23 November 2010
Edwards wins, but it's Jimmie's perfect day
Thirty five races over ten and a half months, and coming into the final race the outcome of the 2010 Sprint Cup Championship was still too close to call.
Denny Hamlin led in points, but Jimmie Johnson was close behind and then there was Kevin Harvick looking to pull off a dark horse victory. Three remaining contenders, one last race: it would prove to be quite literally a case of whoever made the least mistakes.
Kasey Kahne brought the field round to the green flag, his first pole position since his mid-season switch to the Red Bull team following his abrupt departure from Richard Petty Motorsports. But there would be no fairy tale ending to the season for Kahne, and he lost the lead after just four laps to Carl Edwards who was already looking in strong and possibly unbeatable form.
But in truth, all eyes were on the Sprint Cup contenders: Jimmie Johnson quickly moved into the top five and was soon battling AJ Allmendinger for third place which he finally achieved on lap 12, while Denny Hamlin was up nine spot into 28th after just four laps of running and Harvick was making slower but stead progress through the midfield.
David Reutimann was having less joy, hitting the wall on lap 12 but able to keep running that time only to make a return visit on lap 17 which brought out the first yellow of the afternoon and gave the drivers a chance for an early visit to pit road for some fine-tuning. Allmendinger beat Johnson out of pit road, so at the restart the three Cup rivals were 4th, 15th and 18th for Johnson, Harvick and Hamlin respectively.
But the next restart was to change the entire outlook of the Sprint Cup showdown: Hamlin made contact with the rear of the #16 of Greg Biffle on lap 23 and was sent spinning into the infield grass area. Hamlin was on the radio, howling about Biffle having moved down on him, but the replays clearly showed that it had been Hamlin who had shot up the track coming out of the corner, clipping the back of Biffle's car with his front right nose which was now looking a mess. More importantly the front splitter was affected by the impact and the run through the grass: Hamlin's pit crew immediately got to work on it, and Hamlin's pit chief Mike Ford was reassuring everyone that they had overcome worse, but the plain truth was that the car's handling had been permanently and adversely affected. Despite multiple goes at correcting the damage over ensuing pit stops, the #11 would handle loose for the rest of the day.
But there still seemed to be reason to hope for Hamlin, as he quickly made up 15 spots and improved to 22nd after the restart. Meanwhile Jimmie Johnson was up in fourth place, easily enough to overtake Hamlin's slender points advantage and claim the title. By lap 50, there were still 38 cars on the lead lap and despite posting ever-faster laps, Johnson had been bested for fourth by Martin Truex Jr., but that was fine given that Harvick was fighting with Matt Kenseth for 11th and Hamlin was making the low side work for him in his efforts to take 17th from Clint Bowyer.
Green flag pit stops were looming, but Denny Hamlin had a more pressing problem with a tyre going down that forced him in early on lap 66. Carl Edwards pitted on schedule on lap 70, which allowed Jimmie Johnson to take the lead for a lap - giving him a possibly vital 5pts for doing so - before he too came in. After the pit stops cycled through it was Martin Truex Jr.who emerged in the lead followed by Edwards, with Harvick having cracked the top ten in ninth and Denny Hamlin having made it up to 16th place; but Jimmie Johnson's pit stop had been a terrible 15s affair that had dropped him down several spots and now meant he was only just in front of Harvick. Suddenly the tension levels were cranked way up.
The next yellow came on lap 98 for debris, allowing the cars back on to pit road which meant Hamlin's crew could have another crack at that front splitter. Johnson had no better luck with his pit stop this time around and emerged in 10th spot, don three, while Harvick was now up two positions to sixth and getting a nice push from Kyle Busch into fifth place at the restart. Meanwhile Hamlin was still outside the top ten, and after running in 16th he then started to lose positions and fell back to 19th.
Truex Jr had emerged from the pit stops still in the lead but the #56 didn't seem as strong in this stint and he lost the lead to Edwards, and second to Jamie McMurray who was even strong enough to challenge Edwards for the lead as racing resumed. Edwards was able to hold him off, and by lap 112 he had opened out a 1.26s lead over the rest.
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