Bristol Motor Speedway is one of the shortest, tightest and most claustrophobic tracks on the NASCAR Sprint Cup calendar, and the pressure cooker atmosphere this close to the Chase cut-off made for an eventful night's racing - which included Carl Edwards misjudging his pit stop strategy, a wrecked Danica Patrick pointing an accusing finger at one driver, and Tony Stewart throwing a retaliatory helmet in fury at another.
In the end it might have been Denny Hamlin in victory lane, but Greg Biffle, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth arguably had the biggest prize - all of them booking passage through to the Chase play-offs for the 2012 Sprint Cup championship.
The evening had got off to an unusually musical start, with drivers walking out on stage to their choice of music track, the best introduction in terms of crowd reception getting a donation for a charity of their choice. There was Macros Ambrose arriving to the strains of AC/DC's "Thunderstruck," Brian Vickers' wry choice of "Livin' On A Prayer" from Bon Jovi, David Ragan going quirky and sentimental with the theme from The Andy Griffith Show
, Brad Keselowski opting for Ozzy Osborne, Clint Bowyer for Elvis Presley and Aric Almirola going for Kanye West.
There were some humorous ones - Juan Montoya recalling Daytona with Jerry Lee Lewis hit "Great Balls of Fire" - and there were statements of intent from Joey Logano ("Can't Touch This" from MC Hammer) and Tony Stewart ("How You Like Me Now" by The Heavy), but Jimmie Johnson got a mixed reception for his choice of "Howlin'" by The Black Keys, and Kyle Busch received resoundingly more jeers than cheers for the cheeky selection of Raytona 500's "Rowdy Busch".
But at the end of the pre-race proceedings, it was Denny Hamlin who won the first prize of the night, after showing some impressive dance moves as "Wobble" by VICs blasted out of the speakers. That sent him skipping over to climb into the #11 car for the start of the race, where he was beginning from eighth on the grid after qualifying on Friday afternoon had been rained off by a heavy thunderstorm arriving at just the wrong moment.
That disruption had left Casey Mears with a surprise pole position, and he converted that to a solid lead for the first 26 laps of the 500-lap race at the short half mile oval Bristol Motor Speedway under the floodlights. Mears resisted initial pressure from first Brad Keselowski and then Joey Logano and dealt with an early caution on lap 9 for a crash by Ken Schrader on the frontstrech after contact with Jason Leffler that led to a restart on lap 18, after which it was just a matter of time before Logano finally got a successful run on Mears and claimed the lead.
Logano quickly pulled out a very comfortable lead while Mears was clearly holding up a train of cars behind him. Aric Almirola was next to pass Mears, followed next time around by Jeff Burton, and after that the floodgates opened and Mears toppled out of the top ten in short order as the race entered an extended period of fairly stable green flag running.
There were problems reported up and down the field - Kyle Busch had radioed in with complaints about a terrible vibration, while Matt Kenseth was concerned about his brakes and was clearly struggling with the handling of the #17. Fortunately for Kenseth a caution came out on lap 81 for debris on the track after Sam Hornish Jr. scraped the wall in turn 2, which allowed the leaders to make their first stop of the evening on pit road. Denny Hamlin likely wished he'd stayed away, not even his light-footedness able to avoid getting crunched in the right hand side of his car from Landon Cassill on the entry to his pit stall. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kyle Busch were also left ruing their pit stops after getting a drive-thru for speeding.
Logano led at the restart on lap 90 ahead of Kasey Kahne, Brad Keselowski and Jeff Burton, and 18 laps later Kahne finally managed to get a good enough run on the leader to claim the top spot, and stayed there through the third caution (Hornish finding the wall again) through to the lap 148. That's when David Ragan's #34 suddenly spun, and a fire briefly ignited underneath the car betraying leaking fluids spilling out, which immediately caught out race leader Kasey Kahne who ended up in the wall.
"I don't know if an oil line broke or what, but something happened between three and four because I started to slide around in my own oil," he said. "That was kind of the end of our night."
While most of the leaders took the chance to pit - Kahne more than once to get the damage sorted out - Logano stayed out and picked up the lead once more ahead of Brian Vickers, Brad Keselowski, Jeff Gordon and Marcos Ambrose who were all following the same strategy. Vickers was looking ready to pounce on Logano for the lead when the yellows were out for a crash involving Ryan Newman, which started when Juan Montoya tapped Newman coming out of turn 4 and ended with Newman collecting Jeff Burton on the front stretch.
"He just said somebody got into the left-rear of him and cut the left-rear tyre," explained Newman's crew chief Tony Gibson. "The lap before that he started getting really loose and then the very next lap, it just turned around on him. He didn't say anything about the #42 car - I think we were going to spin out no matter what with that left-rear tyre. By the time we saw it he has already spun. It's a shame."
