Texas Motor Speedway had no time for history on Sunday night as it saw off Kyle Busch's quest for a weekend sweep and put a dent in Jimmie Johnson's otherwise leisurely stroll to a fourth title.
At the end the 334-lap, 500-mile race was decided by pit strategy and fuel mileage. A relatively caution free night saw the green flag fly on lap 212, after the night's fifth caution, a 120-plus green flag run to the finish.
That number would be crucial, with the pit window, based on fuel mileage falling somewhere around the 60-lap mark, as the leaders came in for their pitstops it was Kurt Busch who stayed out longest, lasting two more laps that his younger brother who had dominated much of the race.
Despite that as the laps continued to click off, it appeared that all the leaders, Kurt included, were significantly too low on fuel to make the end of the race without at least a splash of fuel. Kyle was doing his best to save fuel up front, lapped cars streaming past the leader and David Reutimann in second gaining on the race leader.
While those further back took a gamble by pitting early to make the best of new tyres those up front were hoping for a caution that would push them over them over the finish line, or rather would mean they wouldn't need a push over the finish line.
But it never came, as the race moved into the final ten laps the leaders began to have to sacrifice track position. First was Dale Earnhardt Jr. whose splash-and-go was faultless but whose car failed to start smoothly, the no.88 rolling forlornly down the pitlane, haemorrhaging places, eventually falling from a potential top-five to a 25th place finish, three laps down.
More were soon to follow Jr. David Reutimann was next to run out, before Kyle Busch's engine gasped for fuel, as the Toyota entered the back straight, Busch weaving his way back to his pit stall to try and catch every last millilitre of fuel. The stop, compounded by problems getting back up to speed would see off the Kyle's chances of completing the weekend trifecta, having won both Friday's Truck Series race and Saturday's Nationwide event before dominating the Sprint Cup race (he led 232 laps) to that point.
That left Kurt Busch out in front, followed by Marcos Ambrose in second, though the Australian would run out with three laps to go, copying Kyle's tactics to try and get every scrap of fuel into the cars pick-up point, in a position the Dodge driver would never give up, romping home by an official margin of over 25 seconds thanks to making one less stop than his nearest challengers.
The win was the elder Busch's second of the year, adding to his win on Texas' 'sister track' at Atlanta, which we were reminded of as the driver reprised his Unwind Lap celebration he premiered at the Georgia venue. Busch's victory also gave one fan, Michael McGee of Broken Bow, Oklahoma – a man who admit he “didn't even follow NASCAR that much” – a $1million dollar cheque in a promotion run by the races title sponsor, Dickies.
However, much of the attention on the race was focused on the first three laps. In turn two David Reutimann nudged Sam Hornish Jr. who was on his outside, who in turn hit the driver on his outside – Jimmie Johnson. Johnson's Impala slid up the track, tyre smoke cascading from the rear tyres as the driver tried to save the car.
He almost did.
For a split second the car straightened up on the outside of the track, before snapping left, hitting Hornish and spinning into the inside wall, damaging three of the four corners of the car. As Johnson limped the car back it was clear there was plenty of damage, the driver's complaint of suspension damage only confirming the reason for the front wheel wobble.
But instead of retiring Chad Knaus and the No.48 team repaired the car, Johnson later describing that Knaus had told him they would be able to fix the car. “At that point I just stayed in the car, Johnson said in the post race press conference. “I didn’t want to hop out and let the crew guys think it was done. I was going to stay in it until he pushed it up on the ramp. I wanted them to keep working on it, find a way to get it on the track”.
Johnson's eventual stay in the garage was just over an hour, when the car emerged with a bare black front bodywork portion and right rear quarter panel and no rear bumper, and though hopelessly off the lap pace and nearly 120 laps behind he started to make up positions and points.
First he passed the now seemingly compulsory clutch of start-and-park cars, then the race played into his hands. Soon after a restart Juan Montoya's car slid up the track, clipping the rear of Carl Edwards' Ford, the impact sent both onto the wall, Montoya twice, before Dodge debutant Brad Keselowski added to the damage while Jeff Gordon span luridly through the corner, doing well not to hit anything, and being lucky not to be hit, though Martin Truex Jr. came very close.
Edwards' instant retirement handed Johnson another position as the rebuilt No.48 circulated, while Montoya (who himself returned to the garage for lengthy repairs) and Gordon's misfortune was one of many missed opportunities to take full advantage of Johnson's woes.
None of the other title challengers were able to run with the pace of the Busch brothers who ran up front, and as Johnson made up points, they could not. Mark Martin, who entered (and leaves) the race second in points was driver to come closest to capitalising, though his eventual fourth place finish is more a reflection on the topsy-turvy finish than the potential of his car on the night.
Still the veteran made up 111 points on his rival to close to 73 behind with only two races – at Phoenix and Homestead – remaining. Two races Martin believes he can win.
Perhaps the 2009 Chase for the Sprint Cup just got interesting?