After claiming pole position for Sunday afternoon's Hollywood Casino 400 at the newly repaved and reconfigured Kansas Speedway, Kasey Kahne had dubbed the new-look 1.5-mile tri-oval "stupid fast" as every single qualifier on Friday broke the previous existing track lap record. His verdict was endorsed by the subsequent Nationwide Series race, which saw a record number of cautions for an assortment of spins and incidents during the Saturday afternoon event.
The warning was clear: the new surface and the addition of increased and variable banking on the track was making it a handful, especially in race trim. Anything could happen: and over the course of the three and a half hour Cup race, pretty much everything did before Matt Kenseth emerged as the fastest of the survivors and duly claimed the chequered flag for Roush Fenway and Ford, just weeks before he exits the squad at the end of the season.
Kahne led the field to the green flag alongside Mark Martin, but it was Martin who claimed the initial lead while Kahne was also quickly dispatched by Richard Petty Motorsport's Aric Almirola, who was on the pace early. Almirola now only blew past Kahne for second in turn 1 on lap 3, he went on to catch Martin and claimed the veteran's scalp for the outright lead on lap 7.
Almirola pulled out a lead of almost five seconds before the first caution of the day on lap 32, which was for debris from Casey Mears hitting the wall. That allowed the leaders to take a reasonably civilised pit stop under the caution, and when the green came out again it was Almirola leading Kyle Busch, Ryan Newman, Kasey Kahne and Mark Martin to the line. There was a frantic four-wide battle for position at the green flag which saw Martin fly up the track and then Kyle Busch spin out of turn 4 on lap 41 to trigger the second caution of the day.
Almirola still had point ahead of Newman, Jimmie Johnson, Kahne and Greg Biffle, and the #43 was still the fastest thing on the track as it effortlessly cleared to resume his run out on front. The former driver of the car - AJ Allmendinger, today back for his sophomore outing in the Phoenix Racing #51 at Kansas - was also looking mighty fast and was up to sixth place by the time the next caution came out on lap 71. Unfortunately for Allmendinger, he was the cause of the caution - his great early run ended in a wreck in turns 3 and 4 after a tyre blew out on him. Worse, he'd felt it coming and had been just seconds from pitting.
"It was getting tight the last couple of laps, but I just thought that was how the race track was going," he explained afterwards. "I had that for the first run. Then I went in turn one, and felt it get really tight. I actually radioed in and said 'I'm pitting this lap'.
"I tried to checkup down the back straightaway and try to save it and make sure it didn't blow. Unfortunately it did. I just feel bad for everybody at Phoenix Racing," he added. "The car was really fast. We were running so well. I thought we could have an easy top-10, if not a top-five. Just so disappointed."
Allmendinger only got the #51 ride at short-notice when Regan Smith was called up by Hendrick Motorsports to sub for the absent Dale Earnhardt Jr. for two races. With Earnhardt due to return to action next weekend, it's unclear who will be behind the wheel of the Phoenix car at Martinsville - Allmendinger, or Smith?
"I love this sport, and I hope I'm back next week," said Allmendinger. "These guys work so hard. This small group of guys, they've been through so much this year. They work their butts off. I really enjoyed it. I hope I'm in the car next week."
Jimmie Johnson popped to the top in front of Almirola at the restart on lap 77 which was a short-lived spell under green before Jeff Burton got nudged into the wall at turn 4 courtesy of Tony Stewart to bring out the yellows again. The field got a better run at the next attempt, with Johnson consolidating his grip on the lead up to the next round of pit stops.
Johnson, Kurt Busch and Martin Truex Jr. had already cycled through the pits, leaving Almirola back at the front, when there was a new yellow - and it was for the leader. Almirola's tyre had blown on him and the #43 ended up slapping the wall. He was able to continue, but the timing of the caution was bad news for Johnson and the others who had already stopped. Although he got the wave-around when the leaders came in to pit under yellow, he was still stuck at the back of the lead lap in 21st place.
Johnson was determined to had back to the front with all possible speed: too determined, it turned out, and he ended up losing the back of the #48 and hitting the wall with the rear of the car on lap 136 shortly after the restart. Everyone gasped: this could have huge ramifications on the Chase battle should the car be unable to continue. Was this the end of Johnson's bid for a sixth title in 2012?
"I crashed the car," admitted Johnson. "I spun out trying to get inside the #56 [Martin Truex, Jr.] He bobbled a little in front of me and I thought that was an opportunity to jump in the gas real hard. When I did that, my car took off and I couldn't catch it."
Johnson limped the car back to pit lane, and crew chief Chad Knaus orchestrated a coordinated beating of sheet metal rarely seen outside of a Stomp! performance. The #48 was ushered back out and still hadn't lost a lap, and the crew watched and waited to see if they'd done enough, or whether they'd missed more serious damage. It looked promising; it looked very
promising. And when Brad Keselowski got a chance to see the the rear of the #48 up close from his own race seat, he was on his own team radio asking them to confirm that it had really been Johnson who'd wrecked, because he couldn't see much wrong with the #48. It was a great escape worthy of Houdini.
