Posts Tagged ‘jimmie johnson’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Race results

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

* Denotes Rookie

Sprint Cup standings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Race results

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Race results

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

Sunday’s FedEx 400 race at Dover was all set to be a showdown between points leaders Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards: but Matt Kenseth had other ideas at the final pit stop.

In a weekend that had been plagued with rain, it was a relief that the FedEx 400 benefiting Autism Speaks NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Dover International Speedway managed to get run at all with only a single brief interruption for precipitation especially as the skies remained threatening over the racetrack for the whole afternoon even when the sun managed to break through.

In the end, the happiest man at the “Monster Mile” in Delaware when it came to how things went has to be Matt Kenseth. But Kenseth had started from an unpromising 24th position, after NASCAR used the new procedure for setting the grid in the event of qualifying being rained off, as it had been on Saturday at Dover: the fastest times set in Friday practice were used instead, which meant that Jimmie Johnson took poll with AJ Allmendinger alongside him and Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne immediately behind them on the second row.

Kyle Busch, who should have started from seventh under the new procedure, instead ended up at the back of the field for the green flag after an engine change following the first practice on Friday: “When they checked the valve lash, whatever they used to keep the valve lash correct broke, fell out, so that was the problem there,” Busch had said, in what was the latest of a worrying trend of blown engines at Joe Gibbs Racing this season. “I don’t know if we’ve seen that issue – I’m not entirely sure – but we had to change engines and go to the backup engine.” Busch then compounded the problem by putting the understeering #18 into the wall off turn 2 just 16 laps into final practice, giving him a mountain to climb even before the race started on Sunday afternoon at 1.17pm.

Johnson immediately took care of the lead at the start and hustled away, while Brian Vickers got loose and nearly brought out a very early caution by tapping the wall down the front straight. After the heavy rain on Saturday, a competition yellow had in any case been scheduled for lap 40 to allow car owners and drivers the chance to assess the state of play, but in fact it didn’t make it to that distance before we had a genuine first caution of the afternoon.

That was for Joey Logano, who got loose off turn 2 and went for a spin into the wall on lap 29; debris on track forced the caution, but pit lane was still not open for refuelling for another 20 laps under the scheduled yellow, and so no one was heading for pit road. Johnson led the restart with Allmendinger in second and Earnhardt Jr in third, and Carl Edwards had already climbed four spots to take up residence in fourth ahead of Brad Keselowski; Marcos Ambrose was also a big mover, into the top ten from a 15th place on the start, but unsurprisingly the biggest mover of all during the early laps had been Kyle Busch from the back, moving up 13 positions to 13th within a dozen laps of the start.

By the time we finally arrived at the competition caution on lap 40, Carl Edwards had glided into second position behind Johnson, and then nipped in front during the pit stops to head the field coming back round for the restart. Johnson got the better start and reclaimed the lead, with Allmendinger following him through into second place.

A 118-lap green flag stint now followed, and for much of it Johnson was impervious in the lead even if he was complaining that he was struggling for grip as the rubber started to build up on the previously washed-clean racetrack as the laps ticked by. He was not alone: “It’s loose,” Kevin Harvick was yelling into his radio. His crew chief Gil Martin confirmed that “The whole field is screaming.”

Those on the rise included Marcos Ambrose and Harvick (both into the top five), Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch (running on the edge of the top ten); Jeff Burton and Denny Hamlin were among the midfielders making slow but steady gains. Those having a less successful time included Clint Bowyer (struggling after taking two tyres on the competition caution) and Kasey Kahne (who had falled to 16th after his second row start. Jeff Gordon in 21st had no specific problems but just seemed to be unable to get any momentum going; Brad Keselowski had a scary moment on lap 75 when he got got loose and sideways but he managed to hold it together and carry on.

Green flag pit stops came and went around the 108-lap marker, Johnson taking up the lead again with ease despite having to put in some fancy footwork with lapped traffic. The major drama of the pit stops was supplied by David Ragan, who spun on pit road and nearly blocked the entrance altogether at the critical moment that everyone was needing to come in for gas.

“I just locked up the rear brakes a little bit coming into the pits during that green flag stop,” Ragan said later. “That’s the first time I’ve ever wrecked like that getting on pit road. And I’m usually the conservative one, but I guess I pushed it a little too hard today.”

Tony Stewart also had problems with not getting a full load of gas – the gas can never connected with the fuel hook-up, and he had to return to pit road on lap 116. It was a miscue that put him three laps down in 35th position, and it would get even worse as Smoke was also complaining of terrible balance on the #14: “I’m loose as **** now,” he yelled over the radio before his enforced return to the pits; Darian Grubb, his crew chief, could only respond with “Sorry buddy, I went too far.” The car’s handling never came together and Stewart finished unusually far down the running order, six laps off the lead by the end.

Johnson remained strong in the lead while Carl Edwards and Marcos Ambrose fought an extended battle over second place ahead of Allmendinger and Kenseth breaking into the top five by ejecting Keselowski and Harvick by lap 136. But Johnson’s long run in the lead was about to come to an end, and on lap 144 it was Carl Edwards who finally did the deed and took over control of the race.

Sadly, AJ Allmendinger’s strong run was about to come up to a premature end. He’d been struggling on and off ever since he’d picked up a severe vibration just before the previous round of pit stops, and then found the handling off after them. Now, as the race passed 160 laps, it was clear that his engine was terminally unwell and started to smoke.

At just this moment, drops of rain started to splatter themselves on the drivers’ windows: the clouds that had threatened for so long had finally decided to show up at the party and the race went under yellow to see how long and how bad this would be. The leaders pitted, but AJ’s crew got him to stay out an extra lap before coming in just so that he would be able to claim a point for leading. When they brought him in, however, it was clear that the race was done for the #43.

“It was weird because it all happened at once and there was no sign of it,” he explained afterwards. “We were running the leaders down. The track had gotten really slick. It was fun and you had to work really hard on finding the right line. It showed what drivers had to do. We were going to run them down and all of a sudden off of two it went. It was getting steadily worse.”

The shower was mercifully brief and racing got back underway less than ten minutes later on lap 170, with Jimmie Johnson having won the lead back in the pits, followed by Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, Marcos Ambrose and Kevin Harvick. Johnson’s lead this time was short-lived, Edwards once again the man to take it away from him on lap 190.

Martin Truex Jr. was determined to mark his 200th Sprint Cup series start with a good run and surged his way past Kenseth into the top three and was posting the fastest laps of anyone as the race passed the scheduled middle distance – the point at which the race also became “official” should the rain return and trigger a red flag.

At the back of the top ten, Kyle Busch was now ninth while Brad Keselowski and a now much-happier Clint Bowyer were battling over tenth itself. Busch lost places on lap 202 when he nearly slammed into the wall in turn 2 but somehow managed to save the car from disaster and carry on going.

Only 47 laps had passed under green before the fourth caution of the afternoon, this time for debris in turn 3. Everyone came in for pit stops, Edwards retaining the lead as Johnson suffered a poor stop some 2s slower than Edwards and Ambrose which also put him behind Kenseth and down to fourth, almost his worst position of the entire afternoon. When the race resumed, the cars settled in for another lengthy green flag stint – some 109 laps now passed until the next hiatus, and the main problem for everyone was the increasingly hazardous build-up of rubber that was making for some difficult and wildly inconsistent handling around the one-mile oval, forcing the drivers to work hard to find new and different grooves that would work for them.

More green flag pit stops started to break out from lap 280. Edwards came in from the lead and was sounding happy and confident, declaring that he was having fun and the #99 was nicely balanced; but it couldn’t help him retain the lead when Johnson rebounded from his earlier fumbled pit stop with a flier this time around to take back the top spot on lap 288.

20 laps later was a whole different story: Johnson declared that the #48 was out of control, and his crew chief Chad Knaus had to undertake some emergency panic counselling over the radio to get Jimmie to keep it together. He was, however, no match for Edwards who quickly cut the gap that had opened up between them; Clint Bowyer rode Edwards’ coat tails and followed through to third, followed by now by Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton.

Before either Edwards or Bowyer could make a definite move on Johnson, the fifth caution of the afternoon came out when Kasey Kahne had engine problems and headed up towards the wall. He had to head for the garage area, and joining him there was last week’s winner, Regan Smith. Smith had reported a possible electrical fire back on lap 231 that had wiped all his instrument gauges and after that he’d struggled to stay on the lead lap, but finally it was a broken track bar that put him off the track for some 18 laps.

