A race beset with an early flurry of cautions settled down into a steady state that pointed to only one winner - championship leader Jimmie Johnson. But despite leading for more than two-thirds of the race, it turned out that the five-time champion was still unable to clinch what should have been his first Cup victory at Kentucky Speedway after all.
After the disappointment of the previous evening's rain postponement of the Quaker State 400 Cup race, all the drivers were relieved to see blue skies and a dry track awaiting them come noon on Sunday. The weather and drying operations had washed the surface clear of the tyre rubber that had built up, and so in the first stint of the race many of the drivers were soon complaining of slick conditions making the tail-happy cars lack rear grip.
As a result, everyone was happy to see the scheduled competition caution on lap 30 that allowed them to come in for fresh tyres and make their first round of set-up changes, especially given that their cars had originally been prepared for an evening race rather than a noon start and there no time had been available for alterations before the green flag, which had seen Carl Edwards lead early from polesitter Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Earnhardt Jr. was back in front after the pit stops with Jimmie Johnson in second, but the race faced problems getting back underway. At the first attempt, a right front tyre blow-out for Denny Hamlin in turn 4 left debris on the track, some of which hit and damaged the cars of Earnhardt and Johnson although not enough to require them to give-up track position to come in for repair. At the second restart attempt it was Hamlin's Joe Gibbs Racing team mate Kyle Busch who sent for a spin in turn 2 to bring out another rapid return to caution, although miraculously no one collected the #18 as it went awry.
The next restart - and near-instantaneous caution - wasn't such a lucky affair, as Kurt Busch attempted to get a run on Brad Keselowski on lap 47 only to get propelled up the banking and into the #2 in a violent impact that badly damaged the rear end of the Penske car, also inflicting heavy damage on the front end of the #16 of Greg Biffle, with the #93 of Travis Kvapil and #7 Dave Blaney also sent to the garage and Paul Menard and Landon Cassill both having to limp back to pit road for repairs which had to wait while the race went under a 20 minute red flag to enable track workers to effect the extensive clean-up operations.
"We were trying to get patient because it looked like we will get the whole race in before rain and there is no reason to drive like an animal. Apparently I am the only one that got that memo. It is one of those deals," signed Keselowski, who takes a big hit in the Cup standings and drops out of the all-important top ten as a result.
"I know he didn't intentionally wreck me but it is just one of those things," Keselowski added when asked how he felt about Kurt Busch's apology relayed over the Furniture Row Racing team radio. "A chain of events with the way the cars drive and the track has that really bad bump down there and we all know it. There is no reason to go down there but he still did.
“I am still wrecked so I don't know. He is smarter than that. He knows better than that," he added. "It was a pretty good hit but the back of these Cup cars have a lot of safety zones in them and if there is a place to take a hit like that, that is the spot. I am thankful for that." Keselowski later resumed the race albeit more than a hundred laps down, picking up a few spots - and championship points - by finishing ahead some of the other early retirees.
"I don't know what happened with the #18 earlier but we got lucky and missed that one," said Biffle for his part. "We weren't fortunate enough to miss this one. I was trying to get to the bottom to miss the #2 and couldn't get it. I was on the brakes and the nose might have been on the race track or something. I couldn't get to the bottom to miss him."
Racing resumed with on lap 50, with former leader Earnhardt now down in 33rd having been forced to wait on pit road for front grille and splitter repairs for damage sustained in the earlier Hamlin tyre blow-out incident. That handed the lead to Johnson with Matt Kenseth getting a flying restart into second place ahead of Edwards, Jeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick, but it was Kasey Kahne who had one of the fastest cars on track at this point and who worked his way up to third place by lap 80 just before the first round of green flag pit stops got underway.
Before they could be completed, the fifth caution of the day came out when David Gilliland blew a tyre on the backstretch. Johnson was able to pit under the caution and came out still in the lead ahead of Kenseth, but behind that the running order had become jumbled by the timing of the caution and now Clint Bowyer was in third ahead of Kyle Busch and Ryan Newman, with the remainder of the top ten consisting of Joey Logano, Tony Stewart, Jeff Burton, Denny Hamlin and Jamie McMurray.
Johnson didn't have his former pace at the restart on lap 95 and lost positions to the JGR duo at the green flag, putting Kenseth in the lead for the first time which coincided with reports of a rain build-up sent a shiver of renewed urgency through the field, especially as the race closed on the half-way point of the 267-lap event which would make any prolonged stoppage the official result of the race.
A sixth caution for debris in turn 1 on lap 107 equalled the previous 2011 record for yellow flags at Kentucky, and Johnson and Busch's overly exuberant 'fake-out' feint onto pit road - only to stay out - earned them a reprimand from race control for cutting ahead of the pace car. However they were allowed to maintain the lead for the restart ahead of Bower, Logano, Hamlin and Stewart, with Kenseth down in 12th after pitting but the #20 soon on the way back up again.
Johnson still led as the crucial halfway point was passed, with Logano having moved up to second ahead of Bowyer and Hamlin. The race was closing up on the next round of green flag pit stops - and Jeff Gordon had already peeled off onto pit lane - when the seventh caution came out on lap 149, this time for Denny Hamlin hitting the wall hard at the start/finish line after a tyre blow-out which did heavy damage to the right-front of the #11. That sent Hamlin to the garage, any remaining hopes of making it through to the Chase surely dwindling fast. He also looked in pain, raising fears that he might have exacerbated the old back injury that had sidelined him for five races after a crash at Fontana the week before Easter, but after being treated at the medical centre he told reporters it had simply been a banged knee and a brief headache that had already passed, and that his back was just fine.
“I had to take a moment when I got out of my car to gather my thoughts ... I didn't feel all that great," Hamlin admitted. "The medical staff came, checked me out and we decided to come here [to the in-field medical centre.]
