Jeff Gordon's 2012 fortunes finally turned at Pocono Raceway, when a last minute accident for his Hendrick Motorsports team mate Jimmie Johnson cleared the way for him to leap to the front of the Pennsylvania 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race just minutes before a storm rolled in and forced the race to be red flagged and the result declared.
However, Gordon's victory celebrations were subdued after news was received after lightning hitting the area around Pocono Raceway immediately after the race was called, which resulted in one fan being killed and nine others being injured, one critically. (See separate story
The race had been delayed for almost two hours to allow the track to be dried after earlier rain by the time that polesitter Juan Montoya led the field to the green flag shortly before 3pm local time, with Denny Hamlin in hot pursuit. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kurt Busch were quickly past Marcos Ambrose and busy duelling over third place.
Hamlin took the lead down the inside of the frontstretch on lap 8, but the biggest danger was Earnhardt now that he'd seen off Busch, and three laps later he surged past Hamlin to take the lead to the delight of the Pocono fans. Meanwhile early leader Montoya was dropping slowly back, falling prey to Kasey Kahne and Matt Kenseth in quick success as he exited the top six.
By lap 18, Earnhardt had a lead of over 2s over the field - but no one was getting too excited just yet as there was a competition caution looming in two laps time, a routine precaution in the event when track conditions had changed significantly since the last time the drivers had been out. And sure enough, a minute later the yellow flags were indeed out.
It turned out that Kyle Busch had beaten the scheduled caution to the punch by slapping the #18 into the wall at turn 1 on lap 19. That would send him crawling into the garage for extended repairs, and while he was able to rejoin later on he would end up classified in 33rd place - a possibly mortal blow for his already slender hopes of making the post-regular season Chase play-offs for the Sprint Cup championship.
"We just blew out the rear brake rotors, disintegrated it and then blew out the rear caliper after that," explained Busch as he waited for the #18 to be patched together. "Getting down into turn 1 with a three-wheel brake is about the worst situation you can have as a race car driver. I kept trying to pump it to keep feeding pressure to the rest of the three wheels to keep it off the fence, but just couldn't do it."
Jamie McMurray and Mark Martin opted not to pit under the caution and led the restart ahead of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski and Matt Kenseth, but they were quickly dismissed as Keselowski - another non-stopper - led the charge to the front. Earnhardt stayed right with him and was well placed to pick up the lead again on lap 32 when Keselowski finally came on to pit road for his own deferred stop.
That left Earnhardt and Kenseth in charge of proceedings, now ahead of Jimmie Johnson, Greg Biffle and Kasey Kahne. With Jeff Gordon not far behind despite having started from 27th place on the grid after a disappointing qualifying, that put all four Hendrick Motorsports cars in the top ten - and on lap 39 one Hendrick car (Earnhardt) yielded the lead to another (Johnson.)
Green flag pit stops were packed into laps 47-49, with Kurt Busch alone in staying out a few laps longer before handing the lead back to Johnson on lap 53, who had a good 3s lead over the off-sync Keselowski in second. Keselowski found himself easy meat for Matt Kenseth, the #2 losing second place to the #17 on lap 55 while Kasey Kahne and Greg Biffle watched on from behind. When Keselowski came in for his pit stop it bumped Jeff Gordon into the top six.
That left just the one Hendrick car unaccounted for: unfortunately for fan favourite Dale Earnhardt Jr., the #88 was to be found in the garage with a transmission problem that would dump him 19 laps off the lead.
"We don't have third or fourth gear, so we're going to have to change the transmission," he said as his pit crew sprang into action. "We put it in yesterday and during qualifying it was fine and when we restarted it was kind of aggressive.
Then a bit of a vibration and the car was just really out of time and it just kind of started missing some shifts and difficult to get in gear and things like that and then finally in third and fourth coming out of the tunnel, it didn't didn't have any fourth," he continued. "And then I went to third and I didn't have third. We had a good run going ... But it was one of those things. I'm sorry for all the guys in the shop."
As the midpoint of the race approached, the issue of the weather started to dominate. All the weather radar data was showing a rapidly advancing storm system bearing down on Pocono, so it was a matter of when - not if - the weather was curtailed by rain. If it happened before lap 80 then the race would have to resume at some point - even if that meant coming back on Monday. But if it happened after lap 80 then the race would be 'official' and a red flag would mean the result being declared without requiring a restart.
With this in mind, it was no surprise when the cars streamed for their green flag pit stops just before the midway point. As the crossed flags declaring the race had met its minimum distance requirement were shown to the leaders, it was Jimmie Johnson back out in front of Matt Kenseth followed by Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch and Greg Biffle. The rest of the top ten was comprised of Mark Martin, Kasey Kahne, Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards and Martin Truex Jr.
Keselowski's off-sync strategy put him at most risk of running dry before the race was stopped, but even Jimmie Johnson was being warned to save fuel to make sure that they wouldn't be forced back onto pit lane at a crucial moment.
