This week for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, it was a trip to the mid west, out to the Great Plains for their lone trip to the Kansas Speedway. This track debuted in 2001 along with Chicago, and both tracks are similar in configuration. Both are 1.5 miles in length, each a tri-oval style track, and both are very wide, making for multiple grooves.
On Sunday, with the skies bright blue and the sun shining down, the 43-car field went full throttle for the third race in the Chase, the Price Chopper 400.
Pole-sitter Mark Martin led the field to green, with teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. on his outside. Martin got the jump on the first lap, however, just as quickly as the race started it was slowed. Joey Logano spun out coming out of the second corner, bringing out the race’s first yellow flag.
Not surprisingly, the field stayed on track and went back to racing on lap 5. Unfortunately, it was a case of deja vu as the field was slowed again two laps later. This time it was a four-car accident in the second corner involving Paul Menard, David Ragan, Bobby Labonte and Michael Waltrip.
On the restart, Martin got the advantage through the first corner, but Earnhardt Jr. was digging for the lead, something he has not seen much of this season. Finally, one lap later, “Junior Nation” went crazy as their driver got the lead. Not only did he get the lead, he had a fast car and was pulling away from the field.
Earnhardt Jr. would hold his lead as green-flag pit stops would begin. The No. 88 team would come in for service on lap 53, handing the lead to Tony Stewart. The lead would go through six different drivers until it cycled through to Jimmie Johnson on lap 62. The big story out of the round of stops was Earnhardt Jr. On his pit stop, the crew missed a lug nut, and he was forced to return to pit road. The extra stop put him one lap down, essentially erasing the good run he was having.
Up front, Johnson continued to lead until the third caution came out for Reed Sorenson, who got into the wall in turns 1 and 2. Despite having a few laps on the tires, the field decided to come to pit road for some service. Some different pit strategies were on tap as some teams elected for just right-side tires, while others went with new Goodyear Eagles on all corners.
Greg Biffle was the driver who got the lead off pit road, using the two tire strategy. Biffle would hold his lead until lap 90 as he was challenged by Johnson. These two would go back and forth for the lead over the next five laps, before Biffle got the lead on lap 94..
His lead was short lived as Johnson was able to make the move in traffic to get the position back on lap 102.
The field was slowed on lap 126 as Chase contender Brian Vickers spun out of turn 4 onto the front stretch. Biffle caught a break as he was already on pit road for service as the caution came out. This allowed him to complete his service, and when the field came to pit road for their next round of stops, he then got the lead.
The field went back to green on lap 130, and right away Johnson was ready to pounce on the position. The No. 48 car got the lead one lap later and would lead until lap 147. Ironically, the caution flew out again to slow the field as Elliott Sadler slid into the wall in the second turn.
Pit stops again shook up the field as Biffle won the race off. Many of the teams went with only two tires, mainly for track position and to see the handling of the cars as it could be needed later in the race.
When the field restarted, Biffle got the jump on the field and quickly got out front with Stewart in tow. These two would battle for a few laps, but decided to stop the side-by-side action and ran nose-to-tail, opening up a near three-second gap on the third place car of Denny Hamlin.
Biffle would then begin to stretch his lead out over Stewart to 3.5 seconds as the teams were getting ready for the next round of pit stops. Teams then began to calculate fuel mileage as this track has been known to come down to that statistic. Biffle was the first one to peel off the track for service on lap 202, handing the lead to Stewart. The top spot would shuffle between Stewart, Hamlin and Kurt Busch over the next six laps.
Following the round of stops, Biffle again was the car in the lead, now holding a near eight second advantage on the field. Only problem with that lead was Biffle was notified they would need to come back to pit road for fuel as the mileage would put them nearly ten laps short of the finish.
Luckily for Biffle, that possibility came earlier than expected as the caution flew for the sixth and final time on lap 236. The reason was because of fluid on the track, and the fluid was from the National Guard/Amp Energy Chevrolet of Earnhardt Jr. Two laps prior, the oil pump belt came off the car, and the power to the No. 88 vanished. No oil means no oil pressure, and it meant another DNF for the team. Earnhardt Jr. was credited with finishing 36th.
