5 November 2012
Johnson wins restart duel with Keselowski
Little had changed in the running order, and when the race restarted Jimmie Johnson was still ahead and was dutifully followed by Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr. and now Jeff Gordon in fifth. But with the sun now low in the sky and shadows starting to fall on the track, conditions were changing and for the first time Johnson didn't have the best car on the speedway - he was passed by Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski, although he looked comfortable enough running in third place albeit two seconds off the new leading pair.
Another debris caution on lap 224 did little to change the order at the front, but at the restart Busch was complaining of a vibration and he started to fall back, with Keselowski taking over the lead. Jeff Gordon surged into second place ahead of his team mate Jimmie Johnson, but then had a tyre go down which forced him to make an unscheduled extra pit stop just before a new debris caution on lap 275.
Busch picked up his lost places in the ensuing round of pit stops to take the restart ahead of Johnson and Clint Bowyer, while Keselowski had problems locking his brakes on his approach to his pit stall and dropped to ninth place; his overshoot also held up Danica Patrick, who had the next stall along on pit road and who couldn't get in to make her own stop until Keselowski was sorted out.
The timing of this latest stop had temporarily converted the marathon race into one of fuel conservation with everyone fretting about hitting their fuel numbers, saving an extra lap's worth of gas, and hoping to make it to the end without any green-white-chequered dramas. Johnson in particular was finding the fuel saving to be a pain, and he grew even more concerned when it appeared that Keselowski was managing to save gas while still running fast enough to recover most of those lost positions at the same time, popping back into fourth place with 25 laps remaining.
But that was the point when things started to get really interesting: Marcos Ambrose was the trigger, when he crashed into the wall on lap 311 to bring out the seventh caution of the day. Immediately, all thoughts of fuel saving went out the window as the leaders came onto pit road: Keselowski and his crew chief Paul Wolfe attempted to out-strategise their rivals by taking only two new tyres at this stop while the others went for four, which meant that the #2 emerged from pit lane ahead of Busch and Johnson.
Keselowski took the inside line at the restart and cleared for the lead, although Johnson was not happy with what he saw as the #2 car jumping the flag to do so. Johnson's crew chief Chad Knaus tried to calm his driver down, admitting that NASCAR didn't seem minded to do anything about the perceived infraction and that in any case the #48 was strong enough to take care of it in the remaining 15 laps of the race.
But before Johnson could press his claim on the lead of the race, they were back under caution. Johnson's Hendrick Motorsports stablemates Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne had made light contact that left Kahne with a tyre going down - which ended up with the #5 car grazing the wall and forced a reluctant NASCAR to throw a new yellow for debris left on the track by Kahne's car. Both Kahne and Gordon ended up having to go to pit lane for repairs, but none of the other race leaders were about to give up track position at this point in the proceedings.
The restart on lap 327 saw a true declaration of hostilities between Keselowski and Johnson who were starting alongside each other on the front row: Keselowski was running down low, and when he moved up the race track he made repeated sideways contact with Johnson who was finally forced to lift, ceding the lead to Keselowski.
Johnson wasn't happy about what had happened, and subsequently gestured angrily at Keselowski through the side window: "Just wanted him to use his head," explained Johnson. "There is no sense in taking us both out in the process. If he was taking me out, you can count on the fact that I would have been on the gas and trying to take him with me."
That should sealed the race in Keselowski's favour, but in a packed field behind the leaders Mark Martin received a tap from Carl Edwards and went for a spin in turn 4 on lap 331, putting him firmly into the wall and forcing the ninth caution of the race - and one that triggered green-white-chequered overtime conditions. Johnson and Keselowski would have one last shoot-out opportunity, and providing the field made it round to the white flag then whoever won this final duel would be heading to victory lane.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
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