16 May 2011
Kenseth out-thinks Johnson and Edwards to claim win
"I just locked up the rear brakes a little bit coming into the pits during that green flag stop," Ragan said later. "That's the first time I've ever wrecked like that getting on pit road. And I'm usually the conservative one, but I guess I pushed it a little too hard today."
Tony Stewart also had problems with not getting a full load of gas - the gas can never connected with the fuel hook-up, and he had to return to pit road on lap 116. It was a miscue that put him three laps down in 35th position, and it would get even worse as Smoke was also complaining of terrible balance on the #14: "I'm loose as **** now," he yelled over the radio before his enforced return to the pits; Darian Grubb, his crew chief, could only respond with "Sorry buddy, I went too far." The car's handling never came together and Stewart finished unusually far down the running order, six laps off the lead by the end.
Johnson remained strong in the lead while Carl Edwards and Marcos Ambrose fought an extended battle over second place ahead of Allmendinger and Kenseth breaking into the top five by ejecting Keselowski and Harvick by lap 136. But Johnson's long run in the lead was about to come to an end, and on lap 144 it was Carl Edwards who finally did the deed and took over control of the race.
Sadly, AJ Allmendinger's strong run was about to come up to a premature end. He'd been struggling on and off ever since he'd picked up a severe vibration just before the previous round of pit stops, and then found the handling off after them. Now, as the race passed 160 laps, it was clear that his engine was terminally unwell and started to smoke.
At just this moment, drops of rain started to splatter themselves on the drivers' windows: the clouds that had threatened for so long had finally decided to show up at the party and the race went under yellow to see how long and how bad this would be. The leaders pitted, but AJ's crew got him to stay out an extra lap before coming in just so that he would be able to claim a point for leading. When they brought him in, however, it was clear that the race was done for the #43.
"It was weird because it all happened at once and there was no sign of it," he explained afterwards. "We were running the leaders down. The track had gotten really slick. It was fun and you had to work really hard on finding the right line. It showed what drivers had to do. We were going to run them down and all of a sudden off of two it went. It was getting steadily worse."
The shower was mercifully brief and racing got back underway less than ten minutes later on lap 170, with Jimmie Johnson having won the lead back in the pits, followed by Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, Marcos Ambrose and Kevin Harvick. Johnson's lead this time was short-lived, Edwards once again the man to take it away from him on lap 190.
Martin Truex Jr. was determined to mark his 200th Sprint Cup series start with a good run and surged his way past Kenseth into the top three and was posting the fastest laps of anyone as the race passed the scheduled middle distance - the point at which the race also became "official" should the rain return and trigger a red flag.
At the back of the top ten, Kyle Busch was now ninth while Brad Keselowski and a now much-happier Clint Bowyer were battling over tenth itself. Busch lost places on lap 202 when he nearly slammed into the wall in turn 2 but somehow managed to save the car from disaster and carry on going.
Only 47 laps had passed under green before the fourth caution of the afternoon, this time for debris in turn 3. Everyone came in for pit stops, Edwards retaining the lead as Johnson suffered a poor stop some 2s slower than Edwards and Ambrose which also put him behind Kenseth and down to fourth, almost his worst position of the entire afternoon. When the race resumed, the cars settled in for another lengthy green flag stint - some 109 laps now passed until the next hiatus, and the main problem for everyone was the increasingly hazardous build-up of rubber that was making for some difficult and wildly inconsistent handling around the one-mile oval, forcing the drivers to work hard to find new and different grooves that would work for them.
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