Posts Tagged ‘kyle busch’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Race results

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

Kyle Busch and his team have been penalised six championship points and his crew chief Dave Rogers fined $25,000 for a technical infringement with the #18 at Pocono Raceway.

Kyle Busch has lost six Sprint Cup championship points after his #18 car failed technical inspection after the 5-Hour Energy 500 at Pocono Raceway on Sunday afternoon.

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.

Kyle Busch had escaped early on-track harassment by Richard Childress Racing driver Kevin Harvick to finish in third place at Pocono on Sunday, only to fall foul of the post-race technical inspection that 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 before the penalty was announced on Monday.

Previous infringements for cars have seen even greater points deducted and crew members suspended for lengthy periods as a result if intentional wrong-doing is suspected, so the penalties are relatively minor in comparison and suggest that NASCAR believe it to be an accidental matter – but nonetheless a rule violation.

The six point deduction – the equivalent of a loss of six places in a race – doesn’t do much harm to Busch’s Cup season, reducing him from 467pts to 461pts but still in fifth place ahead of his brother Kurt. The Pocono race result is unaffected by the infringement.

The specific rule violated was section 12-1 of the 2011 NASCAR rule book pertaining to actions detrimental to stock car racing, specifically sub-sections 12-4-J regarding “any determination by NASCAR officials that race equipment used in the event does not conform to NASCAR rules” and sub-section 20-12.8.1B covering “body height requirements — car failed to meet the minimum front car heights”.

“It’s disappointing,” Busch’s pit chief Dave Rogers said on Sunday evening. “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.

Kyle Busch, Dave Rogers and Joe Gibbs Racing did not immediately comment on the NASCAR penalties.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Race results

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

Sprint Cup standings

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

Team owner Richard Childress has been fined $150,000 and put on probation for the rest of the year following an altercation with Kyle Busch in the garage area of Kansas.

NASCAR team order Richard Childress has been fined $150,000 following his altercation with Kyle Busch after the end of the O’Reilly Auto Parts 250 Truck Series race at Kansas Speedway on Saturday evening.

Childress has also been put on NASCAR probation for the rest of the year.

The NASCAR statement announcing the penalty said that the penalties had been applied for violating Section 12-1 – “actions detrimental to stock car racing – involved in an altercation in the garage area” – of the 2011 NASCAR rule book.

The probation covers all NASCAR-sanctioned events until December 31, including Sprint Cup, Nationwide Series and Camping World Truck Series races.

However, Childress has escaped being excluded from any forthcoming races, which had been seen as a possibility after NASCAR president Mike Helton had admitted that ejecting Childress from Kansas Speedway on Sunday had indeed been considered.

In the end Childress was subjected to “territorial” limitations which essentially meant that he was kept out of pit lane and the garage area and restricted to working on and around the tean’s hauler. NASCAR said that he had been allowed to stay because “there’s not a second-level authority present this weekend for his organisation” and theory were worried about anyone else being able to maintain discipline and stop any further hostilities breaking out.

“The penalty we have announced today for Richard Childress reflects NASCAR’s response to the incident at Kansas Speedway on Saturday,” said NASCAR’s statement. “We feel this action is appropriate and are confident all parties involved understand our position on this matter and will move forward appropriately.”

Richard Childress released a statement after the penalties were announced in which he accepted that “First of all, I’m responsible for my actions, plain and simple.

“As you know, I am a very principled person and have a passion for what we do at Richard Childress Racing. I believe passionately in defending my race teams and my sponsor partners. In this instance, I let that passion and my emotions get the best of me.

“I accept the penalty NASCAR announced today and, as a company, we will now focus on this week’s races at Pocono Raceway and Texas Motor Speedway.”

For his part, Kyle Busch had already indicated that he would leave the matter in NASCAR’s hands and not pursue other avenues of redress – which could have included reporting the matter to the police for possible criminal assault.

“NASCAR is taking the situation seriously and is looking into it, and making their decisions based what facts they can discover … “Whatever they feel best to protect their sport and to protect what we have going on here is to their best discretion,” said Busch. “I’m all for whatever they decide to do.”

He concluded: “I’m going to leave it up to NASCAR and let them decide what they feel is best.”

Busch himself remains on probation until June 15 for an unrelated disciplinary matter dating from a pit lane clash with Richard Childress Racing driver Kevin Harvick at Darlington in May. Both drivers were found at fault and additionally fined $25,000.

Asked about whether Saturday’s incident represented the latest step in an ongoing feud that had been brewing between the Childress and Busch camps, Kyle replied: “That’s not something I can answer. I wasn’t the aggressor or the instigator here. All I can say is I was just trying to head back to my hauler and deal with my own business.”

The altercation started after Kyle Busch, driving the #18 truck for his own Truck Series team, had been unhappy with the way that RCR rookie Joey Coulter overtook him for fifth place on the final lap and gave him a bump on the cool-down lap after the chequered flag.

