18 March 2012
Keselowski too strong for Kenseth
Smith himself avoided hitting the wall but still suffered hefty front-end damage. “I am not sure why the incident with Kasey happened, but it was way too early in the race for anything like that to occur,” said Smith. “He came up on me and I didn't have any place to go. He might have thought he cleared me, but he didn't. It was costly for us as it was for many other teams.
"After the incident we just didn't have the same race car that we practised and qualified with," he added. "We were handicapped, which was unfortunate, because I felt we could have produced a pretty good finish today.”
Racing finally resumed on lap 47, meaning that almost half the race to that point had been spent behind the safety car. The leaders at the restart were those that had opted not to pit - AJ Allmendinger, Martin Truex Jr., Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brian Vickers, Jamie McMurray, Jeff Burton and Brendan Gaughan, with eighth-placed Greg Biffle the highest-placed of those who had decided to come in.
In what would prove to be a lengthy spell of green flag running, Allmendinger held the lead for almost 50 laps but all the time it was Vickers working his way up that caught the eye and on lap 95 he slid underneath the #22 which was bottled up behind backmarker Bobby Labonte to take the lead.
In his short-notice return to Cup racing with Michael Waltrip Racing in the #55 for the first time since Red Bull Racing folded at the end of 2011, Vickers stayed in front from this point for a whopping 122 laps - more than he's led in the last two years of full time competition in the series. Finally his car faded enough to allow Keselowski to climb to the front on lap 217, just before a round of pit stops under green ensured. Keselowski now found himself dogged with a new threat, as Matt Kenseth took up second chair of the race and set his sights on stealing the front as soon as he was able.
But before he could do so, and after a massive 218 trouble-free laps that had left only 14 cars left on the lead lap, a third caution of the day finally came out on lap 340 when David Stremme hit the wall in turn 4. It came 160 laps from the chequered flag, which meant that - with some astute fuel management and a favourable wind - the cars pitting under yellow should be make it to the end of the race.
Keselowski and Kenseth once again battled at the front ahead of Jeff Burton, Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon, with Kenseth quickly taking the lead albeit via what looked to be an early pass before the restart line. But this time the racing lasted only 13 laps before the caution was out again on lap 359, and this time it was Jeff Gordon who triggered it with a spin in turn 3 - with a little help from his own Hendrick Motorsports team mate Dale Earnhardt Jr.
"Man, I'm sorry about that! We barely bumped," Earnhardt said over the radio - and it was true, the two cars had hardly touched each other. Unfortunately, the #88's exhaust had just cut the #24's left rear tyre and that was all it had needed to send Gordon out of the race after the car refused to restart.
"I know we didn't hit that hard," agreed an understandably disappointed Gordon. "I think we bumped more than we should have is the way it looks like. We definitely didn't hit in the right location, because I think the tailpipe or something just cut the left rear immediately ... so around we went. I knew it immediately, and I let off trying to keep it out of the wall, but there was no chance.
"I know that it wasn't intentional, but it certainly ruined our day," he added. "There were times we had the best car out there and I think we could have got back to that before this thing was over."
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
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