Was it an accident and a fluke, or was is a spectacularly effective piece of brilliant, unorthodox strategy that won it for Kasey Kahne in the last restart of the afternoon at Pocono Raceway on Sunday?
When the green flag came out for the final time, Kahne was on the front row alongside his Hendrick Motorsport team mate Jeff Gordon but he appeared to struggle to get up to speed while in the meantime Gordon surged ahead into what looked to be an unassailable lead with two laps remaining in the GoBowling.com 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race. The media were already crafting their post-race pieces detailing how Kahne had blown it at the last minute after having led for 64 of the 158 laps up to that point of the race.
And then a funny thing happened: Kahne got his second wind, with a helpful boost from Kurt Busch who had restarted from fourth place immediately behind him and who was himself strongly motivated to get going after Gordon as soon as possible. That ended up giving Kahne a huge run down the outside into turn one and the momentum just kept on giving: by the time the leaders hit the second of Pocono's three corners, Gordon hadn't just been caught but was already in Kahne's rear view mirrors. By the time the chequered flag came out, Kahne had pulled ahead by almost 1.4 seconds to claim the win.
"Jeff was getting great restarts and he was fast once we got going," said Kahne afterwards. "I about gave it away when Jeff got by me, and then I spun the tyres a little bit and he got a great jump ... That final one he beat me to turn one. Kurt Busch gave me a great push all the way down the front stretch which helped a ton. Once we got there I just had one shot. It was either make it stick on the outside or go home in second."
“It's funny how our emotions to go up and down in this sport. Before the race, if you told me that I'd finish second, I'd say that was a great birthday gift," said Gordon, who turned 42 on Sunday. "But when you're leading, and take the lead from Kasey the way we did you know, on that restart, I thought we had him. He was better than us but I thought getting out in front I could hold him off.
"I got a perfect restart that last one and probably jumped him a little bit and I moved up front of him and it looked like I needed to block the inside," he continued. "I tried to protect the inside and he got out the outside and flat outdrove me through 1.
"I'm disappointed that we didn't get this win," he admitted. "This team has worked so hard to put ourselves in position ... I'm a little disappointed, but also excited. It was a good point's day for us and we needed that," he added, referring to the points situation in the Cup championship with just five races remaining in the regular season before the Chase cut-off and both Hendrick drivers having to work hard to keep themselves in the all-important top ten.
No such problems for Jimmie Johnson, whose lead in the points is now such that he can afford to take a race off should he need to in order to attend the birth of his second child with wife Chandra due soon. Even hitting the wall on lap 76 this weekend at Pocono after a tyre failed on the #48 did little to hinder his serene progress to that end: the crew got to work, applied industrial quantities of duct tape, accepted a penalty for having too many people working on the car, and still managed to put Johnson back out in a position where he could drive his way back to 13th place by the end, one spot ahead of his closest rival in the points, Michael Waltrip Racing's Clint Bowyer.
"I really felt like we had a shot to win, unfortunately blew a tyre off of turn 1 and ended those hopes there," he said. "I hit the wall so hard that it knocked a spark plug wire off the spark plug. They were able to find the right plug and get everything hooked back up and the engine took off. Off we went and salvaged a very nice finish."