16 May 2011
Kenseth out-thinks Johnson and Edwards to claim win
More green flag pit stops started to break out from lap 280. Edwards came in from the lead and was sounding happy and confident, declaring that he was having fun and the #99 was nicely balanced; but it couldn't help him retain the lead when Johnson rebounded from his earlier fumbled pit stop with a flier this time around to take back the top spot on lap 288.
20 laps later was a whole different story: Johnson declared that the #48 was out of control, and his crew chief Chad Knaus had to undertake some emergency panic counselling over the radio to get Jimmie to keep it together. He was, however, no match for Edwards who quickly cut the gap that had opened up between them; Clint Bowyer rode Edwards' coat tails and followed through to third, followed by now by Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton.
Before either Edwards or Bowyer could make a definite move on Johnson, the fifth caution of the afternoon came out when Kasey Kahne had engine problems and headed up towards the wall. He had to head for the garage area, and joining him there was last week's winner, Regan Smith. Smith had reported a possible electrical fire back on lap 231 that had wiped all his instrument gauges and after that he'd struggled to stay on the lead lap, but finally it was a broken track bar that put him off the track for some 18 laps.
"What a difference a week makes," said a disappointed Smith. "It hurts because we had a good car and wanted to continue the momentum from last week's win in Darlington. But we know we had a fast car today and we will continue to have fast cars. We'll bounce back."
During the ensuing pit stops, Bowyer's crew pulled out all the stops and put him back out on track in the lead ahead of Johnson, Edwards, Burton and Harvick, and when the green flag came out Bowyer was away with surprising ease. Was he about to steal the race away from Johnson and Edwards, who had led for 207 and 117 laps respectively?
At this stage of proceedings, crew chiefs' heads were all but exploding with the number of potential strategies they were having to weigh up and allow for. Carl Edwards was being warned to be careful with fuel, since while the #99 should be able to make it to the end they had to allow for the possibility of a green-white chequered flag extended proceedings. But they couldn't they risk not pushing, either, in case the rain returned and the race ended prematurely. And what if there was another caution? "To pit, or not to pit?", that would be the question - along with "four tyres or two?" for a follow-up bonus point.
There was almost a very quick caution when Paul Menard got a flat tyre trying (and failing) to avoid going into the right rear of a very slow Juan Montoya who was suffering with gear selection issues up near the wall, but the damage to the two cars was fairly minimal and Menard was able to continue into pit lane for new tyres without a yellow being required. That left all eyes on the evolving battle up front, with some aggressive side-by-side fighting going on between Johnson and Edwards for second while Bowyer tried to stay out of trouble up front.
The top ten were starting to pack together, and were coming up to lap Juan Montoya when the struggling #42 got loose all by itself and spun in turn 4, just avoiding hitting the wall. It was a moment that could have wiped out most of the leaders but fortunately the wreck remained a purely private affair for the Colombian who held the car braked up on the banking as the field passed by, but still inevitably resulted in that sixth caution with just under 40 laps to go until the end.
Now the teams had to commit to their respective pit strategies: and Mark Martin - who had earlier dropped back down the running order because of a missing lugnut issue - gambled by not pitting at all, opting to stay out in the front. In a split second decision, Matt Kenseth made the call to come into the pits but to go for only two tyres: "We came in and I know Jimmy and I were both thinking about it at the same time," he said, referring to his crew chief Jimmy Fennig. "I just keyed the mic and said 'Jimmy, you sure you don't want to try two?' And he didn't even hesitate. It went smooth almost like we planned it."
"That was all Matt there," protested Fennig, who said the call wasn't made until the #17 was literally in the box. "He figured we needed to have clean air and he called two tyres and we did two and away we went."
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