The Contender round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup began last week in Charlotte when Joey Logano won the Bank of America 500, automatically advancing to the next round of NASCAR's playoffs. The remaining 11 drivers still eligible to contend for the Sprint Cup knew that this week's race could mean the difference between advancing to the next round or sitting on the sidelines.
Brad Keslowski started on the pole, but the driver of the No. 2 Team Penske Ford lost the benefit of pit stall selection after receiving its fourth inspection infraction of the year in the pre-race technical inspection at Charlotte. As a result, he was relegated to pit No. 11, rather than the preferable No. 1 stall and Carl Edwards, having qualified second, was issued first stall pick.
At the green flag, Keselowski took the lead ahead of fellow front row starter Edwards. Multiple grooves at Kansas Speedway allowed for three-wide racing all around the 1.5-mile oval. Kevin Harvick moved into second place but complained of a vibration in the early going; his team was alerted and waited on pit lane to see what adjustments might be needed. The leaders caught the back of the field and started lapping slower cars within 20 laps.
The first caution period came on Lap 29 and was caused by J.J. Yeley who crashed in Turn 2. The leaders came onto pit road for their first stop of the race, during which Harvick took two tires and assumed the lead of the race. His crew determined that the vibration was caused by a loose wheel weight rather than an issue with the drive train as had been feared. There were differing pit strategies among the leaders, some changing four tires with others opting for two. Pole-sitter Keselowski changed four tires and rejoined the field in sixth place. The caution period was extended to allow the safety team to clear any remaining fluid and debris from the track, in an effort to avoid the issues that occured at Charlotte when several cars were effected by oil remaining on track after crashes.
The green flag waved at Lap 40, with Harvick holding off Martin Truex Jr. and Logano at the restart. Logano took second place from Truex Jr. on Lap 47 and tried to chase down Harvick, who led the field by more than a full second. The lead changed on Lap 51, with Logano getting around Harvick on the high side of the track. The No. 22 Penske Ford changed four tires during its pit stop which may have been an advantage over Harvick's two tires.
Tony Stewart spun on the back stretch on Lap 63 and brought out the second yellow flag of the race. He was a lap down from the leaders and flattened all four tires during the spin but did not make contact with anything. The leaders entered the pits for fuel and tires. Carl Edwards, taking advantage of having the frontmost pit stall changed two tires and won the race off pit road ahead of Brad Keselowski.
The restart on Lap 70 gave Edwards the lead of the race, followed by Matt Kenseth and Ryan Blaney. Kenseth got around Edwards for the lead on Lap 73 with the aid of four fresh tires. Edwards dropped back to 10th, complaining of a handling issue after the restart. Jimmie Johnson was one of the biggest movers of the race, running in third by Lap 92. Kyle Larson suspected that his right rear tire was going down, and began dropping back in the field. AJ Allmendinger slowed on the track after contact with David Ragan; both cars were able to continue. Larson spun on Lap 109 with a flat left front tire while running 33rd and two laps down, bringing out the third caution period of the race.
The leaders came on to pit road for fuel and tires, with Kenseth retaining the lead ahead of Johnson, Logano, Harvick and Kurt Busch. Jeff Gordon had a slow pit stop and had to return to his pit due to loose lug nuts. All cars changed four tires, having learned that changing only two tires was a disadvantage on the earlier stops.
The green flag waved on Lap 115, with Kenseth and Johnson running side by side before Kenseth pulled ahead in the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Toyota. Jamie McMurray brushed the wall on Lap 132 but was able to continue and stay on the lead lap.
Austin Dillon brought out the fourth caution of the day on Lap 154 after hitting the wall in Turn 2 due to a flat right front tire. He took the car to the garage where his team attempted to make repairs so he could rejoin the race. The leaders pitted under the yellow for fresh tires and fuel.
