This year's Goody's Fast Relief 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup race had been a rather quiet affair, as is usually the case with races held on the half mile Martinsville Speedway - the shortest and slowest of the venues visited by the series over the course of a season.
It had looked like it was going to turn out be a very good day indeed for Hendrick Motorsports, especially Jeff Gordon who had led 328 of the scheduled 500 lap race distance, the most anyone had led at Martinsville since Jimmie Johnson put in 339 laps in front way back in October 2008.
Johnson was at the front on Sunday, too, as was Dale Earnhardt Jr. in a Hendrick 1-2-3; only the latest HMS recruit, Kasey Kahne, was missing from the team line-up as the end of the race approached, his Chevrolet engine having given up around the midway point of the race. It was just typical of the sort of horrible luck the youngster has been having in 2012 so far.
With Gordon taking the lead again with just four laps remaining - just over a minute of racing at these speeds - there was a sudden yellow flag being shown, after David Reutimann stalled his car on the front stretch after having been going slowly for several preceding laps. The Hendrick drivers couldn't believe it: why hadn't Reutimann simply pulled into pit road earlier? It wasn't like he was in any contention by this point of proceedings.
"I would like an explanation on why that happened, from him, his crew chief, somebody," fumed Earnhardt. "I would like to hear a good excuse, to be honest with you, because I'm sure it would be laughable.
"He was running around slow; you got a problem, you ... get down and get on pit road. I don't believe he had any trouble getting down," he added. "It doesn't seem like there could be a logical reason for him to end up stopped on the track."
"The thing quit going down the back straightaway, and it shut off. I didn't just stop there intentionally. I know it sucks. I hate it for everybody that it affected, but I mean I can't get out and push the thing," countered Reutimann afterwards. "It broke a tie rod or something like that. I was just trying to limp around there. We needed to finish the next couple of laps to try to stay in the top 35."
Reutimann is sharing the Tommy Baldwin Racing #10 Cup ride in 2012 with Danica Patrick, and the 35th place finish he ended up with at Martinsville does indeed drop the car out of the all-important top 35 in owner points for the next race. That the car will now have to qualify for each race on speed rather than be guaranteed entry on points: for a rookie like Patrick, that's a potentially huge problem.
They didn't know it yet, but Reutimann's attempt to limp around would end up costing the Hendrick squad the race. They would not be happy with Reutimann - and nor would NASCAR, who summoned the driver and his crew chief to the hauler after the race for a good talking-to about proper etiquette.
But regardless of the post-race ramifications the damage was done, and the race was going into green-white-chequered (GWC) conditions. That meant up to three attempts to restart the race, and providing they made it around one lap to the white flag then whatever flag came out after that (green or yellow) would be treated as the chequered flag and freeze the race positions.
Sounds easy, but while the cars were running around waiting for this GWC finish to take place they were burning fuel. And those cars that had been pushing their fuel consumption to the very limit couldn't afford these extra laps without fearing they were about to run dry at any moment: the front row of Gordon and Johnson in particular.
They were already three laps over the scheduled race distance when the green flag came out for the first GWC finish attempt. But it barely got underway before Clint Bowyer did a banzai dive-bombing move down the inside of the track, making it three-wide with Gordon and Johnson on the front row.
That didn't work out particularly well.
Bowyer nudged Gordon who bumped Johnson, who spun, as did Bowyer himself. And in the confusion that followed, the Stewart-Haas Racing #39 of Ryan Newman followed through in Bowyer's wheel tracks and took the lead before the caution flashed on again.
"It was just a bad situation for everybody," said a contrite Bowyer. "If I didn't go down there, the #39 had already hit me in the rear and he was going to [take the line.] We'd just all run out of real estate and that's the nature of the beast at this place."
“He said he got hit from behind by the #39,” said Gordon. “He came through there with so much speed, there was no way ... I got a good jump, but then I spun the tyres. I knew he was right there. I moved down a little bit but when he just shot down there I guess he got hit from behind. At that point I was just a passenger."
That left the race back under yellow and preparing for another GWC attempt - but it was a restart too far for Jeff Gordon. He was out of gas, leaving the front two rows at the restart consisting of Newman, AJ Allmendinger, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Martin Truex Jr. Matt Kenseth would succeed in ousting Truex from fourth place in the final two laps of the racing.