“What a difference a week makes,” said a disappointed Smith. “It hurts because we had a good car and wanted to continue the momentum from last week’s win in Darlington. But we know we had a fast car today and we will continue to have fast cars. We’ll bounce back.”

During the ensuing pit stops, Bowyer’s crew pulled out all the stops and put him back out on track in the lead ahead of Johnson, Edwards, Burton and Harvick, and when the green flag came out Bowyer was away with surprising ease. Was he about to steal the race away from Johnson and Edwards, who had led for 207 and 117 laps respectively?

At this stage of proceedings, crew chiefs’ heads were all but exploding with the number of potential strategies they were having to weigh up and allow for. Carl Edwards was being warned to be careful with fuel, since while the #99 should be able to make it to the end they had to allow for the possibility of a green-white chequered flag extended proceedings. But they couldn’t they risk not pushing, either, in case the rain returned and the race ended prematurely. And what if there was another caution? “To pit, or not to pit?”, that would be the question – along with “four tyres or two?” for a follow-up bonus point.

There was almost a very quick caution when Paul Menard got a flat tyre trying (and failing) to avoid going into the right rear of a very slow Juan Montoya who was suffering with gear selection issues up near the wall, but the damage to the two cars was fairly minimal and Menard was able to continue into pit lane for new tyres without a yellow being required. That left all eyes on the evolving battle up front, with some aggressive side-by-side fighting going on between Johnson and Edwards for second while Bowyer tried to stay out of trouble up front.

The top ten were starting to pack together, and were coming up to lap Juan Montoya when the struggling #42 got loose all by itself and spun in turn 4, just avoiding hitting the wall. It was a moment that could have wiped out most of the leaders but fortunately the wreck remained a purely private affair for the Colombian who held the car braked up on the banking as the field passed by, but still inevitably resulted in that sixth caution with just under 40 laps to go until the end.

Now the teams had to commit to their respective pit strategies: and Mark Martin – who had earlier dropped back down the running order because of a missing lugnut issue – gambled by not pitting at all, opting to stay out in the front. In a split second decision, Matt Kenseth made the call to come into the pits but to go for only two tyres: “We came in and I know Jimmy and I were both thinking about it at the same time,” he said, referring to his crew chief Jimmy Fennig. “I just keyed the mic and said ‘Jimmy, you sure you don’t want to try two?’ And he didn’t even hesitate. It went smooth almost like we planned it.”

“That was all Matt there,” protested Fennig, who said the call wasn’t made until the #17 was literally in the box. “He figured we needed to have clean air and he called two tyres and we did two and away we went.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Brian Vickers were among the surprising number of drivers to adopt the same two-tyre gambit; but amazingly, none of the former top three contenders (Bowyer, Johnson and Edwards) went the same way and all decided that the extra time fitting a full set of four fresh tyres would be rewarded by extra pace on track that would easily put them back to the front before the chequered flag.

Johnson was startled to find that he had dropped to 11th as a result. “I guess in our minds we didn’t think that would take place, so many guys taking two tyres,” Johnson said. “It was certainly the call. I knew basically, from the numbers, we were in trouble when we left pit road and there were so many guys in front of us … There at the end, I really think that it was just dirty air and track position was the issue why the four-tyre guys couldn’t get through.”

“I thought we would be able to march up through there and I thought the race would be between Clint and I,” said Edwards. “I did see a couple cars go fast early on two tyres but I really felt we were going to have something. If we had had a caution who know what would have happened.”

“Obviously, probably two tyres may have won the race right there,” said Bowyer. “But, when [crew chief Shane Wilson] said four and that many guys stayed out or were on two, I really thought we would be able to get back up through them, especially, as greasy and slimy as the track was on restarts. But it just didn’t.

That split-second decision was the difference that tipped the race result on its head. At the restart, Kenseth’s decision to take two tyres gave him the immediate edge over Mark Martin, and the #17 beat the veteran campaigner second time around after the green flag and went on to pull out a near two-second lead over the ensuing laps.

Martin simply didn’t have the pace to go with Kenseth, but he had enough – and track position – to fend off Marcos Ambrose and Kyle Busch who had climbed up to third and fourth place. “It was another great race at Dover,” Martin said. “I love this place. I always get excited about coming here to race. We had a really fast race car. Great call [to stay out] by Lance McGrew and great teamwork. We’ve had great teamwork all year.”

Road course specialist Ambrose was equally happy with a strong result on a notoriously tricky oval: “Today I’m really excited about, because we had a really good day at Darlington and it didn’t go our way,” Ambrose said. “We’ve had some terrible luck. I’m really excited that my team is learning me, I’m learning them and I’m learning how these cars work.”

Busch had been one of those to have taken four tyres but still had a fast enough pit stop to retain decent track position at the same time. While it wasn’t the victory (let alone the triple crown he had been eyeing coming into Dover), it was still a remarkable recovery for Busch: “It was a tough race for us, but we ended up looking really good considering how our weekend was … It was a rough weekend: it started out rough,” Busch said. “We took four tyres on that last stop, and we kind of worked our way up and passed most of those guys on the restart … Fortunately for me, I was in the right lane, and I could do that. I made the outside work.”

Further back, Clint Bowyer, Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson found that they had been simply unable to work their way though traffic anywhere near as quickly as they had expected despite their fresh rubber advantage, and ended up stuck in sixth, seventh and ninth respectively at the chequered flag.

“You can’t look back, you have to look forward,” said Edwards. “We still have the points lead and the fastest car here today.”

Kenseth’s victory – the second in five races – puts him in the elite club of drivers to have won two victories so far this season alongside Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch. It’s Kenseth’s 20th Sprint Cup career victory in 411 starts, and puts him up four places in the Sprint Cup standings to sixth. Mark Martin is inside the Chase in 11th thanks to his runners-up position.

Next week is the Showdown and All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, which is not a Sprint Cup event but a special “exhibition” event. The next Sprint Cup race is at Charlotte the following week, the Coca-Cola 600 on Sunday evening which follows the running of the famed Indianapolis 500 during the afternoon.

Race result

Pos  Driver            Team/Car                      Time/Gap
 1.  Matt Kenseth      Roush Fenway Ford         3:11:07.000s
 2.  Mark Martin       Hendrick Chevrolet           +  2.122s
 3.  Marcos Ambrose    Petty Ford                   +  2.344s
 4.  Kyle Busch        Gibbs Toyota                 +  3.948s
 5.  Brian Vickers     Red Bull Toyota              +  4.689s
 6.  Clint Bowyer      Childress Chevrolet          +  5.771s
 7.  Carl Edwards      Roush Fenway Ford            +  5.796s
 8.  Martin Truex Jr   Waltrip Toyota               +  6.585s
 9.  Jimmie Johnson    Hendrick Chevrolet           +  7.763s
10.  Kevin Harvick     Childress Chevrolet          +  8.489s
11.  Jeff Burton       Childress Chevrolet          +  9.028s
12.  Dale Earnhardt Jr Hendrick Chevrolet           + 11.353s
13.  Brad Keselowski   Penske Dodge                 + 11.732s
14.  Kurt Busch        Penske Dodge                 + 12.257s
15.  David Reutimann   Waltrip Toyota               + 12.362s
16.  Denny Hamlin      Gibbs Toyota                 + 12.526s
17.  Jeff Gordon       Hendrick Chevrolet           + 13.359s
18.  Bobby Labonte     JTG Daugherty Toyota         + 16.688s
19.  Greg Biffle       Roush Fenway Ford            +  1 lap
20.  Jamie McMurray    Earnhardt Ganassi Chevrolet  +  2 laps
21.  Ryan Newman       Stewart Haas Chevrolet       +  2 laps
22.  David Gilliland   Front Row Ford               +  2 laps
23.  Casey Mears       Germain Toyota               +  3 laps
24.  Paul Menard       Childress Chevrolet          +  4 laps
25.  Mike Bliss        FAS Lane Ford                +  4 laps
26.  Dave Blaney       Baldwin Chevrolet            +  4 laps
27.  Joey Logano       Gibbs Toyota                 +  5 laps
28.  David Ragan       Roush Fenway Ford            +  5 laps
29.  Tony Stewart      Stewart Haas Chevrolet       +  6 laps
30.  Landon Cassill    Phoenix Chevrolet            +  6 laps
31.  Travis Kvapil     Front Row Ford               +  6 laps
32.  Juan Montoya      Earnhardt Ganassi Chevrolet  +  7 laps
33.  Andy Lally        TRG Chevrolet                + 11 laps
34.  Regan Smith       Furniture Row Chevrolet      + 39 laps