Having run caution-free for 65 laps, the yellows were back out on lap 87 when Kurt Busch managed to follow his brother into the wall, this time slightly further along the triangular circuit at turn 2. With rain looking so imminent there were few takers for pit road, although Mark Martin was one of just nine cars to come in for a quick stop in the hope that - if the rain held off longer than expected - it might leave him in the lead if everyone else had to pit again.
Realistically, however, the next restart was likely to be the crucial one, and the man to beat was Jimmie Johnson. As long as he pulled away smoothly, he looked set to have this race in the bag after leading 44 laps, well over twice as many as anyone else. Did anyone have it in them to take the fight to the #48?
It turned out that Johnson's worst enemy at the restart was his own car: he got loose in turn 1 and slammed into Matt Kenseth who was punted into the outside wall.
“When I was cooling my tyres down through the tunnel coming to the green I noticed that something didn't feel right," explained Johnson after the race. "I kept trying to clean the tyres off and it got a little better so I just assumed I had trash on my tires.
"But when I got down into turn one I realized that I had a right-rear flat. Unfortunate that we lost the lead there and we got a couple of cars in the process. I shouldn't feel bad about that but not much you can do with a right-rear flat." Later on Twitter he mused that he must have run over some debris under the previous caution laps.
The accident sparked chaos in the tightly-packed field behind them as everyone scrambled to avoid piling into the wreck. The primary casualty other than Johnson was the man he'd hit going into turn 1.
"We took off and the #2 [Kahne] didn't get going and I had a pretty good gap, so I crossed the line and was going to pull behind Jimmie," recalled Kenseth. "When I pulled down to go behind him I got a little draft and actually pulled up to his door, and so I decided to race him through there and we went off into one and I could hear his pipes. I wasn't sure he has lifted yet. He drove in really, really far and spun out underneath me and I got wrecked."
Kenseth was sceptical about Johnson's explanation of a right rear tyre problem: “I don't think he had a flat, did he? I don't think so," he said. "“I am not mad at him, it is just that you race for the win and I thought I gave enough room down there. He drove in hard because he is racing for the win too. We are in a situation where we need to win some races too."
As well as Kenseth, Denny Hamlin didn't make it: "We all went in turn 1 and the leaders got in trouble and next thing you know one of the cars slid right in front me and that was about the end of it," said Hamlin, who ended up T-boning the side of the spinning #17. "We weren't going to win anyway and at this point all we're racing for is wins." Hamlin was okay after the crash, although he was taken to the medical centre after reporting some pain in his stomach that quickly subsided.
But where there's a threat, there's also opportunity - as Jeff Gordon was about to discover.
"I've never seen the seas part quite like that before like they did going down into 1," laughed Gordon. "I got a great restart and was able to dive to the inside in front of Kasey and I saw the #48 get sideways and it just took them all out. And I was like: wow!"
Gordon popped out with the lead under the ensuing caution, with his Hendrick team mate Kasey Kahne in second place despite a flat right-rear tyre of his own. He wouldn't be able to make the restart and would have to pit - assuming that the race was about to go green again. Keselowski had also survived in fourth place but was similarly holding on by a tread, the #22 running on empty and leaving him to shut off the engine and coast down the straights in order to eke out a previous few extra minutes of track time.
"I was thinking about the restart and what we were going to do," said Gordon. "I didn't want to have the same thing happen to us that happened to the #48. And it started raining."
It started with a light mist postponing the restart; a couple of minutes later it was definitely raining, and a restart was no longer an option. NASCAR threw the red flag and then the heavens opened properly, drenching the track and making it impossible for the race to resume on Sunday. Since the halfway mark had been crossed, that meant one thing: the race was called.
It was over; Gordon had won. And he didn't care in the slightest about the circumstances of the win, either: "I tell you what, with all the things that have gone wrong for us this year, I'm hoping that this is the one that makes up for it all!"
The win certainly transformed Gordon's Chase hopes: with Kyle Busch's early accident sending the #18 tumbling down the standings, Gordon is now the provisional holder of the second of the two 'most wins' wild cards - his Hendricks team mate Kasey Kahne has his hands on the first with two wins in 2012 to Gordon's one.
Despite their woes at Pocono, things still look bright for the other two Hendrick cars: Earnhardt holds on to the lead of the print Cup championship by 5pts thanks to Matt Kenseth's involvement in that late wreck, and Jimmie Johnson is still firmly locked in to the Chase by virtue of being in a comfortable fourth place in the standings.
Given how strong the #48 is looking at this stage of the race, Johnson is increasingly looking like the favourite to win his sixth title after a lacklustre 2011 by his standards. If it hadn't been for that last minute wreck, he would have stormed his way to a second consecutive win to add to victory last weekend at Indianapolis. That sort of consistency of form on such wildly different circuits must be worrying all the other drivers in the paddock this morning.Full race results