Bristol Motor Speedway is one of the shortest, tightest and most claustrophobic tracks on the NASCAR Sprint Cup calendar, and the pressure cooker atmosphere this close to the Chase cut-off made for an eventful night's racing - which included Carl Edwards misjudging his pit stop strategy, a wrecked Danica Patrick pointing an accusing finger at one driver, and Tony Stewart throwing a retaliatory helmet in fury at another.
In the end it might have been Denny Hamlin in victory lane, but Greg Biffle, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth arguably had the biggest prize - all of them booking passage through to the Chase play-offs for the 2012 Sprint Cup championship.
The evening had got off to an unusually musical start, with drivers walking out on stage to their choice of music track, the best introduction in terms of crowd reception getting a donation for a charity of their choice. There was Macros Ambrose arriving to the strains of AC/DC's "Thunderstruck," Brian Vickers' wry choice of "Livin' On A Prayer" from Bon Jovi, David Ragan going quirky and sentimental with the theme from The Andy Griffith Show
, Brad Keselowski opting for Ozzy Osborne, Clint Bowyer for Elvis Presley and Aric Almirola going for Kanye West.
There were some humorous ones - Juan Montoya recalling Daytona with Jerry Lee Lewis hit "Great Balls of Fire" - and there were statements of intent from Joey Logano ("Can't Touch This" from MC Hammer) and Tony Stewart ("How You Like Me Now" by The Heavy), but Jimmie Johnson got a mixed reception for his choice of "Howlin'" by The Black Keys, and Kyle Busch received resoundingly more jeers than cheers for the cheeky selection of Raytona 500's "Rowdy Busch".
But at the end of the pre-race proceedings, it was Denny Hamlin who won the first prize of the night, after showing some impressive dance moves as "Wobble" by VICs blasted out of the speakers. That sent him skipping over to climb into the #11 car for the start of the race, where he was beginning from eighth on the grid after qualifying on Friday afternoon had been rained off by a heavy thunderstorm arriving at just the wrong moment.
That disruption had left Casey Mears with a surprise pole position, and he converted that to a solid lead for the first 26 laps of the 500-lap race at the short half mile oval Bristol Motor Speedway under the floodlights. Mears resisted initial pressure from first Brad Keselowski and then Joey Logano and dealt with an early caution on lap 9 for a crash by Ken Schrader on the frontstrech after contact with Jason Leffler that led to a restart on lap 18, after which it was just a matter of time before Logano finally got a successful run on Mears and claimed the lead.
Logano quickly pulled out a very comfortable lead while Mears was clearly holding up a train of cars behind him. Aric Almirola was next to pass Mears, followed next time around by Jeff Burton, and after that the floodgates opened and Mears toppled out of the top ten in short order as the race entered an extended period of fairly stable green flag running.
There were problems reported up and down the field - Kyle Busch had radioed in with complaints about a terrible vibration, while Matt Kenseth was concerned about his brakes and was clearly struggling with the handling of the #17. Fortunately for Kenseth a caution came out on lap 81 for debris on the track after Sam Hornish Jr. scraped the wall in turn 2, which allowed the leaders to make their first stop of the evening on pit road. Denny Hamlin likely wished he'd stayed away, not even his light-footedness able to avoid getting crunched in the right hand side of his car from Landon Cassill on the entry to his pit stall. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kyle Busch were also left ruing their pit stops after getting a drive-thru for speeding.
Logano led at the restart on lap 90 ahead of Kasey Kahne, Brad Keselowski and Jeff Burton, and 18 laps later Kahne finally managed to get a good enough run on the leader to claim the top spot, and stayed there through the third caution (Hornish finding the wall again) through to the lap 148. That's when David Ragan's #34 suddenly spun, and a fire briefly ignited underneath the car betraying leaking fluids spilling out, which immediately caught out race leader Kasey Kahne who ended up in the wall.