Posts Tagged ‘tony stewart’

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

After failing to convert three consecutive pole positions to a race win, Kurt Busch finally dominates in his first Cup victory of 2011 on the unlikely road course setting of Infineon.

NASCAR cars are so precision-made for their natural oval habitat, that to see them on a road course instead is mildly disconcerting; it’s like the elephant in the room suddenly wearing ballerina’s slippers, it’s just not right watching the behemoth stock cars try to delicately tip-toe around the winding track at Infineon Raceway at Sears Point, near Sonoma in California.

Just as the cars aren’t really suited to the environment, so the same can be said for many of the drivers – many of whom, one feels, have arrived at NASCAR because they are feeling the invasion of road course events into other series such as IndyCar. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is one such driver who can’t wait to be over and done with Sonoma, while even championship leader Carl Edwards came into this year’s race here with deep misgivings about the impact that a bad showing on the road course might have for his title aspirations, cancelling his planned run at Road America in the Nationwide Series in an attempt to focus on this Cup race instead.

Traditionally the same names come up when trying to pick a winner: the regular NASCAR line-up boasts Marcos Ambrose – probably the best of all the current field on road courses – and Juan Montoya, a former Champ Car and F1 racer with huge amounts of road course experience. Add to that the “ringers” like the talented road specialist some car owners bring in just for this race and its bookend at Watkin’s Glen and it’s no wonder that the hard core oval drivers would just as well sit this one out.

Kurt Busch is not one of those drivers who anyone would pick as a winner on a road course – after all, he’d never done it before – but the Penske driver’s run of three consecutive poles showed that he was in top form, and impressive showings in the three practice sessions (first, second and third respectively) showed that he was well up to the challenge. Unfortunately, on this of all courses – where track position is so vital – he made a couple of costly mistakes on his qualifying run and ended up starting from 11th, while the even-more unlikely Joey Logano emerged on top in pole position to lead the field to the green flag for the start of the Toyota/Save Mart 350 alongside Jamie McMurray, with Paul Menard and Denny Hamlin forming the second row just behind them.

McMurray went for a quick trip through the grass but maintained position on the very first lap which proved a little messy for many of the cars, all them finding the road surface slick in the opening laps. That helped some drivers, with Kurt Busch up five spots to sixth in the first four laps and then taking fifth place from AJ Allmendinger next lap around. Juan Montoya was also working his way up the field, while among the drivers going in the opposite direction was Brian Vickers who was down ten spots in six laps, having started tenth.

McMurray finally lost second place to Denny Hamlin on lap five, who went on to then take the lead from the #20 through turn 11 a couple of laps later; Logano was starting to struggle getting loose and carried on losing positions over the next few laps as he sank out of contention.

One of those to pass him was Kurt Busch, who slipped past Ryan Newman for third on lap 10 and was second the lap after that, 2.7s behind Hamlin. Two laps later and Kurt had wiped out that advantage and was right on the back of the #11’s bumper as they went into turn 4 – and the #22 quickly slipped past and exited the turn with the lead, a stunning 13 laps’ worth of driving.

By lap 20, Busch has pulled out a comfortable lead over Hamlin in second, with Newman, Ambrose, Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne making up the top six. Several of them were unhappy with their cars – Ambrose complaining that his was too tight, Johnson not happy with the #48 – and lined up the adjustments they wanted at the first round of green flag pit stops as they looked set for a three-stop race. However, Kurt Busch stretched his first stint out far longer than anyone else, ending up with a lead of over 20 seconds over his team mate Brad Keselowski who was also looking to make this into a two-stop race if he possibly could, watching and waiting while everyone else made the call into pit road over the ensuing laps.

Finally on lap 33 Busch’s hand was forced when he heard that Casey Mears was about to run out of gas; having the field pack up behind the safety car at this point before he could get into pit road for his own first stop would have been a disaster, so Kurt dived in just before the first caution of the day did indeed come out. It was a very good call, and Busch emerged from pit lane right behind Denny Hamlin – but effectively a stop up on the #11 – as other cars took the opportunity for a second stop.

The race went green again on lap 37 but almost immediately there was a multiple-car accident as drivers tried to make the most of the overtaking opportunities the bunched-up field presented. Brian Vickers got a sustained hard shove from behind by Tony Stewart into turn 11 which propelled him down the track on locked-up tyres for a skid of some 20 feet, collecting other cars along the way – including inflicting serious damage onto the side of the #88 of Dale Earnhardt Jr. which holed his radiator and led to the engine blowing.

“I’m not a big fan of the place, but maybe one of these days,” Earnhardt said, who lost three hard-won places in the Sprint Cup standings as a result of his early retirement from the race.

Stewart was unapologetic about the crash and didn’t deny that it had been intentional. “I’ve been complaining about the way guys have been racing all year,” Stewart said. “I like Brian. I’m not holding it against him at all. I don’t care if it was Ryan Newman; I would have dumped him, too. If they want to block, that’s what is going to happen to them every time for the rest of my career.”

Vickers, however, refuted the accusation that he had been blocking and instead pointed to an accident that was unfolding ahead of him, in which Kyle Busch’s attempt to overtake Juan Montoya had ended up with the #18 in the grass and spraying up the dirt.

“I wasn’t blocking him. That may have been his perception from where he was sitting, but the #18 went off the race track in front of me,” Vickers said. “He was going off in the dirt and then coming back in front of me on the race track, and I was trying to avoid him. The cars in front of me were slow. I was inside of the guy in front of me … I think when [Stewart] sees the replay and he realises why I went low – if he looks at it out of my front windshield – he’ll realise it had nothing to do with him. It had to do with the #18 almost wrecking me, and a couple of other guys running slow up top.”

Both cars were able to continue, although with some degree of bodywork damage – Vickers’s #83 looking particularly shopworn.

The brief green flag running had been long enough to allow Kurt Busch to pass Denny Hamlin for the lead, so it was the #22 who led the field round for the next restart on lap 42, followed by Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr. and David Gilliland – who was quickly passed for position by Allmendinger, who then went three-wide through turn 11 for second place with Hamlin and Truex. It couldn’t end well, and it didn’t: Truex was sent spinning and Hamlin, while Allmendinger slipped through fo the position and Hamlin himself found his #11 damaged by Allmendinger’s play. There was no immediate caution for the contact, but one followed on lap 46 for debris in that same area.

Kurt Busch led the field back to racing on lap 51, only to lose the lead when Clint Bowyer made a nice dive in front out of turn 2. Behind them, Tony Stewart got past Jimmie Johnson for third with Brad Keselowski behind them in fifth.

Despite Robby Gordon making contact with the barrier after contact with Joey Logano – who just seemed to lose patience with the #7 – there was no new immediate yellow flag, and next time around Kurt Busch was able to pass Bowyer to reclaim the lead at turn 11; over the ensuing laps, Tony Stewart was able to pass Bowyer to take up the chase and he was starting to close in when the fourth caution of the afternoon came out for Bobby Labonte hitting the wall with a little assist from Michael McDowell and leaving fluid on the front stretch of the track that took a lengthy five lap caution to properly clear up before racing could resume.

That allowed a number of cars to come into the pits, including Denny Hamlin whose car was still struggling with damage from that earlier contact with Truex and Allmendinger. Jamie McMurray had already been into the pits just before the caution came out because of a flat tyre, and while he reported that the car was “really good right now”, it had blown the team’s two-stop strategy that the leader Kurt Busch was still on line to achieve especially after this length mid-race caution.

The green came out on lap 65 with Busch leading Tony Stewart, Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr. and Jimmie Johnson – but Kurt’s brother Kyle was swiftly up into fourth place, Further back there was contact between Matt Kenseth and Joey Logano that left Kenseth pointing in the wrong direction and having to wait for everyone to stream past him before he could resume in last place on the lead lap, which meant there was no return to caution.

By lap 72, the window for the final pit stop to get to the chequered flag opened, and sure enough Kurt Busch was into pit lane ceding the lead to Tony Stewart. Kurt was still confident, but reporting that the car was generally a little loose but at the same time too tight in turn 1. He returned to the field in 12th place and was soon moving up the positions, but differing pit stop strategies meant that he would not see the lead again for another 16 laps, as the position was assumed in turn by Stewart, Juan Montoya, David Gilliland, Kevin Harvick and Regan Smith until their own final pit stops cycled through.

After his earlier conflagration with Tony Stewart, Brian Vickers had impressively worked his way back up into the top five during this stage; then on lap 87 he seemed to falter and drop back, which put him right on track behind Stewart again. It wasn’t a coincidence.

“He made his bed at that moment [on lap 39], and he had to sleep in it,” Vickers said bluntly, not concealing the payback nature: “He wrecked me, and I dealt with it.”

He ploughed into the back of Stewart’s #14 into turn 11 – fittingly, the same place as the earlier incident – and sent Stewart backwards so that it ran into and onto the tyre barrier, coming to rest with the crumpled back of the #14 propped up at a thirty degree angle. It took a lengthy time for the safety workers to get the #14 down from its precarious perch, and the car beyond repair while Vickers was able to continue albeit with a lot of wrecked bodywork stripped off.

Stewart less less angry than resigned about the payback – and resolute. “I dumped him earlier for blocking and he got me back later on,” Stewart said. “If they block, they are going to get dumped. It is real simple. I mean, I don’t blame him. I don’t blame him for dumping us back.

“I don’t race guys that way. I never have. If guys want to block. then they are going to wrecked every time. Until NASCAR makes a rule against it, I am going to dump them every time for it. He did what he had to do and I don’t blame him. There is nothing wrong with it.”

Vickers also felt that there was nothing personal about it and it was just on-track business that wouldn’t have any lasting after-taste: “We were joking and laughing last week and had a great race,” he said, recalling that their last serious spat had been right here at Sonoma in that same turn 11. “I’m not angry. I’d rather have been racing for the win and worrying about something like that.”

Several cars now pitted, but Kurt Busch wasn’t about to give up on his two-stop goal even with the allure of a fresh set of tyres for the final 18 laps or the safety blanket of a little extra fuel, and so he stayed out and assumed the lead again at last for the restart on lap 92. Behind him for the green flag was Martin Truex Jr., Kasey Kahne, Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski – a particularly good showing for Edwards who had started off on Friday in shocking form until he’d decided to eliminate his Nationwide distraction. At the green flag, Edwards was quickly up into second and Keselowski into third place.

Further back, Juan Montoya had been one of those cars to pit for fresh rubber for the final stint and was now doing battle for sixth with Jeff Gordon. Winning that one, Montoya then went after Kasey Kahne – and proceeded to send the Red Bull onto the grass as the Colombian turned up the aggression factor to 11, and paid for it by losing a couple of positions. Not discouraged, Montoya’s next target was David Gilliland, and hard as Gilliland tried to hold him off – including some light contact – there was no stopping Montoya’s single-minded charge and he was through back to sixth place again.

With ten laps to go, the order at the top was Kurt Busch followed by Edwards and Keselowski, then Jeff Gordon, Martin Truex, Montoya, Kyle Busch, Harvick, Bowyer and Marcos Ambrose, who a few laps earlier had spun Dave Blaney around through turn 7 as he tried to assert his own road racing credentials.

All those cars that had stopped right at the start of the fuel window – Busch and Edwards in particular – were good for 110 laps but not for any more should a green-white-chequered situation arise, so everyone was on tenterhooks to see whether there would be any late cautions extending the race distance.

If there was going to be a caution then the most likely caused looked to be Montoya, who was doing raging against anyone in his way. On lap 102 it was a fierce battle with Truex who refused to give way, and on lap 104 Montoya was up against Brad Keselowski: Montoya tried to force him onto the grass in order to take the position, but Keselowski turned the tables and dumped Montoya on the approach into turn 4, dropping the #42 all the way down to 12th – but he then fell back to 22nd place by the end of the race because of the state of his tyres: “I just killed the tyres when I spun,” he explained afterwards.

“We got through the corner, and I just got on his bumper a little bit and moved him a little,” Montoya said of the incident with Keselowski. “Got a good run, and I guess he didn’t like it … he just plain and simple wrecked us.” The incident also caught up Kyle Busch who spun as well and would finish just outside the top ten in 11th right behind Keselowski.