Tony Raines         Front Row Ford       341 laps
Kasey Kahne         Red Bull Toyota      331 laps
AJ Allmendinger     Petty Ford           166 laps
Scott Wimmer        Gordon Dodge          77 laps
Joe Nemechek        NEMCO Toyota          55 laps
JJ Yeley            Whitney Chevrolet     51 laps
Mike Skinner        Germain Toyota        51 laps
David Stremme       Inception Chevrolet   47 laps
Michael McDowell    HP Toyota             45 laps

Sprint Cup standings after race 11

POS +/-  DRIVER                 PTS  GAP     ST  P  W  T5 T10
1   --   Carl Edwards           416  Leader  11  2  1  6  9
2   --   Jimmie Johnson         392  -24     11  0  1  4  7
3   --   Kyle Busch             379  -37     11  0  2  6  7
4   --   Dale Earnhardt Jr.     364  -52     11  1  0  2  5
5   --   Kevin Harvick          362  -54     11  0  2  4  6
6   +4   Matt Kenseth           342  -74     11  1  2  4  5
7   -1   Ryan Newman            340  -76     11  0  0  4  5
8   +1   Clint Bowyer           336  -80     11  0  0  2  6
9   -1   Kurt Busch             336  -80     11  0  0  1  5
10  -3   Tony Stewart           328  -88     11  0  0  1  4
11  +3   Mark Martin            324  -92     11  0  0  1  4
12  --   Greg Biffle            311  -105    11  0  0  1  4
================ CHASE FOR THE SPRINT CUP ==================
13  +3   Denny Hamlin           304  -112    11  0  0  1  3
14  +3   Jeff Gordon            299  -117    11  1  1  3  3
15  -2   Juan Montoya           296  -120    11  2  0  2  4
16  -5   A.J. Allmendinger      295  -121    11  0  0  0  2
17  +1   Paul Menard            291  -125    11  0  0  2  3
18  -3   Kasey Kahne            286  -130    11  1  0  2  5
19  +1   Martin Truex Jr.       282  -134    11  0  0  0  3
20  +2   Marcos Ambrose         281  -135    11  0  0  2  3
21  -2   David Ragan            270  -146    11  1  0  1  3
22  -1   Jamie McMurray         267  -149    11  1  0  0  2
23  +1   Jeff Burton            258  -158    11  0  0  0  0
24  +2   Brad Keselowski        251  -165    11  0  0  1  1
25  -2   Bobby Labonte          251  -165    11  0  0  1  1
26  +2   David Reutimann        244  -172    11  0  0  0  0
27  +2   Brian Vickers          238  -178    11  0  0  1  4
28  -3   Joey Logano            238  -178    11  0  0  0  1
29  -2   Regan Smith            226  -190    11  0  1  1  2
30  --   David Gilliland        202  -214    11  0  0  1  2
31  --   Dave Blaney            174  -242    11  0  0  0  0
32  --   Casey Mears            168  -248    10  0  0  0  0
33  --   Robby Gordon           144  -272    10  0  0  0  0
34  --   Andy Lally*            127  -289    9   0  0  0  0
35  +1   Tony Raines            109  -307    9   0  0  0  0
36  -1   Bill Elliott           100  -316    5   0  0  0  0
37  --   Ken Schrader           73   -343    5   0  0  0  0
38  --   Terry Labonte          40   -376    2   0  0  0  0
39  --   J.J. Yeley             36   -380    10  0  0  0  0
40  --   Michael McDowell       32   -384    9   0  0  0  0
41  --   Michael Waltrip        20   -396    2   0  0  0  0
42  --   David Stremme          15   -401    3   0  0  0  0
43  --   Brian Keselowski*      3    -413    1   0  0  0  0
44  --   Steve Park             2    -414    1   0  0  0  0
45  --   Trevor Bayne           0    -416    8   0  1  1  1
46  --   Steve Wallace          0    -416    1   0  0  0  0
47  +1   Mike Skinner           0    -416    7   0  0  0  0
48  -1   Landon Cassill         0    -416    10  0  0  0  0
49  --   Mike Bliss             0    -416    1   0  0  0  0
50  -1   Travis Kvapil          0    -416    10  0  0  0  0
51  -1   Hermie Sadler          0    -416    1   0  0  0  0
52  +2   T.J. Bell              0    -416    1   0  0  0  0
53  -2   Robert Richardson Jr.  0    -416    1   0  0  0  0
54  -1   David Starr            0    -416    1   0  0  0  0
55  -3   Dennis Setzer          0    -416    1   0  0  0  0
56  --   Scott Wimmer           0    -416    1   0  0  0  0
57  -2   Joe Nemechek           0    -416    11  0  0  0  0
58  -2   Todd Bodine            0    -416    1   0  0  0  0
59  -2   Kevin Conway           0    -416    1   0  0  0  0
60  -1   Scott Riggs            0    -416    0   0  0  0  0
61  -3   Derrike Cope           0    -416    0   0  0  0  0

Race report: Regan Smith finally claimed a maiden Sprint Cup victory; unfortunately for him, his bog moment was somewhat eclipsed by the fireworks erupting between Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick.

Regan Smith has been racing in NASCAR Sprint Cup since the 2007 Food City 500 at Bristol; in 2008 he was Rookie of the Year (beating out Sam Hornish Jr.) and became the first rookie driver in Sprint Cup history ever to finish every race he entered. And at Talladega in the autumn he came tantalisingly close to winning his first race, before he was disqualified for dipping below the notorious double yellow line to overtake Tony Stewart.

Little did he know it would be more than two and a half years, 105 races from his series debut, before he would actually take that final step and make it to victory road. Or that it would be a Saturday evening race under floodlights at Darlington Raceway that would finally deliver him the title of “NASCAR race winner”.

Ironically for someone who had the best starting position average of any Sprint Cup driver in 2011 (7.1, compared with an average finishing position of a very poor 24.6) Smith’s big race dawned with his worst starting position of the season to date – he was back in 23rd position, after rain had wiped out most of practice and left qualifying a hurried, harried affair amidst the threat of showers.

That qualifying session had meant that the field was led to the green flag by Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman on the front row, Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards ominously lurking right behind them on the second row, with Jeff Gordon fifth, Tony Stewart ninth, Kyle Busch in 14th and Jimmie Johnson starting back in 19th.

Kahne and Newman were quick to battle for the lead, but Mike Skinner was equally quick to go spinning on lap 5 and bring out an early yellow and it was the restart that enabled Newman to get the jump on Kahne and actually move to the front when racing resumed. Drivers on the move early on included Jeff Gordon (quickly up to third), Kyle Busch (rapidly up into the top five), brother Kurt, David Reutimann and Jimmie Johnson. Among those going in the wrong direction were Carl Edwards, who was having trouble with the splitter of the #99 scraping the ground out of the turns – a problem shared by the #43 of AJ Allmendinger.

A second yellow came out on lap 34 for JJ Yeley’s troubling smoking habit, and the caution took the place of a “competition” yellow that had been planned for around this part of the race to allow teams and drivers to check their cars given the lack of practice time in Friday’s rain. That meant everyone was obliged to pit, and on the other side it was Kasey Kahne back in the lead ahead of Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart.

Kahne was easily fastest at the restart on lap 41 and soon had over a second lead on Busch. Having a poor time of it during this stage of the race was Matt Kenseth who was badly off the pace and haemorrhaging positions, falling to the back of the lead lap by lap 55. On the radio, he asked his pit crew chief: “Jimmy, did you pull out a front end shim out or something?” and there was no question that he needed an emergency dive to pit lane for adjustments. Unfortunately he missed the pit lane commitment line and added a drive-thru penalty to his woes, putting him three laps down and thoroughly wrecking his chances for a much-needed good result here.

Kyle was beginning to despair of finding any answer to Kahne’s dominance at the front when a yellow came out on lap 73 for David Gilliland hitting the wall. Following the pit stops, Jamie McMurray popped up in the lead after taking two tyres where everyone else stayed put for four, with Kasey Kahne, Kyle Busch and Juan Montoya forming the remainder of the front two rows at the double file restart; Tony Stewart came out of it worst, having problems identifying his pit stall, then needing a chassis adjustment, and finally slow off pit road as well.

