The story of the first Saturday night NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race was a familiar one, but with a twist and not simply because of 'Tornados' branding splashed across the winning car in the Subway Fresh Fit 600.
The race, or qualifying at least, was one to showcase the talents of those drivers who have been assimilated into stock car during the pre-recession boom with the top four time trial spots taken by drivers – A.J. Allmendinger, Scott Speed, Sam Hornish and Marcos Ambrose – who have reached NASCAR from four of the more unusual career ladders in racing. However, once the green flag dropped the quartet began to drop back, the residual gulf in quality between them and the more established names very apparent.
But, as with much of the race, it was not that simple. Allmendinger held on to lead the first nineteen laps before the first of nine caution flags as potential race contenders Kurt Busch and Kasey Kahne booked themselves in for long days in Arizona when the Penske driver washed up into Kahne who swiped the wall with his rear end while.
Meanwhile Busch was sent on a long, arcing spin that terminated clipping Denny Hamlin's no.11 car in his first race after knee surgery for a team that had Casey Mears ready as insurance if Hamlin wanted to climb from the car.
The early reshuffle of pitstops put Ryan Newman in the lead after taking two tyres, though he was only able to hold the lead for a single lap at that point, ceding position to his teammate Tony Stewart before Juan Montoya was able to overhaul them both before going onto to dominate the next 100 laps before the sun set on the track. While he, as well as Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch would all lead more than 100 laps, of the 378 total, each the Colombian, must look upon this as another chance to win an oval race he let slip though his fingers.
The race, as is always the way with NASCAR's evening races that pass from day, though dusk and into night, there were constantly new names in the top echelons as teams and drivers battle to bring their car's handling into line with the conditions.
However, for all that NASCAR often seems to have more in common with endurance racing the race, like many others this year, came down to late race pit strategy, but in direct opposition to a fortnight ago at Martinsville.
With only a handful of laps to go Kyle Busch had a comfortable lead over Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon and looked to be cruising to a first victory of season only to see the race slip away from him, right in front of his eyes. With three laps remaining he entered turn three just behind Scott Riggs' no.90 car who was on the end of the lead lap.
However as Riggs' Chevrolet dived for the bottom of the corner the car's right-front tyre blew out, sending the car into the outside. It was a sour end to a good day for the Keyed-Up Motorsports team, perhaps the smallest team who had aimed to complete the entire race, rather than the all-to fashionable start-and-park. But it was even worse news for Busch.
Perhaps mindful of Martinsville, when Denny Hamlin was able to slice though the field on fresh tyres on a green-white-chequered finish, most of the field pitted, led by Busch, Johnson, Gordon and Montoya.
Busch, Johnson and Montoya opted to follow the season form book and take four fresh tyres while Gordon, and Ryan Newman who had come into the pits fifth gambled on two tyres as did Matt Kenseth, defending race winner Mark Martin, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Allmendinger, dropping Johnson, the first four-tyred runner to restart in seventh.
Leading the restart from the outside line Gordon got a poor restart Newman jumping out into the lead; Gordon later lamenting that he spun the tyres, but behind Johnson was leading the four tyre charge searching below Allmendinger into turn one forcing the RPM driver into the middle of three wide racing which backed up the pack allowing Juan Montoya to force his way underneath Allmendinger.
But all the turn one shuffling had done was allow the leading trio, with Mark Martin the third member, to steal a lead. They followed each other to the white flag in lockstep, Johnson and Montoya straining to catch them while erstwhile leader Busch battled for eighth with Carl Edwards.
Johnson was able to drive around Martin down the back straight on the final lap, but could not catch Gordon who, in turn could only watch Ryan Newman collect his first win for Stewart-Haas Racing and is first since the 2008 Daytona 500, a 77 race barren spell the driver was quick to refer to in an unusually expressive victory lane interview.
“It's the most emotional victory of my entire career, just because it's been so long,” he admitted.
“I held my line and got a good shot off of turn two. It was all we needed,” he commented on the strategy call Track position was real important. I think the two tyres was a good call because the track had cooled off there was a little more grip. Two tyres earlier today weren't good enough.”
Jimmie Johnson's third was enough to preserve his points lead over sixth place finisher Matt Kenseth and Mark Martin would hold onto fourth ahead of Montoya with Kyle Busch frustrated in eighth. Marcos Ambrose, finishing eleventh for the second consecutive event, was the best of the four incomers who started so prominently after A.J. Allmendinger lost out heavily on the final restart, finishing fifteenth.
Robby Gordon finished one place ahead of Allmendinger, the owner-driver claiming his best finish of the season to date moving him back inside the top-35 in owner points, guaranteeing himself a starting spot next week in Texas.
Photo Credit: Tom Pennington/Getty Images for NASCAR