No one can say that the 2011 TUMS Fast Relief 500 was a dull affair: with 18 cautions over the course of almost four hours of running on the half-mile "paperclip" oval in Martinsville, Virginia, fortunes waxed and waned over the course of 500 laps as fast and dramatically as a nosebleed-inducing rollercoaster.
In the end, Tony Stewart would emerge from the mayhem as the main challenger to Carl Edwards in the Sprint Cup battle. And having written off his title chances as recently as a month ago, now there was no such modesty from Smoke: "He'd better be worried," said Stewart, referring to Edwards. "That's all I can say. He's not going to have an easy three weeks ... We're going to go after him!"
Carl Edwards himself had provided much of the drama during the afternoon. The Chase leader had started from pole position after rain washed out the Friday practice and Saturday qualifying sessions, leaving the starting grid set by owner points. But from the moment Edwards actually took to the track in the sole practice session on Saturday afternoon it was clear that the #99 just didn't have good pace here, and so it proved when the race itself started and after leading through most of the first 30 laps of the race, Edwards started to slide his way back through the field.
A lengthy pit stop for a stray lugnut issue on lap 199 completed that slide to the back of the lead lap in 25th position, and during one of the rare lengthy green flag periods that followed he came ever closer to going a lap down. When he did, he was saved by an almost immediate caution that handed him the lucky dog free pass back onto the lead lap, but another long green flag stint promptly put him down again and it took a slew of yellows just past the 400-lap mark to put him back on the lead lap a second time, and at last his pit crew appeared to have addressed the handling problems that had been plaguing him all afternoon and the #99 was finally making forward progress.
Shortly afterwards, however, it appeared the final nail in Edwards' coffin had been hammered in when he was served with a black flag for passing before the start line following one of the late cautions - which would put him at least a couple of laps off the lead and well down the running order. The Roush Fenway team appealed, explaining that he had been told
to pass Jeff Burton to get into position for the restart, and the black flag was quickly rescinded.
"Whether or not there was a communication error or what was going on, I appreciate NASCAR looking at it and realising they told me to do what they were black-flagging me for," he said. As if aware of the inevitable conspiracy theories that will break out among NASCAR fans about the incident, Edwards admitted: "It's not very often they rescind the black flag like that."
Handed this "Get Out Of Jail Free" card, Edwards did not squander it and managed to slip into the top ten, effectively having salvaged almost 20pts with the recovery from his dismal mid-race standings.
"That's just a gift to have finished in ninth and have the day we had ... We did not deserve to finish ninth," he agreed after the race. "It's unreal. We were so bad," he continued. " I had become okay with the fact that we were probably gonna finish 20th or 25th. I was thinking already about [the next race at] Texas and how we were gonna have to go there and everything we were gonna do, but my guys stuck with it and we got very, very fortunate."
Instead, the leading pack up front that eventually emerged to dominate much of the race consisted of Kyle Busch (who led the most laps of the day, 126), Jeff Gordon (113 laps in the lead), Jimmie Johnson (61 laps), Denny Hamlin (58) and Matt Kenseth (who only put in three laps in the lead but was constantly lurking in the top four). Kenseth would end up spinning on lap 464 after locking up his brakes, collecting Kyle Busch and Juan Montoya as well as Mark Martin and Joey Logano on the way.
"I don't know what happened with the #18," said Kenseth. "I felt like I left him some room on the outside, but everybody was kind of slow and checked up. I had a run under him and was almost to his door, and all of a sudden we just got together ... I honestly don't know if it was my fault, if I squeezed him or if he came down, because there were some slow cars on the straightaway. But I almost think he must have come down because we hit really hard, and then I must have had a flat tyre and didn't know it. I went into 3 and couldn't steer or couldn't stop it and wrecked all those guys."
It was a disaster for Kenseth's title hopes, after he had come into Martinsville as the main threat to Carl Edwards. While he would get back out on track after repairs, he was 23 laps down and ended up classified in 31st place by the chequered flag which caused him to slump in the championship standings to a near-irretrievable 36pts off Edwards.
Kyle Busch had already been all-but-done with title hopes, and his own trip to pit road would prove even more costly when he exited with only three wheels on his wagon, the end result of which was to leave him seven laps down and in 27th position by the end of the race. "The #17 got into us coming off turn 2, I don't know if he cut his right front [tyre] or not," said Kyle's crew chief Dave Rogers later. "Then he got into turn 3 and the #17 had his tyres locked up and drove into our left-rear quarter.
"It caught Kyle by surprise, and he didn't know he was going to take a shot in the left rear and he did," added Rogers. "We're a victim of circumstance at a short track."
