It had taken an age for Rick Hendrick's drivers to get that landmark 200th NASCAR Sprint Cup Series win two weeks ago at Darlington, but then Jimmie Johnson followed up that win with a $1 million victory in last weekend's All Star Race, and the team's new boy Kasey Kahne has carried forward the momentum with a follow-up Cup victory this weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Nor was it just any race win, but one of the most prestigious of the Cup calendar - and certainly the longest event. Richard Petty Motorsport duo Aric Almirola and Marcos Ambrose had set themselves up for the race perfectly with a front row lockout, starting under the setting sun just before 6.30pm on Sunday evening.
Almirola and Ambrose traded the lead between themselves over the opening laps, with Greg Biffle breaking through the RPM stranglehold for the first time on lap 9 despite struggling with skyrocketing water temperatures because of some debris lodged in his air intake. Once that was taken care of, Biffle started to fly: taking the lead again on lap 23, no one could shift him from the front for the next 90 laps which included two green flag pit stops.
Marcos Ambrose had played second fiddle to Biffle for the vast majority of those laps, and had his own chance to lead after pit stops under a debris yellow on lap 111. Kyle Busch quickly moved past him to the front, but Biffle put them both in their place by taking his crown back a couple of laps later.
Jeff Gordon stayed out under the next debris caution to lead on lap 136, but Kyle Busch was feeling in the mood to have a longer go up front and duly moved into the lead for the next 51 laps save for one during a cycle of pit stops that saw David Ragan briefly pop to the top.
But that was quite enough of a rest for Biffle, and he was back in front from lap 191 despite already having led more laps in this one race so far than in the entirety of the 2011 season. Kasey Kahne led for the first time on lap 220 during the next round of pit stops, but then it was back to the Biffle Show for another extended run in the lead.
By now the sun had gone and the floodlights were on. That meant that the track was rapidly cooling, and the teams were having to chase the changing conditions. Biffle's car slowly turned from looking uncatchable to looking merely strong, and then ... Not quite so good.
Kasey Kahne was on hand to pounce at the opportunity when it presented itself, and he took charge of the race properly on lap 280, shortly after Biffle had needed to save the car from a dangerous wobble getting loose off turn 2. BY the time the race hit lap 300, Kahne was leading a top ten consisting of Biffle, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski and Carl Edwards.
Keselowski had earlier had pit lane contact with Tony Stewart, pulling out of his pit stall just as Stewart was coming into his just in front. Keselowski was worrying about the reigning champion rolling up his sleeves and dispensing some street justice in retribution, as he's been known to do in the past and voicing his concern about "getting stuffed in the fence" by the #14. Keselowski's pit crew made representations to Stewart's crew chief Steve Addington, and ultimately both drivers seemed to come to an amicable sharing of the responsibility for the mishap, and a knife fight was averted for the night.