Hendrick Motorsports' Kasey Kahne kept a cool head and a full set of tyres on his car through to the chequered flag of the Sunday afternoon Food City 500 race at Bristol Motor Speedway despite intense pressure from Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch and his brother Kurt right through to the finish line.
The claustrophobic half-mile concrete oval once again proved to be a pressure cooker environment pushing all the competitors to their limits, resulted in tyre blow-outs affecting several of the leading championship contenders together with flaring tempers that resulted in one simmering feud between former team mates erupting into open warfare. All in all, it was certainly the most fast and furious and downright entertaining and eventful race yet run by the new NASCAR Sprint Cup Generation-6 cars.
The early leader had been polesitter Kyle Busch who led for the first 56 laps of the 500-lap event. That included a six-lap caution caused by the first of the day's tyre blow-outs caused by melted beads, a result of the rubber overstressing and overheating on the super-tight corners at Bristol. The first victim of the day was Tony Stewart, who took out Michael McDowell in the process: despite considerable damage to the left rear of his own car, Stewart was able to resume after a lengthy visit to pit lane that left him running over 30 laps down.
"I felt the tyre going down, and I just could not get down to the inside to get to pit road," said Stewart. "I was caught up on the top, and I couldn't hold on to it any longer. It made for a long day, but we got what we could of out it," he added after slogging away well off the pace to a finish in 31st place.
Busch's run at the front continued until the field pitted under the next caution, which was sparked by Jeff Burton slamming the wall at turn 1 and subsequently also getting collected by Carl Edwards. Busch dropped out of the lead by opting for a four tyre change while many others went for two, but more seriously he was slapped with a pit lane speeding penalty that dropped him down to 35th position, giving him a lot of catch-up work to do - not that he was any stranger to dealing with that situation.
"We're trying to take too much on pit road, and it's not working for us, so we just need to back off and make some adjustments there," Busch said later of his second pit speeding penalty in two weeks.
His place at point was taken by Kasey Kahne, but Denny Hamlin got the better restart and leapt in front to reclaim the lead for the Joe Gibbs Racing squad. He kept it for 82 laps, which included six under yellow for a spin by Jamie McMurray on the frontstretch while running in third place on lap 72. His team mate Juan Pablo Montoya also hit bad luck at the same point of the race, needing to head to the garage to switch out a problematic fuel cell before returning to the race.
While Hamlin continued to lead with seeming ease, there was a fierce battle behind him for second place between Kahne, Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon. Kahne won that one and on lap 145 he also passed Hamlin for the top spot shortly before the fourth caution of the afternoon for David Gilliland hitting the wall in turn 4 on lap 153, which allowed drivers to come in for their next pit stop under yellow.
Hamlin took the lead again, but it was a close-fought race off pit road with his JGR team mate Kyle Busch, who had completed his recovery from the speeding penalty by a two-tyre pit stop while most of the others had gone for four - a reversal on the first round of stops and a case of motorsport karma. Busch couldn't get past Hamlin at the restart, however, after the #11 got a terrific launch at the green flag to scamper safely away from the pack.
Busch paid for not having a full set of new tyres by getting passed by Kahne on lap 167, putting Kahne in prime position to benefit from Hamlin suffering from a suspected loose right rear tyre affecting handling to take the lead on lap 190. He held the lead until Landon Cassill hit the wall on lap 237 to bring out a caution that facilitated the next round of pit stops.
The field was once again led to the green flag by a JGR car - but this time it wasn't Hamlin or Busch, but the newest member of the driver line-up, Matt Kenseth. He took off at the restart ahead of Jimmie Johnson and with Hamlin, Kahne, Kevin Harvick and Greg Biffle in pursuit.
Richard Petty Motorsports' Aric Almirola tapped the wall thanks to a cut tyre just before the midway point of the race but didn't bring out a caution - not immediately, anyway. He limped back to the pits, got a new set of tyres and ventured out again - and promptly spun in turn 3 which did finally bring out a caution and put him out of the race.
"We were having a solid day," said Almirola after being cleared by the in-field care centre. "Coming off pit road somebody ran into my left-rear and I guess it cut the tyre down," he said of the initial incident. "We took off on that restart and I was out of control and crashed. We just had a flat left-rear."
