KANSAS CITY, Kan. – Shell-Pennzoil Dodge driver Sam Hornish Jr. was running in the top 10 during the final stages of this afternoon’s Hollywood Casino 400 here at Kansas Speedway when his strong run began to unfold. When the checkered flag fell, instead of scoring the solid finish he appeared to be headed to, Hornish was already in the garage. Late-race misfortune ended his day with 30 laps remaining and relegated him to a 26th-place finish.
“We had more yellows today than the rest of the year combined (laughs),” Hornish said of the first Sprint Cup battle on the “new” Kansas Speedway. “It’s been pretty tough today. Everyone knows that they have to get everything they can on the restarts because it’s so hard to pass once everyone gets strung out. Everybody is trying to take advantage of each other and you get lots of yellows when that happens.”
The drivers and teams returned to Kansas Speedway this week to find a challenging new layout. Since the last visit back in April, the track was not only completely resurfaced, it was reconfigured. The original 15-degree banking was transformed to progressive banking that varies from 17 to 20 degrees. The hopes were that the changes would enhance the passing and overall competition this weekend and on into the future.
The immediate result of the project produced a track that was home to a record number of cautions in both Saturday’s Nationwide Series race and today’s Sprint Cup battle. Today’s race not only produced a Kansas track record for cautions, it also boasted a season high 14 cautions for 66 yellow flag laps.
“I got spun by the 78 and tried to make it one more lap to get a yellow flag,” Hornish told a SPEED-TV crew in giving a synopsis of his frustrating day here in Kansas. “We had a pretty good car today. It’s all about track position. We just couldn’t get the Shell-Pennzoil Dodge where we wanted it to be. I begged them to try and get us some track position; it’s unfortunate.”
Hornish started today’s race from the 15th position after turning in a record lap of 28.407 seconds (190.094 mph) in Friday afternoon’s qualifying. The day saw all qualifiers (including three who did not make the race) turn in faster laps than the old track qualifying record (29.858 seconds/180.856 mph).
Hornish fell back to 19th at the start of the race, but made steady progress back up through the field. Fighting a “free in and tight a third of the way through” handling condition, Hornish was 15th when the first caution flew on Lap 31 for debris.
A two-tire pit stop on Lap 22 (fuel and track bar adjustment) saw Hornish line up 15th for the Lap 36 restart. Only four laps later, Kyle Busch spun out of Turn 4 to bring out the second yellow flag of the day. After staying out, Hornish was 17th on the Lap 44 restart.
Crew chief Todd Gordon called Hornish down pit road during the third caution of the race on Lap 73. An 11.87-second four-tire stop (with air pressure and wedge adjustments) saw Hornish 23rd on the Lap 76 restart. Cars that had taken on fuel only and just two tires made up the top 10 when the race returned to green.
Hornish was still fighting a tight handling condition when Jeff Burton hit the wall to bring out the fourth caution flag. The “Double Deuce” team opted to stay out and was 18th for the Lap 86 restart.
The Goodyear Tires teams raced here this weekend were so hard that they had little grip and produced a vibrating feel for drivers on occasion. That was the case for Hornish until he was able to pit on Lap 124 under the fifth caution of the day. A 12.2-second pit stop (for four tires, fuel and air pressure adjustments) had Hornish up to ninth for the Lap 127 restart.
Jimmie Johnson had led earlier in the day, but pitted just prior to the fifth yellow flag. After taking the wave-around, he was 23rd on the restart. Trying to charge back up through the pack, he spun around and backed his Chevrolet into the Turn 4 wall on Lap 135 to bring out the sixth caution flag of the race. Somehow the Chad Knaus-led No. 48 crew was able to repair their car to be competitive again.
Hornish was 15th on the Lap 141 restart, but had fallen to 17th for the next restart on Lap 146 (after a Bobby Labonte spin brought out caution No. 7).