For his part, Keselowski was unrepentant: “I don’t take any pride in all that stuff, but at some point, you’ve got to run your own deal,” he said. “It was pretty obvious that it was eat or be eaten, and I wasn’t going to be eaten.”

That seemed to take the fight out of the race at the front, and despite running on the same set of tyres for the final 38 laps Kurt Busch continued with a commanding lead all the way to the chequered flag; behind him, a nice calm surge from Jeff Gordon put the #24 into second place after he won a final lap battle with Carl Edwards, with Clint Bowyer taking fourth ahead of another good road performance from the specialist Marcos Ambrose.

It had proved an amazingly dominant win for Kurt Busch, despite being his first victory on a road course and his first Cup win in 2011, the 23rd in his series career. Busch credited it to the strategy that he and crew chief Steve Addington had devised and followed immaculately despite the distractions going on around them.

“We stuck to it. We had a game plan,” Addington said. “Kurt said he was going to try to get a couple of positions there at the start, gain a couple positions. I was thinking, okay, if we start 11th, we’ll get to seventh or eighth. Drove by, took the lead. That made it easier on me and my guys to make a decision!”

“We developed the strategy from practice,” Busch said. “It gave us the calculations we needed, and it showed that we could make it on two stops [even though] a lot of guys said that they couldn’t make it on two stops.

“It was an unbelievable set-up,” he continued.”Once we got into the groove with this car, it seemed to get better after lap five or six. Our cars have never done that before.”

Second-placed Jeff Gordon was all praise for the elder Busch, who in recent seasons has been somewhat eclipsed by his younger brother Kyle – unfairly, Gordon clearly feels. “A guy, really, who is as talented as he is, every guy that competes in this series who has won on ovals wants to win on a road course to kind of prove something to themselves and the rest of the competitors,” Gordon said after the race. “When you do that the first time, I know how much it means. I know it meant a lot to him.”

With an impressive third place, Carl Edwards increased his lead in the Sprint Cup points standings, validating his decision to pull out of the Nationwide race at Road America to concentrate on Infineon.

“It was tough to watch the race [at Road America]. But I think staying was the right decision,” Edwards said Sunday. “It paid off. It was a good call. We could have finished poorly here, ended up on the fence over there like Tony did or something. Anything can happen. It turned out to be the right call and it paid off, so it was a great move.”

Whether there will be a new outbreak of driver feuds and hostilities as a result of some of the wrecks seen during the Toyota/Save Mart 350 remains to be seen: Stewart and Vickers certainly seemed to be trying to calm down the situation between them without backtracking on their respective positions, but Montoya certainly seemed to have stirred fights with Brad Keselowski and Kasey Kahne while Joey Logano was just as unhappy with Robby Gordon for their own mid-race encounter.

But that’s road course racing for you, and especially when you try and do road course racing with oval-racing cars and oval-racing drivers. As Jeff Gordon summed it up best: “Man, it was nuts out there.”

Yes, it was. But also a hugely entertaining change from the norm.

Race results

1. #22 Kurt Busch Dodge 110 laps Leader (48/2 pts)
2. #24 Jeff Gordon Chevrolet 110 laps + 2.685s (42/0 pts)
3. #99 Carl Edwards Ford 110 laps + 3.851s (41/0 pts)
4. #33 Clint Bowyer Chevrolet 110 laps + 10.188s (41/1 pts)
5. #9 Marcos Ambrose Ford 110 laps + 11.462s (39/0 pts)
6. #20 Joey Logano Toyota 110 laps + 11.901s (39/1 pts)
7. #48 Jimmie Johnson Chevrolet 110 laps + 12.744s (37/0 pts)
8. #56 Martin Truex Jr. Toyota 110 laps + 14.826s (36/0 pts)
9. #29 Kevin Harvick Chevrolet 110 laps + 19.994s (36/1 pts)
10. #2 Brad Keselowski Dodge 110 laps + 20.748s (34/0 pts)
11. #18 Kyle Busch Toyota 110 laps + 21.751s (33/0 pts)
12. #34 David Gilliland Ford 110 laps + 24.449s (33/1 pts)
13. #43 A.J. Allmendinger Ford 110 laps + 24.863s (31/0 pts)
14. #17 Matt Kenseth Ford 110 laps + 30.580s (30/0 pts)
15. #1 Jamie McMurray Chevrolet 110 laps + 32.003s (29/0 pts)
16. #78 Regan Smith Chevrolet 110 laps + 32.511s (29/1 pts)
17. #27 Paul Menard Chevrolet 110 laps + 33.286s (27/0 pts)
18. #7 Robby Gordon Dodge 110 laps + 34.662s (26/0 pts)
19. #5 Mark Martin Chevrolet 110 laps + 35.042s (25/0 pts)
20. #4 Kasey Kahne Toyota 110 laps + 35.969s (24/0 pts)
21. #31 Jeff Burton Chevrolet 110 laps + 37.962s (23/0 pts)
22. #42 Juan Montoya Chevrolet 110 laps + 40.640s (23/1 pts)
23. #16 Greg Biffle Ford 110 laps + 42.686s (21/0 pts)
24. #00 David Reutimann Toyota 110 laps + 46.806s (20/0 pts)
25. #39 Ryan Newman Chevrolet 110 laps + 47.082s (19/0 pts)
26. #46 Andy Pilgrim Chevrolet 110 laps + 47.887s (18/0 pts)
27. #37 Chris Cook Ford 110 laps + 48.192s (17/0 pts)
28. #51 Boris Said Chevrolet 110 laps + 49.637s (16/0 pts)
29. #6 David Ragan Ford 110 laps + 51.915s (15/0 pts)
30. #66 Michael McDowell Toyota 110 laps + 52.518s (14/0 pts)
31. #36 Dave Blaney Chevrolet 110 laps + 54.194s (13/0 pts)
32. #32 Terry Labonte Ford 110 laps + 55.053s (12/0 pts)
33. #181 Brian Simo Ford 109 laps + 1 Lap (11/0 pts)
34. #13 Casey Mears Toyota 108 laps + 2 Laps (10/0 pts)
35. #71 Andy Lally * Ford 104 laps + 6 Laps (9/0 pts)
36. #83 Brian Vickers Toyota 103 laps + 7 Laps (8/0 pts)
37. #11 Denny Hamlin Toyota 99 laps + 11 Laps (8/1 pts)
38. #47 Bobby Labonte Toyota 91 laps + 19 Laps (6/0 pts)
39. #14 Tony Stewart Chevrolet 88 laps In Pit (6/1 pts)
40. #87 Joe Nemechek Toyota 66 laps In Pit (0pts)
41. #88 Dale Earnhardt Jr. Chevrolet 45 laps In Pit (3/0 pts)
42. #60 Mike Skinner Toyota 10 laps In Pit (0pts)
43. #177 P.J. Jones Dodge 5 laps In Pit (1/0 pts)

* Denotes Rookie

F1 driver Lewis Hamilton got to try out one of NASCAR’s stock cars, while Tony Stewart was also given the chance to take the McLaren-Mercedes F1 car around historic Watkins Glen.

Lewis Hamilton got to try out one of the NASCAR “Car of Tomorrow” stock cars on Tuesday when he took Tony Stewart’s #14 Mobil 1/Office Depot Chevrolet around the Watkins Glen International road course as part of a car swap exhibition event.

In return, Tony Stewart managed to squeeze into the rather more cramped cockpit of a Vodafone McLaren Mercedes MP4-23 for a few circuits of his own, and said that he enjoyed not only the F1 experience but also the opportunity to test out parts of The Glen that NASCAR races don’t normally reach on their visits.

“It’s not the same. They’re completely different,” said Hamilton when asked to compare the F1 and NASCAR vehicles. “The weight – I was trying to calculate that before, because you do everything in pounds here, we do it in kilos. I think I measured it, it’s three times the weight of a F1 car. It actually doesn’t feel that heavy. I think the brakes were surprisingly very good.

“But the driving skills that you learn, the braking into corners, throttle shifting, that’s all very, very similar. That’s why I think it was easier to pick it up quicker than perhaps I would. I think it’s the same for Tony. He went straight out there and picked it up. It was no problem for him. I could definitely see myself having some fun with it a little bit more!”

Hamilton said that he’d had a very good impression of the NASCAR stock car. “I was really, really surprised. I was thinking this could be rolling quite a lot. I didn’t know how stiff it was going to be,” he said. “I tell you what, it handles really well. It’s absolutely fantastic. The shifting and the engine, the way it’s pulling through the RPM was fantastic.”

Stewart described piloting the F1 car as “truly an experience of a lifetime” and said that “It’s just amazing what the capabilities of the car are. I told the guys on pit road out there that it’s probably going to make my crew chief a little more stressed during the weekends because I’m going to want [the #14] to handle like that all the time!

“The first thing I’d have to do is lose about 25 pounds right off the bat. I would actually have to go and work out in a gym again!” he said.

Stewart admitted that he had trouble just getting underway at the start. “The funny part is I couldn’t even get it up high enough in the revs to get it to pull away in first gear. It goes into a default stall mode. [But] once we got rolling, it was unbelievable. The good thing is you have somebody like Lewis that can sit there and guide you through it.”

The wet track conditions did mean that Stewart was far from finding the limits of the F1 car. “I never got to full potential of what the car was capable of doing in a braking zone,” he said, admitting that “You may back it off a little bit just to enjoy the experience more.

“I don’t want to wreck any racecar, much less somebody else’s car,” Stewart said. “As a competitor you want to go out and find the limit, but at the same time, you realize that, if you make a mistake, the penalty for that mistake is probably going to be pretty large here.

“It’s just amazing how far you can charge the corner. It’s easy to see why it’s hard for these guys to overtake because it’s not a long distance from the time you get off the throttle on the brakes to where you’re changing directions. It gives you a much greater appreciation for how hard it is for these guys to overtake each other, what that car’s actually capable of.”

Hamilton seemed to be having a lot more fun in the stock car. “I just feel like a kid today,” Hamilton said. “Whilst driving a F1 car is very fun, the competitive side of it is so serious.” But by the time he’d finished his laps in a stock car, Hamilton was on the radio to declare “That was fun, man!” and to try out some celebratory burnouts – while his McLaren support crew looked on with concern in case he managed to damage the #14 in the process.

Not that Tony Stewart, the car- and team-owner of the #14, was worried. “The part I was worried about he was done by then,” he said. “The good thing is, when you see somebody doing a burnout like that, you know they’re having a good time. That was kind of the icing on the cake.”

The event was held at the New York state road course that hosted the US Grand Prix for 20 years until 1980. “It was definitely good that I got to go out in the F1 car just to kind of get an idea of where the track went,” said Hamilton. “The track is absolutely fantastic. It feels like a real classic. It just feels historic when you’re driving around. They don’t make tracks like that nowadays. When they build new Formula One circuits, they don’t build them like this.”

The Glen is just a short hop across the Canadian border from this weekend’s F1 Grand Prix event in Montreal that included a stunning, dramatic win for Hamilton’s team mate Jenson Button – but a less successful experience for Hamilton himself.

“I was feeling the tough weekend this morning,” Lewis admitted. “But as the excitement built up, and when I got in the car, and once I got out, I completely forgot about last weekend.”

The ride swap exhibition drew an estimated audience of 10,000 along with a lot of excitable motorsports media. The event was organised by Mobil 1, one of Tony Stewart’s primary Cup series sponsors and the ‘Official Motor Oil of NASCAR’, and was a major ambition of Watkins Glen president Michael Printup to bring an F1 car back to the circuit, who admitted: “This was my dream come true.”

Watkins Glen hosts one of NASCAR’s two road course events in a season of 36 races – the Cup field will be racing there again on August 14, when hopefully the conditions will be rather nicer than the dull and wet weather the car swap faced this week. However, the NASCAR event normally omits the mile-long section of the course dubbed “the boot” and Stewart would like to see that change in the future.

“I enjoyed the long course,” Stewart enthused. “I’d never been around it till today. I told [NASCAR competition director] Brett Bodine when we got out of the car after our setup runs that I would like the opportunity to see us having a shot at running the long course … I think it would create more passing opportunities, for sure, and it’s just such a historic racetrack, and there are some really cool corners down there that we don’t get a shot to run on a Cup weekend.”

