Posts Tagged ‘kevin harvick’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Race results

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

* Denotes Rookie

Sprint Cup standings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Race results

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quite right, too.

Race results

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

* Denotes Rookie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Race results

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

Sprint Cup standings

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

For the third time this season, Kevin Harvick stole a late race win by being in exactly the right place at the right time: it broke the hearts of Junior Nation.

It’s rather ironic that in a race sponsored by a multinational drinks giant, it should all come down to someone running dry in the final 500 yards of a 600 mile race. But it wasn’t for want of a glass of Coca-Cola that the series’ most popular river failed to break his wins drought, but rather a few extra drops of precious gasoline.

The Coca-Cola 600 is the Sprint Cup series’ longest race, and while an extra hundred miles over the already lengthy oval events held elsewhere might not seem too much of a big deal, it presents a unique challenge to the Sprint Cup drivers, their cars and especially their engines; while the fact that the race starts in the evening sunlight, transitions through dusks and ends up in the pit black of night time is a whole different set of headaches for the teams to overcome.

The race commenced at 6.20pm before an estimated capacity crowd of 140,000 as pole sitter Brad Keselowski led the field across the start line to take the green flag alongside AJ Allmendinger. But moving up quickly from the second row was Carl Edwards and on lap 8 he took the lead from Keselowski to lay early claim to the race.

Making his Sprint Cup début in the Wood Brothers #21 normally driven by Trevor Bayne, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. got off to a shaky start when he scraped the wall on lap 3 and fell backwards out of the top ten as a result, but after he’d had time to take stock he was back on the radio to report to the team that there were no lasting problems with the car as a result of the impact. Mike Skinner also hit the wall during the opening laps, but was able to bring the car back to the garage without bringing out a yellow flag.

During the first stint, cars were just bedding in and hoping that the car wouldn’t display any problems. Greg Biffle and Tony Stewart were both concerned with escalating temperatures in their cars – Stewart’s #14 was registering temperatures of around 134 degrees Fahrenheit inside – while Kevin Harvick was saying that his car was flat-out terrible, David Reutimann’s was tight and Jamie McMurray’s simply slow.

Carl Edwards remained in the lead until he came in for his turn in pit road for the first round of green flag pit stops; Jeff Burton briefly took over before coming in and then AJ Allmendinger had the better pit stop and led for five laps before Edwards was up to speed and past him to resume the lead once more. The two of them were pulling away form the pack which was headed by Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth – the latter hanging on despite reporting a vibration that threatened to send him back to pit road for another set of tyres.

But Edwards’ pace was untouchable and soon he was over 4s ahead of even Allmendinger. By the time the first caution of the night came out on lap 74 (for debris in turn 1) he had led 60 laps. The only other person to be really catching the eye out there was Dale Earnhardt Jr., who had started from 25th place and was now the biggest mover of the night so far, up 17 places.

Jeff Burton won the race off pit road by taking only two tyres and led the field to green followed by Edwards, Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson; Hamlin decided he wanted a go in front; he gave Burton a push on the restart that allowed him room to slip on front of Edwards, and then claimed the lead for himself next time around on lap 81.

Edwards, meanwhile, was feeling rather less confident at this point of the race and got loose, allowing Jimmie Johnson to pass him for third; Burton was also struggling with that decision to take only two tyres, and slipped out of the leading runners, his place taken instead by Matt Kenseth.

The sun was starting to go low in the sky and the track was moving fully into shade as Bobby Labonte spun in turn 4 on lap 99, bringing out the second caution of the evening, just after Dale Earnhardt Jr had managed to crack the top five with a pass on AJ Allmendinger. Junior was looking curiously strong tonight, and his massive fan club was roaring its approval at every step of the way.

With track temperatures still at 120 degrees despite the setting sun, ice and water was the order of the day from the broiling drivers. Kasey Kahne got more overheated than anyone, with a pit lane speeding penalty sending him on a drive-thru before the restart on lap 103. After Hamlin, Kenseth and Edwards all needed adjustments in pit lane, it was David Ragan who won the race back to the track followed by David Reutimann and Juan Montoya with Hamlin and Kenseth dropping back to fourth and fifth.

Matt Kenseth was quickly back in the lead, while further back this stint was undoing all Dale’s good work as he got loose and fell off the pace and out of the top ten, getting passed on all sides – he’d have to work his way back up all over again. Denny Hamlin was up into second place, but on lap 138 he was passed by Carl Edwards and he was soon on the radio to say that he feared the engine was failing on him. “It’s dying”, he mourned, but in fact it kept on ticking.

