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Harvick swoops again - to deny Earnhardt Jr

4 April 2011

Kevin Harvick sealed his reputation as the best "closer" in the Sprint Cup series by staging his second race win snatch-and-grab in a row in the final laps at Martinsville. But he could well have become the most hated man in Virginia that night as a result, as his win came at the expense of crowd favourite Dale Earnhardt Jr.

The half mile oval is the shortest circuit on the NASCAR Sprint Cup calendar, and with 43 cars on it the feeling is one of claustrophobia as you doubt how these cars can manage to get around without crashing into each other. Obviously the short answer is that they can't, but they can still get underway without an IndyCar St Pete-style crash fest.

Polesitter Jamie McMurray led the field to the green flag and got the race underway, making a great start and soon pulling out a 2s lead that meant by lap 20 he was already coming up to lap the back of the pack. That had major implications for Matt Kenseth, who had been seen to move lanes before crossing the start line in a rush to get to the coveted inside line. That was a major no-no, and the drive-thru penalty put him a lap down. Once McMurray and the leaders started to lap the tailenders, Kenseth's chances for a lucky dog free pass faded and he was to spend the next 100 laps off the lead lap as a result. One of the first to go a lap down was Joe Nemechek, who promptly then retired with brake issues.

The early laps were strong for Jimmie Johnson who was soon in the top ten from 17th on the grid. Less happy was Kevin Harvick, who was complaining of a loose car and fervently hoping for an early caution - as was the leader McMurray, whose car was also going loose causing him to relinquish the lead to Kasey Kahne on lap 32. Kahne's lead was brief before first Ryan Newman and then Denny Hamlin took over in front, while McMurray continued to fall further back: on lap 50 the top five consisted of Hamlin, Newman, Kahne, Johnson and Kyle Busch.

The first caution finally came out on lap 52 when David Gilliland picked up a flat tyre. Jimmie Johnson had a terrific pit stop and took the lead ahead of Newman, Kyle Busch and Hamlin, while the news was less good for Robby Gordon (sent to the back of the field for a commitment line violation) and Brian Vickers (drive-thru for speeding) while Carl Edwards was also facing a tough day ahead when he reported that his power steering was failing. At this point it also seemed like a struggle ahead Kevin Harvick back in 20th, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 16th.

Johnson led from the restart on lap 61 through to lap 78 when he was finally ousted by Kyle Busch, who led until the second caution on lap 107 when Dave Blaney cut a tyre and hit the wall in turn 4. Johnson was once again (somewhat atypically) the fastest car on pit road and resumed the race in the lead ahead of Kyle, Hamlin, David Reutimann and Clint Bowyer.

Kyle struggled to get back to the inside line at the restart and subsequently dropped positions to Hamlin - who went on to take the lead from Johnson - and Bowyer, but it was a short green flag stint before Marcos Ambrose spun and made hard contact into the wall on lap 25 bringing out the third caution. The leaders opted not to pit under the caution (although further back Trevor Bayne took to the garage for a punctured radiator) and resumed in the same order as before, but Clint Bowyer made the best start and blew past Hamlin for the lead on lap 134.

Poor Dave Blaney was once again the cause for a yellow flag on lap 174 with another flat tyre putting him into the wall; to add insult to impact, he was also penalised two laps for deliberately stopping on track to trigger the caution when in fact he could have made it back to pit road. At this point Bowyer had still been in the lead, but Kyle Busch had just taken over from Jimmie Johnson for second - but the pit stops once again put Johnson back to the head of the field in front of Kyle, Bowyer, McMurray and Hamlin.

The next green flag stint lasted only a little over 20 laps, but was certainly eventful: Kyle Busch got bumped out of line by Jamie McMurray and dropped to sixth; Tony Stewart got up too high and nearly ended up skating over the loose tyre rubber marbles into the wall on lap 190; and Mark Martin went a lap down from a drive-thru penalty after being judged to have switched lanes before the start/finish line in an echo of Truex Jr.'s race tart misdemeanour. By the time Hermie Sadler went into the wall at turn 3 on lap 203, Johnson had a 2s lead again over Bowyer, Hamlin and McMurray.

