21 November 2011
Stewart's unstoppable charge to glory
Edwards might have had the lead, but the irresistible rise of Stewart would have been ringing alarm bells in the #99 camp - as would two Ford engine failures, one from Ragan on lap 83 (admittedly running experimental development parts for 2012) and another for Macros Ambrose. (Greg Biffle would also blow a cylinder in his Ford engine later in the race.) Having his own car blow up would be a cruel way indeed for Edwards to lose the title battle.
At the restart following a post-rain round of pit stops, Kevin Harvick led the field to green on lap 117 ahead of Jeff Gordon, with title rivals Edwards and Stewart now lining up side-by-side behind them. Edwards got bottled up behind a sluggish Harvick - "he's running into us, blocking us, affecting the outcome of the race," Edwards complained about the #29 over the team radio - and Stewart took the opportunity to pounce and take up second position behind new race leader Jeff Gordon. Five laps later, Stewart moved into the lead, and Edwards was soon also past Gordon for second place.
The race was soon under yellow again just past the midway point as Trevor Bayne found the wall. Harvick, Ryan Newman and Mark Martin emerged from pit lane in the lead after opting for two tyres only, with Edwards fourth; Stewart meanwhile had slipped all the way back to ninth place after having some lug nuts sticking and also being cut off by Denny Hamlin on pit road. He briefly lost a couple more spots on the restart on lap 140, too, while Edwards quickly stepped up to second.
Outgoing champion Jimmie Johnson then made an impression on the race by getting tapped into a spin through turn 4 on the very next lap, bringing out the sixth caution even though he succeeded in keeping it off the wall. He was already three laps off the lead after an extended stay on pit road with the hood up for engine problems, and it was certainly a world away from the glories of 2010 for the #48 - a salient reminder that even the most dominant reigns do come to an end at some point.
The next restart saw Martin Truex Jr. jump to the lead, while behind him there was a wild four-wide battle down the frontstretch between Stewart, Harvick, Edwards and Kyle Busch at the culmination of a spectacular six-lap surge to the lead by Stewart. If that display didn't send out a message and shake Edwards and his #99 crew to their core then nothing would.
The track promptly went back to yellow again as Landon Cassill got loose and collected Cole Whitt on the backstretch on lap 153, which also left Trevor Bayne with a blown tyre. That meant another round of pit stops, and Tony Stewart's pit crew suffered a delay caused by a lug nut stuck in the wheel gun that dropped the #14 all the way down to 12th position. Up front it was now Jeff Burton, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jamie McMurray and Matt Kenseth taking up the top four spots ahead of Edwards and Truex.
But once again there was no stopping Stewart who was back up to fourth in the blink of an eye as the race got back underway, while Edwards was busy tussling with Truex for second place behind race leader Matt Kenseth. Once past Truex, Edwards then had no trouble with his Roush Fenway team mate and on lap 175 the #99 was back in front - but Stewart was building momentum and moving closer, up into second place on lap 180 and stalking his rival for the lead in what was turning out to be a thrilling championship decider. Crucially, Edwards was back where he felt most comfortable and had the best pace - the clean air of the lead - and he was starting to pull out a vital comfort margin of around 2s over Stewart.
Green flag pit stops loomed as the race came up on the two hundred lap mark, and more importantly everyone was still looking short on fuel to get home on their current pit strategies: Stewart's crew chief Darian Grubb was on the radio asking his driver to "do what you can to save fuel", words to chill any racer to the core. "How bad do you need me to save?" responded Stewart, and Grubb confirmed they needed at least ten more laps.
While Stewart stayed out - perhaps hoping for another weather front to move in and curtail the race early - Edwards was in for his pit stop on lap 201. He and his crew chief, Bob Osborne, were concerned about wear and tear on the front right tyre after an earlier set had proved ready to blow following a similarly lengthy stint, but Osborne assured his man that there was nothing untoward with this latest set, that he should forget about it and just get on with the race - and reminded him that they would still need a final stop before the end, the Ford engine being notably more fuel-hungry than Stewart's Chevy.
Edwards put his foot down: although briefly a lap down on Stewart after his pit stop, Edwards' fresher tyres and Stewart's fuel conservation meant that it was easy for the #99 to blow past the #14 to get back onto the lead lap. Stewart pushed his current fuel as far as possible before pitting on lap 211, cruising in on fumes, which handed the lead back to Edwards.
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