Kentucky Fries In The Heat | July 5, 2012
After weeks of super speedways, small circuits, a road course and a triangle NASCAR returned to it staple type of track, the cookie cutter as the teams arrived in Kentucky at the 1.5 mile long Kentucky Speedway (KS) for another night race.
The temperatures had been in the 100s all week which meant that the temperatures inside the cars could be at least 30 degrees higher. This can lead to driver fatigue, dehydration and loss of concentration. The effect on the track is too make it very slick and teams have to work hard to get their best out of their suspension setup as well as ensuring that the car is adequately cooled which calls for a trade off of between aerodynamics and engine ventilation.
As if the teams job wasn’t hard enough NASCAR had also introduced new rules for the teams that changed the height of the side skirts and the placement of the sway bar. This is the second change that NASCAR has made to the height of the side skirts in an effort to alter the cars aerodynamics and make it easier for cars to run closer and pass each other, and with the first change not making a noticeable difference many fans were doubtful that this would yield any results. The change to the sway bar was an attempt to even up its usage between the teams and it was widely thought the biggest impact of this change was going to be felt by Hendrick Motorsport (HM) and that they may well struggle with the new setup.
Come qualifying on Saturday the weather was still influencing the cars. When the session got underway the temperatures were still high which meant that early runners were not able to get as much power out of their engine as they would have hoped. However part way through the session the weather took a turn for the worse and it had to be suspended for 17 minutes when a storm hit KS with strong winds whipping through the track and blowing over some awnings. When the session got restarted the temperatures had dropped and first driver out Tony Stewart was able to run a mile an hour faster then anyone who ran pre storm and as the session progressed the speeds continued to increase. When the session ended Jimmie Johnson was sat atop the tree with a time of 29.700 seconds (181.818 mph), showing that HM wasn’t affected by the new rules, with his first pole position in 60 starts.
When the green flag dropped Johnson appeared to miss a shift as he was quickly passed by the number 18 of Kyle Busch and the number 11 of Denny Hamlin. While Johnson appeared to be struggling Brad Keselowski quickly moved up from his eighth place start to fourth and it wasn’t long before he had caught the rear bumper of the 48 and was pressing him for third. While the number 2 was moving forward others were struggling, by lap 12 Kevin Harvick had slipped back from fourth to twelfth and Jeff Gordon had gone from ninth to fifteenth. It was also turning out to be a poor start for the Stewart-Haas Racing team; while Ryan Newman was slipping back through the field team mate Tony Stewart was slowing and rolled into pit row. He made it to his pit stall and took on fuel but when he tried to pull away the car stalled and he had to be pushed back to his garage. The team replaced the car’s throttle body and he was able to restart the race but by then he was 32 laps down and eventually finished 32nd, which dropped him four places in the standings to ninth place.
Brad Keselowski was showing that his backup car, that he was forced to use after a first lap incident with Juan Pablo Montoya in practice, was not slowing him down as he moved first passed Hamlin for second and then caught and passed Busch for the lead. Last years race was a battle between the number 2 and the number 18 and it was looking like history might be repeating itself. But before the number 2 could establish any kind of lead the first caution of the day came out as Scott Riggs’ car limps its way around the track. Everyone comes to pit row but a slow stop for Keselowski means that he leaves in fourth place behind leader Kyle Busch, Johnson and Hamlin. Once again though the 48 got a poor restart as he is passed by Keselowki for second place.
On lap 53 the number 5 of Kasey Kahne who had been steadily progressing through the field, but was still well off the pace of his HM team mates, makes an unscheduled pit stop after reporting vibrations from loose lug nuts. When he exits he is a lap down and looks to be out of the race. Meanwhile the rest of the HM cars are all in the top 10 and are certainly not looking like being hampered by the changes to the sway bar.
The top 5 of Busch, Keselowski, Hamlin, Johnson and Bowyer remain static for the next 50 laps and while the number 2 is able to close right in on the 18 when he gets caught up in back markers, Keselowski is unable to find a way round him. With the long green flag run nearly half the field has been lapped by lap 100 and it certainly looks like the winner is going to come from one of the top 5. Busch relinquishes his lead when he makes his first green flag pit stop of the race and after everyone else has been in the top 5 remains the same and Busch has been able pull out to lead of nearly a second. But on lap 119 he brushes the wall however he is able to keep his momentum going and avoids wrecking but it does bring the number 2 back up to his rear bumper. However the pressure is soon eased on him when the second caution is thrown for debris on the frontstretch.
On the restart Busch, Hamlin and Keselowski go three wide into turn 1 and Hamlin is able to squeeze past Busch as Johnson in the 48 finally gets a good restart and is able to get side by side with Busch for second. While the 18 and 48 battle side by side Hamlin is able to pull away to a lead of just over a second. But Busch isn’t able to hold onto second for too long and Johnson is able to get past and hold the place and quickly the number 18 slips back to over 3 seconds behind the top two. Just as it looks like Busch is going to slip further back the third caution comes out on lap 149 as Dave Blaney’s engine lets go.
