Kevin Harvick started on the pole and led the most laps in the 5-Hour Energy 400 on Saturday night in Kansas City, but it was Jeff Gordon who made the late push and earned his first checkered flag of the 2014 season.
For most of this year's campaign, the No. 24 car had compiled the most points of any driver on the Sprint Cup circuit. However, by virtue of NASCAR's rule changes for the Chase in the Sprint Cup, Gordon was still looking up at the drivers who had already recorded a victory and were essentially qualified for the final Chase.
Now, he has that monkey off his back.
The last 20 or so laps turned into a battle of wits. Figuring when and how to manage what would be the last pit stop of the race ultimately thinned the herd and helped decide the winner.
Jimmie Johnson had the lead with 11 laps to go before heading to the pits for a quick stop.
Although he was in and out in a matter of seconds, those precious seconds may have cost him the victory. He finished ninth.
With Johnson out of the picture, Brad Keselowski enjoyed the lead for a short time before he, too, had to pit, which allowed Gordon to get in front with eight laps left:
Gordon will take lead as Keselowski pits with eight laps to go. #nascar— Bob Pockrass (@bobpockrass) May 11, 2014
Harvick made a late push on the last few laps, and had the race been a lap or two longer, he may have been able to overtake Gordon. However, No. 24 held off Harvick and won by a couple car lengths.
Give a ton of credit to Gordon and his crew. They timed out their final pit stop perfectly. Gordon was able to sit back and wait patiently as all of the cars in front of him dropped off and headed for pit road.
Following the victory, Gordon said he felt the win took decades off his age, per Dustin Long of Motor Racing Network:
Here's a look at the top 10, and how Saturday's race affected the Sprint Cup standings.
|5||Dale Earnhardt Jr.|
|21||Martin Truex Jr.|
|22||Ricky Stenhouse Jr.|
|5||Dale Earnhardt Jr.||-26||1|
Another storyline from Saturday was Danica Patrick. It may sound cliche, but she ran really, really well. Although she could only muster a seventh-place finish, she has every reason to be encouraged by this result:
What Danica is doing is noteworthy. More impressive than an 8th at Daytona and almost equal to finishing 12th at Martinsville as a rookie.— Jordan Bianchi (@Jordan_Bianchi) May 11, 2014
This very well could be Danica's best race ever.— Marty Snider (@heymartysnider) May 11, 2014
Maybe, just maybe, Patrick is getting closer to that ever-elusive first checkered flag on the Sprint Cup circuit.
Considering everything else that was going on around her, Patrick must have been ecstatic not to get dragged down into the general morass of the race.
For many drivers, Saturday night was essentially Murphy's Law in action. What could go wrong did go wrong.
Things didn't start off well as the race was preemptively delayed after weather forecasts looked ominous:
The weather added another level of stress and consternation to drivers and teams that were already on edge heading into what was the first ever Sprint Cup race under the lights at the Kansas Speedway.
Drivers and crew members didn't have any experience dealing with the track in nighttime conditions. That can affect the spotters trying to keep tabs on all the cars, in addition to the fact that the pit crews didn't have a total understanding as to how the Kansas Speedway might affect cars differently at night than it would have during the day.
The drivers weren't helped out by the fact that they didn't have any opportunities in practice to drive on the track at night during the week. That could've provided some trial and error to work the kinks out.
You can't say the racing gods don't have a sense of humor, though. During the race a bank of lights went out, leaving part of the track partially cloaked in darkness, per USA Today's Nate Ryan. Why wouldn't that happen during the first Sprint Cup night race at the Kansas Speedway?
Drivers now reporting the lights are out on the backstretch. #nascar— Nate Ryan (@nateryan) May 11, 2014
This, of course, coincides with the first time in Kansas Speedway history that lights have been needed for a Sprint Cup race. #nascar— Nate Ryan (@nateryan) May 11, 2014
Carl Edwards offered an old-school solution, but NASCAR officials didn't bite:
The lights eventually came back on and the last 50 or so laps of the race were largely incident-free.
The Sprint Cup heads to Charlotte for the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race next Saturday. Although it's only an exhibition race, the event offers drivers an opportunity to take some of the pressure off and get back to simply driving. Maybe somebody who's struggled so far in 2014 can parlay a strong finish in Charlotte into a sustained run of success in the races to come.
Jimmie Johnson will enter as the favorite. He's won each of the last two All-Star races, and his four victories are the most all time.