By Phil Allaway
All too often these days in the Sprint Cup Series, races are won or lost on pit road. Different strategies can jumble the running order extensively and not necessarily determine who wins, but can go a long way towards determining the winner.
Sunday was no different.
Tony Stewart was running great late in the race on Sunday. Unfortunately, because of pit strategy, he was over seven seconds out of the lead in second and couldn’t make it to the end of the race on fuel.
Then, the sixth caution of the race flew on lap 237 after Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s engine threw the belt off of its oil pump, resulting in fluid spilling onto the track. This brought the 16 remaining lead lap cars to pit road for the final time.
Three cars took two tires, while everyone else took four. One of those drivers who took two tires was Tony Stewart. Stewart won the race off of pit road handily and led on the restart. When the green flew, Stewart drove away and hid.
Behind Stewart, a scramble for positions started that saw Jeff Gordon, who had restarted fifth, eventually pass Greg Biffle to move into second with 13 laps to go. Gordon then set out to catch Stewart. Unfortunately, Gordon couldn’t run down Stewart in order to challenge him for the victory.
After the race, Stewart was very pleased with his victory.
“The good thing was we got two tires at the end there…and the guys had an awesome stop,” Stewart said in the post-race press conference. “We got that track position at the end, and we had the luxury of being able to pick the inside or outside lane on the restart. I kind of struggled when I was stuck on the bottom on restarts today, so [we] took a gamble and went to the top and got enough of a lead…to run my own line, run my own pace and let those guys have to worry about catching us.
Second place Jeff Gordon was happy with his performance.
“We really struggled at the beginning of this race. I was pretty disappointed that the car was doing the things that it did,” Gordon said after the race. “I’m really, really proud of this team and Steve for not giving up. We kept tuning on it, and Steve made some great adjustments and we had great pit stops and found ourselves in position there at the end with some guys and two tires to take advantage of it. To come back and finish second is certainly a great, great day for us.”
Following Stewart and Gordon was Greg Biffle in third, equaling his best finish of the season. Juan Pablo Montoya was fourth and Denny Hamlin rounded out the Top 5.
Kasey Kahne started and finished sixth. Points leader Mark Martin finished seventh, followed by David Reutimann in eighth. Jimmie Johnson finished in ninth, and Carl Edwards rounded out the Top 10.
This finishing order reflects the fact that a record nine Chasers finished in the Top 10. David Reutimann in eighth was the only non-Chaser up there. This goes against the thoughts of many experts, who had looked to the past and noted that non-Chasers often break through in Kansas.
Point Standings (Top 12)
Mark Martin had a consistent day after winning the pole on Friday. He never really had a car that could contend for the victory, but simply persevered through the race to finish seventh. Thanks to Jimmie Johnson’s ill-advised move to take two tires on the final pit stop instead of four, Martin actually posted a small gain in the standings. The lead is now 18 points over Johnson with seven races to go. Juan Pablo Montoya once again used his aggressive style to his advantage, sticking the nose of his Target Chevrolet where others wouldn’t dare. Despite some handling problems, Montoya brought the No. 42 home in fourth, cutting his deficit to 51 points.
Tony Stewart used the strength of his victory on Sunday to move up one spot in the standings to fourth and cut his deficit to 67 points. Stewart swapped spots with Kurt Busch, who had to come from 39th on the grid. Kurt eventually brought his No. 2 home 11th, but the fact that he lost a spot with that showing just shows how crowded the top 10 was with Chasers on Sunday. Eight points behind Busch is Denny Hamlin, who held serve in the standings by finishing fifth.
Jeff Gordon is up one spot after finishing second on Sunday. He simply could not run down Stewart in the closing laps, despite having four fresh tires. Greg Biffle is up to eighth after finishing third on Sunday. Biffle more or less scraped into the Chase, but finally had a standout day on Sunday, leading a race-high 116 laps. Ryan Newman dropped two spots to ninth in the standings after a 22nd place finish, two laps down. Newman was caught speeding on pit road during a round of green flag stops, which dropped him off the lead lap.
Carl Edwards was also a victim of a speeding violation during the first round of green flag pit stops. However, unlike Newman, he was able to eventually get his lap back. Once back on the lead lap, Edwards slowly advanced up the order, squeaking into tenth by the end of the race. This moved him up one spot to tenth. Kasey Kahne is now 11th, but still 190 points out of the lead after a sixth place finish. The team is still reeling from the blown engine at Loudon and is still very dysfunctional behind the scenes, however. Brian Vickers rounds out the Top 12 after a terrible day. The handle went away early and Vickers was lapped. Later on, the engine went, leaving Vickers with a 37th place finish.
Around the 35th Place Cutoff
On Sunday, the margin once again closed between the No. 34 for Front Row Motorsports and the No. 82 of the Red Bull Racing Team. Essentially, the weekend worked itself out to a typical script. Scott Speed qualified the No. 82 in a pretty strong tenth on Friday, while John Andretti qualified the No. 34 in 40th.
Once race day came, Speed dropped like a stone at the start once again, while Andretti slowly came up through the field. Neither team ever really came to grips with the track. However, Speed was able to maintain his placing only one lap and brought the No. 82 home in 27th, one lap down. Meanwhile, Andretti finished 33rd, four laps down. However, Andretti also led a lap during a sequence of pit stops. This means that Speed made up 13 points and the margin is now 111 points with seven races to go. It definitely appears that the No. 82 team is much stronger than the No. 34 team, but the results just don’t show this truth.