In a sport where there are many ways to win and lose a race, there seemed to be one common factor at the Kentucky Speedway on Sunday.
It was a factor that ended the day of a few of the race favorites in the Quaker State 400, ending their day harder than others. And for Matt Kenseth and the No. 20 Dollar General team, it was the one factor they didn’t think was going to get them to Victory Lane.
Tires, oh tires what those Goodyear’s will do.
Early in the going Denny Hamlin suffered his first of what would be two tire failures on the day. While running fifth he cut down a right front and had to make an unscheduled pit stop on lap 36. As Hamlin was headed for the pits on the exit road, the carcass of his tire came off the No. 11 and rolled back onto the racetrack.
Right into oncoming traffic of the leaders, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson. The Hendrick Motorsports teammates got the worst of it, the tire bouncing off the front of Earnhardt Jr.’s car then hitting the front of Johnson’s. Both suffered damage but while Johnson was able to go on and dominate the race, Earnhardt Jr. faded for the rest of the day and fought for a 12th place finish.
“You just fix it and keep going. The guys did a god job on pit road all day long working on it and trying to fix everything,” Earnhardt Jr. said afterwards. “I’m not sure we got everything back where it is supposed to be, but we did well enough to get a decent finish out of it.
“Just proud of how hard the team worked … Can’t do anything about what happened out there on the race track with that casing. They worked hard on it to get it right, and get it good enough where we could run well. So, they deserve a lot of the credit today.”
After the race when Earnhardt Jr. had pulled into the garage, his helmet wasn’t even off as he quickly jumped out of his machine to survey the damage. Thinking it had been a lot worse when it happened than it actually was, with crew chief Steve Letarte chalking the whole thing up to bad luck for the pole-winning car.
The bad luck bug wasn’t done however, as it struck Hamlin again on lap 147. Trying to salvage his season, Hamlin was running in the top 10 again. Looking for top fives and wins, in hopes of somehow managing to make his way into the Chase. Blowing another right front tire isn’t going to help his cause.
Hamlin hit the wall hard in turn four, banging his knee and telling TNT after being released from the infield care center that he had gotten his bell rung. Many were concerned when it was reported that Hamlin might have been injured during the wreck, but he made it known that he was doing fine.
“I felt pretty good about the way we were racing today. We were with the right track position, we could run with everybody except for maybe the 48 [Johnson],” Hamlin said of his day and chances for the Chase moving forward.
“We’re just trying to win races and that’s what my job is for the rest of the year is to try to win and do the best I can for my sponsors and my team. Really the biggest thing I was pushing for was to get my team into the Chase. Had an opportunity owner’s points wise to get into the Chase and this is obviously another hit.”
The 35th place finish leaves Hamlin 25th in points. He and car owner Joe Gibbs were adamant as well that he would continue racing for the remainder of the season, and not step out of the car to avoid further injury.
And so as tires continued to be the downfall for others, Johnson was dominating. No worse for the wear after the damage he suffered from Hamlin’s errant tire carcass, Johnson led a race high 182 of the scheduled 267 laps. No matter who the competition was behind the Lowe’s Chevrolet, there was no catching him on this day.
Until everything changed, as it always does, when a caution came out with less than 25 laps to go. The leaders came down pit road for the final stop, Johnson’s team giving him two fresh tires as they had for much of the event. Except this time, he wasn’t first off pit road as the eventual winner, Kenseth, took fuel and no tires to grab the spot.
The restart with 21 laps to go put Kenseth in the lead with no tires, Johnson and many of the other leaders on two tires. That would be the last time Johnson saw the leaders as he spun in turn one after the restart, getting loose all on his own. Receiving four tires from his team on a subsequent caution, Johnson made a mad dash through the field and finished an incredible ninth.
But it wasn’t the two tires, no tires call that had him upset. Johnson screamed over the radio repeatedly that Kenseth had slowed down the restart and stacked the field up, causing him to spin and lose his shot at the win. Calling for Kenseth to be penalized, Johnson was left to take him lumps and move on. He later told reporters that Kenseth broke pace car speed, which drivers aren’t supposed to do, but something NASCAR isn’t calling penalties on.
Holding off the rest of the field on a final restart, Kenseth took his old tires to Victory Lane – saying he was confused on why Johnson would be upset – for the fourth time in 2013, the first at Kentucky. He now leads the series in wins and with seeding would be the leader when the Chase started.
“I didn’t roll the dice, Jason [Ratcliff, crew chief] did. I thought he was slightly crazy when that happened,” said Kenseth in Victory Lane on his team’s gutsy tire call.
“I didn’t think there was any way that we were going to hold on for that win. He made the right call at the right time and those guys got it done.”
Tires, oh tires what that rubber can do.