Posts Tagged ‘mark martin’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Race results

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

* Denotes Rookie

Sprint Cup standings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Race result

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

Retirements:

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

Sprint Cup standings after race 11

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

It was a gorgeous day for a motor race in Southern Virginia on Sunday, with sunny skies and the air temperature nudging a respectable 70 degrees for the time of year. Martinsville looked as picture-perfect as it possibly could, which is just as well because this tight, cramped and ageing circuit needs all the help it can get in the looks department.

The circuit is the slowest and shortest in the entire Sprint Cup series at just over half a mile, the small scale of the place making the NASCAR Cars of Tomorrow look like huge lumbering beasts as they crowd onto the track; it’s barely banked (only 12 degrees in the turns) and the short length of the elongated paperclip shape of the track means that not all the pit boxes can fit down one side, so the pits wrap around the entire inner circumference of the oval with the pit lane entrance being at turn 3 and the exit just behind in turn 2. It is, if you like, the Monaco of the NASCAR season and no place for modern cars to race in the 21st century, let alone for an energy- and attention-sapping 500 laps; moreover, unlike Monaco, it doesn’t have that principality’s compensating glamour and gorgeous vistas.

What Martinsville does have, however, is a key position in the Chase: with the contenders dropping away and leaving a triumvirate of Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick fighting over the Sprint Cup, this had the potential to be the race that decides the winner of the 2010 season – or closes everything up even tighter.

Hamlin was best positioned to make maximum use of Martinsville after claiming pole position and starting on the inside alongside Marcos Ambrose, but Denny’s car seemed sluggish at the start and after leading the first ten laps he was passed by Ambrose for the lead; and once deprived of the clean air up front, Hamlin started to drop backwards at an alarming rate of almost a position every lap until stabilising around 12th place.

Travis Kvapil blew a tyre and found the wall on lap 47 to bring out the first caution of the day, nicely timed to give everyone the opportunity for a relatively stress-free first pit stop of the day. Ryan Newman won the race off pit road ahead of David Reutimann and Ambrose; further back, the stop seemed to have helped Hamlin who was able to inch his way back into the top ten during the next stint, and on lap 84 was enjoying a three-way battle over fifth place with his fellow Chase contenders, Harvick and Johnson.

By this point Newman had lost the lead to Jeff Burton who had been on a charge, Burton finally holding a tight inside line into turn 1 on lap 82 to claim the lead. He continued to hold the lead through the next caution (on lap 111, for a spin by Elliott Sadler who was also penalised for then intentionally forcing a caution) and ensuing pit stops, and at the restart he was leading Reutimann, Newman, Hamlin and Biffle.

The third caution followed just three laps later, when Jimmie Johnson and Marcos Ambrose made contact, Marcos blowing a tyre, spinning and hitting the wall and also leaving Johnson with some minor damage on the left side of the #48. At the restart there was a brief tussle over the lead between Burton and Newman, but the track was quickly back to yellow after Ken Schrader spun on the backstretch after receiving a bump from Casey Mears. The leaders all stayed out, but some of those further back down the positions – Juan Montoya, Scott Speed, Aric Almirola, Kasey Kahne, Paul Menard, Matt Kenseth, Marcos Ambrose and Dale Earnhardt Jr. among them – opted to try a little pit stop strategy by pitting some 22 laps after the last mass round of stops.

Burton had no trouble keeping the lead this time, and Kevin Harvick popped up into second place as the race got some 23 laps of green flag racing in before Martin Truex Jr. crawled to a stop right in front of the pit entrance, all power lost. Everyone pitted – the off-sync strategy having come to nought for those further back – and at the restart on lap 176 Burton led Harvick, Hamlin, Newman and Reutimann to the green.

But the next fifty laps were a staccato burst of cautions: the sixth yellow on lap 185 was for a spin by Regan Smith triggered by a battle with Sam Hornish Jr. and Scott Speed for position; the seventh was for Clint Bowyer similarly spinning and hitting the wall in turn 4 on lap 193; the eighth was for Paul Menard, who got turned around by a bump from Aric Almirola, although at least Menard kept it off the wall; then the ninth caution came on lap 225 after Mark Martin got a big hit up the rear from AJ Allmendinger, sending the #5 into the wall and sustaining some serious rear-end damage in the process; and finally the tenth caution on lap 233 was caused by David Reutimann spinning and hitting the wall after contact with Brad Keselowski. After such a strong early run, Reutimann’s hopes of a good showing here were as damaged as the front of his car.

Jeff Gordon had stayed out during the most recent round of pit stops and duly led the restart on lap 246 ahead of Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Juan Montoya and Tony Stewart. Dale in particular seemed invigorated by being this close to the lead, and soon overpowered Busch and then to the roar of the adoring crowd he clinched the lead from his team mate Jeff Gordon on lap 285 with a nice tight move down the inside just before the track went yellow for an eleventh time (for JJ Yeley stopped on the backstretch, having been unable to pull down to the inside to get to pit lane). All the lead-lap cars hit pit land and Dale won the race off pit road ahead of Stewart, Gordon, Kyle Busch and Burton.

Having taken the lead, Dale was in no mood to surrender it any sooner than he absolutely had to and he pulled out a margin of some 1.3s, no mean feat at such a cramped circuit. The margin had started to be eroded by Jeff Burton, however, when the 12th caution of the afternoon came out on lap 348 for Greg Biffle losing a tyre and spinning. After a round of pit stops, Dale led the restart and got some physical attention from both Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton, but was still in the lead when the 13th yellow quickly came out for Sam Hornish Jr. spinning and hitting the wall, inflicting some serious damage on the #77. Dale still seemed to have good pace at the restart, but soon it was clear that Kevin Harvick was the fastest of the leaders, finally muscling his way past Burton for second on lap 368 and then smoothly taking the lead from Dale ten laps later. Dale then quickly fell victim to Jeff Burton and Jimmie Johnson and fell to fourth before the 14th caution of the day.

This latest caution was the result of an on-track disagreement between Jeff Gordon and Kurt Busch who were battling over 12th place. The two had simultaneously pulled down the track going into turn 3, resulting in Gordon nudging the back of the blue deuce and causing Kurt to have to check up to avoid a crash, allowing Gordon to take the position. Kurt has furious, interpreting the move as a deliberate hostile action, and as they came out of turn 4 onto the front-stretch he clearly and robustly reciprocated. This time the contact was strong enough to sent Gordon into a spin, and the #24 went rear-first into the inside wall causing extensive damage to the back of the car that would require some frenzied and physical remedial action back in the pits, ruining Gordon’s hopes for a strong finish. Far from anger, crew communications with the team revealed a “yeah. what do you expect?” weariness for Kurt’s action, which seemed to date back to past encounters and even repaying a grudge that the blue #2 had from its days being driven by Rusty Wallace when Gordon wrecked it in years gone by.

The ensuing caution allowed would prove to be the last round of pit stops for most of the drivers; and also gave Mark Martin the lucky dog, which restored him to the lead lap for the first time since his collision with Allmendinger on lap 225 and a later flat tyre that had dropped him a second lap down on lap 248. Although the car was looking held together by a combination of duct tape and prayer, the damage might ironically have been helping him make some of the fastest running of the day – aerodynamics are not nearly so key at Martinsville, so losing several pounds of bodywork off the back of the #5 proved to be the best tweaking the team managed all day.

Ken Schrader stayed out during the pit stop and was duly credited with leading the race, but at the restart he was no match for Kevin Harvick, and fell back through the field like a rock until the 15th caution on lap 397 for Tony Raines spinning in turn 4 after sustaining a flat tyre. Gordon got the lucky dog this time around and was back on the lead lap after going down one while sorting out the damage from his crunching encounter with Kurt Busch, but the damage was too serious for him to avoiding getting lapped twice by the leaders before the end.

At the restart on lap 402, Harvick was leading Hamlin, Burton, Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson: and amazingly, given the endless sequences of cautions and restarts that had blighted most of the race, there would not be another yellow flag for the remaining 98 laps. It was green all the way to the finish, which meant that some cars got distinctly uncomfortable on very worn rubber by the end, none of the cars having run anything like this distance on one set of tyres all day until now.

For the longest time during this final stint, Kevin Harvick looked to be in control of the race and untouchable in the lead. Burton pressed his own claim and closed the gap, but in doing so wore his tyres down and eventually dropped back over the closing laps, which left the road open for Denny Hamlin to slowly real in his Chase rival. It took until lap 467 for Hamlin to finally catch the leader, and then after a lap spent side-by-side Hamlin proved he had the better car for long runs and finally cleared Harvick to claim the lead that he hadn’t held since that pole position start. The nightmare for Denny now would be a late caution and trying to retain the lead during a restart: as long as the race stayed green till the chequered then he was home free.

Ideally Hamlin also wanted someone to take points off his Sprint Cup rivals, too: and his team mate Kyle Busch was doing his level, aggressive best to take a position off Jimmie Johnson in the final stages, finally managing it 25 laps from the end. That meant Johnson had not led a single lap at Martinsville for the first time in five seasons, at what is considered his best track in the Chase.

But the real star of the final laps was Mark Martin. Having just got the free pass back onto the lead lap in the nick of time, he was able to galvanise the damaged-but-light #5 into an astonishing bravura finish: starting the last stint as the last of 18 runners on the lead lap, he went past car after car – even breezing past the Busch/Johnson battle by lap 481, and then looking down the inside of Kevin Harvick to steal second place in the last minutes.

At one point, Johnson’s lead in the Sprint Cup standings was down to a single point – only the late collapse of Jeff Burton’s pace boosted him up a position in the final race results and stretch out his lead to a still-nailbiting 6pts over Denny Hamlin in the Sprint Cup. Meanwhile Kevin Harvick – despite running and impressive race and leading for so much of the closing period – is now 62pts off Johnson for the championship, by no means insurmountable but still uncomfortably far away from the leaders with so few races left to run.

Race results

POS ST  CAR DRIVER              PTS/BNS LAP
1   1   11  Denny Hamlin        190/5   500  
2   21  5   Mark Martin         170/0   500  
3   36  29  Kevin Harvick       170/5   500  
4   26  18  Kyle Busch          160/0   500  
5   19  48  Jimmie Johnson      155/0   500  
6   22  20  Joey Logano         150/0   500  
7   28  88  Dale Earnhardt Jr.  151/5   500  
8   7   99  Carl Edwards        142/0   500  
9   18  31  Jeff Burton         148/10  500  
10  25  12  Brad Keselowski     134/0   500  
11  9   1   Jamie McMurray      130/0   500  
12  15  43  A.J. Allmendinger   127/0   500  
13  12  98  Paul Menard         124/0   500  
14  33  83  Kasey Kahne         121/0   500  
15  32  17  Matt Kenseth        118/0   500  
16  29  2   Kurt Busch          115/0   499  
17  10  6   David Ragan         112/0   499  
18  38  26  Ken Schrader        114/5   499  
19  5   42  Juan Montoya        106/0   499  
20  11  24  Jeff Gordon         108/5   498  
21  35  9   Aric Almirola       100/0   498  
22  41  7   Robby Gordon        102/5   498  
23  14  82  Scott Speed         94/0    498  
24  6   14  Tony Stewart        96/5    498  
25  24  77  Sam Hornish Jr.     88/0    496  
26  42  71  Hermie Sadler       85/0    496  
27  8   00  David Reutimann     87/5    494  
28  31  19  Elliott Sadler      79/0    474  
29  16  56  Martin Truex Jr.    76/0    473  
30  4   39  Ryan Newman         78/5    455  
31  13  78  Regan Smith         70/0    442  
32  40  34  Tony Raines         67/0    437  Rear Gear
33  3   16  Greg Biffle         64/0    432 
34  2   47  Marcos Ambrose      66/5    428 
35  27  38  Travis Kvapil       58/0    423  Rear Gear
36  34  36  Dave Blaney         55/0    418  Brakes
37  39  37  David Gilliland     52/0    382 
38  17  33  Clint Bowyer        49/0    359  Rear Gear
39  43  81  J.J. Yeley          46/0    282  Brakes
40  20  13  Casey Mears         48/5    271  Electrical
41  37  87  Joe Nemechek        40/0    264  Brakes
42  30  164 Landon Cassill      37/0    200  Brakes
43  23  09  Bobby Labonte       34/0    197  Overheating