Current Cup champion Jimmie Johnson has said much the same thing after running a Grand-Am race at the Glen last year, and Michael Printup said he would flag this up to NASCAR president Michael Helton right away.

“I’ve asked them over and over again, and I think this was just the real live testimonial that it can happen,” he said. “Our races are becoming shorter now [in duration], because we’ve paved all the gravel traps, and we’ve taken out a lot of the mishaps and [lost a lot] of track time. Now we just have to pave 8, which is down in the heel of the boot, and I think we could have some great racing.

“Like Tony and I were talking after the [car swap], it’s just going to give us a lot more opportunity to pass,” Printup continued, saying that the trade-off would see a reduction in the number of overall laps. “I think that would make it more exciting for the fans, and it opens up another major section where fans love to view racing.”

At 40, there’s no chance any more of Tony Stewart ever making the move to F1, but a future career in NASCAR may be something that 26-year-old Lewis Hamilton considers whenever he decides his time in F1 is up.

He would be in good company, with former F1 world champion Jacques Villeneuve and Hamilton’s predecessor Juan Pablo Montoya already having gone down that road with varying degrees of success – Montoya already having made history by becoming the first non-American driver to make it through to the post-regular season Chase.

“I’m good friends with Juan,” said Stewart. “I like talking to him about what we did in IndyCar racing, his stint in F1. He’s a great competitor in the Cup Series. My driver on our team [Ryan Newman], they had a little run-in earlier this year which put me in a bad spot because I’m friends with both of them.

“It’s fun to watch guys like [Montoya]. We had him at our [Prelude to the Dream] charity dirt race a couple years ago. He had never been on a dirt track, never driven that type of racecar. To watch him adapt to that type of car so quickly, it shows there’s great racecar drivers around the world. It’s a matter of where do they want to be, do they have opportunities.”

Stewart made an offer to Hamilton about dirt tracking, should he be interested and available in 2012: “If he wants to come run The Prelude next year, I will personally pay for a brand-new car to come there. If he wants it, he’s got it. We’ll have him a brand-new one sitting there ready to go!

“Guys like Juan and Nelson [Piquet Jr. in the Truck Series] being able to have the success they’re having will create other opportunities for other foreign drivers to come into the series. Our sport has evolved so much over the last 15, 20 years, it used to be a regional sport in the States, now it’s nationwide and worldwide. I think NASCAR welcomes everybody with open arms.”

Hamilton admitted that “I’ve not been to a NASCAR race, but I would love to go and get a feel and sense … I’m sure around the world there’s things that we all can learn from each other.” But Lewis knows that to turn up to watch a NASCAR race anytime soon would most likely set all sorts of rumours about imminent series defection swirling, much as a meeting with Christian Horner in Montreal had convinced many F1 pundits that a switch for him to Red Bull was on the cards.

“I have spoken to a lot of people during the weekend,” insisted Hamilton. “I know all the mergers, the bosses, all the teams. I know Stefano Domenicali … I know Christian.” But he insisted he was happy where he was: “I’m again just very fortunate to be a part of McLaren. It’s one of the best teams there, again with great history. We have a car that is capable of winning, as my teammate showed at the weekend.”

The Hamilton/Stewart car swap was planned and announced before Kimi Raikkonen – another former McLaren driver – made his foray into the world of NASCAR Trucks and Nationwide series events. The 2007 F1 world champion is now back in Europe with his WRC team and has yet to say whether he will pursue more NASCAR appearances in the future.

In another inter-series Ganassi car swap event in mid-March this year, former IndyCar champion and Indy 500 winner Scott Dixon briefly traded cars with NASCAR’s Jamie McMurray in an non-publicised event. Dixon ran a stock car at Talladega Superspeedway while McMurray got to try out an IndyCar at Barber Motorsports Park.

‘I didn’t want to come in,” said McMurray afterwards, who drives for Earnhart Ganassi Racing in NASCAR Sprint Cup. “I was excited to drive an IndyCar but I had no idea the experience would be like that. It felt as if I never turned the wheel, it was that smooth.”

Ganassi IndyCar driver Dixon found just getting in the most surprising part of a stock car. “They’re definitely pretty hard to get in and out of,” he said at the time. “I thought ours would be more difficult, but you just come from the top and slide. Here you’ve got to ‘Dukes of Hazzard’ style and slide through the window. And then get your legs in, and there’s things you can hit your head on.”

Seems like each series has its own unique set of challenges!

The sun was just going down over Fort Worth at the end of a typically hot and balmy Texan day when David Ragan led the field to the green flag for the start of the Samsung Mobile 500 on the 1.5-mile oval Texas Motor Speedway.

In the first ten laps, Ragan was able to maintain the lead and pull out a 1s lap over Matt Kenseth who had quickly taken over second spot from Carl Edwards; Marcos Ambrose has a strong start too and was up into the top five, while the big loser was Jimmie Johnson who fell from sixth on the grid to 14th place in the space of the opening two laps.

An early caution came out for Tony Raines blowing up, allowing the leaders to come in for an early tune-up on lap 11. Tony Stewart was involved in a pit lane collision with Dave Blaney, and needed to pit again to have some damage sorted out but there was nothing terminal to stop him continuing. The car wasn’t exactly the fastest one in the field, but if the team could find some clever strategy then he was still in with a shot of a good result or even a race win despite the early blunder.

Having opted not to pit at this stage of the race, Penske team mates Kurt Busch and Brad Keselowski led the field to the restart, with Matt Kenseth soon moving up past David Ragan to take up the chase in third, ahead of fellow Roush Fenway drivers Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards in fifth and sixth.

Kenseth managed to pass Busch relatively quickly, but Keselowski proved a different matter and the two were still jockeying for the front position when the track went yellow on lap 45 for David Gilliland finding a wall after a tyre went down on the #34. This was excellent news for Keselowski and Busch as they were now back on the same pit strategy – the decision to stay out during the first caution had been vindicated.

Kenseth had the best of the yellow flag pit stops and emerged in the lead, while it proved s costly one for David Reutimann and Joey Logano who collided in pit road. Both had damage from the hard contact requiring further work on the cars, and to rub salt in the wound for Logano the #20 was then penalised for having too many pit crew over the wall and was duly sent to the back of the lead lap. Reuitmann was equally gloomy: “We’re pretty well done, aren’t we Rodney?” he radioed to his pit crew chief Rodney Childers. He would later end up hitting the wall on lap 77 inflicting more damage on the #00, fortunately without bringing out a caution but costing him laps as he took to pit lane.

Restarting from second spot on lap 50, Greg Biffle got a great jump on Kenseth at the restart and claimed the lead, but within 10 laps the #16’s handling went off and he was complaining of the car getting loose as the evening slipped into cooler, darker conditions under the floodlights and started changing the handling characteristics. It meant Matt Kenseth resumed the lead again, with David Ragan, Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch and Carl Edwards rounding out the top six as they completed 65 laps out of the race distance of 334.

Kurt Busch didn’t have the pace during the next stint and started to slide back, losing positions to Edwards and Marcos Ambrose. Further back, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was nibbling on the edge of the top ten and Denny Hamlin was also advancing smoothly, taking 13th spot on lap 86.

The green flag stint lasted 63 laps – the longest caution-free run at Texas in five years – which meant that Matt Kenseth in the lead started to have to deal with lapping slower traffic. He also had concerns about his engine, which was showing a spike in water temperatures and fluctuations in oil temperatures, but it didn’t seem to interfere with his ability to keep putting in the fastest lap times.

A round of pit stops cycled through under green without drama – the biggest note being that Carl Edwards was reported as being very unwell and needing extra water and some medicine to keep him going. As the race wore on, he ended up psychically sick but managed to carry on just about to the end of the race. It would later be diagnosed as food poisoning: “I hate to throw my mom under the bus but she cooked something last night that I don’t think was too good,” he said after the race.

Finally the green came to an end on lap 113 when Ken Schrader suffered a cut tyre and shed rubber debris over the track. Unsurprisingly after such a long green period, everyone was eager to get into the pits for a check-up – and for the second time this evening, Penske duo Kurt Busch and Brad Keselowski opted for some sharp alternative strategy, taking two tyres apiece to emerge back on track in first and second for the restart on lap 118 ahead of Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin and David Ragan.

Keselowski got a poor start and was quickly moved aside by Kenseth for second. All those who had gone for two tyres soon started to struggle: Hamlin was struggling and fell to to ninth within six laps of the restart, while Kurt Busch’s initial pace was better but soon started to suffer as well. That left Matt Kenseth free to take up the lead again ahead of David Ragan, with Kyle Busch running well in this part of the race and popping up into third place after having spent much of the race will this point at the bottom of the top ten, but the handling of the #18 went off soon after and he would fall back again, his place in the top three taken up by Clint Bowyer.

With no caution in sight, another round of green flag pit stops cycled through around lap 162, which ended up with Bowyer taking second spot and Kyle feeling better in fourth with adjustments helping the handling, but Kenseth now well out in front of David Ragan.

But there was a problem for Kenseth when his pit crew radioed him with the news that they had failed to give him a full shot of fuel during that stop: he would have to pit early. Surely the dominant driver of the evening so far wasn’t going to have his chance of a first win in over two years (and 76 races) yanked away from him by such a needless pit lane stumble?

With the race still remarkably caution-free, Kenseth came in for his second consecutive green flag pit stop on lap 200 ahead of the rest of the field, but in fact most everyone duly filed in as well over the next few laps so the fuel fumble didn’t seem to have had any major effect on the race: Kenseth still came out in the lead and now had a massive 13s lead over Clint Bowyer. There were no collisions on pit road, although the sickly Carl Edwards locked up his brakes to avoid Kurt Busch and Regan Smith got hit with a drive-thru penalty after a changed tyre got away from the pit crew and went for a stroll into the grass.

Shortly afterwards, on lap 208, the third caution of the evening was out for debris. Ater a remarkable 90 lap green flag stint, everyone was relieved and even though everyone had just been into the pits for tyres and fuel, many cars streamed right back in to pit lane for less frenzied stops and more tactical adjustments: Tony Steward, Joey Logano and David Reutimann all came in to have ongoing issues with bodywork damage taken care of, while further up the field Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Paul Menard, Juan Montoya and Kurt Busch all pitted. Kyle Busch was in as well, complaining of vibration after that previous stop.

The restart on lap 212 saw Bowyer get the better start and take the lead from Kenseth, and Marcos Ambrose get a great jump into third place. But racing was shortlived, as the newly packed-together field was ripe for a multi-car accident, and it duly took place on lap 214 after Brad Keselowski checked up in front of Martin Truex Jr.: Truex also braked, and then got sideways after light contact with Kevin Harvick that ended up catching out Mark Martin and Regan Smith in a bone-jarring impact that ended with Truex, Martin and Smith heading to the garage with heavy damage. Among those making lucky escapes from being caught up in the wreck were Jamie McMurray and AJ Allmendinger.

The restart on lap 220 saw Bowyer leading Matt Kenseth, Marcos Ambrose, Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch, with Paul Menard and David Ragan battling over sixth spot. There was no repeat of the multi-car wreck at the previous restart, and in fact there would be no further cautions for the rest of the evening as the race finished with an eye-popping 114 green flag run.

Race leader Clint Bowyer almost triggered a sixth caution when he was being held up trying to lap Brian Vickers while being acutely aware of Kenseth bearing down on him. Bowyer ended up sliding up the track and side-swiping the #83, sending his own car extremely sideways at 170mph. Somehow he managed to save it from wrecking, but it was a pivotal moment in the race.

“Dang it,” Bowyer said. “That was my fault, totally my fault. You come up on those lappers, and they hold you up so bad. Matt started to catch me, and I was pressing, trying to get around [Vickers]. He gave me room. I just slid up and got into him,” he said, admitting: “Man, I thought it was going to end our day completely.”

The lack of any further cautions also meant more pit stops under green on the way. The first of these started on lap 249 with Kenseth, now leading, heading to pit road. Lots of drivers including Biffle, Allmendinger and Jeff Burton wanted some big adjustments to cope with the much cooler conditions. Kurt Busch stretched it to lap 271, hoping and praying for a caution to come out in the meantime, but one never came and instead he lost a lot of time continuing to circulate on old tyres while Kenseth (now in front of Bowyer) and the rest closed on their fresher rubber.