Danica Patrick and Landon Cassell crashed on Lap 155 to bring out the eighth yellow flag of the day. Hornish hit pit road on Lap 157 for four sticker tires, fuel and a reversal of the prior stop’s air pressure adjustments. Hornish lined up 27th for the Lap 162 restart with crew chiefs already alerting their drivers that the race was turning into a potential fuel mileage battle.
When Tony Stewart made a remarkable move in spinning to the inside and not hitting anything on Lap 165, the ninth yellow flag of the race was displayed. When several teams chose to pit under the caution, Hornish stayed out and was up to 17th for the Lap 168 restart.
Only a lap later, Marcos Ambrose and Trevor Bayne crashed to bring out the 10th caution flag. Hornish stayed out and was up to 16th for the Lap 172 return to green. Ryan Newman spun Aric Almirola on Lap 173, but didn’t bring out a caution, but only two laps later the 11th caution flag of the day was displayed when Greg Biffle plowed hard into the wall.
Hornish had been fortunate in not getting involved in the earlier incidents, but his luck ran out on Lap 182. Kyle Busch got hooked into the wall by Newman and Hornish got blasted from the rear by Kurt Busch’s Chevy. The damage was extensive to the right-front and left-rear of the Shell-Pennzoil Dodge.
Three separate trips to pit road during the yellow had Hornish running 24th and a lap down on the Lap 189 restart. When Almirola crashed hard to end his day on Lap 213, Hornish, Gordon and crew chose to stay out and get the wave-around. They were hoping to get another yellow flag to allow them to pit under the yellow to get the fuel they needed to make it to the finish.
Hornish was 25th on the Lap 222 restart. The caution they needed never came and Hornish radioed in that he was pitting the next lap on Lap 234. Unfortunately, he never made it back around before a blown tire sent him smacking hard into the outside wall.
The crash brought out the 14th caution flag of the race. Hornish was able to steer his severely damaged Dodge back around to his pits, where Gordon saw the extent of the needed repairs. The call was to take the car to the garage. When the team got their Charger back to the garage stall and they had a closer look, it was determined that they could not advance any positions by attempting to return to the race.
“I was trying to be real patient,” Hornish told the SPEED-TV crew when he climbed from his mangle machine back in the garage area. “I restarted ninth and I was just trying to hold my own. I think we fell back to 18th and then once we got some green flag runs, we got back up to ninth. I didn’t need two laps of green, 10 laps of yellow, two laps of green. We had a really good car over the long run. Obviously, it’s impatience when you’re trying to push hard in one lap or when the green flag comes out (after a caution). I know they’re trying to do their best to make the track better, to make it more exciting for the fans. It’s tough racing out there today.”
At the finish line, it was Matt Kenseth taking the victory by 0.485 seconds over Martin Truex Jr. It was Kenseth’s third win of the season. Paul Menard finished third, with Kasey Kahne fourth and Stewart fifth. Clint Bowyer, Regan Smith, Penske Racing teammate Brad Keselowski (eighth in the Miller Lite Dodge), Johnson (amazing ninth-place finish) and Jeff Gordon rounded out the top-10 finishers.
With four races remaining to determine the 2012 Sprint Cup champion, Penske Racing’s Keselowski leads by seven points over Johnson (2,250 to 2,243). Denny Hamlin is third and 20 points out of the lead. Bowyer is fourth and 25 points behind leader Keselowski.
The Sprint Cup tour now moves on to the circuit’s smallest track, the .526-mile Martinsville Speedway. This weekend’s NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule at Martinsville gets under way with Friday’s practice from 12:00 noon till 1:30 p.m. Coors Light Pole Award qualifying to establish the starting grid for Sunday’s 500-lap battle is set for Friday at 3:40 p.m. local (live on SPEED-TV). Saturday’s schedule features practice sessions from 9:30 a.m. till 10:25 a.m. and from 12:00 noon till 12:50 p.m. (live on SPEED-TV). Sunday’s TUMS Fast Relief 500 has a scheduled 1:30 p.m. local (ET) starting time at the 0.526-mile flat track with tricky inside curbing in the corners. ESPN-TV and MRN Radio will provide live coverage of all the action.