Sprint Cup standings

									
POS +/-  DRIVER              PTS   BEHIND  ST  P  W  T5  T10
1   --   Jimmie Johnson      5998  Leader  32  2  6  15  19
2   --   Denny Hamlin        5992  -6      32  2  7  13  16
3   --   Kevin Harvick       5936  -62     32  0  3  14  22
4   +1   Kyle Busch          5826  -172    32  2  3  10  18
5   -1   Jeff Gordon         5795  -203    32  1  0  11  16
6   +1   Carl Edwards        5785  -213    32  2  0  7   17
7   -1   Tony Stewart        5762  -236    32  2  2  9   16
8   +2   Jeff Burton         5752  -246    32  0  0  6   15
9   --   Kurt Busch          5721  -277    32  2  2  9   16
10  +1   Matt Kenseth        5705  -293    32  0  0  5   12
11  -3   Greg Biffle         5682  -316    32  0  2  7   16
12  --   Clint Bowyer        5592  -406    32  0  1  6   16
===========================================================
13  --   Jamie McMurray      3916  -2082   32  4  3  9   11
14  +1   Mark Martin         3802  -2196   32  1  0  6   9
15  -1   Ryan Newman         3789  -2209   32  1  1  3   12
16  --   Juan Montoya        3696  -2302   32  2  1  5   13
17  +1   Joey Logano         3649  -2349   32  1  0  4   13
18  -1   David Reutimann     3607  -2391   32  0  1  5   8
19  --   Dale Earnhardt Jr.  3606  -2392   32  1  0  3   8
20  --   A.J. Allmendinger   3546  -2452   32  1  0  1   7
21  --   Kasey Kahne         3519  -2479   32  3  0  7   9
22  --   Martin Truex Jr.    3459  -2539   32  1  0  1   6
23  --   Paul Menard         3331  -2667   32  0  0  1   5
24  --   David Ragan         3166  -2832   32  0  0  0   2
25  --   Brad Keselowski     3121  -2877   32  1  0  0   1
26  --   Marcos Ambrose      3047  -2951   32  0  0  2   5
27  +1   Scott Speed         2868  -3130   32  0  0  0   2
28  -1   Elliott Sadler      2856  -3142   32  0  0  0   1
29  --   Sam Hornish Jr.     2824  -3174   32  0  0  0   1
30  --   Regan Smith         2799  -3199   32  0  0  0   0
31  +1   Travis Kvapil       2264  -3734   31  0  0  0   0
32  -1   Bobby Labonte       2256  -3742   32  0  0  0   0
33  --   David Gilliland     2163  -3835   28  0  0  0   0
34  +1   Robby Gordon        1792  -4206   24  0  0  1   1
35  -1   Kevin Conway*       1757  -4241   27  0  0  0   0
36  --   Reed Sorenson       1355  -4643   16  0  0  0   1
37  --   Casey Mears         1237  -4761   17  0  0  0   0
38  --   Dave Blaney         1235  -4763   25  0  0  0   0
39  --   Joe Nemechek        1200  -4798   28  0  0  0   0
40  --   Brian Vickers       1158  -4840   11  0  0  0   3
41  --   Bill Elliott        946   -5052   11  0  0  0   0
42  --   Mike Bliss          919   -5079   14  0  0  0   2
43  --   Max Papis           907   -5091   18  0  0  0   0
44  --   Michael McDowell    871   -5127   23  0  0  0   0
45  --   David Stremme       825   -5173   11  0  0  0   0
46  --   J.J. Yeley          779   -5219   15  0  0  0   0
47  --   Landon Cassill      588   -5410   13  0  0  0   0
48  +1   Tony Raines         479   -5519   8   0  0  0   0
49  -1   Boris Said          448   -5550   6   0  0  0   1
50  --   Patrick Carpentier  399   -5599   5   0  0  0   0

Jimmie Johnson has had some incredible luck over the years – and none more so than the race last week at Talladega, where damage limitation ended up successful beyond his wildest dreams. But luck can turn bad in an instant, and at the start of the Dickies 500 the bullet that Johnson felt he’d dodged last week caught him square in the chest within minutes of the start.

Johnson was three-wide alongside Sam Hornish Jr and David Reutimann on lap 2 when the 77 got loose after slight contact with the 00. Hornish twitched, then connected with the 48 sending Johnson sliding up into the wall. So far, nothing too bad – as long as Johnson could keep it under control and not hit anything else. He almost pulled it off, but then came back down the track and tapped the 77 for a second time, which sent them both spinning. Johnson ended up impacting the inside wall hard, on at least three of the four corners, and the car looked horribly beat-up as it crawled to the garage for emergency – and lengthy – repairs. As well as the obvious bodywork damage, the suspension and driveshaft looked horribly deranged. Suddenly that championship-clinching margin Johnson came into this race with was evaporating before his eyes.

Jeff Gordon led for the first 12 laps before Kurt Busch took over, with brother Kyle (who had already swept the NASCAR Nationwide and Truck races at Texas this weekend) taking up residence in third and then slipping past Gordon for second on lap 19. Dale Earnhardt Jr, Tony Stewart and Reutimann rounded out the top 6.

To add insult to Johnson’s injuries, the race went green for the next 78 laps giving him no breaks about how many laps down he might be if and when he came back out. It also meant that the first round of pit stops starting from lap 52 were under green flag conditions. Kurt Busch was one of the last of the leaders to come in, holding a 4s lead over his brother, but when the pit stops cycled through it was Kyle who had managed the best stop and come out in front of the field. Jeff Gordon meanwhile had a slow stop following a problem with one of the rear tyres, and had slipped back out of the top ten.

The second yellow when it did come on lap 87 was for Sam Hornish Jr. again, who had been struggling ever since that collision with Johnson and more than once been seen sliding through corners sideways. he was an accident just waiting for a place to happen, and sure enough he spun through turn 2 into the inside wall with three flat tyres. The rest of the field were relieved, able to take a pit stop under caution and get into some fine-tuning at last. At the restart, Kyle and Kurt led Reutimann, Stewart, Marcos Ambrose with Denny Hamlin making up the top six.

Finally, as the leaders hit lap 113, Jimmie Johnson emerged back onto the track, the car so thoroughly rebuilt that it looked unnaturally pristine, albeit starkly black as the new bodywork was devoid of the usual livery. The car was quickly back into the pits for additional quick fixes to a tyre rub and then set off again to demonstrate that it could make the minimum speed requirement. Although now 117 laps down after all this, Johnson did still have some low-hanging fruit to aim for – Mike Skinner, Joe Nemechek and Michael McDowell had all retired very early on, and even Johnson’s nemesis Sam Hornish Jr. was now down over thirty laps stuck in the garage after his own crash, so Johnson could reasonably target 39th place. Not great, but at least better points-wise than 43rd – albeit only by about 12pts in total. Still, titles have been won by slimmer margins.

The sun was going down and the track beginning to cool, which meant that handling was starting to change. Benefiting from the new conditions were Marcos Ambrose – up to 3rd and challenging Kurt for second spot – and Mark Martin, who had finally cracked the top ten on lap 122 to make the most of the chance to cut Johnson’s points lead in the Sprint Cup. Of the other top contenders, Gordon’s day was going south fast – down to 14th on lap 126 – while Juan Montoya was in 8th place with room for improvement.

The leaders were in for their next round of green flag pit stops on lap 146, Kyle’s crew once excelling to put their man out with a 4s lead, double what it had been before the pit stops. Dale Earnhardt Jr. had crept up into 4th with the fastest car on track at this point running just behind Ambrose, with Reutimann and Stewart ahead of Montoya in 7th. However Jeff Gordon had dropped to 18th and was at risk of going a lap down when he was saved by a caution for debris at turn 1 on lap 167.

Everyone took the opportunity to come in, and Kyle Busch emerged from pit lane a country mile ahead of the rest, but Marcos Ambrose had a slow stop with attention needed to one of his shocks dumping him down 15 positions as a result. That left Kyle leading brother Kurt, Earnhardt Jr., Reutimann, Clint Bowyer and Stewart as the top six with Mark Martin now up to 7th and Montoya down a spot to 9th. Johnson meanwhile was in 40th, creeping up on the still-garaged Sam Hornish Jr.’s position but now 120 laps down after additional running repairs on pit road, and pit chief Chad Knaus sounding resigned as he cautioned Johnson not to push it if anything started to feel wrong with the rebuilt 48.

The green flag lasted only two laps before Juan Montoya got loose and hit the back of Carl Edwards, sending them both up into the wall. Brad Keselowski then ran right into the back of Montoya’s broken car coming back down the track. Edwards came off especially badly damage-wise, but it was Montoya’s damage that had considerably more impact to the Chase situation as he brought the 42 to the garage for extensive repairs. Jeff Gordon was among those caught up in spins as they tried to avoid the accident, but at least in Gordon’s case it was a simple slide that merely required new tyres – the team opting to come in straight away even while the pit lane was officially closed, and taking the penalty. After all, being put down to the end of the lead lap was little change for Gordon at this point.

Kyle had a poor restart on lap 181, allowing Kurt to retake the lead at long last while only just fending off Reutimann for the second position. Jeff Gordon, in 18th, was still the last car on the lead lap. The green flag lasted 25 laps before the fifth caution of the afternoon came out for Reed Sorenson, who had the front right tyre go down on him sending him on a sudden snap against the wall, and then – to add insult to injury – he ricocheted down and hit the inside wall as well before being called into the garage area for repairs. That gave Jimmie Johnson another potential place to make up for if he could keep running; as the track came back to green Johnson made up another place to 39th after overhauling the absent Sam Hornish Jr., but now the best he could finish was 35th even if every single car wrecked right away.

At the restart on lap 212 it was Kyle Busch back at the front after a better pit stop than brother Kurt, and this time he was able to get away cleanly from Kurt and Reutimann. Stewart, Matt Kenseth and Martin made up the rest of the top six, Denny Hamlin having dropped well back after sliding through his pit box. The pressure was building on Martin: with the positions as they stood, Johnson would still come out of Texas with an 80pt lead despite the second lap disaster: with Montoya in the garage and Gordon simply not performing, it was all on the veteran. Once again, even when Johnson gave his rivals the chance, they didn’t seem to be around and able to pick it up and run with it.

The race passed two thirds distance as the sun set over the Motor Speedway; would the change to dusk and night time upset the dominance of the Busch brothers, who had led all but 13 laps to this point? It certainly seemed to have had an adverse effect on Dale Earnhardt Jr, who had fallen back to 8th place; Mark Martin on the other hand had finally cracked the top five behind the Busch brothers, Reutimann and Stewart, and he then slipped past Stewart for 4th on lap 247. The darker and cooler it got, the more Mark Martin came alive it seemed: perhaps Johnson wasn’t going to get away with it this time after all. In the end, 38th would prove to be the best Johnson would be able to manage with Keselowski, Sorenson and Montoya all doing enough to stay ahead of the 48 in the final standings.

Now attention turned to fuel strategies: Kyle Busch’s new pit chief Dave Rogers admitted that they were short on fuel by a few laps, and that applied to almost all of the runners still in contention. How they coped with that – and whether any cautions came out to change the outlook – was becoming key to the outcome of the race.

It emerged that Kurt Busch had the whip hand when he was able to stay out two laps longer than the other leaders on the penultimate stint, finally pitting (under green once more) on lap 271 for what he hoped would be the last time today. Kurt was worried about a vibration and urged his crew to “take their time” on the pit stop and make sure everything was okay, meaning he dropped back to 6th place after the stops worked their way through. The vibration fears were oddly echoed by brother Kyle after his own pit stop when he started to fear a loose wheel might be to blame: everyone on the crew was consulted and were sure that all the tyres were secure, so Kyle stayed out.

Now speeds were cut as everyone made fuel conservation their top priority: Kurt still seemed to be two laps short unless he could work miracles with the fuel conservation, while others including Mark Martin were even further adrift and up to half a dozen laps shy of full race distance. Nor would there be any cautions to help them eke out the fuel to the end: the race was running all the way to the very end without any more yellow flags.

Cars started to give up and peel off onto pit road as early as lap 313 when Matt Kenseth came in for a splash and dash. Greg Biffle, AJ Allmendinger and Stewart were in on lap 315, Martin and Newman on lap 317. But Kyle was stubbornly staying out, stretching his lead over Reutimann even further, while pit chief Dave Rogers kept urging his man to slow down or run dry. Meanwhile brother Kurt’s team were much happier now with their man’s fuel conservation, and assured him that Kyle would be no problem – the 18 was short. The 02 wasn’t; or at least, that’s what they calculated. They were betting the farm on being right.

