This weekend's STP 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Kansas Speedway looked to be a lock for Michael Waltrip Racing's Martin Truex Jr. - but just when it seemed like a done deal, Denny Hamlin materialised to deny Truex a famous and much-needed victory in the closing laps.
Much of the race had been run under heavy cloud cover over the 1.5-mile oval, and the gloomy conditions suited Truex down to the ground. By contrast, Hamlin's sudden surge for the lead through turn 4 on lap 237 came just as the sun broke through and just after the final round of green flag pit stops. The combination of warmer weather and new tyres was just the tonic that Hamlin's #11 needed to grasp the race away from the winner-presumptive.
"I don't know what happened with that last set of tyres, they were terrible," said Truex after the race. "I couldn't go at all, was just dead sideways, wrecking. At the end of the run, I was back to being okay again, but by then he had already passed me and clean air is everything."
Polesitter AJ Allmendinger had earlier led the race to the green flag for the first 44 laps, but all the while he was cruising in front with Kevin Harvick there was ominous signs that Truex Jr. was implacably on the move up from sixth place. He'd dispatched Harvick for second by the time the first round of green flag pit stops came up around lap 45, and used the visit to pit lane to leap frog himself into the lead for the first time of the day. Allmendinger got held up by Greg Biffle exiting his pit box, and AJ's challenge ended more terminally soon after with problems with the throttle housing on the Penske #22.
The race proved to be a remarkably smooth affair, a total of three cautions (for 18 laps) the lowest seen at Kansas. Two of those were for debris, while the first of them on lap 53 was for a spin by Truex's MWR team mate Clint Bowyer in turn 4. Clint would be able to resume, but then had his engine finally let go on lap 139 to end his day for good.
"It was just a major bummer, I'm really upset — I just wish it wouldn't have happened here," said Bowyer. "This is the nature of the beast, unfortunately this happens from time to time ... It just wasn't our day. We'll regroup and go back after it in Richmond."
After that caution, Truex led Harvick, Kasey Kahne, Brad Keselowski and Hamlin to the green flag, which was a messy, nail-biting affair after Harvick spun his wheels and Hamlin dived down to go three-wide at the restart. Somehow it managed not to be a major wreck, although Kyle Busch made an impression on the rear quarter panel of Greg Biffle's car in the ensuing bumps.
Truex took off and left Harvick and Kahne tangling over second place. Kahne was the first of three Hendrick cars at the front, with Jimmie Johnson in fourth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. a strong sixth. The final member of the squad - which was still seeking Hendrick's 200th team Cup series win - was Jeff Gordon in 12th place.
The next round of green flag pit stops just before the century mark, and saw Kasey Kahne and Kevin Harvick run dry before they could get onto pit road while Jimmie Johnson's crew had an issue with lug nuts. After the pit stops had cycled through, Truex's lead was now up to nine seconds over Denny Hamlin: Hamlin was soon displaced from second spot by Matt Kenseth on lap 116, who tried his best to cut the gap to the leader but made little impression.
The first of the day's two debris cautions came on lap 132, just before the halfway point of the race. Truex was still in front ahead of Kenseth and Hamlin, while Johnson was back up to fourth ahead of Earnhardt Jr. With Kenseth dropping back, the restart proved to be Johnson's best chance of challenging for the lead as he blasted past Hamlin on lap 156 and then tightened right up on the back of Truex seeking a way past - which Truex made sure simply wasn't there, even when the leaders started to hit slower traffic.
That took the race through to another round of green flag pit stops which did little to change the order at the front which remained Truex ahead of Johnson, Hamlin, Earnhardt and Kenseth. But a couple of laps after the stops had been concluded, Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing's Juan Pablo Montoya slapped the wall: it didn't bring out an immediate caution, but debris from the incident forced a yellow on lap 187.
With the caution coming so soon after the most recent round of stops, most the leaders all stayed out on track preferring position to fresh tyres, although Johnson and Greg Biffle were among those to come in. Truex proved the efficacy of his decision to stay out once again immediately pulling out at the front at the restart, soon over a second ahead of the second place man which was now Hamlin once more.
