15 August 2011
Ambrose finally gets to victory lane
The restart came on lap 31 with Ambrose retaining the lead from Montoya, but in the midfield David Reutimann got spun out after contact with Mark Martin and then got a black flag to come in for repairs to the bodywork barely hanging off the back of the car when he got underway again.
Ambrose led through to lap 39 when he came in on his scheduled second stop, with Montoya briefly leading before coming in himself and then Jeff Gordon taking up the top spot on lap 42 as he battled to stay ahead of Kyle Busch in the #18. Gordon was still in front at the end of lap 45, which marked the all-important halfway point for the race and meant that come what may it was now "official" - a rollover to Tuesday was now no longer on the cards, and as if to celebrate the weather itself was starting to perk up, with the heavy fog lifting, the drizzle abating and the skies brightening up.
Having reached that landmark, Gordon suddenly struggled with the #24 getting really loose and promptly lost positions to Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski in short order, putting him back in third ahead of Earnhardt Jr., Martin Truex Jr., Tony Stewart and Kasey Kahne.
That was still the order at the top on lap 49 when suddenly a tyre blew on the #22 of Kurt Busch, who had battled his way back up to 17th after that earlier difficult start. This time he hurtled off track at speed and made a heavy arrival into the tyre wall at turn 5. It was serious enough to bring out the second caution of the day, which was at least good news for Boris Said who got the free pass and was back on the lead lap.
“I had a big problem getting into the braking zones today; just rear brakes locking up," Kurt said after the crash. The extra brake pressure had generated heat that ended up blowing out the tyre. "It was a bummer of a day and not anything that we expected. It must have been something with the brake package. Whatever Keselowski found at Road Atlanta, I had a problem with today," he said worryingly.
The timing was not ideal for the rest of the drivers: with 40 laps left to run (and weather looking much less likely to curtail the proceedings), no one could yet make it hope by pitting and refuelling now. The early experiences of Kyle Busch and Greg Biffle had firmly demonstrated that 28-30 green flag laps was the most anyone could run on a single tank on this 2.45-mile, 11-turn circuit configuration, so Gordon was the highest-placed of those coming in to the pits under the caution as he really had to get something done about how loose his car had got. The stop put him down to 22nd place for the restart on lap 52, and still meant that everyone out there would have to make at least one more pit stop. For some - like Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. - that would still be a very fine call.
Kyle continued to lead through to lap 58, at which point Brad Keselowski put all worries about the braking prowess of the #2 Blue Deuce following his Road Atlanta accident clean out of his mind to outdrag Kyle across the start/finish line to claim the lead. But he did so just as lap 60 came up, and with exactly 30 laps to go to the end of the race it was time for those who were working a long two-stop fuel strategy to pile into pit road. Keselowski, Busch and Tony Stewart led the way in, but it was still a knife-edge as to whether they would make it the full race distance from here.
On a three-stop strategy, Marcos Ambrose and Juan Montoya now returned to the lead on lap 61, with Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, AJ Allmendinger and Jamie McMurray forming the top six. Kyle Busch was the highest-placed of the recent stoppers in 12th, having got back out ahead of Keselowski who was running in 13th.
Ambrose and Montoya didn't wait long before pitting themselves on lap 64, handing over the lead to Johnson for a single lap before he pitted in turn leaving Jeff Gordon minding the store. He was still in front when the third caution of the day came out on lap 66, which was exactly what those like Kyle Busch running long final fuel stints needed to help get them to the end.
But Busch won't have been happy to see the cause of the caution being his Joe Gibbs Racing team mate Denny Hamlin, who went flying into the tyre wall at turn 1 at high speed and took a worryingly hard hit in the process after what had looked to him to be a front left brake line failure. "I don't know what broke but that was one of the hardest hits I've ever had," he tweeted later on, reassuring fans that he was okay.
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