9 November 2010
Texas win puts Hamlin in Sprint Cup lead
For the first time in almost half a decade, the Sprint Cup battle will go into its final two races without Jimmie Johnson already having put a strangle hold on the championship.
NASCAR's second visit of the year to Texas, coming just three races before the end of the season, produced moments of high emotion for several of the drivers and their pit crews, with two Chase contenders coming to blows out on the track, another penalised for obscene gestures, and another needing to switch out his entire pit crew after a series of pit road hold-ups.
Elliott Sadler and Greg Biffle tussled over the lead for the first dozen laps until Joe Nemechek's dying engine brought out the first caution and round of pit stops of the afternoon. Biffle led after the stops, but all eyes were on the Chase contenders having to work their way up from low grid positions - and it was Jimmie Johnson who was on form, moving from 16th at the restart up to 5th by the time the next yellow came out on lap 43 for debris on the backstretch.
Johnson dropped a couple of spots at the pit stop, while Kurt Busch got with with a pit lane speeding penalty. Mark Martin briefly took the lead before Biffle reasserted himself, but it was a brief green flag period before Sam Hornish Jr got into the wall through turns 3 and 4 on lap 58 for the third caution.
Biffle led Martin, Sadler, Clint Bowyer and Johnson at the restart; David Ragan (who had been up to seventh) dropped to 32nd after suffering from loose lugnets, while Jeff Burton - who had gone a lap down after needing to make an extra pit stop under the green for new tyres - was the most relieved man on track when the caution gave him his lap back.
Jimmie Johnson continued his strong run during the next, longer green flag period, moving inexorably up to third place behind Biffle and Martin who traded the lead a couple of times as the race his the hundred lap marker. Johnson briefly took the lead (and all important bonus points) for leading lap 110 as the next round of pit stops cycled through, and when he pitted it was Chase rival Denny Hamlin who succeeded him in the lead next time around before he too came in for fuel and tyres.
That put Martin back in the lead, now with David Reutimann in second ahead of Bowyer, Biffle, Logano and Hamlin who got past Kyle Busch for position on lap 115. Johnson had slipped all the way back to 12th place with a very slow pit stop and was not happy, but he still had the on-track pace to repair the damage.
Martin Truex Jr. triggered the fourth caution, getting loose into turn 4 and hitting the wall before sliding through the infield grass. Joey Logano made a flying stop and emerged on the front row for the restart alongside Biffle, who soon pushed the youngster aside to resume the top spot; they were followed by Martin, Reutimann, Hamlin and Harvick with Johnson down in eighth but once again proving quick on track and working his way up to take fifth from Hamlin just before Truex triggered a second consecutive caution on lap 151, this time with a blown front tyre. Definitely not his day.
The restart was another replay between Logano and Biffle, and Johnson had once again haemorrhaged positions in the pit stop and fallen out of the top ten - the fury in the #48 was building, and Johnson and pit chief Chad Knaus were losing patience with the way they would gain positions on track only to then lose them the minute they came onto pit road. Something had to change.
Johnson had no time to make up positions this time before the sixth caution on lap 159 - Kyle Busch got spun by contact with another car on lap 160 and suffered bodywork damage that sent him to the pits. He thought he'd just managed to exit before the safety car - and hence stay on the lead lap - only to instead get served a pit lane speed violation, costing him a lap. Furious at the combination of getting spun out and then the penalty and emitting a string of expletives over the team radio, Busch gave a very prominent finger to the NASCAR official standing in the #18 pit box monitoring the penalty - which was captured by the in-car camera and transmitted live. NASCAR promptly gave him a further two lap penalty for "unsportsmanlike conduct" after his "inappropriate gestures", and Kyle faces more sanctions from NASCAR post-race, especially coming a day after Kyle stromed out of the media centre following the Nationwide race and swore during two interviews, incensed by his belief that Carl Edwards ahd got away with a jump start at the final restart. Now Kyle's Sprint Cup race was done: while he got back one of the three laps, he still finished the afternoon a disastrous 32nd.
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