Jeff Gordon gave up and pitted for fuel on lap 323, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. was in on lap 327. Still the leaders tried to tough it out … until David Reutimann finally ran out of fuel on lap 329 and crawled painfully down pit road to his pit box. And the next lap, just as his brother’s team had calculated, Kyle too was out of fuel and had to take to pit road. His dream of taking the NASCAR’s first-ever ‘trifecta’ was gone, and Kyle was clearly bitterly disappointed and left the complex without a word to the press after finally ending up 11th despite having the best car and having led 232 of the 334 laps.

That only left one question to be answered: could Kurt make it to the chequered flag? Everyone held their breath – but the 02 team had calculated it brilliantly, and Kurt Busch did indeed cross the finish line almost a full lap – 25.6s – ahead of anyone else. In the fuel conservation lottery, Denny Hamlin ended runner-up and Matt Kenseth popped up into third place, but more significant to the Chase was Mark Martin ending up in 4th place which meant that he had made major in-roads into Jimmie Johnson’s Sprint Cup lead.

Suddenly this championship has got interesting again – a fourth consecutive Jimmie Johnson title might not be such a done deal after all.

Race result

FIN ST  CAR DRIVER             MAKE       PTS/BNS LAPS  STATUS
1   3   2   Kurt Busch         Dodge      190/5   334   
2   25  11  Denny Hamlin       Toyota     175/5   334   
3   30  17  Matt Kenseth       Ford       165/0   334   
4   7   5   Mark Martin        Chevrolet  160/0   334   
5   24  29  Kevin Harvick      Chevrolet  155/0   334   
6   4   14  Tony Stewart       Chevrolet  150/0   334   
7   10  33  Clint Bowyer       Chevrolet  146/0   334   
8   8   16  Greg Biffle        Ford       142/0   334   
9   42  31  Jeff Burton        Chevrolet  138/0   334   
10  16  44  A.J. Allmendinger  Ford       134/0   334   
11  5   18  Kyle Busch         Toyota     140/10  334   
12  26  39  Ryan Newman        Chevrolet  127/0   334   
13  1   24  Jeff Gordon        Chevrolet  129/5   334   
14  27  1   Martin Truex Jr.   Chevrolet  121/0   334   
15  19  47  Marcos Ambrose     Toyota     118/0   334   In Pit
16  13  00  David Reutimann    Toyota     115/0   334   
17  17  6   David Ragan        Ford       112/0   332   
18  31  82  Scott Speed *      Toyota     109/0   332   
19  14  20  Joey Logano *      Toyota     106/0   332   
20  22  26  Jamie McMurray     Ford       103/0   332   
21  36  07  Casey Mears        Chevrolet  100/0   332   
22  33  19  Elliott Sadler     Dodge      97/0    332   
23  40  55  Michael Waltrip    Toyota     94/0    331   
24  41  34  John Andretti      Chevrolet  91/0    331   
25  9   88  Dale Earnhardt Jr. Chevrolet  88/0    331   
26  15  83  Brian Vickers      Toyota     85/0    331   
27  29  7   Robby Gordon       Toyota     82/0    331   
28  21  202 David Gilliland    Toyota     79/0    331   
29  39  98  Paul Menard        Ford       76/0    331   
30  38  96  Erik Darnell       Ford       73/0    331   
31  28  171 Bobby Labonte      Chevrolet  70/0    331   
32  32  78  Regan Smith        Chevrolet  67/0    330   
33  2   9   Kasey Kahne        Dodge      64/0    330   
34  43  21  Bill Elliott       Ford       61/0    311   In Pit
35  35  12  Brad Keselowski    Dodge      58/0    262   
36  18  43  Reed Sorenson      Dodge      55/0    248   
37  20  42  Juan Montoya       Chevrolet  52/0    231   
38  12  48  Jimmie Johnson     Chevrolet  49/0    205   
39  6   99  Carl Edwards       Ford       46/0    174   In Pit
40  11  77  Sam Hornish Jr.    Dodge      43/0    88    In Pit
41  37  36  Michael McDowell   Toyota     40/0    20    In Pit
42  34  187 Joe Nemechek       Toyota     37/0    13    Out
43  23  170 Mike Skinner       Chevrolet  34/0    6     In Pit 

Sprint Cup standings after race 34 of 36

    +/- DRIVER              PTS     BEHIND  ST  P   W   T5  T10
1   --  Jimmie Johnson      6297    Leader  34  3   6   14  22
2   --  Mark Martin         6224      -73   34  7   5   13  20
3   --  Jeff Gordon         6185     -112   34  1   1   16  23
4   +2  Kurt Busch          6126     -171   34  0   2   9   19
5   --  Tony Stewart        6119     -178   34  0   4   15  23
6   -2  Juan Montoya        6061     -236   34  2   0   7   17
7   --  Greg Biffle         6050     -247   34  0   0   10  16
8   +3  Denny Hamlin        5975     -322   34  1   3   13  18
9   -1  Ryan Newman         5973     -324   34  2   0   5   15
10  -1  Kasey Kahne         5898     -399   34  0   2   7   14
11  -1  Carl Edwards        5857     -440   34  0   0   7   13
12  --  Brian Vickers       5777     -520   34  6   1   4   13
======== CHASE FOR THE Sprint CUP - CURRENT CONTENDERS =======
13  --  Kyle Busch          4183    -2114   34  1   4   9   12
14  --  Matt Kenseth        4151    -2146   34  1   2   7   12
15  --  Clint Bowyer        4078    -2219   34  0   0   4   15
16  --  David Reutimann     3969    -2328   34  2   1   5   9
17  --  Jeff Burton         3677    -2620   34  0   0   3   8
18  --  Marcos Ambrose      3637    -2660   34  0   0   4   7
19  --  Joey Logano*        3600    -2697   34  0   1   3   7
20  --  Casey Mears         3571    -2726   34  0   0   0   4
21  --  Kevin Harvick       3535    -2762   34  0   0   4   8
22  --  Jamie McMurray      3389    -2908   34  0   1   1   5
23  --  Dale Earnhardt Jr.  3285    -3012   34  0   0   2   5
24  --  Martin Truex Jr.    3260    -3037   34  2   0   0   4
25  --  Elliott Sadler      3231    -3066   34  0   0   1   5
26  --  A.J. Allmendinger   3218    -3079   34  0   0   1   5
27  --  David Ragan         3097    -3200   34  0   0   0   2
28  --  Reed Sorenson       3019    -3278   34  0   0   0   1
29  +1  Bobby Labonte       3012    -3285   34  0   0   1   2
30  -1  Sam Hornish Jr.     2991    -3306   34  0   0   2   7
31  --  David Stremme       2919    -3378   33  0   0   0   0
32  --  Paul Menard         2818    -3479   34  0   0   0   0
33  --  Michael Waltrip     2706    -3591   32  0   0   0   2
34  --  Robby Gordon        2556    -3741   33  0   0   1   1
35  --  Scott Speed*        2544    -3753   33  0   0   1   1
36  --  John Andretti       2472    -3825   32  0   0   0   0
37  --  David Gilliland     1779    -4518   29  0   0   0   0
38  --  Brad Keselowski     1388    -4909   13  0   1   1   4
39  --  Regan Smith         1373    -4924   17  0   0   0   0
40  --  Joe Nemechek        1299    -4998   29  0   0   0   0

And so the Chase arrives at the unique challenge of Talladega – there’s no other circuit quite like this one, it’s the only restrictor plate race of the Chase, and it’s delivered some quite spectacular racing and accidents over the years. Would 2009 continue the run? Moreover, would polesitter Jimmie Johnson use it to extend his already formidable lead?

Unfortunately, it looked as though the entertainment of Talladega was sabotaged before it even started – by NASCAR itself. A new rule had been rushed in by NASCAR for Talladega forbidding cars from bump drafting in corners. “We want to see sunshine between the cars,” said NASCAR president Mike Helton, “All of the way through Turns 1 and 2, and all of the way through Turns 3 and 4, you will not be allowed to push someone, to bump-draft them or to shove them through the turns,” Helton said. “Remember the aggressive driving will still be watched very closely on the front stretches and through the tri-oval. But we have seen the progress, particularly at Talladega, of two cars hooking up and basically locked up all the way around for a lap. You will not be allowed to do that in the turns. That’s from the green flag all the way through to the checkered flag. So even on the last lap, coming through 3 and 4, you’re not going to be able to push a guy hooked up in a two-car tandem.”

With such a late change to common practice, the drivers were distinctly nervous as proceedings got underway and maintaining a clear distance in the opening laps – to the detriment of close racing. It almost looked like industrial action on the part of the drivers to protest NASCAR’s edict.

Mark Martin got a great start and beat Johnson to the first led lap of the day, but he and Johnson then both got bumped out of the running order and fell back to the middle of the pack leaving Kurt Busch in the lead ahead of Carl Edwards as the yellow flag came out on lap 5 when Paul Menard cut a tyre, turned into the wall and trapped Joe Nemechek against it as he did so, the two of them locked together, grinding along the wall for a quarter of a lap before finally coming to a halt.

Once the racing got underway again, the cars took up a nerve-racking three-wide formation and started putting the draft racing to full effect. David Reutimann took over the lead spot on lap 11, then challenged by Jeff Gordon before both of them were passed by new leader Casey Mears on lap 22 as the field finally stretched out into a single file. No one was pushing, and the effects of the “no draft bumping” decree were making themselves felt as everyone played safe, unwilling to be the guinea pig who got slapped down first.

With the race going caution-free for a lengthy period, the first full round of pit stops starting on lap 40 took place under green flag conditions. Clint Bowyer came in a little too hot and ran into the back of AJ Allmendinger as they slowed down for the pit lane speed limit, tipping the 44 into a spin, but it wasn’t until nearly all the pit stops were done that Kurt Busch went for a fast and wild spin through the infield grass after a tyre went down on him on lap 50 to bring out the second caution of the afternoon. The last remaining cars to pit now did so, and some that had already pitted came in for a quick fuel top-up; the worst hit were a small group of cars that were about to hit, and were too close to pit lane to pull out when the track went yellow and the pit lane closed. Among those caught out and put to the back of the lead lap were Casey Mears (who also got a pit lane speeding penalty) and a disgruntled Jimmie Johnson.

At the restart on lap 55, Elliott Sadler led Brad Keselowski, Matt Kenseth, David Ragan and Greg Biffle; Kenseth briefly took the lead before a huge cheer went up on lap 60 as the 88 of Dale Earnhardt Jr sprang forward to lead a couple of laps, before Denny Hamlin then took up the lead spot for a lap and then Kevin Harvick popped up to take over. Bump drafting briefly picked up, before the drivers thought better of it and the field once again stretched out to a single file procession; boredom was setting in, with Harvick overheard asking for cruise control next time; his crew chief Gil Martin dryly responded with a promise of fitting an iPod into the drink holder instead.

As the race passed lap 90 of 188 it was time for some more green flag pit stops to begin, albeit rather strung out because of the different approaches to pitting under previous cautions – the majority of the leaders came in a gaggle on lap 98, Casey Mears and Jeff Gordon making contact at the pit entrance as they vied for their pit boxes.

A third caution came out on lap 105 for debris (a fender brace in turn 4 and a large piece of tear-off in turn 3.) Even though it has been just a few laps since their last stop, the leaders didn’t hesitate to come in again for a stop under caution. At the restart, it was Hamlin leading Joey Logano, Kyle Busch, Robby Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

The lead fluctuated as drivers caught the draft and were propelled to the front and then dropped back through the pack. Robby Gordon, Jeff Burton, Jeff Gordon, Joey Logano, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Denny Hamlin, Ryan Newman, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and David Stremme all took their turns at the front of the pack. Brad Keselowski had just taken up the lead on lap 136 making it 23 different leaders with 43 lead changes, when suddenly Hamlin pulled down below the double yellow line belching smoke from a terminally suicidal engine, bringing out the fourth yellow of the afternoon by leaving a streak of oil through turns 1 and 2.

With 50 laps to go we were still just outside the pit window to get all the way to the chequered – unless anyone could seriously stretch it, or there was a sudden abundance of yellows along the way. As the caution extended 6 laps, cars came in again for a quick top-up before the green on lap 144, when Keselowski led Jeff Gordon, Robby Gordon, Stremme and Martin Truex Jr. up to speed.