6 laps later the green flag comes out and the top two of Hamlin and Johnson go side by side for most of the lap before Hamlin is finally able to get some clear air between them and regains the lead. But Johnson isn’t going to let the 11 get away as he hugs the inside line while Hamlin works the outside line where one wobble by Hamlin will be enough to let Johnson through. Further down the running order Newman appears to hit the rear bumper of Joey Logano which causes Logano to slide down the track and into Clint Bowyer, who after running in the top 5 early in the race has now slipped down to 12th. Both Newman and Logano are able to keep going but the 15 sustains enough damage that he has to come to pit row and while he is able to get back out it rules out any chance of a back to back win for Bowyer and he eventually finishes in 16th.
On lap 189 Johnson is finally able to find a way past Hamlin but any thoughts that Kyle Busch had of going to victory lane seemed dashed when he reported to his crew chief that he has got suspension failure. It seems that his earlier brush with the wall did more damage then it first appeared and after leading the most laps of the day (118 laps) he drops back through the field and although he eventually finishes 10th it will be seen as another disappointing result when he had such a dominant car.
With 65 laps to go the second round of green flag pit stops start and if the race remains caution free then the drivers will be aiming to ensure that this will be the last stop that they have to make. Its a bad round of stops though for the 24 and 48 cars as Jeff Gordon has to check up as he exits his pit box for another car coming in and Jimmie Johnson’s stop is around 4 seconds slower then that of the other front runners. But it appears to be even worse for the front runners of Hamlin and Keselowski as both report that they are out of fuel but they are able to make it to their pit boxes. However, they both get lucky and don’t lose too much time as the fourth caution of the day is thrown when Ryan Newman engine blows putting oil on his back wheels and spinning him into the outer wall.
The top 4 of Keselowski, Hamlin, Carl Edwards (who started in 25th) and Matt Kenseth all stay out and will be hoping that they can make it on fuel. Although it will be tougher on the number 99 as Edwards will have the least fuel of the top 4 as he pitted on lap 203, while Hamlin and Keselowki pitted on laps 208 and 209 respectively. Although the number 11 team report that they didn’t get all the fuel into Hamlin’s car so he may not have as much fuel as he hopes.
On the restart the number 2 keeps his lead and is able to quickly pull out too a comfortable lead. Behind him though is a frantic battle for fourth as Matt Kenseth tries too hold off a very hard charging Earnhardt Jr. But either the pressure gets to Kenseth or his car momentarily loses grip as he has a big wobble that means he has to lift and it allows Jr and Truex Jr to pass him. HM seem to have their cars peaking at just the right time as they have all their cars in the top 10 with 30 laps to go. But the HM driver who is making the biggest move is Kasey Kahne. After being the lucky dog and getting his lap back he has worked his way through the pack and is scything through the top 10. With 20 laps to go his is up to sixth and with 8 laps to go he takes third away from Carl Edwards who then loses fourth place to Jr.
Two laps later Edwards finally sees his fuel light come on and has no option but to come to pit row for fuel. What looked to be a brave attempt at trying to save fuel and finish high up actually turned out to be a miscommunication with his crew chief. He was told to come to pit row when the caution came out on lap 210 but he received the message too late to be able to make it. They decided to chance it and hope for another caution but it never came. It cost him a shot at the win and he eventually finished in 20th. It was similar story for Hamlin in second place, he was running short of fuel but although he had enough to reach the end of the race it came at a cost. Which was that he couldn’t run wide open and had to drive conservatively so that he had no chance of closing down the number 2.
With 2 laps to go Kahne was into third and was 3.7 seconds behind second place Hamlin. But so bad was Hamlin’s fuel situation that he has to ease up so much that Kahne blew past him (Kahne had a very impressive 98 green flag passes) and had one lap to catch Keselowski. But one lap was not enough and the number 2 of Brad Keselowski took his third win of the season by 4.399 seconds and virtually cemented his place in the Chase.
The race turned out to be what has become a typical cookie cutter track this year. Long green flag runs with the cars getting spread out quite quickly and a race that becomes a battle of fuel mileage rather then out and out pace. The night part of the race was certainly the more interesting as early front runners struggled and early strugglers came good and the late charge of Kahne made for an entertaining finish. But it is clear that the changes made by NASCAR didn’t appear to have any effect, although it should be noted that KS is a notoriously bumpy track so it may not have been the best track on which to judge any changes. With Daytona next week we go back to plate racing and what should be a real test of the new aerodynamics and a race that the fans will expect to see some action.