9 September 2012
Bowyer wins rain-hit Chase line-up decider
Just under an hour later, the cars were re-fired and the track was deemed dry enough to bring out the green flags, with Hamlin, Earnhardt, Bowyer, Johnson and Kasey Kahne in fifth taking up where they'd left off. But the break had not been kind to Earnhardt, who lost places in quick succession and dropped to seventh, leaving Hamlin leading the race first from Johnson and then from Bowyer, as Johnson too started to look off his earlier game.
The rain break hadn't initially seemed to have done Jeff Gordon any favours, despite the team cutting the chain to the rear sway bar to disconnect it in order to try improving the #24's handling. As the race reached the halfway point - making it official even in the event of any further showers - Gordon was still a lap down and stuck down in 20th place, not showing much in the way of signs of life even though Gordon was immediately happier with how it felt.
"We just flat out missed the setup at the beginning," admitted Gordon after the race. "The biggest thing is that rear bar, we just had to get rid of it. We did that. We cut the chain. Our car really started coming to us right then. We finally got some drive off."
With no cautions since the restart, the field hit pit lane for green flag stops around lap 230, after which Hamlin was still in front now ahead of Kasey Kahne, with Truex, Earnhardt and Mark Martin making up the rest of the top five. A caution came out immediately after the cycle thanks to Clint Bowyer spinning on the front straight after sustaining a cut tyre from contact with Juan Montoya, and a few cars opted to come straight back onto pit road for another stop - including Gordon, seeking some help with his pile of problems with the #24. His main Chase threat Kyle Busch was also in, as was Ryan Newman who in any case had a penalty to serve for an uncontrolled tyre during his earlier stop.
Hamlin was once again led the field to the restart; after flirting with the idea of going three-wide with the front row as the greens came out, Truex finally pulled off a successful move for the lead on lap 242 through turns 1 and 2 only to be bested again by Hamlin six laps later in turns 3 and 4. Hamlin was then able to pull away and leave Truex scrapping with Kahne over bragging rights to second spot, while Jimmie Johnson was locked in a fight with Kevin Harvick for fourth.
Then the moment everyone feared: rain reported in turn 3. Three laps later, NASCAR had the caution out for precipitation, and everyone held their breath. Even though the weather radars suggested this was nothing serious, the top seven were loathe to surrender track position at this point just in case and stayed out while most came on pit road; when it was clear that the race was quickly going back to green, Hamlin and Earnhardt ducked in to the pits for their stops just before the restart, leaving Kahne and Truex in charge of proceedings.
It was Tony Stewart who launched himself into the lead as the green flags came out on lap 283, with his newly re-signed team mate Ryan Newman slipping into second as his wingman. Newman took over the lead role as the race hit the one hundred to go mark, and the only man able to stay in touch with the Stewart/Haas drivers was Clint Bowyer who slowly clawed his way forward and finally took the lead for himself on lap 312
Also finally on song was Jeff Gordon: he'd made it back into the top ten after the restart and with 80 laps to go he was jockeying for fifth place with Mark Martin. Crucially, he was well in front of Kyle Busch, who went a lap off the lead a few minutes later to emphasise that the balance of power in the battle for the Chase spot had firmly shifted: Busch's remaining hopes were all-but extinguished when a lug nut was missed off his right rear wheel on his next pit stop, forcing him to make another visit to pit road minutes later. His fate was out of his hands, and only a disaster for Gordon could now salvage his 2012 season.
The differing approaches to the previous round of pit stops meant that everyone seemed to be on a different schedule. The Penske cars of Brad Keselowski and Sam Hornish Jr. came in on consecutive laps on 336 and 337; Mark Martin and Carl Edwards made it to lap 348 before coming in for their final stops, while Harvick pushed it all the way to lap 355. And increasingly it was looking like race leader Clint Bowyer was stopping for nothing: he would make his fuel last to the end of run dry trying. Even Hamlin was looking at making it all the way home without another stop, even though the way he was charging back up the field didn't suggest he was exactly leaning off the fuel just yet in order to do it.
With fifty to go, Bowyer led Stewart and Hamlin, with Jeff Gordon in fourth place but his late-race resurgence looking in danger of running out of steam the longer the green flag stint went on. Gordon finally came in for his final stop on lap 358, and four laps later Tony Stewart was in as well.
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