Sometimes, one can have the most dominant car and still not win a race. For the early three-quarters of the race, the FedEx 400 Benefiting Autism Speaks was essentially a two-car show between Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson, with both drivers leading a total of 14 times for 324 out of 400 laps. However, at the end of the day, a very bold gamble by Matt Kenseth to take two tires instead of four with 37 laps remaining gave him track position. He then took advantage of clean air to hold off Mark Martin and Marcos Ambrose and capture his second win of the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season.
“Honestly, I was sitting on the track and thinking that we should stay out and get clean air and try it, because I knew we wouldn’t win if we took four,” Kenseth said. “Jimmie wanted four, but as I was driving down pit road, I thought maybe we could compromise.”
Rain washed out qualifying for the first time this season. As a result of NASCAR’s new procedure for setting the field in those situations, Johnson was awarded the pole for Sunday’s race (May 15) with AJ Allmendinger starting alongside. From the drop of the green flag, Johnson the advantage and held on tight to it.
Due to Saturday’s heavy rains, NASCAR had a competition caution on lap 40 to check tire wear. Luckily, overall wear was not a problem. However, like last fall, the rubber was sticking a little too well to the track, making the track very slippery.
Johnson led without challenge until the competition caution flew, but then lost the lead on pit road to Edwards. However, Johnson reclaimed the lead as soon as the green came back out. The green flag came back out with Johnson still leading until a lap 40 competition caution came out after Saturday’s practice session was washed out.
After the first round of full-blown pit-stops led to a brief interlude to Johnson’s dominance, the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet came roaring back to the front of the pack and would lead until green-flag pit-stops that caused another short break from Johnson’s dominating performance. But a few laps later, Johnson was right back to the front.
The rains were forecasted to threaten the race and even potentially postpone the event to Monday. However, Sunday was dry for the most part. A renegade pop-up shower did pass over the track on lap 162, necessitating a quick caution, though. Fortunately, the skies cleared and on lap 169, the race went back to green-flag action with Johnson and Edwards playing hot potato with the lead until the fourth caution of the race came out on lap 218 for debris.
Green-flag action resumed on lap 222 and aside from a brief stint in the lead by Juan Pablo Montoya for two laps, the tug-of-war between Johnson and Edwards continued unabated for the next 115 laps until the event’s fifth caution came out for Kasey Kahne stalling his car in turn 1. Edwards and Johnson had led all but 11 of the race’s first 331 laps to that point.
After pit stops, it would be a fresh face leading the festivities as Clint Bowyer took the lead and led for the next 29 laps until the final caution of the afternoon came out for Juan Pablo Montoya’s spin in turn 3 on Lap 361. With a great deal of pit strategy in play, Martin stayed out on the track to take the lead, while Kenseth rook second by being the first car off pit road with a two-tire stop. The previous leaders all took four tires and ended up in the lower half of the top 10.
Martin led on the restart, but Kenseth put a move on him for the lead just a lap later. The only question was whether the two-tire gamble would pay off. As the laps clicked off, Kenseth looked like a genius for his call to take two tires as he won the race by 2.122 seconds over Martin with Ambrose, Kyle Busch, who came from the back of the field after an engine change to finish fourth, and Brian Vickers rounding out the top five. Sixth through 10th were Bowyer, Edwards, Martin Truex Jr., Johnson and Kevin Harvick.
“That was all Matt there,” Fennig said. “He figured we needed to have clean air and he called two tires, and we did two and away we went.”
The average speed was 125.578 mph, with six cautions for 28 laps and 23 lead changes among 11 drivers. Attendance was listed at 82,000, down from last year’s figure of 88,000. Leading the most laps was Johnson, nine times for 207 circuits around the Monster Mile.
Johnson and Edwards both lamented after the race on what might have been.
“I didn’t have any choice in it really, that is up to the guys up on the box,” Edwards said after the race. “That is too tough of a choice to make right there and I don’t blame Bob Osborne one bit. I thought we would be able to march up through there and I thought the race would be between Clint and I.
“I did see a couple cars go fast early on two tires, but I really felt we were going to have something. If we had had a caution, who knows what would have happened. You can’t look back, you have to look forward. We still have the points lead and the fastest car here today. Everybody did a good job on the Aflac Ford and a teammate won, so that is good.”
“I guess in our minds we didn’t think that would take place, so many guys taking two [tires]. It was certainly the call,” Johnson lamented post-race. I knew basically from the numbers [that] we were in trouble when we left pit road and there were so many guys in front of us. It is just the way it is. We had a great race all day. Led a lot of laps, but unfortunately, not the one at the end that counted. But [it was a] solid day; in the pits and on the track. We couldn’t really get a hold of the track the longer the day went on, but we got some good ideas coming back.”
Next weekend, the Sprint Cup points take the week off. However, the teams do not. The series will be back in action at Charlotte Motor Speedway for the Sprint Showdown and Sprint All-Star Race on Saturday night.
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