There were no more cautions to come during the race, although Tony Stewart tapped the wall on lap 207 and Jeff Gordon started losing his engine on lap 238, finally getting black flagged by NASCAR before he could blow up and deposit fluids all over the track. Mark Martin's engine also gave up the ghost just a dozen laps form the end of the race, and Kurt Busch also suffered late engine heartbreak in the Phoenix Racing car. Chilly conditions were said to be putting extra strain on the engine units on the demanding Kansas oval.
No cautions meant that the final round of pit stops were another scramble under green: Truex came in on lap 223 with Greg Biffle for their final stops, a lap after Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson had come in. They were in turn a lap longer than Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kevin Harvick. Sam Hornish Jr. was the last man to come onto pit road ten laps later, which finally handed the race lead back to Truex.
But Truex's tyres suddenly weren't nearly as good on this stint, and when the cloud cover broke and the track suddenly started to enjoy the warmth of the sun for the first time it was Hamlin's car responded better to the changing conditions. Suddenly Truex's peerless form all afternoon evaporated. Hamlin was right on the back of him, and on lap 237 he took the lead.
"Denny was able to get by me, and once he did, the race was over," summed up a dismayed Truex. "To put tyres on and touch the car and all of a sudden the car drives worse than it has all day, it is pretty frustrating."
"I felt like our car lost a lot of grip when the sun came out," admitted Hamlin. "But I guess a lot of guys did when that happened ... In overcast conditions, the cars run a little bit tighter, the grip level's higher in the race car, and it's more of a track-position type race. When the sun's out, the drivers, in my opinion, are more prominent.
"You move around, find the grip, do things in the car to make up for what you don't have. The slicker the conditions are, the better," said Hamlin. "Luckily, we had that run in sunshine ... I felt like all day I was behind the #56, and his car looked so superior to the field," added Hamlin. "I knew that he was driving his heart out as well as I was driving mine."
Hamlin certainly didn't feel that he had it in the bag once he hit the front, either: "Once I got to the lead, I felt like I got a little bit complacent mainly on corner entry, just being careful," he recalled. "But, what got me the lead was driving hard, and so I needed to get back to that, and that's kind of where we were able to stretch it out."
Hamlin succeeded in pulling away by almost a second over the next 20 laps, but in the final ten Truex was reeling him back in again and had two attempts to dive under Hamlin through turn 3 in the final three laps, while Jimmie Johnson was well back from the battle and just a spectator in third.
"I was a little bit faster than Denny at the end, but he was running against the wall right where I needed to be, and I was just trying to gain a little bit of ground," said Truex. "It was desperation, last-ditch effort, just trying something. There was no chance to make it work."
Despite holding on to second as the chequered flag came out, Truex couldn't conceal his feelings. "I guess if we can be this disappointed with second, it kind of shows how far we've come as a race team," he said.
And at least if Michael Waltrip Racing ha to lose to anyone else, it was to Joe Gibbs Racing, their Toyota stable-mate with whom they have close technical ties this season.
It's the 199th win for the #11 car in the history of the Cup series, with previous drivers making it to victory lane including Cale Yarborough, Ned Jarrett, Darrell Waltrip, Bill Elliott - and a win apiece for Indy 500 champions AJ Foyt, Mario Andretti and Parnelli Jones.
Soon after the chequered flag, and once the victory lane celebrations ended and the crowds and the Sprint Cup team haulers had departed, an eerie change came over Kansas Speedway as a different set of engines fired up on pit road.
Bulldozers began moving in to begin the massive repaving project on the 1.5-mile track surface that will add new variable banking to the circuit for future events. Many drivers had been unhappy to learn of the upcoming repaving, but track president Pat Warren took the media for a tour of the venue over the weekend and pointed out where the asphalt was breaking up. No question, it had to be done.
Penske Racing's Brad Keselowski got to lead the heavy machinery out to begin work - in a military tank, going some 110mph slower than his usual mode of transport here. Naturally - being Keselowski - the whole thing was tweeted, with pictures and video released via social media.
It was nonetheless a sad and poignant moment for the venue, which will never be quite the same again.Full race results
and Sprint Cup championship standings