Cautions, wrecks take toll in Quaker State 400

Sprint Cup drivers learning character of Kentucky Speedway can produce tough consequences.

SPARTA, Ky. – Jimmie Johnson was dominating the Quaker State 400 on Sunday afternoon and appeared well on his way to a fourth NASCAR Sprint Cup victory. The only thing slowing down the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevy SS at the Kentucky Speedway was the yellow caution flag.

The restart following the ninth caution, coming with 20 laps remaining of the 267-lap race, became Johnson’s undoing. Johnson got caught up in traffic on a controversial restart, spun out enough in the first turn to send the race to a 10th caution period and Johnson to the back of the lead lap pack. The Sprint Cup point standings leader rallied to finish ninth but didn’t have enough time to catch up to winner Matt Kenseth.

The first two editions of NASCAR big-boy racing at the Kentucky Speedway produced a total of 10 caution periods. Year Three produced that many slowdowns itself as the combination of greater speed throughout the field and a weather postponement from
Saturday night to Sunday afternoon forced drivers and teams to adjust on the fly.

Johnson was a victim of bad timing. He led 182 laps Sunday but not the one that mattered most.

“We were kind of in an awkward situation in that restart there,” Johnson said. “We were like three and four wide going in the corner.Then something happened with the air and just kind of turned me around. Unfortunate, but at least we rallied back for a good finish.

“The No. 20 (Kenseth) broke the pace-car speed, which you aren’t supposed to, but, they aren’t calling guys on that, so I need to start trying that in the future.”

The 1.5-mile tri-oval at Kentucky comes with a bumpy surface. It has character, as drivers described it the past few days, and that’s a good thing. The shift of plans caused by rains on Saturday that forced the race to be postponed to a noon ET start on Sunday only added to the character.

“There were a lot of unknowns of racing in the day time versus the night time. We haven’t done that here,” said Jamie McMurray, who finished second behind Kenseth. “You kind of set your car up for the night thinking that the track was going to get really loose, and I think most guys fought being tight all day and it was really hard getting the car freed up. I thought the track actually raced better during the day than it does at night.”

The top four finishers were all on the outside of the top 10 starting grid. Kenseth qualified 16th, McMurray 23rd, Clint Boyer 15th and Joey Logano 11th. That trend continued as seven of the first eight placers and nine of the top 11 began in Row 6 or farther back.

“I don’t think you need to change anything,” said Chad Knaus, Johnson’s crew chief. “I think (the track) is fine. I thought it was a good race. I think that guys have to drive around, teams got to work. The smoother the racetrack, the easier it is for everybody to get ahold of and that promotes single-file racing. We don’t want that. We saw a lot of passing today, so I don’t think we want to change that a bit.”

The first yellow flag of the race came on Lap 32 as NASCAR ordered a competition caution because of the switch from a night race to the daytime. The field went back to green on Lap 36, but there were three more caution periods over the next 15 laps, including an 18-minute red flag stoppage to clean up debris from a seven-car accident that began when Kurt Busch got too far down on the apron coming through the first turn and then bumped defending race and Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski to start the chain reaction.

Busch escaped the incident unscathed and finished sixth. Keselowski, Greg Biffle and Paul Menard were able to return to the race and be running when it ended, but Landon Cassill, Dave Blaney and Travis Kvapil all had their days ended by the accident. Busch admitted his mistake and apologized over his radio to Keselowski.

“I know (Busch) didn’t intentionally wreck me but it is just one of those things,” said Keselowski. “A chain of events with the way the cars drive and the track has that really bad bump down there and we all know it. There is no reason to go down there, but he still did.”

The wreck proved more costly to Keselowski than the damage his car sustained. Although he was able to complete 153 laps, he fell four places in the points standings, from ninth to 13th, and out of the automatic qualifying spots for the season-ending Chase for the Sprint Cup.

“We are just going to do our thing,” said Keselowski. “We are just on a streak of bad luck. It will turn around. And when it does, we will be in victory lane and be all right.”

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