Jeff Gordon quickly took the lead back for himself, then Harvick, then Kasey Kahne, then Sadler, then Montoya, then Jeff Burton, then Jamie McMurray, then Burton again before Marcos Ambrose and then David Stremme took over – it was changing faster than a slot machine, a car leading one minute then plummeting to the back of the field next when they lost the draft. One notable absentee throughout all this was Jimmie Johnson, who was staying resolutely back in 33rd position – seemingly by choice, trying to stay out of trouble, but he was leaving that late surge very late indeed if it was to come.

The field once again stretched out to a single file line, allowing McMurray to claim the lead for a more settled period ahead of Kenseth, Montoya, Mears, Ambrose and Burton. Remarkably only two of the top ten were Chase contenders – Montoya, and Mark Martin in 10th place. Johnson continued to circulate back in 31st position showing little sign of life.

Then with 20 to go, the configuration changed and two- and three-wide racing was back as the drivers picked their dance partners for the final push. Earnhardt Jr briefly ousted McMurray as the leader, then Ragan did a brief turn in front, then Stremme – but it kept coming back to McMurray. Further back, Johnson was still having little joy making any progress, and Kurt Busch had to drop out with a tyre problem. But with five laps to go, it looked as though for once Talladega had been pretty much wreck free.

Ahhh. Not quite. It might not have been the “Big One” in terms of numbers, but what happened on lap 183 certainly ranked as “big” in the spectacular stakes. Marcos Ambrose bumped Ryan Newman, which caused team mates Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman to then collided with each other turning Stewart into the wall resulting in front end damage and possible problems with the brake lines, forcing him into the pits.

But for Newman it was a different matter. He was turned around one eighty degrees by the collisions, and once the car was facing the wrong way around the aerodynamics took over and lifted the back end of the car into the air, flipping it into a somersault that caused the back of the car to come crunching down onto the hood of Harvick’s car; Ambrose and Elliott Sadler also spun and made contact with the wall as they tried to avoid the wreck.

Newman’s wild ride wasn’t over. Now on its roof, it slid across the track to make contact with the outside wall, which caused it to bounce back spinning like a top toward the infield grass, where the front left quarter dug into the grass and flipped the car back into the air in a vicious little sting in the tail that ripped the rest of the car to pieces. Finally it came to a stop, still upside down, the roof collapsed in and fears that Ryan Newman would be trapped and injured inside; the recovery crew carefully righted the car and cut the roof off, allowing Newman to spring out seemingly unhurt but clearly furious, blaming NASCAR’s rules and restrictor plates for leading up to this incident.

While Newman was being extracted, the race went to a red flag before being readied for a green-white chequered finish. This played havoc with the field, however, who were at breaking point on fuel: some cars had to dive in for emergency splash-and-dash stops, while Jeff Gordon and Juan Montoya both ran out of gas and limped – or were pushed – back to the pits for agonisingly slow refuelling stops.

Finally the race got back to green, Jamie McMurray leading them away. But back in the midfield, the real Big One was underway as the 09 of Brad Keselowski tipped Kurt Busch into a spin that sent him skewing across the track. He impacted Mark Martin heavily, tipping the 5 car into a nasty but brief barrel-roll, and behind all this a dozen cars in total were caught up in the wreck to a greater or lesser degree. The race ended with the cars that were still running picking their way through the debris to take the yellow-and-chequered, with McMurray ecstatic at taking the win.

But the biggest winner? Jimmie Johnson had indeed managed to stay out of all the late race trouble by hanging towards the back, and emerged unscathed in the top ten. Best of all, with Martin wrecked, Stewart running several laps down because of the earlier collision with Newman, and Montoya and Gordon’s campaigns badly pit by running out of gas, it meant that all his chief rivals were absolutely no where. Johnson had turned around an afternoon that looked like damage limitation into an early Christmas present and a surely unassailable championship lead.

The Sprint Cup effectively ended here today at Talladega, folks. All hail the luckiest driver in NASCAR, Jimmie Johnson, the new champion. Of course, in motorsport you make your own luck – and the 48 team made it in spades just by striving to stay out of trouble, so brains as well as speed have delivered another trophy to the Johnson family.

Race result

FIN ST  CAR DRIVER                MAKE        PTS/BNS  LAPS  STATUS
1   22  26  Jamie McMurray        Ford        195/10   191   
2   11  9   Kasey Kahne           Dodge       175/5    191   
3   20  20  Joey Logano *         Toyota      170/5    191   
4   8   16  Greg Biffle           Ford        160/0    191   
5   18  31  Jeff Burton           Chevrolet   160/5    191   
6   1   48  Jimmie Johnson        Chevrolet   150/0    191   
7   33  55  Michael Waltrip       Toyota      151/5    191   
8   36  09  Brad Keselowski       Chevrolet   147/5    191   
9   26  19  Elliott Sadler        Ford        143/5    191   
10  37  171 Bobby Labonte         Chevrolet   134/0    191   
11  24  88  Dale Earnhardt Jr.    Chevrolet   135/5    191   
12  15  33  Clint Bowyer          Chevrolet   127/0    191   
13  12  83  Brian Vickers         Toyota      129/5    191   
14  10  99  Carl Edwards          Ford        126/5    191   
15  13  18  Kyle Busch            Toyota      123/5    191   
16  29  43  Reed Sorenson         Dodge       115/0    191   
17  28  6   David Ragan           Ford        112/0    191   
18  41  36  Robert Richardson Jr. Toyota      109/0    191   
19  5   42  Juan Montoya          Chevrolet   111/5    191   
20  3   24  Jeff Gordon           Chevrolet   108/5    191   
21  21  29  Kevin Harvick         Chevrolet   105/5    191   
22  30  12  David Stremme         Dodge       102/5    191   
23  35  34  John Andretti         Chevrolet   99/5     191   
24  14  17  Matt Kenseth          Ford        91/0     191   
25  19  07  Casey Mears           Chevrolet   93/5     191   
26  16  00  David Reutimann       Toyota      90/5     191   
27  38  82  Scott Speed *         Toyota      82/0     190   Accident
28  2   5   Mark Martin           Chevrolet   84/5     190   Accident
29  42  113 Max Papis *           Toyota      76/0     190   
30  6   2   Kurt Busch            Dodge       78/5     189   Accident
31  23  1   Martin Truex Jr.      Chevrolet   75/5     189   Accident
32  34  7   Robby Gordon          Toyota      72/5     189   Accident
33  25  44  A.J. Allmendinger     Dodge       64/0     189   
34  17  47  Marcos Ambrose        Toyota      66/5     188   
35  4   14  Tony Stewart          Chevrolet   63/5     183   Accident
36  7   39  Ryan Newman           Chevrolet   60/5     183   Accident
37  31  96  Erik Darnell          Ford        52/0     167   
38  9   11  Denny Hamlin          Toyota      54/5     137   Engine
39  43  78  Regan Smith           Chevrolet   46/0     99    Engine
40  27  77  Sam Hornish Jr.       Dodge       43/0     44    Engine
41  40  66  Dave Blaney           Toyota      40/0     12    Vibration
42  32  98  Paul Menard           Ford        37/0     4     Accident
43  39  187 Joe Nemechek          Toyota      34/0     4     Accident

(Final positions subject to review by NASCAR of the video tapes of the running order when the final yellow came out.)

Sprint Cup standings

    +/- DRIVER              PTS     BEHIND  ST  P   W   T5  T10
1   --  Jimmie Johnson      6248    Leader  33  3   6   14  22
2   --  Mark Martin         6064    -184    33  7   5   12  19
3   --  Jeff Gordon         6056    -192    33  0   1   16  23
4   +1  Juan Montoya        6009    -239    33  2   0   7   17
5   -1  Tony Stewart        5969    -279    33  0   4   15  22
6   --  Kurt Busch          5936    -312    33  0   1   8   18
7   +1  Greg Biffle         5908    -340    33  0   0   10  15
8   -1  Ryan Newman         5846    -402    33  2   0   5   15
9   +2  Kasey Kahne         5834    -414    33  0   2   7   14
10  --  Carl Edwards        5811    -437    33  0   0   7   13
11  -2  Denny Hamlin        5800    -448    33  1   3   12  17
12  --  Brian Vickers       5697    -551    33  6   1   4   13
======= CHASE FOR THE Sprint CUP - CURRENT CONTENDERS ========
13  --  Kyle Busch          4043    -2205   33  1   4   9   12
14  --  Matt Kenseth        3986    -2262   33  1   2   6   11
15  --  Clint Bowyer        3932    -2316   33  0   0   4   14
16  --  David Reutimann     3854    -2394   33  2   1   5   9
17  +1  Jeff Burton 3539    -2709   33  0   0   3   7
18  -1  Marcos Ambrose      3519    -2729   33  0   0   4   7
19  +1  Joey Logano*        3494    -2754   33  0   1   3   7
20  -1  Casey Mears         3471    -2777   33  0   0   0   4
21  --  Kevin Harvick       3380    -2868   33  0   0   3   7
22  --  Jamie McMurray      3286    -2962   33  0   1   1   5
23  +1  Dale Earnhardt Jr.  3197    -3051   33  0   0   2   5
24  -1  Martin Truex Jr.    3139    -3109   33  2   0   0   4
25  +1  Elliott Sadler      3134    -3114   33  0   0   1   5
26  -1  A.J. Allmendinger   3084    -3164   33  0   0   1   4
27  +1  David Ragan         2985    -3263   33  0   0   0   2
28  +1  Reed Sorenson       2964    -3284   33  0   0   0   1
29  -2  Sam Hornish Jr.     2948    -3300   33  0   0   2   7
30  +1  Bobby Labonte       2942    -3306   33  0   0   1   2
31  -1  David Stremme       2919    -3329   33  0   0   0   0
32  --  Paul Menard         2742    -3506   33  0   0   0   0
33  --  Michael Waltrip     2612    -3636   31  0   0   0   2
34  --  Robby Gordon        2474    -3774   32  0   0   1   1
35  --  Scott Speed*        2435    -3813   32  0   0   1   1
36  --  John Andretti       2381    -3867   31  0   0   0   0
37  --  David Gilliland     1700    -4548   28  0   0   0   0
38  +2  Brad Keselowski     1330    -4918   12  0   1   1   4
39  -1  Regan Smith         1306    -4942   16  0   0   0   0
40  -1  Joe Nemechek        1262    -4986   28  0   0   0   0

Going into Lowe’s for this week’s race, the question on everyone’s lips had to be: “Could anyone stop the Jimmie Johnson steamroller?” He had dominated qualifying and practice, and the only solace his rivals had was the historical stat that the polesitter had not won here in 27 years. Surely Johnson couldn’t beat the tide of history as well as the rest of the field?

Johnson has a slight stutter at the start of the race when he lost the initiative to his team mate Mark Martin, who got the better run around the outside and led the first lap. A quick yellow for a wild spin by Sam Hornish Jr coming off turn 2 on lap 3 gave Johnson a second chance at Martin and he seized it, racing away with the lead while Martin found himself wheel-to-wheel with Kasey Kahne.

Hornish was also the cause of the second caution on lap 9 when he spun again, this time coming out of lap 4. Clearly there was something horribly wrong with the 77, not helped by the hard hit his right rear had taken in his first spin of the day.

After the Hornish cautions there was a decent stint of some 20 laps of green flag running. Kyle Busch – returning after illness last week – was looking very fast and quickly took up the third spot behind Johnson and Martin as the three of them eased away from the rest of the field. When the caution came out again, on lap 34, it was for weather – sprinkles of rain had hit one end of the track, and NASCAR quite rightly took a safety-first approach.

It was early for pit stops (50-60 lap stints had been anticipated) but no one was passing up the opportunity to come in for a stop under yellow and have some fine tuning on their handling. Matt Kenseth went for a two-tyre gambit and moved up seven positions into the lead as a result; while Joey Logano – who had been working his way up nicely into the top five – overshot his pit box and had to back up, losing him a huge number of positions and dumping him back to 38th. But at least Logano’s race pace was still quick, and he was able to start working his way up through the field again. Having a far less fun time were Tony Stewart (who was dropping back lap after lap), Carl Edwards and Dale Earnhardt Jr., both of whom were having handling problems that had left them way off the pace and right at the back of the running order.