Once the track went green again, Jimmie Johnson was the man on the move – quickly past Jeff Gordon on his march toward the top spots. But that put him and Juan Montoya into close proximity, and on lap 83 the two made the lightest of contact seconds after Johnson had appeared to move up and pinch Montoya against the wall, hinting that Montoya’s comeback might not have been entirely innocent. Johnson went for a spin that fortunately managed not to include contact with the wall, meaning both cars got away with minimal damage other than flat-spotted tyres on the #48. “I got hit in the back for no reason,” reported Johnson over the radio.

“[Montoya’s] a ****,” Johnson’s pit chief Chad Knaus commiserated with his driver. “I don’t know what the **** he was thinking.” Alluding to the stories of a running feud all week between Montoya and Newman since their on-track spat at Richmond, Knaus concluded: “He’s just mad at the world.”

Montoya radioed his apologies – “Sorry, I locked the front tires” – but added that the #48 was also early off the gas. Team Johnson was unimpressed: “He’s a way better driver than that,” said Knaus: “No apology there.”

After the restart on lap 88 Kahne was quickly back in front, and Montoya equally quick to be back into the wars, this time with contact with Brian Vickers; fortunately the Red Bull driver was able to save the #83 and avoid another quick yellow flag coming out.

McMurray’s two-tyre gamble was exposed as a mistake and he sank back, with Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Kevin Harvick taking up the top four positions ahead of him, but well behind Kahne who was far away in front. As the cars got a decent stretch of green flag running, Kahne found his car getting loose and hotter as the laps clicked past, and by lap 115 his lead had evaporated and he had no answer for Carl Edwards coming on strong and sailing past him to take to the front.

The teams were just contemplating the onset of green flag pit stops when the fifth caution of the afternoon arrived on lap 122 for debris on the track, and the cars gratefully took to pit road. As so often happens, the #18 pit crew put Kyle Busch back out on track in the lead ahead of Carl Edwards, David Reutimann, Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick: Tony Stewart had a scare when his team dropped a lugnut; Jimmie Johnson was left loose and ruing not asking his team to tighten him up while he had the chance; and Paul Menard got hit from behind in pit lane by Brad Keselowski that spun him sideways into his pit box; the team just got to work on the #27 anyways. To rub salt into the wound, Menard then got himself a pit lane exit speeding violation.

Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards were quickly away in front when racing resumed on lap 127, but David Reutimann – who had gambled on taking two tyres only – was moving backwards and was replaced in the top spots by Kasey Kahne recovering from a slightly sluggish pit stop. Jeff Gordon was dropping backwards complaining that his car was now too loose, and Johnson was indeed suffering from the same problem and dropped out of the top 20.

The green flag stint lasted almost a hundred laps, meaning that it included a round of green flag pit stops which saw Martin Truex Jr. losing it and spinning as he tried to make it down onto pit lane at speed. Kyle Busch, having built up a 2.5s lead over Edwards, was easily able to come in, pit and get out again in the lead without any dramas; and the stops also saw a revival in fortunes for both Gordon and Johnson who were finally moving in the right direction again.

But just when it looked as though Kyle Busch was cruising to a dominant victory, disaster struck the #18 as they passed the 200 lap marker: a vibration was the tell-tale sign of a loose wheel, and he had no option but to dive into pit road on lap 205 for a costly unscheduled green flag pit stop for new tyres. It put the former leader down to 27th place and a lap off the lead, and things looked bleak for him from here.

Carl Edwards inherited the lead, and also the battle through lapped traffic. A few laps earlier he’d flirted with disaster himself, having hit the wall on lap 192. “How bad did I tear up the right rear, Jason?” Edwards had asked his spotter, Jason Hedlesky. “Not too bad. I guess if you’re going to do it, that’s the way to do it,” came the reply – and sure enough it didn’t seem to be having too bad an effect on his pace now he was in the lead.

Edwards was still leading Harvick and Kahne when the sixth caution came out on lap 220. The cause this time was a solo spin by Jimmie Johnson after a tyre went down. He was having an uncharacteristically messy evening of it, but once again the reigning champion’s luck held and he made no contact and was able to carry on after the ensuing round of pit stops that saw Edwards, Harvick, Kahne, Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon remain up in front.

The next green flag lasted only four laps before the seventh caution on lap 229, resulting from a collision between Brian Vickers and David Ragan: Ragan got loose off the turn, and spun across the front of Vickers; the nose of the #6 embedded itself into the front left side of Vickers’ car and then, as Vickers carried on past, literally peeled the skin off the side of the #83 like a can opener, leaving Vickers with major bodywork ripped off and flapping around, and impact foam all over the track from inside the bodywork.

The caution gave Martin Truex Jr. the lucky dog free pass, which meant that Kyle Busch was still a lap off the leaders. “What position am I now, please?” he radioed in rather bleakly, to which crew chief Dave Rogers responded succinctly: “21st”.

Carl Edwards led the field to the green flag on lap 235 but quickly dropped two positions to Kevin Harvick and Kasey Kahne, before the race was immediately back under caution for Joey Logano spinning after contact with Marcos Ambrose. It was ironically good news for Logano’s team mate, Kyle Busch, who finally got the lucky dog this time and was back on the lead lap again at last after that unfortunate loose tyre, and with plenty of time yet to make it back to the front.

Currently in the lead for the restart on lap 243 was Kevin Harvick, followed by Kasey Kahne, Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, but Busch served early notice of his intent to get back among them by some eye-catching aggressive driving, sweeping down to the inner apron to gain multiple spots without a second thought. He was back into top 15 by lap 263, only a few places back from Regan Smith who by now was lurking on the outskirts of the top ten.

Tony Stewart had just pitted under green for tyres and fuel on lap 278 when the ninth caution of the evening came out after Mark Martin smacked the wall, leaving the #5 sending up smoke signals. Stewart was fortunate to get the wave-around as the leaders came in for their stops under what should have been a less stressful yellow, but in fact there were multiple incidents on pit road including Paul Menard nearly running over the member of his pit crew who had been attempting to clean up the grille, and Jeff Gordon taking off with his gas man who was still pumping fuel into the back of the #24.

At the green flag on lap 284, Kasey Kahne has displaced Kevin Harvick during the pit stops and they were followed by Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was the biggest mover in the race at this point having started from 30th on the grid. Further back, Jimmie Johnson was also back on the lead lap having received this caution’s lucky dog – the latest of several big names needing that same get out of jail free card here tonight at Darlington.

A length green flag period followed, with Kahne maintaining the lead through to and after the green flag pit stops which started around lap 320. However, Carl Edwards was feeling very confident and reported to the team that he felt they had the car to beat tonight – all they had to do was get the #99 to the front. Other drivers were less happy with the state of affairs, with Johnson and McMurray both reporting worrying wheel vibrations before they came in for their respective pit stops. And worst of all, Earnhardt Jr. undid all that earlier good work with a spin coming into pit lane that saw him hit the commitment line cone, incurring a drive-thru penalty that ejected him from the lead lap.

With potentially the final pit stops out of the way, the drivers got down to the serious battle of the race endgame. Edwards asserted himself and followed through on his earlier boast, taking the lead from Kahne who wasn’t wildly happy with the current state of his car: “I’m too tight,” he radioed to his pit crew. “Tighter than the last time for sure”

Denny Hamlin had also emerged as a potent threat to the leaders, and it took a determined effort by Kevin Harvick to pass him on lap 335 which saw Harvick come close to spinning the #11 although no actual contact was made. Both cars survived the scare, with Hamlin now having to fend off the attentions of Regan Smith for fifth place, as Smith targeted a career-best finish (the previous best being seventh at this year’s Daytona 500.)

The race was just ten laps away from its scheduled end when the tenth yellow of the evening came out, for Jeff Burton’s car blowing up. He’d radioed earlier that his water and oil readings were all showing red lights, and now he knew that they hadn’t been bluffing. The late caution now gave the crews the chance to bring their drivers in for fresh rubber – just two new tyres could make a race-winning difference at this point – and most of them did, although Jimmie Johnson would come to rue the decision after a fumbled lugnut saw him recalled for a second pass through to cap what had been a trying evening. A few cars gambled on staying out without fresh rubber: Regan Smith, Brad Keselowski and Tony Stewart took up the top spots. But it would take something big – ideally, another caution and a green-and-chequered finish – to make this Hail Mary pay off.