"It is pretty tore up," said Johnson later after the race when he'd had a chance to look over the damage himself at first hand. "I'm definitely proud of this team, and the fact that we never give up. We continue to fight to try to get every point that we can."
Johnson added that Ricky Stenhouse Jr.'s dramatic recovery from a mid-race wreck to win the previous day's race had inspired the team. "I think that yesterday's Nationwide race showed that this thing isn't over until the chequered flag falls on any given Sunday," he said. "All that said, I'm very proud."
Bobby Labonte spun out at the next restart, and then on lap 146 Matt Kenseth led Jeff Gordon, Clint Bowyer, Paul Menard and Greg Biffle to the green. Further down the field, however, there was trouble brewing: Danica Patrick was getting increasingly upset with Landon Cassill's attitude toward her on the track and on lap 155 she'd had enough and decided to spin him out at turn 2. Unfortunately, her move also meant that she ended up in the wall as well: her crew chief Greg Zipadelli sounded distinctly unimpressed over the team radio with his star charge's conduct.
"My situation with the #83 is really a product of frustration," Patrick admitted afterwards. "He got into me on the front straight and said I was just in the way. That's really no good reason to hit me.
"If it's one time, I can imagine it's frustration, but it's been quite a few times with him," she continued. "At some point I have to stand up for myself so this doesn't happen with other people. I chose today. The bummer about it is that my car is out, and he's still out there going, so I've got to work on how to do that."
The next restart was quickly aborted by Tony Stewart spinning down the backstretch and miraculously managing not to hit anything or anyone, and the restart after that was just as shortlived when Marcos Ambrose and Trevor Bayne tangled in turns 3 and 4.
"The #9 just got in on us and got a little loose but that is just racing - I hate that we tore it up and didn't get the finish we were looking for," said Bayne. "It was unfortunate for us because I felt like we had a decent run going and we were up to 17th with everyone crashing and could have finished top-ten I think, but I guess everyone could say that because they were all crashing too."
Bayne sounded less than impressed with the style of racing imposed on them by the new-look Kansas Speedway surface and banking. "If they wanted that kind of racing they got it. It was good racing I felt like but if you stepped out of the groove too much you were busting your butt and that is what everybody did," he said.
Another restart attempt on lap 172, another crash within seconds: this time it was Greg Biffle, heading into the wall out of turn 4 while running in third place and narrowly missing taking Clint Bowyer with him in the process. This time there was no lucky escape, and Biffle was out of the race in what looks to be a mortal blow to any Chase hopes that he may still have been harbouring going into Kansas.
"I lost it, man. It got away from me off of four there and we wrecked it," admitted Biffle on pit road. "I don't know what happened. That is the thing; they get away from you so quick. I had no indication, no little wiggle, no sideways anything. It just took off. It just got away from me and it killed our day."
Another restart on lap 180; another wreck on lap 181. This time it was Ryan Newman who tangled with Kyle Busch, who had seemed close to wrecking all afternoon. Kurt Busch and Sam Hornish Jr. also got caught up in the incident and sustained damage, and Hornish's Penske team mate Brad Keselowski came close to getting involved as well but miraculously managed to escape without a scratch.
"Newman just ran up on the back of me and got me loose — I've been loose all day — and then he ran into the back of me and spun me out, so just impatience," was Kyle Busch's view of the wreck. "There's still 80-something laps to go. I don't know what that was for or why or whatever, but I'm glad he's wrecked along with me."
Busch made it clear that he wasn't letting this one drop anytime soon, when he added: "He'll get another one here before the year is out."
Newman saw it differently: "He got loose and I ended up hitting him in the middle of three and four and spinning him around. Then we got clobbered by the #22 [Hornish.] A chain of events, but he just got loose in front of me and it's so fast here it's hard to check up when he is getting sideways."
"I don't know," said Keselowski when asked how he'd made it through the incident without getting caught up in it. "Luck. I really don't know. It's just one of them races, I don't know. I really don't know."
Finally on lap 188 there was a restart that took: Martin was in the lead and Paul Menard quickly passed Clint Bowyer for second at the green flag. Martin stayed in the lead until his next pit stop - hopefully his last of the day - which came just before the 13th caution of the afternoon triggered by Aric Almirola's second encounter with the wall - this time a hard one, and definitely the end of the race for the battered #43.
“We blew another right front. It was a big hit and I lost my breath there for a minute so I had to collect my thoughts," he admitted. "I am disappointed. I have never in my entire life had a race car that good. It was so fast and so easy to drive.
"All the guys worked really hard all weekend and we had a spectacular car," he added. "I hate that it ends like this but I have always been told you have to give a few away before you can win one and I feel like we certainly gave one away today."