The rain cleared quickly and the track went green again on lap 42 ahead of Johnson, Martin, Busch and Denny Hamlin. Johnson quickly went side-by-side with Hamlin, but it was hard work: Johnson started to get loose, fell back again into the clutches of Martin, and it was not until lap 52 that Johnson was finally able to reclaim the lead. But now Hamlin was coming on strong and charging for the lead, and by lap 71 he was past Johnson, Kenseth and Busch to surge past Johnson for the top spot. With Juan Montoya now consistently the fastest man on track, the 42 also broke through into the top five, ejecting Martin and leaving Hamlin ahead of Kenseth, Montoya, Johnson and Busch as green flag pit stops commenced on lap 89.

Despite still being in the top five, Johnson seemed out of sorts, angry and frustrated, snapping at his pit chief Chad Knaus even before another sluggish pit stop with problems on the left rear tyre enabled Casey Mears to edge him out of the pit lane for position – temporarily. Johnson seemed to like the changes the team made during the stop, though, describing the car as “edgy” and adding “I like it” – clearly the handling was coming back to him. And at least his sluggish pit stop had been better than Ryan Newman’s, which dragged on an agonising 21s and haemorrhaged positions all the while.

The race continued green through to lap 119, and it was Kyle Busch who brought out the caution when the 18 simply snapped sideways out of turn 4 for no discernible reason, leaving Kyle driving at right angles down the straight-away and narrowly avoiding hitting Scott Speed on the inside line as he brought the car back under control. The field duly used the opportunity for some pit stops and much needed adjustments – Montoya in particular was complaining that the 42 was as loose as he would ever want to have to drive it. A few drivers opted for a two tyre strategy, which meant that Jeff Gordon, Greg Biffle and Ryan Newman gained around a dozen spots to leap into the top three positions in front of Hamlin and Kenseth, with Tony Stewart up to 6th ahead of Johnson and Jeff Burton, who was also up twelve spots on tyre strategy.

It was a very different field, then, that came to the green flag, and it was a rough restart for several drivers. Dale Earnhardt Jr was extremely slow and had to pit with transmission issues and unable to stay in fourth gear, finally being redirected into the garage area for lengthy diagnosis and repairs that put him some 29 laps down. Further forward, the field seemed to bunch up and jostle with lots of minor impacts: Vickers ended up with bodywork damage that rubbed his front right tear, forcing him into the pits for some field repairs; and Montoya went into the back of Clint Bowyer without too much harm done, but Mark Martin gave Montoya a more emphatic kick up the backside that damaged the 42’s rear fender and seriously affected Montoya’s handling. After losing a bunch of positions, the handling degenerated to the point where Montoya was drifting alarmingly on almost every corner and he finally lost the car altogether exiting turn 4 on lap 163, putting him two laps down to the leaders after such a promising, strong start and serious affecting his Chase campaign. The crew managed to find a replacement quarter panel, albeit coloured the 42’s usual red instead of this week’s blue livery which made for a rather striking junkyard patchwork effect. Martin also suffered: although his handling wasn’t too bad, the subsequent repairs to his hole in the nose of his race car would put him down to 24th position.

Montoya’s woes at least allowed the rest of the field the relative luxury of a round of pit stops under caution. Hamlin was able to take the lead after the pit stops but Gordon quickly passed him at the restart, with Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson and Greg Biffle continuing to fill out the rest of the top five as the race passed half distance. Montoya was also the cause of the sixth caution of the day – this time by virtue of his depositing a large, clearly recognisable piece of red metalwork on the track with a conspicuous Target logo on it.

This was on lap 188, and with only 20 laps or so having been run since the last round of pit stops almost everyone opted for the two tyre strategy this time – with Kasey Kahne going even further and opting for fuel only which put him up into 5th spot behind Kenseth, Johnson, Kurt Busch and Gordon at the restart. Unfortunately for Denny Hamlin, who had been strong all evening, his car had developed engine problems: it was audibly misfiring and seemed to have lost a valve, putting him into the garage, his race wrecked. With his second consecutive DNF (after his error last week while among the leaders at Fontana), his Chase campaign has been badly derailed.

It was Kasey Kahne who was flying in the next stint, surging past the top four (including Johnson, who was distracted trying to get some debris off his front grill before it caused his engine to overheat) to take the lead from Kenseth on lap 223. He held on to the lead through to the green flag pit stops that commenced around lap 242, despite a heart-stopping moment for him when his ignition failed as he tried to get back up to speed out of the pit lane and he had to quickly switch to a backup system. Once the stops cycled through, Kahne was nonetheless still back in charge ahead of Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon; Kahne’s lead over Johnson was up to 6.5s and on lap 288 he lapped Mark Martin who had struggled his way back to 18th position after the 5’s earlier handling problems from bodywork damage.

The seventh caution was for the death of Max Papis’ engine on lap 290, and Johnson beat Kahne out of the pits by the narrowest possible margin to assume the lead with Gordon 3rd, Kenseth 4th and Bowyer 5th. The green flag didn’t last long before David Gilliland got loose and hit the wall hard on lap 299, which at least allowed Mark Martin to get the free pass and get back on the lead lap once more.

Once established, the stop-start staccato rhythm became frustratingly embedded in proceedings: the next restart on lap 303 came to a swift yellow when Carl Edwards blew up and left a trail of fluid behind him; the next restart on lap 307 fared little better, coming to the tenth yellow of the afternoon on lap 312 when David Stremme hit the wall, bounced into slight contact with Greg Biffle which in turn caused Biffle to make further light contact with Ryan Newman who was running on the inside which was the last straw, tipping Biffle into a wild spin across the track and the grassy infield, narrowly avoiding collecting Mike Bliss along the way.

But once the race restarted on lap 317, it ran the remaining 17 laps to the end without further interruptions. Johnson led Gordon, Kahne, Kenseth and Mears to the green, and Johnson had a battle royal with his Hendrick Motorsports team mate Jeff Gordon to keep the top spot, but once Johnson got a good run on the low-side to edge Gordon on lap 321, Gordon dropped back to fourth and the 48 was able to build an unassailable lead.

Sure enough, Johnson took the chequered flag. So much for the stats: if anyone can overturn a 27-year precedent then it’s Jimmie Johnson. And with Mark Martin and Juan Montoya having poor weeks, his lead in the Sprint Cup standings was starting to look very, very healthy indeed.

Race result

Pos  Driver             Car        Laps
 1.  Jimmie Johnson     Chevrolet  334
 2.  Matt Kenseth       Ford       334
 3.  Kasey Kahne        Dodge      334
 4.  Jeff Gordon        Chevrolet  334
 5.  Joey Logano        Toyota     334
 6.  Clint Bowyer       Chevrolet  334
 7.  Casey Mears        Chevrolet  334
 8.  Kyle Busch         Toyota     334
 9.  Martin Truex Jr    Chevrolet  334
10.  Kurt Busch         Dodge      334
11.  Ryan Newman        Chevrolet  334
12.  Brad Keselowski    Chevrolet  334
13.  Tony Stewart       Chevrolet  334
14.  Jeff Burton        Chevrolet  334
15.  David Reutimann    Toyota     334
16.  Greg Biffle        Ford       334
17.  Mark Martin        Chevrolet  334
18.  Kevin Harvick      Chevrolet  334
19.  David Stremme      Dodge      334
20.  David Ragan        Ford       334
21.  Reed Sorenson      Dodge      334
22.  Marcos Ambrose     Toyota     333
23.  AJ Allmendinger    Dodge      333
24.  Mike Bliss         Chevrolet  333
25.  David Gilliland    Toyota     333
26.  Elliott Sadler     Dodge      332
27.  Paul Menard        Ford       332
28.  Scott Speed        Toyota     332
29.  Bill Elliott       Ford       332
30.  Robby Gordon       Toyota     332
31.  Bobby Labonte      Ford       331
32.  Michael Waltrip    Toyota     331
33.  Jamie McMurray     Ford       331
34.  Brian Vickers      Toyota     330
35.  Juan Montoya       Chevrolet  330
36.  John Andretti      Chevrolet  330
37.  Terry Labonte      Toyota     329
38.  Dale Earnhardt Jr  Chevrolet  304
39.  Carl Edwards       Ford       299
40.  Sam Hornish Jr     Dodge      298
41.  Max Papis          Toyota     286
42.  Denny Hamlin       Toyota     192
43.  Joe Nemechek       Toyota      26

Sprint Cup standings

    +/- DRIVER              PTS     BEHIND  ST  P   W   T5  T10
1   --  Jimmie Johnson      5923    Leader  31  3   6   13  20
2   --  Mark Martin         5833      -90   31  7   5   12  18
3   +2  Jeff Gordon         5788     -135   31  0   1   15  22
4   --  Tony Stewart        5768     -155   31  0   4   15  21
5   +1  Kurt Busch          5746     -177   31  0   1   8   18
6   -3  Juan Montoya        5728     -195   31  2   0   6   16
7   --  Greg Biffle         5655     -268   31  0   0   9   14
8   +2  Ryan Newman         5635     -288   31  1   0   5   14
9   +2  Kasey Kahne         5592     -331   31  0   2   6   13
10  -2  Carl Edwards        5582     -341   31  0   0   7   13
11  -2  Denny Hamlin        5551     -372   31  1   2   11  16
12  --  Brian Vickers       5438     -485   31  6   1   4   13
======= CHASE FOR THE Sprint CUP - CURRENT CONTENDERS ========
13  +1  Matt Kenseth        3774    -2149   31  1   2   6   11
14  -1  Kyle Busch          3755    -2168   31  1   4   8   11
15  --  Clint Bowyer        3699    -2224   31  0   0   4   14
16  --  David Reutimann     3644    -2279   31  2   1   5   9
17  --  Marcos Ambrose      3371    -2552   31  0   0   4   7
18  +1  Casey Mears         3269    -2654   31  0   0   0   4
19  -1  Jeff Burton         3256    -2667   31  0   0   2   6
20  --  Joey Logano*        3197    -2726   31  0   1   2   6
21  --  Kevin Harvick       3141    -2782   31  0   0   3   6
22  --  Dale Earnhardt Jr.  2986    -2937   31  0   0   2   5
23  +2  Martin Truex Jr.    2985    -2938   31  2   0   0   4
24  --  A.J. Allmendinger   2959    -2964   31  0   0   1   4
25  -2  Jamie McMurray      2941    -2982   31  0   0   0   3
26  +1  Elliott Sadler      2891    -3032   31  0   0   1   4
27  -1  Sam Hornish Jr.     2850    -3073   31  0   0   2   7
28  --  David Ragan         2776    -3147   31  0   0   0   2
29  --  Reed Sorenson       2758    -3165   31  0   0   0   1
30  --  David Stremme       2753    -3170   31  0   0   0   0
31  --  Bobby Labonte       2684    -3239   31  0   0   1   1
32  --  Paul Menard         2611    -3312   31  0   0   0   0
33  --  Michael Waltrip     2388    -3535   29  0   0   0   1
34  --  Robby Gordon        2350    -3573   30  0   0   1   1
35  --  Scott Speed*        2283    -3640   30  0   0   1   1
36  --  John Andretti       2192    -3731   29  0   0   0   0
37  --  David Gilliland     1649    -4274   27  0   0   0   0
38  --  Regan Smith         1260    -4663   15  0   0   0   0
39  +2  Brad Keselowski     1183    -4740   11  0   1   1   3
40  -1  Joe Nemechek        1179    -4744   26  0   0   0   0

The California sun was notably absent for the start of the fourth Sprint Cup Chase race, but it came out midrace in time to shine on the winner – who was never really in doubt, barring accidents.

Denny Hamlin led the field at the start, with Jimmie Johnson quickly slotting into second and looking strong from the start ahead of Greg Biffle and Juan Montoya. Sure enough, ten laps later Johnson powered past Hamlin for the lead, with Montoya following through to take up second place about a second behind. As the stint wore on, however, Montoya seemed to get the edge, cut the gap and finally took the lead for himself on lap 25 by dropping down to the inside line into turn 1.

No cautions arose before the field came in for green flag pit stops around lap 40 which returned Johnson to the front once more, but Montoya didn’t take so long to get past him this time and on lap 45 he eased past Johnson after some side-by-side running to resume the lead.

The first caution of the afternoon came on lap 60 when Jamie McMurray scraped the wall. That meant the first yellow flag pit stops, and at this point Kyle Busch exited the race – hauled from the cockpit of the number 18, dehydrated and clearly ill with the after effects of strep throat, bronchitis and influenza: “I’m going to go lay down for a little bit and see if I can’t get some fluids or something in me at the infield care center,” Busch said. ” I’m sorry I had to get out. I’m not feeling well. I was coughing read bad out there. Maybe now I’ll go lay down and get some fluids or something and try to get better. We’ve been fighting it for several days.” David Gilliland was installed in his place, having parked up his own car as long ago as lap 15 in preparation or the switch, and managed to just sneak out on track by the narrowest of margins before the pace car came round and put him a lap down.