Some new players were now coming into contention in the race, having used the first half of the event to get on top of some early initial set-up and handling problems. The Penske Racing duo of Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano in particular suddenly seemed to spark into life, the two taking it in turns to do battle with Hamlin to break into the top five.
A mixture of tyre strategies in the next round of stop - under a yellow on lap 322 for a hard solo hit against the wall for Dave Blaney in turn 1 - saw Kenseth drop out of the lead to sixth place, the first time all day that no JGR car was in the top five - which now consisted of Gordon, Kahne, Harvick, Logano and Keselowski. Gordon took off at the front and was pursued by Logano, while Hamlin rectified the JGR situation by quickly slipping into third place.
That put Hamlin right behind Logano, his former team mate at JGR last year. The two drivers had been having a simmering feud ever since Daytona, when Hamlin had felt he'd been blocked by Logano and took to Twitter to post a subtle swipe aimed at Logano, which had gone down as well as you'd imagine. But Hamlin denied that this tension had been behind what transpired next, as Logano slipped off the back of Gordon's car and promptly got hit from behind by Hamlin and duly wrecked.
"No, it didn't have anything to do with that," insisted Hamlin when asked if he'd been trying to administer some bump-and-run payback for previous grievances. "You've got to control your car and he slid up into me and really he would have been in the garage with no radiator in it had I not checked up twice." However, Hamlin also added: "I meant to run into him. Didn't mean to spin him out," indicating that he'd perhaps seen a chance to release some of that pent-up frustration by delivering a bump-and-run that had ended up being more brutal than Hamlin had intended.
"I was racing for the lead and it's frustrating," fumed Logano. "That's a freaking genius behind the wheel of the #11 car - probably the worst teammate I ever had, so I learned that now," he added. "He decided to run in the back of me, so, whatever. I have a scorecard and I'm not putting up with that. What goes around comes around."
Hamlin almost spun out at the restart on lap 354 which meant he dropped from second place behind Gordon to sixth place, and lucky it wasn't worse. His team mate Kenseth was flying the JGR colours once again, now competing with Kahne and Johnson for second place, but Gordon looked comfortably in control of the race - right up to lap 391, when suddenly a tyre blew on the #24 and was turned sharply into the outside wall at turn 4.
"Right fronts never blow out when you are up against the wall," sighed Gordon. "I was up against the wall the entire run, and as soon as I went to go under a lapped car - boom - it popped down at the bottom of the race track and went all the way to the top, and we got the wall."
He also collected Matt Kenseth along the way - both drivers were done for the day. “Not a lot either one of us could do about that,” said Kenseth afterwards.
For the restart, with just under a hundred laps remaining, it was three cars who hadn't pitted out at the front - Keselowski, Paul Menard and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. - and then the real contenders for the race win lined up behind them: Kahne, Johnson, Hamlin, Biffle and Kyle Busch.
Keselowski was able to make his car work on the old tyres and retained the lead, while Menard and Stenhouse quickly dropped away and second place quickly became a battle between Kahne and Hamlin that was resolved in Kahne's favour, and the c5 clearly had designs on chasing down Keselowski and retaking the top spot as soon as possible as the race entered its final stages. Kyle Busch also managed to make his way through the traffic and give chase and had a ring-side seat as the battle for the lead between Keselowski and Kahne went all-out in a dramatic series of laps before the tenth and final caution of the day came out on lap 456.
And it was a significant moment: Jimmie Johnson had suffered the same fate as his team mate Kahne and had a tyre blow out on him, putting the #48 into the wall. Although he got going again, he was two laps off the pace by the time the car was hammered back into shape, and ended up classified in 22nd position.
The leaders stayed out under the ensuing caution, and at the restart on lap 459 Keselowski got a poor start and surrendered the lead to Kahne and second spot to Kyle Busch, but he was able to fend off the feisty Clint Bowyer for third place and even started to come back hard on Busch for the second spot. The only thing that was increasingly clear as the last laps ticked away was that Kasey Kahne had the pace to pull away from all three and was going to win the race by a margin of almost two seconds - a big margin on a half-mile track.
