Martinsville Update: Yellows, yellows everywhere

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The seventh race of the Chase for the Sprint Cup at Martinsville Speedway has been filled so far with caution periods, causing the race to take on a ragged sort of character during its first half.

Pole sitter Denny Hamlin only led the first two laps before Chase for the Sprint Cup leader Jimmie Johnson took the lead at Lap 3. Shortly afterwards, the caution came out at Lap 7 after Carl Edwards spun out Jeff Burton in Turn 3. The resulting stack-up also left some other cars with various bits of damage.

Johnson led the field down to the green for the restart at Lap 20, but on Lap 25, Kyle Busch got to the inside of Johnson and eventually cleared him to begin his turn at the point. Matt Kenseth soon followed his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate past Johnson for second position, and then on Lap 36, he rose to the lead over Busch.

Kenseth and the rest of the leaders began winding their way through lapped traffic just before Lap 50, and a rhythm was found with Kenseth ahead of the Hendrick Motorsports duo of Johnson and Jeff Gordon. As for Busch, he slipped back to fourth while Juan Pablo Montoya made his way into the Top 5 by Lap 80 after starting 13th.

On Lap 88, contact between Edwards and Travis Kvapil sent the latter spinning and would trigger a wave of pit stops under yellow. Kenseth was able to win the race off pit road and keep his lead, with Gordon, Johnson, Busch and Montoya following him out. All of them, as well as the entirety of the Top 10 coming to the restart at Lap 95, took four tires.

Kenseth quickly sped away from Johnson at the green, while Montoya leaped from fifth to third. But Busch dropped back to seventh before the field strung back out to largely single-file action.

However, Johnson would reel Kenseth back in and grabbed the lead at Lap 111 after taking Kenseth on the inside of Turn 1 and emerging from Turn 2 with the edge. Gordon would then take second from Kenseth, making for a Hendrick 1-2 at Lap 125.

Contact between Bobby Labonte and David Reutimann brought out the yellow again at Lap 140. The leaders once again returned to the pits for service, and Johnson managed to get out first to stay on top.

When the green returned at Lap 147, Johnson on the inside line was stronger than Montoya on the outside and got himself out front. Montoya also lost second and third after the restart to a resurgent Gordon and Kenseth.

A problem for Kyle Larson at Lap 166 slowed the race once more and presented another opportunity for pit stops to the leaders. Johnson once again came out first but with another Hendrick teammate, Dale Earnhardt Jr.,right behind him.

Burton did not pit under the yellow, allowing him to assume the lead for the restart at Lap 181. Johnson was able to get around Burton, but then a multi-car incident ensued in Turn 1 to force another yellow. Among those taking damage were Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., Aric Almirola and Kasey Kahne, whose car needed to be pulled out of the grass between Turn 1 and 2.

Johnson and Kenseth quickly grabbed the top two spots off the restart at Lap 192, and left Montoya to fend for himself in third. But the yellow would come back again shortly after Lap 200 when Kurt Busch spun out in a Turn 3 battle with Jamie McMurray and then skidded into an oncoming Mark Martin.

The Top 8 stayed out under caution while Gordon led a group of cars to the pits at Lap 205. He would line up 13th for the restart at Lap 210, while Johnson, Kenseth and Montoya again stretched out their 1-2-3 position.

On Lap 217, Kenseth was able to get position on the inside of Johnson and take the advantage from the Chase leader. Another yellow for Kvapil at Lap 219 allowed Earnhardt, who had fallen outside of the Top 10, to come to pit road for service.

Kenseth was able to take the lead off the restart at Lap 223, while Montoya and Johnson fought each other for second behind him. Johnson would lose the battle as well as third and fourth spots before he finally settled to the inside line in fifth behind Joey Logano.

Another Reutimann spin triggered the yellow (stop us if this sounds like a broken record). Under this yellow, Johnson opted to go to the pits along with Kyle Busch and others. Kenseth and the rest of the lead pack stayed out, while Johnson was 16th at the Lap 236 restart.

Two laps later, Clint Bowyer worked his way around Kenseth for the point, and at Lap 250 of 500, he was the leader of the race.

Valiant efforts from Hunter-Reay, Dixon come up just short at Road America

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Ryan Hunter-Reay and Scott Dixon drove about as hard as they possibly could during Sunday’s KOHLER Grand Prix, and they both drove nearly perfect races.

Hunter-Reay took advantage of Will Power’s engine issues on the start to immediately jump into second, and stalked pole sitter and leader Josef Newgarden from there, often staying within only a couple car lengths of his gearbox.

Dixon, meanwhile, had a tougher chore after qualifying a disappointing 12th. Further, he was starting in the same lane as Will Power, and when Power had engine issues when the green flag waved, Dixon was one of several drivers who was swamped in the aftermath.

Scott Dixon had to come from deep in the field on Sunday’s KOHLER Grand Prix. Photo: IndyCar

However, as is his style, he quietly worked his way forward, running sixth after the opening round of pit stops, and then working his way up to third after the second round of stops.

It all meant that, after Lap 30, Newgarden, Hunter-Reay, and Dixon were nose-to-tail at the front, with the latter two in position to challenge for the win.

Yet, neither was able to do so. Hunter-Reay never got close enough to try to pass Newgarden, while Dixon couldn’t do so on either Hunter-Reay or Newgarden. And, neither driver went longer in their final stint – Dixon was actually the first of that group to pit, doing so on Lap 43, with Hunter-Reay and Newgarden pitting together one lap later.

And Newgarden pulled away in the final stint, winning by over three seconds, leaving Hunter-Reay and Dixon to finish second and third.

It was a somewhat bitter pill to swallow, with Hunter-Reay noting that he felt like he had enough to challenge for a win.

“I felt like we had the pace for (Newgarden), especially in the first two stints,” he asserted. “I really felt like it was going to be a really good race between us. Whether it be first, second, third, fourth stint – I didn’t know when it was going to come.”

He added that, if he could do it over again, he would have been more aggressive and tried to pass Newgarden in the opening stint.

“In hindsight, I should have pressured him a bit more in the first stint,” Hunter-Reay lamented. “We were focused on a fuel number at the time. Unfortunately that Penske fuel number comes into play, can’t really go hard.”

Dixon, meanwhile, expressed more disappointment in the result, asserting that qualifying better would have put him in a possibly race-winning position.

“I think had we started a little further up, we could have had a good shot at trying to fight for the win today,” he expressed.

The disappointment for Dixon also stems from the knowledge that his No. 9 PNC Bank Honda had the pace to win, especially longer into a run.

“The car was pretty good on the long stint,” he asserted. “I think for us the saving grace was probably the black tire stint two. We closed a hefty gap there. We were able to save fuel early in the first stint, which enabled us to go a lap longer than everybody, had the overcut for the rest of the race.

“I think speed-wise we were right there. Had a bit of a crack at Hunter-Reay on his out lap on the last stint there, but cooked it too much going into (Turn 14), got a bit loose, lost momentum. That would have been really the only chance of passing him.”

Dixon remains in the championship lead, however, by 45 points, while Hunter-Reay moved up to second, tied with Andretti Autosport teammate Alexander Rossi.

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