Busch wasn’t the last driver to stop for fuel, either – Tony Stewart pushed it a massive 58 laps before pitting on lap 276 (exactly 58 laps to the end as well …) If he could stretch this out to the end of the race without another stop, and if the tyres didn’t degrade so massively as to make him a sitting duck for Kenseth and the rest, then there was just a glimmer of a hope that he would be able to win this on strategy rather than actual pace … until he got hit with a pit lane speeding penalty and ordered to make a drive-thru. “Sorry, I knew I did it,” a sheepish Stewart confessed over the radio.

In the meantime, Kyle Busch had also returned to pit road – on lap 271, the same as his brother, despite having pitted as part of the routine round of green flag stops just 20 laps earlier. It was too early to be trying to ape Stewart’s strategy to stretch out fuel to the end, so this meant a costly extra stop with no upside for the #18: it turned out to be a second left rear tyre vibration of the night resulting from another loose wheel, a very unusual situation for the crew that’s usually the fastest and most reliable on pit lane. “I knew our rear-tyre changer’s head was in the sand anyway, so just tried to pep him up a bit and give him some words of encouragement,” said Kyle after the race. “I’ve got the fastest pit crew on pit road every single week. Every time we get on the race track and we come down pit road, I look forward to coming down pit road because I know my boys can pick me up some spots on the race track. So [this] was just an off-night.” As a result Kyle was now almost two laps off the lead and his hopes for a another strong finish had evaporated under the floodlights.

The final green flag pit stop for Matt Kenseth came on lap 295 with Clint Bowyer in next time around. The out-of-sync stops left Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman in the lead ahead of Kenseth, with Kyle Busch temporarily up into fourth before his final delayed stop (which wasn’t required until lap 322) ahead of Tony Stewart, who was still hoping that stretching this last tank of fuel could allow him to overcome that pit lane speeding penalty and pull off a good result.

With Kurt trying to eke out his fuel as far as possible and so many green flag laps being run, several drivers including David Ragan and Dale Earnhardt Jr. got the chance to unlap themselves. Newman fell away with his late pit stop on lap 301, and finally on lap 321 Kurt could wait no more and had to his pit road, his hopes of a win swept away by the lack of any late cautions.

That put Matt Kenseth in the lead by over 8s ahead of Clint Bowyer with just a dozen laps to go. Bowyer tried to cut the lead and appeared to be closing, but in the end Kenseth was able to manage the situation and ensure Bowyer never got close to launch any sort of major challenge for the race win.

“Show me where to park this thing!”, Matt Kenseth yelled over the radio to his crew chief Jimmy Fennig in acknowledgement of just how long it’s been since his last wins (back-to-back victories at the Daytona 500 and Auto Club Speedway in February 2009). “I’ve said it after every win, but especially after over two years, I didn’t know if I’d ever have a chance to get here again.”

Behind Kenseth and Bowyer, Tony Stewart was in third place hoping his fuel would be sufficient to keep him ahead of Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle and Paul Menard. Stewart was having to lean off the fuel as far as possible and was running slowly enough for Edwards to be gaining fast. But in the end, on the final lap of the day, relative pace performance became moot: Stewart’s engine ran dry and he was abruptly coasting his way around the remaining 1.5 mile revolution, as the other cars on the lead lap all streamed past him to take the chequered flag ahead of him. He had gambled, and just fallen short.

“You know, it took almost the whole race to crack the top-10, so to be in the position we were in there at the end, I guess is a good thing,” Stewart said. “But when you’re in that position and you can’t capitalize, it’s pretty frustrating. Speeding on pit road didn’t exactly help the cause either.”

Matt Kenseth’s victory means a climb of six places to third in the Sprint Cup standings. Kyle Busch is knocked off the top of the standings by Carl Edwards, whose third place in the circumstances (suffering horribly from food poisoning) was quite possibly the performance of the night.

The star closer of the previous two races, Kevin Harvick, never really featured at Texas, after being hit with a penalty for a tyre violation during the very first round of pit stops and then finding his car too loose early on and as a result falls in position to ninth. Mark Martin takes a five place tumble in the standings after wrecking on lap 214, but Clint Bowyer’s second place finish at Texas pushes him into the Chase positions along with Paul Menard.

The next race is a restrictor plate affair at the famous Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama on April 17, which will require drivers to select their partners for some high speed drafting for the first time since the Daytona 500 in February.

Race results

   ST CAR DRIVER             ENGINE     PTS        TIME
1  4  17  Matt Kenseth       Ford       48/2  3:21:26.000s  
2  3  33  Clint Bowyer       Chevrolet  43/1  +  8.315s      
3  2  99  Carl Edwards       Ford       42/1  + 17.158s     
4  9  16  Greg Biffle        Ford       41/1  + 18.066s     
5  19 27  Paul Menard        Chevrolet  39/0  + 19.217s     
6  7  9   Marcos Ambrose     Ford       39/1  + 21.267s     
7  1  6   David Ragan        Ford       38/1  + 21.548s     
8  6  48  Jimmie Johnson     Chevrolet  36/0  + 22.034s     
9  28 88  Dale Earnhardt Jr. Chevrolet  36/1  + 22.663s     
10 10 22  Kurt Busch         Dodge      35/1  + 24.216s     
11 12 31  Jeff Burton        Chevrolet  33/0  + 27.168s     
12 26 14  Tony Stewart       Chevrolet  33/1  + 32.770s     
13 14 42  Juan Montoya       Chevrolet  31/0  +   1 lap       
14 16 39  Ryan Newman        Chevrolet  30/0  +   1 lap       
15 23 11  Denny Hamlin       Toyota     29/0  +   1 lap       
16 11 18  Kyle Busch         Toyota     28/0  +   1 lap       
17 18 21  Trevor Bayne       Ford       0     +   1 lap       
18 27 2   Brad Keselowski    Dodge      27/1  +   1 lap       
19 15 43  A.J. Allmendinger  Ford       25/0  +  2 laps      
20 29 29  Kevin Harvick      Chevrolet  24/0  +  2 laps      
21 13 4   Kasey Kahne        Toyota     23/0  +  2 laps      
22 17 1   Jamie McMurray     Chevrolet  21/0  +  2 laps      
23 32 24  Jeff Gordon        Chevrolet  23/1  +  2 laps      
24 8  20  Joey Logano        Toyota     20/0  +  3 laps      
25 34 47  Bobby Labonte      Toyota     19/0  +  3 laps      
26 22 13  Casey Mears        Toyota     18/0  +  3 laps      
27 30 83  Brian Vickers      Toyota     17/0  +  4 laps      
28 24 09  Landon Cassill     Chevrolet  0     +  4 laps      
29 25 00  David Reutimann    Toyota     15/0  +  5 laps      
30 38 36  Dave Blaney        Chevrolet  15/1  +  5 laps      
31 39 7   Robby Gordon       Dodge      14/1  +  6 laps      
32 43 71  Andy Lally         Ford       12/0  + 10 laps     
33 41 32  Ken Schrader       Ford       11/0  + 15 laps     
34 42 37  Tony Raines        Ford       10/0  + 15 laps     
35 31 56  Martin Truex Jr.   Toyota     9/0    213 laps  Accident
36 21 5   Mark Martin        Chevrolet  8/0    213 laps  Accident
37 5  78  Regan Smith        Chevrolet  7/0    212 laps  Accident
38 33 195 David Starr        Ford       0      122 laps  Accident
39 37 87  Joe Nemechek       Toyota     0       60 laps  Clutch
40 20 66  Michael McDowell   Toyota     4/0     56 laps  Electrical
41 35 46  J.J. Yeley         Chevrolet  3/0     52 laps  Electrical
42 40 34  David Gilliland    Ford       2/0     44 laps  Accident
43 36 60  Mike Skinner       Toyota     0       36 laps  Rear Gear

Sprint Cup championship points

POS +/- DRIVER              PTS  GAP    ST P  W  T5 T10
1   +1  Carl Edwards        256  Leader 7  2  1  4  5
2   -1  Kyle Busch          247   -9    7  0  1  4  5
3   +6  Matt Kenseth        243   -13   7  1  1  3  4
4   -1  Jimmie Johnson      243   -13   7  0  0  3  4
5   -1  Kurt Busch          240   -16   7  0  0  1  5
6   +2  Dale Earnhardt Jr.  235   -21   7  1  0  1  4
7   -1  Ryan Newman         233   -23   7  0  0  3  4
8   -1  Juan Montoya        232   -24   7  1  0  2  4
9   -4  Kevin Harvick       228   -28   7  0  2  3  4
10  +1  Tony Stewart        213   -43   7  0  0  1  2
11  +2  Paul Menard         209   -47   7  0  0  2  3
12  +4  Clint Bowyer        201   -55   7  0  0  1  3
13  +1  A.J. Allmendinger   193   -63   7  0  0  0  1
14  -2  Jeff Gordon         192   -64   7  0  1  2  2
15  -5  Mark Martin         189   -67   7  0  0  0  2
16  -1  Kasey Kahne         186   -70   7  0  0  0  3
17  +1  David Ragan         185   -71   7  1  0  0  2
18  +2  Greg Biffle         183   -73   7  0  0  1  2
19  +3  Marcos Ambrose      175   -81   7  0  0  1  2
20  -1  Denny Hamlin        174   -82   7  0  0  0  1
21  -4  Martin Truex Jr.    160   -96   7  0  0  0  1
22  +3  Brad Keselowski     159   -97   7  0  0  0  0
23  -2  Bobby Labonte       157   -99   7  0  0  1  1
24  -1  Jamie McMurray      157   -99   7  1  0  0  1
25  +3  Jeff Burton         156  -100   7  0  0  0  0
26  -2  Brian Vickers       149  -107   7  0  0  0  2
27  -1  David Reutimann     144  -112   7  0  0  0  0
28  -1  Joey Logano         144  -112   7  0  0  0  0
29  --  David Gilliland     114  -142   7  0  0  1  1
30  --  Regan Smith         112  -144   7  0  0  0  1
31  --  Robby Gordon        104  -152   7  0  0  0  0
32  +1  Casey Mears          93  -163   6  0  0  0  0
33  +1  Dave Blaney          87  -169   7  0  0  0  0
34  -2  Bill Elliott         82  -174   4  0  0  0  0
35  --  Tony Raines          81  -175   6  0  0  0  0
36  --  Andy Lally*          73  -183   6  0  0  0  0
37  --  Ken Schrader         44  -212   3  0  0  0  0
38  --  Terry Labonte        30  -226   1  0  0  0  0
39  --  J.J. Yeley           26  -230   7  0  0  0  0
40  --  Michael McDowell     25  -231   6  0  0  0  0
41  --  Michael Waltrip       4  -252   1  0  0  0  0
42  --  Brian Keselowski*     3  -253   1  0  0  0  0
43  --  Trevor Bayne          0  -256   7  0  1  1  1
44  --  Steve Wallace         0  -256   1  0  0  0  0
45  --  Landon Cassill        0  -256   6  0  0  0  0
46  --  Mike Skinner          0  -256   4  0  0  0  0
47  --  Travis Kvapil         0  -256   6  0  0  0  0
48  --  Hermie Sadler         0  -256   1  0  0  0  0
49  --  David Starr           0  -256   1  0  0  0  0
50  -1  Robert Richardson Jr. 0  -256   1  0  0  0  0
51  -1  Dennis Setzer         0  -256   1  0  0  0  0
52  -1  Joe Nemechek          0  -256   7  0  0  0  0
53  -1  Todd Bodine           0  -256   1  0  0  0  0
54  -1  Kevin Conway          0  -256   0  0  0  0  0

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Race results

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

Sprint Cup standings

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

Carl Edwards won the third Sprint Cup series race of 2011, after Tony Stewart – who dominated much of the race – was made to suffer for a mid-race fumble by his pit crew.

Setting off from pole position after setting a record time and topping the practice time sheets, Matt Kenseth would have been forgiven for expecting a strong run at the front at Las Vegas, but unfortunately after just three laps he was overtaken by Greg Biffle and never saw the front again all afternoon.