Kenseth dropped the lead for just a single lap during the next cycle of green flag pit stops. Kurt Busch was one of the few drivers to seem completely happy with how his car was running and just took tyres and fuel, but a dozen laps later he suddenly felt one of the wheels go loose and was forced into a second visit to pit road under green flag on lap 160 – a costly loss of time that put him a lap down.

Kurt’s luck was somewhat in, however, as the next 22 laps saw a sequence of rapid fire cautions – for debris on lap 171; for Jamie McMurray blowing an engine on lap 182; and for Casey Mears and Landon Cassill making contact on lap 188. By the end of it, Kurt was back on the lead lap again and what had looked to be a horribly fruitless slog of an evening was looking rather better for the elder Busch sibling.

Things got back green flag racing for an extended period from lap 193, with Kenseth back in the lead ahead of Marcos Ambrose, Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards and Juan Montoya; Ambrose got the better start and took the lead for half a dozen laps but Kenseth was soon back in charge again and starting to pull away.

Heat was still a chronic problem for almost everyone, with David Ragan even reporting that the ice he had taken at the previous pit stop was now turning to steam in the car and literally cooking him; just as well Kimi Raikkonen hadn’t got it into his head to try this Sprint Cup race as well, after his highly vocal heat- and water-related trauma in the Nationwide on Friday night. As a new cycle of pit stops began with Kevin Harvick on lap 221, everyone was calling for more supplies of water and ice to be ready for them.

While Dale Earnhardt Jr. stayed out to lead a lap, everyone else sequenced through pit road; Regan Smith came in to pit lane only to have a missing lug nut on exit and be recalled to pit road. Tony Stewart sought an off-sync pit strategy and stayed out accompanied by Kurt Busch; Stewart had finally come into the pits ceding the lead to Busch when the sixth caution of the night came out for Mike Bliss stalling on track near to pit road. That gave Busch the chance to pit under caution – most satisfactory for the #22, all things considered.

Marcos Ambrose led the restart on lap 237 just after sundown, ahead of Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, David Ragan and Paul Menard: but Menard got high, lost grip on the marbles and hit the wall in turn 2 to then spin down the track without collecting anyone bringing out the seventh caution three laps later, with Martin Truex Jr. also sustaining rear end damage when Brian Vickers ran into the back of him in the aftermath.

At the next green flag, the demon restarter Kyle Busch nailed it and easily took the lead from Ambrose, and led through to his next green flag pit stop on lap 278 – but the pit sequence was interrupted a few laps later by another caution on lap 282 for debris in turn 3. Once again the race sank into a repeat cycle of rapid yellows, with a ninth caution on lap 289 when David Starr hit the wall, and a tenth when Landon Cassill slid through the grass on lap 295 after getting tapped into a spin by Regan Smith. Cassill even reprised Carl Edwards’ feat of last week of caving in the front of the car in a dip in the undulating surface as he went.

The restart on lap 301 was no more successful: David Gilliland got loose and made contact with Mark martin, the two of them then collecting Ryan Newman in the ensuing wreck. This gave the leaders a chance for a stop under caution giving them a chance of making it home with only one more stop.

Jeff Gordon led the restart and got a good jump away from Kasey Kahne, AJ Allmendinger, Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt. Jr. at the green flag. Now, with the skies pitch black, everyone was finding it difficult to keep up the adjustments with the changing track conditions, and we saw in quick succession Joey Logano brush the wall and then Stenhouse Jr. hitting the wall next time around – not for the first time tonight.

But it was Kyle Busch going for a spin all by himself on lap 318 that brought out the 12th caution of the evening, the #18 taking to the grass and for once not following the Edwards/Cassill line of finding a car-wrecking undulation along the way.

There was an interesting mix of pit stop strategies on display with Gordon among those to come in for tyres and fuel, but Kasey Kahne taking point as one of those to risk staying out. Kevin Harvick was running second, while Greg Biffle – despite all those overheating problems early on in the day – was now battling with Earnhardt Jr. over third place.

By lap 343 Kahne was being warned that his pit stop was imminent after having opted to stay out previously, and a green flag stint would hurt him if everyone else get a caution later on. But the Gods were smiling on him, if not on Kyle Busch: for the second time in less than thirty laps, Kyle went for a spin after hitting the outside wall. The #18 crawled to the garage, a bad night for Kyle, but great timing indeed for Kasey who simply couldn’t have asked for better.