The win was undoubtedly a sheer stroke of good luck for Newman, who earlier had been hit with a pit road speeding penalty and needed a lucky dog free pass to get back on the lead lap, after the long caution-free runs on the short oval during the afternoon had resulted in the majority of the field being lapped at one stage. Even so, he had to be careful at the final restart not to blow the opportunity that had been handed to him on a silver platter.
"It was really important to me to not spin my tires and get a good start and race AJ and try to eliminate the #88 from the race for the win," he said. And he managed exactly that, being scrupulously fair with Penske Racing's new driver Allmendinger in the process.
"He ran me really clean," said Allmendinger, who had been feeling ill at the start of the day but who was pleased to have hung in there after a trip to the in-field care centre. "He didn't shove me up the race track like he could have. He gave me the opportunity to beat him on the outside there. We were just not turning good enough ... But we had a shot at it. That's all you can ask for."
"I'm ecstatic for Ryan," said Newman's car owner and team mate, reigning cup champion Tony Stewart. "I got to see it on the replay during the caution after all the havoc broke loose. Ryan made an awesome move to the bottom. He was heads up enough to get in the gas and get through that hole before it closed up. He definitely earned this one, for sure."
Stewart himself didn't have quite the same break of luck, but still ended up seventh as his season continued to go comfortingly well. "Unfortunately, we had our worse run of the day the last run of the day. We got behind there and got a lap down, but clawed back to get the lucky dog and rallied back to seventh."
While the last 20 laps into overtime were all high drama, the preceding 495 had been a relatively routine and fairly uneventful affair.
Polesitter Kasey Kahne's luck had deserted him even at the very start when he failed to lead a single lap; instead, Kevin Harvick had gone in front, and for a moment it looked like the Richard Childress Racing driver might repeat his crushing form from the previous day's Camping World Truck Series race. But that wasn't to be and Harvick's pace soon started to fade, leaving Gordon to take the lead through to the first caution of the day on lap 99.
That was for Kyle Busch spinning and finding the wall in turn 3, which sent him to the garage for a period and well off the lead lap by the time he returned. Earlier, Kyle's brother Kurt Busch had also had a moment with a cut tyre but had managed to keep it off the wall and get onto pit road without triggering a caution, and he would be called up on repeat the same feat a second time later in the afternoon.
Gordon led for most of the next green flag stint up to lap 246 when Dave Blaney spun in turn 2. The next restart lasted barely five laps before Juan Montoya spun, and it was this caution that gave a lapped Ryan Newman a free pass back onto the lead lap. When racing resumed on lap 271 it was Gordon leading Bowyer, Earnhardt Jr., Kenseth and Brad Keselowski up front, while further back Marcos Ambrose, Carl Edwards and David Gilliland survived a scary-looking three-wide moment out of turn 4 without incident.
Kasey Kahne's blown engine came on lap 316 causing a lengthy caution for fluid clean-up around the entrance to pit road. "We had a small engine problem that turned into a big one on the backstretch and just shut off and I had oil on my tyres when I hit pit road," he explained. "I just didn't want to oil the whole surface for all the guys out there so I just shot to the pits and it went spinning and it wasn't a big deal because I didn't hit anything luckily."
Racing resumed on lap 329 with Gordon back in front ahead of his team mates Johnson and Earnhardt Jr. followed by Denny Hamlin and Bowyer. Johnson took the lead of the race on lap 356 just before the fifth caution of the day came out for a spin by Travis Kvapil. Denny Hamlin picked up the lead in the ensuing pit stops, but then Jimmie Johnson reclaimed it on lap 393 and led for the next 100 laps.
In total, the Hendrick team mates led for 443 laps during the afternoon - 328 for Gordon, 112 for Johnson and just 3 for Earnhardt Jr. There was clearly no question which team was the absolute class of the field, and there were no other cautions or lead changes until the Reutimann incident unfolded.
"My frustration and certainly Jeff's is to be the class of the field all day long and be up front and have something stupid like this take us out," sighed Johnson after the race. "We want to get this 200th win for Rick real bad and we could have been 1-2 today easily."
"Restarts at Martinsville with old tyres and a green-white-chequered is always going to be exciting and intense," said Gordon. "Rarely does the leader win it!"
And rarely does that seem quite as unjust and undeserved as it does this weekend.Full race results