Race Coverage, Non-Daily
Jeff Gluck, NASCAR Scene
And the winner is ...?
The day began innocently enough, under clear skies and a spectacular sunrise that left the Kansas City horizon draped in bright pink hues.
It ended with cars still on the track at Kansas Speedway, a curtain of darkness falling on a bizarre race that was ultimately won by Greg Biffle.
Filled with rain, wind, lightning and damaging wrecks that involved more than half of the Chase For The Nextel Cup field, the LifeLock 400 took on an extra element of controversy when Biffle failed to cross the finish line first.
Coming off of Turn 4 under caution and anticipating his long-awaited first victory of the season, Biffle began to unbuckle his belts and remove his helmet. He shut off the engine in order to save enough fuel for a burnout and a trip to victory lane, and began casually steering the car with his knees.
He coasted down to the apron, restarted the car and drove the remaining 50 feet to the finish line, then shut the engine off again and took a left turn into the grass where he stood on the window ledge and gestured to the crowd in the growing darkness.
“The race was over, the caution was out, we were declared the winner and all we had to do was come back around and cross the stripe,” Biffle said. “So that’s that.”
Just one problem: While preparing to celebrate, Biffle slowed enough that his competitors thought he was out of gas. Runnerup Clint Bowyer and third-place Jimmie Johnson led a handful of cars that passed Biffle.
“[Biffle] didn’t win the race,” fifth-place Jeff Gordon said. “Clint Bowyer is the winner of this race, in my opinion. No offense to Greg Biffle – he drove the car to a win – but you have to cross the start/finish line at pace-car speed, at least.”
NASCAR disagreed, and said that Biffle maintained a “cautious pace” – which can be slower than the pace car’s speed, spokesman Ramsey Poston said. In doing so, Biffle won the race because there is no passing under caution, as long as the car in question continues to run the aforementioned reasonable pace.
That was different than what some drivers had heard before.
“If you don’t maintain pace-car speed, you don’t hold your position,” Johnson said. “And it was clear to everyone that he couldn’t do it. If he could have, he would have stayed on the bumper of the pace car to the finish line.”
Therefore, Johnson said, Biffle should finish in the order he crossed the line.
“That’s your winner right there,” he said, motioning to Bowyer.
Bowyer, the Kansas native who hoped for a happy homecoming, seemed puzzled and slightly stunned in the moments following the race.
“To win a race and not be able to go to victory lane, I thought that was weird,” he said. “I don’t know what is going on.”
Crew chief Gil Martin said that because Biffle didn’t maintain proper speed – and Bowyer did – that his driver should have won.
“I know they’ve got victory lane [ceremonies] going on and everything else and nobody wants to see this controversy at the end, but I didn’t want to see the race restart after it rained and I didn’t want to see them open pit road when it was wet,” Martin said. “I didn’t want to see any of that stuff, but the rules are the rules. They’ve been that way. That’s how I understand them.”
NASCAR said that perception is incorrect, meaning that many drivers and crews apparently misunderstood Rule 10-4(A) of the NASCAR rulebook: “Determination of reasonable speed is a judgment call and will be made by NASCAR officials.”
“He didn’t cross [the finish line] the way I thought you were supposed to,” Bowyer said. “But I know they’re not going to pull him out of victory lane, and there’s nothing you can do about it [by] whining.”
Biffle maintained that he was not out of gas, an assertion which NASCAR later said was true. A half-gallon of gas still remained in the car during post-race inspection.
“I could’ve passed the pace car, if you want,” he said. “I can go start the car up and do some burnouts in the garage over here, do some donuts if that’ll make everybody feel better about it. ... I don’t know what else to say. I don’t know how bad you want Clint to win.”
The controversy was likely to be debated well into the week, but the bottom line was that Biffle was in victory lane for the first time since the final race of last season.
And that was just the capper. Talladega was supposed to be the wild-card race of the Chase, but Dover and Kansas might have given the Alabama track a run for its money.
This was supposed to be a day when the usual suspects would shine, the first 1.5-mile race of the Chase. Surely, like most other races of its kind, the running order would be dominated by Chase drivers.
But as race time drew closer, so too did a line of severe thunderstorms which swept across the Plains, buffeted by a strong wind that threatened to turn the Chase upside down for the second straight week. The fans and drivers brushed off an early shower, which delayed the race for 45 minutes at lap 15. But there was more rain on the way.
