25 September 2011
Stewart shows he's no one-hit wonder
The timing of the caution - before the completion of this round of pit stops - resulted in only five cars being shown on the lead lap, so Kevin Harvick received the lucky-dog free pass back onto the lead lap and many others received the wave-around onto the lead lap as well by virtue of opting not to pit under the caution. Gordon was on to pit road, as were Martin and Montoya again as it was essentially a free stop and put them back on-sync with the other runners.
Once all this was sorted out it was Kahne back in the lead ahead of Jeff Gordon, David Ragan, Mark Martin and Kevin Harvick for the restart on lap 162. Gordon used his fresher tyres to pass Kahne at the restart, and he had built up a 1.6s lead over Kahne when the third (and, it proved, final) caution came out on lap 173 when Matt Kenseth spun after contact from his Roush Fenway Racing team mate Carl Edwards - who had simply carried too much speed out of turn 1 and run into the back of the #17. Both cars escaped without serious damage.
"I feel really dumb for running in to him, but I'm glad it worked out for both of us," said Edwards. "If Matt doesn't retaliate, we'll be really good!"
"That was no big deal," said Kenseth, with no such thoughts of payback entering his mind. "I was having a little bit of brake fade, and I backed up extra early. I didn't expect it, or I probably could have saved it, but that was no big deal. Those things happen."
Jeff Gordon was now leading Kasey Kahne, David Ragan, Mark Martin and Greg Biffle, with the top nine all having stayed out. Harvick in tenth was the highest of those that had pitted for fuel but no tyres (which meant he lost positions at the restart to those behind him on fresher rubber), while Jimmie Johnson was all the way back in 19th after having stopped for four tyres as well as gas.
Now the race all started to focus down once again on fuel conservation, with the crew chiefs of those cars that had pitted soon on the team radios to say that they wanted to try running to the chequered flag on just one more stop - but it would be tight. Those that hadn't just pitted - like Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon - were looking at two stops, which meant that they would have to run hard to pull out the necessary margin over the others.
Things were getting tense: Jimmie Johnson snapped at his long-time crew chief Chad Knaus to quit the "annoying" cheer-leading radio communications, and Ryan Newman and his crew chief Tony Gibson were also having to make up and apologise to each other for bickering.
Newman's team mate and car owner Tony Stewart, meanwhile, was suddenly looking oddly strong in this stage of the race. He passed Greg Biffle for seventh on lap 195 and looked good on fuel too. Stewart finally had to pit for fuel on lap 228 at the same time as David Ragan; Mark Martin, Clint Bowyer and Greg Biffle had made their stops on the preceding laps and were on the very limit of making it.
Gordon's run in the lead lasted to lap 230 when he finally had to surrender a six second lead to come in. But he'd left it too late, and the car ran out of gas on pit road and took an age to get the fuel in and pumping properly, and suddenly his shot at a win was just so much vapour.
Kurt Busch was the last car to come in during this round of stops, and when he pitted on lap 246 it put the off-sync two-stopper Kahne back in front briefly. But Clint Bowyer had been planning for this moment and he smoothly moved into the lead down the inside four laps later, with Tony Stewart following him through into second place - and the two would go on to maintain those positions for the next 48 laps.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
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