And then on lap 363 came the wreck that everyone would still be talking about the morning after. Kevin Harvick was moving up on Kyle Busch when the #18 seemed to struggle off the turn and lose a little momentum; the two rubbed alongside each other before Kyle pulled out in front, and Harvick gave the back of the #18 a tap but both cars were able to absorb the impact. It did give Clint Bowyer an opportunity to dive down the inside of the two as they slowed up, and they were three-wide out off the turn with Harvick in the middle and Busch on the outside.

The three compressed as they came out of the turn, and Harvick in the middle ran out of room. First he hit Busch – who was right up against the wall and bounced toward it, destabilising Harvick who shook left and hit Bowyer on the inside instead. And Bowyer got by far the worst of it, sent sheering off at right angles to make a nasty, hard head-on impact with the inside wall that crunched up the nose in a big way and made sure he would play no part in the restart.

“It was tight racing after the restart there and Harvick was up on the top, a little bit loose, and I gave him room,” claimed Busch afterwards. “He kind of came off the wall – that’s a bad angle, obviously – and then lifted early to let me go into turn 3 and I thought it was all good. Then he drives into the back of me there, so … it made my car loose all the way through the exit, and just made a run for those two guys to get back on my inside.

“And then obviously Clint wrecked, bouncing off Harvick. It was just uncalled-for; it was unacceptable racing. I know it’s the last couple of laps, but I gave him room coming off 2 and I didn’t get the room.”

And the incident was not done just because the caution was out: Busch moved down off the wall as they proceeding down the straight, and tagged the back of the #29 sending Harvick for a spin. Both cars would need to take to pit lane, but while Busch went on to finish in 11th the additional spin had sent Harvick all the way down to 17th, and he was steamed up about it.

After all that, there was still a race to resolve – Regan Smith led Carl Edwards to the green-and-chequered flag on lap 368, getting a good start thanks to a boost from Brad Keselowski; but he was unable to pull away from the #99 who was right on his tail and threatening to deny him that all-important first career win. On the final lap, Smith was pushing so hard that his rear end stepped out and he scrapped the wall out of turn 2, but he gathered it up and didn’t give Edwards any chance to react by diving down to the inside line. The moment of danger had passed for the #78: the chequered flag – and the win – was finally his.

“I can’t believe it, you guys,” Smith said over the radio. “This is the Southern 500. We’re not supposed to win this thing. As well as Smith’s frst series win, it’s also a first victory for his team and for owner Barney Visser. “I don’t really know how to put it in words right now. It is so surreal,” Smith added.

“There’s been a lot of times when they could have gotten down on me last year [or] this year, and everybody stuck behind me and gave me the support I needed to keep my head on straight. I’ll be honest with you, when I walked to the car tonight, I literally thought we could win the race. I think that every week when I walk to the car. The difference is, this week we did.”

But there were shenanigans brewing elsewhere over that lap 363 accident: Harvick was blatantly tracking Kyle Busch around the cool-down lap, so that the #18 even opted to overshoot the entrance to pit lane in a bid to avoid the attentions of the #29. Harvick wasn’t about to let him get away with that and continued to stalk Busch, the two of them briefly coming to a stop before Busch then made a move to circle back to the pit lane entry.

Harvick got in first, the damaged car of Bobby Labonte briefly trapped in the middle of this stand-off before Harvick allowed it through. Then Harvick stopped to block the #18 getting further down pit lane, jumped out of his car and stormed over to Busch’s driver-side window and appeared to aim a punch through it, at which point Busch reacted by flooring the accelerator – and pushed the driverless #29 ahead of him around, sending it skewing into the pit wall. Fortunately no one was in the way when he did, and Kyle exited to the garage area while the altercation spilled out and seized the two drivers’ respective teams, Joe Gibbs Racing and Richard Childress Racing – ironically situated side-by-side on pit lane, and thus having to be physically separated by a NASCAR peacekeeping task-force as harsh words turned to physical shoves between them.

NASCAR downplayed the incident and tried to redirect attention to the worthy winner in pit lane, but added that they will be looking at everything that happened at the usual Tuesday post-race wrap-up meeting and deciding if any penalties and sanctions are due to any driver as a result of what happened on Saturday night.

Whatever the decisions, though, this time it won’t affect the race winner: almost three years after being stripped of his “first win” at Talladega, this time Regan Smith had won it fair and square. About time too for the 27-year-old New Yorker, and quite right!

Despite some excellent qualifying performances, Regan Smith came to Darlington with the unenviable record of 105 starts without a Sprint Cup win: but he finally put that to rights on Saturday night.

Regan Smith has had an excellent run of qualifying for Sprint Cup races in 2011, but when it comes to the race it’s all fallen apart. The nearest he’s ever come to victory lane was in 2008 at Talladega, when he took the chequered flag only to be penalised for dropping below the double yellow line. It’s taken three years to finally address that knock back: “This is the Southern 500—we’re not supposed to win this thing!” said Smith over the radio to his crew as he headed for victory lane.

“This is no knock against Talladega at all, but I would trade in a lot of Talladega wins for one win in the Southern 500!” he added at the conclusion of the Saturday night floodlit race at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina.

Smith owed much to Brad Keselowski who pushed him clear of Carl Edwards on the final restart. He becomes the eighth different winner in ten races in 2011, showing how varied the season has been so far. It also shows how many new faces are coming through, with Smith joining Trevor Bayne as the second first-time Sprint Cup winner of the year.

The race saw a costly solo spin for Jimmie Johnson on lap 220, and a late spat between Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch that saw Harvick get spun, and also caught up Clint Bowyer in a damaging wreck just 7 laps before the end which meant race finished under green-white-chequered conditions and the #33 tumbled to 31st place in the final results.

Race results

1. #78 Regan Smith Chevrolet 370 laps 3h53m51.000s (47/1 pts)
2. #99 Carl Edwards Ford 370 laps + 0.196s (43/1 pts)
3. #2 Brad Keselowski Dodge 370 laps + 0.861s (41/0 pts)
4. #4 Kasey Kahne Toyota 370 laps + 1.100s (42/2 pts)
5. #39 Ryan Newman Chevrolet 370 laps + 1.406s (40/1 pts)
6. #11 Denny Hamlin Toyota 370 laps + 1.682s (38/0 pts)
7. #14 Tony Stewart Chevrolet 370 laps + 1.796s (38/1 pts)
8. #16 Greg Biffle Ford 370 laps + 2.594s (36/0 pts)
9. #1 Jamie McMurray Chevrolet 370 laps + 2.635s (36/1 pts)
10. #56 Martin Truex Jr. Toyota 370 laps + 2.827s (35/1 pts)
11. #18 Kyle Busch Toyota 370 laps + 3.419s (34/1 pts)
12. #24 Jeff Gordon Chevrolet 370 laps + 3.682s (32/0 pts)
13. #9 Marcos Ambrose Ford 370 laps + 4.392s (31/0 pts)
14. #88 Dale Earnhardt Jr. Chevrolet 370 laps + 4.430s (30/0 pts)
15. #48 Jimmie Johnson Chevrolet 370 laps + 4.874s (29/0 pts)
16. #00 David Reutimann Toyota 370 laps + 8.646s (28/0 pts)
17. #29 Kevin Harvick Chevrolet 370 laps + 9.729s (28/1 pts)
18. #47 Bobby Labonte Toyota 370 laps + 27.111s (27/1 pts)
19. #5 Mark Martin Chevrolet 370 laps + 1 lap (25/0 pts)
20. #43 A.J. Allmendinger Ford 370 laps + 1 lap (24/0 pts)
21. #6 David Ragan Ford 370 laps + 1 lap (23/0 pts)
22. #27 Paul Menard Chevrolet 370 laps + 1 lap (22/0 pts)
23. #42 Juan Montoya Chevrolet 368 laps + 2 laps (21/0 pts)
24. #36 Dave Blaney Chevrolet 367 laps + 3 laps (20/0 pts)
25. #17 Matt Kenseth Ford 366 laps + 4 laps (19/0 pts)
26. #38 Travis Kvapil Ford 365 laps + 5 laps (0pts)
27. #22 Kurt Busch Dodge 364 laps + 6 laps (17/0 pts)
28. #32 Ken Schrader Ford 364 laps + 6 laps (17/1 pts)
29. #09 Landon Cassill Chevrolet 364 laps + 6 laps (0pts)
30. #13 Casey Mears Toyota 364 laps + 6 laps (15/1 pts)
31. #33 Clint Bowyer Chevrolet 363 laps + 7 laps (13/0 pts)
32. #34 David Gilliland Ford 362 laps + 8 laps (12/0 pts)
33. #31 Jeff Burton Chevrolet 358 laps In Pit (11/0 pts)
34. #83 Brian Vickers Toyota 332 laps Running (10/0 pts)
35. #20 Joey Logano Toyota 318 laps Running (9/0 pts)
36. #37 Tony Raines Ford 172 laps In Pit (8/0 pts)
37. #7 Robby Gordon Dodge 87 laps In Pit (7/0 pts)
38. #150 T.J. Bell Toyota 67 laps In Pit (0pts)
39. #46 J.J. Yeley Chevrolet 34 laps Out of Race (5/0 pts)
40. #60 Mike Skinner Toyota 29 laps In Pit (0pts)
41. #30 David Stremme Chevrolet 27 laps Out of Race (3/0 pts)
42. #87 Joe Nemechek Toyota 22 laps Out of Race (0pts)
43. #66 Michael McDowell Toyota 7 laps In Pit (1/0 pts)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Race results