Kenseth's misfortune left Tony Stewart as the nearest challenger to Edwards in the Chase, but Smoke badly needed to take advantage of the situation to close up the gap between him and Edwards in the points if he was to keep the championship battle interesting. Sure enough, he recovered from early poor pace and an unplanned pit stop for a suspected flat tyre to catch up with the leaders during a rush of late-race cautions and put himself up into second position, ready to make a strike for the lead at the end if the opportunity presented itself.
By this point, Jimmie Johnson had taken over in the lead following a caution on lap 457, but it was the result of what looked to be a massive strategic error: the #48 had assumed that everyone would stay out, but instead almost everyone came in for fresh tyres. Johnson's crew chief Chad Knaus immediately realised the situation and wailed that this was another win that they had just screwed up (or words to that effect) - unless Johnson could pull off a miracle and hold back the cars running on fresh rubber.
After two misfire restart attempts (which included the Kenseth/Busch wreck) Johnson finally got his chance to blast away from the field - and he pulled out a huge lead of more than a second in short order that seemed set to take him all the way to victory lane. Unfortunately a final caution on lap 492 for a spinning Brian Vickers (more of whom later) meant that the field was closed up again for one last restart, and it was now that Stewart was in a position to make his own play for the lead, being one of those on newer tyres. He duly took the lead around the outside - "I don't think anybody has ever passed Jimmie Johnson on the outside!" - and when the track stayed green all the way to the end despite a spin for Brad Keselowski at the restart, Stewart was able to claim the chequered flag while Johnson held on to second ahead of Jeff Gordon.
Kevin Harvick finished in fourth place, having bounced around the top ten for much of the afternoon and leading for 35 laps, having recovered from early frustrations with his car. In particular he was cursing the new-specification tyres that Goodyear had supplied, which he accused of giving him little chance of running a second, higher groove until well into the race when more rubber had been laid down on the speedway that had been thoroughly soaked in the preceding two days. He was angered by his Richard Childress Racing team mates who wouldn't let him drop back into the lower groove after restarts. And later he would also mutter vengeful thoughts toward AJ Allmendinger, whom he felt had bumped him unnecessarily - twice! - while passing. He vowed to do the same when he had the opportunity.
Ryan Newman had also led for 28 laps during the day, but two separate contacts with Kurt Busch - on lap 398 and another that led to a more serious spin on lap 475 - as well as contact with Greg Biffle on lap 414 meant that he dropped to the back of the top ten by the chequered flag.
"We got spun there," Newman's crew chief Tony Gibson said of the second Busch incident. "We had fresh tyres and got spun out there and had to go to the back and drove back up to the top ten. I don't know what else you can do. We led laps. It's just frustrating. I am proud we came back and finished tenth, but it isn't what we wanted. We'll just take it and go on."
Newman and Busch's woes were just a small part of the 18 cautions seen at Martinsvile on this sunny, cloudless but chilly autumn Sunday afternoon. The first hundred laps in particular were overloaded with incidents and cautions, and the final hundred laps almost as bad; thank goodness for the middle section of the race proceeding comparatively calmly or else the proceedings would never have been finished before the light started to fade.
The first crash happened as early as lap 8, when Dale Earnhardt Jr. bounced off the kerbing at turn 1 (coloured pink for breast cancer awareness month) and sent Kurt Busch spinning, which also collected Denny Hamlin, Jeff Gordon, AJ Allmendinger, Brian Vickers, Mike Skinner and Jeff Burton. Gordon had some major front-end damage, making his recovery to run with the lead pack for so much of the race all the more remarkable.
"I got caught up in that incident early on," said Gordon. "It looked like Dale Jr. got into the kerb a little bit getting into 1 and we just had nowhere to go ... and I centre-punched him. We're pretty lucky. That right-front brake duct was tore up pretty good and at this place, cooling those brakes is pretty important."
A second caution came out on lap 27 (which replaced a previously-scheduled competition caution) after Dave Blaney spun in turn 3 collecting Regan Smith, and Brian Vickers was also involved for a second time already in the afternoon. It was just the start of a torrid day for the Red Bull Racing driver, as Vickers was also the cause of the third caution on lap 46 when he spun while battling with Montoya, who also suffered some light damage from the accident.
It was David Reutimann's turn to spin in turn 2 on lap 65 for the fourth caution. He collected Martin Truex Jr., Reed Sorenson and Scott Speed. There was some consternation that Vickers had missed out this time, but not to worry, there were plenty more opportunities ahead - and sure enough, it was contact with Vickers that sent Jamie McMurray spinning on lap 85 in turn 3 for the fifth caution.
