Denny Hamlin has come close to winning in 2011, only for it to fall apart at the last minute because of fuel issues, pit calls or problems with pit stops. What he needed was one race without all those frustrating niggles: and this weekend in the Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips 400, he and the #11 team finally got exactly that.
Hamlin was starting from tenth position for the 400 mile race at the 2-mile at Michigan International Speedway oval, a significant improvement on his 2010 starting position when he went on to win the race regardless - an ominous sign for the rest of the field. Up ahead, Kurt Busch leading the field to green from his third consecutive pole position for Penske Racing alongside David Reutimann. Joey Logano had been sent to the back of the field after making an engine change overnight.
One driver who has never felt comfortable at Michigan is the reigning Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, and after qualifying a rather lowly 21st he then managed to spin the #48 on lap eight to bring out the first caution of the afternoon as he got caught in a three-wide out of turn 2 that sent the car loose and skidding sideways into the infield where he blew out three of his four tyres but managed to keep it off the wall, although he soon found that his sway bar was broken and needed urgent repair, putting him two laps down.
Surprisingly given how early in proceedings this was, the leaders opted to come in. Crew chief Jimmy Fennig told his driver "A lot of guys are going to do two tyres but I think we should do four," but Matt Kenseth opted to go with the majority view of just two tyres at this stage. David Ragan was forced into a second pit stop after making contact with Dale Earnhardt Jr. in pit lane, and Regan Smith also had problems that forced a long delay in the pits.
By contrast, Ryan Newman opted to stay out and duly inherited the lead on the race track, but then promptly spun his tyres at the restart and caused all sorts of four- and five-wide chaos behind him and allowed Greg Biffle and Kurt Busch to move briskly past him into the lead.
A second yellow came out on lap 26 when Robby Gordon spun in turn 3 and hit the wall, which allowed the leaders to came back in for new pit stops. Greg Biffle and Kurt Busch resumed in the lead while Kyle Busch had worked his way up to third ahead of Matt Kenseth; Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr were also safely in the top ten in seventh, ninth and tenth respectively.
Kenseth worked his way up to second - and Biffle even kindly allowed his team mate to lead a lap for the bonus point - before the next round of pit stops commenced under green on lap 60. Biffle and Kenseth resumed in the top positions followed by Kyle Busch - brother Kurt starting to lose touch and falling back now - but Kenseth was furious when his pit crew sheepishly came onto the radio to inform him that they hadn't managed to get all the fuel they needed on board and he would be stopping early next time around, much as happened just the other week at Texas.
In fact a blown tyre for Brad Keselowski sending the #2 into the wall on lap 84 made the fuel issue moot as everyone was able to come in next time around under yellow, although Kenseth's longer stop did drop him down to eighth which took a few laps to redress. Biffle still had the lead at the restart, but on the stroke of the midway point he suddenly found Kyle Busch's advances could no longer be held off and the #18 took over control of the race.
Busch's strong run was odd considering Kyle himself was feeling rather poorly, to the point where the team readied standby driver Scott Riggs to take over. Kyle was complaining of chest pains and difficulty breathing - alarming symptoms to say the least - and all crew chief Dave Rodgers could do was dose his driver up with Tums antacids and water.
"I don't know what it was," he said. "Just a centre chest pain I had early in the race. It was really hard to breathe. Couldn't tell you what it was, I've never felt that before ... It was just hard to breathe. I had to take real short breaths. Felt like I was running a 400-mile marathon, which essentially I was. But I felt like I was running on my feet instead of in a race car."
Even so, it was clear that they would have to prise the steering wheel of the #18 out of Kyle's cold, dead hands before he was going to give up. And he wasn't about to hand the lead back to Greg Biffle anytime soon, either. The next round of pit stops commenced on lap 117 (the only drama being Brad Keselowski nearly skidding straight through his pit box) and once everyone had been through pit road it was still Kyle who led the field by some 1.2s over Biffle. He would eventually lead 59 of the 200 laps, but still not quite good enough to take the bonus for most laps led - that went to Biffle who had clocked up 68 laps in the lead in the first half of the race, but none in the second half.
All the signs were that this was coming down to a fuel conservation strategy battle, and the cars that were forced into the pits for fuel from lap 150 - kicked off by Jamie McMurray - weren't going to be able to make it the full remaining 50 laps to the end. Kasey Kahne stayed out until lap 155 but that proved to be a huge mistake, the #4 running completely dry and coughing to a dead stop in the pit box, which meant frantic efforts to feed in gas into the fuel lines to get the engine re-fired - a process that kept Kahne in pit lane for a torturous whole minute. His Red Bull team mate Brian Vickers was in next time around and narrowly escaped a similar fate.
It could have been worse. And for Juan Montoya it was, as he suddenly ran dry just as he passed the entry point for pit lane. The #42 abruptly slowed up, and then Andy Lally came screaming off turn 4 at race speed and simply wasn't expecting a slow car that high up on the track and ran straight into the back of him. Montoya was sent spinning through the grass (and, ironically, onto pit road after all) which Lally had a seriously crumpled front end and an engine that shouldn't be in that many pieces.
That brought out the fourth caution of the afternoon and interrupted the in-progress sequence of pit stops; Biffle had already been in but now got his lap back, while Kenseth had also been in and just managed to stay on the lead lap, and now took advantage of the opportunity that presented itself to come in for a quick top-up and emerge in the lead, with an eye to making it all the way to the finish in 40 laps' time in fuel conservation mode.
Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch led the field to the green flag on lap 163 but it was Carl Edwards who got the best start and blew by both of them to take the lead, looking very strong indeed as did Denny Hamlin who slotted into second place ahead of Kenseth who had suffered some wheel spin at the get-go. But just about everyone was studying their fuel gauges very nervously - the leading pair figured they could just about make it all the way to the end, but most couldn't without a caution. And a green/white/chequered extended finish would screw up literally everyone.
Where was that vital caution? Kevin Harvick nearly caused it by getting up high and scraping along the wall in the final 20 laps, but NASCAR stubbornly refused to even twitch at bringing out a caution. Nor did they when Mark Martin drifted up high on the track toward the wall without realising that his Hendrick team mate Dale Earnhardt Jr. - who had already been into the wall earlier in the race and required some pit lane attention to sort out the damage - was working to recover his position and using the outside line to come past; Martin pinched him against the wall and Dale made contact with front right of the #88 against the concrete but was able to continue. Again it seemed that the caution had been avoided as there was no debris that required a yellow.
But that changed a few laps later: the impact against the wall had caused some bodywork damage to the #88 which in turn led to a cut right front tyre, and on lap 191 Dale was into the wall again - this time seriously enough to bring out the fifth and final caution of the afternoon.
Dale was furious with his team mate: "If the tables were turned, I'd have been smarter and given him plenty of room," said Dale. "He's older than me, been racing forever, he's forgot more stuff than I'll ever know. But still, I take better care of people [on the track] than that."
"It was an accident. We had an accident," said Martin, somewhat bemused by Dale's heat over the incident. "I had my front wheels cut and I let off the gas, and that's all I could do at that point ... It was my mistake."
Later, the two talked it over and Dale was calmer. "I feel better," he said, adding that "Mark wouldn't lie to me." He went on: "He got tight off the corner – I had the same thing happen to me [earlier.] I can't tell when he's pushing... He was out of the gas, wasn't nothing he could do."
The caution gave everyone a chance to pit, and no one - even those who had earlier thought they might be able to make it all the way - was willing to risk trying to make it to the end without refuelling, especially with the dreaded prospect of a green/white/chequered still in the air. The question now was: who would come out in the lead with control of the race at the restart?
It was Denny Hamlin, the first time he had led all afternoon, although in the process he had nearly collected one of his pit crew and taken him along for the ride for the final eight laps. Still, no harm done - and more importantly, no foul or penalty was handed down.
Hamlin got a great start when the green came out, while Kenseth - still not the best at restarts - needed a boost from his Roush Fenway team mate Carl Edwards to propel him back into second spot. "I got a bad restart, and Carl pushed me back to clean air, which was real nice of him, and I got back to Denny, but I couldn't get around him," confirmed Kenseth. Behind them, Kyle Busch got a predictably flying start and jumped from sixth past Edwards into third place.
Kenseth pushed for all he was worth for those last eight laps, but Hamlin seemed to just about have him covered whether he tried the high line or the low. But proof - if any were needed - that Kenseth was pulling out all the stops to take the win was clear in the way he slid in the past run through turn 4 and practically lost the back end to go skidding into the infield, only to just catch it in time and keep it pointing in the right direction to retain second place ahead of Kyle and Paul Menard who had just edged Carl for fourth.
After so many near-misses in recent races, Hamlin was jubilant at finally clinching his first win in 2011 and his 17th Cup career victory in 202 starts - which puts him into the Cup points top ten for the first time since Vegas.
"We got it done. Everyone knows that we've been strong. Today we didn't look as strong as what we normally do here, but we got it working there at the end," he said in victory lane. "We made a magic adjustment, and the car took off. This is the point of the season where we really need to start hitting our stride, and hopefully we've got another good 10 weeks before the Chase starts."
Considering Kenseth came a strong second place, you'd expect the #17 team to be reasonably happy with their days work, but they looked as crest-fallen as a newly-neutered mongrel. "I'm really happy we ran second, don't get me wrong," Kenseth said. "But it's frustrating when you think you have a car that's capable of winning and you don't win with it."
His crew chief, Jimmy Fennig, also thought they should have been in with a better chance of a win. "It was a fuel mileage deal and we're not getting the best fuel mileage," he said. "So that more or less cost us the whole event, because if we could've raced at the end instead of trying to save gas."
Kenseth couldn't understand why time and again the #17 is either left waiting on fuel or leaving the pit box short-filled. "Everyone has the same piece of equipment to work with. I don't think we have an equipment problem, I think we have a problem getting it plugged in right away and making the [fuel can] exchange fast enough.
"We're getting our tires changed so much faster than the fuel," he continued. "Everybody else on pit road doesn't seem to be waiting for fuel. We drop the jack before it's full. I think that's a problem we have to keep working on internally, I don't think that's a rule or NASCAR problem ... That's up to us to figure out how to do that as good or better than everybody else."
In the Cup standings, Johnson's early misfortune left him mired down in 27th place by the end. "We lost a couple laps from that and we were just kind of in a hole at that point and couldn't get caught back up," Johnson said.
Combined with Carl Edwards' return to top five form after last week's anomaly, that means all the ground that the #48 had made up on the #99 goes right out the window - and indeed, Johnson even drops three places in the points standing to fifth, being displaced by Kevin Harvick, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kyle Busch.
One driver not affected by the Cup points battle is Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne, back in the Wood Brothers' #21 for the first time since April, returning from his extended medical leave for an undiagnosed inflammatory condition. He had an uneventful race to finish in a satisfactory 16th place, and was just happy to be proved match-fit again after taking part in both the Cup and Nationwide events this weekend.
"I feel fine, so I'm ready and I'm back, and it was good to finally get back in the Cup car," Bayne said, explaining that he'd lost time on pit road in the early stages. "It wasn't too bad for our first run back there ... This team is doing a really great job this year."Full times and positions