Posts Tagged ‘Ryan Newman’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Race results

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

Sprint Cup standings after race 9

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

Kurt Busch won NASCAR’s 2011 curtain-raiser event after Denny Hamlin was penalised for crossing the line and Carl Edwards and Dale Earnhardt Jr. crashed out early on.

Kurt Busch won NASCAR’s first event of the season, the annual invitation-only Budwesier Shootout at the Daytona International Speedway – but only after Denny Hamlin had crossed the finish line in first place and then been black-flagged by NASCAR officials.

Dale Earnhardt Jr had drawn the pole position for the Shootout ahead of Tony Steward, Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin, with Kurt Busch starting relatively far down in 17th. Earnhardt got a good start but it was Clint Bowyer making the best getaway of all the front-runners, taking the lead from 7th spot before pairing up with the #88 to continue running at the front as the field started to work out that two cars were better than one when it came to drafting on the newly repaved Daytona track.

Denny Hamlin was soon seeking a drafting partner of his own, first trying Kasey Kahne out for size but the #4 Red Bull abruptly faed from contention with an engine problem and headed to the pits on lap 7, leaving Hamlin to knock on Tony Stewart’s door to allow the pair to run third and fourth.

The status quo at the front did not last for much longer. Jimmie Johnson, Kurt and Kyle Busch and Jeff Burton were all on the move to the front, and it was Burton who surged into the lead, working with Tony Stewart and briefly boosting the #14 into the lead as well before Dale Earnhardt Jr hooked up with Kyle Busch (of all people) to return to the lead on lap 17. Kyle decided he wanted a turn in front too and led for four laps before Jeff Burton once again took charge into the first yellow of the day at lap 25, a scheduled caution that allowed all the cars to come in for some adjustments and to take a short break before the final 50-lap sprint to the end.

When racing resumed after a ten minute hiatus, Burton led Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson to the green flag – but racing did not last long, as the old idiom “cautions breed cautions” was proven once more.

Carl Edwards went for a particularly aggressive strategy at the restart and paid for it in a big way, initially getting turned by contact with the #78 of Regan Smith that sent him into a major accident with crowd favourite Dale Earnhardt Jr. and spinning it into the wall. With all the cars still tightly packed form the restart, it was inevitable that the wreck would catch out others as well – and Joey Logano, Juan Montoya and Kevin Conway all got collected. Jimmie Johnson also sustained right-side damage, but at least his pit crew were able to fix it up and get him back out on the road.

“We were three- or four-wide back there and I was going between the #88 and the #78, and I don’t think the #78 knew I was in there,” explained Edwards. “He kept coming down, and I just had enough of my car in there. I laid up against the #88 and then the #78 got me in the right-front.”

The race ran under yellow for seven laps before restarting on lap 34, but once again there was a rapid yellow – this time caused by a collision between Mark Martin and Kyle Busch on lap 36 which sent them both to the pits. Although Kyle thought the damage was minimal at first, he pulled in again on lap 42 and headed for the garage, his day done.

The race went green again, and the most effective drafting pair initially proved to be between the leader Jeff Burton and Kevin Harvick, while behind them Kurt Busch hooked up with Jamie McMurray and Jimmie Johnson paired up with Greg Biffle to provide the strongest challenges.

Johnson and Biffle had taken over the lead when the fourth caution came out for a solo accident by Michael Waltrip, who got loose and found the wall on lap 48. It was only a brief yellow before racing resumed on lap 50, 25 to go, with just 14 cars remaining on track out of the initial 24-strong field.

The lead continued to change around as drafting pairs came together, tried out, then went their separate ways. Burton lost the support of Harvick who slumped back to eighth place, but was joined instead by Clint Bowyer as he, Johnson (still with Biffle) and Kurt Busch (with amie McMurray) alternated in the lead. Denny Hamlin was also running fast and up at the front but was in need of a drafting partner, which finally materialised in the form of Ryan Newman as the race entered its final dozen laps.

Newman hit the lead with Hamlin’s help, and proved remarkably resilient in that top spot and would not be shifted for ten of the last 12 laps. The race finally saw a four-car breakaway at the front, with Newman and Hamlin leading Busch and McMurray and the foursome as a whole more than 2s ahead of the rest, and it all came down to the final two laps and who had the best on-track strategy to pass his partner and the rival pairing and get to that chequered flag first.

Busch and McMurrary continued to act together, McMurray pushing Kurt all the way to the finish, but Hamlin decided to go solo and broke away from Newman, cutting underneath him on a low line through the final turn and claiming the chequered flag by inches from the others. But it proved to be a Pyrrhic victory, because cutting so low and dipping under the yellow line is a strict no-no at Daytona, and Hamli was inevitably penalised for the infraction which put him to the back of the lead lap – all the way down to 12th, handing Kurt Busch the win.

Hamlin said afterwards that he took the move deliberately on safety grounds. “That yellow line is there to protect us and the fans in the stands, and I just chose to take the safer route,.

“A win in the Shootout is not worth sending the #39 [Newman] through the grandstands,” he said, adding that he was sure that if “I got into his left rear, that car will go airborne.”

Overall, the Budweiser Shootout offers valuable data to the drivers and teams on how to tackle the newly-repaved Daytona International Speedway aead of the start of the Sprint Cup season here next weekend, with two-car drafting proved to be very much the new order of the day rather than the old style of multi-car packs running in big groups, only for cars to drop back dramatically once the drafting pair separate to allow the pushing vehicle to get some air into its radiator.

“What an unbelievable experience, this two-car draft,” said the victorious Kurt Busch. “I had no idea what to expect going in. I was just going to take it one lap at a time and see how it played out.”

“It’s completely different plate racing than we’ve ever had,” agreed his drafting ‘team mate’ for the night, Jamie McMurray. “I hope it was exciting for the fans to watch. But from the driver’s seat, it was actually really exciting to push two-by-two and do the side draft.”

The Shootout was as much about auditioning dance partners for next week’s race as it was about the day’s racing and prize money in its own right. Kurt Busch and McMurray, and Harvick and Burton were both effective double acts, and remarkably so were the odd couple of Earnhardt Jr. and Kyle Busch, although Dale was later heard saying that the #18 “jacks my car around like he has Velcro on that thing.”

The Shootout marks the start of a week-long series of events at the venue, including the Gatorade Duel on Thursday and all the practice and qualifying sessions for the Daytona 500, the traditional curtain-raiser to the NASCAR Sprint Cup season and regarded as the most important and prestigious race of the entire year, not to mention the one carrying the most prize money.

The Daytona 500 is on Sunday, February 20 from 1pm local time.

Shootout results

1   17  22   Kurt Busch         75    
2   14  1    Jamie McMurray     75    
3   8   39   Ryan Newman        75    
4   23  48   Jimmie Johnson     75    
5   11  16   Greg Biffle        75    
6   12  24   Jeff Gordon        75    
7   18  29   Kevin Harvick      75    
8   15  31   Jeff Burton        75    
9   7   33   Clint Bowyer       75    
10  6   47   Bobby Labonte      75    
11  2   14   Tony Stewart       75    
12  4   11   Denny Hamlin       75    
13  19  17   Matt Kenseth       74    
14  9   64   Derrike Cope       73    
15  10  115  Michael Waltrip    47    Accident
16  21  18   Kyle Busch         41    Accident
17  20  5    Mark Martin        36    Accident
18  22  20   Joey Logano        27    Accident
19  1   88   Dale Earnhardt Jr. 27    Accident
20  13  42   Juan Montoya       27    Accident
21  3   99   Carl Edwards       27    Accident
22  24  78   Regan Smith        27    Accident
23  16  97   Kevin Conway       26    Accident
24  5   4    Kasey Kahne        7     Engine

Carl Edwards was back in victory lane after a gap of 70 races after making his fuel stretch to the end. Denny Hamlin couldn’t manage to do the same, and loses over half of his Sprint Cup points lead.

If you’re in Avondale, Arizona and the temperature is struggling to reach the mid-70s in the afternoon, you know it’s late in the year. And that means it’s very late in the 2010 Sprint Cup season, with the Kobalt Tools 500 the penultimate race of the year. It was virtually impossible for this race to actually decide this year’s champion, but it could have gone a long way to singling out the favourite to win at next week’s season climax: instead, it did just the opposite.

Polesitter Carl Edwards led the race from the green flag, but there was a quick yellow on lap 2 after a right front tyre blow-out meant Brendan Gaughan introduced the #71 to the wall, and at the restart Kurt Busch proved to have the faster race car and led until Edwards got the top spot back on lap 28, during which time both Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick were making quick work of the midfield and had cracked the top ten after starting 17th and 29th respectively, although Harvick gave the wall a glancing blow in the process. Jimmie Johnson, starting from 21st, was taking things a little more slowly but still knocking on the door by lap 33 as he tussled with Tony Stewart over 11th spot.

There was no sedateness to Hamlin’s determined rise, however, and it was clear that he was on a mission to give himself as much of a Sprint Cup cushion going into the final race as he could by maximising his points here. He was into the top five on lap 30, passed AJ Allmendinger for third on lap 41 and took over second spot from Kurt Busch on lap 52.

Hamlin closed to within a second of Edwards by the time the second caution of the afternoon came out on lap 59, following a blown tyre for Brad Keselowski that led to a hard hit for him against the outer wall. That gave the field the chance to pit under yellow, which was much needed: the ageing surface of the Phoenix International Raceway was really tearing up the tyres, resulting in a 2s drop-off in lap times from the start of a tyre stint to the end, a huge margin on a track with an average qualifying lap in the 27s range. The track is to be resurfaced after the February 2011 Sprint Cup event, but in the meantime the drivers were just relieved to be back on fresh rubber.