At the restart, Juan Montoya, Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Jeff Gordon topped the leaderboard, with Jimmie Johnson having slipped six positions after his pit crew fumbled the front right lug nuts. Montoya struggled with the green flag, outrun by Hamlin and Harvick before Harvick started to fall back and Montoya was then passed by a storming Mark Martin who muscled past Hamlin for the lead itself on lap 69 after a lap running side-by-side. But Montoya’s troubles were fleeting, and on lap 74 he was back in command and cruising back into the front, demoting Martin back to second spot.

The second yellow came out at the same time as the sunshine, on lap 81 after Ryan Newman blew his right front tyre. Everyone duly came in for their next pit stop, but Martin Truex Jr. threw the dice and took only two tyres, a gambit that saw him out in front for the restart. Johnson again had a sluggish stop, this time struggling with wheel spin exiting the pit box. But up front, Montoya was quick to power straight past Hamlin for the lead at the restart and a couple of laps later the top four had a familiar feel, with Montoya, Hamlin, Martin and Johnson all now ahead of Truex who held 5th.

As this stint wore on and the cars neared a possible green flag round of pit stops, Montoya started to flag and Johnson passed him for the lead on lap 115; a couple of laps later and the yellow came out for debris in a very nicely timed opportunity for pit stops. This time it was Denny Hamlin who made the best of the pit stops and emerged in front, ahead of Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson; Gordon made a determined bid on the low side for the lead at the restart, but wasn’t able to pull it off past the next start/finish line; Johnson however had better luck a couple of laps later when he took the lead from Hamlin on lap 125, the midpoint of the race.

Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Jeff Gordon, Juan Montoya and Mark Martin now continued to make up the top five as the race entered a remarkably settled period. Johnson quickly stretched out a 7s lead, and Montoya moved up into second spot by the time they reached green flag pit stops on lap 160 that did little to upset the lead running order, but was a costly stop for Tony Stewart who received a drive-thru for speeding on the exit.

The race continued under green until lap 185 (another caution for debris) and things were starting to get a little more edgy and combative as the end of the race started to loom into view. Johnson again lost positions on pit road, ceding the lead to Hamlin and Montoya. Johnson slotted into third ahead of Mark Martin and Kevin Harvick.

But the restart proved a disaster for Hamlin, who tried to veer down the track and cut off Montoya but ended up getting clipped on the left rear by the 42 who had no where to go. That sent him spinning across the infield grass, and he just heavily clipped the very end of the pit lane wall – the damage was enough to force him to check straight into the garage for repairs, his race day ruined after such a strong showing for three quarters of the afternoon. He would return to the track on lap 214, listed in 36th place but soon deemed too slow to continue and recalled to the garage by order of NASCAR. “Rookie mistake” conceded Hamlin, blaming himself.

Seemingly undamaged, Montoya led the field at the next restart on lap 195, but Johnson swooped past him on the outside right up against the wall within a lap to take up the lead once again, a lead he held convincingly through to the last round of pit stops around lap 225 held under green flag conditions. Pit stops had mainly finished by lap 235 when the sixth caution came out, once again for debris, but Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards were able to come in for additional top-up pit stops before the track went green again on lap 239, with the field headed up by Johnson and Gordon with just 11 laps to go.

The restart didn’t last long – not even a lap – before Kurt Busch got loose scraped the wall. He ended up coming down the track into Kasey Kahne who in turn pulled down into Biffle; Busch carried on unaffected, but Kahne and Biffle went skidding across the infield grass, Kane in particular beaten up on both the left and right bodywork but able to continue.

The brief stint of green flag racing had allowed Gordon to sneak the lead from Johnson, but the 48 quickly rectified the situation at the restart on lap 244; however this green flag period scarcely lasted any longer before disaster struck the field outside the top ten. Seemingly triggered by Elliot Sadler and Dale Earnhardt Jr. making contact and spinning, collecting others in the process, the wreck involved all four Richard Petty Motorports runners (Kahne again, Sadler, Reed Sorenson and AJ Allmendinger) as well as Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Burton, Brian Vickers and Marcos Ambrose among others. The number of cars involved and ensuing wreckage forced NASCAR to throw a red flag to allow the clean-up.

That left just two laps for a green-and-white-chequered shootout upon resumption; Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin, Juan Montoya and David Ragan lead the field to green. Montoya beat out Martin for 3rd but wasn’t able to best Gordon before the finish line came into sight, while Ragan was rushed by both Stewart and Edwards who ejected him from the top six.

But really, it was all too easy for Johnson, who won by 1.6s and never looked like he didn’t have this race for the taking. Not the most thrilling of races as a result of Johnson’s dominance, but a key moment in the Chase as for the first time Martin is deposed at the top of the points standings.

Can anyone stop Johnson now, or is the writing already on the wall – and the engraving on the trophy?

Race result

FIN ST  CAR DRIVER             MAKE       PTS/BNS  LAPS  STATUS
1   3   48  Jimmie Johnson     Chevrolet  195/10   250   Running
2   10  24  Jeff Gordon        Chevrolet  175/5    250   Running
3   4   42  Juan Montoya       Chevrolet  170/5    250   Running
4   9   5   Mark Martin        Chevrolet  165/5    250   Running
5   20  14  Tony Stewart       Chevrolet  160/5    250   Running
6   11  99  Carl Edwards       Ford       150/0    250   Running
7   31  6   David Ragan        Ford       146/0    250   Running
8   24  2   Kurt Busch         Dodge      147/5    250   Running
9   8   33  Clint Bowyer       Chevrolet  138/0    250   Running
10  7   29  Kevin Harvick      Chevrolet  134/0    250   Running
11  16  07  Casey Mears        Chevrolet  130/0    250   Running
12  22  77  Sam Hornish Jr.    Dodge      127/0    250   Running
13  17  17  Matt Kenseth       Ford       124/0    250   Running
14  6   20  Joey Logano *      Toyota     121/0    250   Running
15  36  39  Ryan Newman        Chevrolet  118/0    250   Running
16  14  12  David Stremme      Dodge      115/0    250   Running
17  34  55  Michael Waltrip    Toyota     112/0    250   Running
18  42  00  David Reutimann    Toyota     109/0    250   Running
19  40  34  John Andretti      Chevrolet  111/5    250   Running
20  2   16  Greg Biffle        Ford       103/0    250   Running
21  21  82  Scott Speed *      Toyota     100/0    250   Running
22  5   1   Martin Truex Jr.   Chevrolet  102/5    250   Running
23  27  47  Marcos Ambrose     Toyota     94/0     250   Running
24  19  18  Kyle Busch         Toyota     91/0     248   Running
25  37  88  Dale Earnhardt Jr. Chevrolet  88/0     248   Running
26  35  96  Bobby Labonte      Ford       85/0     247   Running
27  41  98  Paul Menard        Ford       82/0     247   Running
28  26  78  Regan Smith        Chevrolet  79/0     247   Running
29  32  83  Brian Vickers      Toyota     76/0     246   Running
30  18  31  Jeff Burton        Chevrolet  73/0     245   Running
31  28  43  Reed Sorenson      Dodge      70/0     244   Running
32  39  19  Elliott Sadler     Dodge      67/0     244   In Pit
33  12  44  A.J. Allmendinger  Dodge      64/0     244   Running
34  25  9   Kasey Kahne        Dodge      61/0     244   In Pit
35  15  113 Max Papis *        Toyota     58/0     244   Running
36  29  26  Jamie McMurray     Ford       55/0     209   Running
37  1   11  Denny Hamlin       Toyota     57/5     195   In Pit
38  38  7   Robby Gordon       Toyota     49/0     121   In Pit
39  13  187 Joe Nemechek       Toyota     46/0     29    Out
40  43  36  Michael McDowell   Toyota     43/0     25    In Pit
41  33  66  Dave Blaney        Toyota     40/0     22    In Pit
42  30  171 David Gilliland    Chevrolet  37/0     13    In Pit
43  23  09  Mike Bliss         Dodge      34/0     11    Out 

Sprint Cup Standings

Jimmie Johnson now leads the standings (by 12 points) from Mark Martin and is beginning to gather that all-too-familiar momentum that’s taken him to his titles in years past. The 48 is definitely the car to beat, and strong as Montoya and Martin are they just can’t seem to match Johnson for consistency and form on a day like this.

    +/- DRIVER              PTS     BEHIND  ST  P   W   T5  T10
1   +1  Jimmie Johnson      5728    Leader  30  2   5   12  19
2   -1  Mark Martin         5716     -12    30  7   5   12  18
3   --  Juan Montoya        5670     -58    30  2   0   6   16
4   --  Tony Stewart        5644     -84    30  0   4   15  21
5   +2  Jeff Gordon         5623    -105    30  0   1   14  21
6   -1  Kurt Busch          5607    -121    30  0   1   8   17
7   +1  Greg Biffle         5540    -188    30  0   0   9   14
8   +2  Carl Edwards        5536    -192    30  0   0   7   13
9   -3  Denny Hamlin        5509    -219    30  1   2   11  16
10  -1  Ryan Newman         5505    -223    30  1   0   5   14
11  --  Kasey Kahne         5422    -306    30  0   2   5   12
12  --  Brian Vickers       5377    -351    30  6   1   4   13
======= CHASE FOR THE Sprint CUP - CURRENT CONTENDERS ========
13  --  Kyle Busch          3613    -2115   30  1   4   8   10
14  --  Matt Kenseth        3599    -2129   30  1   2   5   10
15  +1  Clint Bowyer        3549    -2179   30  0   0   4   13
16  -1  David Reutimann     3526    -2202   30  2   1   5   9
17  --  Marcos Ambrose      3274    -2454   30  0   0   4   7
18  --  Jeff Burton         3135    -2593   30  0   0   2   6
19  --  Casey Mears         3123    -2605   30  0   0   0   3
20  --  Joey Logano*        3042    -2686   30  0   1   1   5
21  --  Kevin Harvick       3032    -2696   30  0   0   3   6
22  --  Dale Earnhardt Jr.  2937    -2791   30  0   0   2   5
23  --  Jamie McMurray      2877    -2851   30  0   0   0   3
24  --  A.J. Allmendinger   2865    -2863   30  0   0   1   4
25  --  Martin Truex Jr.    2847    -2881   30  2   0   0   3
26  +1  Sam Hornish Jr.     2807    -2921   30  0   0   2   7
27  -1  Elliott Sadler      2806    -2922   30  0   0   1   4
28  +3  David Ragan         2673    -3055   30  0   0   0   2
29  -1  Reed Sorenson       2658    -3070   30  0   0   0   1
30  -1  David Stremme       2647    -3081   30  0   0   0   0
31  -1  Bobby Labonte       2614    -3114   30  0   0   1   1
32  --  Paul Menard         2529    -3199   30  0   0   0   0
33  +1  Michael Waltrip     2316    -3412   28  0   0   0   1
34  -1  Robby Gordon        2277    -3451   29  0   0   1   1
35  --  Scott Speed*        2204    -3524   29  0   0   1   1
36  --  John Andretti       2137    -3591   28  0   0   0   0
37  --  David Gilliland     1561    -4167   26  0   0   0   0
38  --  Regan Smith         1260    -4468   15  0   0   0   0
39  --  Joe Nemechek        1145    -4583   25  0   0   0   0
40  +1  Dave Blaney         1084    -4644   27  0   0   0   0
41  -1  Brad Keselowski     1056    -4672   10  0   1   1   3

Jimmie Johnson took pole for the second Chase race (with some mutterings from one or two other drivers that he enjoyed an unfair advantage by being able to participate in a Goodyear test last month here at Dover – the so-called “Monster Mile”. But could he turn that advantage – fair or otherwise – to a much-needed race victory to get his 2009 Chase campaign properly launched?

As Johnson led the start away and opened up a 1.2 second lead over Ryan Newman (and Elliott Sadler, Clint Bowyer and Tony Raines were all put to the back for engine changes) news came that there would be a competition yellow at lap 25, after the racetrack was washed clean of the rubber that had been put down so far this weekend by heavy overnight rain.