Childress showed up at the Busch garage 30 minutes after the end of the race having reportedly taken offence at Busch’s comments, then handed his watch to his grandson Austin Dillon (another competitor in the Truck series) – and allegedly got the 26-year-old Busch in a headlock before proceeding to hit him multiple times in the face. Busch fell to the ground and curled up “in a defensive position” but when he tried to get up, the 65-year-old Childress again tried to hit him.

NASCAR’s investigation into the fight between team owner Richard Childress and owner/driver Kyle Busch has concluded that Childress is at fault, and that penalties will follow.

NASCAR’s preliminary investigation into the post-race fight between Richard Childress and Kyle Busch has provisionally concluded that the fault for the “unacceptable” incident lies entirely with Childress.

NASCAR released an official statement on the incident that read:

NASCAR has reviewed the incident involving Richard Childress and Kyle Busch after the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race Saturday at Kansas Speedway. We have met with all parties involved and have determined what happened yesterday is unacceptable and will not be tolerated by NASCAR.

Richard Childress’s actions were not appropriate and fell far short of the standard we expect of owners in this sport. We have met with Childress this morning and made our position very clear to him. Further, we expect he will make it clear to all in his organization to ensure this situation does not escalate any further. We will announce our actions regarding this incident Monday.

Kyle Busch remains on probation with NASCAR and we continue to watch his actions carefully. However, we have determined that Kyle’s involvement in this incident does not violate his probation and no further action is required.

NASCAR decided against immediately ejecting Richard Childress from Kansas Speedway, on the grounds that there was no one else from RCR senior management on hand to take over the team’s operations for the Sunday Sprint Cup race.

“[Ejecting Childress] was considered in this case,” admitted NASCAR president Mike Helton. “What will happen today is that Richard will operate as the owner of Richard Childress Racing with some restrictions attached to it as to where he may go or not go.

“We decided to let Richard stay because there does need to be leadership of an organization, which historically we rely on crew chiefs, but since both organizations have multiple teams and we decided that it would be better if there was an authority from the team and there’s not a second-level authority present this weekend for his organization. Joe Gibbs is here from Joe Gibbs Racing and we chose to allow Richard to participate today.”

It’s thought that Childress may be restricted to the team’s hauler and not allowed into the pit lane or garage area for the remainder of the weekend, but when asked Helton said that the restrictions for today will be “territorial” and that the details are being worked out.

NASCAR are clearly concerned that simmering hostilities between the RCR and JGR camps may explode again into open hostilities and retaliation during the afternoon Cup race.

“The biggest topic today [is] to be sure that today’s event went on correctly and safely for everybody involved and [for] both the Richard Childress Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing organisations. We’ve been clear to them that both Joe Gibbs and Richard Childress meet with their teams to be sure that nobody from their organisation felt like that there was anything that needed to be done on their side.”

In the press conference, Helton said repeatedly that on the evidence currently before them, NASCAR had come to the firm decision that Kyle Busch had done nothing to instigate the altercation or been the aggressor, either with the on-track bump with Coulter or subsequently in the garage area with Childress himself.

“In our opinion Kyle Busch did not violate his probation,” Helton said, confirming that he did not foresee any penalties being handed to the controversial driver. “We’ve concluded that the driver of the 18 truck, Kyle Busch, did nothing to provoke or cause the reactions, in our opinion, would have violated probation, did nothing that warranted the actions of Richard Childress.”

He did however go on to add: “Unless you know something that we don’t know, I’m not sure what he did in the garage that would have been in question … I’m not going to go through all the details. We haven’t seen anything that indicated that Kyle violated his probation on the race track yesterday or in the garage area.”

Helton insisted that Busch’s case had been reviewed as a general member of NASCAR and that no differentiation had been made based on his driver and owner roles and not in a wider context of ongoing rows between Busch and Childress’ teams. “Our authority is around NASCAR members, and that’s the way we look at them – as NASCAR members. Certainly we investigate to get the totality of everything we need to make the decision, but the reaction from NASCAR is focused on what happened yesterday.”

The official NASCAR statement followed a parade of people into the NASCAR hauler on Sunday morning, including Childress, Busch and Joe Gibbs, for whom Busch drives in the Sprint Cup series. None of them had any comment either entering or leaving the hauler – Gibbs said simply “I don’t think right now is the time to be talking about this” – and Childress himself left via the back exit to avoid reporters.

When a reporter did catch up to him later in the morning and asked whether Childress would be at the track for the rest of the day, all the team owner could do was shrug and say “I hope.”

The two came to blows after the end of the O’Reilly Auto Parts 250 Truck Series race at Kansas Speedway. Kyle Busch, driving the #18 truck for his Kyle Busch Motorsports team, had not been happy with the way that Richard Childress Racing rookie Joey Coulter overtook him for fifth place on the final lap and gave him a bump on the cool-down lap after the chequered flag.