At the restart Edwards and Hamlin lined up on the front row followed by Kurt Busch and his brother Kyle on the second (Kyle having had a serious brush against the wall earlier in the race on lap 31) and Martin Truex Jr. just behind. Given that opportunity there was no way that Hamlin wasn’t going to blast away into the lead, leaving Edwards to struggle unsuccessfully to hold onto second spot from Kurt. Hamlin built up a comfortable lead of over two seconds before the next caution on lap 101 for debris, but lost the lead in the ensuring pit stops so that the restart line-up was Edwards, Hamlin, Kurt and Kyle Busch and then Ryan Newman in fifth. But once again, Hamlin’s superior pace at the green flag quickly put matters to rights and he was off into the lead again; but he didn’t have the same pace as before and his pit chief conceded that the half-round down adjustment had been a miscall and needed to be reversed come next stop.

By lap 140 it was still Hamlin in the lead, with Edwards shadowing him in second, then Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart making up the top five and Kevin Harvick staying in touch in eighth. The top four remained unchanged through a sequence of green flag pit stops around lap 170 which had little effect on the key runners, although Kasey Kahne suffered the embarrassment of leaving the pit box with the gas can still inserted into the fuel tank, forcing him to slowly go round a full pap and come back in to have it removed. Johnson’s pit stops were noticeably faster this week following the debacle at Texas, having made the switch of crews between himself and Jeff Gordon a permanent one for the remainder of 2010, but Tony Stewart dropped out and Harvick was promoted into fifth place. That meant that all three Sprint Cup contenders were now running in the top five for the first time that afternoon.

On lap 217 Hamlin formally clinched the bonus points for number of laps led, by which time Kyle had taken over the second spot from Edwards and Jimmie Johnson had been fading, squeezed out of the top five by surges from Harvick and Tony Stewart and under threat from Jeff Burton for sixth when the fourth caution of the afternoon came out on lap 222 for a spin by Robby Gordon.

Kyle got the better pit stop and led the cars to the restart, but then quickly lost out to Hamlin and then failed to hold off Carl Edwards for second before the field went rapidly back to yellow: this time, a spin by Travis Kvapil on lap 233. The top eight declined the lure of pit lane, but Harvick had lost ground in the previous pit stops after having to come back into the pits because of a missing lug nut which put him well down the running order. That gave him the opening to be among those to come in for some fine tuning adjustments on the track bar and more air in the rear tyres that left him down in 16th place, but crucially it meant he could make it all the way to the end of the race even if there were no further cautions; neither Hamlin nor Johnson could safely say the same.

Hamlin again led at the restart on lap 239 and seemed to be having a reasonably comfortable time of it over Edwards; but 20 laps into the green flag stint and Edwards was coming on strong in the higher temperatures of late afternoon and was pulling right up on the tail of Hamlin. Edwards tried move after move down the inside on Hamlin and almost looked to have the pass done, only for Hamlin to emerge faster off the turns and just hold on, until at last on lap 266 Edwards completed the move and took the lead for the fifth time during the afternoon.

Freed up and in clear air, Edwards demonstrated just how much faster he could run than Hamlin by quickly pulling away. With no yellow flags in sight, Hamlin was now worried about the looming need for a quick fuel stop; remarkably, Edwards – despite also not stopping since lap 225 – seemed confident that he could make it all the way on fuel along with those who had pitted ten laps later such as Harvick who was doing all he could to fight his way back up the running order after that lug nut issue. He was held up for a lengthy period behind Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Clint Bowyer who were side-by-side having a fierce battle over 14th position: Bowyer came close to losing the #33 and creating a big wreck with Harvick first in line for damage, but Bowyer held on to it somehow and Harvick could breath again and finally get past and out of danger.

Jimmie Johnson was also clearly in fuel conservation mode and dropping back, hoping to lean out the fuel just enough to get to the end even though it eventually meant turning off the fans and staying off the brakes as much as possible in the final laps as he ran on fumes. There was no such hope for Hamlin, and it was starting to look serious for his Sprint Cup strategy. He desperately sought some sort of caution, and reported debris on track at turn 2 on lap 287 in the hope that it would bring out the yellow flags; but it didn’t. Finally he pulled into pit road on lap 298 for two tyres and fuel, a stop of 7.6s which put him back out on track in 19th spot, a lap down and only a dozen laps to make up for lost ground. It was a big ask, even with so many of those ahead having to nurse their fuel to the line.

With Edwards among those having to stretch their fuel to almost impossible lengths, Hamlin had no difficulty in passing Edwards on lap 301 to get back on the lead lap and was then passing the backmarkers on the lead lap in a desperate attempt to make up positions before the chequered flag came out: on lap 302 he was past AJ Allmendinger for 18th; he gained another place the following lap when Jeff Burton was among those to concede defeat on fuel and take to the pits; and seven laps later Hamlin was passing Dale Earnhardt Jr for 14th.

But the laps were running out: another place was gained when Clint Bowyer had to dive in for a splash and dash on lap 310, and still another the following lap when Juan Montoya ran dry. But that still left Hamlin an achingly distant 12th place as the cars came around the final turn to take the finish, while Johnson’s fuel conservation strategy had left him with 5th just ahead of Harvick in 6th.

“Bad strategy at the end,” said a frustrated Hamlin. “Usually we have the best fuel mileage. That part I don’t understand.” In terms of Sprint Cup points, this was indeed bad for Hamlin, his lead over Johnson cut from 33pts after Texas to just 14pts now, and Harvick also closer if still 46pts back. But it could have been a lot worse, and Hamlin still goes into the final race weekend in the lead in the points.

The celebrations in victory lane were all about Carl Edwards, who celebrated with his trademark backflip off the car just as he had done the previous day when he had also won the Nationwide Series event here: today had been almost exclusively a two-horse battle, and when Hamlin had dropped the ball on fuel it left Carl Edwards the deserving winner after far too long away from the top spot on the podium.

But even as the celebrations went on, everyone’s minds turned to Homestead-Miami in one week’s time, and the realisation that – with the tightest-ever finish to the Sprint Cup in its modern Chase format – for the first time, we genuinely have no idea who is favourite to win out of Hamlin, Johnson and Harvick. So much for Phoenix proving to be a decider; and the NASCAR season finale is all the better for the lack of certainty.

Race results

1   1   99   Carl Edwards       190/5   312   
2   19  39   Ryan Newman        170/0   312   
3   10  20   Joey Logano        165/0   312   
4   4   16   Greg Biffle        160/0   312   
5   21  48   Jimmie Johnson     155/0   312   
6   29  29   Kevin Harvick      150/0   312   
7   15  17   Matt Kenseth       151/5   312   
8   28  5    Mark Martin        142/0   312   
9   3   2    Kurt Busch         143/5   312   
10  5   1    Jamie McMurray     134/0   312   
11  22  24   Jeff Gordon        130/0   312   
12  17  11   Denny Hamlin       137/10  312   
13  7   18   Kyle Busch         129/5   312   
14  31  88   Dale Earnhardt Jr. 121/0   312   
15  11  56   Martin Truex Jr.   118/0   312   
16  35  42   Juan Montoya       115/0   312   
17  20  14   Tony Stewart       112/0   312   
18  2   43   A.J. Allmendinger  109/0   312   
19  40  31   Jeff Burton        106/0   312   
20  26  09   Bobby Labonte      108/5   311   
21  14  33   Clint Bowyer       100/0   311   
22  13  47   Marcos Ambrose     97/0    311   
23  8   78   Regan Smith        94/0    311   
24  24  13   Casey Mears        91/0    311   
25  12  6    David Ragan        88/0    310   
26  6   00   David Reutimann    85/0    310   
27  9   9    Aric Almirola      82/0    310   
28  23  19   Elliott Sadler     79/0    310   
29  18  98   Paul Menard        76/0    310   
30  25  83   Kasey Kahne        73/0    310   
31  33  26   J.J. Yeley         70/0    309   
32  16  77   Sam Hornish Jr.    67/0    309   
33  34  7    Robby Gordon       64/0    308   
34  38  38   Travis Kvapil      61/0    308   
35  27  82   Scott Speed        58/0    307   
36  42  34   Tony Raines        55/0    306   
37  32  36   Dave Blaney        52/0    306   
38  37  37   David Gilliland    49/0    274   Brakes
39  36  55   Mike Bliss         46/0    193   Overheating
40  39  164  Landon Cassill     43/0    191   Rear Gear
41  43  81   Terry Labonte      40/0    190   Electrical
42  30  12   Brad Keselowski    37/0    58    Accident
43  41  71   Brendan Gaughan    34/0    1     Accident

Sprint Cup standings

POS +/-  DRIVER              PTS   BEHIND  ST  P  W  T5  T10
1   --   Denny Hamlin        6462  Leader  35  2  8  14  18
2   --   Jimmie Johnson      6447  -15     35  2  6  16  22
3   --   Kevin Harvick       6416  -46     35  0  3  15  25
4   --   Carl Edwards        6198  -264    35  3  1  8   18
5   --   Matt Kenseth        6151  -311    35  0  0  6   14
6   --   Jeff Gordon         6124  -338    35  1  0  11  17
7   --   Kyle Busch          6115  -347    35  2  3  10  18
8   +1   Greg Biffle         6113  -349    35  0  2  9   18
9   -1   Tony Stewart        6074  -388    35  2  2  9   16
10  +1   Kurt Busch          6033  -429    35  2  2  9   17
11  -1   Clint Bowyer        6028  -434    35  0  2  7   18
12  --   Jeff Burton         5958  -504    35  0  0  6   15