Caution six on lap 105 was between Marcos Ambrose and Montoya, Ambrose getting turned into the wall by contact and sustaining front-end damage to the #9. After this there was a reasonable 38-lap green flag stretch before Dale Earnhardt Jr. made a move on Joey Logano and sent the #20 into the wall on lap 149. Logano complained that he was heartily sick of this happening to him, but his frustration was given short shrift by veteran crew chief Greg Zipadelli, who responded with words to the effect of "better grow some balls and take care of it."
"We did okay recovering from where we were," said a dejected Logano after the race. "I'm just not happy with the way we performed all day, myself included ... It's pretty disappointing."
Bobby Labonte and Hermie Sadler got together on lap 196 to bring out caution number eight. It was the second incident of the day for Labonte, who had also spun after being bumped by Dave Blaney on lap 98. No caution had come out on that occasion, to the surprise of many fans and media commentators watching the race, who speculated that NASCAR's concerns about getting the race in during daylight hours (Martinsville having no floodlights) might be encroaching into established safety protocols.
After action resumed on lap 203 the race finally enjoyed one of its longest green flag stints, running untroubled for 55 laps, during which Carl Edwards ended up a lap down after being passed by Jeff Gordon. Finally a spin by Mark Martin on the backstretch on lap 258 brought out the caution that handed Edwards his first free pass onto the lead lap.
The next green flag stint lasted almost a hundred laps - it was at this point that Edwards went well and truly off the lead lap - before the tenth caution of the afternoon that resulted from a spin by David Gilliland on lap 361, which put him into the wall at turn 1.
The next caution on lap 398 was the first clash between Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch, with Jeff Burton the bystander who ended up punted into the wall by Busch as a result. It was good news for the field who were able to either take enough gas to put fuel conservation strategies to one side for the day, or else take the wave-around if they needed to recover a lost lap. A 12th caution followed soon after the restart, when Regan Smith got into Mark Martin who then made contact with Hermie Sadler who was sent spinning in turn, and it was this caution that finally handed Edwards a second free pass of the day back onto the lead lap.
The race had barely restarted before the 13th caution - Greg Biffle slamming the wall in turn 2 after contact with Ryan Newman - and the next restart only lasted six laps before Paul Menard and Kurt Busch fell over each other on lap 427; Busch spun and Menard suffered a lot of damage in the aftermath.
Remarkably, despite all the chaos, as the race entered its final 50 laps all 12 Chase runners were on the lead lap and running 17th or better. Even Brian Vickers was still hanging on in there - but on lap 457 it seemed that his luck was finally out and he hit the wall in turn 3 after getting a helping hand from Matt Kenseth. It would not, however, be quite the last we saw of the battle-scarred #83 for the afternoon ...
"Brian just kept hitting me in the door," explained Kenseth of what had led up to the accident. "He just kept driving in harder and harder and he slammed me in the door at least five times and just ran me up in the marbles and I was just tired of it, so I spun him out." He continued, I don't know how you can't pass somebody here without running into him every single time when he gives you the bottom and the fastest lane, but obviously he couldn't!"
The ensuing short-lived restart was the moment that Kenseth locked his tyres and took out Kyle Busch, Juan Montoya et al
on lap 464, and the 17th caution was the rematch between Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman that sent the #39 spinning on lap 475. The restart with 22 laps to go to the finish was the moment that Johnson shot away into a big lead and it looked like he might actually pull off a win despite not having taken up fresh tyres.
Johnson's hopes evaporated with the 18th and final caution (three shy of the track record for yellow flags) of the afternoon on lap 492 - and Brian Vickers was once again the star turn. He had returned to the track to hand out some payback to Matt Kenseth for their earlier encounter, but instead he just ended up spinning himself in the attempt and destroying the #83 for good this time.
In itself this was just a little sideshow, but in bringing out the caution and closing up the field when it did, it had a massive effect on the eventual winner - because with three laps to go, Tony Stewart got past Jimmie Johnson at the restart and went on to claim the win. Stewart had better make sure Vickers is on his Christmas card list this year, since he's already been handed a massive present from the Red Bull stable.
"He was a part of every caution," complained Johnson, who was less impressed. "I wish he could have just driven around the racetrack, and we could have won this thing, but, whatever, we'll move on."
Johnson was particularly unhappy with how he had lost the race because of Vicker's attempt at payback on Matt Kenseth. "When you're on the racetrack and someone wrongs you, you have some decisions to make in how you want to handle that," he said. "After a fourth, fifth time with the same car in the crash, you start thinking about maybe you're the problem ... Something is going on. You're having a bad day. You need to stop crashing, for whatever reason."