"I have always wanted to win a Cup race here, to finally do it feels really good," said Kahne in victory lane. "This is a tough track to win at, and we pulled it off today.
"This whole team stepped-up, and did an unbelievable job. The pit stops were flawless; the adjustments to the car; the preparation Friday-Saturday, and prior to that," he continued. "The engine in the car is unbelievable. I had a great day. This is a lot of fun!"
Kyle Busch held on to second place from Keselowski, and considered it a success despite not being able to match his win in the previous day's Nationwide Series race.
"We probably had a sixth- or seventh-place car today, and we ended up second with it," he admitted. "We'll take something out of that, for sure. It will move us up in the points and get us back heading in the right direction from the hole we dug ourselves the first two races. There are plenty of positives heading to Fontana next week."
Kyle's elder brother Kurt proved to be one of the biggest stars of the day in the Furniture Row Racing #78 after battling his way back into the lead lap after mid-race setbacks to finish in an impressive fourth place behind Brad Keselowski.
"We fell two laps down because of a loose right-rear wheel," said the former Cup champion. "When you fall two laps down, it's almost like your day is over, but we kept at it and got those laps back, which gave us an opportunity to make another run to the front.
"Then we ran into Logano with less than 50 to go," he continued. "We had damage and had to pit. I'm like, 'What else?' But that allowed us to be off sequence and we put on four fresh tires and battled back. We probably wouldn't have even put four on if we hadn't had the damage ... That was the best call to make."
Busch's team mate Denny Hamlin hadn't been so lucky in the closing laps: he'd joined the ranks of drives to have a tyre go down on him, and while he'd toughed it out to the finish line he'd ended up needing to use the outside wall to turn the car. He finished in 22nd place at the chequered flag, and then drove into a storm in pit lane when Joey Logano arrived at the JGR pit stall to remonstrate with Hamlin about their earlier on-track encounter. Logano tried yelling his views through the window of the #11 when it arrived, and then scuffled with a JGR pit crewman who tried to pull him away.
Logano wouldn't tell the media what he'd been saying to Hamlin: "That is for me to know and Denny to know," he said afterwards. But Hamlin was more forthcoming.
"He said he was coming for me,” Hamlin revealed, adding: "I usually don't see him, so it's usually not a factor." He said that he's try to reach out to Logano at some point in the next week, but that hope might have been extinguished when the two started trading barbs on Twitter later in the evening.
"Great job protecting that genius brain of yours by keeping your helmet on,: Logano tweeted sourly.
"Last time I checked he had my cell and direct message button to choose from if he's got a problem," Hamlin responded indirectly. "Otherwise hush little child."
The pair's on-track feud may even have directly impacted the overall result of the race: Keselowski insisted that his bad final restart was caused by getting hit from behind by Hamlin, who in turn said that he'd been bumped by Logano who'd been running astern.
"The #22 ran into me and shoved me into [Keselowski]," Hamlin insisted. "Sorry to the #2, but I was the pinball in the sandwich. Once he throttled up, the #22 lifted me up and just flat out pinned me up against the #2."
Logano's view was somewhat different, blaming Keselowski's poor restart on backing up the field and causing the knock-on collisions as a result.
"I haven't seen the replay, I just know my rear tyres were off the ground before I got to the restart zone," Logano explained. "Eventually I got hit so hard it pushed my foot in the gas pedal, made myself look [stupid]. That was the deal. Never had another chance."
At least Keselowski was able to hang on to that third place. Together with Johnson's late tyre blow-out, that means that in the Sprint Cup championship standings goes into the lead nine points clear of Dale Earnhardt Jr., who came home in sixth place at Bristol in what's turning out to be his best-ever start to a Cup season.
"We had a lot of attrition today too as a lot of guys wrecked out and that certainly makes your day easier when you aren't racing the whole field out there," said Earnhardt, who credited crew chief Steve Letarte for the much of the day's success. "I am not real satisfied with the overall performance but what Steve does on pit road is magic every week. He is pretty sharp!"
Next week sees the NASCAR roadshow head to the west coat for a race at the Auto Club Speedway, Fontana ahead of the Easter break.
Full race results and Sprint Cup Championship standings