13  --   Mark Martin         4249  -2213   35  1  0  7   11
14  --   Jamie McMurray      4225  -2237   35  4  3  9   12
15  --   Ryan Newman         4156  -2306   35  1  1  4   13
16  --   Joey Logano         4139  -2323   35  1  0  7   16
17  --   Juan Montoya        4060  -2402   35  3  1  6   14
18  --   David Reutimann     3975  -2487   35  0  1  6   9
19  --   Dale Earnhardt Jr.  3871  -2591   35  1  0  3   8
20  --   A.J. Allmendinger   3843  -2619   35  1  0  1   7
21  --   Kasey Kahne         3806  -2656   35  3  0  7   9
22  --   Martin Truex Jr.    3781  -2681   35  1  0  1   7
23  --   Paul Menard         3670  -2792   35  0  0  1   6
24  --   David Ragan         3496  -2966   35  0  0  0   3
25  --   Brad Keselowski     3361  -3101   35  1  0  0   2
26  --   Marcos Ambrose      3337  -3125   35  0  0  2   5
27  --   Elliott Sadler      3155  -3307   35  1  0  0   1
28  --   Sam Hornish Jr.     3123  -3339   35  0  0  0   1
29  +1   Regan Smith         3117  -3345   35  0  0  0   0
30  -1   Scott Speed         3084  -3378   35  0  0  0   2
31  --   Bobby Labonte       2486  -3976   35  0  0  0   0
32  +1   Travis Kvapil       2365  -4097   33  0  0  0   0
33  -1   David Gilliland     2357  -4105   31  0  0  0   0
34  --   Robby Gordon        2028  -4434   27  0  0  1   1
35  --   Kevin Conway*       1757  -4705   27  0  0  0   0
36  --   Casey Mears         1509  -4953   20  0  0  0   0
37  +2   Dave Blaney         1361  -5101   28  0  0  0   0
38  -1   Reed Sorenson       1355  -5107   16  0  0  0   1
39  -1   Joe Nemechek        1321  -5141   30  0  0  0   0
40  --   Brian Vickers       1158  -5304   11  0  0  0   3
41  +1   Mike Bliss          1016  -5446   16  0  0  0   2
42  -1   Bill Elliott        989   -5473   12  0  0  0   0
43  --   Max Papis           907   -5555   18  0  0  0   0
44  --   Michael McDowell    879   -5583   24  0  0  0   0
45  +1   J.J. Yeley          849   -5613   16  0  0  0   0
46  -1   David Stremme       825   -5637   11  0  0  0   0
47  --   Landon Cassill      674   -5788   15  0  0  0   0
48  +2   Aric Almirola       544   -5918   8   0  0  0   0
49  -1   Tony Raines         534   -5928   9   0  0  0   0
50  -1   Patrick Carpentier  474   -5988   6   0  0  0   0

The last golden rays of the sun cast a glow on the start of Atlanta Motor Speedway, but within 50 laps the light and the last of the day’s heat had faded, the skies were dark, and there was no mistaking the fierce racing on this penultimate race before the Chase kicks off.

Denny Hamlin brought the field to the green flag and fended off the early challenges from Ryan Newman, with a brief hiatus for nine laps from lap 16, through to the first round of green flag pit stops. It appeared that team mate Kyle Busch’s crew had pulled off a spectacular pit stop to put the 18 out in front, but it proved to be at the cost of breaking the pit lane speed limit on the way on, and Kyle was duly handed a drive-thru that dropped him down to 24th position; worse was to come when a loose wheel saw him have to make another appearance in pit lane on lap 70, which put him a lap down.

Tony Stewart had taken advantage of the situation to claim the lead, and over the course of the next 80 laps he and Hamlin would continue to fight it out and trade the lead multiple times. Then on lap 132 the first caution of the evening was out for debris in turn 2. Hamlin would resume the race in the lead ahead of Stewart, Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr.

But Hamlin’s great run at the front was abruptly over just five laps into the restart when his engine let go, dropping fluid on the track and sending him into a long sideways spin in a cloud of tyre smoke. With Tony Stewart making the first of what would prove to be frustratingly many poor restarts, Carl Edwards was the main winner, emerging into command of the race before the caution came out, but it was also good news for Kyle Busch who got the free pass and was back on the lead lap once more.

Tony Stewart won the race off pit lane and was in control of the restart, but this lasted barely a lap before Ryan Newman got into the back of Greg Biffle, spinning the 16 into turn 3 and sending him veering down the track – finding the poor luckless Elliott Sadler. The collision sent Sadler back into the wall and both cars were well and truly wrecked: miraculously, no one else was collected, although Kyle Busch was just one of those who came within inches of getting hit by Biffle.

At the restart on lap 161, Stewart once again faltered, giving Jimmie Johnson the chance to take the lead for 9 laps until Smoke got back on the pace and calmly passed the 48 on the backstretch. The race ran green until lap 200 whereupon David Ragan spun on the backstretch giving everyone the opportunity to make their next round of pit stops, and at the restart Tony Stewart headed up Johnson, Edwards, Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch.

The next round of pit stops were already under way by lap 254 when Kevin Harvick shredded his left front tyre, causing extensive bodywork damage and leaving debris on track, bringing out the fifth caution of the evening. Carl Edwards emerged at the front of the restart, with Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch in support ahead of Juan Montoya and Martin Truex Jr. Once again the restart was short-lived, with Scott Speed’s engine blowing up just a single lap into the green flag, the 82 catching fire. Paul Menard was also out with power problems, as the leaders dutifully took the opportunity to pit again.

A variety of pit stop strategies mixed up the running order, with Kurt Busch now leading the race for the first time tonight, the crew having diligently worked on the blue deuce during the first half of the race where it had looked a definite lost cause. Kurt was joined but Jeff Gordon, Truex, brother Kyle and then Carl Edwards at the restart on lap 275 as things got down to the business end of the race, but it was Kasey Kahne who got the best restart of them all, blasting past everyone and assuming the lead on lap 280. Was he about to steal the race from under the noses of Stewart, Edwards and the Busch brothers?

The race ran green but for 15 laps, at which point Brad Keselowski hit the wall hard enough to bring out the seventh caution of the race and allow the leaders one more visit to pit road, after which Carl Edwards was back in front, followed by Stewart, Kahne, Johnson and Kurt Busch. At the restart, it was Tony Stewart for once – practically the first time of the evening – who got the best of things, flying into the lead. But just behind them, Kasey Kahne was bumped down the track after contact with Ryan Newman, and was only stopped from running off into the infield by the fact that there was a car in the way that rebounded him back into line: unfortunately for Kurt Busch that car was his, but the blue deuce seemed robust enough to take the punishment while Kahne was relegated to the garage area with water pump issues. The track went under caution while the debris from Kahne’s car was cleaned up, before restarting again on lap 307.

Stewart once again managed to hold tight on the lead at the restart, and was rewarded for his efforts with a straight 18 lap run to the chequered flag without further interruption or any hint of a threat to his first victory of the season. Behind him, Carl Edwards – another driver who has been out of victory road for far too long – was looking strong in second place, simply not strong enough to close that 1s lap down to Smoke.

Jimmie Johnson will be happy to be back on something like his regular form after a run of poor results, while Jeff Burton scored an impressive fifth and Kyle Busch fought back from those early speeding and tyre problems to finish a strong 5th, just ahead of Kurt Busch who would be counting his good fortune after coming out of that late collision with Kahne in a fit enough state to keep on running.

All six of those drivers are now confirmed as being in the Chase; in fact only two spots are still in play, with Clint Bowyer shoring up his own bid by finishing in seventh place at Atlanta; but Greg Biffle’s early contact with Biffle and Sadler was a major blow to his own chances of qualifying, while ironically the driver who triggered that incident – Ryan Newman – came out best of all and is in the leading position to steal one of those Chase places. Nut Newman made no friends here tonight, not only hitting Biffle but also Kahne – and Kasey went back out on track for the last few laps with the express intention of setting about giving Newman a message, failing to spin him in retribution in the closing moments of the race.

Yes, things sure are heating up: the Chase is nearly upon us! Just one final outing before the Sprint Cup enters its final 12 week climax.

Race result

POS ST  CAR  DRIVER              MAKE      PTS/BNS LAPS         
1   5   14   Tony Stewart        Chevrolet 195/10  325          
2   4   99   Carl Edwards        Ford      175/5   325          
3   7   48   Jimmie Johnson      Chevrolet 170/5   325          
4   26  31   Jeff Burton         Chevrolet 160/0   325          
5   3   18   Kyle Busch          Toyota    155/0   325          
6   11  2    Kurt Busch          Dodge     155/5   325          
7   14  33   Clint Bowyer        Chevrolet 146/0   325          
8   2   39   Ryan Newman         Chevrolet 147/5   325          
9   8   42   Juan Montoya        Chevrolet 138/0   325          
10  32  47   Marcos Ambrose      Toyota    134/0   325          
11  30  17   Matt Kenseth        Ford      130/0   325          
12  6   56   Martin Truex Jr.    Toyota    127/0   325          
13  18  24   Jeff Gordon         Chevrolet 124/0   325          
14  33  83   Reed Sorenson       Toyota    121/0   325          
15  12  1    Jamie McMurray      Chevrolet 118/0   325          
16  13  00   David Reutimann     Toyota    115/0   325          
17  27  78   Regan Smith         Chevrolet 112/0   325          
18  16  43   A.J. Allmendinger   Ford      109/0   325          
19  9   6    David Ragan         Ford      106/0   325          
20  36  37   David Gilliland     Ford      103/0   325          
21  17  5    Mark Martin         Chevrolet 100/0   325          
22  25  88   Dale Earnhardt Jr.  Chevrolet 97/0    325          
23  40  21   Bill Elliott        Ford      94/0    325          
24  37  38   Dave Blaney         Ford      91/0    325          
25  28  12   Brad Keselowski     Dodge     88/0     -1          
26  43  13   Casey Mears         Toyota    85/0     -1          
27  31  20   Joey Logano         Toyota    82/0     -1          
28  35  26   Patrick Carpentier  Ford      79/0     -2          
29  41  34   Travis Kvapil       Ford      76/0     -2          
30  21  77   Sam Hornish Jr.     Dodge     73/0     -3          
31  24  71   Bobby Labonte       Chevrolet 70/0     -5          
32  10  9    Kasey Kahne         Ford      72/5    -15          
33  29  29   Kevin Harvick       Chevrolet 64/0    309   Vibration      
34  20  82   Scott Speed         Toyota    61/0    264   Engine         
35  19  98   Paul Menard         Ford      58/0    263   Engine         
36  15  16   Greg Biffle         Ford      55/0    245   Running        
37  42  7    Kevin Conway *      Toyota    52/0    162   Transmission   
38  34  87   Joe Nemechek        Toyota    49/0    161   Clutch         
39  23  46   Michael McDowell    Chevrolet 46/0    160   Power Steering 
40  38  36   J.J. Yeley          Chevrolet 43/0    152   Electrical     
41  22  19   Elliott Sadler      Ford      40/0    150   Accident       
42  39  55   Mike Bliss          Toyota    37/0    145   Electrical     
43  1   11   Denny Hamlin        Toyota    39/5    143   Engine         
* Denotes Rookie 