On Lap 160 the field saw the green flag. Kenseth retained the lead, with Harvick and Logano getting around a loose Jimmie Johnson on the restart. Logano moved up to second after getting around Harvick. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was running 21st when he thought he had a loose wheel and entered pit road under the green flag. The team changed all four tires while the No. 88 lost precious time in the pits. As they ran, he was in 12th place in the Chase points and below the cut line to advance to the next round of the championship. He rejoined the field in 26th, two laps behind the leader Kenseth.
The fourth caution period of the race began on Lap 170, resulting from an accident on the backstretch involving Clint Bowyer. The Kansas native was running 16th when he got loose and hit the wall at the exit of Turn 2. He was able to climb from the car and walk to the ambulance seemingly uninjured. The leaders stayed on the track during the caution, although some cars further back in the field came to pit lane for tires and fuel. He was examined and released from the infield care center with no injuries.
The green flag waved again on Lap 179, with Kenseth and Logano running side by side at the restart. Logano got out in front of Kenseth with the some help from Kevin Harvick who slotted into third behind them. All championship contenders were on the lead lap except Dale Earnhardt Jr., who ran 22nd. He needed to get around Justin Allgaier in order to be eligible for the free pass during the next caution period. Earnhardt Jr. was able to get around Allgaier after the No. 51 ran high and brushed the wall.
Brad Keselowski hit the wall on Lap 188 and slowed on track; he entered pit lane to change a right side flat tire but did not bring out a yellow flag. Kenseth and Logano battled side by side with Kenseth retaking the lead on Lap 195. Kenseth pulled out to nearly a 2 second lead over second place Jimmie Johnson, followed by Logano, Harvick and Denny Hamlin.
Cars began to come to pit lane under the green flag for their final pit stop of the race on Lap 214. Kevin Harvick left his pit with the fuel can attached to the car and thus needed to return to pit road to serve a penalty for removing equipment from his pit box. Martin Truex Jr. also had to return to his pit because of a tire which rolled out of his pit box. Harvick served his penalty with his shifter broken off in his hand; he was able to get back in gear after the stop-and-go penalty. Harvick and Truex both went one lap down after their penalties.
Paul Menard was the final driver to pit on Lap 231, allowing Matt Kenseth to reassume the lead of the race. Earnhardt Jr. was running two laps down and radioed his crew that he thought that the right rear tire may have a problem.
The sixth caution of the race was on Lap 244, caused by Justin Allgaier who hit the wall in Turn 2 with the rear of his car. With 23 laps to go, all cars had sufficient fuel to make it to the end of the race. Many of the leaders came to pit lane for tires and handling adjustments. Jimmie Johnson stayed on track and did not pit while Matt Kenseth was the first off pit road of those who stopped. Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. tooked the wave around to gain a lap and put them in line for the free pass should another caution occur.
With 21 laps to go, the green flag waved and Matt Kenseth was able to get around Jimmie Johnson to retake the lead of the race. Joey Logano pulled into second and took the high line as he attempted to get around Kenseth. With 14 laps remaining, Logano was on the rear bumper of Kenseth and tried to get around him. A win by Kenseth would assure an advance to the next round of the Chase.
With nine laps remaining in the race, Logano was fastest on the high side of the track while Kenseth was able to run well on the low side. The two leaders approached lapped cars with five laps to go and Kenseth slid and spun, bringing out the seventh caution of the race. Kenseth blocked Logano which caused the No. 20 to touch the rear of Kenseth's Toyota and spin.
Several cars entered the pits with four laps to go. Matt Kenseth was able to continue in the race and was running in 14th at the restart. The field lined up behind the pace car for the first attempt at a green/white/checkers finish.
Denny Hamlin was running beside Logano on the restart on the restart. Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne were directly behind them. At the green flag, Logano got around Hamlin and took the white flag for the last lap of the race.
Joey Logano held on to win his second race in a row, followed by Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne and Kyle Busch. After leading the most laps of the race, Matt Kenseth finished 14th.
The Chase now advances to the CampingWorld.com 500 at Talladega.
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