"I saw Ryan got in trouble and he started spinning," said Burton of the incident from his point of view. "He looked like he was going to stay against the wall, and so I committed to the bottom and then he started in and I couldn't get turned back to the right. It was pretty disappointing. We had a really fast car tonight."
Burton was able to get the #31 repaired and rejoin the race after a length delay, but Newman was done for the night: "[The impact] drove the frame into the motor and it's just too far gone. We couldn't fix it; not safe enough to go back out," confirmed Gibson.
Differing pit strategies saw Dale Earnhardt Jr., Denny Hamlin, Juan Montoya, Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer take charge for the restart on lap 200, with Hamlin soon proving the fastest of the pack and taking the lead six laps later. He didn't have long out front before Aric Almirola and David Gilliland got together in turn 1 on lap 224 and found the wall as a result, bring out out another caution during which Hamlin was the first of about half the field to come down pit road.
Now it was Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth in control of the restart with Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski in close support as the race passed the halfway point. However, Keselowski's hopes for a successful day ended on lap 271 when he spun out of turn 2 and slammed the nose into the inside wall to bring out the seventh caution of the race.
"Something happened to the #55 car, Brian Vickers, and he checked-up," said Keselowski. "I don't know if he had an engine problem or something of that nature and it just checked-up the whole line. I couldn't go anywhere and got hit from behind and it put me into the fence. Not really anybody's fault. It's just a combination of factors of the way the racing is now here. We got caught up in it.”
Ongoing off-sync pit strategies meant another change at the front, with Jimmie Johnson now in charge for the restart on lap 276 ahead of Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Martin Truex Jr. and Carl Edwards, all of whom chose not to pit. That stayed fairly constant through to the next caution on lap 322 for an accident involving Regan Smith and Kurt Busch, and the ensuing pit stops once again changed the line-up at the front.
Now it was Matt Kenseth and Tony Stewart on the front row for the restart on lap 328, but this proved a disastrous combination as the two fought over the lead over the next few laps and finally made repeated contact on lap 333, which finally sent Kenseth sliding across the frontstretch into the inside wall where he was collected by Stewart. Kenseth's wounded car was able to drive away from the scene of the accident, but Stewart was left fuming - and when he got the chance, he threw his helmet into the nose of the #17 when it was in range.
"I checked-up twice to not run over him and I learned my lesson there; I'm going to run over him every him every chance I've got from now until the end of the year, every chance I've got," raged Stewart as he waited for the #14 to repaired. When it was pointed out that he was hardy likely to get his race helmet back after throwing it at Kenseth, Stewart snapped: “I don't give a crap. The hell with the helmet.”
Kenseth felt that Stewart had been anything but accommodating to him and may have been seeking some retribution for earlier incidents between the two that occurred at Sears Point and Indianapolis.
"I'm a little confused, I was running the top leading and he got a run and he went into turn one like I wasn't there and just went straight to the fence," was Kenseth's take on this week's accident. "If I wouldn't have lifted, like he chose not to do the next corner, we would have wrecked, so I let him have it and I got a run back, drove all the way alongside of him and we just kept going.
"I mean, I lifted down there or else we would have wrecked and he chose not to lift and wrecked us both, so I don't know," he continued. "He's already had two in this series he's pretty much taken us out of and I told him after Indy I was going to race him the way he raced me and I did the exact same thing down there that he did down there – the exact same thing, except he didn't give it to me. I guess he just wanted to do all the taking, so that's where we ended up."
Kenseth said that after their costly clash at Indianapolis, he had sought out Stewart after the race ended to try and clear the air and stop the matter escalating into a feud that could prove damaging to them both as the business end of the season approaches.
"It cost me seven spots in the finishing order and at Indy he was mad because he said I blocked him," said Kenseth. "I asked for five minutes of his time to clear the air and he wouldn't give it to me and pretty much just got cussed out and knocked my whole side off and put us in position to get wrecked, so I just said, 'OK, that's fine. I'm just going to race you the same way you race me,' and he showed me how he was going to race me down there, so I just did the same thing on the other end.
"I don't really see where that's 100 percent my fault or problem," he summed up. "If you look at it we did the exact same thing." As for ending up on the receiving end of Stewart's thrown helmet: "I was expecting it and it didn't really bother me. It wasn't going to hurt it any worse."
At the restart on lap 340 it was Logano heading Ambrose, Biffle, Gordon and Jamie McMurray, but the race was quickly back under caution for Dave Blaney's blown engine. Some cars came onto pit road under the yellow, leaving Biffle and Kevin Harvick on the front row for the next restart on lap 353 ahead of a Joe Gibbs Racing second row consisting of Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch and a Michael Waltrip Racing third row of Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr. It was Busch who got the best start and initially gave Biffle the hardest time of it for the lead, but he wasn't able to pull it off and then it was Truex coming on strong to take the lead after a feisty battle with Hamlin.