Sprint Cup standings

POS  +/-  DRIVER              PTS   BEHIND  ST  P  W  T5 T10
1    --   Kevin Harvick       3585  Leader  25  0  3  11 16 
2    --   Jeff Gordon         3366  -219    25  0  0  10 13 
3    --   Kyle Busch          3325  -260    25  2  3  7  13 
4    +2   Tony Stewart        3302  -283    25  2  1  7  14 
5    -1   Carl Edwards        3288  -297    25  1  0  6  13 
6    +1   Jeff Burton         3261  -324    25  0  0  5  13 
7    +2   Jimmie Johnson      3247  -338    25  1  5  9  13 
8    +2   Kurt Busch          3228  -357    25  2  2  8  15 
9    -1   Matt Kenseth        3225  -360    25  0  0  5  10 
10   -5   Denny Hamlin        3147  -438    25  1  5  9  10 
11   --   Greg Biffle         3110  -475    25  0  1  5  14 
12   --   Clint Bowyer        3066  -519    25  0  0  4  13 
13   +2   Ryan Newman         2949  -636    25  1  1  2  8  
14   -1   Jamie McMurray      2938  -647    25  3  2  7  9  
15   -1   Mark Martin         2919  -666    25  1  0  5  7  
16   +1   David Reutimann     2880  -705    25  0  1  5  5  
17   +2   Juan Montoya        2866  -719    25  2  1  5  12 
18   -2   Kasey Kahne         2856  -729    25  2  0  6  8  
19   -1   Dale Earnhardt Jr.  2847  -738    25  1  0  2  6  
20   --   Martin Truex Jr.    2787  -798    25  1  0  1  6  
21   --   Joey Logano         2718  -867    25  1  0  2  9  
22   --   A.J. Allmendinger   2678  -907    25  1  0  1  4  
23   --   Paul Menard         2557  -1028   25  0  0  1  3  
24   --   David Ragan         2456  -1129   25  0  0  0  1  
25   +1   Marcos Ambrose      2410  -1175   25  0  0  1  4  
26   -1   Brad Keselowski     2397  -1188   25  0  0  0  0  
27   --   Scott Speed         2258  -1327   25  0  0  0  2  
28   --   Sam Hornish Jr.     2252  -1333   25  0  0  0  0  
29   --   Elliott Sadler      2195  -1390   25  0  0  0  1  
30   --   Regan Smith         2109  -1476   25  0  0  0  0  
31   --   Bobby Labonte       1857  -1728   25  0  0  0  0  
32   --   Travis Kvapil       1799  -1786   24  0  0  0  0  
33   --   David Gilliland     1658  -1927   21  0  0  0  0  
34   +1   Kevin Conway*       1546  -2039   23  0  0  0  0  
35   -1   Robby Gordon        1536  -2049   21  0  0  1  1  
36   --   Brian Vickers       1158  -2427   11  0  0  0  3  
37   --   Joe Nemechek        983   -2602   23  0  0  0  0  
38   --   Max Papis           907   -2678   18  0  0  0  0  
39   +2   Reed Sorenson       884   -2701   11  0  0  0  1  
40   --   Mike Bliss          836   -2749   12  0  0  0  2  
41   -2   David Stremme       825   -2760   11  0  0  0  0  
42   --   Bill Elliott        800   -2785   9   0  0  0  0  
43   +1   Dave Blaney         790   -2795   18  0  0  0  0  
44   -1   Casey Mears         785   -2800   11  0  0  0  0  
45   --   Michael McDowell    696   -2889   18  0  0  0  0  
46   --   J.J. Yeley          588   -2997   10  0  0  0  0  
47   --   Boris Said          448   -3137   6   0  0  0  1  
48   --   Todd Bodine         313   -3272   7   0  0  0  0  
49   --   Landon Cassill      287   -3298   6   0  0  0  0  
50   +4   Patrick Carpentier  255   -3330   3   0  0  0  0  
* Denotes Rookie 

A two-tyre gambit in the final round of pit stops with four laps to go to the chequered flag gave Ryan Newman an unexpected first victory of 2010 at Phoenix International Raceway. Newman lined up second at the restart, alongside Jeff Gordon who had also taken two tyres, but when Gordon got too much wheelspin it gave Newman all the opening he needed.

At the start, AJ Allmendinger had made good his first-ever pole position, leading for the first 14 laps with Sam Hornish Jr., the two of them working a decent 1s lead over the rest of the field. That was brought to an end by the first caution, caused by a collision between Kasey Kahne and Kurt Busch which also saw Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick get some light contact.

At the restart it was Newman in the lead (trying out the two tyre strategy for the first time that evening) leading Tony Stewart, Allmendinger, Hornish Jr. and Matt Kenseth to the green, but it was a shortlived restart as Clint Bowyer hit Jamie McMurray, spinning McMurray around although fortunately without contact with the wall. Newman had lost the lead to Stewart in the brief seconds of green flag racing, and at the next restart dropped even further back to 4th as the outside line got the better of the two-lane restart, putting Juan Montoya up to second and Joey Logano in third. Newman was to lose another position to Allmendinger and was down to eighth by lap 42, the two tyre gambit not looking too successful at this point of the afternoon.

Montoya took the lead from Stewart on lap 38, and maintained it for nearly ninety laps thereafter except for a brief period during pit stops triggered by the third caution of the afternoon on lap 56 for Brian Vickers hitting the wall after blowing a tyre. Allmendinger started to fade and slip back through this period, while Denny Hamlin complained of electrical issues and Dale Earnhardt Jr slipped from a promising 5th to a poor 16th with vibration problems. Matt Kenseth was making the best of this part of the race, slowing rising though the pack.

The next round of pit stops were made under green, but almost immediately after they were done the yellow was out for debris resulting from Kurt Busch hitting the wall on lap 134. Most cars didn’t need to pit so soon, but Denny Hamlin, Greg Biffle, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and AJ Allmendinger all had problems to resolve and came in. Hamlin in particular needed a lot of work, and then managed to stall the car at the end of pit road, all of which put him two laps down. Kurt Busch was even further down – six laps off the lead – as a result of major damage limitation work on the blue deuce.

Jimmie Johnson took the lead from Montoya at the restart, with Tony Stewart out of sorts and losing multiple places to Kyle Busch, Hornish Jr., Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards to put him back in 9th. Jeff Gordon also started to charge up the running order at this point, until the fifth caution on lap 188 for oil in turn 2 allowed everyone a relatively calm round of pit stops; unfortunately not calm enough for Jeff Burton who was penalised a lap for pitting outside his box.

The restart was brief, Brad Keselowski immediately in the wall after contact with Martin Truex Jr., before racing resumed properly on lap 201, Jimmie Johnson leading Montoya, Busch, Kenseth and Edwards to the green which lasted for 56 laps before the seventh caution of the night, caused by David Reutimann getting loose and brushing the wall causing some rear end damage before spinning. At the restart on lap 261, Kyle Busch got the best of things and jumped past Johnson to take the lead, but Johnson was clamped to the back of the 18 until Busch finally started to pull away to a more comfortable lead of 1.4 seconds by lap 300.

The next caution was on lap 314 when Travis Kvapil lost his engine in turns 1 and 2. At the restart, Busch was still in front of Johnson: Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon battled for third and got very loose, while Juan Montoya and Ryan Newman went side-by-side for fifth place. It was looking very good for Busch, who led by 2s with 30 laps to go, but Johnson looking threatening in second, himself 2s ahead of Jeff Gordon. Things were looking settled, unless there was another caution to shake things up.

The caution came on lap 372, thanks to Scott Riggs losing his front-right tyre and slamming into the wall with three laps to go. Now it all hinged on the tyre strategy: whether to take four or two? Busch and Johnson opted for four and ended up 8th and 7th at the restart respectively, but Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin, Matt Kenseth and AJ Allmendinger were among those who opted for two – as did Ryan Newman, who jumped from fifth place before the caution to taking the restart in second alongside Jeff Gordon.

When Gordon spun his wheels, Newman needed no second invitation to take the lead and the win: “I kind of threw [crew chief Tony] Gibson under the bus because he wanted to put four on and I said just give me two, I like the track position,” Newman said about his key strategy choice. “I would rather block.”

“I just couldn’t get it done for our team,” admitted Gordon. “I spun the tyres on the restart and Ryan had a good jump on me getting in to one. It was pretty much game over at that point.”

