If last weekend’s race from the Talladega Superspeedway was disappointing for fans and drivers, this weekend’s Dickies 500 was full of excitement from the drop of the green flag. After Jeff Gordon led the field to the start it did not take long for the action to heat up on the 1.5-mile speedway in Fort Worth, Texas.
With the Chase winding down, Jimmie Johnson entered the day with a 184-point lead over Mark Martin. In order to earn his unprecedented fourth-straight title, Johnson simply had to finish 10th or better in the final three races. Starting from the 12th spot he looked for a smooth day, but just three laps into the 500-mile race that strategy went out the window.
Exiting the second corner, Johnson looked to make a move around the No. 77 of Sam Hornish Jr. As the No. 48 went to the high side, the No. 00 of David Reutimann peeked on the inside of Hornish’s Dodge. With Reutimann on his left rear, Hornish bobbled exiting the corner and got into the door of the No. 48. Johnson slid trying to regain control, but shot down the track and into the right rear of the No. 77 before smacking the inside wall. With heavy damage to the No. 48, Johnson headed to the garage for lengthy repairs as the rest of the Chase field looked to take advantage.
Just laps after going back to green, Kurt Busch moved under polesitter Gordon to take the lead for the first time on the afternoon. Despite a great qualifying run, Gordon continued to struggle on his worst track as he slid backwards. As Gordon fell back, Kyle Busch’s No. 18 Toyota came to life. After winning Friday night’s NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race and Saturday’s Nationwide Series event, the younger Busch brother looked to make it a clean sweep in Texas and make NASCAR history.
50 laps into the 334-lap event, green flag stops got underway for the first time of the day. With their driver getting it done on the track, the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing pit crew sent Kyle back out with the lead.
Hornish’s bad day only got worse when he lost control of the No. 77 Dodge on lap 88 to bring out the second yellow flag. The leaders hit pit road again, with Kyle and the No. 18 team again winning the battle off pit road.
As Chase contenders Martin, Gordon and Juan Pablo Montoya battled on the track, Johnson’s crew spent over an hour in the garage making extensive repairs. By lap 116, Johnson backed the No. 48 out of the garage stall and rolled on the track in 43rd spot, 113 laps down to race leader Kyle Busch.
Kyle gave up the lead to teammate Denny Hamlin for two laps as the field came to pit road for their second round of green-flag pit stops from lap 145-149. After the field cycled through their stops, the No. 18 took its familiar spot in front of the field.
Setting a torrid pace, Busch’s No. 18 began lapping a lot of good race cars and closed in on the back bumper of a struggling Gordon. Just as the No. 18 made the move to lap the No. 24 on lap 168, a caution for debris was thrown. The leaders headed back to pit road for service, but once again it was the Busch brothers at the front of the field.
In a race in which Chase drivers could have made up significant ground on Johnson, none of the contenders seemed to be able to strike. Gordon struggled mightily and Martin continued to work with crew chief Alan Gustafson to make the car better. Montoya had a top-10 car for much of the afternoon, but following the restart on lap 172 his day also took a turn for the worst.
Racing with Carl Edwards, Montoya lost control of the No. 42 Chevrolet and slid up the track and into the No. 99. Racing behind the two, Gordon was forced to spin the No. 24 Chevrolet to avoid making contact. Montoya’s car hit the wall and was tagged again when Brad Keselowski was caught up in the incident. Edwards’s damage was too much to continue as he finished 39th. Montoya’s team was able to make repairs and limped home to a 37th-place finish.
With so much attention being placed on Johnson’s struggles and Busch’s possible clean sweep, great runs by Dale Earnhardt Jr., David Reutimann and Marcos Ambrose seemed to be missed by the television coverage. For much of the afternoon, these three non-Chasers occupied the top five along with the Busch brothers.
The fifth and final caution of the day flew when Reed Sorenson blew a right-front tire and made hard contact with the outside wall exiting the second corner. The No. 43 Dodge slid back down the track and into the inside wall. Kurt Busch led the field to pit road for service, but once again it was Kyle that won the race off.
After taking off on the restart, Kyle began to notice his brother’s car lurking in his rearview mirror. Radioing his spotter Jeff Dickerson, the younger Busch brother joked he was having flashbacks to legends car races because Kurt was “stalking” him.
As the laps clicked away and calculations taking place atop the pit boxes, it became apparent the race would come down to fuel mileage. With less than 70 laps remaining the field again began peeling off the racing surface and onto pit road for green-flag stops. Kyle gave up the lead and brought his Toyota to the attention of his crew on lap 268, while Kurt waited two extra laps before making his stop.
Once again, Kyle found himself out front once the stops cycled through, but crew chief Dave Rogers was in his ear telling him to save fuel. While the No. 18 team was concerned with fuel mileage, Kurt was being reassured by crew chief Pat Tryson they could make it to the end without stopping.
Entering the final stage of the race, more and more cars began hitting pit road for fuel. Earnhardt Jr. gave up the fourth spot to get gas with just seven laps to go, but after leaving his pit stall the car failed to fire as he rolled slowly down pit road. Despite running in the top five for much of the event, Earnhardt Jr. was relegated to a 25th-place finish.
Knowing he would be short, Kyle backed off the gas as he tried to save enough for the final laps. The gamble did not work and he was forced to pit as his brother took the lead with just two laps remaining. Tryson’s strategy to keep his driver on the track two extra laps paid off as the 2004 champion scored his second victory of the season and first at the Texas Motor Speedway.
Hamlin took advantage of pitting earlier than most after contact with the wall to come home second, while Matt Kenseth, Martin and Kevin Harvick rounded out the top five. As a result of many drivers running out of fuel in the closing laps, Busch’s margin of victory was 25.686 seconds – the largest since the creation of electronic scoring in 1993.
The No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge had enough fuel in the tank to allow Kurt to perform his reverse victory lap for the second time this season. Eventually running out, teammates from the No. 12 car pushed the No. 2 to victory lane as Kurt stood on the window waving to the fans with the checkered flag in his hands.
“I saw [Kyle] peel off a couple laps before us,” Kurt said of the last round of green-flag stops. “I wanted to get to him, but I didn’t want to get there too fast. You’ve got to save a little bit of fuel, but I knew what we had for fuel mileage and was confident in my guys’ numbers. They gave me what I needed to win today.”
Although he led six times for 232 of the 334 laps, Kyle Busch’s late-race pit stop resulted in a very disappointing 11th-place finish.
“That was the first true time Kyle and I raced each other hard for a victory like this,” Kurt went on to say. “For us to come away and knock him off his sweep he was trying to go for it is bittersweet. I was rooting for him, but at the same time this is for us.”
Sunday’s Dickies 500 from the Texas Motor Speedway saw 13 lead changes amongst four different drivers and was slowed five times for 26 laps. Johnson’s troubles early in the event truly shook up the Chase standings with just two races remaining in the season.
Next week the series heads to the Phoenix International Raceway, where second-place Martin led the most laps and won the race earlier in the year. While many assumed the Chase was a lock for Johnson after surviving Talladega, Sunday’s race has changed that for sure.