21 August 2011
Kyle Busch's fourth win books Chase place
It was Mark Martin who beat them both off pit road to lead at the green flag, but the status quo was quickly restored when Biffle cruised right back into the lead first lap round. Also now gathering around the top six positions were Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman and Kyle Busch, while finally Jimmie Johnson was feeling happier in the #48 and starting to work his way through the field from his grid position of 19th and he too was getting up toward the top six during this stint.
Despite Kurt Busch making some contact with the wall and unconfirmed debris reported on the track at one point, there were no cautions out in time to help the teams out when it came to the next round of pit stops, which were held under green from around lap 86. Jimmie Johnson nearly threw away all his good work when he had difficulty getting fully into his pit box, but the NASCAR officials ruled his "three wheels in" position to be legal and he got away without any penalties.
Greg Biffle had held a 3.641s lead before the pit stops, but once Biffle came out again following his own stop he suddenly found himself passed for the lead in turn 1 on lap 95 by Kyle Busch. The two continued to joust for the position and it went back and forth until the third yellow finally came out again (for debris) on lap 103.
Despite the relatively short time since their previous stops, the leaders were all keen to have proper pit stops under cautions and duly filed back into pit road, but some - including Kasey Kahne - opted to go for two tyres only this time around. That put Kahne out in front at the restart followed by Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin. Busch and Biffle both dropped back, and while Busch soon set about regaining lost positions there was something never quite the same again about the #16.
"I don't know what happened, I'm not sure," admitted Biffle when asked after the race why his pace had suddenly disappeared in the second half of the race. "I have a feeling we kinda got a bum set of tires and then we got off on our adjustments. It was really really tight and we adjusted on it and then I think I was too loose the rest of the day but I really don't know what happened to be honest with you. I really don't know right now."
Kenseth took over the lead from Kahne almost at once, but on lap 114 Jeff Gordon took to the front for the first time of the afternoon. The track ran green from there through to lap 168 despite a number of incidents, including Denny Hamlin scraping the wall in turns 1 and 2 on lap 122, causing left-front damage which affected the splitter bar and also led to a flat tyre. That led to two quick pit stops in succession under green and finally an even longer visit to the garage to sort out the accumulating problems.
"We were fighting the car all day, from tight to loose and back and forth," Hamlin explained. "Our car just really struggled on corner entry on being loose. I was in a pack of cars there and tried to enter the corner with a little bit more speed and just got too loose and got into the wall."
It put Hamlin 15 laps down and is a devastating blow to his hopes of making the Chase for the last five years. "This is the first time where I've struggled and we're struggling to find the balance of the car that I want," he said. "It's just part of learning. I'm not going to make any excuses and I'm not going to sugar-coat it because it's on me to try to get better at this one."
Not even Kevin Harvick brushing the wall on lap 128, Brad Keselowski complaining that the #2 felt like it had a flat on lap 136 or a confirmed sighting of debris (a stray water bottle on track) would provoke NASCAR officials into bringing out the yellow during this period: perhaps the threat of weather in the area was staying their usual habit of throwing a caution at the merest hint of anything untoward on the track at ovals.
That meant more green flag pit stops commenced on lap 137 with Kurt Busch one of the first takers after hitting the wall and needing his front fender readjusting. Jeff Gordon took back the lead after the stops, with Kyle Busch pushing his way back up to second ahead of Kenseth but still well off the back of Gordon. He had just about reeled in the #24 by the time the next caution came out on lap 168, which was the result of a very slow Dave Blaney causing a hazard as he tried to limp back to pit road.
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