Race result

Pos  Driver             Car        Laps
 1.  Ryan Newman        Chevrolet   378
 2.  Jeff Gordon        Chevrolet   378
 3.  Jimmie Johnson     Chevrolet   378
 4.  Mark Martin        Chevrolet   378
 5.  Juan Montoya       Chevrolet   378
 6.  Matt Kenseth       Ford        378
 7.  Carl Edwards       Ford        378
 8.  Kyle Busch         Toyota      378
 9.  Clint Bowyer       Chevrolet   378
10.  Joey Logano        Toyota      378
11.  Marcos Ambrose     Toyota      378
12.  Dale Earnhardt Jr  Chevrolet   378
13.  Kevin Harvick      Chevrolet   378
14.  Robby Gordon       Toyota      378
15.  A.J. Allmendinger  Ford        378
16.  Brad Keselowski    Dodge       378
17.  Martin Truex Jr    Toyota      378
18.  Sam Hornish Jr     Dodge       378
19.  David Ragan        Ford        378
20.  David Reutimann    Toyota      378
21.  Scott Speed        Toyota      378
22.  Greg Biffle        Ford        378
23.  Tony Stewart       Chevrolet   378
24.  Jamie McMurray     Chevrolet   378
25.  Jeff Burton        Chevrolet   378
26.  Regan Smith        Chevrolet   378
27.  Bobby Labonte      Chevrolet   378
28.  Scott Riggs        Chevrolet   377
29.  Paul Menard        Ford        377
30.  Denny Hamlin       Toyota      376
31.  Elliott Sadler     Ford        375
32.  David Gilliland    Ford        374
33.  Kevin Conway       Ford        371
34.  Terry Cook         Dodge       367
35.  Kurt Busch         Dodge       366
36.  Travis Kvapil      Ford        309
37.  Brian Vickers      Toyota      288
38.  Joe Nemechek       Toyota      281
39.  Kasey Kahne        Ford        276
40.  Max Papis          Toyota      214
41.  Johnny Sauter      Chevrolet   161
42.  Dave Blaney        Toyota      160
43.  Michael McDowell   Toyota      149

Sprint Cup standings after round 7

Jimmie Johnson continues to lead the Sprint Cup standings ahead of Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle. Top ten finishes for Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch and Mark Martin helped propel them up the leaderboard, while Kurt Busch’s woes send him crashing out of the Chase positions.

POS +/-  DRIVER                 PTS   BEHIND  ST  P  W  T5  T10
1   --   Jimmie Johnson         1073  Leader  7   0  3  4   5
2   +1   Matt Kenseth           1037  -36     7   0  0  3   6
3   -1   Greg Biffle            981   -92     7   0  0  2   6
4   --   Kevin Harvick          961   -112    7   0  0  2   4
5   +2   Jeff Gordon            948   -125    7   0  0  3   3
6   +3   Clint Bowyer           885   -188    7   0  0  1   5
7   -2   Jeff Burton            873   -200    7   0  0  1   2
8   +6   Carl Edwards           873   -200    7   0  0  0   4
9   -1   Tony Stewart           869   -204    7   0  0  1   3
10  --   Dale Earnhardt Jr.     866   -207    7   1  0  1   2
11  +2   Joey Logano            862   -211    7   1  0  2   4
12  +4   Kyle Busch             855   -218    7   0  0  0   2
13  +4   Mark Martin            844   -229    7   1  0  3   3
14  -8   Kurt Busch             834   -239    7   1  1  2   3
15  -4   Paul Menard            811   -262    7   0  0  1   1
16  +6   Ryan Newman            802   -271    7   0  1  2   2
17  -5   Brian Vickers          786   -287    7   0  0  0   2
18  -3   Denny Hamlin           783   -290    7   0  1  1   1
19  -1   Martin Truex Jr.       780   -293    7   0  0  1   2
20  -1   Jamie McMurray         745   -328    7   1  1  1   2
21  +4   Juan Montoya           723   -350    7   0  0  2   3
22  -1   Scott Speed            716   -357    7   0  0  0   1
23  +3   A.J. Allmendinger      682   -391    7   1  0  0   1
24  +5   Marcos Ambrose         673   -400    7   0  0  0   0
25  -1   David Reutimann        671   -402    7   0  0  1   1
26  -6   Kasey Kahne            666   -407    7   0  0  1   2
27  --   Brad Keselowski        666   -407    7   0  0  0   0
28  --   David Ragan            657   -416    7   0  0  0   0
29  -6   Elliott Sadler         644   -429    7   0  0  0   0
30  --   Sam Hornish Jr.        625   -448    7   0  0  0   0
31  --   Bobby Labonte          586   -487    7   0  0  0   0
32  --   Regan Smith            580   -493    7   0  0  0   0
33  --   Travis Kvapil          553   -520    7   0  0  0   0
34  +1   Robby Gordon           528   -545    7   0  0  0   0
35  -1   David Gilliland        525   -548    6   0  0  0   0
36  +1   Kevin Conway*          408   -665    6   0  0  0   0
37  -1   Mike Bliss             364   -709    5   0  0  0   0
38  --   Max Papis              333   -740    6   0  0  0   0
39  +1   Joe Nemechek           300   -773    7   0  0  0   0
40  +1   Dave Blaney            277   -796    6   0  0  0   0
41  -2   Boris Said             252   -821    4   0  0  0   0
42  --   Michael McDowell       248   -825    6   0  0  0   0
43  --   Bill Elliott           202   -871    2   0  0  0   0
44  --   Aric Almirola          154   -919    4   0  0  0   0
45  --   Michael Waltrip        149   -924    2   0  0  0   0
46  --   David Stremme          143   -930    2   0  0  0   0
47  +2   Terry Cook*            118   -955    2   0  0  0   0
48  --   Scott Riggs            79    -994    1   0  0  0   0
49  -2   Casey Mears            73    -1000   1   0  0  0   0
50  -2   Robert Richardson Jr.  70    -1003   1   0  0  0   0
* Denotes Rookie 

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

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
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

Darlington’s always a strange, tough beast of a track. Combine it with tonight’s full moon and it went even weirder than usual, with a truck load of incidents and a record number of cautions. But in the end, the full moon antics were conquered by the calm, smooth assurance of the oldest man on track – the one with all the assurance and experience you could ever ask for to tame the beast.

With the sun already setting in South Carolina, the race got underway in a deceptively calm and orderly fashion, although Scott Speed brought out the first yellow as early as lap 4 by tapping Max Papis into a slow spin that crumpled the rear of the number 13 and meant Papis had to depart to the garage.

Robby Gordon got the first Darlington stripe of the evening on lap 9 but no yellow was required and Gordon was able to carry on. Up front, Matt Kenseth led the first 17 laps whereupon Jeff Gordon took over. Kyle Busch was moving smoothly up to the top 5 from 14th, while Joey Logano was staying in the lead pack despite his rookie status. Drivers less happy with their cars included Jeff Burton (who fell from 6th to 12 in the first 12 laps) and Kurt Busch, who was down to 16th by lap 21.

The second yellow came out on lap 21 for a solo spin by Michael Waltrip whose car got incredibly loose coming out of the last turn. Unlike the first yellow, this time most of the field were eager to come on in for adjustments and new tyres, Dale Earnhardt Jr screwing up by overshooting his pit box and having to back up. But Jimmie Johnson stayed out and took the green flag for the restart ahead of Ryan Newman, Kasey Kahne, Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth. Newman quickly took over lead duties, but Johnson happily stayed in second for more than twenty laps.

Marcus Ambrose had heavy contact with the wall on lap 27 when the car simply refused to grip and drifted across the track. Despite the heavy impact, Ambrose was able to carry on without bringing out a yellow. No such luck on lap 30, though, when Casey Mears made contact with Brian Vickers and half-spun up into the wall, setting off a series of minor incidents behind him in a crowded field, inflicting varying damage of the likes of Denny Hamlin and AJ Allmendinger. Pit stops were minimal under this caution, although Kurt Busch, Juan Montoya and Dale Earnhardt Jr all made appearances; and Carl Edwards made a series of stops for adjustments while managing to juggle the stops with staying on the lead lap.

The floodlights were coming on strong by the time the race restarted on lap 38, running green for almost 37 laps – the longest stint of caution-free racing so far. Kasey Kahne was getting stronger as the laps wore on, and he took the lead from Newman on lap 71, just before Jimmie Johnson was finally forced to come in on lap 75 for a green flag pit stop.

But as he did, all of a sudden Michael Waltrip’s car went up in flames, a literal fireball as it coasted into a spin to the wall after something went wrong big time with the engine on the number 55. That resulted in a lengthy caution as the oil he’d put down on track was cleared up, and at the restart Johnson was left at the head of the field – but a lap down and needing a free pass once Kasey Kahne went past him shortly after the restart, followed by Jeff Gordon, Martin Truex Jr, Matt Kenseth and Ryan Newman.

Newman however was not looking as strong as earlier and soon slipped a couple of spots, getting overtaken in quick succession by Jamie McMurray and Mark Martin. Kyle Busch was also slipping back, fearing a flat tyre, but it proved to be marbles of rubber picked up by straying off line. Not so lucky was Jeff Gordon, who really did have a problem with a loose wheel and was forced to pit under green, dropping him off the lead lap. Thanks to the number of yellows to come, he would get a free pass later on in the race to challenge again.

Truex Jr took the lead on lap 116 when Kasey Kahne got stuck behind traffic (Regan Smith) and scraped the car against the wall, damaging the nose. A lap later and the 5th caution flew: Sam Hornish got up into the wall and collected an impressive Darlington stripe before spinning down the track. All the leaders pitted in the ensuing yellow, while Jimmie Johnson had kept in the free pass position and was promoted back onto the lead lap, allowing him to work his way back into the top twenty.

At the restart on lap 123, with a third of the race distance gone, Greg Biffle shot off to take a huge lead over Tony Stewart, Martin Truex Jr, Matt Kenseth and Kasey Kahne. Biffle’s car was taking to the cooler after-dark conditions a treat, while others – like his team mate Matt Kenseth – were reacting very poorly, and for this mid-race extended green flag stint everyone was content to just take things steady and monitor the change in conditions and performance.

