In a city where it’s all about neon, huge shows, casinos and gambling, the focus shifted from the Strip to the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Many teams and drivers were looking to improve their run from last Sunday in California, while others were looking to continue a run of momentum.
With the sun in the sky and a packed house full of die-hard NASCAR fans, the Sprint Cup Series looked to make a major impression as the Shelby American went green.
Pole sitter Kurt Busch, one of the hometown boys, led the field to green, but he would fail to lead the first lap. Coming out of turn three, outside pole sitter Jeff Gordon put the power down in his DuPont/Pepsi Max Chevrolet Impala and got the lead. His lead was short lived, at least at full speed, as the first caution flag came out on lap 2. It was Kevin Conway having issues in turn two, causing him to spin down the back stretch.
No cars came in for service, and on the restart, Gordon got a huge jump on the field. In that instant, once he got the lead, it was a clinic on how to run a race. Gordon began opening up a lead, and even with lapped traffic, he continued to widen the gap over his closest contenders.
At one point in the green-flag run, Gordon’s lead was over six seconds. Unfortunately, the yellow flag decided to wave yet again and erased his dominating margin. This time it was Mike Bliss getting into trouble out of turn two, forcing him to slam the outside wall.
All the lead-lap cars came in for service, with all getting four tires and a few for adjustments. With the temperatures a bit warmer than they were in practice, most drivers were complaining of a loose condition. Didn’t seem to bother Gordon one bit as he got off pit road first.
The field went back to green on lap 52, and then went back under yellow on lap 53. There wasn’t any wreck on the track, but there was a problem. In what seems to be another instance of the track getting back at the drivers, the caution lights around the speedway would not go off after the green flag waved. The field stayed under yellow for another five laps as the track crews and NASCAR timing officials worked out the issue.
Shortly after the field went green on lap 53, Greg Biffle managed to get out front of Gordon as he slipped back on the restart. However, he was second when the caution came out, putting him right alongside the No. 16 Ford. On lap 56, the race went back under green, and one lap later, Gordon got back out front.
The No. 24 was simply on a tear and wouldn’t yield for anything, except for the caution flag.
Sam Hornish went for a spin out of turn four on lap 88, but luckily did not hit anything. The caution gave crews another chance to make adjustments as the track was getting to be under more cloud cover, meaning the temperatures were going down and grip was improving. The guy who made the best gain was Matt Kenseth as he got out in front of Gordon. The No. 24 had a good pit stop, just got beat coming out.
Kenseth led the field back to green on lap 92, but just as quickly had to let off the throttle as a big wreck behind him slowed the field yet again.
Jamie McMurray was looking for some running room underneath his teammate, Juan Pablo Montoya, and got into the back corner. Both cars slid up the track, and in the aftermath, the wreck collected Kurt Busch. A tough break for all the drivers involved.
Kenseth brought the field back to green at lap 97, but the No. 24 team just would not be denied. Only one lap into green flag racing, Gordon shot past the Crown Royal Ford and went out front for the third time.
But again, he couldn’t enjoy his lead as on lap 108 the caution flew again. For the second time in the race, the caution lights began malfunctioning. No one in the tower hit the switch to turn them on, so the crews threw the caution flag to fix the problem. This was like the “Twilight Zone” at the race track as only one time seemed to be just a malfunction, but twice seemed to be rather odd. Whatever the case was, crews disabled the radio that was originally working the caution lights and replaced it with a new one, as the original had a connection issue.
The leaders decided to come in to pit, with most deciding to take on fuel only. This provided one hick-up in Gordon’s day as he overshot his pit, and had to back up. But, even the miscue didn’t hinder him that bad as he only lost one spot to teammate Jimmie Johnson. On the radio as he was exiting pit road he told crew chief Steve Letarte and his over-the-wall crew, “My bad. Damn it.”
Scott Speed decided to just say on track and took over the lead. The field went green on lap 113, but with the outside lane to his advantage, Gordon decided to go back out front. The Pepsi Max car was just on a tear, but he had company this time as Johnson was staying right with him. Meanwhile, the rest of the field began falling back as the gap to third-place was nearly seven seconds.
The first round of green-flag stops on the afternoon was to begin shortly, but Kenseth was forced to short pit as he felt a wheel was loose on his car. This put him way back and off sequence, as he was hoping the field would cycle through a round of pit stops so he could catch up.
Pit road began getting busy on lap 158, with Gordon giving up his lead on lap 161, handing the lead to Johnson. The lead would go between Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Tony Stewart for the next six laps as everyone came in for service. This gave Kenseth a chance to get back with the leaders as he would make it back into the top five. But, he would have to settle for that as Gordon had gotten his car back out front on lap 166 and again would decide to continue his domination.
