17 September 2012
Keselowski too strong for Johnson at Chicago
Lap 100 was celebrated with the second debris caution of the day, and Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick stole a march on the others by taking only two tyres in the ensuing pit stops. That put them on the front row for the restart ahead of Johnson and Kahne: and nice the green came out, it was clear that Keselowski at least had the pace to stay right where he was on point He soon opened up a three car length led of just under a second over Johnson, who presumably was taking notes: make sure the #2 doesn't get in front when it comes down to the business end of the race, or it could cost him the win.
Unsurprisingly given the two-tyre strategy that had put him at the front, Keselowski's pace started to fall off as the next round of pit stops appeared and by lap 139 Johnson was close enough to have a look under the Penske car and start sizing up Keselowski for the overtake move. He hadn't managed to make the move stick when the third caution of the day came out, and for once it wasn't debris but an actual incident that was the cause - Casey Mears slapped the wall in turn 1 on lap 149.
"We just blew a right front, I don't know why," explained Mears. "We ran longer than even that right there on the first couple runs. We don't know why it happened but we had a pretty good car."
Johnson was able to beat Keselowski off pit road this time and settled back into the lead once more, with Kahne, Gordon and Ryan Newman taking up the rest of the top five at the green flag. Now it was Keselowski's turn to sit in second place and stare in frustration at another car's back end for a while, and jut as Johnson had found before him there was little he could do at this stage of the race without risking too much, too soon. Having two more Hendrick cars running immediately behind him would hardly have been settling for his nerves.
And then one of the Hendrick cars was gone: Jeff Gordon ploughed straight into the wall at turn 1 on lap 188 to bring out the fourth caution of the afternoon. A stuck throttle was to blame.
"We're still looking into it," said Gordon. "Something with the return spring where it didn't come all the way back. So, it was about half-throttle, which is better than full throttle, but it still caused a lot of damage and caused us to hit the wall and end our day.
"We were having a good day," he added. "Coming from 19th to be up there in the top five, and I don't know if we had anything to win the race, but we certainly were giving it everything we had and that's very disappointing."
It's a disaster for any hopes he had of figuring in the 2012 Chase after scraping in on the final "most wins" wildcard after last weekend's race at Richmond. Being listed with a 35th place finish in the results means that just one race into the ten-race shootout for the Sprint Cup championship he is already 47pts down from the leader - a full race's worth of points.
"In this deal, you can't afford to have issues like that," he ruefully agreed.
The race went back to green on lap 195 with Johnson, Keselowski and Kahne now joined at the front by Joe Gibbs Racing's non-Chase contenders Kyle Busch and Joey Logano for a time. A retirement for Dave Blaney whose car lost power on lap 204 was handled without recourse to yellows, and soon the final round of pit stops for the day were beginning.
Johnson and Kahne both came in on lap 229; Keselowski was able to eke out another lap and came in next time around. And when Keselowski exited pit lane, he pulled up right in front of the #48 - to the fury of Johnson and the Hendrick pit crew, who felt that Keselowski had clearly breached the rules regarding blending back in from the pit exit, and that the move had caused Johnson to check up to avoid a collision.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
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