Instead, after Kenseth was among those to pit under the first caution on lap 8 for a spin in turn 4 by Robby Gordon, he found himself with a tyre going down immediately after the restart and had to return to pit road under green for a new set of tyres which put him a lap down for much of the rest of the race.

Jeff Gordon had taken the lead during the pit stops but Tony Stewart was already surging and was in front by the time Andy Lally went for a spin on lap 15 after getting a tap from David Gilliland, bringing out the second caution. Robby Gordon was the recipient of the lucky dog/free pass, while Kenseth was still off the lead lap – and with the race running caution free for the next 78 laps despite a close thing on lap 42 when Jamie McMurray and Brad Keselowski made contact, he was doomed to stay there a while.

The extended green flag racing gave Tony Stewart the chance to pull away from everyone else on the track into a clear lead, and he was revelling in the fresh air out front. Among those squabbling over second place were Kurt Busch, Juan Montoya and Greg Biffle; Jeff Gordon had slid back and was having a fight with Carl Edwards over eight place by the time the cars lined up for their second round of pit stops – under green this time – starting around lap 50. The only driver to encounter problems was Trevor Bayne, who was handed a drive-thru penalty for speeding and went a lap down. Stewart lost the lead during the staggered round of stops but by lap 62 was back in front and in control ahead of Kurt Busch.

As the race hit lap 70, it was Kurt’s brother Kyle who was finding the speed: he’d moved up into second place and for the first time Stewart had a challenger gunning for him, the two of them managing to separate themselves from the field and managing to put Jimmie Johnson a lap down as they hit lap 90. Kyle’s challenge was fading and Stewart’s lead was building – up to 6.5s – when the #18 suddenly blew a tyre and sent Kyle into the wall on lap 96, bringing out the third caution of the afternoon and allowing the drivers a welcome respite and a chance for relatively more relaxed visits to pit lane. The only man less than happy about this turn of events other than the crumpled Kyle Busch was Tony Stewart, whose extended lead was now history.

The restart on lap 101 was shortlived as Kurt Busch – in third behind Stewart and Montoya – managed to lose the backend of the #22 and go into a spin that left him sideways down pit lane; further back, Kasey Kahne checked up as the spin unfolded and found himself rammed from behind by an inattentive David Ragan, which sent Kayne spinning in a copy-cat accident to Kurt’s. At least the rapid yellow was to Jimmie Johnson’s benefit, the free pass putting him back on the lead lap.

The next attempt at a restart was scarcely any more successful, with the #18 of Kyle Busch suddenly starting to spew smoke and flames presumably as a result of damage sustained in the earlier accident against the wall; and Jamie McMurray also made a trip into the wall after slight contact with Trevor Bayne. Neither were badly damaged, but Kyle Busch was in the garage and out of the race with his terminal troubles.

Finally we were back to racing on lap 115 as Stewart led Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards to the green flag. The three of them broke away until Biffle strangely ran out of fuel on lap 146 and had to coast into pit road, the car clearly having issues with fuel supply. Over the team radio, Biffle was heard to mutter to his pit crew chief Greg Erwin “So much for the warning light Erwin,” to which Erwin responded: “In development.” Biffle dryly responded with a “That’s good.” But meanwhile, upfront Stewart was clearly in charge throughout and able to toy with Carl Edwards as the two of them pulled away from the rest of the field. Surely the race was in Stewart’s back pocket – what could possibly go wrong?

The sixth yellow was on lap 149 after David Gilliland got a cut tyre and made heavy impact with the wall. That allowed another round of pit stops under caution, and it was here that the turning point of the race happened: a member of the pit team hadn’t stowed an air hose properly, and when Stewart pulled out the #14 dragged the hose out of the pit box – a definite no-no. Stewart was handed a drive-thru penalty and sent to the back of the lead lap.

“It kills me to throw a race away like that,” Stewart said. “When you lead that many laps and have a car that’s that fast and you lose it… I don’t know what happened on the pit stop there, but we had a miscue and had a penalty and had to go to the back, and unfortunately it kind of dealt our cards for us.”

That left Edwards up at the front of the race for the restart on lap 156, followed by Martin Truex Jr, Juan Montoya and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Edwards knew he’d been handed a golden opportunity, and went for it. Further back, cars on the move included Marcos Ambrose working his way back into the top five, Denny Hamlin up into the top 12 having started at the back because of an enforced overnight engine change, and Jimmie Johnson finding his groove and taking 9th from Jeff Gordon. And of course, further back Tony Stewart was still incredibly fast and determined to make his way back to the front and show Edwards who was boss.

It was Jeff Gordon who ended up into the wall in turn 4 after suffering a cut tyre on lap 194 that brought out the seventh caution of the race; and finally, Matt Kenseth was in the right place at the right time, getting the free pass back onto the lead lap at long last.

And Stewart was back in the lead: gambling on two tyres only, it shot him 14 places up the running order to the front of the field ahead of Juan Montoya, Martin Truex Jr. and Carl Edwards who had all taken the extra time to take four tyres on board. Immediately the green flag came out on lap 202, Stewart was able to shoot off into the distance and was two and a half seconds ahead within a dizen laps of green flag running. The gamble, it seemed, had paid off…

…At least, until lap 234. That’s when Stewart’s next pit stop came due, and there were no convenient cautions when he needed one so it was to be a green flag pit stop. Having taken on two tyres only last time around, Stewart had no choice this time but to change the two-stint tyres as well this time around, and the four-tyre stop cost him badly in time – a full 13.7s in his pit box. The other drivers who had taken on four tyres at the previous stop – including Edwards, Truex, Montoya and Ambrose – now had the freedom to take only two this time around, and as a result Stewart was back at the bottom of the top ten once the pit stops had cycled through, and with only 24 laps left to run before the chequered flag.

He almost did it. The speed of the #14 was undeniable and he was back up to third by lap 245. He found Juan Montoya a tougher crack to nut and it wasn’t until lap 263 that he was finally able to reclaim second, just four laps before the end. Even though Edwards was having to battle with lapped traffic, there simply wasn’t enough time for Stewart to slash the lead Edwards had built up.

After having been denied a strong run last week in Phoenix because of an early-race collision with Kyle Busch, Edwards was finally back in victory lane and able to show off that impressive back flip off the side door of the #99 as he celebrated his second Vegas win and his third win in the five most recent Sprint Cup outing.

In the Sprint Cup points standings, it puts Edwards up nine places in 3rd, just behind co-leaders Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch 7pts ahead. Other big risers in the points were Martin Truex Jr. (up nine places to 7th), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (up seven to 10th) and Marcos Ambrose (up ten to 17th.)

The big losers of the week were Kyle Busch (down from the lead to 14th place), Jeff Gordon (down fourteen places to 19th) and David Gilliland (down eleven to 21st) after their painful hits against the wall that did terminal damage to their cars.

NASCAR Sprint Cup takes a breather next week, and returns for the Jeff Byrd 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway on March 20.

Race results

1. #99 Carl Edwards Ford 267 laps Running (47/1 pts)
2. #14 Tony Stewart Chevrolet + 1.246s Running (44/2 pts)
3. #42 Juan Montoya Chevrolet + 2.465s Running (42/1 pts)
4. #9 Marcos Ambrose Ford + 2.99s Running (41/1 pts)
5. #39 Ryan Newman Chevrolet + 6.271s Running (39/0 pts)
6. #56 Martin Truex Jr. Toyota + 6.416s Running (39/1 pts)
7. #11 Denny Hamlin Toyota + 9.003s Running (37/0 pts)
8. #88 Dale Earnhardt Jr. Chevrolet + 10.648s Running (36/0 pts)
9. #22 Kurt Busch Dodge + 12.321s Running (36/1 pts)
10. #83 Brian Vickers Toyota + 14.342s Running (34/0 pts)
11. #17 Matt Kenseth Ford + 14.607s Running (34/1 pts)
12. #27 Paul Menard Chevrolet + 15.690s Running (33/1 pts)
13. #0 David Reutimann Toyota + 16.184s Running (32/1 pts)
14. #4 Kasey Kahne Toyota + 17.488s Running (30/0 pts)
15. #33 Clint Bowyer Chevrolet + 18.481s Running (30/1 pts)
16. #48 Jimmie Johnson Chevrolet + 20.445s Running (28/0 pts)
17. #29 Kevin Harvick Chevrolet + 21.214s Running (28/1 pts)
18. #5 Mark Martin Chevrolet + 21.991s Running (26/0 pts)
19. #43 A.J. Allmendinger Ford + 24.966s Running (25/0 pts)
20. #21 Trevor Bayne Ford + 25.852s Running (0pts)
21. #31 Jeff Burton Chevrolet + 36.345s Running (23/0 pts)
22. #6 David Ragan Ford + 26.788s Running (22/0 pts)
23. #20 Joey Logano Toyota + s Running (21/0 pts)
24. #47 Bobby Labonte Toyota + s Running (20/0 pts)
25. #13 Casey Mears Toyota + s Running (19/0 pts)
26. #2 Brad Keselowski Dodge 265 laps Running (18/0 pts)
27. #1 Jamie McMurray Chevrolet 264 laps Running (17/0 pts)
28. #16 Greg Biffle Ford 264 laps Running (17/1 pts)
29. #32 Mike Skinner Ford 262 laps Running (0pts)
30. #9 Bill Elliott Chevrolet 262 laps Running (14/0 pts)
31. #7 Robby Gordon Dodge 261 laps Running (13/0 pts)
32. #71 Andy Lally * Chevrolet 261 laps Running (12/0 pts)
33. #38 Travis Kvapil Ford 261 laps Running (0pts)
34. #36 Dave Blaney Chevrolet 260 laps Running (11/1 pts)
35. #37 Tony Raines Ford 258 laps Running (9/0 pts)
36. #24 Jeff Gordon Chevrolet 193 laps Running (9/1 pts)
37. #34 David Gilliland Ford 147 laps Running (7/0 pts)
38. #18 Kyle Busch Toyota 107 laps Out of Race (6/0 pts)
39. #78 Regan Smith Chevrolet 77 laps Out of Race (5/0 pts)
40. #46 J.J. Yeley Chevrolet 45 laps In Pit (4/0 pts)
41. #66 Michael McDowell Toyota 41 laps In Pit (3/0 pts)
42. #87 Joe Nemechek Toyota 34 laps In Pit (0pts)
43. #60 Landon Cassill Toyota 32 laps In Pit (0pts)

One bad day in the last ten races of the Sprint Cup Chase can be enough to doom an entire season. Clint Bowyer had already found that out with his post-Loudon penalty stripping him of all that weekend’s points; and now this week at Fontana, several more favourites for Sprint Cup success were about to have their championship hopes all but wrecked.

Under the blue skies and warm sunshine of California, the early stages of the race were quiet enough: Jamie McMurray converted pole into a 15 lap stint in the lead after besting Juan Montoya and Matt Kenseth in a three-wide battle on lap 1. Montoya was to drift up and hit the wall on lap 9 which put him off the pace, leaving Kenseth to take over responsibility for heading the field from McMurray on lap 15.

Montoya’s encounter with the wall didn’t bring out a caution, and the race was still green by lap 37 when pit stops were well underway; Kenseth kept the lead ahead of Clint Bowyer who had been making good practice climbing up from his starting position of 13th through the opening laps; and Jimmie Johnson was third despite an early scare with engine temperatures climbing sky-high because of debris on the front grill. That was cleared up during the pit stops which proved very timely for Jimmie, but further back there was more frustration for Juan Montoya who got a pit lane speeding penalty as a result of trying to compensate for a longer than usual pit stop attending to the damage from the earlier incident.

But on lap 40, just after the pit stops were completed, the yellow was out: and it was for Greg Biffle, whose engine let go in a serious plume of smoke and left him crawling into the garage. Fontana’s notorious for being hard on engines, and everyone knew this was just the first engine-related exit of the day: but for Biffle, it’s the nail in his Sprint Cup campaign coffin.