Teams initially looked at the ominous radar and figured they were racing to the halfway point, which occurred at lap 134. But that was at 3:45 p.m.; the rain didn’t arrive until 3:52.
Suddenly, the focus was on green-flag pit stops. The crew chiefs certainly didn’t want to call their drivers into the pits with rain and an Independence Day-caliber lightning show in the distance.
But with no fuel, what could they do?
Before the pit stops, nine of the top 10 cars in the running order were Chase drivers. Then Matt Kenseth hit pit road. Then Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr.
Kurt Busch joined them, followed by Jeff Gordon at lap 143.
Two laps later, the rains came and it looked as if Tony Stewart was going to steal the win.
Stewart stretched his fuel and elected to stay out while the rest of the leaders pitted, gambling that the rain would hit soon. When it finally hit, bringing out a caution flag followed by a red flag, it looked as if Stewart would be declared the winner of the rain-shortened race.
Stewart crew chief Greg Zipadelli looked like a genius when the severe thunderstorm pounded the track like perhaps none of Mother Nature’s other offspring has this year – which is saying a lot, considering this has been the season of monsoons. The weather arrived with full force, swallowing the track in a heavy downpour that veiled the speedway and made the scoring tower seem to disappear into a white cloud of precipitation, and things might not have looked much different had Kansas suddenly been overtaken by Niagara Falls.
Many drivers and teams figured that was enough to end the race. Officials set up a makeshift victory lane in one of the garages, just in case ceremonies had to be moved under shelter.
Then, the sun came back out – much to the chagrin of Stewart and drivers who thought they’d stolen a solid finish, thanks to their weather strategy. Every other Chase driver was at least one lap down as a result of the pit cycle.
After a red-flag period that swallowed more than two hours of a Sunday afternoon, racing resumed. Instead of planning for when the race would end due to weather, crew chiefs were now faced with worrying about darkness (NASCAR announced that the race would be shortened from 267 to 225 laps).
What they should have been worrying about were wrecks.
Suddenly, the track seemed to have become a minefield. On the first lap of the restart, a wreck started by contact between Ken Schrader and Michael Waltrip took out Chasers Kenseth and Truex. They finished 35th and 38th and fell to 11th and eighth in points, respectively.
“I slowed down for the wreck and just got ran over,” Kenseth said. “There was really nothing – I don’t think – that I could do about it.”
Kenseth was punted by Truex, who was pushed from behind by former race leader Stewart, who had his fender pushed in as a result. His tire only lasted another eight laps.
Stewart’s tire suddenly gave way in Turn 3, and Kurt Busch couldn’t slow in time to avoid him. Busch jacked Stewart’s car up and spun the No. 20, which in turn collected the third in a trio of unhappy Chasers – Carl Edwards.
Stewart finished 39th and fell to fourth in points; Busch rallied to finish 11th and moved up two spots to ninth; and Edwards ended his day in 37th, which dropped him to seventh in the standings.
“Man, it’s hard to keep a smile on your face after something like this,” Edwards said.
There was no smile on Stewart’s face. He hastily left the track with no comment after being seen on his in-car camera throwing his steering wheel, helmet, gloves and HANS device inside his car.
By then, it was clear NASCAR would not even get to the 225-lap goal. So the race was again shortened, this time to 210 laps.
It wasn’t long before another wreck occurred – this one involving Denny Hamlin. Though he finished one lap down in 29th, his miserable Chase continued. Hamlin is 12th in points and trails points leader Johnson by an overwhelming 248 with seven races remaining.
Kyle Busch (accident) and Jeff Burton (fuel pump) had already encountered problems of their own earlier in the race. As a result, seven Chasers finished at least one lap down, and six of them recorded finishes of 35th or worse.
Though Dover was a standings-shaking race, the top 10 drivers were all within 116 points of each other heading into Kansas. Now, heading into Talladega, only three drivers – the leader Johnson, Gordon (six behind) and Bowyer (14) – are within that window.
Stewart is in fourth place, 117 points behind. The bottom eight drivers will all need help to win the championship this season.
The way things are going, they might get it.
Even though the race was shortened by 85 miles to become the LifeLock 315 – or the Six Hours of Kansas – drivers still encountered such darkness at the end that some ran the final laps with their visors opened.
“What a crazy day,” Bowyer said. “For two rain delays and a lot of Chase guys ending up getting in trouble, it was definitely a different night.”
Observing the late hour, Bowyer chuckled.
“I guess we can call it ‘night’ now,” he said.