Everyone pitted with a view to making it to the end - even Martin was back in to top-off in case of a green-white-chequered extension to the scheduled 267 laps - and the green was out again on lap 222 with Kenseth leading Stewart, Kahne, Menard and Bowyer over the line. Kenseth consolidated the lead, Kahne moved into second and Menard took over third as Stewart went into reverse - replaced at the sharp end of the field by a charging Regan Smith in the #88 who was soon tangling with Menard.
There was one final yellow to add to the lengthy tally of the afternoon, when Sam Hornish Jr. ended his day in the wall at turns 1 and 2 on lap 234 after contact with Kurt Busch, who was struggling with fender damage from the earlier multi-car accident on lap 182.
"I got spun by the #78 and tried to make it one more lap to get a yellow flag," Hornish said. "We had more yellows today than the rest of the year combined (laughs). It's been pretty tough today. Everyone knows that they have to get everything they can on the restarts because it's so hard to pass once everyone gets strung out. Everybody is trying to take advantage of each other and you get lots of yellows when that happens."
A few drivers opted to pit under the 14th caution of the day, but the leaders were still Matt Kenseth, Paul Menard and Regan Smith when the race resumed on lap 239: Martin Truex Jr. pushed through into second as Smith got swallowed up in traffic which shuffled the running order at the green flag, but Kenseth was free and clear in front and soon pulling out a big lead over the rest of the field. Providing there were no more incidents, it looked like Kenseth had this one in the bag.
Kurt Busch did scrape the wall on lap 256 with just over ten laps to go, but NASCAR was in no mood for any more cautions today, thank you very much, and kept the race under green as Busch limped the Furniture Row Racing car home. "We were severely handicapped after that accident [on lap 182] but didn't quit," said Busch. "We still felt we could salvage a respectable finish."
Busch stressed that his focus on these final remaining races of the season were about getting as much of a head start on the 2013 competition as possible. "Again, these final races are to get us prepared for next season," said Busch. "Today, the learning curve was shortened and we have plenty of good things to look forward to. It was a great team effort."
"Kurt Busch showed all of us today what an impressive driver he is,” said Busch's new crew chief, Todd Berrier. “It was hard not to be in awe of his driving skills. We're excited about the future, and the more races we work together, the better we will become. It was the performance that counted today, not the finishing result.”
With no further interruptions, Kenseth was able to cruise home. He pointed out that he did have his own near-miss along the way, and the #17 was certainly carrying substantial damage from an earlier incident in the race.
"I thought it was over when I got in the fence when Aric wrecked under Mark," he admitted. "I was watching them and trying to make sure I didn't hit them and I flat sided it pretty bad.
"It ended up working in our favour. They fixed the body as good as it was when we started and we had to take less gas in that last pit stop and this pit crew put me out front," he said. His crew chief Jimmy Fennig had been reassuring over the team radio: "He didn't say it but he was probably thinking I should stop whining about it. He said it was fine. I knew I hit it really hard but thought it was centred up in the door real good."
Good enough to find victory lane with ease, that's for sure. Martin Truex had to settle for second place, over a second ahead of Menard who just managed to hold off Kasey Kahne to the finish, followed by Tony Stewart (despite that spin and a start from 33rd place), Clint Bowyer and Regan Smith. Keselowski's miracle avoidance of that multi-car wreck on lap 182 meant he brought the #2 home in a solid if unspectacular eighth place ahead of Johnson, who had transformed a near-disaster into a perfectly decent ninth place ahead of team mate Jeff Gordon who rounded out the top ten.
"I'm ready to go home and have a couple beers," admitted Keselowski afterwards. "It's just been a long day. Everybody has been asking all season long where the cautions have been. Well, they flew to Kansas and they've been hanging out here, because there was caution after caution, and it seemed like every wreck that happened today happened right in front of me.
"I'm glad to survive the carnage and brought back a decent car, the Miller Lite Dodge, in okay shape and dodged a bullet. That's the only way that I can describe it. Whew! Just a tough day."
That means that despite all the mayhem in the race, Kansas' impact on the Chase standings is relatively minor. Keselowski still holds a 7pt lead over the Johnson after that great escape for the #48, with Denny Hamlin in third 20pts off the lead followed by Clint Bowyer and Kasey Kahne. After that, it's looking increasingly unlikely that the rest of the field could possibly recover more than 40pts to have any realistic shot at the lead.
The biggest loser in the Chase standings this week. His 27th place finish in the classification sees him tumble five spots from sixth to 11th place: mid-fielders Martin Truex Jr., Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth all shuffle up a spot as a result, with Kenseth's win adding another spot as he leapfrogs Kevin Harvick but remains in ninth place, 55pts off Keselowski.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is at the bottom of the Chase after missing two races with a diagnosis of concussion. His team owner Rick Hendrick said at Kansas on Sunday that he fully expected Earnhardt to be back in the #88 car for next weekend's event at Martinsville, subject to some time in the car at the start of the week and further tests and checks to be conducted by neurologist Dr Jerry Petty. If all's well, Earnhardt should be signed off to return to work by mid-week.
Full race results, Saturday practice times
and Sprint Cup Championship standings