This time Johnson's luck with pit stops deserted him and he fell back to eighth after a slow service, leaving Bowyer in charge at the front. Bowyer had opted for two tyres only, a gambit shared by both Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Juan Montoya who took the restart second and third accordingly ahead of Hamlin and Kyle Busch. Kyle's brother Kurt was in need of the lucky dog free pass at this point, while Mark Martin opted to stay out of pit road in order to receive a wave-around to similarly get back on the lead lap.

The racing had only just resumed when the most serious accident of the afternoon occurred: he throttle stuck open on the #56 of Martin Truex Jr., and the car suddenly took off into a fearsomely hard impact against the wall, catching Kasey Kahne en route and ending up in a ball of flame erupting from the wrecked car. Remarkably Truex was soon up and about and checking on Kahne despite his car being wrecked - a testament to the effectiveness of the SAFER barrier. However, the clean-up of the debris and fluids required a lot of work, and so the race had to be red flagged for almost 25 minutes.

The intermission inevitably put the drivers out of rhythm, and not surprisingly there were two quick cautions in succession when racing resumed. The seventh yellow was triggered on lap 231 when Kurt Busch got a tap and was sent onto the infield kerbing, and in fighting for control he could not help but make contact with Bobby Labonte causing major damage. With the field still very closely packed, this sparked chaos behind them as drivers worked to avoid the accident - Joey Logano, Robby Gordon and Dave Blaney were among those caught up, and Kevin Harvick's #29 was also damaged after hitting Brian Vickers.

The restart barely lasted a lap before Paul Menard spun after getting a bump off Brad Keselowski; Menard collected Michael McDowell and Casey Mears going into the corner, although damage to all the cars involved appeared mercifully light, although Menard's car would start smoking soon after the restart and was black-flagged shortly afterwards.

Finally on lap 247, Clint Bowyer led Juan Montoya, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. to the restart for an extended green flag run. Gordon made a push for the lead but was seen off by Bowyer; needing to get back to the inside line he received no help at all from his team mate Earnhardt Jr. who bumped him out of the way and sent him back down to eighth place, where he started to complain that the car was feeling very loose. Ironically, Clint Bowyer was finding his own car too tight and he lost the lead to Denny Hamlin on lap 260.

Gordon's slump didn't last long and as the green flag run wore on and approached pit stop time, he had bounced back to third behind Hamlin and Kyle Busch. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was paying the price for the earlier two tyre stop and was down in ninth, while Jimmie Johnson had dropped out of the top ten after overheating problems.

As the green flag pit stops commenced, the race narrowly avoided two cautions: once on lap 297 when Casey Mears had a tyre go down and sustained damage to the rear of the car when he hit the wall; and again lap 322 when Brad Keselowski slammed the wall in turn 4 and struggled to get to pit road at the same time Clint Bowyer was coming in for his scheduled stop.

When it comes to green flag pit stops, few can hold a candle to Kyle Busch who has the art of in- and out-laps down to a fine art that would make even F1 drivers envious: after the stops cycled through he was in the lead, and by a whopping 4s over Denny Hamlin with Bowyer, Gordon and McMurray rounding out the top five, and only 11 cars now remaining on the lead lap.

A caution did come out shortly afterwards on lap 351 after Trevor Bayne cut a tyre and deliberately caused a yellow after being unable to get to pit road - meaning he got handed a one lap penalty for the infringement. The leaders took to pit road, giving 14 cars the opportunity to take the wave-around; however, Jamie McMurray's pit stop ended in frustration with a lugnut problem forcing him back into pit lane next time around, which put him to the back of the lead lap as the race went green again on lap 359.