After the pit stops (which saw Jimmie Johnson penalised and sent to the back of the lead lap after taking off with an adjustment wrench still fitted to the top of the #48) the race went green with 51 laps to the finish – very much touch and go for anyone trying to make it all the way on a single tank of gas.

Gordon was in front, with Biffle, Ragan, Keselowski and Kahne – and they were quickly joined by Earnhardt Jr., who was long over his mid-race wobble and back to a very strong, solid performance. Biffle soon proved the cream of this crop and took over the lead, and he would be immovable from the lead for the next 49 laps. You’ll notice – 49 laps, when the race distance is 51 …

The one common theme on team radios now was instruction to “Save fuel at all costs!” Even so, they would need caution laps and absolutely no overtime if they were going to make this work, it was clear. But as the lap counter clicked remorselessly upwards, a caution stubbornly refused to appear. The way it was going, the entire field could end up running dry before the chequered flag and no one at all would win this thing.

Seven laps shy of full race distance, Matt Kenseth had to concede defeat and made a dive for pit lane and some fuel; Jeff Gordon followed his lead two laps later after his pace started to drop from fuel starvation. And then, finally, the fourteenth caution of the evening came out.

It was not good news for Jimmie Johnson in the #48, because it was his engine that had blown up on him just four laps – six miles – shy of the 600 mile race distance: how galling to fall so close through mechanical failure. The frustration and pent-up stress was clear form Johnson’s pit crew chief who was caught by surprise and exclaimed “F***ing kidding me!” over the team radio, which unfortunately was being broadcast live on the telecast at the time. Cue one very quick apology from the race commentators.

Now what? We were in green-and-white chequered overtime conditions which meant that the race would run at least two laps longer, and fuel had already been marginal for cars to make it home in the first place. Everyone pulled out every trick in the book to preserve every last drop of fuel under the caution, with Earnhardt Jr. cutting the engine altogether as everyone crawled along the inner apron of the track, taking turns pushing team mates to try and eke out the gas.

For some of the drivers, no trick would do it: Greg Biffle and David Ragan finally had to pit, while Kasey Kahne ended up running dry when the time came for the restart. which saw Brad Keselowski get caught out and end up rear-ending the #4 when the green came out. While Jeff Burton got caught out by the aftermath and spun into the infield, David Ragan and Joey Logano impressively threaded through the mayhem and made up a bunch of positions before anyone noticed what was going on.

At the white flag in overtime on lap 401, it was Dale Earnhardt Jr. who had emerged in the lead after an impressive getaway at the restart ahead of the trouble sparked by Kahne running dry. Junior Nation erupted: all he had to do was make it another 1.5 miles and the win was his, an end to a 104-race drought without a trip to victory lane. Surely he would make it? After having seen the leader at the white flag throw it away at the Indianapolis 500, surely we weren’t going to get an action replay happen in the final lap of the Coca-Cola 600 as well?

That’s exactly what we saw. With some 500 feet to go, the engine of Earnhardt’s #88 coughed, spluttered – and died. Somewhat like JR Hildebrand in the Indy 500 the car would eventually make its way over the finish line, but he would be in seventh place by then.

He had been passed by David Ragan, Joey Logano, Kurt Busch, AJ Allmendinger and Marcos Ambrose by then, but all of these drivers were themselves giving chase to the #29 of Kevin Harvick, a driver who had barely registered all evening and who had led only a single lap during a pit stop sequence. But again, as Indy had taught us just a few hours earlier, you only have to lead one lap of the entire race to win – it just has to be the right lap. When it comes to picking that “right lap”, there’s none better than the man who has shown time and again that he’s deserved the nickname of “The Closer” in NASCAR.

And how did Harvick feel about his race win? Frankly he just seemed relieved for it to be over and behind him, and he couldn’t wait to be out of Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“Nothing against this race track, I just don’t like racing here. It just doesn’t fit what I do … I griped and griped and griped all freaking day long about how terrible it was. I just have a bad attitude here,” he said, winning no friends among the locals. “Even though we won, I’m still miserable … In about 30 minutes, I’ll be happy – when we drive out of that tunnel and leave the month of May behind.”

Junior was more philosophical. “I’m disappointed we didn’t win. I know all our fans were disappointed to come so close,” he said, having known all along that the fuel gambit was a big stretch. “We were a top-five car [but] we weren’t supposed to win,” Earnhardt admitted. “We played our hand, and those other guys came in. I tried to save a ton of gas, but I know I didn’t save enough. I tried to save as much as I could.”