The caution came out on lap 160 after a slight tap from David Ragan spun the 11 of Denny Hamlin. That allowed everyone to pit and act on what they had learned about their handling – Greg Biffle, unsurprisingly, couldn’t be happier with his car and just wanted fresh tyres, but Truex Jr had a wedge adjustment and Kahne made changes to his track bar. Mark Martin hadn’t needed much in the way of a change, having run steadily in the top ten all night, but unfortunately had to return to pit lane for a missing lugnut which dropped him all the way back to 22nd.

Biffle led the restart ahead of Stewart, Kahne, Truex Jr and McMurray on lap 165, and it nearly went yellow again very quickly when Paul Menard got loose in turn 2 the next lap; he saved it, while other momentary three- and four-wide racing moments were just about pulled off without incident too, but eventually it was David Ragan who brought out the 6th caution on lap 185 when he mistimed a run on Jimmie Johnson, bumped him twice and got hit on his own rear by Juan Montoya, until eventually he lost the back end of the car and went for a spin. All this was just after the race leader Biffle had been shown the crossed flags signifying half distance.

Mark Martin made best use of the pit stops, bouncing back into the top ten after his earlier lugnut issues, as many drivers opted for two tyres only. Biffle was still in the lead, with Truex Jr., McMurray, Kyle Busch and David Reutimann rounding out the top five during the next short stint of green flag racing before the luckless David Ragan brought out the 8th caution as well, with a tyre going down resulting in a heavy impact into the wall and then clipping the back of Marcus Ambrose to well and truly finish off the number 6 car for the evening.

We lost Kasey Kahne from the top ten on lap 205 after contact with David Stremme resulted in a tyre going down and a green flag pit stop, as no caution was thrown. But a yellow did come out on lap 214 when Kurt Busch rubbed the wall and then went for a full spin across the track, sending out clouds of tyre smoke that made it little short of miraculous that no one hit him while unsighted. The leaders all came in for pits stops, during which Kevin Harvick hit Jimmie Johnson as the two came into their pit boxes, spinning the 48 and giving Johnson all kinds of problems lining the car up again for his eventual pit stop.

Martin Truex Jr won the race off pit road ahead of Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Jamie McMurray and a still-impressive Joey Logano. Unlike those cars, Greg Biffle opted for four tyres and dropped back to 8th, relying on his dominant pace to quickly propel him up the order again at the restart on lap 219. It was another short green stint: Clint Bowyer was quickly up into the wall in turn 2 and was struggling to hold on to the 33, but lost the battle with a collision into AJ Allmendinger into turn 4: Bowyer was shot into the infield wall, and then ricochetted back to the outside wall and almost bounced back for a third impact on the inside again before coming to a halt in a very battered and twisted piece of metal.

Only a few cars pitted this time: Dale Earnhardt Jr was one of them – and promptly wished he hadn’t, after a tyre got away from the crew resulting in the 88 getting sent to the back of the field; Jeff Burton also ended up a lap down after having to remain in the pits for extended work on his left front shock absorber. Another yellow was narrowly avoided just a few laps later when David Reutimann got a tap that sent him into a long contact with the wall: it caused a compression back through the rest of the field that almost triggered a big accident, but everyone reacted well and saved their cars. However, Reutimann plummeted back through the field and was quickly at risk of getting lapped.

The 11th caution on lap 249 was for a sizeable bit of debris on the track at turn 4. Everyone pitted, with Joey Logano getting the best pit lane bounce – up to second behind new leader Greg Biffle, and ahead of Ryan Newman, Matt kenseth and Mark Martin. The leading pack were all gambling on two tyres only, while Kyle Busch – who opted to take four – dropped to 7th.

The new tyres Kyle keep out of the wall a couple of laps after the restart, however, and worse was to come for Busch: on lap 273 he suddenly had a tyre go down and he went up hard into the wall. While it could have been a result of that earlier impact, it could also have been a case of debris on track as Jamie McMurray also promptly blew a tyre. Both drivers also reported a complete lack of brakes, and as a result Kyle headed direct for the garage – no win tonight for last year’s Darlington victor.

Before the yellow, Greg Biffle had pulled out his now-familiar impressive lead. But Joey Logano had stayed in touch, and during the pit stops Logano opted for two tyres only and as a result ended up taking the lead for the next restart on lap 281. Jeff Burton almost-miraculously saved a huge slide at the green flag, but Carl Edwards hit the wall once, then twice – harder this time and with assistance from his own team mate Greg Biffle. Edwards was not amused; unable to get to the inside line and make it into the pits, he waited for the traffic to pass … and then did a u-turn to get to the pit entry, a distinct no-no as far as NASCAR were concerned who promptly dished out a one lap penalty to the 99. Not that it mattered – Edwards was headed to the garage.

After the restart, Sam Hornish went for a wild spin for half the length of the infield area of the front straightaway; amazingly, there was no caution, with NASCAR perhaps acutely aware that the cautions were really stacking up and causing the race to become annoyingly fragmented and elongated. But there was no choice except to bring out the 14th caution when Greg Biffle spun out on turn 4 of lap 295, disappearing in a cloud of tyre smoke but fortunately not hitting any other cars.

Martin Truex Jr and Matt Kenseth stayed out, gambling on there being more cautions to come, but it didn’t work for Kenseth who fell back through the field over the next green flag stint; Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick opted for two tyres and restarted 3rd and 4th. Logano ended up back in 8th, while the award for most innovative pit stop went to AJ Allmendinger who ended up in his pit box sideways after getting spun around by Kurt Busch on pit road in a reprise of the earlier Johnson/Harvick clash.

After an already eventful evening, Hornish finally hit the wall hard on the backstretch on lap 318 that meant a visit to the garage could no longer be avoided; he had been lucky not to take Brad Keselowski with him. There was no direct yellow for Hornish’s accident, but there was enough debris on track to force NASCAR to throw the 15th yellow of the evening.

Mark Martin now took the lead, gambling on stretching his fuel and tyres till the end: his car looked pristine, not a mark on it, a rare feat at Darlington so he was certainly showing the racing smarts to pull it off, if the fuel would be made to work. Behind Martin came Johnson, Newman, Keselowski and Hamlin, with the first car on new tyres all the way back in 8th, belonging to Tony Stewart. Would the new tyres trump track position in the remaining 42 laps? Stewart moved up to 3rd place over the next ten laps, but team mates Martin and Johnson were looking strong at the front and easily held off Stewart’s charge.

Kurt Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr and Brian Vickers all had visits to the wall without bringing out a caution, but on lap 335 Vickers’ car suddenly moved up track and trapped Jamie McMurray against the wall. This time a caution was inevitable, the 16th and a record for Darlington (the previous highest being 15 in 1995.)

The restart came on lap 338 with Mark Martin, Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart nose-to-tail and Martin concentrating to keeping the lead but also stretching his fuel, which was right on the limit. He needed still more caution periods, and sure enough the 17th caution came on lap 342 when Dale Earnhardt Jr spun on the straightaway after contact with Reed Sorenson and crossed the start/finish line in reverse. Once again, amazingly, everyone managed to avoid running into the 88.

The green flag came on lap 346 meaning there were just 21 laps to go, and fortunately this time they were all caution-free. Fuel concerns or no, Martin and Johnson pulled out an impressive 2s lead over Tony Stewart who himself was comfortably ahead of the fight between Ryan Newman and Jeff Gordon for 4th, while further back Greg Biffle quickly won the battle for 8th against Joey Logano – but everyone agreed, this had been a mighty performance from the rookie.

After trying to overtake Martin, Johnson finally had to back off and concede that he didn’t have anything left to throw at the veteran. Now the only concern was whether any of them would run out of fuel: but there had been enough yellow flag laps to get them to the chequered flag, and Martin cruised across looking incredibly smooth, calm and collected – as if he did this every day, and that winning a Sprint Cup race was an everyday affair for the 50-year-old.

Johnson did amazingly well to finish 2nd after starting from the back of the grid, going a lap down after pitting just seconds before a crucial yellow, and later getting turned around in the pit lane. Compared to these antics, Martin’s race was … Well, rather dull – but in a good way. He simply went out, drove a perfect race, stayed out of trouble – and, oh, won the whole damn shooting match. And kudos to him for doing it with such style.

Race result

Pos  Driver             Car        Laps
 1.  Mark Martin        Chevrolet  367
 2.  Jimmie Johnson     Chevrolet  367
 3.  Tony Stewart       Chevrolet  367
 4.  Ryan Newman        Chevrolet  367
 5.  Jeff Gordon        Chevrolet  367
 6.  Martin Truex Jr    Chevrolet  367
 7.  Brad Keselowski    Chevrolet  367
 8.  Greg Biffle        Ford       367
 9.  Joey Logano        Toyota     367
10.  Matt Kenseth       Ford       367
11.  Kevin Harvick      Chevrolet  367
12.  Jeff Burton        Chevrolet  367
13.  Denny Hamlin       Toyota     367
14.  Elliott Sadler     Dodge      367
15.  Paul Menard        Ford       367
16.  Kurt Busch         Dodge      367
17.  AJ Allmendinger    Dodge      367
18.  Bobby Labonte      Ford       367
19.  Reed Sorenson      Dodge      367
20.  Juan Montoya       Chevrolet  367
21.  Regan Smith        Chevrolet  367
22.  Jamie McMurray     Ford       367
23.  Kasey Kahne        Dodge      366
24.  David Stremme      Dodge      366
25.  Tony Raines        Chevrolet  364
26.  Scott Speed        Toyota     362
27.  Dale Earnhardt Jr  Chevrolet  360
28.  Robby Gordon       Toyota     353
29.  David Reutimann    Toyota     347
30.  Sam Hornish Jr     Dodge      344
31.  Brian Vickers      Toyota     333
32.  Carl Edwards       Ford       314
33.  Marcos Ambrose     Toyota     312
34.  Kyle Busch         Toyota     303
35.  Max Papis          Toyota     302
36.  Casey Mears        Chevrolet  238
37.  Clint Bowyer       Chevrolet  221
38.  David Ragan        Ford       199
39.  Scott Riggs        Toyota     101
40.  Michael Waltrip    Toyota     73
41.  Dave Blaney        Toyota     56
42.  Sterling Marlin    Dodge      38
43.  David Gilliland    Chevrolet  27

Sprint Cup standings

Tony Stewart moves up into second spot in the Sprint Cup standings, and Jimmie Johnson’s feat of making racing gold from what had looked like a leaden start means he’s up to 4th. Kyle Busch drops a place, but the night’s winner Mark Martin gets boosted into the all-important top twelve (at the cost of Clint Bowyer, who drops out of the Chase.)