Ryan Newman had already dropped back with an engine problem and feared he was blowing up, when he then had a tyre go down sending him into a spin on lap 370 bringing out the tenth caution of the afternoon just after Jeff Gordon had taken the lead from Kyle Busch. The leaders stayed out, with ninth placed Dale Earnhardt Jr. the first of those coming in for a full four-tyres and fuel stop, which included Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards, Ryan Newman, Jamie McMurray, Mark Martin and Kurt Busch. As a result, Earnhardt was back out on track in his original position, a small triumphant masterstroke from his new crew chief Steve Letarte.

Gordon led the restart but was soon passed by Kyle Busch, with Hamlin and Johnson right behind as the race reached the 100-to-go marker. But the real danger seemed to be emerging further back as Kevin Harvick started to slice through the field, climbing four places to fifth in the course of 20 laps. The long green flag stint suited Busch and Johnson, but was also a threat to them as the absence of any further cautions would almost certainly mean they didn't have enough fuel to get to the end - unlike Harvick and Earnhardt Jr. who had made that cunning extra stop on lap 372.

Sure enough, Denny Hamlin running in fifth place was forced onto pit road on lap 458 for his final service; and it proved the worst case scenario for him, because shortly afterwards - and before any of his chief rivals followed him onto pit road - the 11th and final caution of the afternoon came out as Ragan Smith spun and hit the wall. After the leaders all came in for their pit stops under caution, and Hamlin duly was one of those to receive the wave-around, the #11 was none the less mired down in 13th place at the restart.

And disaster also hit Jimmie Johnson, after he was penalised for speeding in the pit lane and given a drive-thru that put him back out on the track at the back of the lead lap, immediately behind Hamlin. Johnson was incensed and insisted that he was absolutely, categorically not speeding and that NASCAR had made a huge mistake: "There is just no way. There is just no way. It won't do me any good to have a conversation, it isn't going to matter. I guess I just can't attack pit road like I know I can and like I did every single time before this."

It was only a day later that a cooler Johnson was able to admit that actually the mistake had been his after all. "The comments I made in the race, and Chad [Knaus, Johnson's pit crew chief] made, and the comments following the race were made without all the information. And the fact of the matter was, we were wrong," he later said. "I was misinformed, and was referring to a segment where we could not get busted in. I thought that's where we were busted. And at the end of the day, that wasn't the thing we got in trouble on."

Two of the biggest threats for the race win had been effectively ruled out, which left the front of the field consisting of Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth and Juan Montoya. Dale saw his chance: on lap 480 he bumped Kyle Busch's rear bumper into turn 2 and unsettled the #18 enough to allow him to force his way through and take the lead. Harvick would also pass Busch half a dozen laps later, and then set his sights on chasing down Dale Jr. who was gunning for the chequered flag with everything he had.

Slow traffic helped Harvick pull right up to the rear bumper of the #88, and then when Earnhardt got loose out of turn 4 with four laps to go. It was enough to put Harvick alongside, and after that there was nothing Earnhardt could do to stop the closer from taking the lead, to the dismay of a highly partial pro-Earnhardt crowd.

"I was catching [Dale] and I'm like, 'Man, I'm going to be the bad guy here!'" Harvick said of those final laps. "But I've got to do what I've got to do," he said, adding: "I'm not going to back down."

"We had the opportunity there to win a race, and I'm disappointed that I didn't get the job done," Earnhardt admitted. "It'll probably bother me more and more as the night goes on. I'll probably think about it a million times, what I could have done differently."

In truth, Harvick simply had the faster car and had seen off everyone else, so Dale should not be too downhearted and not being able to stop "the closer" either. It's still one of his best races in the last two years and his best finish since he was second in the 2010 Daytona 500.

Kyle Busch held on to third place, philosophically admitting that his car simply didn't have the pace to see off Harvick over a short run. Despite once more claiming the bonus points for most laps led, he was again unable to seal the deal for the race itself - but third place is nonetheless his best finish at Martinsville and he is the only driver to have top-fives in four of the first six races of the 2011 Sprint Cup season.

