Banquet 400: Nemechek plays the fuel
11 October 2004
By Andrew Charman
On lap one of the Banquet 400 at Kansas pole sitter Joe Nemechek was passed by the Dodges of Kasey Kahne and Jeremy Mayfield, who then dominated much of the race. But Nemechek gambled, stayed out midway through the race when most others pitted, and then took full benefit of a string of late cautions to take the victory.
A threat of rain saw the green flag fly a few minutes early, and the drama started just as early for Sterling Marlin, his #40 Coors Light Dodge losing its clutch as it crossed the start line and sparking the first caution to clean up the bits. At the lap four restart poleman Joe Nemechek's #01 US Army Chevrolet got away in the lead but could not hold back the UAW/Dodge Dealers pairing of Jeremy Mayfield and Kasey Kahne.
Caution number two was out by lap 16 as the #99 Roush Ford of Carl Edwards went for a spin, and most of the field pitted. This proved disastrous for championship third-place holder and winner of two of the three previous Kansas races Jeff Gordon, forced to pit again after his crew left equipment on the car. The red Dodges then dominated the early going, closest challengers Jimmie Johnson's #48 Lowe's Chevrolet, Greg Biffle in the #16 Subway Ford and defending Kansas victor Ryan Newman's #12 ALLTEL Dodge. Title chase leader Kurt Busch ran 10th in his #97 Sharpie/Irwin Ford, four places ahead of his closest points challenger Dale Earnhardt Jr in the #8 Budweiser Chevrolet.
With 50 of the 267 laps down Biffle managed to split the lead Dodges, Kahne's failure to pit early on resulting in the rookie kicking off a series of green flag pit stops. Biffle then outsmarted Mayfield in traffic to become the race's fourth leader, the Dodge then heading for pit road followed by the rest of the field over the next 10 laps, Busch staying out as long as possible to earn a possibly vital five extra points for leading a lap.
By the time the stops had cycled through, Kahne held the lead two seconds clear of Biffle, Mayfield next up. Dodges were looking strong at this track, Casey Mears next up in the #41 Target car ahead of Newman. Busch had slipped back to 12th, but still maintained a three-place gap to Earnhardt.
Out front Kahne continued to hold sway, completing lap 100 with a 1.8 second advantage over Biffle, Mayfield now five seconds back. But now the Subway Ford started to close down the gap to the lead Dodge, and on lap 111 took the lead, quickly extending it. Kahne, out of sequence with everyone else, kicked off the second series of green flag stops on lap 121, and Biffle and Mayfield pitted at half distance, Newman taking a brief spell up front before he too peeled off. This promoted Dale Jarrett's #88 UPS Ford to the race's eighth leader before he made one of the last stops on lap 149. Clearly the Evernham Motorsports squad had their pit stop strategy sorted, Kahne emerging in the lead five seconds clear of team-mate Mayfield, Biffle down to third.
On lap 142 the third caution flew, Kyle Busch having brushed the wall in the #84 Carquest Chevrolet. With only 18 cars on the lead lap Kahne, Busch and Johnson headed back to pit road to top up with fuel, Kasey rejoining the pack in eighth and now on the same pit strategy as everyone else.
The green flew on lap 152 and as Mayfield led away Mears rounded both Biffle and Jarrett to snatch second, but already the caution had bred another, and one that could have had big implications in the chase for the Nextel Cup. Kurt Busch spun out, and caught up in the confusion was Johnson, the Lowe's Chevrolet turned around. But both were able to take the lap 157 restart, Busch in 20th and Johnson just behind.
Mayfield again led away but within a lap Mears forced his way to the front, while further back seasoned observers noted that now snapping at the tail of the top 10 were a certain Gordon and Earnhardt Jr. Mears' lead did not last long, Biffle's Ford moving ahead on lap 173, by which time Kahne had made his way back to sixth and was consistently the fastest man on the track. But up front, Biffle was making the most of his advantage, extending his lead to almost four seconds before heading to pit road for a scheduled stop on lap 198. Seconds later fourth-placed Casey Mears smacked the wall hard, sparking a yellow. Naturally everyone else pitted under the caution, but Biffle retained his lead, now with Mayfield, Jarrett, Kahne and Newman lined up behind.
The green flew on lap 204 and both UAW Dodges lost out, Mayfield losing second to Jarrett while Kahne fell to eighth just ahead of Earnhardt. Dale Jr's title rivals were struggling, Busch 17th and Gordon's Dupont Chevrolet back in 20th. But by lap 209 the yellow was out again, and another front runner caught out as Ryan Newman's Dodge hit the wall and spun into the infield.
This caution would decide the race, as while the leaders pitted for what many hoped would be the final time, several others chose not to and the field reformed in very different fashion, Jamie McMurray's #42 Havoline Dodge now heading Ricky Rudd's #21 Motorcraft Ford and the #38 M&M's version of Elliott Sadler, while former leader Biffle lined up 12th. But a race that had run green for so long in the early stages now had trouble getting going, the yellow flags out again almost immediately as Johnson's luck run out with a second spin and a hard impact with the wall.
At the lap 217 restart McMurray led Rudd and Sadler, series contenders Busch, Gordon and Earnhardt now sixth, eighth and 12th but Biffle leading those who had pitted up the field. With 37 laps left both Sadler and Nemechek went past the Havoline Dodge, then swapping places for the pole winner to resume the lead he'd last had on lap one.
Faster than all the leaders, however, were Biffle, now sixth, and Kahne, up to 10th. The question was whether they had enough laps left and their rivals enough fuel. Sadly for Kasey it all became academic on lap 242 when his increasingly loose Dodge broke away and spun across the grass infield. As caution number eight flew he got going again, but now down in 22nd as several drivers gambled on a late pit stop for fresh rubber. Not the leaders though, they stayed stubbornly out front.
The green flew with 21 laps left and Nemechek still ahead of Rudd, Sadler, McMurray, Busch and the frustrated Biffle. He was even more so as the yellow flew yet again, Robby Gordon sparking this one with a spin in the #31 Cingular Wireless Chevrolet. This was a quickie, setting up a 12 lap sprint to the flag, and Nemechek looked to have done enough. Rudd had other ideas, however, and closed down the leader, pulling onto the Army car's tail as they started the last lap. But it wasn't enough, Nemechek holding on to take a race won through clever use of fuel strategy and luck with cautions.
In victory lane Nemechek celebrated a weekend that could not have gone much better – victories in both Saturday's Busch and Sunday's Nextel Cup race, both won from pole position. As for the championship, little had changed position-wise, chase leader Busch finishing sixth and extending his advantage from 12 to 29 points over eighth-placed Earnhardt Jr, and Gordon taking 13th to slip to 50 points behind Earnhardt. Still it's by no means over, the next stop Charlotte in one week's time. It's not to be missed…