Childress showed up at the Busch garage 30 minutes after the end of the race having reportedly taken offence at Busch’s comments, then handed his watch to his grandson Austin Dillon (another competitor in the Truck series) – and allegedly got the 26-year-old Busch in a headlock before proceeding to hit him multiple times in the face. Busch fell to the ground and curled up “in a defensive position” but when he tried to get up, the 65-year-old Childress again tried to hit him.

When he showed up for his turn in the NASCAR hauler this morning, Busch was pointedly not wearing sunglasses to make sure there was no suggestion that he was sporting a black eye from the incident.

NASCAR is now trying hard to make sure that focus returns to the Sprint Cup STP 400 race in hand on Sunday afternoon and is not overshadowed by Saturday night’s explosive events: “We’ll focus on today’s race now and then quickly, maybe more quickly than normal, come back with our reaction as it relates to NASCAR member Richard Childress,” said Helton.

NASCAR usually meets on the Tuesday after a Cup race to decide on any adjudications or penalties arising from a race weekend.

Online reaction over the altercation has been polarized, as is usually the case concerning Kyle Busch. Many social media comments were mocking Busch for getting beaten up by a 65-year-old grandfather, but since the only other course was to take a swing at a pensioner and a NASCAR sporting legend it’s probably best he decided not to retaliate in the heat of the moment of NASCAR’s judgement may have been very different and seen him suspended, losing points – or perhaps getting fired by Joe Gibbs altogether.

Gibbs is still to announce what if any team penalties may apply to Busch for his recent 128mph speeding incident.

Team owner Richard Childress reportedly punched NASCAR star driver Kyle Busch in the face following the conclusion of the O’Reilly Auto Parts 250 Truck race at Kansas on Saturday night.

Reports emerged on Saturday night that team owner Richard Childress may have ended up in an off-track confrontation with Kyle Busch following the end of the O’Reilly Auto Parts 250 Truck Series race at Kansas.

Kyle Busch had taken exception to the way that Childress’ rookie driver Joey Coulter made contact as he passed the #18 on the final lap, and gave the Richard Childress Racing #22 truck a bump in return on the cool-down lap after the chequered flag. The race was won by another RCR driver, Clint Bowyer in the #2, thwarting Busch’s three-race winning streak.

But it seems that the team owner himself weighed in when the drivers returned to the pit lane. Reporter Ray Dunlap posted to his @truckpits Twitter account: “Hot news from the track. Grandpa Childress put a whipping on Kyle Busch in the truck garage. Look for big sun glasses on kubu [sic] sun,” suggesting that Busch may be left sporting a black eye after the incident.

Dunlap actually mistyped, “KuBu” being shorthand for Kyle’s brother Kurt who starts Sunday’s Sprint Cup race on pole position, rather than “KyBu” for Kyle.

One tweet said that Childress had punched Busch in the face, while another online report quoted an unidentified pit crew worker from another team as saying that Busch had been in a headlock and was being pounded “pretty good” in the face before falling to the ground “in a defensive position.” When he tried to get up, Childress is alleged to have promptly tried to punch him again.

The accounts seemed to suggest that it was 65-year-old Childress who instigated the altercation about 30 minutes after the end of the race. According to various reports, Childress removed his watch first and handed it to grandson Austin Dillon – who had himself been competing in the race – before walking up to Busch.

SPEED TV channel’s own SPEEED Center Twitter account seemed to confirm the overall story with a message of its own saying: “multiple witnesses tell SPEED there was a physical confrontation between Richard Childress and Kyle Busch after today’s NASCAR Truck Series race.”

NASCAR spokesman Kerry Tharp confirmed that officials were looking into the reports and seeking to gather details from witnesses and the principals about the alleged incident.

Busch is already on probation for all NASCAR events through to June 15 following his pit road confrontation with Kevin Harvick – who drives for RCR in the Sprint Cup – after the Darlington race in May. As well as being the driver of the #18, Busch is also the truck owner.

Series rookie Coulter finished fifth while Kyle Busch finished just behind in sixth. Busch is reported as saying immediately after the race that “We had a horrible truck all day … I thought my truck was a little bit better than that in practice than what we showed today. We just fought it.”

“That was really awesome racing him,” Coulter had said about the last lap incident. “I hate we got together on the last lap. I had never gotten next to somebody so I was underneath him expecting to get loose and I got tight and we kind of got together.

“For whatever reason, that corner, where he was on my quarter panel, I just got extremely tight. [I] cleared him for just a split second, my spotter called ‘clear’ and when I jumped back in the throttle, he kind of got back on me and really tightened me up.”

When asked what happened when Busch drove up to him after the flag, Coulter joked that – according to the spotters – Busch was just congratulating him.

What exactly caused the on-track incident to flare up and spill out into a reported physical confrontation in pit road 30 minutes later is unknown, but accounts suggest that Childress took serious exception to what Busch was heard to say about the on-track clash with Coulter.

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)





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