No one can say that the 2011 TUMS Fast Relief 500 was a dull affair: with 18 cautions over the course of almost four hours of running on the half-mile "paperclip" oval in Martinsville, Virginia, fortunes waxed and waned over the course of 500 laps as fast and dramatically as a nosebleed-inducing rollercoaster.
In the end, Tony Stewart would emerge from the mayhem as the main challenger to Carl Edwards in the Sprint Cup battle. And having written off his title chances as recently as a month ago, now there was no such modesty from Smoke: "He'd better be worried," said Stewart, referring to Edwards. "That's all I can say. He's not going to have an easy three weeks ... We're going to go after him!"
Carl Edwards himself had provided much of the drama during the afternoon. The Chase leader had started from pole position after rain washed out the Friday practice and Saturday qualifying sessions, leaving the starting grid set by owner points. But from the moment Edwards actually took to the track in the sole practice session on Saturday afternoon it was clear that the #99 just didn't have good pace here, and so it proved when the race itself started and after leading through most of the first 30 laps of the race, Edwards started to slide his way back through the field.
A lengthy pit stop for a stray lugnut issue on lap 199 completed that slide to the back of the lead lap in 25th position, and during one of the rare lengthy green flag periods that followed he came ever closer to going a lap down. When he did, he was saved by an almost immediate caution that handed him the lucky dog free pass back onto the lead lap, but another long green flag stint promptly put him down again and it took a slew of yellows just past the 400-lap mark to put him back on the lead lap a second time, and at last his pit crew appeared to have addressed the handling problems that had been plaguing him all afternoon and the #99 was finally making forward progress.
Shortly afterwards, however, it appeared the final nail in Edwards' coffin had been hammered in when he was served with a black flag for passing before the start line following one of the late cautions - which would put him at least a couple of laps off the lead and well down the running order. The Roush Fenway team appealed, explaining that he had been told
to pass Jeff Burton to get into position for the restart, and the black flag was quickly rescinded.
"Whether or not there was a communication error or what was going on, I appreciate NASCAR looking at it and realising they told me to do what they were black-flagging me for," he said. As if aware of the inevitable conspiracy theories that will break out among NASCAR fans about the incident, Edwards admitted: "It's not very often they rescind the black flag like that."
Handed this "Get Out Of Jail Free" card, Edwards did not squander it and managed to slip into the top ten, effectively having salvaged almost 20pts with the recovery from his dismal mid-race standings.
"That's just a gift to have finished in ninth and have the day we had ... We did not deserve to finish ninth," he agreed after the race. "It's unreal. We were so bad," he continued. " I had become okay with the fact that we were probably gonna finish 20th or 25th. I was thinking already about [the next race at] Texas and how we were gonna have to go there and everything we were gonna do, but my guys stuck with it and we got very, very fortunate."
Instead, the leading pack up front that eventually emerged to dominate much of the race consisted of Kyle Busch (who led the most laps of the day, 126), Jeff Gordon (113 laps in the lead), Jimmie Johnson (61 laps), Denny Hamlin (58) and Matt Kenseth (who only put in three laps in the lead but was constantly lurking in the top four). Kenseth would end up spinning on lap 464 after locking up his brakes, collecting Kyle Busch and Juan Montoya as well as Mark Martin and Joey Logano on the way.