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Bowyer wins, fuel robs Stewart of victory

Tony Stewart and Jeff Burton ran out of fuel in the final laps, but Clint Bowyer has just enough in the tank to claim the win.
The first race of the Chase: a critical moment, as the 12 drivers who had been riding high during the season to date have to make every weekend count. A single stutter can end up wrecking the whole season's work, while consistency can be key to claiming the Sprint Cup in November. So getting a good start – or at least doing no harm – was on a dozen drivers' minds today.

Tony Stewart laid down an early marker, claiming the lead on lap 2 from polesitter Brad Keslowski as running got underway on the slightly dated, rather small Loudon circuit in Hampshire, where the huge NASCAR car always look sluggish and huge and unwieldy around the track with Juan Montoya moving neatly up to second place.

Further back, prime Chase contenders Denny Hamlin was getting jostled around, and one of his early contacts was with Jimmie Johnson, sending the 48 a little sideways on lap 6 as they tussled over 18th position just behind Jeff Gordon. Kyle Busch was complaining of his car handling loose, and he was passed for eighth by his brother Kurt – who was having a good early run – on lap 15.

Clint Bowyer had just moved back up into second position when Scott Speed got into the wall and brought out the first caution on lap 26, and Bowyer then beat Stewart out of pit lane at the ensuing pit stops to claim the lead for the restart. He came under heavy pressure from Jamie McMurray at the restart which lasted through to the second yellow on lap 39 when Marcos Ambrose and Paul Menard spun out harmlessly in turn 2; McMurray was still pressing hard when the green came out, and was even warned by race control that starting in second place really meant that he should get to the restart line in, y'know, second place and that handing back a jump start later really wasn't going to work.

A good period of green flag running allowed Clint Bowyer to build up a lead of 3.5s over Carl Edwards who had overtaken McMurray for second, and the rising temperatures of the afternoon seemed to be suiting Bowyer increasingly well. Behind them Brad Keslowski was staying in touch and AJ Allmendinger was having a good run in fifth ahead of Jimmie Johnson, while of the Chase contenders Tony Stewart was in eighth with Kyle and Kurt Busch running 10th and 11th ahead of Jeff Burton. Denny Hamlin was finding the early going to be rather a log and still down in 17th, while Kevin Harvick seemed unhappy with his pit crew's decision to opt for a two-tyre strategy so early in the race and was running 19th.

The next round of pit stops took place under green around lap 100, and once the stops had cycled through it was still Bowyer looking very comfortable in the lead ahead of Edwards, McMurray, Johnson and Stewart. Of the non-Chase contenders, Dale Earnhardt Jr was having a conspicuously good afternoon – an increasingly rare sight these days – and after starting 32nd was now just outside the top ten, having been higher a few laps earlier but having lost several positions in pit lane after being blocked by Regan Smith. Unfortunately AJ Allmendinger's early good run had ended up with him running out of fuel coming into the pits, which cost him a lap and left him in 25th desperately hoping for a lucky dog free pass under yellow.

By the time of the third yellow on lap 147, Denny Hamlin had finally shrugged off his earlier lethargy and was cracking the top ten. At the restart on lap 150 – the midway point of the race – the top ten were Bowyer, McMurray, Johnson, Edwards, Stewart, Burton, Hamlin, Keslowski, Gordon and Kurt Busch – nine of them Chase contenders, McMurray the only cuckoo of the nest. Not among them was Kevin Harvick, who was now getting increasingly steamed up with his pit crew after a slow tyre change cost him five places during the pit stops under yellow and now finding his car incredibly loose on top of it all. Kyle Busch was also complaining of the 18 being loose, and was losing positions as well.

Bowyer had got another great start while Johnson got loose and caused those behind him to check up to avoid any problems, but everyone held it together and there were no wrecks. Bowyer seemed comfortably in control and as the cars passed the 200 lap mark he was bearing down to lap Matt Kenseth who – running in 21st – was the lowest-placed of the Chase drivers. But before Bowyer could pass him, a fourth yellow on lap 206 for a blown tyre on the #5 of Mark Martin signalled another round of pit stops, fresh tyres and some handling tune-ups – and in McMurray's case, a penalty for being too fast entering pit road that sent him back to 20th position.

Bowyer led the restart but Stewart was determined to muscle his way to the front and duly took the lead on lap 212 – not without some light bodywork damage to both cars – as things started to get physical: just behind them, Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin made contact and Hamlin got spun going into turn 4 to bring out a rapid fifth yellow. Hamlin avoided damage, but the spin dumped him down to the back of the lead lap in 22nd after his check-up pit stop.




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