The field came in for another quick pit stop before the track went green again on lap 44, Kenseth leading Bowyer, Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Elliott Sadler and Mark Martin. Team mates Gordon and Johnson worked together to push Gordon to the lead, but a lap later Johnson made a move for the lead himself. From behind came further pressure in the form of the #18 car of Kyle Busch, who had leapt up the positions thanks to a two-tyre strategy and was now slipping into second place behind Johnson.

Another yellow came out on lap 54 for Marcos Ambrose, who had two flat tyres after spinning in turn 2. Dale Earnhardt Jr stayed out as others pitted and got points for leading, with Johnson, Martin and Kyle Busch slotting in behind him; but at the next restart on lap 58 it was Kyle who got a flying start, diving down the inside line to take the lead – before another yellow was rapidly on display.

This time it was for Carl Edwards, whose car had simply died leaving him unable to get back to the pit lane and having to park up on the apron until the safety crew could give him a push home. The cause of death was eventually diagnosed as an ignition rotor failure, which was eventually fixed to allow him to return to the track and pick up a stray point or two despite being ultimately 13 laps off the lead.

Kyle Busch led the field to the green flag on lap 62, but it was Jimmie Johnson was was coming on strong and who snatched the lead almost straightaway. Kyle’s pace had fallen away sharply – he called the car ‘junk’ on his way into the pits later on – and he would lose positions to Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin and Ryan Newman over the next half dozen laps; Martin went on to challenge his team mate Johnson for the lead, meeting with success on lap 73.

The Chase contenders not finding much success so far included Jeff Burton – 27th and 27s down on lap 87, the lowest-placed Sprint Cup runner still running at the time, and having had a sharp on-track encounter with his team mate Kevin Harvick earlier in the afternoon. Kurt Busch was hardly having a more successful time, running in 21st and complaining that his far felt to him as if it has “cookie sheets” under his tyres stopping him from getting it to go anywhere he wanted.

More green flag pit stops followed around the midway point of lap 100, after which Martin was still leading ahead of Johnson, Gordon, Bowyer, Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth, making it a Hendrick Motorsports top three. Martin was flying out in front, pulling out a 5s lead that was quashed the minute NASCAR called a yellow for debris. The pit stops had been good for Kurt Busch who was finally able to make progress up to 14th running very high up on the race track, while even Juan Montoya was on the rebound after his earlier problems and heading the right way up the standings in 18th.

During this new round of stops under caution, a mistake by his crew cost Mark Martin five spots, handing the lead to Jeff Gordon with Tony Steward in second, Martin Truex Jr. in third and Clint Bowyer holding tight in fourth, which he used to great effect at the restart to dive past Truex Jr. and Stewart to take up residence in second. It had not been a good spell for Kyle Busch, who had needed to make a second pit stop for a ventilation hose on the rear gear that had come loose with the vibrations, dropping the #18 out of the top 20 and having to work hard on the low side to get past Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kevin Harvick on this way back.

Gordon wasn’t able to hold his speed, and lost the lead to Bowyer on lap 126, second place to Martin the following lap and third place to Tony Stewart on lap 131. The fifth caution of the afternoon came on lap 137 when Marcos Ambrose once again spun, allowing the cars to make a new round of pit stops after which Bowyer was still in the lead with Gordon back in second ahead of Martin, Stewart, Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson.

This stage of the race was marked by Joey Logano falling back and losing seven places, while Kyle Busch suddenly had all the speed he could handle and was charging up through the midfield until the two of them came together to tussle over 13th position, which is what they were doing when the sixth caution came out on lap 145 for debris once again.

Most of the leaders stayed out this time – Matt Kenseth one of very few to come in for a fresh four-pack of runner boots – and at the restart Clint Bowyer found himself ousted from the lead by Tony Stewart, while further back things were getting fast and furious and multi-way-wide across the race track, Kyle Busch opportunistically making up a few spots by diving low on the inside line.

But that was as far as Kyle was getting in this race, and pretty much in the Chase itself: on lap 155, the #18’s engine suddenly let go. “I knew it was coming”, said Kyle, who had picked up on a “weird pop” from the intake some five laps previously. His force was tight with frustration and anger as he stated with forced calm: “There you have it. If anyone wasn’t sure this championship was over, it certainly is now.”

Juan Montoya leapt eighteen positions to the lead at the ensuing pit stops with a two-tyre strategy that put him ahead of Stewart, Ryan Newman, Bowyer, Martin and Kenseth, with Casey Mears in seventh the next driver to risk a two-tyre approach. But Jeff Gordon’s race hopes were pit by a pit lane entry speeding penalty putting him back down in 25th position.

Montoya’s tyre gambit was swiftly revealed as short-term, with Tony Stewart taking the lead back as the track went green on lap 160; Stewart would lose the lead to Clint Bowyer eight laps later, as the race entered its final staged with just 32 laps to go.

Bowyer’s lead was up to 3s by lap 183 when the eighth caution of the afternoon came out for debris in turn 3 – debris that Bowyer maintained had been there for several laps before NASCAR threw the flag at the moment it would cost him, Bowyer, the most. Clearly the battles of recent weeks have left deep scars and a slightly paranoid state of mind: although as the saying goes, being paranoid doesn’t mean that they aren’t out to get you!

The mystery caution relieved the threat of drivers running dry before the end, and set up a critical final round of pit stops. But two cars – Paul Menard and Regan Smith – opted to stay out and head the double file restart on lap 188 ahead of Bowyer, Stewart, Martin, Johnson and Denny Hamlin.

Menard and Smith were pawns for the real leaders of the race: Stewart boosted Menard for all he was worth, and with Smith blocking the inside line Smoke attempted to sweep around the outside into the lead. Smith did his best to hold off Stewart but ultimately the fresh rubber on the #14 was irresistible and Stewart claimed the race lead next time around.

As the race entered its final stages, suddenly a third Roush Fenway Chase contender was hitting problems: smoke was coming from under the bodywork of early leader Matt Kenseth’s car. The initial impression was that this was tyre rub resulting from damage after some earlier jostling, but soon enough it was clear that the car was badly underpowered. The engine failure might not have been as dramatic as that of Biffle and Busch earlier in the race, but it would prove to be serious enough to drop him down to the back of the lead lap in 30th position by the chequered flag. Essentially, that’s Kenseth’s Chase over and done with as well – Fontana had taken a heavy toll this year

All that remained was the race win, but there would be one final accident and yellow flag before we got there: on lap 194, David Ragan – who had been sweeping up and down the race track with some wild moves – finally drifted up the race track right into the path of Kurt Busch, who had been running the extreme outside line practically bouncing off the wall. Kurt’s front clipped the right rear of Ragan, who spun across the front of the #2 car and stayed there impaled until both cars had lost speed and dropped to the inside. Ragan’s day was over, but Busch was able to limp back to the pits with a blown left front tyre and pull off enough in the way of repairs to get back out and salvage 21st position – a grave disappointment and a definite Chase setback, but not the total disaster that had befallen his brother earlier in the way.

When the race restarted there were only two laps to run, and Stewart had the race under control – taking the chequered flag and his first ever Fontana win ahead of Bowyer and Johnson. It puts Stewart right back in the from for the Sprint Cup – in fifth position in the championship, 107pts off the leader – who of course continues to be Jimmie Johnson, who’s consistently strong finishes through the final races of the year are the secret of his Chase success.

Race results

1   22  14  Tony Stewart        190/5   200  
2   13  33  Clint Bowyer        175/5   200  
3   8   48  Jimmie Johnson      170/5   200  
4   5   9   Kasey Kahne         160/0   200  
5   14  39  Ryan Newman         155/0   200  
6   11  5   Mark Martin         160/10  200  
7   21  29  Kevin Harvick       146/0   200  
8   34  11  Denny Hamlin        142/0   200  
9   17  24  Jeff Gordon         143/5   200  
10  23  00  David Reutimann     134/0   200  
11  10  20  Joey Logano         130/0   200  
12  19  78  Regan Smith         132/5   200  
13  2   19  Elliott Sadler      124/0   200  
14  4   42  Juan Montoya        126/5   200  
15  37  77  Sam Hornish Jr.     118/0   200  
16  9   88  Dale Earnhardt Jr.  120/5   200  
17  1   1   Jamie McMurray      117/5   200  
18  6   56  Martin Truex Jr.    109/0   200  
19  30  43  A.J. Allmendinger   106/0   200  
20  32  38  David Gilliland     108/5   200  
21  38  2   Kurt Busch          100/0   200  
22  24  98  Paul Menard         102/5   200  
23  15  31  Jeff Burton         94/0    200  
24  29  82  Scott Speed         91/0    200  
25  12  13  Casey Mears         88/0    200  
26  25  12  Brad Keselowski     85/0    200  
27  27  83  Reed Sorenson       82/0    200  
28  40  34  Travis Kvapil       84/5    200  
29  39  37  Dave Blaney         76/0    200  
30  3   17  Matt Kenseth        78/5    200  
31  41  7   Kevin Conway *      70/0    197  
32  18  6   David Ragan         67/0    193  Accident
33  26  47  Marcos Ambrose      64/0    193  
34  20  99  Carl Edwards        61/0    187  
35  16  18  Kyle Busch          63/5    155  Engine
36  42  71  Andy Lally          55/0    76   Electrical
37  35  87  Joe Nemechek        52/0    69   Fuel Pump
38  43  09  Bobby Labonte       49/0    56   Transmission
39  28  46  Michael McDowell    46/0    55   Rear Gear
40  36  164 Landon Cassill      43/0    43   Transmission
41  7   16  Greg Biffle         40/0    40   Engine
42  31  36  J.J. Yeley          37/0    33   Transmission
43  33  66  Jason Leffler       34/0    23   Electrical
* Denotes Rookie 

Sprint Cup standings

POS +/- DRIVER             PTS   BEHIND  ST  P  W  T5 T10
1   --  Jimmie Johnson     5673  Leader  30  2  6  13 17 
2   --  Denny Hamlin       5637  -36     30  1  6  11 14 
3   --  Kevin Harvick      5619  -54     30  0  3  13 20 
4   +1  Jeff Gordon        5588  -85     30  0  0  11 16 
5   +5  Tony Stewart       5566  -107    30  2  2  9  16 
6   --  Kurt Busch         5533  -140    30  2  2  9  16 
7   -3  Carl Edwards       5511  -162    30  2  0  7  16 
8   +1  Jeff Burton        5496  -177    30  0  0  6  14 
9   -2  Kyle Busch         5486  -187    30  2  3  8  16 
10  -2  Greg Biffle        5458  -215    30  0  2  6  15 
11  --  Matt Kenseth       5432  -241    30  0  0  5  11 
12  --  Clint Bowyer       5426  -247    30  0  1  6  16 
13  --  Ryan Newman        3656  -2017   30  1  1  3  12 
14  --  Jamie McMurray     3596  -2077   30  4  2  8  10 
15  --  Mark Martin        3506  -2167   30  1  0  5  8  
16  --  Juan Montoya       3455  -2218   30  2  1  5  13 
17  +1  David Reutimann    3382  -2291   30  0  1  5  7  
18  -1  Dale Earnhardt Jr. 3379  -2294   30  1  0  3  7  
19  +2  Kasey Kahne        3349  -2324   30  3  0  7  9  
20  --  Joey Logano        3348  -2325   30  1  0  4  11 
21  -2  A.J. Allmendinger  3326  -2347   30  1  0  1  7  
22  --  Martin Truex Jr.   3265  -2408   30  1  0  1  6  
23  --  Paul Menard        3116  -2557   30  0  0  1  5  
24  --  David Ragan        2920  -2753   30  0  0  0  1  
25  --  Brad Keselowski    2905  -2768   30  1  0  0  0  
26  --  Marcos Ambrose     2866  -2807   30  0  0  2  5  
27  +1  Sam Hornish Jr.    2693  -2980   30  0  0  0  1  
28  +1  Elliott Sadler     2692  -2981   30  0  0  0  1  
29  -2  Scott Speed        2668  -3005   30  0  0  0  2  
30  --  Regan Smith        2605  -3068   30  0  0  0  0  
31  +1  Travis Kvapil      2136  -3537   29  0  0  0  0  
32  -1  Bobby Labonte      2125  -3548   30  0  0  0  0  
33  --  David Gilliland    2027  -3646   26  0  0  0  0  
34  --  Kevin Conway*      1757  -3916   27  0  0  0  0  
35  --  Robby Gordon       1626  -4047   22  0  0  1  1  
36  --  Reed Sorenson      1241  -4432   15  0  0  0  1  
37  +2  Casey Mears        1189  -4484   16  0  0  0  0  
38  --  Joe Nemechek       1160  -4513   27  0  0  0  0  
39  -2  Brian Vickers      1158  -4515   11  0  0  0  3  
40  --  Dave Blaney        1113  -4560   23  0  0  0  0  
41  --  Mike Bliss         919   -4754   14  0  0  0  2  
42  --  Max Papis          907   -4766   18  0  0  0  0  
43  --  Bill Elliott       888   -4785   10  0  0  0  0  
44  --  David Stremme      825   -4848   11  0  0  0  0  
45  --  Michael McDowell   820   -4853   22  0  0  0  0  
46  --  J.J. Yeley         699   -4974   13  0  0  0  0  
47  --  Landon Cassill     514   -5159   11  0  0  0  0  
48  --  Boris Said         448   -5225   6   0  0  0  1  
49  --  Tony Raines        412   -5261   7   0  0  0  0  
50  --  Patrick Carpentier 342   -5331   4   0  0  0  0  
* Denotes Rookie 

A chill was in the air in Kansas as the Sprint Cup Chase contenders made ready for the green flag: a reminder that its getting late in the year that this is the third race in the Chase, and only once since the format’s inception has the eventual champion not been in the top two post-Kansas. Everyone was highly motivated for success this afternoon – time was running out.

