and the ensuing chain-reaction mayhem was the dictionary definition of “the Big One” which 20 cars in various states of destruction that saw an immediate red flag come out.

The worst affected was Mark Martin, whose #5 limped down the pit lane but then got engulfed in flames; members of Jimmie Johnson’s pit crew rushed to help extract Martin. Not that Johnson’s team had much else to do – their driver had been one of the cars wrecked in the Big One, along with Tony Stewart, Juan Montoya, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski and Ryan Newman. Coming just after midnight, the crash provided – as TNT commentator quipped – “the official first fireworks of the Fourth of July.”

Once the track was cleaned up, Clint Bowyer stayed out and resumed in the lead ahead of Carl Edwards and Kevin Harvick, who was first out of the pits having opted to take on fresh tyres under yellow; Kurt Busch was at the back of the lead lap having come into the pits to get some dents in the bodywork sorted out.

But it was Jeff Gordon who was coming on strong, charging into the lead on lap 157, and then Bowyer got a push back into the lead just as the ninth yellow came out on lap 159 for Hornish hitting the wall hard in turn 4 after contact with Elliott Sadler, collecting the hapless Kurt Busch in the aftermath. With only six laps remaining, this meant that a green-and-chequered flag finish was now in operation.

Clint Bowyer led the restart, with Kevin Harvick alongside him at the double-file restart. Jeff Gordon gave Bowyer a push assist, while Harvick found himself under threat from Kasey Kahne, but Bowyer got shuffled back and eventually got loose, bounced into the wall and spun across the grass on the final lap, out of contention. Meanwhile Harvick had the raw pace to take the lead on the penultimate lap and hold off Kahne through to the finish line to claim his second win of the season and his 13th Cup Series victory in total.

“Same old Daytona,” said Harvick afterwards. “Cars moving around and bouncing around, […] a lot of passing and shuffling, and then there at the end we had the big wreck and we were fortunate to be in front of it.”

Harvick comes away from Daytona with the perfect score – pole, the victory, and points for most laps led helping cement his Sprint Cup lead, especially with so many of his closest challengers getting caught up in wrecks. He’ll be the driver with the biggest smile this holiday weekend!

Race result

Pos  Driver                Car        Laps
 1.  Kevin Harvick         Chevrolet  166
 2.  Kasey Kahne           Ford       166
 3.  Jeff Gordon           Chevrolet  166
 4.  Dale Earnhardt Jr     Chevrolet  166
 5.  Jeff Burton           Chevrolet  166
 6.  Carl Edwards          Ford       166
 7.  Kurt Busch            Dodge      166
 8.  Reed Sorenson         Toyota     166
 9.  Mike Bliss            Chevrolet  166
10.  Scott Speed           Toyota     166
11.  David Reutimann       Toyota     166
12.  Robby Gordon          Toyota     166
13.  Steve Park            Toyota     166
14.  Kevin Conway          Ford       166
15.  Matt Kenseth          Ford       166
16.  Bobby Labonte         Chevrolet  166
17.  Clint Bowyer          Chevrolet  166
18.  Paul Menard           Ford       165
19.  JJ Yeley              Dodge      164
20.  Greg Biffle           Ford       163
21.  Sam Hornish Jr        Dodge      159
22.  Elliott Sadler        Ford       159
23.  Robert Richardson Jr  Ford       159
24.  Denny Hamlin          Toyota     158
25.  Tony Stewart          Chevrolet  158
26.  Ryan Newman           Chevrolet  148
27.  Juan Pablo Montoya    Chevrolet  148
28.  Mark Martin           Chevrolet  148
29.  Joey Logano           Toyota     148
30.  Brad Keselowski       Dodge      147
31.  Jimmie Johnson        Chevrolet  147
32.  Marcos Ambrose        Toyota     147
33.  Regan Smith           Chevrolet  147
34.  Travis Kvapil         Ford       145
35.  Martin Truex Jr       Toyota     141
36.  AJ Allmendinger       Ford       136
37.  David Stremme         Ford       135
38.  David Ragan           Ford       116
39.  Jamie McMurray        Chevrolet  116
40.  Kyle Busch            Toyota     103
41.  Joe Nemechek          Toyota     38
42.  Max Papis             Toyota     6
43.  Dave Blaney           Toyota     4