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

Sprint Cup standings after race 9

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

Friday saw violent storms pass through Alabama and left NASCAR drivers, staff and media taking shelter from tornado warnings, but at 1.22pm local time on Sunday the weather was bright and the only storms anyone could see on the horizon were the inevitable wrecks and fall-outs to come on the 2.66 mile Talladega Superspeedway.

Polesitter Jeff Gordon led Jimmie Johnson and the rest of the field to the green flag start, while the rear of the field was brought up by Trevor Bayne, Greg Biffle, Bill Elliott and Robby Gordon all of whom were sent to the back for post-qualifying adjustments to their cars (and in Robby Gordon’s case, he had not even made it to Talladega for qualifying because of the storms in the area and needed Sam Hornish Jr. to fill in for him on Saturday.)

With Hendrick Motorsports forming the top four positions at the start, it was no surprise to see them choosing their drafting partners and getting ready to control the race right from the start. Jeff Gordon held the lead with support from Mark Martin, while Jimmie Johnson settled in with Dale Earnhardt Jr as his backer. Other partnerships shaping up included Clint Bowyer with Michael Waltrip, Landon Cassill with Kurt Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing duo Kyle Busch and Joey Logano, Kasey Kahne with Brian Vickers.

Inevitably there were glitches during in the bedding-in period. Bowyer briefly took the lead on lap 5 but then fell back slightly when Waltrip got loose; Gordon was struggling with a plastic bag that had splayed itself across his engine air-intake and immediately threatened to cause overheating problems. Drafting partners shot through out of nowhere to claim the lead – Ryan Newman (with Denny Hamlin) on lap 10 promptly usurped at the front by Brad Keselowski; Kurt Busch had his turn in front on lap 13, then Jimmie Johnson on lap 14 after he and Earnhardt had initially appeared to be heading for the midfield, dropping back to 15th and 16th spots respectively.

But few drafting pairs could hold on for long – as soon as they had to switch around to relieve overheating problems in the pushing car, both cars would lose momentum and fall back. The most consistent pairing in terms of holding the lead during these early laps was undoubtedly Bowyer and Waltrip, but even so there were eight lead changes and six different leaders inside the first 20 laps.

David Ragan and Paul Menard started to feature over the next ten laps as they battled with Kyle Busch and Joey Logano, but Kyle’s brother Kurt was equally determined to lead from the front with the help of Landon Cassill. Unfortunately on lap 28 this latter partnership broke down when Kurt gave Landon such a bump that the #09 got loose and slammed into Brian Vickers who went out of control, spun down the front straightaway and then hit the wall hard. Amazingly only Matt Kenseth was caught up in the aftermath, his rear bumper grazed by a light brush from Vickers. The unfortunate Cassill survived the incident but then got a penalty for pitting too soon, and was sent to the rear of the field.

Bowyer and Waltrip led after the ensuing pit stops under caution, and led the field to green at the restart on lap 31. Bowyer, however, was changing dance partner: his team mate Jeff Burton was now in a good position nearby and so Bowyer switched to him and left Waltrip to plummet back down through the field without anyone to draft with. David Ragan had also now switched, abandoning Paul Menard and now pushing Matt Kenseth to the lead – showing that the light contact sustained in the previous caution hadn’t affected the #17’s handling one bit. The jilted Menard was more fortunate than Waltrip and quickly hooked up with David Ragan, in an arrangement that saw Menard himself briefly lead on lap 45.

Bowyer and Burton were proving to be the most consistent front-runners, but others came and went: Brad Keselowski had taken up with Kurt Busch now that Landon Cassill was running out of position, but it was Dale Earnhardt Jr. who inevitably got the biggest cheer from the 115,000 crowd as he took the lead with Jimmie Johnson’s help and the two briefly stretched out a surprisingly large lead before once again the race ebbed and flowed and they were caught up by the pack once more.

Having both started at the back of the pack, Greg Biffle and rookie Trevor Bayne had forged a surprisingly effective marriage of convenience, and Bayne was certainly demonstrating a knack for restrictor plate racing that proved his shock Daytona 500 win was no mere fluke by leading on lap 59, but the switchover between the two cars inevitably resulted in them falling back again immediately afterwards, although they continued to do battle for the lead with Earnhardt/Johnson and Bowyer/Burton through to the start of green flag pit stops on lap 69.

Earnhardt and Johnson got the best boost from the pit stops and raced off into an impressively enduring lead, while their Hendrick team mates Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin were less fortunate and slumped way back having gone for oddly different strategies (Martin taking two tyres only, Gordon going for four and a ton of fuel) which made it harder to work together and co-ordinate properly. Earnhardt and Johnson were finally caught by Ryan Newman, who had picked up an effective new drafting partner in the surprising shape of Kyle Busch, and the four of them were competing for the front spot when the second caution of the afternoon came out on lap 90

Once again Kurt Busch was involved, although the root cause was David Ragan’s engine blowing. His initial slowing-up had caused problems for those behind him as they reacted, which resulted in Kurt bumping into the back of his latest drafting partner Brad Keselowski, who then got loose and collected the cars of Bayne, Ambrose and Kahne in the ensuring wreck: Kahne was the most seriously damaged, the #4 catching fire as he tried to navigate it back to pit road, forcing Kasey to bail out and leave it to the fire crew to take care of. Burton had suffered less serious damage, while even Johnson and Earnhardt had ended up causing light damage to one another in the aftermath because of their close drafting. But it was most definitely the end of Talladega for the Daytona winner Trevor Bayne.

“That was one of the harder hits I’ve taken,” admitted Bayne afterwards. “I just saw the #2 [Keselowski] get hooked at the same time the #6 [Ragan] was on fire. He [Keselowski] goes across the track, I saw him hit the outside wall, but then I don’t know who caught us in the right rear and sent us. But I thought we were safe. I was like, ‘Man, that was close,’ and about the time I said that I was headed toward the outside wall. So not a fun ride.”

Ironically it was Kurt – the driver who had dispatched two drafting partners already today – who inherited the lead after track went green again after pit stops. He had to rely on surprising family loyalty to pick up a new victim, sorry, drafting partner in the shape of the #18 of Kyle Busch, but this was a period of rapid changes at the front: Dave Blaney led lap 100, then Carl Edwards was back in front, then Kurt was briefly back in the lead before Clint Bowyer surged past for a lap. But each time they were bested, the unlikely pairing of the Busch Brothers seemed equal to the challenge until at last Regan Smith (working with Bobby Labonte) and Clint Bowyer (still with Burton) got a grip – and then remarkably Dave Blaney worked his way into the lead with help from Kevin Harvick, meaning that as the race passed lap 120 we’d seen 58 lead changes at an event where the record stands at 88 set here at this even in April 2010. Blaney led for four laps laps during that sequence, which is not bad considering he’s only led five laps in total in Sprint Cup events before this.

A bungled switchover in position between Blaney and Harvick saw Kurt Busch take to the front again, and then the third caution of the afternoon was out on lap 128 for debris that seemed to have dropped off Clint Bowyer’s car. Paul Menard and Regan Smith were teamed up to take the lead at the restart, and Dave Blaney made another appearance at the front for two laps leading drafting partner Kevin Harvick to quip “I’m going to have nightmares about kids eating free,” referring to an advertising offer by Blaney’s sponsor Golden Corral should the #36 manage to pull off the upset win of the century.