"Anytime you hit flat up against the wall, you deal with issues and headaches and stuff like that," he said. “It's gone away and everything seems to be good now ... I feel a lot better now,” he added. “I'll be fine."
A two-tyre stop enabled Carl Edwards to jump up 19 spots to take the restart in the lead ahead of Jimmie Johnson and Joey Logano, while Clint Bowyer and Matt Kenseth were next on track having collided on pit road after Bowyer had appeared to cut Kenseth off. The impact was hard enough to prompt Kenseth to get his crew chief to check the nose of the #20 for any damage, but Bowyer was more sanguine as he was reassured that the caution had come at the perfect time for their fuel strategy.
Johnson quickly retook the lead from Edwards whose two-tyre gambit resulted in a slow slide down the standings; Kenseth returned to second spot ahead of Bowyer, Logano, McMurray and Kyle Busch which remained the status quo until the next caution for debris on lap 195. Everyone pitted, but it left drivers a dozen or so laps short of making it to the finish if the race went to full distance - as it now indeed proceeded to, the threatening rain fronts proving to have stalled some way away from Sparta where the 1.5-mile superspeedway is located.
Johnson still had the lead at the restart and the track stayed green until Brian Vickers found the wall on lap 242, which conveniently was just when the cars were having to seriously consider the timing of that final pit stop. Everyone came in for fuel with two-tyre stops the order of the day, with the notable exception of Kenseth who went for no change, and Johnson resumed his position at the front at what was surely the last leg of his inexorable march to victory.
Only, so it didn't actually quite turn out like that: when the green came out on lap 247, there was a quick return to yellow - and Johnson was the cause after spinning out in turn 2, complaining bitterly about Kenseth not getting up to speed up at the restart.
“The #20 broke pace-car speed, which you're not supposed to do,” insisted Johnson. “But they aren't calling guys on that so I need to start trying that in the future.
"We were kind of in an awkward situation in that restart there and then we were three- or four-wide going into the corner and something happened with the air and just kind turned me around,” added Johnson. "It was unfortunate but at least we brought it back for a good finish.”
"We saw on the last restart, the guys in the front row are at such a disadvantage of the guys behind them," contributed Johnson's crew chief Chad Knaus. “It's sad. Three of the last four weeks, we've had by far the fastest race car and have gotten some funny restarts and haven't been able to pull it off. But it's all right, that's part of it."
Kenseth denied he'd done anything wrong, although he added that game-playing at moments like that is all part of the sport. “I certainly didn't feel like I did anything wrong from where I was.
"When the pace car peeled off, I felt like I went the same pace,” he insisted. “I didn't check my [tachometer] when the pace car went off and went exactly the same pace but I think you can look at the data and see I didn't slow down.
"You try to watch the guy inside of you and make sure he doesn't lay back and try to get a run at you and try to keep him right by my door," Kenseth added. "When I got in the box, I went. From there, I don't really know what happened."
Pitting for fresh tyres to replace the flat-spotted set saw Johnson drop to 25th place for the next green with 17 laps to go, meaning that despite having led for 182 laps during the day Kentucky would continue to be that rarest of things, a circuit that Johnson had never won at in his Cup career.
Kenseth led Bowyer at the restart despite having stayed on old tyres during his final stop, still pulling out a second over Bowyer and McMurray. On the other hand, Johnson was putting his full set of new tyres to good use and quickly flew back into the top ten with astonishing haste, but his advance then stalled and with no yellows to break up the final run or re-compress the field he ran out of laps by the time that he crossed the chequered flag in ninth place just ahead of Kevin Harvick.
Kenseth meanwhile had proved that track position was all at Kentucky and not even worn tyres could put the race leader on the back foot, although his margin was trimmed to 0.699s by the chequered flag after Jamie McMurray took over from Clint Bowyer in the final charge to claim his first top-five Cup finish since August 2011 for Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing.
"I was quite a bit quicker than [Bowyer] and I guess the #20 wasn't on [new] tyres, so you are just fighting to get by as quick as you can because you never know when a caution is going to come out, or how it is going to play out," said McMurray, who also won pole last weekend at Sonoma.
"It was a really good day for us," he added. "We've had really quick cars for the last two months, and have not been able to capitalise on it. We've had really unfortunate luck, but it's cool to have a really good run [today.]"
Unfortunately it wasn't enough to earn McMurray his seventh career Cup win - the day's prize went instead to Matt Kenseth, a driver truly reinvigorated by his change of teams over last winter.
"I dreamed about it, but I probably didn't imagine that would be realistic," said Kenseth when asked whether he'd ever even dared hope he'd have four wins this season, let alone before the season had even reached its midpoint. "It's been incredible. We've had some moments that tested us this season already and obviously it's great to have the four wins. Hopefully, we can keep it rolling. It's been a lot of fun."
Joey Logano held on to fourth place at the finish just ahead of the Busch brothers, Kyle and Kurt respectively in fifth and sixth places after eventful races for the siblings. Martin Truex Jr. suffered from late handling problems and had to settle for seventh place just ahead of Jeff Gordon.
Johnson continues to lead the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings by 38 points points over Carl Edwards, who dropped to 21st place in the final stages of the race.
"Man, I don't understand what happened there," admitted Edwards. "We just got back in traffic and we were terrible at the end. I thought we were really good out front when we had track position. We were really good when we were out front. There at the end I just couldn't make anything happen.
"It was definitely a frustrating situation there," he added. "We are going to have to try to figure that out. That was really surprising. It was kind of a different experience there. We were feeling really good and having a good time out there for a little while but it turned out terribly. I guess that is the way it goes."Full race results
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