16 May 2011
Kenseth out-thinks Johnson and Edwards to claim win
Sunday's FedEx 400 race at Dover was all set to be a showdown between points leaders Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards: but Matt Kenseth had a different idea at the final pit stop.
In a weekend that had been plagued with rain, it was a relief that the FedEx 400 benefiting Autism Speaks NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Dover International Speedway managed to get run at all with only a single brief interruption for precipitation especially as the skies remained threatening over the racetrack for the whole afternoon even when the sun managed to break through.
In the end, the happiest man at the "Monster Mile" in Delaware when it came to how things went has to be Matt Kenseth. But Kenseth had started from an unpromising 24th position, after NASCAR used the new procedure for setting the grid in the event of qualifying being rained off, as it had been on Saturday at Dover: the fastest times set in Friday practice were used instead, which meant that Jimmie Johnson took poll with AJ Allmendinger alongside him and Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne immediately behind them on the second row.
Kyle Busch, who should have started from seventh under the new procedure, instead ended up at the back of the field for the green flag after an engine change following the first practice on Friday: "When they checked the valve lash, whatever they used to keep the valve lash correct broke, fell out, so that was the problem there," Busch had said, in what was the latest of a worrying trend of blown engines at Joe Gibbs Racing this season. "I don't know if we've seen that issue - I'm not entirely sure - but we had to change engines and go to the backup engine." Busch then compounded the problem by putting the understeering #18 into the wall off turn 2 just 16 laps into final practice, giving him a mountain to climb even before the race started on Sunday afternoon at 1.17pm.
Johnson immediately took care of the lead at the start and hustled away, while Brian Vickers got loose and nearly brought out a very early caution by tapping the wall down the front straight. After the heavy rain on Saturday, a competition yellow had in any case been scheduled for lap 40 to allow car owners and drivers the chance to assess the state of play, but in fact it didn't make it to that distance before we had a genuine first caution of the afternoon.
That was for Joey Logano, who got loose off turn 2 and went for a spin into the wall on lap 29; debris on track forced the caution, but pit lane was still not open for refuelling for another 20 laps under the scheduled yellow, and so no one was heading for pit road. Johnson led the restart with Allmendinger in second and Earnhardt Jr in third, and Carl Edwards had already climbed four spots to take up residence in fourth ahead of Brad Keselowski; Marcos Ambrose was also a big mover, into the top ten from a 15th place on the start, but unsurprisingly the biggest mover of all during the early laps had been Kyle Busch from the back, moving up 13 positions to 13th within a dozen laps of the start.
By the time we finally arrived at the competition caution on lap 40, Carl Edwards had glided into second position behind Johnson, and then nipped in front during the pit stops to head the field coming back round for the restart. Johnson got the better start and reclaimed the lead, with Allmendinger following him through into second place.
A 118-lap green flag stint now followed, and for much of it Johnson was impervious in the lead even if he was complaining that he was struggling for grip as the rubber started to build up on the previously washed-clean racetrack as the laps ticked by. He was not alone: "It's loose," Kevin Harvick was yelling into his radio. His crew chief Gil Martin confirmed that "The whole field is screaming."
Those on the rise included Marcos Ambrose and Harvick (both into the top five), Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch (running on the edge of the top ten); Jeff Burton and Denny Hamlin were among the midfielders making slow but steady gains. Those having a less successful time included Clint Bowyer (struggling after taking two tyres on the competition caution) and Kasey Kahne (who had falled to 16th after his second row start. Jeff Gordon in 21st had no specific problems but just seemed to be unable to get any momentum going; Brad Keselowski had a scary moment on lap 75 when he got got loose and sideways but he managed to hold it together and carry on.
Green flag pit stops came and went around the 108-lap marker, Johnson taking up the lead again with ease despite having to put in some fancy footwork with lapped traffic. The major drama of the pit stops was supplied by David Ragan, who spun on pit road and nearly blocked the entrance altogether at the critical moment that everyone was needing to come in for gas.
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