10 October 2011
Johnson shows them the way at Kansas
But there was still drama to come. Chase contender Jeff Gordon's #24 had started to show alarming signs of its engine letting go as early as the caution on lap 240, but he kept it going almost to the very end. Then on lap 265 - two laps shy of the scheduled race distance - it finally let go in no uncertain fashion and Gordon was emphatically done for the day. The oil he dropped down on the track also meant a sixth and final caution, and with it being so close to the end it meant the race distance was now extended by five laps to accommodate a green-and-white-chequered finish.
"I started seeing smoke inside the car," explained Gordon. "Our day was pretty much over anyway and we were going to finish maybe 15th or something. Right there I started what smelled like burning oil and I saw the oil temp start to come up and I felt like it was just a matter of time before it blew up ... To last that long was pretty amazing."
That meant the end of Johnson's latest 2s lead and a restart for Johnson alongside Kasey Kahne, but it proved no problem for the five-time champion and he aced the restart and cruised away, Kahne spinning his tyres before slotting into second place ahead of Keselowski and Kenseth. Kahne was closing back up on Johnson in the final lap, but ultimately couldn't get close enough to mount a real challenge in time.
"On that restart, Brad kind of gave me a nice push, but I couldn't really get to [Johnson]," said Kahne. "I just really didn't have a shot at them there."
Remarkably, fifth place at the line was taken by Carl Edwards who had really done an amazing job to recover once he got back on the lead lap, and in finishing one place ahead of Kevin Harvick he also inherits the outright lead in the Chase championship standings.
"That was very, very bad at the beginning of that race. I cannot thank my guys enough for sticking with it and working hard all day. I cannot believe we finished fifth. It feels like a win," said a hugely relieved Edwards. "That's the most we have done with a car that wasn't capable of winning - ever. I'm really proud of my guys. We made good adjustments, and I just cannot believe it. From the way the day started, to finish like that is spectacular."
But it was really all about Jimmie Johnson: written off as past his prime just a couple of weeks ago, with this one bound he was free of the doubters and into third place in the Chase just 4pts behind Edwards. It was Johnson's second win of the year and his 55th Cup win in 357 starts (putting him equal in the record books with Rusty Wallace) as well as being his 20th win in a Chase race - the most of all drivers, and making him the only driver to have won a Chase race in each season since the format's inception in 2004 - after leading a dominant 197 laps of the 272 lap race.
Suddenly five-time was looking good for the six-pack after all: "You just don't know," he insisted. "Sure, this is a huge, huge step in the right direction, but in six races a lot can happen. So I don't want to get overly excited. We've got to go out there and race for this thing."
Keselowski's third place finish and Kenseth's fourth gave them big fillips in the points as well and they are in fourth and fifth positions respectively, with Kurt Busch (who dropped to 13th by the end of the race on what proved to be an ultimately misguided alternate pit stop strategy) and Tony Stewart (who dropped to 15th after sliding through his pit box in the final stop) losing Chase spots. Kyle Busch is in eighth place in the Chase, having run consistently in the top ten for much of Kansas until the very end, when a decision to try two new tyres in a late stop saw him drop to 11th. The #18's Chase story has been rather like that - so close, but just failing to catch light when it needed to and ending up close-but-no-cigar.
Meanwhile, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Ryan Newman and Denny Hamlin are now over 40pts behind the points leader and effectively their Chase challenge is over. As is Jeff Gordon's, whose last-minute engine failure at Kansas resulted in a painful 34th place finish which means that his dreams, too, are now so much moonshine in 2011.
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