Pos Driver  Points
1   Jeff Gordon         1601
2   Tony Stewart        1572
3   Kurt Busch          1546
4   Jimmie Johnson      1465
5   Denny Hamlin        1445
6   Jeff Burton         1384
7   Kyle Busch          1380
8   Ryan Newman         1363
9   Greg Biffle         1345
10  Matt Kenseth        1326
11  Mark Martin         1316
12  Carl Edwards        1271
13  Clint Bowyer        1264
14  Juan Pablo Montoya  1255
15  David Reutimann     1232
16  Kasey Kahne         1205
17  Brian Vickers       1188
18  Dale Earnhardt Jr.  1182
19  Martin Truex Jr.    1144
20  Marcos Ambrose      1131
21  Kevin Harvick       1109
22  Casey Mears         1104
23  Reed Sorenson       1090
24  Jamie McMurray      1068
25  A.J. Allmendinger   1059
26  Elliott Sadler      1059
27  David Stremme       1039
28  Michael Waltrip     1017
29  Bobby Labonte       1007
30  Joey Logano         1002
31  Sam Hornish Jr.      998
32  David Ragan          998
33  Paul Menard          957
34  Robby Gordon         847
35  Scott Speed          756
36  John Andretti        743
37  David Gilliland      649
38  Regan Smith          573
39  Brad Keselowski      479
40  Aric Almirola        451
41  Joe Nemechek         414
42  Scott Riggs          394
43  Dave Blaney          298
44  Travis Kvapil        292
45  Jeremy Mayfield      288
Pos Constructor Points
1   Chevrolet   81
2   Toyota      59
3   Ford        54
4   Dodge       48

Talladega is one of NASCAR’s most famous venues: it’s the longest (2.66 miles), steepest banking (33 degrees) and overall the fastest oval on the calendar, where the cars pack together for draft racing – and where it can all go wrong in an instant.

It is, in other words, the track where The Big One isn’t a possibility – it’s just a matter of when. And in 2009, it came really early – and was quite literally just the start.

It happened on lap 7, when Matt Kenseth moved up the road and caught Jeff Gordon, tipping him into a slide. After that it was mayhem as cars piled into each other, too close to react or avoid the pile-up happening in front of them. It was, in effect, a great advert for how not to drive on a freeway.

Casey Mears, Jamie McMurray, David Gilliland, Clint Bowyer, Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, David Gilliland, Scott Riggs, Brian Vickers, Mark Martin, A.J. Allmendinger and Kasey Kahne were all wrecked by the fallout, and the track resembled a junk yard as the dust and smoke cleared. Some of the cars could be worked on and put back out for a few laps at least, but none of them were really going very far.

Up till then, Juan Montoya had led the first few laps before Dale Earnhardt Jr powered his way past to the huge cheers of the assembled crowd. David Ragan briefly took the lead as the wreck developed, and then after the pit stops under caution it was rookie Joey Logano who took the field to the restart where he was promptly usurped by Martin Truex Jr courtesy of a huge push to the front from Earnhardt. Denny Hamlin and Jeff Burton also had brief stints in the lead, and Kurt Busch was out front when the second caution flew for debris on the track (some tape from the emergency repairs on Regan Smith’s car) on lap 28.

Kyle Busch took the lead on lap 31 after making a tactical decision to change only two tyres in the pit stops. He had been running toward the back initially, apparently trying to stay out of trouble that way, but running through the aftermath of the Big One was enough to make him reconsider that plan and decide that the front was altogether safer. He was joined at the front by Scott Speed, who had gone a lap down at the start of the race because of the need for some pit work even before the green flag, but he’d benefited from the free pass after the big wreck on lap 8 and now ran strongly at the front of the field.

The third caution came out on lap 42, when Michael Waltrip came down the track too quickly after passing Marcos Ambrose and hit his rear on the front of the 47, tipping himself into a wild slide across the infield section and only keeping it off the inner pit walls with a spectacular piece of recovery driving.

Things were moving fast. Dale Earnhardt Jr blasted back to the front, replacing Matt Kenseth who slumped almost immediately back to 10th after losing the draft. Former leader Kyle Busch had slumped almost out of the top 20, but then worked his way back in the right lane to climb back into the top 10 and toward the front only to get shuffled out of the draft and abruptly fall all the way back to 24th after the next restart – and promptly started to climb back again, essentially doing research for how far he could fall back and how long it would take to recover when it was really important.

Some of the cars were walking wounded: Kurt Busch was missing the entire rear bumper assembly of his car, while Jimmie Johnson was radioing in fearing a loose wheel on lap 58 and facing the prospect of an emergency green flag pit stop. Fortunately for Jimmie, the fourth caution came out almost immediately – ironically thanks to Kurt Busch, who got loose sending the number 2 careering onto the grass in a replay of Waltrip’s early spectacular slide. Like Waltrip, he saved the car from hitting the infield wall.

So at lap 73, Denny Hamlin led Matt Kenseth, Juan Montoya, Martin Truex Jr, Elliot Sadler and Dale Earnhardt Jr. as the top 6 of an ever-changing roll call of cars. Montoya was turbo-boosted to the front by Jimmie Johnson one minute, only to then be dropped from the draft like a hot potato the next and plummet out of the top 20 in a matter of seconds – it was that type of day.

Sam Hornish Jr had just taken the lead (despite his earlier feeling ill with the flu – amazing what an adrenalin shot of 200mph racing can do for you) when lap 85 saw the fifth caution, again for debris this time on the backstretch.

Paul Menard stayed out while others pitted to assume the lead but was quickly overtaken by Denny Hamlin at the restart; they were just ahead of Joey Logano, who was under strict instructions not to take the lead – he’d get hung out to dry by the Talladega veterans and left for dead, so he tried to just sit there learning and lapping it up. Unfortunately he was then isolated on the outside line, denied the draft – and promptly fell back out of the top ten. Meanwhile, Kyle Busch fell to 32nd and the back of the lead lap by having to pit twice to get some bodywork damage fixed, but a few laps later he had bounced back to 18th and climbing.

At half distance, it was Denny Hamlin leading David Reutimann, David Stremme, Brian Vickers, Reen Sorenson and Martin Truex Jr. but it didn’t stay that way and on lap 111 Earnhardt and the lapped Jeff Burton power-drafted their way into the lead and blasted away from the pack, opening up a huge lead in short order.

Paul Menard suffered for his strategy of not pitting under the previous caution by having to make a green flag stop on lap 112, going a lap down and leaving him hoping that no other caution came out before the rest of the field had to pit too. His heart must have leapt when Reed Sorenson had a tyre go down on the very next lap, but Sorenson kept it out of the wall and was able to come into the pits without causing a caution. Elliot Sadler scraped the wall a couple of laps later but managed to keep it going forward, and similarly avoided bringing out the yellows.

Earnhardt’s lead evaporated as quickly as it had appeared, and Martin Truex Jr was back in charge as Earnhardt slipped to eighth as a result of his audacity. But Jeff Burton was still at the head of the field and had effectively unlapped himself, and all he needed was a caution so that he would be able to drive round to the back of the lead pack and complete his recovery from being three laps down with electrical problems earlier in the day.

The caution came out on lap 124, for debris once again, and even Paul Menard was okay because of receiving the free pass to make up for his earlier green flag pit stop out of synch. Kyle Busch managed to beat Jimmie Johnson out of the pits, followed by Truex Jr, Earnhardt Jr, Brian Vickers and Denny Hamlin.

As the race headed into the last 50 laps, the order and the lead were changing like a cheap Vegas slot machine. Even Jeff Burton returned to the front on lap 143, so soon after recovering from three laps down; and then he was bested by Kurt Busch, despite the number 2 missing the entire rear bumper. It was clearly anyone’s race and all that mattered till the final laps was that you were still running going into the last 4-5 laps.

The shade assembly from one of the sets of caution laps fell onto the track and brought out the seventh caution on lap 147. That left just over 40 laps to go to the end, and so everyone could pit and comfortably make it to the chequered. Soon after the restart, Kyle Busch was blasted to the front on lap 154 by the unlikeliest of collaborators, Dale Earnhardt Jr – historically there’s no love lost between them, but apparently all hatchets are buried when someone can be useful at Talladega!

As the race entered the last 35 laps, everyone was running in single file behind Kyle Busch: things were getting serious and the time for hijinks was over. Kyle was determined that no one should pass him, and blocked ruthlessly – but in the end, a hit from the number 31 of Jeff Burton sent the 18 wobbling all over the place. Busch wrestled with it to keep it under control but simply couldn’t, the car spinning to a halt in the infield after somehow managing to miss everyone else in the process – remarkable driving by all concerned.

