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Harvick swoops to conquer at Fontana

28 March 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 ยข11 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)



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