Kansas Speedway is hardly a new venue for the NASCAR touring show, but the timing of the STP 400 here certainly is: it's Kansas' first time as a summertime event instead of just an autumnal spot in the chase, and as a result the first time Kansas has two spots on NASCAR calendar.
That led to a few questions coming in: how would the track be? It's pretty slick even in the autumn, but in the stifling heat of the afternoon Kansas summer sun putting air temperatures into the 90s it could be even worse. And how would the attendance hold up with two calls on the region's fanbase?
The heat did deter a few ticketholders from showing up, but a crowd of 80,000 (in a facility with capacity for 83,000 including 10,000 in the infield area) was still an impressive start. "It was a little warmer than we would have liked for the fans," track president Pat Warren said. "At any given point in the race, when I was in the grandstands, there were several thousand people trying to get out of the heat under the grandstands. That's not ideal."
They were there to watch Kurt Busch lead the field to the green flag at 1.18pm on Sunday afternoon, and if the heat on the grandstand was a problem then spare a thought for the drivers, who were seeing in-car temperatures in the 140s during the day and comparing the situation to sitting in a sauna in a full firesuit for three hours. Just as well Kimi Raikkonen wasn't about for this one; even hardened southerner Dale Earnhardt Jr. was heard to radio to his pit crew "I'll be surprised if this heat don't get me. It's pretty damn hot," during the afternoon's proceedings.
While Busch led the field past the green flag, it was Juan Montoya who claimed the lead at the end of the first lap when Kurt ran up too high, then Kyle Busch took over before Montoya claimed it back again. It wasn't until lap 18 that Kurt finally got to lead a race lap, having been complaining that the #22 was super-tight at the start. Advised to take to the lower groove by his spotter who had seen it work for Montoya, Kurt did just that and instantly was feeling much the better for it, although he still wanted loosening up at the first opportunity.
Once installed into the lead, Kurt kept it until lap 44 which is the point when he came in for the first green flag pit stop of the day. Behind him, Montoya and Carl Edwards were battling over second place, while further back the big movers were Jimmie Johnson (up to 16th by lap 38 after starting 31st), Jeff Gordon (up to 10th by lap 22 from 22nd) and Brad Keselowski (up to 17th by lap 27 from 25th on the grid); those dropping back included Brian Vickers, Joey Logano and Martin Truex Jr. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was seemingly resolutely stuck in around 25th place.
Kyle Busch's attempts to put the off-track distractions of Richard Childress
behind him weren't really coming together; he got into wall after the first round of pit stop and pronounced over the team radio that he had "killed" the car. He'd keep going, but a win was perhaps now too much to realistically hope for.
The first caution came on lap 68 for debris, and the top five at the restart consisted of Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Juan Montoya; but the Colombian was off the pace at the restart and quickly fell back to the bottom of the top ten, while the double-file restart saw Kyle join his brother Kurt in leading the race in a Busch 1-2 for a time until Carl Edwards decided he wanted past both of them and duly took the lead on lap 84.
Edwards was still leading when the second caution of the day came out on lap 110 for a carelessly discarded water bottle, and the field came in for some pit stops under the caution: Kyle Busch emerged first from pit road, but soon dropped back at the restart as first Denny Hamlin and then Tony Stewart got past him.
But the track was quickly back under caution on lap 119 when Landon Cassill swiped the wall hard, causing a lot of right-side damage to the #51 that would see him stuck in the garage for over 70 laps. He'd been assisted into the wall by contact from behind by Marcos Ambrose, who sustained only minor front damage from the incident.
None of the leaders needed to return to pit road at this point, so when the green flag came out it was Denny Hamlin, Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon and Carl Edwards in the lead as they neared half-distance for the afternoon. And further back down the field, Dale Earnhardt Jr. had managed to quietly improve to 14th place.
This was not to be a good stint for Montoya, who got up into the wall without causing a caution; or for Kyle Busch who was sliding back down the running order and looking as though he was going to drop out of the top ten entirely, momentarily battling for position alongside Kevin Harvick - but fortunately without incident between them: Rowdy just didn't need that sort of extra headache today.