Busch’s car wouldn’t fire up and required a starter truck, putting him a lap down with only 15 to go – effectively done for the day. Kenseth now had the lead at the restart, ahead of Earnhardt Jr, Burton and Kurt Busch, but then Ryan Newman and Denny Hamlin power-drafted past to take the lead on lap 177, only for Hamlin to suddenly sink like a stone and leave Newman all on his own at the front.

Then Hamlin got into the back of Montoya, turned him around and the 42 collected Bobby Labonte – and all hell broke loose in what ended up being The Big One Part 2. Cars shot off in all directions at high speed, the most dangerous one being Robby Gordon who was sent headlong into the safer barrier in the infield, demolishing the front end of the car but mercifully not harming the driver. Jeremy Mayfield, Jimmie Johnson, Martin Truex Jr., Michael Waltrip, David Stremme and Sam Hornish Jr. all got involved to greater and lesser extent, 14 cars in total getting caught up. “Man it sucks racing around here”, said Jimmie Johnson bitterly.

So with two to go, Newman led Earnhardt Jr, Kurt Busch, Jeff Burton and Joey Logano; and then from nowhere (or to be more precise, 8th place) Carl Edwards was suddenly blasted to the front with an assist from Brad Keselowski as they went into the final lap. Edwards had been hanging back in the midfield for most of the race, staying out of trouble and flying under the radar, but now it was time to pounce and he felt that he had found the help that he needed to pull it off.

Except that that ‘help’ had idea of its own. Keselowski was looking for the slightest opportunity to take the lead from Edwards, and when the number 99 sensed a move from Keselowski and went up the track slightly to block, Keselowski kept on the inside and stuck his nose in the spot Edwards had just vacated. Edwards came down the track, hit the number 9, and – then it all went to hell.

Edwards’ car was turned sideways, and then the aerodynamics lifted the car up off the track – and right into Ryan Newman. The 99 collected the hood and windscreen of Newman’s car, a nasty moment in itself, but the second impact hoisted Edwards even higher into the air. When he hit the wall, it was above the safety barrier altogether and into the fence – which, thankfully, did its job as well as it possibly could and protected the crowd just feet away from all but the most minor debris flying off. Edwards’ car was wrecked and injury to the driver looking all too possible – but then Edwards struggled out of the wreckage, and went for a short jog to cross the finish line just a few meters away. He wanted to finish, car or no car. To his credit, Edwards was sanguine about Keselowski, saying he’d just been doing his job.

But in the meantime, Keselowski had taken the chequered flag followed by Earnhardt (and even the remains of Ryan Newman’s car sliding across in third.) Keselowski was busy celebrating with Earnhardt when Kyle Busch came up unnoticed from behind, and Keselowski got a harmless post-race spin before celebrating properly with some donuts.

It was a breathless end to an eventful race. But then, Talladega wouldn’t be Talladega without thrills, spills and accidents. And another first time winner, Brad Keselowski, celebrating in victory lane.

Race result

1   9   09  Brad Keselowski    Chevrolet  190/5   188  
2   11  88  Dale Earnhardt Jr. Chevrolet  175/5   188  
3   25  39  Ryan Newman        Chevrolet  170/5   188  
4   34  47  Marcos Ambrose     Toyota     160/0   188  
5   8   82  Scott Speed *      Toyota     160/5   188  
6   28  2   Kurt Busch         Dodge      155/5   188  
7   2   16  Greg Biffle        Ford       151/5   188  
8   30  83  Brian Vickers      Toyota     147/5   188  
9   22  20  Joey Logano *      Toyota     143/5   188  
10  20  31  Jeff Burton        Chevrolet  139/5   188  
11  41  43  Reed Sorenson      Dodge      130/0   188  
12  10  6   David Ragan        Ford       132/5   188  
13  17  187 Joe Nemechek       Toyota     129/5   188  
14  24  98  Paul Menard        Ford       126/5   188  
15  6   78  Regan Smith        Chevrolet  118/0   188  
16  15  07  Casey Mears        Chevrolet  120/5   188  
17  13  17  Matt Kenseth       Ford       117/5   188  
18  43  113 Max Papis *        Toyota     109/0   188  
19  39  19  Elliott Sadler     Dodge      111/5   188  
20  1   42  Juan Montoya       Chevrolet  108/5   188  
21  18  11  Denny Hamlin       Toyota     105/5   188  
22  31  55  Michael Waltrip    Toyota     102/5   188  
23  29  14  Tony Stewart       Chevrolet  94/0    188  
24  16  99  Carl Edwards       Ford       96/5    188  
25  23  18  Kyle Busch         Toyota     98/10   188  
26  33  00  David Reutimann    Toyota     85/0    188  
27  40  34  John Andretti      Chevrolet  87/5    188  
28  12  96  Bobby Labonte      Ford       79/0    179  
29  42  7   Robby Gordon       Toyota     76/0    179  
30  36  48  Jimmie Johnson     Chevrolet  78/5    179  
31  37  12  David Stremme      Dodge      70/0    179  
32  27  41  Jeremy Mayfield    Toyota     72/5    179  
33  3   1   Martin Truex Jr.   Chevrolet  69/5    179  
34  4   77  Sam Hornish Jr.    Dodge      66/5    179  
35  38  44  A.J. Allmendinger  Dodge      58/0    164  
36  35  9   Kasey Kahne        Dodge      55/0    133  
37  14  24  Jeff Gordon        Chevrolet  52/0    128  
38  19  29  Kevin Harvick      Chevrolet  49/0    127  
39  5   33  Clint Bowyer       Chevrolet  46/0      8  
40  26  171 David Gilliland    Chevrolet  43/0      6  
41  21  36  Scott Riggs        Toyota     40/0      6  
42  32  26  Jamie McMurray     Ford       37/0      6  
43  7   5   Mark Martin        Chevrolet  34/0      6  

Sprint Cup standings

The early exit of Jeff Gordon from the race means that he loses the lead of the Sprint Cup standings:

RANK    +/-     DRIVER      POINTS  BEHIND  ST  P   W   T5  T10
1   +2  Kurt Busch          1299            9   0   1   3   6
2   -1  Jeff Gordon         1294    -5      9   0   1   5   6
3   -1  Jimmie Johnson      1235    -64     9   0   1   4   6
4   --  Tony Stewart        1232    -67     9   0   0   3   6
5   --  Denny Hamlin        1193    -106    9   0   0   2   4
6   +1  Kyle Busch          1124    -175    9   1   2   3   3
7   +1  Carl Edwards        1119    -180    9   0   0   1   4
8   -2  Clint Bowyer        1098    -201    9   0   0   3   4
9   +2  Jeff Burton         1092    -207    9   0   0   1   4
10  +4  Greg Biffle         1081    -218    9   0   0   3   5
11  -2  David Reutimann     1077    -222    9   1   0   1   2
12  --  Matt Kenseth        1063    -236    9   0   2   3   3
13  +4  Ryan Newman         1033    -266    9   0   0   1   3
14  -4  Kasey Kahne         1030    -269    9   0   0   1   2
15  +4  Dale Earnhardt Jr.  1018    -281    9   0   0   1   3
16  -1  Juan Montoya        1018    -281    9   1   0   0   2
17  +1  Brian Vickers        995    -304    9   1   0   1   4
18  -5  Mark Martin          971    -328    9   3   1   1   4
19  +7  Marcos Ambrose       937    -362    9   0   0   1   2
20  -4  Kevin Harvick        918    -381    9   0   0   2   2
21  +1  Casey Mears          911    -388    9   0   0   0   0
22  -2  David Stremme        899    -400    9   0   0   0   0
23  -2  Martin Truex Jr.     887    -412    9   1   0   0   2
24  +3  Reed Sorenson        881    -418    9   0   0   0   1
25  --  Michael Waltrip      880    -419    9   0   0   0   1
26  +4  David Ragan          855    -444    9   0   0   0   1
27  -4  A.J. Allmendinger    847    -452    9   0   0   1   2
28  +1  Elliott Sadler       845    -454    9   0   0   1   1
29  -5  Jamie McMurray       825    -474    9   0   0   0   2
30  -2  Bobby Labonte        823    -476    9   0   0   1   1
31  --  Sam Hornish Jr.      775    -524    9   0   0   0   1
32  --  Paul Menard          763    -536    9   0   0   0   0
33  --  Joey Logano*         753    -546    9   0   0   0   1
34  --  John Andretti        676    -623    9   0   0   0   0
35  --  Robby Gordon         653    -646    9   0   0   0   0
36  +2  Scott Speed*         607    -692    8   0   0   1   1
37  -1  David Gilliland      569    -730    8   0   0   0   0
38  +1  Regan Smith          473    -826    5   0   0   0   0
39  -2  Aric Almirola        451    -848    7   0   0   0   0
40  +2  Joe Nemechek         374    -925    7   0   0   0   0
41  +5  Brad Keselowski      333    -966    3   0   1   1   1
42  -1  Scott Riggs          311    -988    5   0   0   0   0
43  -3  Travis Kvapil        292   -1007    4   0   0   0   0
44  +1  Jeremy Mayfield      230   -1069    4   0   0   0   0
45  -2  Bill Elliott         228   -1071    3   0   0   0   0


It emerged that seven spectators were injured from the incident where Carl Edwards’ car crashed into the catch fence at the end of the race.

Track officials confirmed that seven people were treated as a consequence of being hit by debris from the violent impact that Edwards’ car made with the fence a few metres short of crossing the finish line.

“After the incident that occurred on the last lap, we are treating approximately eight patients from injuries received from flying debris; the injuries appear to be minor and non life-threatening,” said the track’s medical director Dr Bobby Lewis.

“One female patient is being transported by air, because of traffic, for further evaluation and treatment.”

Later, the track officials stated that six patients had been released but that two would need further treatment with their own doctors for possible minor fractures in extremities, while the seveneth who was airlifted to hospital was said to have suffered facial injuries.

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