“It’s amazing that we can race 600 miles and it comes down to a green-white chequered finish and fuel mileage,” said Kurt Busch, who recorded his best finish so far in a rather lacklustre 2011 season in fourth place. “It worked out, and we made the right calculations to make it to the end of the race,” he said, before admitting: “We got lucky … People were spinning their tires and struggling to get fuel to their carburetor.

“That’s the excitement that this sport brings,” he said, before gratefully shuffling away to loosen up after spending nearly five hours cramped up in a stock car emphatically not built for comfort.

Maybe this is a young man’s game, in which case – welcome to Sprint Cup, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who survived those occasional brushes with the wall to last the entire race and finish on the lead lap in 11th place, an impressive series début for the 23-year-old. He’ll probably have fonder memories of Charlotte than Kevin Harvick seems to have – and certainly happier than poor Dale Earnhardt Jr…

Race results

1. #29 Kevin Harvick Chevrolet 402 laps 4:33:14s (47/1 pts)
2. #6 David Ragan Ford 402 laps + 0.703s (43/1 pts)
3. #20 Joey Logano Toyota 402 laps + 1.393s (41/0 pts)
4. #22 Kurt Busch Dodge 402 laps + 1.953s (41/1 pts)
5. #43 A.J. Allmendinger Ford 402 laps + 1.978s (40/1 pts)
6. #9 Marcos Ambrose Ford 402 laps + 2.243s (39/1 pts)
7. #88 Dale Earnhardt Jr. Chevrolet 402 laps + 2.269s (38/1 pts)
8. #78 Regan Smith Chevrolet 402 laps + 2.443s (36/0 pts)
9. #00 David Reutimann Toyota 402 laps + 2.460s (35/0 pts)
10. #11 Denny Hamlin Toyota 402 laps + 2.865s (35/1 pts)
11. #21 Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Ford 402 laps + 3.184s (0pts)
12. #42 Juan Montoya Chevrolet 402 laps + 3.225s (33/1 pts)
13. #16 Greg Biffle Ford 402 laps + 3.413s (32/1 pts)
14. #17 Matt Kenseth Ford 402 laps + 3.562s (32/2 pts)
15. #33 Clint Bowyer Chevrolet 402 laps + 3.893s (29/0 pts)
16. #99 Carl Edwards Ford 402 laps + 5.052s (29/1 pts)
17. #14 Tony Stewart Chevrolet 402 laps + 16.787s (28/1 pts)
18. #83 Brian Vickers Toyota 402 laps + 16.787s (26/0 pts)
19. #2 Brad Keselowski Dodge 402 laps + 37.637s (26/1 pts)
20. #24 Jeff Gordon Chevrolet 401 laps + 37.637s (25/1 pts)
21. #31 Jeff Burton Chevrolet 401 laps + 37.637s (24/1 pts)
22. #4 Kasey Kahne Toyota 401 laps + 37.637s (23/1 pts)
23. #13 Casey Mears Toyota 401 laps + 37.637s (22/1 pts)
24. #47 Bobby Labonte Toyota 400 laps + 2 laps (20/0 pts)
25. #38 Travis Kvapil Ford 398 laps + 4 laps (0pts)
26. #56 Martin Truex Jr. Toyota 397 laps + 5 laps (18/0 pts)
27. #36 Dave Blaney Chevrolet 396 laps + 6 laps (17/0 pts)
28. #48 Jimmie Johnson Chevrolet 395 laps + 7 laps – Engine (16/0 pts)
29. #27 Paul Menard Chevrolet 383 laps + 19 laps (15/0 pts)
30. #32 Mike Bliss Ford 367 laps + 35 laps (0pts)
31. #39 Ryan Newman Chevrolet 358 laps + 44 laps (13/0 pts)
32. #18 Kyle Busch Toyota 344 laps Accident (13/1 pts)
33. #34 David Gilliland Ford 301 laps Accident (11/0 pts)
34. #5 Mark Martin Chevrolet 301 laps Accident (10/0 pts)
35. #09 Landon Cassill Chevrolet 293 laps Accident (0pts)
36. #195 David Starr Ford 286 laps Accident (0pts)
37. #1 Jamie McMurray Chevrolet 181 laps Engine (8/1 pts)
38. #7 Robby Gordon Dodge 99 laps Brakes (6/0 pts)
39. #66 Michael McDowell Toyota 40 laps Engine (5/0 pts)
40. #30 David Stremme Chevrolet 34 laps Handling (4/0 pts)
41. #87 Joe Nemechek Toyota 28 laps Clutch (0pts)
42. #46 J.J. Yeley Chevrolet 22 laps Brakes (2/0 pts)
43. #60 Mike Skinner Toyota 6 laps Vibration (0pts)

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!