Sprint Cup championship

POS +/-  DRIVER                 POINTS  BEHIND  ST  P  W  T5  T10
1   --   Kevin Harvick          2684    Leader  18  0  2  8   13
2   +3   Jeff Gordon            2472    -212    18  0  0  9   10
3   -1   Jimmie Johnson         2459    -225    18  0  5  8   11
4   +2   Kurt Busch             2439    -245    18  2  2  7   11
5   -1   Denny Hamlin           2400    -284    18  0  5  7   7
6   -3   Kyle Busch             2376    -308    18  2  2  5   9
7   --   Matt Kenseth           2322    -362    18  0  0  4   8
8   --   Jeff Burton            2319    -365    18  0  0  4   8
9   --   Tony Stewart           2251    -433    18  1  0  4   8
10  --   Greg Biffle            2234    -450    18  0  0  2   10
11  +2   Dale Earnhardt Jr.     2177    -507    18  1  0  2   6
12  --   Carl Edwards           2170    -514    18  0  0  1   7
13  -2   Mark Martin            2131    -553    18  1  0  5   6
14  +1   Clint Bowyer           2121    -563    18  0  0  1   9
15  -1   Ryan Newman            2090    -594    18  1  1  2   6
16  +4   Kasey Kahne            2016    -668    18  1  0  5   6
17  +2   David Reutimann        2000    -684    18  0  0  3   3
18  -2   Joey Logano            1997    -687    18  1  0  2   7
19  -2   Jamie McMurray         1945    -739    18  2  1  4   5
20  -2   Martin Truex Jr.       1930    -754    18  1  0  1   4
21  +1   Juan Montoya           1924    -760    18  1  0  4   8
22  -1   A.J. Allmendinger      1900    -784    18  1  0  0   3
23  --   Paul Menard            1847    -837    18  0  0  1   2
24  +2   Scott Speed            1765    -919    18  0  0  0   2
25  --   Brad Keselowski        1721    -963    18  0  0  0   0
26  -2   David Ragan            1709    -975    18  0  0  0   1
27  --   Marcos Ambrose         1660    -1024   18  0  0  0   2
28  --   Elliott Sadler         1650    -1034   18  0  0  0   0
29  --   Sam Hornish Jr.        1604    -1080   18  0  0  0   0
30  --   Regan Smith            1496    -1188   18  0  0  0   0
31  --   Bobby Labonte          1391    -1293   18  0  0  0   0
32  --   Robby Gordon           1334    -1350   16  0  0  1   1
33  +1   Travis Kvapil          1233    -1451   17  0  0  0   0
34  -1   David Gilliland        1193    -1491   15  0  0  0   0
35  +1   Kevin Conway*          1169    -1515   17  0  0  0   0
36  -1   Brian Vickers          1158    -1526   11  0  0  0   3
37  --   David Stremme          770     -1914   10  0  0  0   0
38  +2   Mike Bliss             759     -1925   10  0  0  0   2
39  -1   Joe Nemechek           729     -1955   17  0  0  0   0
40  -1   Max Papis              699     -1985   14  0  0  0   0
41  --   Dave Blaney            622     -2062   15  0  0  0   0
42  --   Casey Mears            556     -2128   7   0  0  0   0
43  +3   J.J. Yeley             491     -2193   8   0  0  0   0
44  -1   Michael McDowell       471     -2213   12  0  0  0   0
45  -1   Bill Elliott           448     -2236   5   0  0  0   0
46  -1   Boris Said             399     -2285   5   0  0  0   1
47  --   Reed Sorenson          353     -2331   5   0  0  0   1
48  +3   Robert Richardson Jr.  249     -2435   3   0  0  0   0
49  -1   Michael Waltrip        200     -2484   3   0  0  0   0
50  -1   Todd Bodine            169     -2515   4   0  0  0   0

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