Stewart had passed Hamlin for the lead and started to stretch his legs out in front when the fourth caution of the afternoon came out on lap 152: it was for Earnhardt Jr., who had got loose and spun sideways but fortunately managed to keep it off the wall.
"I spun out there that one time trying to find some speed," he said later. "Just trying to get a little too much there and lost track position." He blamed the #88 team's inability to qualify well for putting them under too much pressure to make up places: "We shouldn't have run second again. We've got to fix some things. We've got fast cars so we can be fast," he said. "Just started way back there in the back, man. We ain't qualified no better than 22nd besides Daytona and Talladega. We need to fix that somehow." In the meantime he was lucky to still be in one piece and in the race, even if that spin had sent him to the back of the lead lap and given up all those hard-earned places.
Hamlin came out top in the pit lane, and Kyle Busch's phenomenal #18 crew once again boosted their man's position on track as they have so many times before: come the restart on lap 157 it was Hamlin, Stewart, Kurt and Kyle and then Jeff Gordon in fifth place.
The green lasted only four laps but it was enough for Kurt and Jeff to make a power play for 1-2 that came off beautifully before a fifth caution on lap 161 for debris in turn 3. It seemed that Hamlin had suffered some rear bumper damage in that brief tussle and he was alone in taking to pit road to have the bodywork sorted out, dropping to 21st as a result before the track went green again on lap 165.
Despite there being just over 100 laps left in the race, it turned out that this had been the last caution of the afternoon and that the race would run green all the way to the chequered flag from here on: that would put pressure on pit crews under the remaining pit stops, while crew chiefs would get caught out by the lack of yellows when it came to plotting fuel strategies.
Once again it was a less than stellar stint for Kyle Busch, who dropped back again, lost another brief battle to Kevin Harvick, and then got demoted to ninth when he was overtaken by Brad Keselowski on lap 194. Keselowski's Penske team mate Kurt Busch had run away in front, but by the time a round of pit stops beckoned Kurt was being reeled in by Jeff Gordon.
Those first to pit were in on lap 201, and it seemed impossible that they could make their fuel last to the end so a second splash-and-dash was inevitable. Kurt Busch surrendered the lead to Tony Stewart on lap 205 and still seemed too far off the fuel window; Brad Keselowski had an outside chance of making it by pitting on lap 210 while Tony Stewart pitting a lap later clearly had every intention of giving it a go.
But suddenly it was Denny Hamlin looking very much as though he'd lucked into a potentially race-winning situation thanks to that late return to pit lane with rear bodywork damage under the last caution. It meant he was the last to pit on lap 215 along with Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jamie McMurray and Ryan Newman and that meant that they should have enough gas to make it the final 52 laps. Just.
The pit stops having finished cycling through, Kurt Busch was back in the lead well ahead of Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth - and Tony Stewart now in sixth place, arguably the top-placed driver with an outside chance of making it to the finish, although really he needed a yellow or two to make the fuel stretch.
And there was no yellow. The laps continued ticking down, but the fuel situation was now slowly tipping over from "borderline" to "critical" to "no chance". Even Brad Keselowski, who had pitted later than most and was now up to seventh place despite running in fuel conservation mode, was being told over his radio that he was about three-quarters of a lap short on gas.
Meanwhile Denny Hamlin might not have any fuel headaches, but his handling was shot and he was trundling around in a disappointing 13th position hoping that the strategy situation would swing it for him in the end after all. Earnhardt Jr, who had pitted with him, was tracking him back in 16th - hoping to stalk him all the way to the finish and hopefully ambush him before the chequered flag when everyone else had fallen away into pit road.
Various pit strategies played out as we hit the final 25 laps of the race. Kevin Harvick was one of the first to come in on lap 242 for fuel and two tyres; Greg Biffle took four, both of them hoping that the fresh rubber would help them mack up positions while everyone else ran to the very edge of their fuel window in the hope of a late caution. Clint Bowyer, Paul Menard and Jeff Burton came in on lap 245; David Ragan and Carl Edwards pitted on lap 247.
