28 March 2011
Harvick swoops to conquer at Fontana
Kyle Busch dominated the race - right until the moment that Kevin Harvick came out of nowhere and led just one lap out of 200 at Fontana. The only one he needed to claim the his first race win of 2011.
If you think California is non-stop sunshine, then think again - the Golden State has been going through some very "interesting" weather of late, including a thorough soaking by rain storm after rain storm in the week leading up to the Auto Club 400 at Fontana. That delayed track activities on Friday as NASCAR soaked up some troublesome "weepers" (problems with track drainage) on the two mile oval, and ended up with Kyle Busch wrecking on the wet track and forcing him to take to a back-up car for the rest of the weekend.
Fortunately by 3pm on race day the weather was behaving, if hardly outstanding. Under leaden skies and with temperatures in the mid-50s Fahrenheit, Juan Montoya led the field to the green flag in his first top ten start of the season so far alongside Denny Hamlin. Behind them, Kyle Busch was immediately feeling racy coming off his latest Nationwide series race win the day before, and moved up from eighth on the grid to tuck into third ahead of David Ragan after pushing Denny Hamlin hard for second. Further back, Daytona winner Trevor Bayne survived an early scare when he brushed the wall and left a lot of his paintwork on the safety barrier in the process, while Tony Raines' race hopes went up in smoke very early.
Hamlin soon declared his intentions to lead and eventually passed Montoya on lap 7, with Kyle Busch then passing the Colombian on lap 12 leaving the #42 to do battle with the #31 of Jeff Burton for third. Kyle briefly took the lead from his team mate Denny Hamlin on lap 20, the two of them passing the lead back and forth through to the first round of pit stops commencing on lap 33.
By lap 37 the pit stops had cycled through and Kyle was back out in clean air; there had been no real dramas and everyone had gone for four tyres. Jimmie Johnson had gone for a chassis adjustment as well which had slowed his stop down a little, since after initially climbing up into the top ten at the start of the race he had fallen back over the subsequent laps and clearly felt the car lacked that vital edge so far.
Busch and Hamlin had pulled away in front from Brian Vickers and Martin Truex Jr. - a good, solid run from Vickers for almost the first time since his return to the sport after an enforced year off for heart surgery. And as the green flag stint wore on, Busch only got stronger and started to pull away even from Hamlin, achieving an almost 5s lead by lap 50; there was a 15s margin between first place and tenth (Matt Kenseth), and 30 cars remained on the lead lap with Robby Gordon the first car a lap down.
The race was still green as the next round of pit stops came up from lap 68, surpassing the track record for green flag running. Despite having an impressive lead at this point Kyle was still thinking hard and asking for a track bar adjustment and small air change from the team. But at least he was broadly happy with the #18; Greg Biffle, by contrast, hated everything about his #16 as he settled for a chassis adjustment, while Hamlin was complaining that the changes made in the last pit stop had gone too far and needed scaling back, having lost second place on track to Truex Jr. Truex himself said his #56 was loose but that was fine and he didn't want any changes - shortly afterwards he would even declare that he was in love with his car right now.
The pit stops had just cycled through when the first yellow came out on lap 75 for debris in turn 3, which saved the blushes of Jeff Burton who was about to be put a lap down by Kyle at the time. Almost all of the field bar Tony Stewart took the chance to put again - Vickers overshooting his own pit box in the process - and at the restart Stewart led Ryan Newman, Mark Martin (who had taken just two tyres during the stop) and Kyle Busch to the green flag on lap 80.
Newman quickly dispatched Stewart for the lead and managed to hold off Kyle's attempt to get back on front, but on lap 89 Tony Stewart was finding his feet and blew past both Newman and Busch to retake the lead, sounding positively ecstatic in his pit communications with the team about the state of the #14 an the decision to stay out. Of course it didn't last, and Busch was back in front on lap 93 and Stewart started to fade after that, clearly in need of a quick caution to get him back into sync on tyres.
It looked as though Denny Hamlin might be the cause of that caution: as early as lap 83 he was slowing up and on the radio telling the team something was seriously wrong with the #11's engine. He traded gauge readings with the pit crew as they attempted to trouble shoot via radio, and eventually the diagnosis came down that they needed to change out the ignition switch at the earliest opportunity. All the while, Hamlin had fallen back to 27th and last on the lead lap, but at least he was still going - even if he, too, desperately needed a yellow as soon as possible.
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