But racing was abruptly at an end with the fourth caution for a multiple car wreck. After the previous Joey Logano had got on the radio with a “Yo Kyle, it’s Joey, what’s going on up there?” to which Kyle had responded: “I say we find each other again. Like yesterday. See if you can’t hammer down and get back to me. In this situation it doesn’t matter when we hook up, just that we hook up. It’s still early in the race.”

To say that this suggestion proved a less-than-great idea was an understatement: on lap 140, Logano promptly misjudged his drafting and managed to spin his JGR team mate down the backstraight, sending the #18 hard into the side of Matt Kenseth. AJ Allmendinger spun trying to avoid the accident, but kept it off the wall and avoided hitting anyone else in the process, while Denny Hamlin also sustained light damage but was able to carry on.

However, it was the end for two drivers who came into Talladega second and third in the points. The pit crew had an idea to repair Kyle’s radiator and get him out if only to help someone else with drafting; and Kyle had learned just the previous day that a “never say die” attitude can reap rewards, after his Nationwide Series car held together by duct tape and prayers managed to win the race at the last gasp. But there would be no such resurrection from the dead for the #18 today and he joined Kenseth in retirement.

At the restart on lap 144 the race had 44 laps to go. The big loser after this most recent round of pit stops was, ironically, Dave Blaney: perhaps Harvick had been serious about getting nightmares about that free food for kids, because he dropped the #36 as soon as it was clear that the four Richard Childress Racing cars (Harvick, Menard, Bowyer and Burton) were all lined up in the top four spots for the restart and in perfect position to act as a team to dominate the remainder of the race.

Bowyer rewarded Harvick by shoving him into the lead at the restart, the 70th lead change of the afternoon. Martin Truex Jr. briefly intervened in the RCR lock-out before going for a wild ride down the inside apron leaving Jeff Burton to take the lead, while a bigger threat was brewing to the foursome in the shape of a Jamie McMurray/Juan Montoya pairing. And incredibly, Dave Blaney wasn’t done yet either – finding a new partner in the form of Regan Smith, he led a couple more laps before RCR once again packed out the top four with Clint Bowyer taking the team lead.

Racing came to another yellow on lap 163 for further debris out on track, and the timing meant all the drivers and teams needed to think hard about what to do – stay out, come in, two tyres, four, fuel or risk running to the end? It was make or break time. The top ten leaders stayed out, with Kurt Busch in 11th the highest-placed driver to come in. Jimmie Johnson had been hanging well down the running order with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and opted to come in for four tyres; Hendrick drafting partners Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon were also in, for fuel and tyres respectively.

A touch of karma possibly played a part at the restart, as Harvick paid for his abandoning of Blaney at the last caution with a slow getaway: it was a result of a miscommunication that saw Bowyer and Burton team up and take the lead, and Menard feeling like he’d been left all alone took up with Regan Smith which left Harvick out in the cold.

But on lap 170 all eyes were on Ryan Newman, who had been bumped from behind by drafting partner Denny Hamlin, got loose and slammed into Juan Montoya between turns 3 and 4. Somehow both drivers saved their cars and seemed able to carry on, but three laps later Newman lost it again and went for a spin down the backstretch, this time loitering to bring out the sixth caution of the afternoon and packing the field right back together again for a final 11-race sprint to the chequered flag. Sadly it would be without Montoya, whose damage was just too extensive to allow him to continue – the right side of the car was now extensively torn up after the right front tyre had finally burst following the earlier collision, and a one-way trip to the garage was inevitable.

The short hiatus gave the drivers the chance to get on the radio and make their final plans. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was on to Jimmie Johnson warning him that “I’m going to push you like hell, no matter what,” and Johnson simply replied: “Ten-four, man, let’s do it.”

The green was out on lap 177 (and whaddaya know, none other than Dave Blaney was there to lead the field to the restart!) and the pairing of Harvick and Bowyer took to the front – no confusion this time around, but then there was no room for them to mess it up as the four Hendrick Motorsports cars that had dominated qualifying were now gathering for the big finish, and preparing to exercise their muscles.

Dave Blaney refused to go away, however, and took the lead again on lap 180. Unfortunately his new drafting partner was none other than Kurt Busch, and anyone who had been following Kurt’s impact on the race today thus far couldn’t help but hear the “Omen” theme pipe up as soon as he appeared on Blaney’s bumper. Sure enough his mere proximity was enough to send Blaney spinning out on lap 185. Blaney saved the car and didn’t hit anything, but he’d fallen well out of the pack and had no chance of getting anywhere near the front now that he had fallen completely out of the draft.

“I feel bad for wrecking a bunch of cars, especially my team-mate Brad,” a sheepish Kurt said of his race afterwards, admitting: “Restrictor plate racing and this two-car draft is really tough and I was in the middle of a bunch of incidents.” Yes, Kurt – funny how they all seemed to happen around you like that, wasn’t it?

That left Edwards/Biffle duelling with Bowyer/Hendrick for the win with two to do; next time around it was the white flag – one to go – and Gordon/Martin were in front, with Johnson/Earnhardt now charging for the front after having been briefly pulled apart for practically the first time for the whole race two laps earlier, after Dale started to suffer from rising temperatures and needed to break-out for clean air.

Less than 60s later it was all over, although no one could be entirely sure who in fact had won as three cars (Johnson, Bowyer and Gordon) seemed to the naked eye to have crossed the finish line virtually simultaneously. Even those in the thick of it couldn’t be sure: “Man, it was close enough this time,” said Bowyer. “Sometimes you really can’t tell, but I had no clue.”

So what, exactly, happened in that final lap?

“Before we knew it, we found ourselves in third after we took the white and a decent gap from us to the leaders,” explained Johnson. “They got side-by-side, which allowed us to really close up and as we went into turn 3, I had a big run, and was thinking about the bottom, and the #5 and #24 defended that, and then I kind of wandered to the middle and didn’t have an option then.

“I just chilled out and sat in their draft and as we came off of [turn] 4. Those two groups were occupied trying to side-draft each other and racing each other at the top … We started rolling up on them, I shot down to the bottom, and we were able to surge by out of the tri-oval coming out of the bottom because they kind of left it open there. Just worked out.”

With Talladega being one of those NASCAR tracks where crossing the bottom yellow line is forbidden, there was a brief question of whether Johnson’s move to the bottom had gone too low and that his left wheels had dipped below the permissible track limit, but NASCAR reviewed it and found no transgression. It just left the small matter of who, exactly, had crossed the finish line first.

A photofinish coupled with electronic timing gave the win to Johnson, but he credited Dale with an equal role in the victory and tried to give him the chequered flag from the race, which Junior declined. The two had experimented early on in the race as to who would be in the lead to the finish: “After the last pit stop I was pushing him for while and we were getting disconnected pretty easily,” Johnson explained. “And at that point, he [Dale] just said, hey, you need to lead, it works better with you leading. Chad and Stevie confirmed that our lap times were faster with the #48 in front of the #88 and we made a swap going into turn 1 and just kind of stayed that way from there on out.”

Earnhardt was at peace with how it worked out: “If I couldn’t win the race, I wanted Jimmie to win the race, because I had worked with him all day, and he’s my teammate and I’m proud to be driving for Hendrick Motorsports,” he said after being confirmed as finishing in fourth place.

Bowyer was gutted to have been beaten at the last after spending so much of the race up at the sharp end fighting for the lead. “The only thing that bums me out about that is those guys lagged back all day long,” he said afterwards. “That’s what makes it tough, losing to somebody that did that. We were up front for our sponsors and our team, digging all day long. When you get it taken from you at the end by somebody who lagged back all day, it’s hard to take.”

In fact, although they had preferred to run out of harm’s way toward the rear of the field for most of the second half the race, Johnson had led 14 laps and Earnhardt 11. Their Hendricks team mates Gordon and Martin had opted for a consistent “6-10s behind the leaders” lag-behind strategy, and Gordon insisted that “It’s not as easy as you think it is to manage that and to figure it out,” explaining: “But let’s be honest: in my opinion, Talladega has always been about a 15-, 25-lap race, and the rest is just trying to get to the end. And that’s basically what we have now.”

The number of lead changes in the end was 88, tying the record, while the margin of victory – 0.002s – equals Sprint Cup’s closest-ever margin since electronic timing was introduced, the last time things were this close being when Ricky Craven beat Kurt Busch at Darlington in 2003. Talladega is renowned for its close finishes – all 29 green flag finishes here since 1993 have had a margin of victory of under 0.4s – but even more eye-catching was how the top eight cars were covered by an interval of just 0.145s.