Hamlin held on to the leader, however, and finally got passed Truex on lap 407 shortly before polesitter Casey Mears found the wall in turn 2 on lap 413 which allowed most of the leading cars to come in for what should prove to be their final stop of the evening. Carl Edwards and Brian Vickers played the strategy card to stay out ahead of Jimmie Johnson, Marcos Ambrose and Jeff Gordon.
The next green flag stint lasted a mere three laps before debris from Regan Smith's car caused another stoppage, and the next green flat stint faired little better before Danica Patrick crashed on the front stretch, hitting the inside wall nose-first with a heft impact to bring out the 13th and final caution of the race.
As the cars circulated past the scene of Patrick's crash, it looked for a minute that she was going to follow her team boss Tony Stewart's lead and throw her helmet at the car she deemed responsible for her wreck. Instead, she just stood close to the passing train of cars and waggled her finger - at Regan Smith.
"I just pushed up into her," Smith admitted to reporters later, adding that no one wanted to be the driver to take Danica Patrick out of a race given the media spotlight on the driver of the #10. ""Everybody was racing hard all night long. You had to, because you couldn't pass. It certainly wasn't intentional."
"Bristol is a place where you find out who's playing fair and who's not," observed Patrick dryly when she got back to pit lane. However, she had her anger firmly in check by then: "We're all racing hard. This is Bristol and this is why people love this track is because you see a lot of that and you see tempers flare," she pointed out. "It was just a bummer because I really felt like the GoDaddy car was going to get a solid, maybe a top 20 finish and on the lead lap. And that wouldn't have been something that I thought would happen tonight ... It's a shame that we lost that."
That incident left 57 laps to go at the restart, and somewhat against expectations at this point they were completed under green without further interruption. Edwards still had point, with Vickers finally almost crashing out as he tried everything he could to get past the #99 without success.
That allowed Denny Hamlin the opportunity to contest the lead with Edwards, and he finally pulled it off on lap 461 - with Edwards seeming none too pleased and giving the #11 a thump from behind in retaliation. Hamlin was probably relieved to see Edwards then shuffled backwards by Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, ensuring there would be no more grudge matches deciding the outcome tonight. In any case, it transpired that Edwards didn't have the gas to make it to the end of the race without another caution, and when one didn't arise he ended up limping onto pit road three laps from the end, consigning him to 22nd place.
"I made the decision to stay out, which in hindsight that was the wrong decision because we probably would have finished better than we are right now, but I wanted a chance to win the race.," he explained. "If we would have had one more caution or a couple cautions and short runs, we were up there in a position to win this thing ... It's all you can do is gamble like that. If we would have pitted when we should have pitted we were going to run 10th or 15th anyway."
With Edwards out of the way, Hamlin pulled out over a second ahead of the Hendrick Motorsports duo - and as there were no more cautions, that was enough to see him home to the chequered flag in first place.
"I'm so damn happy," he beamed as he drove into victory lane. "It's Bristol; I don't know what to say, man."
Despite claiming his third win of the season, Hamlin isn't quite yet locked into the Chase with two races to go to the cut-off. Championship leader Greg Biffle is, despite a disappointing 19th place finish at Bristol.
"This wasn't the run we were looking for," he admitted. "We pitted at the end to try and make the car better and learn something, but it was probably the wrong thing to do because we lost about eight spots. We weren't going to win, so we thought we might as well try what we can.
“It feels really good to be locked in with two races to go," he added. "It was a tough night here, but we did lock ourselves in and still have the point lead."
Also now locks for the Chase are Hendrick Motorsports duo Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kasey Kahne has a strong hold on the first of the two "most wins" wild card spots, but Jeff Gordon is looking increasingly set to be the man left on the outside looking in.
"I'm really proud of this whole race team and am so very proud that we clinched today and am glad that we locked-down the Chase," said Johnson. "That's something that I'm very proud of. We've made it each year. And now it's time to get to work."
"We worked real hard all season and I want to thank my guys," said Earnhardt, having his best season in 2012 in years. They do a good job every week and give me good strategy."
Despite his run in with Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth is also now certain of a Chase spot: even it's not yet a lock on points, at worst he would take one of the wild cards.
"That's one of your goals at the start of the season," said Kenseth. "You can't win the championship without being in the Chase, so I'm happy to be there. It's been a rough four out of five weeks, for sure, so I wish we'd had a better ending tonight."
At present the second wild card spot is held by Kyle Busch, thanks to Ryan Newman's early misfortune at Bristol. However, Busch knows it's a tenuous hold on a Chase spot and could easily be lost in the final two two outings at Atlanta and Richmond before he can breath easy.
Full race results
and championship standings