4 April 2011
Harvick swoops again - to deny Earnhardt Jr.
This time Johnson's luck with pit stops deserted him and he fell back to eighth after a slow service, leaving Bowyer in charge at the front. Bowyer had opted for two tyres only, a gambit shared by both Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Juan Montoya who took the restart second and third accordingly ahead of Hamlin and Kyle Busch. Kyle's brother Kurt was in need of the lucky dog free pass at this point, while Mark Martin opted to stay out of pit road in order to receive a wave-around to similarly get back on the lead lap.
The racing had only just resumed when the most serious accident of the afternoon occurred: he throttle stuck open on the #56 of Martin Truex Jr., and the car suddenly took off into a fearsomely hard impact against the wall, catching Kasey Kahne en route and ending up in a ball of flame erupting from the wrecked car. Remarkably Truex was soon up and about and checking on Kahne despite his car being wrecked - a testament to the effectiveness of the SAFER barrier. However, the clean-up of the debris and fluids required a lot of work, and so the race had to be red flagged for almost 25 minutes.
The intermission inevitably put the drivers out of rhythm, and not surprisingly there were two quick cautions in succession when racing resumed. The seventh yellow was triggered on lap 231 when Kurt Busch got a tap and was sent onto the infield kerbing, and in fighting for control he could not help but make contact with Bobby Labonte causing major damage. With the field still very closely packed, this sparked chaos behind them as drivers worked to avoid the accident - Joey Logano, Robby Gordon and Dave Blaney were among those caught up, and Kevin Harvick's #29 was also damaged after hitting Brian Vickers.
The restart barely lasted a lap before Paul Menard spun after getting a bump off Brad Keselowski; Menard collected Michael McDowell and Casey Mears going into the corner, although damage to all the cars involved appeared mercifully light, although Menard's car would start smoking soon after the restart and was black-flagged shortly afterwards.
Finally on lap 247, Clint Bowyer led Juan Montoya, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. to the restart for an extended green flag run. Gordon made a push for the lead but was seen off by Bowyer; needing to get back to the inside line he received no help at all from his team mate Earnhardt Jr. who bumped him out of the way and sent him back down to eighth place, where he started to complain that the car was feeling very loose. Ironically, Clint Bowyer was finding his own car too tight and he lost the lead to Denny Hamlin on lap 260.
Gordon's slump didn't last long and as the green flag run wore on and approached pit stop time, he had bounced back to third behind Hamlin and Kyle Busch. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was paying the price for the earlier two tyre stop and was down in ninth, while Jimmie Johnson had dropped out of the top ten after overheating problems.
As the green flag pit stops commenced, the race narrowly avoided two cautions: once on lap 297 when Casey Mears had a tyre go down and sustained damage to the rear of the car when he hit the wall; and again lap 322 when Brad Keselowski slammed the wall in turn 4 and struggled to get to pit road at the same time Clint Bowyer was coming in for his scheduled stop.
When it comes to green flag pit stops, few can hold a candle to Kyle Busch who has the art of in- and out-laps down to a fine art that would make even F1 drivers envious: after the stops cycled through he was in the lead, and by a whopping 4s over Denny Hamlin with Bowyer, Gordon and McMurray rounding out the top five, and only 11 cars now remaining on the lead lap.
A caution did come out shortly afterwards on lap 351 after Trevor Bayne cut a tyre and deliberately caused a yellow after being unable to get to pit road - meaning he got handed a one lap penalty for the infringement. The leaders took to pit road, giving 14 cars the opportunity to take the wave-around; however, Jamie McMurray's pit stop ended in frustration with a lugnut problem forcing him back into pit lane next time around, which put him to the back of the lead lap as the race went green again on lap 359.
Ryan Newman had already dropped back with an engine problem and feared he was blowing up, when he then had a tyre go down sending him into a spin on lap 370 bringing out the tenth caution of the afternoon just after Jeff Gordon had taken the lead from Kyle Busch. The leaders stayed out, with ninth placed Dale Earnhardt Jr. the first of those coming in for a full four-tyres and fuel stop, which included Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards, Ryan Newman, Jamie McMurray, Mark Martin and Kurt Busch. As a result, Earnhardt was back out on track in his original position, a small triumphant masterstroke from his new crew chief Steve Letarte.
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