This would continue to be the longest green-flag run of the afternoon as the field began spreading out, with Gordon and Johnson still out front and putting a whooping on the field. But, another round of pit stops was still on the horizon and teams had to contend with still changing track conditions.
Biffle would start the next pit cycle on lap 212, with Johnson coming in one lap later. Gordon gave up his lead on lap 214 to come in for service, followed by Harvick. Stewart would stay out a bit longer as he stretched his fuel cell to save some gas on the final run. He would come in for his service on lap 220, which then handed the lead back to Gordon.
All afternoon, Gordon was the guy to beat, but he still had a lot of laps left before he got a victory. He would have to wait longer as the race’s final caution came out on lap 228, ending the longest green-flag run of the season thus far. Conway again had issues on the track as he hit the wall entering turn three.
Teams decided it would be a good idea to come in and get service, and this would prove to be a critical point in the race. Some teams decided to just go with right-side tires, as they only had about 15 laps on the tires from the previous stop. This included Gordon, Harvick, Jeff Burton and Kasey Kahne. Johnson decided to go with new tires all the way around the car, as he got out of pit road in fourth position, behind Gordon and Harvick.
Clint Bowyer decided to gamble and stayed out on the track, taking over the top spot. The final green flag came out on lap 233, and right away Gordon was on the prowl. He jumped ahead of Bowyer to get the lead, but this time he could not shake his teammate.
Johnson stayed right with Gordon and put the pressure on every lap as he looked for the top spot. With Gordon running the high line, he was forcing the No. 48 to make the pass on the low side, which on this track seemed to be a bit tough to accomplish.
For nearly ten laps, Johnson ran in the tire tracks of his teammate, looking for an advantage.
Finally, his four tires proved to be too much as Johnson got the lead on lap 251. It was a reversal of fortune as Johnson soon began pulling away from his contenders. There wasn’t any doubt after he got out front that no one was going to catch him. Add another victory, and another championship belt as the Lowe’s/Kobalt Tools Chevrolet took the checkered flag, winning the Shelby American.
Johnson didn’t have the car in the beginning, but the team made the right call and got him in position to win. It’s a good start to a title defense, and if he keeps this momentum into the Chase, it’s going to be five titles for No. 48.
At the same time, you can’t help but feel bad for Gordon as he had the race won the entire time. He got the lead seven different times in the race, leading all but 46 laps. In the end, Gordon fell to third as Harvick got around him with just a few laps left. But, it’s a strong rebound for a team that had hard luck the first two weeks of the year. Don’t sleep on the No. 24 team just yet, they could be lurking for a win in the near future.
That could come as early as next week as NASCAR heads to Atlanta. The fastest, and possibly most competitive, track on the circuit. The Kobalt Tools 500 will go green on FOX next Sunday at 1 p.m.
RESULTS: 1-Johnson 2-Harvick 3-Gordon 4-Martin 5-Kenseth 6-Logano 7-Stewart 8-Bowyer 9-Kahne 10-Biffle
NOTABLE FINISHES: 11-Burton 12-Edwards 15-Kyle Busch 18-Earnhardt Jr. 35-Kurt Busch 37-Montoya
CAUTIONS: Seven for 32 laps. Lap 2-5 (No. 37 spin-T2), 46-52 (No. 36 wreck-T2), 53-55 (track malfunction), 88-91 (No. 77 spin-T4), 93-96 (No. 42, 1, 2 wreck-T3), 108-113 (track malfunction), 228-232 (No. 37 wreck-T3)
LEADERS: 18 lead changes among 9 drivers. Gordon 1-52, Biffle 53-56, Gordon 57-89, Kenseth 90-98, Gordon 99-109, Speed 110-113, Gordon 114-160, Johnson 161, Harvick 162, Kyle Busch 163, Stewart 164-165, Gordon 166-213, Harvick 214, Stewart 215-219, Gordon 220-230, Bowyer 231-233, Gordon 234-250, Johnson 251-267
TIME OF RACE: 2 hrs. 49 mins. 53 sec.
AVERAGE SPEED: 141.450 mph
POINT STANDINGS: 1-Harvick, 506 points 2-Bowyer, -47 3-Martin, -49 4-Kenseth, -58 5-Johnson, -63 6-Biffle, -63 7-Burton, -76 8-Logano, -93 9-Reutimann, -109 10-Edwards, -117 11-Stewart, -120 12-Kyle Busch, -131