Unsurprisingly, then, this consistency puts him at the top of the Sprint Cup points standings, 5pts ahead of Carl Edwards who wrestled his power steering-afflicted #99 to 18th place.

Race results

1. #29 Kevin Harvick Chevrolet 3:32:41.000s Running (47/4 pts)
2. #88 Dale Earnhardt Jr. Chevrolet + 0.727s Running (43/1 pts)
3. #18 Kyle Busch Toyota + 0.741s Running (43/2 pts)
4. #42 Juan Montoya Chevrolet + 2.370s Running (40/0 pts)
5. #24 Jeff Gordon Chevrolet + 3.214s Running (40/1 pts)
6. #17 Matt Kenseth Ford + 3.503s Running (38/0 pts)
7. #1 Jamie McMurray Chevrolet + 4.832s Running (38/1 pts)
8. #6 David Ragan Ford + 5.507s Running (36/0 pts)
9. #33 Clint Bowyer Chevrolet + 6.036s Running (36/1 pts)
10. #5 Mark Martin Chevrolet + 6.251s Running (34/0 pts)
11. #48 Jimmie Johnson Chevrolet + 6.918s Running (34/1 pts)
12. #11 Denny Hamlin Toyota + 9.717s Running (33/1 pts)
13. #20 Joey Logano Toyota + 1 lap Running (31/0 pts)
14. #43 A.J. Allmendinger Ford + 1 lap Running (31/1 pts)
15. #00 David Reutimann Toyota + 1 lap Running (29/0 pts)
16. #22 Kurt Busch Dodge + 1 lap Running (28/0 pts)
17. #83 Brian Vickers Toyota + 1 lap Running (27/0 pts)
18. #99 Carl Edwards Ford + 1 lap Running (27/1 pts)
19. #2 Brad Keselowski Dodge + 2 laps Running (25/0 pts)
20. #39 Ryan Newman Chevrolet + 2 laps Running (25/1 pts)
21. #16 Greg Biffle Ford + 2 laps Running (23/0 pts)
22. #32 Ken Schrader Ford + 3 laps Running (22/0 pts)
23. #7 Robby Gordon Dodge + 3 laps Running (21/0 pts)
24. #31 Jeff Burton Chevrolet + 5 laps Running (20/0 pts)
25. #37 Tony Raines Ford + 7 laps Running (19/0 pts)
26. #09 Landon Cassill Chevrolet + 7 laps Running (0pts)
27. #47 Bobby Labonte Toyota + 11 laps Running (17/0 pts)
28. #71 Hermie Sadler Chevrolet + 12 laps Running (0pts)
29. #9 Marcos Ambrose Ford + 13 laps Running (15/0 pts)
30. #36 Dave Blaney Chevrolet + 14 laps Running (14/0 pts)
31. #78 Regan Smith Chevrolet + 24 laps Running (13/0 pts)
32. #66 Michael McDowell Toyota + 30 laps Running (12/0 pts)
33. #34 David Gilliland Ford + 32 laps Running (11/0 pts)
34. #14 Tony Stewart Chevrolet + 38 laps Running (10/0 pts)
35. #21 Trevor Bayne Ford + 40 laps Running (0pts)
36. #13 Casey Mears Toyota + 43 laps Running (8/0 pts)
37. #38 Travis Kvapil Ford after 443 laps Drive Shaft (0pts)
38. #27 Paul Menard Chevrolet after 261 laps Overheating (6/0 pts)
39. #4 Kasey Kahne Toyota after 219 laps Accident (6/1 pts)
40. #56 Martin Truex Jr. Toyota after 219 laps Accident (4/0 pts)
41. #46 J.J. Yeley Chevrolet after 33 laps Brakes (3/0 pts)
42. #60 Mike Skinner Toyota after 31 laps Brakes (0pts)
43. #87 Joe Nemechek Toyota after 25 laps Brakes (0pts)


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