The competition caution was reached without incident, and the cars dutifully filed in for the first pit stop to check on tyre wear; several of the leaders opted to take just two new tyres, but Jimmie Johnson went for the full four and dropped to 5th at the restart behind Newman, Kurt Busch, Kasey Kahne and Paul Menard.

But the calm was deceptive and didn’t survive the first-ever double-file restart at Dover: a big crash in turn 3 on lap 31 saw Joey Logano bumping with Tony Stewart and Bobby Labonte that sent Logano sideways skating onto the grass and then back up to the wall before finally getting a low-speed impact from Reed Sorenson who had run out of space. That final innocuous impact flipped Logano tumbling into a massively over-the-top multiple-roll down the track in a spectacular accident; Sorenson, Robby Gordon, Martin Truex Jr. were also badly damaged in the incident. With four cars stuck on the track, the stewards needed time to clear up the mess and make sure everyone was okay and immediately put out the red flag for a twenty minute hiatus. Happily, Joey Logano walked away unhurt – albeit admitting that it had “scared the heck out of me” and “the wildest ride ever been on!”

After this early excitement, it was good to get back to some nice, reliable, safe laps. Newman led the field away at the restart and retained the lead until lap 58, when Kurt Busch assumed the top spot as Newman gradually started to lose pace and positions.

The field was starting to get close to pit stops (and David Reutimann had already run out of gas and lost two laps while crawling into the pit lane) when the next caution came out on lap 4 for Michael Waltrip hitting the wall in turn 2 after his front-right tyre blew out. That allowed everyone to come in for pit stops under caution, and Kurt Busch kept the lead ahead of Greg Biffle, brother Kyle, Jimmie Johnson and Juan Montoya. Biffle, Johnson and Kyle had a heated battle for the second spot as the green came out and Biffle came out the worst for it, dropping to 8th by lap 125, while Kurt continued to lead ahead of Johnson, Montoya, Kyle, a rapidly improving Mark Martin (who had dropped to 18th on the initial laps) and Jeff Gordon in 6th despite complaints that the 24 was handling very loose.

It was only a matter of time before Johnson retook the lead, and it happened on lap 147 after Busch was blocked by Bobby Labonte getting lapped. By this point the race had gone almost 75 laps without a caution and pit stops were pending; Kyle Busch pitted on lap 162 after brushing the wall (and Jeff Burton managed to miss pit road on his own attempt to come in) when a yellow flag came out the very next lap for fluid on the track and the rest of the leaders got to pit under yellow.

The race off pit road put Kurt Busch back in the lead ahead of Johnson, Montoya, Gordon and Martin at the restart on lap 168. Johnson was immediately up for a fight for the lead, and he and Busch went side-by-side for several laps until Johnson proved his point and got the lead back on lap 176, quickly opening up a 1.4s lead over Kurt in a half dozen laps. Johnson held the lead through the midpoint of the race and up to the fifth caution of the night, triggered by Kyle Busch hiting the wall heavily twice, not for the first time this afternoon, in turns 3 and 4 – the second hit seemingly the result of throwing a tantrum out of sheer frustration.

At the restart, the top five continued to consist of Johnson, Gordon, Kurt Busch, Martin and Montoya. This time Johnson stretched out a 3.5s lead by the time the next round of pit stops started to loom and were neatly matched with the sixth caution of the evening on lap 272 courtesy of David Stremme hitting the wall this time, in turn 4. The top five at the restart continued to be the familiar names of Johnson, Gordon, Busch, Montoya and Martin as everyone bided their time.

This stint wasn’t so good for Kurt, however, who fell out of the top five and passed by Matt Kenseth and Tony Stewart who were starting to get stronger as the race entered its final quarter. But Johnson was still effortlessly dominating the race upfront, leading by 2.2s when the seventh caution came out on lap 324 for debris, giving everyone the chance to pit under yellow for what should be the final time of the afternoon.

Johnson led Martin, Kenseth, Montoya and Stewart away at the green flag on lap 329 (Gordon having a poor stop, falling from second to seventh as a result) and it was Montoya who got the best start of that lead group, popping up into 2nd while Mark Martin struggled and fell back to 5th. The green flag conditions only lasted a dozen laps however before the eights caution arrived in the form of a spin by Ragan Smith on the frontstretch that collected David Stremme, Martin Truex Jr. and Elliott Sadler.

This gave the crew chiefs an interesting choice – whether to come in for fresher rubber for an edge in the concluding fifth laps. Jeff Gordon – who had fallen back to 7th – was the highest-placed of the drivers to pit, along with Marcos Ambrose, A.J. Allmendinger, Kevin Harvick and Brian Vickers.

Johnson led Montoya, Martin, Kenseth and Kurt Busch away at the restart on lap 347, with Gordon out of the top ten but quickly on the mark and cutting a swathe back to the front, but the gamble wasn’t paying off fast enough and he would finish back in 6th place by the chequered flag.

There was one more caution of the day to navigate – on lap 368 when San Hornish Jr spun on the straightaway – and the now-familiar line-up of Johnson, Kenseth, Montoya, Martin and Busch led the restart with Johnson and Kenseth quickly driving away from the rest of the field. But wily old Mark Martin wasn’t about to let them disappear and he set about reeling Kenseth back in, finally passing Kenseth for second on lap 383. Jimmie Johnson, however, was another matter and simply too strong for Martin to be able to do anything about.

The laps clicked down, and the chequered was out – sure enough for Johnson, who had looked in control throughout and never seriously threatened. He was followed in by Martin, Kenseth and Montoya. For once, the Monster Mile had avoided any big wrecks (Logano’s sensational barrel-rolling notwithstanding) and the Chase contenders came through the ever-dangerous Dover outing without any disasters.

Race results

FIN ST  CAR DRIVER              MAKE        PTS/BNS LAP STATUS
1   1   48  Jimmie Johnson      Chevrolet   195/10  400 Running
2   14  5   Mark Martin         Chevrolet   170/0   400 Running
3   23  17  Matt Kenseth        Ford        165/0   400 Running
4   2   42  Juan Montoya        Chevrolet   160/0   400 Running
5   16  2   Kurt Busch          Dodge       160/5   400 Running
6   7   24  Jeff Gordon         Chevrolet   150/0   400 Running
7   19  44  A.J. Allmendinger   Dodge       146/0   400 Running
8   6   9   Kasey Kahne         Dodge       142/0   400 Running
9   22  14  Tony Stewart        Chevrolet   138/0   400 Running
10  3   39  Ryan Newman         Chevrolet   139/5   400 Running
11  30  99  Carl Edwards        Ford        130/0   400 Running
12  20  29  Kevin Harvick       Chevrolet   127/0   400 Running
13  4   16  Greg Biffle         Ford        124/0   400 Running
14  27  47  Marcos Ambrose      Toyota      121/0   400 Running
15  8   33  Clint Bowyer        Chevrolet   118/0   400 Running
16  28  31  Jeff Burton         Chevrolet   115/0   400 Running
17  29  07  Casey Mears         Chevrolet   112/0   400 Running
18  12  83  Brian Vickers       Toyota      109/0   400 Running
19  10  98  Paul Menard         Ford        106/0   400 Running
20  24  88  Dale Earnhardt Jr.  Chevrolet   103/0   399 Running
21  5   00  David Reutimann     Toyota      100/0   398 Running
22  13  11  Denny Hamlin        Toyota      97/0    398 Running
23  41  96  Bobby Labonte       Ford        94/0    398 Running
24  21  6   David Ragan         Ford        91/0    396 Running
25  39  82  Scott Speed *       Toyota      88/0    396 Running
26  9   77  Sam Hornish Jr.     Dodge       85/0    395 Running
27  37  34  John Andretti       Chevrolet   82/0    395 Running
28  25  26  Jamie McMurray      Ford        79/0    394 Running
29  17  12  David Stremme       Dodge       76/0    385 Running
30  34  19  Elliott Sadler      Dodge       73/0    353 Running
31  15  18  Kyle Busch          Toyota      70/0    342 Running
32  33  78  Regan Smith         Chevrolet   67/0    337 Accident
33  32  1   Martin Truex Jr.    Chevrolet   64/0    251 Accident
34  31  7   Robby Gordon        Toyota      61/0    181 Accident
35  26  43  Reed Sorenson       Dodge       58/0    170 Running
36  38  55  Michael Waltrip     Toyota      55/0    84  Accident
37  35  66  Dave Blaney         Toyota      52/0    76  Transmission
38  43  36  Michael McDowell    Toyota      49/0    74  Brakes
39  18  171 David Gilliland     Chevrolet   51/5    60  Electrical
40  36  09  Mike Bliss          Dodge       43/0    54  Vibration
41  40  187 Joe Nemechek        Toyota      40/0    51  Overheating
42  11  20  Joey Logano *       Toyota      37/0    30  Accident
43  42  37  Tony Raines         Dodge       34/0    13  Overheating
* Denotes Rookie

Sprint Cup standings

Martin, Johnson and Montoya cementing their positions as the top three in the standings and Kenseth replacing Kyle Busch as the “best of the rest” in 13th.

    +/- DRIVER              PTS       GAP   ST  P   W   T5  T10
1   --  Mark Martin         5400            28  6   5   11  16
2   --  Jimmie Johnson      5390      -10   28  2   4   11  17
3   +1  Juan Montoya        5335      -65   28  2   0   4   14
4   +1  Kurt Busch          5325      -75   28  0   1   8   16
5   +1  Tony Stewart        5294     -106   28  0   3   13  19
6   -3  Denny Hamlin        5292     -108   28  0   2   10  15
7   --  Ryan Newman         5290     -110   28  1   0   5   14
8   +2  Jeff Gordon         5278     -122   28  0   1   12  19
9   --  Greg Biffle         5262     -138   28  0   0   8   13
10  -2  Brian Vickers       5249     -151   28  6   1   4   13
11  --  Carl Edwards        5247     -153   28  0   0   7   11
12  --  Kasey Kahne         5211     -189   28  0   2   5   11
CHASE FOR THE Sprint CUP - CURRENT CONTENDERS
13  +1  Matt Kenseth        3424    -1976   28  1   2   5   10
14  -1  Kyle Busch          3395    -2005   28  1   4   8   10
15  --  Clint Bowyer        3311    -2089   28  0   0   4   12
16  --  David Reutimann     3275    -2125   28  2   1   5   8
17  --  Marcos Ambrose      3059    -2341   28  0   0   4   7
18  --  Jeff Burton         2968    -2432   28  0   0   2   6
19  +1  Casey Mears         2875    -2525   28  0   0   0   3
20  -1  Joey Logano*        2842    -2558   28  0   1   1   5
21  +1  Kevin Harvick       2807    -2593   28  0   0   3   5
22  -1  Dale Earnhardt Jr.  2789    -2611   28  0   0   2   5
23  --  Jamie McMurray      2752    -2648   28  0   0   0   3
24  +2  A.J. Allmendinger   2689    -2711   28  0   0   1   4
25  --  Elliott Sadler      2631    -2769   28  0   0   1   4
26  -2  Martin Truex Jr.    2625    -2775   28  2   0   0   3
27  --  Sam Hornish Jr.     2571    -2829   28  0   0   2   7
28  --  Reed Sorenson       2503    -2897   28  0   0   0   1
29  --  Bobby Labonte       2495    -2905   28  0   0   1   1
30  --  David Ragan         2469    -2931   28  0   0   0   1
31  --  David Stremme       2444    -2956   28  0   0   0   0
32  --  Paul Menard         2374    -3026   28  0   0   0   0
33  --  Robby Gordon        2167    -3233   27  0   0   1   1
34  --  Michael Waltrip     2155    -3245   26  0   0   0   1
35  --  Scott Speed*        2022    -3378   27  0   0   1   1
36  --  John Andretti       1957    -3443   26  0   0   0   0
37  --  David Gilliland     1524    -3876   25  0   0   0   0
38  --  Regan Smith         1181    -4219   14  0   0   0   0
39  --  Joe Nemechek        1062    -4338   23  0   0   0   0
40  --  Dave Blaney         1001    -4399   25  0   0   0   0

And so we reach the end of the Race for the Chase. For all but 12 drivers, the season effectively ends here; and some big names were having to come to the realisation that they were left out in the cold.

The Race for the Chase overshadowed the race itself, with the tension tick in the Richmond night-time under the floodlights of Richmond, acting as a high-intensity crucible for the occasion. As Mark Martin got them under way after a short delay while the track was dried after some earlier race, we was one of the eleven drivers yet to mathematically secure their Chase position. Perhaps mindful that a good finish – not a win – was what was really important here, Martin’s time at the top lasted just four lap before Denny Hamlin took over.