Kasey Kahne led the field across the starting line, and for the first two dozen laps there was the usual sorting-out of the running order as cars who had fared poorly – or flatteringly too well – found their natural level. Greg Biffle and Paul Menard were among those who fell back initially, while Jeff Gordon took up residence in second and duly took over the lead from Kahne on lap 28.

Gordon had worked up a 3.5s lead by the time the first caution came out on lap 41, trigged by Juan Montoya hitting the wall harmlessly in turn 3. The yellow gave everyone the opportunity for a well-timed pit stop, and at the restart the top five were Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman, Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth and Tony Stewart. Jimmie Johnson, who had been working his way up from a grid position of 21st, suddenly found himself back down there again after getting boxed in on pit lane; his car was looking distinctly average this afternoon.

The restart only lasted six laps before another caution was out on lap 52: this time, contact between David Reutimann and Kyle Busch had sent Reutimann spinning in turn 2, although he managed to keep the double zero off the wall and the field managed to avoid hitting him at the same time. But he still needed an extended pit stop that put him three laps down, and driver and team were furious for what they saw as an intentional act by Busch. Something would have to be done to get payback …

Matt Kenseth took the lead from Gordon at the restart on lap 56, and Gordon soon lost second place as well to Tony Stewart who went on to successfully challenge Kenseth for the lead on lap 81. Further back, Jimmie Johnson was continuing to slog his way through the field, and on lap 76 passed a sluggish Denny Hamlin for 15th place, while another Chase contender – Clint Bowyer – was plummeting backwards through the field to 35th place. He was soon able to pick up speed again but now he was struggling to stay on the lead lap – just another rotten day for Bowyer in his 2010 Chase campaign.

Pits stops were due, and there was no convenient caution this time; after the stops had cycled through, Stewart was in the lead ahead of Biffle, Kenseth, Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton and the race was over half distance.

By this point Kyle Busch was running in the top ten and had probably put thoughts of his earlier collision with David Reutimann out of his mind. But Reutimann hadn’t, and on lap 154 it was time for that payback. Reutimann sent the 18 into the wall, causing major damage to the car: Reutimann paid for it by spinning himself.

Almost all of the drivers pitted again under the ensuing yellow – Kyle making an extended stay on pit road to repair the considerable damage to his car, but the team managed to work it so that he stayed on the lead lap, albeit back in 22nd. While the car was running, it wasn’t going to win any beauty prizes – or many championship points. A damage limitation exercise kept Kyle circulating, but he made up only a single place between here and the end of the race, and duly ended up the worst placed of all the Chase drivers – a costly outcome indeed.

Kevin Harvick had stayed off pit road along with Mark Martin (who had started the afternoon being sent to the back of the field after having an engine change) and Ryan Newman; Tony Stewart and Greg Biffle were the first of the stoppers, in fourth and fifth place as the track went green again on lap 159, but racing only lasted five laps before a fourth caution of the afternoon came out for a heavy hit against the wall by Kasey Kahne in turn 4.

That brief run had been enough to pop Tony Stewart onto the front row for the double file restart on lap 170, and he made the most of it by immediately passing Kevin Harvick down the backstretch for the lead. Greg Biffle followed Stewart, as Harvick looked unable to maintain the pace up front and struggled to hold on to third.

Kevin Conway’s engine blew on lap 186, bringing out the fifth caution and giving the whole field the opportunity to make a pit stop under caution that no one could say no to. Jamie McMurray and Paul Menard opted to take two tyres only, and as a result of their fast pit stops they lined up at the head of the field for the restart, with Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth and Tony Stewart ready to pounce from behind.

Instead, it was Menard who got the best restart and leapt away from the competition. McMurray had no way of running at this pace and fell back, leaving Kenseth and Biffle fighting over second place – which Biffle finally did on lap 206, going on to snatch the lead from Menard the very next lap. Biffle looked very comfortable in the clean air, and over the next twenty laps he built up a 3.2s lead ahead of the final round of pit stops, which started around lap 235 with just 32 laps to go to the chequered flag.

There were no dramas in pit road, and most everyone stuck with the four tyre option rather than risk running on old rubber, so once the pit stops had worked their way through it was still Biffle in charge, ahead of Stewart, Kenseth, Johnson and Harvick: Johnson had been working his way up, one place at a time, agonisingly slowly in his mediocre car, but it was paying off: he was past Kenseth for third place on lap 245 and then went side-by-side with Stewart for the second spot with ten laps to go. The matter was finally decided when Stewart got loose and fell back, but by this point their prolonged battle had given Greg Biffle the chance to take off into the distance, out of reach of any rivals.

There was no time left, and no more cautions to close up the field: Biffle took the win with a commanding 7s margin, his 16th Sprint Cup career victory and maintaining a strong record at Kansas – being the only driver to score eight consecutive top-15 finishes here. More importantly, it slashes the gap between him and leader from 140pts to just 85pts.

“It was a great day for us,” Biffle said. “The car ran flawless. [Crew chief Greg] Erwin just made great calls in the pits, and the car just kept getting better and better and better.” The car was initially too loose and Biffle resisted suggestions to have it tightened up as he was running in the top three at the time and feared losing the performance that he did have: “But they tightened it up, and off it went, man. All it needed was a little bit of wedge in it to take off.”

Meanwhile the identify of the championship leader had changed: Johnson’s second place was enough to overhaul Denny Hamlin in the points, and it’s exactly this sort of “something from nothing” – or at least something from mediocre, and refusing to ever give up – that is the bedrock of Johnson’s past successful championship campaigns.

With all of the top seven places taken by Chase contenders, Kansas has really closed up the points overall and made the Sprint Cup the closest we’ve yet seen three races in; but it was a bad day for Kyle Busch, whose feud with non-Chase driver Reutimann cost him four championship positions as his 21st place was the lowest of all the Chase contenders: even the ill-starred Clint Bowyer had recovered from going a lap down at one stage to battle back to 15th.

In reality, Bowyer is the only one of the top dozen no longer in with any realistic chance of winning the Sprint Cup. The rest are covered by a margin of less that 150pts – and the top eight are covered by just 85pts, the three on the unlikely margins being Jeff Burton, Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth despite the latter two’s strong showing this weekend.

It shows that there is still all to play for, and that it’s too early to start thinking about the winner coming from one of the top two no matter what the history books say.

Race result

1   5   16   Greg Biffle         190/5    267   
2   16  48   Jimmie Johnson      170/0    267   
3   13  29   Kevin Harvick       170/5    267   
4   8   14   Tony Stewart        170/10   267   
5   1   24   Jeff Gordon         160/5    267   
6   18  99   Carl Edwards        155/5    267   
7   4   17   Matt Kenseth        151/5    267   
8   7   98   Paul Menard         147/5    267   
9   3   39   Ryan Newman         138/0    267   
10  27  43   A.J. Allmendinger   134/0    267   
11  24  1    Jamie McMurray      135/5    267   
12  15  11   Denny Hamlin        127/0    267   
13  6   2    Kurt Busch          124/0    267   
14  23  5    Mark Martin         121/0    267   
15  26  33   Clint Bowyer        118/0    267   
16  21  6    David Ragan         115/0    267   
17  9   20   Joey Logano         112/0    267   
18  10  31   Jeff Burton         114/5    267   
19  31  82   Scott Speed         106/0    267   
20  20  56   Martin Truex Jr.    103/0    267   
21  14  18   Kyle Busch          100/0    266   
22  25  88   Dale Earnhardt Jr.  97/0     266   
23  32  12   Brad Keselowski     94/0     266   
24  34  13   Casey Mears         91/0     266   
25  22  21   Bill Elliott        88/0     266   
26  29  78   Regan Smith         85/0     266   
27  36  26   Patrick Carpentier  87/5     266   
28  19  19   Elliott Sadler      79/0     266   
29  12  42   Juan Montoya        76/0     266   
30  30  83   Reed Sorenson       73/0     265   
31  41  38   Dave Blaney         70/0     261   
32  35  37   David Gilliland     67/0     261   
33  38  34   Travis Kvapil       64/0     261   
34  28  47   Marcos Ambrose      61/0     257   
35  11  00   David Reutimann     58/0     256   
36  17  77   Sam Hornish Jr.     55/0     245   
37  2   9    Kasey Kahne         57/5     218   Accident
38  42  7    Kevin Conway *      49/0     180   Engine
39  40  71   Tony Raines         46/0     87    Electrical
40  33  46   Michael McDowell    48/5     60    Transmission
41  39  09   Bobby Labonte       40/0     58    Transmission
42  37  36   J.J. Yeley          37/0     49    Electrical
43  43  164  Landon Cassill      34/0     33    Rear Gear
* Denotes Rookie 

Sprint Cup standings

POS +/- DRIVER              PTS   GAP    ST  P  W  T5 T10
1   +1  Jimmie Johnson      5503         29  2  6  12 16
2   -1  Denny Hamlin        5495  -8     29  1  6  11 13
3   +2  Kevin Harvick       5473  -30    29  0  3  13 19
4   +2  Carl Edwards        5450  -53    29  2  0  7  16
5   +3  Jeff Gordon         5445  -58    29  0  0  11 15
6   -2  Kurt Busch          5433  -70    29  2  2  9  16
7   -4  Kyle Busch          5423  -80    29  2  3  8  16
8   +1  Greg Biffle         5418  -85    29  0  2  6  15
9   -2  Jeff Burton         5402  -101   29  0  0  6  14
10  --  Tony Stewart        5376  -127   29  2  1  8  15
11  --  Matt Kenseth        5354  -149   29  0  0  5  11
12  --  Clint Bowyer        5251  -252   29  0  1  5  15
13  --  Ryan Newman         3501  -2002  29  1  1  2  11
14  --  Jamie McMurray      3479  -2024  29  3  2  8  10
15  +1  Mark Martin         3346  -2157  29  1  0  5  7
16  -1  Juan Montoya        3329  -2174  29  2  1  5  13
17  +1  Dale Earnhardt Jr.  3259  -2244  29  1  0  3  7
18  -1  David Reutimann     3248  -2255  29  0  1  5  6
19  +2  A.J. Allmendinger   3220  -2283  29  1  0  1  7
20  --  Joey Logano         3218  -2285  29  1  0  4  11
21  -2  Kasey Kahne         3189  -2314  29  3  0  6  8
22  --  Martin Truex Jr.    3156  -2347  29  1  0  1  6
23  --  Paul Menard         3014  -2489  29  0  0  1  5
24  +1  David Ragan         2853  -2650  29  0  0  0  1
25  +1  Brad Keselowski     2820  -2683  29  1  0  0  0
26  -2  Marcos Ambrose      2802  -2701  29  0  0  2  5
27  +2  Scott Speed         2577  -2926  29  0  0  0  2
28  -1  Sam Hornish Jr.     2575  -2928  29  0  0  0  1
29  -1  Elliott Sadler      2568  -2935  29  0  0  0  1
30  --  Regan Smith         2473  -3030  29  0  0  0  0
31  --  Bobby Labonte       2076  -3427  29  0  0  0  0
32  --  Travis Kvapil       2052  -3451  28  0  0  0  0
33  --  David Gilliland     1919  -3584  25  0  0  0  0
34  --  Kevin Conway*       1687  -3816  26  0  0  0  0
35  --  Robby Gordon        1626  -3877  22  0  0  1  1
36  +2  Reed Sorenson       1159  -4344  14  0  0  0  1
37  -1  Brian Vickers       1158  -4345  11  0  0  0  3
38  -1  Joe Nemechek        1108  -4395  26  0  0  0  0
39  --  Casey Mears         1101  -4402  15  0  0  0  0
40  --  Dave Blaney         1037  -4466  22  0  0  0  0
41  --  Mike Bliss          919   -4584  14  0  0  0  2
42  --  Max Papis           907   -4596  18  0  0  0  0
43  +1  Bill Elliott        888   -4615  10  0  0  0  0
44  -1  David Stremme       825   -4678  11  0  0  0  0
45  --  Michael McDowell    774   -4729  21  0  0  0  0
46  --  J.J. Yeley          662   -4841  12  0  0  0  0
47  +1  Landon Cassill      471   -5032  10  0  0  0  0
48  -1  Boris Said          448   -5055  6   0  0  0  1
49  --  Tony Raines         412   -5091  7   0  0  0  0
50  +1  Patrick Carpentier  342   -5161  4   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 