Vickers himself left the track without speaking to the media.
Stewart agreed that there were some drivers who needed teaching a lesson out there today - and not just Vickers. "You let a guy get his butt kicked once or twice, he'll quit doing stupid stuff like that. I saw a bunch of it today out there. Luckily we weren't one of the guys that were in the middle of it a lot. I think they ought to get a portable boxing ring. As soon as they get done with the victory celebration, set the boxing ring on the front stretch, give the fans a real show they paid for!"
Once it was time for the restart, there was nothing that Johnson could do to stop Stewart taking over the leap and claiming the win. "I just could not get away from him on the restart ... Tony hung on tough on the outside there and I just couldn't bring myself to lean on him and move him out of the way with where he is in the points. I just kind of raced him clean and then he got around on the outside and got in front of us.
"Jeff probably would have won the race if I would have done it," Johnson added. "I couldn't bring myself to do that. He got by. I tried to be smart. That's typically how I race guys. I don't run over people to get positions."
By the time the fast and furious events of the day were complete, the sun was already low in the sky and dusk beginning to creep in as the clock ticked past 6pm. But they had made it, despite a total of 103 laps run under caution during the day, and it had been Tony Stewart who had stayed out of trouble and run consistently and intelligently enough to be in the lead at the only moment it truly mattered - the finish line.
It was Stewart's third win at Martinsville but his first since the spring of 2006; it's his 42nd Cup win in 461 starts and his third of 2011, all of which have come in the post-season Chase races which is why he's now in second place in the standings just 8pts off the leader, Carl Edwards.
"I don't know anybody that doesn't enjoy being in the middle of it with three weeks to go. It's a great feeling," said Stewart after the race. "You work hard all year to try to be in this position. When you start the Chase off with ten races to go, a lot can happen ... There were guys that may have had their chances taken away today."
Jeff Gordon had lost his Chase hopes long before this weekend, and a top three at Martinsville despite his early crash didn't do anything to change that reality. "We came home third. It was a nice top five for us," he said. "It was pretty fun coming up through there and getting up to the front and leading. It just seemed like the last couple of runs just didn't quite go our way ... We couldn't get into a rhythm with the race, couldn't get it going.
"Seemed like guys were ticked off at one another, driving over their heads, whatever it may be," he continued. "I think it was just one of those crazy days. I don't know. You can't always explain it. Usually, Martinsville does contribute towards that ... Obviously, the #83 had that throughout the whole race!"
Kevin Harvick's fourth place in the race means that he's clawed his way back from the edge of falling out of Chase contention, but he's still 21pts off Edwards with just three races remaining in the season. Harvick's destiny is now largely out of his hands and he just has to hope for disaster to hit Edwards and Stewart: as Martinsville showed, it can absolutely happen.
"It was definitely a battle, everybody was driving hard - that is what you are supposed to do here at Martinsville," said Harvick later. "Just the top [racing line] was tough for me to get going on the restarts. The #14 was really the only one that could make any ground on the restarts and that is what won him the race."
Brad Keselowski is in fourth place in the championship, but he was not happy with events at the end of Martinsville. He spun at the final restart after Earnhardt bumped Hamlin into him, but there was no caution which meant he dropped out of the top ten and ended up 27pts off Edwards in the championship. "That's racing on these short tracks," he said. "At the end we just didn't catch a break. We ended up on the outside for the last few restarts and that wasn't the place to be. That's just this style of racing. You can't control your own fate."
Matt Kenseth is now 36pts off Edwards and Jimmie Johnson has closed slightly to just 43pts away from the leader, but neither can have much hope of being in with a shot for the title now. Everyone else - Kyle and Kurt Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman - is more than 50pts off Edwards and are surely done for 2011.
The next Chase race is at Texas on November 6, after which follows Phoenix on November 13 and finally the season finale at Homestead-Miami on November 21: in just three weeks' time, the winner of the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup championship will most certainly be crowned.
But Edwards knew that he'd dodged a bullet this week, and having survived he was now optimistic about what lay in front.
"This track [Martinsville] has just been really, really tough for me, so I think this is one of those days where everything went wrong and everything went right as well. And fortunately, the timing of all those things worked out," he said. "We'll see what happens at Texas. I feel like we're going to go there and we're going to have as good a shot to win as anyone ... We'll have fun. We'll go race hard. They're going to have to race us, too. I'm excited about the next three races!"
Full race results and positions
Full Sprint Cup standings