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Kenseth out-thinks Johnson and Edwards

16 May 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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