Greg Biffle won at last weekend’s Sprint Cup race in Pocono, delivering the first win for Ford and team owner Jack Roush this season – and giving Roush a big boost as he recovers in hospital from injuries sustained in a plane crash the week before.

The event was dogged by rain, which delayed the start by some 36 minutes and then delayed the restart after a serious accident on lap 165 brought out the red flag, but in the end the race ran to full 200 lap length before the chequered flag came out.

Tony Stewart led at the start but was soon overtaken by Jeff Gordon, who claimed the lead through to the first yellow on lap 16, a competition caution scheduled by NASCAR to allow the teams to see how the tyres were wearing because the track had been washed of its rubber by the rain.

After the restart, Greg Biffle briefly took the lead before Jimmie Johnson passed them both and pulled out a good lead over them as the race settled down for a length green flag period that lasted through pit stops around lap 80 and was only brought to an end on lap 121 for debris on turn 2. At the restart, Biffle led Gordon, Denny Hamlin, Johnson and Stewart. Gordon got the better of Biffle and led through to the next debris-inspired caution on lap 145 – the debris in question was the radiator pan form the 18 of Kyle Busch, which meant that he had a length stop on pit road to effect repairs.

Juan Montoya had pitted unexpectedly early just before the yellow but had avoided going a lap down, so by not coming in again during the caution it was he who led Dale Earnhardt Jr. (who took only two tyres), Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick at the restart on lap 150. Montoya and Gordon fought hard for the lead as rain seemed to be closing in, threatening an abrupt end to the race and the possibility of a rain-shortened result: Gordon just managed to see off Montoya when the caution flags came out again on lap 158 for a spin by Earnhardt Jr. that put him into the wall.

The race did get underway again, with Gordon still in the lead, but this time ran only 3 laps before Jimmie Johnson made contact with Kurt Busch on the main straight as the two battled over tenth place with Clint Bowyer. Busch was spun, made contact with Bowyer, and ended up running across the infield grass to make heft contact with the inside wall.

More seriously, behind them Elliott Sadler had been caught out by the inevitable reactions to the crash and got rear-ended. He ended up going across the infield as well, but where Kurt had made side impact with the wall, Sadler ended up running into it head on and at disturbingly highspeed: he also managed to make contact at the exact point of the wall where it inflected, creating a dangerous ‘corner’ that the car aimed straight into. The effect on the car was catastrophic, the entire front demolished and the huge powerful Ford engine ejected onto the track.

A red flag was thrown to allow the extensive clear-up; as for the driver, Sadler quickly had his side netting down (indicating he was okay) but then seemed to grimace in pain as he extracted himelf, and then had to lie down on the track next to the wreck of his car once he was out. But it turned out that he’d just had the breath literally knocked out of him: “I’m okay. I’m a little sore,” he said. “It was probably the hardest hit I’ve ever had in a race car,” he added, continuing: “I’m a little sore through my chest and my stomach, but that’s from where the seatbelts did their job and grabbed me and kept me in the car, so I’m thankful for that.”

Johnson took the blame for the accident, explaining that it was a botched attempt at helping Kurt to bump-draft. “So, we did make some contact. I was just trying to bump draft him. He was already wobbling and I bumped him and then it was wobbling some more and then eventually it did a lazy turn to the right and into the wall.”

Kurt was far from pleased and said Johnson had attempted to drive “straight through” him, leading Johnson to respond: “Kurt isn’t very fond of me, he never has been,” adding: “I think when he has a chance to take a shot at me, he will probably do so. But certainly nothing intentional and if he would like to talk about it, I’m more than willing to talk about [it].”

The red flag initially lasted half an hour, and then the cars were sent back out again and cycled through their pit stops: Sam Hornish Jr. opted to stay out, gambling on the rain returning to put an end to the day with him at the head of the field – and it nearly worked, with the track being forced back to red again for another brief period before the weather finally relented and conditions dried enough to restart the race.

Hornish was quickly dispatched, and Biffle emerged as the leader ahead of Carl Edwards and Mark Martin after all three opted to take just two tyres during their stops; Tony Stewart, by contrast, had fallen back to 11th place behind Kevin Harvick after opting to go for the full set of four tyres, and he put his foot down in an attempt to use the fresh rubber to his advantage and slice through the field in pursuit of Biffle.

But in clear air, Biffle was uncatchable, pulling out a five second lead by lap 190. With no further cautions coming out, and the rain staying away to allow them to make it to lap 200, Biffle’s attempt to gain access to victory road was triumphant – his 15th Sprint Car win but more importantly his first since 2008 following a 64-race drought. All that was forgotten, and he quickly learned how to celebrate a win at Pocono.

Race results

Pos  Driver              Car        Laps
 1.  Greg Biffle         Ford        200
 2.  Tony Stewart        Chevrolet   200
 3.  Carl Edwards        Ford        200
 4.  Kevin Harvick       Chevrolet   200
 5.  Denny Hamlin        Toyota      200
 6.  Jeff Gordon         Chevrolet   200
 7.  Mark Martin         Chevrolet   200
 8.  Jeff Burton         Chevrolet   200
 9.  Martin Truex Jr     Toyota      200
10.  Jimmie Johnson      Chevrolet   200
11.  Sam Hornish Jr      Dodge       200
12.  Ryan Newman         Chevrolet   200
13.  Paul Menard         Ford        200
14.  David Ragan         Ford        200
15.  Clint Bowyer        Chevrolet   200
16.  Juan Montoya        Chevrolet   200
17.  David Reutimann     Toyota      200
18.  Matt Kenseth        Ford        200
19.  Kasey Kahne         Ford        200
20.  Brad Keselowski     Dodge       200
21.  Regan Smith         Chevrolet   200
22.  Jamie McMurray      Chevrolet   200
23.  Kyle Busch          Toyota      200
24.  A.J. Allmendinger   Ford        200
25.  Joey Logano         Toyota      200
26.  Scott Speed         Toyota      200
27.  Dale Earnhardt Jr   Chevrolet   199
28.  Bobby Labonte       Chevrolet   199
29.  Travis Kvapil       Ford        199
30.  David Gilliland     Ford        198
31.  Kevin Conway        Ford        198
32.  Reed Sorenson       Toyota      171
33.  Kurt Busch          Dodge       164
34.  Elliott Sadler      Ford        163
35.  P.J. Jones          Toyota       63
36.  Casey Mears         Chevrolet    62
37.  Todd Bodine         Toyota       49
38.  J.J. Yeley          Dodge        48
39.  Marcos Ambrose      Toyota       46
40.  Joe Nemechek        Toyota       42
41.  Landon Cassill      Chevrolet    32
42.  Dave Blaney         Toyota       24
43.  Michael McDowell    Toyota       23

Sprint Cup standings

Pos +/- DRIVER                Pts   BEHIND  ST  P  W  T5 T10
1   --  Kevin Harvick         3080  Leader  21  0  2  10 15 
2   --  Jeff Gordon           2891  -189    21  0  0  10 12 
3   --  Denny Hamlin          2820  -260    21  0  5  8  9  
4   --  Jimmie Johnson        2803  -277    21  0  5  8  12 
5   +2  Jeff Burton           2757  -323    21  0  0  4  11 
6   --  Kyle Busch            2724  -356    21  2  2  5  10 
7   -2  Kurt Busch            2722  -358    21  2  2  7  12 
8   +1  Tony Stewart          2719  -361    21  2  0  6  11 
9   -1  Matt Kenseth          2682  -398    21  0  0  4  8  
10  --  Carl Edwards          2666  -414    21  0  0  3  10 
11  --  Greg Biffle           2652  -428    21  0  1  4  12 
12  --  Clint Bowyer          2564  -516    21  0  0  3  11 
13  --  Mark Martin           2530  -550    21  1  0  5  7  
14  --  Dale Earnhardt Jr.    2435  -645    21  1  0  2  6  
15  --  Ryan Newman           2426  -654    21  1  1  2  6  
16  +1  Kasey Kahne           2396  -684    21  1  0  5  7  
17  -1  Jamie McMurray        2392  -688    21  3  2  6  7  
18  --  David Reutimann       2381  -699    21  0  1  4  4  
19  --  Joey Logano           2329  -751    21  1  0  2  8  
20  --  Martin Truex Jr.      2283  -797    21  1  0  1  5  
21  +1  Juan Montoya          2241  -839    21  2  0  4  8  
22  -1  A.J. Allmendinger     2227  -853    21  1  0  0  3  
23  --  Paul Menard           2226  -854    21  0  0  1  3  
24  --  David Ragan           2060  -1020   21  0  0  0  1  
25  --  Brad Keselowski       2039  -1041   21  0  0  0  0  
26  --  Scott Speed           2011  -1069   21  0  0  0  2  
27  +2  Sam Hornish Jr.       1903  -1177   21  0  0  0  0  
28  -1  Marcos Ambrose        1885  -1195   21  0  0  0  2  
29  -1  Elliott Sadler        1860  -1220   21  0  0  0  0  
30  --  Regan Smith           1763  -1317   21  0  0  0  0  
31  --  Bobby Labonte         1616  -1464   21  0  0  0  0  
32  +1  Travis Kvapil         1470  -1610   20  0  0  0  0  
33  -1  Robby Gordon          1438  -1642   18  0  0  1  1  
34  --  Kevin Conway*         1369  -1711   20  0  0  0  0  
35  --  David Gilliland       1333  -1747   17  0  0  0  0  
36  --  Brian Vickers         1158  -1922   11  0  0  0  3  
37  +1  Joe Nemechek          854   -2226   20  0  0  0  0  
38  -1  David Stremme         825   -2255   11  0  0  0  0  
39  --  Mike Bliss            799   -2281   11  0  0  0  2  
40  --  Max Papis             770   -2310   16  0  0  0  0  
41  --  Dave Blaney           699   -2381   17  0  0  0  0  
42  +1  Casey Mears           654   -2426   9   0  0  0  0  
43  -1  Bill Elliott          609   -2471   7   0  0  0  0  
44  +1  Reed Sorenson         560   -2520   8   0  0  0  1  
45  +1  J.J. Yeley            545   -2535   9   0  0  0  0  
46  -2  Michael McDowell      542   -2538   14  0  0  0  0  
47  --  Boris Said            399   -2681   5   0  0  0  1  
48  +1  Todd Bodine           273   -2807   6   0  0  0  0  
49  -1  Robert Richardson Jr. 249   -2831   3   0  0  0  0  
50  --  Michael Waltrip       200   -2880   3   0  0  0  0  

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