The final round of pit stops not only meant fuel, but some gambles. Stewart, Kasey Kahne and Johnson exited pit road 1-2-3 as they only took two tires. Everyone in the rear view mirror got four.
The last restart came on lap 241 with Stewart out front, hoping his two-tire stop would be enough to hold on for the win. What Stewart didn’t expect was the hard-charging car of Jeff Gordon to be coming up strong in the field. He would challenge for second after restarting sixth on lap 251, eventually passing Biffle for that position three laps later. Now, his sights were set on the No. 14 of Stewart.
Gordon was closing, and running hard through the corners to make up some time. With five laps left, the gap was down to half a second between the two, but a lapped car accidently got in the line Gordon was using, and it opened the gap by a few tenths of a second.
It turned out to be just enough for Stewart. On this day, there wasn’t a twister in the town of Oz, but it was another smoke show as Tony Stewart took his fourth win of the season, capturing the checkered flag in the Price Chopper 400. Gordon would finish second, with Biffle in third.
The win puts Stewart back in the championship hunt as he moves to fourth in the standings, cutting his gap to Martin down to 67 points. Johnson, however, lost ground to Martin as he finished ninth, compared to Martin’s seventh-place run. The gap is now up to 18 points.
Next Sunday, it will be the second trip out west to the Auto Club Speedway of Southern California for the Pepsi 500. This track is like Michigan in that it’s two miles in length, but has less banking. However, it will provide much excitement as the drivers can run all over the track, making for great three- and four-wide racing.
Expect a lot of the Chase drivers to be a factor, especially Johnson. He has owned this track in the last few years, when it comes to the night race. But I wouldn’t slouch on Martin or Gordon either. They love coming to this track, and they will surely run well again.
Watch out for Matt Kenseth as well. This is the site of his last win in February, and he is itching to get back to victory lane. What an opportunity to steal the thunder of the Chase drivers and make some noise of his own. Watch out for the No. 17 Ford from Roush-Fenway.
Coverage of the race will begin on ABC starting at 2:30 with NASCAR Countdown.
RESULTS: 1-Stewart 2-Gordon 3-Biffle 4-Montoya 5-Hamlin 6-Kahne 7-Martin 8-Reutimann 9-Johnson 10-Edwards
NOTABLE FINISHES: 11-Kurt Busch 12-Kyle Busch 22-Newman 24-Harvick 28-Logano (R) 36-Earnhardt Jr. 37-Vickers
CAUTIONS: Six for 24 laps. Lap 2-4 (No. 20 spin-turn 2), 7-10 (No. 98, 6, 71, 55 wreck-turn 2), 69-73 (No.. 43 wreck-turn 2), 126-129 (No. 83 spin-front stretch), 147-149 (No. 19 spin-turn 2), 236-240 (fluid on track)
LEADERS: 26 lead changes among 14 leaders. Martin 1-11, Earnhardt Jr. 12-52, Stewart 53, Kenseth 54, Edwards 55, Truex Jr. 56-57, Sadler 58-59, Andretti 60, Keselowski 61, Johnson 62-70, Stewart 71, Biffle 72-90, Johnson 91, Biffle 92, Johnson 93, Biffle 94-101, Johnson 102-126, Stewart 127, Biffle 128-130, Johnson 131-147, Montoya 148, Biffle 149-201, Stewart 202-205, Hamlin 206, Kurt Busch 207-208, Biffle 209-238, Stewart 239-267
CHASE FOR THE CUP STANDINGS: 1-Martin, 5551 points 2-Johnson, -18 3-Montoya, -51 4-Stewart, -67 5-Kurt Busch, -91 6-Hamlin, -99 7-Gordon, -103 8-Biffle, -114 9-Newman, -164 10-Edwards, -165 11-Kahne, -190 12-Vickers, -250