The win is Johnson’s 54th Sprint Cup career victory and his second time in victory lane at Talladega, but only his first in the 2011 season after a 15-race winless streak (the second longest in his championship history). He’s the seventh winner in the eight races so far this year – only Harvick has won more than once – and his win means that the last eight races at Talladega have all had different winners.

The win moves Johnson up two positions to second behind Carl Edwards in the Sprint Cup championship standings, just ahead of his Talladega drafting partner Dale Earnhardt Jr. who moves up three spots to third. The biggest losers were Kyle Busch (down four spots to sixth) and Matt Kenseth (down five to eighth) after their mutual exits in the wreck on lap 140.

The next race is the Hansen 400 at Richmond International Raceway on April 30 in two weeks time, after a weekend off for Easter.

Race results

1  2   48   Jimmie Johnson     Chevrolet  47/1  188  Leader
2  10  33   Clint Bowyer       Chevrolet  44/2  188  + 0.002s
3  1   24   Jeff Gordon        Chevrolet  42/1  188  + 0.039s
4  4   88   Dale Earnhardt Jr. Chevrolet  41/1  188  + 0.058s
5  38  29   Kevin Harvick      Chevrolet  40/1  188  + 0.064s
6  20  99   Carl Edwards       Ford       39/1  188  + 0.074s
7  17  16   Greg Biffle        Ford       38/1  188  + 0.130s
8  3   5    Mark Martin        Chevrolet  37/1  188  + 0.145s
9  39  34   David Gilliland    Ford       35/0  188  + 1.066s
10 36  20   Joey Logano        Toyota     35/1  188  + 1.123s
11 16  43   A.J. Allmendinger  Ford       33/0  188  + 1.274s
12 5   27   Paul Menard        Chevrolet  33/1  188  + 1.314s
13 26  56   Martin Truex Jr.   Toyota     32/1  188  + 1.376s
14 14  00   David Reutimann    Toyota     30/0  188  + 1.434s
15 18  78   Regan Smith        Chevrolet  30/1  188  + 1.449s
16 27  31   Jeff Burton        Chevrolet  29/1  188  + 1.570s
17 30  14   Tony Stewart       Chevrolet  27/0  188  + 2.103s
18 8   22   Kurt Busch         Dodge      27/1  188  + 2.116s
19 37  71   Andy Lally         Ford       25/0  188  + 5.212s
20 -   7    Robby Gordon       Dodge      24/0  188  + 5.239s
21 21  1    Jamie McMurray     Chevrolet  24/1  188  + 5.269s
22 40  13   Casey Mears        Toyota     23/1  188  + 5.297s
23 29  11   Denny Hamlin       Toyota     21/0  188  + 9.033s
24 15  47   Bobby Labonte      Toyota     21/1  188  + 11.392s
25 23  39   Ryan Newman        Chevrolet  20/1  188  + 11.422s
26 43  46   Bill Elliott       Chevrolet  18/0  188  + 15.448s
27 35  36   Dave Blaney        Chevrolet  18/1  188  + 22.294s
28 12  115  Michael Waltrip    Toyota     16/0  187  + 1 lap
29 28  38   Travis Kvapil      Ford       0     184  + 4 laps
30 13  42   Juan Montoya       Chevrolet  14/0  177  + 11 laps
31 6   09   Landon Cassill     Chevrolet  0     170  + 18 laps
32 24  9    Marcos Ambrose     Ford       13/1  157  + 31 laps
33 19  2    Brad Keselowski    Dodge      12/1  154  + 34 laps
34 41  32   Terry Labonte      Ford       10/0  152  Engine
35 34  18   Kyle Busch         Toyota     10/1  144  Accident
36 25  17   Matt Kenseth       Ford       9/1   139  Accident
37 31  4    Kasey Kahne        Toyota     8/1   139  Running
38 9   83   Brian Vickers      Toyota     6/0   115  Running
39 7   6    David Ragan        Ford       6/1   89   Accident
40 11  21   Trevor Bayne       Ford       0     89   Accident
41 22  87   Joe Nemechek       Toyota     0     5    Vibration
42 33  135  Steve Park         Chevrolet  0     4    Electrical
43 32  97   Kevin Conway       Toyota     0     1    Electrical

Sprint Cup standings

POS +/-  DRIVER                 PS   GAP     ST  P  W  T5  T10
1   --   Carl Edwards           295  Leader  8   2  1  4   6
2   +2   Jimmie Johnson         290  -5      8   0  1  4   5
3   +3   Dale Earnhardt Jr.     276  -19     8   1  0  2   5
4   +5   Kevin Harvick          268  -27     8   0  2  4   5
5   --   Kurt Busch             267  -28     8   0  0  1   5
6   -4   Kyle Busch             257  -38     8   0  1  4   5
7   --   Ryan Newman            253  -42     8   0  0  3   4
8   -5   Matt Kenseth           252  -43     8   1  1  3   4
9   -1   Juan Montoya           246  -49     8   1  0  2   4
10  +2   Clint Bowyer           245  -50     8   0  0  2   4
11  --   Paul Menard            242  -53     8   0  0  2   3
12  -2   Tony Stewart           240  -55     8   0  0  1   2
13  +1   Jeff Gordon            234  -61     8   1  1  3   3
14  +1   Mark Martin            226  -69     8   0  0  0   3
15  -2   A.J. Allmendinger      226  -69     8   0  0  0   1
16  +2   Greg Biffle            221  -74     8   0  0  1   3
17  +3   Denny Hamlin           195  -100    8   0  0  0   1
18  -2   Kasey Kahne            194  -101    8   0  0  0   3
19  +2   Martin Truex Jr.       192  -103    8   0  0  0   1
20  -3   David Ragan            191  -104    8   1  0  0   2
21  -2   Marcos Ambrose         188  -107    8   0  0  1   2
22  +3   Jeff Burton            185  -110    8   0  0  0   0
23  +1   Jamie McMurray         181  -114    8   1  0  0   1
24  +4   Joey Logano            179  -116    8   0  0  0   1
25  -2   Bobby Labonte          178  -117    8   0  0  1   1
26  +1   David Reutimann        174  -121    8   0  0  0   0
27  -5   Brad Keselowski        171  -124    8   0  0  0   0
28  -2   Brian Vickers          155  -140    8   0  0  0   2
29  --   David Gilliland        149  -146    8   0  0  1   2
30  --   Regan Smith            142  -153    8   0  0  0   1
31  --   Robby Gordon           128  -167    8   0  0  0   0
32  --   Casey Mears            116  -179    7   0  0  0   0
33  --   Dave Blaney            105  -190    8   0  0  0   0
34  --   Bill Elliott           100  -195    5   0  0  0   0
35  +1   Andy Lally             98   -197    7   0  0  0   0
36  -1   Tony Raines            81   -214    6   0  0  0   0
37  --   Ken Schrader           44   -251    3   0  0  0   0
38  --   Terry Labonte          40   -255    2   0  0  0   0
39  --   J.J. Yeley             26   -269    7   0  0  0   0
40  --   Michael McDowell       25   -270    6   0  0  0   0
41  --   Michael Waltrip        20   -275    2   0  0  0   0
42  --   Brian Keselowski       3    -292    1   0  0  0   0
43  --   Trevor Bayne           0    -295    8   0  1  1   1
44  --   Steve Wallace          0    -295    1   0  0  0   0
45  +1   Mike Skinner           0    -295    4   0  0  0   0
46  -1   Landon Cassill         0    -295    7   0  0  0   0
47  --   Travis Kvapil          0    -295    7   0  0  0   0
48  --   Hermie Sadler          0    -295    1   0  0  0   0
49  +1   Dennis Setzer          0    -295    1   0  0  0   0
50  +1   David Starr            0    -295    1   0  0  0   0
51  -2   Robert Richardson Jr.  0    -295    1   0  0  0   0
52  --   Joe Nemechek           0    -295    8   0  0  0   0
53  --   Todd Bodine            0    -295    1   0  0  0   0
54  --   Steve Park             0    -295    1   0  0  0   0
55  --   Kevin Conway           0    -295    1   0  0  0   0
56  -2   Derrike Cope           0    -295    0   0  0  0   0

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Race results

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Race results

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

Sprint Cup standings

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

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