By lap 250 there were only six cars left on the lead lap: Kurt Busch in the lead followed by Tony Stewart, Brad Keselowski, Brian Vickers, Denny Hamlin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Hamlin and Earnhardt had enough fuel to make it to the end; Kurt certainly didn't; Stewart was being told he was a lap short on fuel. That left Keselowski very much on the bubble as well, as the car that had come in a lap earlier than the #14. Could Brad win it for Penske or would the cars behind be able to catch and pass him with their fuel being less marginal?
Vickers came in with 15 laps to go, and Stewart opted to pit early on lap 255, then on lap 258 it was Kurt Busch's turn to come into the pits for fuel; he'd led 152 laps out of the 267 lap race distance, but he was going to be denied the win at the last gasp. Worse, when the #22 returned to the track it turned out that it had been pushed too far on that last tank of gas: the carburettor had run dry just as Busch was dropped off the jack, causing the engine to stutter and sputter around the track apron for the better part of a whole lap before the fuel line refilled with adequate pressure. Kurt finally got up to speed, but he would drop to ninth place by the end of the race, which was an undeserved bitter end to a fabulous race from Kurt.
"I'm proud of the way that this team has run," Busch insisted after the race. "To have a car to lead laps today and be very competitive, I was all smiles ... It was great. There was always something in the back of my mind today that we weren't going to win." He added: "It's just one of those days where you're on the right side, sometimes you're not. For all my guys, we'll take this one and the points. I'm not discouraged at all."
Kurt had been a massive 20s ahead of his fuel-critical Penske team mate Brad Keselowski when he came in, with ten laps left to run. Earnhardt Jr had pulled off his plan of ambushing Hamlin for second place and was now giving chase to the #2 car, cutting almost a second a lap off Keselowski's lead so that by the time the two hit the white flag Brad's lead was just 3.5s.
How Dale - and the whole of Junior Nation - must have been hoping that it was karma payback time. After losing out last week to Kevin Harvick after he himself had run out of gas, surely it was Earnhardt's turn to be on the fortunate receiving end: he was hoping with all his might that Keselowski would run dry or have to drop so far off the pace that Earnhardt himself could then pull off a Harvick-esque "steal" off the last corner.
The last corner came, went - and Keselowski still had enough gas to keep going, and sufficient pace to take the chequered flag 2.813s ahead of Earnhardt. Once again, the #88 would be the bridesmaid but not the bride, as Dale's winless streak upped to 106 Cup races.
"It all worked out at the end, and they talk about you when you're in Victory Lane," Keselowski said, celebrating his second Cup win in 66 starts. "That's all that matters." It's Penske's 67th series victory but their first in what had been an underwhelming 2011 season so far - but Kansas definitely shows signs of perking up for both their drivers.
"I didn't know I was leading until two laps to go," Keselowski added. "Kind of stretched my neck out, barely caught the scoring pylon to see I was leading. I was instantly mad at my guys for not telling me, but you get over that pretty quick when you cross the start/finish line first!"
Keselowski even had the fuel in reserve to run a victory lap and do a burnout, while Earnhardt and Hamlin confessed that the fuel handling had been tough for them, too, despite their having pitted later.
"I give him a lot [of credit]," Earnhardt said. "I don't know what his situation was, I don't know if it was the same as ours, but he obviously had to save a little more than we did, I think. But anytime you win a fuel mileage race you've done something as a driver."
"I think those guys had extremely good fuel mileage," agreed Hamlin. "They obviously worked on it. He did a great job to save."
Hamlin held onto third, just a tenth of a second ahead of Jeff Gordon who was the highest finisher of that leading pack that had tried to stay out as long as possible. "We were just trying to maintain second and see what the pit strategy was going to be," said Gordon. "We played it to the best that we possibly could. If I hadn't been quite so free, I might have been able to get to third. But all in all, a great top-five [and] a great day in the points for us."
The win puts Keselowski in with a chance of getting into the Chase on the "wild car" introduced this season - but to be eligible for that, he'll need to be in the top 20. Even after this week's victory, he's still outside that in 21st position, 7pts behind Paul Menard. It means there's work to do to keep the Chase dream alive, but for the first time for Keselowski this year there's light at the end of the tunnel to guide his way.