All eyes going into Darlington had been on the feud between Montoya and Newman: afterwards, everyone’s attention was grabbed by conflict between Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick in pit lane.

Forget the Montoya/Newman feud, that’s so last week. Today it’s all about the war that erupted between Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick that saw fists fly in pit lane between drivers and between their pit crews.

It started with a late-race accident during the Showtime Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. Busch and Harvick were three-wide with Clint Bowyer following a restart. Bowyer wrecked into the wall and Harvick sent for a spin, while Kyle Busch also got bodywork torn up by the collision, and the race proceeded to a green-white-chequered finish. Harvick, who had led 47 laps during the evening, ended up in 17th place as a result of the altercation while Busch managed 11th; Bowyer was unable to resume and ended up classified 31st.

Immediately after the finish, an incensed Harvick was gunning for Busch whom he blamed for the accident. The #29 chased the #18, and Kyle stopped in an attempt to avoid the confrontation; both cars took to pit road with Harvick still in pursuit, and Harvick stopped his car in front of Busch’s to force him to a halt.

“I was just trying to get away from the situation with Harvick and unfortunately he got to pit road before me,so I pulled in behind him,” said Kyle Busch. “[Harvick] let the #47 go, but I knew if I tried to turn left or right he was going to run into me or block me or something. I just stayed behind him. I was just going to sit there, not worry about it and let him cool his head for a second and let him figure out that we just needed to go back to the garage area.”

Instead, Harvick then got out of his car, ran over to the driver-side window of the #18 to through a punch at Busch. Kyle saw it coming and gunned his engine to avoid the encounter, pushing Harvick’s driverless car aside in order to get past.

“My choices were limited,” said Busch after explaining that his reverse gear was broken as proved to NASCAR officials later. “I was either going to get punched in the face and then wait for Harvick to get back in his car for me to go or just drive through his car and push it out of the way so I could get out of there and not try to get hit.”

Shoving the car aside on pit road, where various pit crew workers were in the vicinity, is a serious matter as someone could have been injured.

“Unfortunately there were some men walking down pit road. I hate it that somebody could have gotten hurt, but I was just trying to get away from it and get back to my hauler and go on with my own business,” Busch said. “I just made a judgement call there and it wasn’t one of the best choices that I had.”

With the teams ironically situated side-by-side on pit road, the fury between the two drivers inevitably spilled out onto pit road with the pit crews exchanging harsh words and shoves before NASCAR officials stepped in to separate them.

“Y’all are a bunch of [expletives]!” Harvick directed at the Joe Gobbs Racing crew, before a NASCAR official interceded with a stern “You are coming with us to our hauler now” to him. Asked later what had transpired in the hauler, Harvick ruefully grinned and replied: “Not much.”

He added: “I don’t have any answers for you. I’m really excited for Regan Smith, and I hate that you’re not over there [in the media center] talking to him.”

NASCAR spokesman Kerry Tharp also sought to play down the incident and redirect attention toward Regan Smith’s emotional win instead. “We had a discussion with them, more about what happened post-race than anything during it,” he said, explaining that any sanctions toward either driver or team would be decided at NASCAR’s Tuesday post-race wrap-up meeting.

“Let’s put it this way: it was a discussion where they both aired their opinions, voiced their opinions,” Tharp said. “To have them be able to do that after the race is a good thing. And to look at it again is also a good thing.”

As to the original on-track incident that triggered this confrontation, it was unclear exactly who might be to blame.

Busch blamed Harvick: “It was tight racing after the restart there and Harvick was up on the top, a little bit loose, and I gave him room,” he explained. “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 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.”

Harvick obviously disagreed but was more taciturn: “Obviously we were just racing hard and doing what we had to do at the end. And things happen. That’s it.”

And Bowyer was equally succinct: “It’s the nature of the beast,” Bowyer said. “There’s no room to race at the end. I knew when the caution came out, all hell was going to break loose. And it did.”

The incident did unfortunately rather overshadow celebrations in victory lane for the first win by Regan Smith after 105 Sprint Cup starts.

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)

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)

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