Kurt Busch spun just after the first round of pit stops when his left-rear tyre fell off under the McMurray caution while he was in 11th place. He limped back to the pits where it was found that the problem was now a more substantial issue with the suspension that took the team nine laps to rectify before he was able to rejoin.
"The axle shucked out on the track," he said while waiting out the repairs. "It felt like a broken track bar again like we had at Sonoma, but it's not. They are just working hard to find out what it is."
That was a lot better than Brian Vickers fared while filling in for Mark Martin in the #55. Vickers' race ended almost before it started: "We blew an engine getting into turn 6. On the downshift maybe I over-revved it. I'm not sure. It's really frustrating."
With the McMurray caution coming in the middle of that round of pit stop, the running order at the front was jumbled: the front four were now Brad Keselowski, Marcos Ambrose, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, with Kyle Busch the first of the cars not having visited pit road now having briefly dropped back to eighth. Tony Stewart also had to make a stop, but he exited with the gas can still in place that incurred a penalty drive-thru for the reigning Cup champion.
The front three started to break away from the chasing pack, and as the laps went on it was clear that Keselowski and Ambrose were dropping Johnson and engaging in their own private duel. Finally at the start of lap 39, Ambrose made his move down the inside of turn 1 and claimed the position for himself for the first time in the race, quickly opening up a almost a second's worth of a gap.
It was an opportune moment to take the lead, as the weather radars were showing increasing number of rain cells popping up in the Watkins Glen area, and with the race now past halfway it meant that if the rain arrived in force and a red flag was called, the result could be called as it stood.
Even so, Ambrose had to give up the position to take to pit road at the same time as Johnson and Kevin Harvick on lap 47; that put Keselowski in the lead, with Kyle Busch now back in second place albeit still five seconds off the #2. Keselowski didn't need to pit until lap 58, putting him in range to finish the race without another stop. The strategy point became somewhat blunted, however, when Denny Hamlin blew up the next lap around to bring out the second caution of the afternoon.
"I have a thing with wrecks and fires lately, it's frustrating," said Hamlin, who was already in his backup car after wrecking on the oil laid down by someone else's engine blow-up in Friday practice. "I started feeling the heat and I looked down and saw fire right by my feet and it was coming through the fire wall. That part of it is pretty scary. Once I started to get a little fire on me, I decided to stop at the nearest fire station!
"For us, it's really the first engine issue all year," he added. "It's unfortunate, but it's part of racing – it's what happens. Just an overall bad weekend for us, not the way we wanted to end it."
That meant that everyone yet to pit - and even Ambrose, slightly earlier than planned for his own final stop of the day - could now pit under the caution. Keselowski was still in the lead, and Tony Stewart had benefitted as well and was now in second ahead of Clint Bowyer, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Greg Biffle.