In reality, Martin was safe unless there was a serious disaster. The real attention of the evening was on three drivers who were very close in points and all squabbling over the 12th and final position for the Chase: Kyle Busch, Brian Vickers and Matt Kenseth. There could be only one …

And it was clear from early on that the one was not going to be Matt Kenseth. Starting from 28th place, he laboured for much of the day round about that position without making much headway, complaining of poor handling that the crew seemed unable to get to grips with. He didn’t help his own campaign when he overshot his box at the first round of pit stops and had to be hauled back into his own pit stall; it was symptomatic of his evening, and Kenseth – who should have been the favourite to take the final Chase spot after coming in 20pts ahead of his nearest challenges – was emphatically out of contention for the night.

That left the battle between Kyle Busch and Brian Vickers. Kyle had an uneven time of it, with a particularly bad stretch after the first round of pit stops seeing him complain of the handling and dropping backwards, but things looked better after the second sequence of stops and he was usually to be found in the top ten and ahead of Vickers, who was consistent but not continually close enough to Kyle to outpoint him for the Chase. As the race wore on, Vickers seemed to adopt a strategy of shadowing the 18 car: when Kyle moved up a place, Brian would too, keeping the Sprint points difference the same – and himself in the Chase. Could he keep that up down to the wire, though?

Up front, Hamlin settled into the lead that lasted until lap 67, when Jeff Gordon’s car proved too strong after the first round of pit stops. Gordon led Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Mark Martin for nearly a hundred laps, though another pit stop sequence, until Gordon started getting held up by lapped traffic and Hamlin passed him to take the lead again on lap 151.

Gordon retook the lead at the next round of pit stops on lap 176, and then a period of yo-yo-ing lead changes saw Hamlin and Gordon trading the position four times running close on track until the next caution period. Gordon had just reclaimed the lead when the yellows came out on lap 204, but Hamlin took it right back in the pit stops – and this time held firmly on to it.

The running order settled down during this third quarter of the race, with everyone treading very carefully – unwilling to be the cause of or involved in a catastrophic wreck that would undo the Chase hopes of the front runners. Tony Stewart was busy working his way up the running order, and Sam Hornish Jr had a terrific run into the top six, only for both of them to have their efforts undone by poor pit stops; Clint Bowyer was also working up a storm and cracking the top ten. Jimmie Johnson, meanwhile, was suffering handling problems and falling backwards. In the Busch/Vickers Race for the Chase, Vickers’ pit crew pulled off a significant coup in the penultimate pit stop on lap 321 to put their guy out ahead of Busch, gaining three spots.

At the restart on lap 325 it was Hamlin leading Gordon, Bowyer, Kurt Busch and Mark Martin to the green flag; Bowyer and Gordon had a disagreement over the second spot and Gordon came off the worse for it, dropping back to sixth place just before another yellow briefly interrupted proceedings. At the next attempt at a restart it was Kyle Busch suddenly coming on strong and making a bid for he lead he needed to be sure of qualifying for the chase; he made it as high as 4th before starting to fall back again to 8th place, and time was definitely running out for him.

At the final pit stops on lap 382, Busch managed to get off pit road in 6th one spot ahead of Vickers; not enough of a margin to get the Chase spot, and there were only 14 laps of racing to go after the restart. Busch tried and failed to take the 4th spot from Jeff Gordon but the 18 simply didn’t have the pace; the writing was on the wall for Kyle now. Vickers stayed two slots behind, and that meant – as they crossed the finish line – Vickers had taken the final Chase position by a mere 8pts from Busch.

Up front, there really was no one to match Hamlin, although Kurt Busch gave it a solid try in the closing laps. Hamlin had run well at Richmond before but always been thwarted at the last moment from the win; no such problem this time around. After dominating the race, he took the chequered flag and basked in the long-delayed gratification of the win. It meant he finished the Race for the Chase in 4th place, and the win gave him an extra 10pts when the Chase points scheme were applied, consolidating that position for next week.

With everyone being so careful around the Race for the Chase, we had few incidents of any severity for a total of ten yellow flags during the evening: Scott Speed got a tap from Jeff Burton and spun on lap 5; Tony Stewart got loose while three-wide with Reed Sorenson and David Stremme on lap 44, rolling himself and Sorenson into a slow-speed spin; Regan Smith stopped on track on lap 57 with technical problems but was refired back in the pits; and there was debris on lap 106 and 172.

Regan Smith featured in the sixth caution on lap 204 when he blew a tyre and hit the wall; Martin Truex Jr had a tyre go down on lap 278 sending him up into the wall; Jeff Burton suffered a cut tyre on lap 318 from a clash with David Stremme, which brought out a yellow on the next lap as the tyre left debris on the track; Michael Waltrip spun on the front straight on lap 327; and a final yellow with twenty laps to go came out as a result of Brad Keselowski blowing an engine on lap 380.

Race result

Pos  Driver             Car        Laps
 1.  Denny Hamlin       Toyota     
 2.  Kurt Busch         Dodge      
 3.  Jeff Gordon        Chevrolet  
 4.  Mark Martin        Chevrolet  
 5.  Kyle Busch         Toyota     
 6.  Clint Bowyer       Chevrolet  
 7.  Brian Vickers      Toyota     
 8.  Sam Hornish Jr     Dodge      
 9.  Kevin Harvick      Chevrolet  
10.  Ryan Newman        Chevrolet  
11.  Jimmie Johnson     Chevrolet  
12.  Kasey Kahne        Dodge      
13.  Greg Biffle        Ford       
14.  Joey Logano        Toyota     
15.  Carl Edwards       Ford       
16.  Reed Sorenson      Dodge      
17.  Tony Stewart       Chevrolet  
18.  Jeff Burton        Chevrolet  
19.  Juan Montoya       Chevrolet  
20.  David Reutimann    Toyota     
21.  Dale Earnhardt Jr  Chevrolet  
22.  Marcos Ambrose     Toyota     
23.  AJ Allmendinger    Dodge      
24.  David Gilliland    Toyota     
25.  Matt Kenseth       Ford       
26.  David Stremme      Dodge      
27.  Jamie McMurray     Ford       
28.  Paul Menard        Ford       -  1
29.  John Andretti      Chevrolet  -  1
30.  Casey Mears        Chevrolet  -  2
31.  Bobby Labonte      Ford       -  2
32.  Michael Waltrip    Toyota     -  2
33.  David Ragan        Ford       -  2
34.  Elliott Sadler     Dodge      -  4
35.  Joe Nemechek       Toyota     -  4
36.  Scott Speed        Toyota     -  4
37.  Max Papis          Toyota     -  6
38.  Brad Keselowski    Chevrolet  - 24
39.  Martin Truex Jr    Chevrolet  - 75
40.  Regan Smith        Chevrolet  -126
41.  Michael McDowell   Toyota     -187
42.  Mike Bliss         Chevrolet  -262
43.  Dave Blaney        Toyota     -264

Sprint Cup standings

With the end of the Race for the Chase, the points are reset: the top 12 all get 5000pts, plus 10pts for each race win they’ve chalked up. That puts Mark Martin on top of the pile despite how close he came to not making the cut – coincidentally making him the oldest man to ever lead the NASCAR standings – while the only other driver with 4 wins this season, Kyle Busch, is now out of the running. Racing sometimes just ain’t fair!

“It’s very, very frustrating. I’m heartbroken, but the good Lord put me in this predicament for some reason and someday I’ll find out what it is and be able to tell you guys,” said Busch.

“Well, that’s certainly cool,” said Martin about taking the Sprint championship lead. “I’m certainly going to enjoy that for a week here. I feel like a whole new person, huge weight off my shoulders.”

It’s a bad blow for Busch who has made the Chase for the last three years, and in 2008 went into the final rounds as th favourite for the title – before things went terribly wrong, a blow from which he still seems to be dealing with. But it’s an even bigger blow for Matt Kenseth, who has made the Chase in every season he’s competed in NASCAR.

“We just haven’t been competitive,” admitted Kenseth. “So, really since California it’s been a downhill slide for us. We slowly fell back in the points every week, so I can’t say I’m very surprised we didn’t make it.”

But it’s great news for Juan Montoya, who played a careful game at Richmond in order to secure his place in the Chase – the first driver from outside the United States to do so, since the Chase format was introduced in 2004.

“It’s weird,” said Montoya. “We work all year for this and today we run pretty conservative, pits were pretty slow but we did what we had do to get in.

“I should be really pumped up and excited and right now I’m just thinking about [how] we need to run better every week.”

The race for the Chase may be over, but the ten-race Chase itself is just about to begin. That’s where it gets real interesting.

Here’s how the pre-Chase points ended up for the top twelve:

Pos +/- Driver              PTS
1   --  Tony Stewart        3806
2   --  Jeff Gordon         3627
3   --  Jimmie Johnson      3534
4   --  Denny Hamlin        3491
5   +2  Kurt Busch          3322
6   +4  Mark Martin         3291
7   -1  Kasey Kahne         3280
8   -3  Carl Edwards        3280
9   --  Ryan Newman         3272
10  -1  Juan Montoya        3251
11  --  Greg Biffle         3249
12  +1  Brian Vickers       3203

And here’s the standings now that the Chase is underway:

    +/- DRIVER              PTS     BEHIND  ST  P   W   T5  T10
1   +9  Mark Martin         5040    Leader  26  6   4   9   14
2   -1  Tony Stewart        5030     -10    26  0   3   13  18
3   --  Jimmie Johnson      5030     -10    26  1   3   9   15
4   --  Denny Hamlin        5020     -20    26  0   2   9   14
5   +1  Kasey Kahne         5020     -20    26  0   2   5   10
6   -4  Jeff Gordon         5010     -30    26  0   1   12  18
7   --  Kurt Busch          5010     -30    26  0   1   7   14
8   +5  Brian Vickers       5010     -30    26  6   1   4   13
9   -4  Carl Edwards        5000     -40    26  0   0   7   11
10  -1  Ryan Newman         5000     -40    26  1   0   5   12
11  -3  Juan Montoya        5000     -40    26  1   0   2   12
12  -1  Greg Biffle         5000     -40    26  0   0   8   12
======== CHASE FOR THE Sprint CUP - CURRENT CONTENDERS =======
13  +1  Kyle Busch          3195    -1845   26  1   4   7   9
14  -2  Matt Kenseth        3165    -1875   26  1   2   4   9
15  +1  Clint Bowyer        3059    -1981   26  0   0   4   11
16  -1  David Reutimann     3048    -1992   26  2   1   5   8
17  --  Marcos Ambrose      2830    -2210   26  0   0   4   7
18  --  Jeff Burton         2738    -2302   26  0   0   2   6
19  --  Joey Logano*        2705    -2335   26  0   1   1   5
20  --  Casey Mears         2639    -2401   26  0   0   0   3
21  --  Dale Earnhardt Jr.  2628    -2412   26  0   0   2   5
22  +1  Kevin Harvick       2613    -2427   26  0   0   3   5
23  -1  Jamie McMurray      2564    -2476   26  0   0   0   3
24  +1  A.J. Allmendinger   2455    -2585   26  0   0   1   3
25  -1  Martin Truex Jr.    2455    -2585   26  2   0   0   3
26  +1  Sam Hornish Jr.     2434    -2606   26  0   0   2   7
27  -1  Elliott Sadler      2416    -2624   26  0   0   1   3
28  --  Reed Sorenson       2390    -2650   26  0   0   0   1
29  --  David Ragan         2319    -2721   26  0   0   0   1
30  --  Bobby Labonte       2299    -2741   26  0   0   1   1
31  --  David Stremme       2289    -2751   26  0   0   0   0
32  --  Paul Menard         2207    -2833   26  0   0   0   0
33  +1  Michael Waltrip     2018    -3022   24  0   0   0   1
34  -1  Robby Gordon        2015    -3025   25  0   0   1   1
35  --  Scott Speed*        1864    -3176   25  0   0   1   1
36  --  John Andretti       1790    -3250   24  0   0   0   0
37  --  David Gilliland     1473    -3567   24  0   0   0   0
38  --  Regan Smith         1114    -3926   13  0   0   0   0
39  --  Joe Nemechek         979    -4061   21  0   0   0   0
40  --  Brad Keselowski      927    -4113   9   0   1   1   3




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