After the fun right turns of California it was back to what NASCAR knows best, the cookie cutter, as the it was the turn of the 1.5 mile Kentucky Speedway to host round 17. The Chase is getting ever closer and points are becoming ever more important in order to secure their position and for the drivers hovering around the final spot the pressure is really on to get a good points haul and not jeopardise their chances.
Qualifying took place on Friday afternoon and an early run by Jimmie Johnson smashed the old track record by 1.5 mph and set what looked an unbeatable time. But to many people’s surprise his time at the top didn’t last long. A cloud covered the track and dropped track and air temperatures briefly and a few drivers managed to take full advantage of the quicker circumstances and top amongst them was Johnson’s team mate Dale Earnhardt Jr who set a blistering time of 29.406 (183.636 mph), for his first pole spot since September 2012. He narrowly edged out Carl Edwards who if it wasn’t for a slight wobble in turn 2 would have undoubtedly taken pole.
There was to be no Saturday night race though as rain showers peppered the race track, and although it looked a couple of times like racing would be getting under way it just got too late so the race was postponed until Sunday lunchtime. This would initially put the teams at a disadvantage as their cars would be set up for night time racing and no changes to the setup were to be allowed before the green flag. However NASCAR was going to throw a competition caution at lap 30 to allow teams to make setup changes. But with weepers still causing a bit of water to be leaked on the track and risk of further showers shortening the race it was set up to be a frantic race.
When the green flag drops pole sitter Jr is side by side with the Edwards into turn one and as they emerge from turn 2 Edwards is in the lead having got round the 88 in turn 2. Jr immediately starts to get pressure from Denny Hamlin who gets by the 88 for second but only for a lap before the 88 comes right back at the 11. Slightly further back Johnson, who lost two spots at the start, is starting to make those places back as he gets by Kyle Busch for 4th and behind him Brad Keselowski, who won here last year and desperately needs a win this season, moves up to 6th. Some of the cars that qualified early and in the sun are now taking full advantage of the warmer start time, Kurt Busch who started in 27th is up to 21st and Kevin Harvick, who started in 22nd is up to 16th. With 5 laps until the caution Johnson moves up to third but Jr has the bit between his teeth, and helped by traffic, has closed down Edwards’ lead to half a second.
The competition caution is going to be crucial to the teams as it is very important that they get the changes right and any team that does will get a great advantage, possibly a race winning one. Most teams elect for only two tyres and a chassis adjustment, a great stop by Jr, helped by having the first pit stall, sees the 88 win the race off pit road and will lead at the restart ahead of Johnson, Edwards, Juan Pablo Montoya and Kyle Busch. At the restart Jr and Johnson run side by side for a whole lap before the 88 is just able to get down in front of the 48 for the lead.
Further back early front runner Hamlin picks up a puncture and heads to pit road but as he’s on the run off road away from the racers the tyres carcass comes off the 11 and slides onto the track right in front of the leaders. It hits the 88 car right in the middle and goes under the car and strikes the 48 on the front right side damaging both cars and brining out caution number two. The 88 has significant front splitter damage which has bent up and no longer hugs the ground to help with front grip.