The 2011 Chase for the Sprint Cup is proving thoroughly unpredictable and exciting - even if some of the individual races themselves have stubbornly refused to spark into life at times.
This week it was Jimmie Johnson who suddenly rebounded from a lacklustre start to the Chase by dominating the Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway, a race which ran for a long green flag stretch and looked about to settle into yet another fuel conservation finish, before a late sequence of yellow flags and a final green-white-chequered finish brought the event to life at last.
Greg Biffle had taken pole in qualifying and led the field to the green flag on Sunday afternoon for the fourth race of the Chase, with Carl Edwards alongside him on the front row. Once underway, Edwards immediately started falling back while Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart were notably on the move in the right direction.
A frontstretch spin by Bobby Labonte brought out the first caution on lap 20 and all the cars took advantage of the early opportunity to pit - including Jimmie Johnson, although he opted for two tyres only at this point and duly picked up eight spots and took the restart in the lead ahead of Matt Kenseth, Marcos Ambrose, Kurt Busch and Greg Biffle. Johnson led for the next 16 laps before Kenseth came on strong and settled in to a comfortable lead of his own which he was able to keep almost to the next round of green flag pit stops, after which the momentum swung back once more in Johnson's direction.
A short debris caution on lap 85 allowed Kyle Busch to win the race off pit lane and lead for a while, but it was a bad stop for Edwards who had sunk back to 19th before the stop and was now in 25th after the #99 crew threw everything short of the kitchen sink into the battle to revive the car's performance. Once Jimmie Johnson reclaimed the lead on lap 94, he was evidently moving in for the duration: with the exception of just three laps during the next three pit stop cycles he would stay in the lead right through to lap 220 which included a short third caution for debris on lap 206 after a 116-lap green flag stint.
The caution immediately put paid to the huge 12s lead that the #48 had been sitting on. Johnson had just put a lap on Kurt Busch, who accordingly got the free pass; that was bad news for Carl Edwards who had been desperately hoping to be leading the lapped cars and pick up the lucky dog for himself. It was looking a grim day for the #99 at this point.
On lap 210, Johnson led Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch, Greg Biffle and Brad Keselowski to the green flag. The big discussion amongst the teams and their drivers was whether they could make it to the end of the race on their current tank of gas. Most decided not, even with a late top-off and excessive fuel conservation - not even a few more caution flags would probably be enough. And another caution was just round the corner, when Landon Cassill went for a spin through the in-field grass on the frontstretch on lap 221. The happiest man on track by far at this was Carl Edwards, who - having missed out under the previous caution - was now able to return to get the free pass back on to the lead lap at long last.
Almost everyone dived into pit lane for that vital extra fuel top-off, but Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick tried something different - Harvick intending to get a lot of fuel-saving push assistance from Austin Dillon, Richard Childress' grandson making his Cup debut this week at Kansas. But NASCAR
stepped in at this point and told Harvick and Dillon to make sure there was clear daylight between them at all times and that push-assistance would not be tolerated. It was a strange out-of-the-blue ruling which - if applied to Daytona
or Talladega - could theoretically transform superspeedway racing if not make it completely impractical. Such are the vagaries of the sanctioning body at times.
With fuel conservation no longer an issue, Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart quickly took over the lead as Kurt struggled on his older tyres. It proved another short green flag run before the return of the yellows on lap 240 for debris. Rapid top-up pit-stops and fresh tyres ensued for some, after which Brad Keselowski was shown as the leader for the restart ahead of Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch and Greg Biffle. It didn't take long for Johnson to pass Keselowski for the lead on lap 245 and once he did he would never be displaced again until the chequered flag.