For the second and final time in 2009 the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series was at a road course making drivers master both left and right turns.
The 11-turned Watkins Glen International Speedway in upstate New York is both a scene of majestic beauty and stock car carnage. Unlike it's sister track Sonoma, Watkins Glen is much tougher on equipment and much faster on the speed charts.
Kasey Kahne arrived at The Glen looking to sweep the road course races for 2009 while Denny Hamlin arrived fresh off his emotional and rain delayed win at Pocono last Monday. But it was Jimmie Johnson who won his first career road course pole and was the only Hendrick Motorsports car to crack the top 20 in qualifying.
Newest HMS addition Mark Martin was fast enough for only the 29th time where as teammate and winingest driver on the road courses in NASCAR history, Jeff Gordon, would have to come from the 31st position. The final HMS car, the No. 88 of Dale Earnhardt Jr., clocked into the 32nd starting spot.
Points leader Tony Stewart, who has finished either first or second in the last five Watkins Glen races, would roll off from the 13th starting spot in his Old Spice/Office Depot Chevrolet and the pre-race favorite to many.
Both road course races are blessed with an appearance from the road course ringers, drivers that are road course specialists that come over from other series to take a run at the best in NASCAR. On Sunday, there were seven ringers looking for a win at Watkins Glen.
Just like it has so many times this season, rain arrived at the track on Sunday morning but was clear by race time. Then after the National Anthem had been sung and the drivers were in their cars, and just 10 seconds to the command to start the engines, NASCAR told the drivers to get out of their cars.
The sky became dark black and the rain approached with thunder and lightening. For the second straight week, the scheduled start of the race was delayed because of rain.
At 4:05 PM, NASCAR declared the race would be run on Monday just like Pocono.
Just after noon on Monday, NASCAR’s best finally fired up the machines they were strapped into. It was finally time to go racing at Watkins Glen.
Johnson led the field to the green flag but Kurt Busch, who started second, took the lead away going into turn one. Johnson then fell into the clutches of Denny Hamlin as Busch drove away.
In the back of the pack Jeff Gordon wasn’t making much headway early on, riding in the 30th position, while teammates Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin started to move to the front, Earnhardt Jr. picked up eight spots and Martin gained four.
Bobby Labonte and Jeff Burton made contact going into turn one on lap eight sending Labonte spinning and leaving Burton with damage on his fender. Labonte got his No. 96 Ford Fusion moving and no caution waved.
Back at the front, Busch checked out and had a three second lead over Hamlin and Marcos Ambrose who had finally gotten around pole-sitter Jimmie Johnson who continued to backslide. Busch led every one of the first 18 laps before the first caution fell for debris in the bus stop.
The pits opened and everyone came down for fuel and adjustments. Busch kept the lead coming off pit road but Denny Hamlin, Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Burton were busted for too fast exiting.
A crew member on the No. 6 of David Ragan was hit by the No. 42 of Juan Pablo Montoya and was being evaluated as the race restarted.
Four cars, however, did not come down pit road and took over the top spots: Ambrose, Kasey Kahne, and Reed Sorenson, putting Busch back to third.
Ambrose took possession of the lead going into turn one and then as Busch before him, drove away from the field. On lap 21 David Stremme sent the No. 55 of Partick Carpentier spinning in turn 11 but once again, no caution was shown.
But a lap later going through the bus stop Stremme spun again after taking a trip through the grass, and collected Jeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick. “What the hell were those guys doing?” Harvick radioed his crew.
This time the second caution if the race did come out to clean up all the debris. Harvick’s No. 29 had damage to his left front fender, Stremme to his bumper and front fenders and Gordon’s No. 24 had the entire right side of his car caved in.
Pit strategy was in full swing since the start of the race and under this caution a handful of cars came back down pit road for fuel while Ambrose again stayed out, his crew chief saying they were still not in their fuel window.
Ryan Newman was also on pit road because he had to change batteries after reporting having alternator problems. Robby Gordon brought his No. 7 Jim Beam Toyota to the attention of his crew, who quickly raised the hood for what was suspected as an oil line leak.
The race restarted on lap 27 and was Ambrose was challenged by early leader Busch, and a lap later Busch retook the lead going down into turn one. Busch though gave back the lead on lap 30 to head down pit road for fuel only, hoping to have to pit one more time before the end of the race.
Ambrose retook the lead in front of Johnson, Kyle Busch, Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle and Boris Said. Said is a road course expert and always one to watch at Watkins Glen and Sonoma.
Ambrose, however, then would ducked down pit road a lap after retaking the lead, his first pit stop of the day saw him take on four tires and fuel. Johnson would then get his first lead of the day and five bonus points.
Kyle Busch went on the attack for the lead as another round of pit stops, what was expected to be the final pit stops of the day, approached. Busch took the lead from Johnson on lap 34 for five bonus points of his own.
Meanwhile, his teammate Joey Logano went spinning in turn one but quickly got going to keep the caution from coming out. Earnhardt Jr. was then told by his crew to keep an eye on his volts because of Newman's alternator problems, Newman uses equipment from Hendrick Motorsports.
Other Hendrick equipment was battling on the track, Stewart began pressuring Johnson for the second position and took it away on lap 39 and set sail for leader Kyle Busch.
On lap 42 Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Reed Sorenson brought out caution No. 3 when Earnhardt Jr. lost his breaks and went head onto the tire barriers in turn ten, collecting Sorenson. The No. 43 for Sorenson though, was able to get rolling and continue on, Earnhardt Jr.'s day was done with a crumbled No. 88 Chevrolet.
Stewart took the lead on the lap 46 restart going into the S turns and was able to hold Busch off as they went through the bus stop. It was Stewart's first lead of the day.
A bright spot in the top ten was the battle for fifth among Boris Said and fellow road course ringer Max Papis who was able to get around Said for that position on lap 49 and set his sights on the car in front of him, Greg Biffle.
Unfortunately for Said, he had to pit a lap later because his No. 08 began overheating, the crew gave him tires and cleaned off his grill but a lot of fluid was spewing from his Ford.
Newman's bad day continued after looping his Chevy in turn one after contact with the No. 55 of Patrick Carpentier. Johnson then went spinning in turn one a lap later and was called down pit road.
As Johnson was spinning, pit road became busy as Hamlin, Carl Edwards and Martin Truex Jr. all came down for their final stops. As Kyle Busch, Papis, Biffle and Kahne came down pit road, Sorenson was going for a ride through the gravel trap in turn ten again.
Johnson was finally down pit road on lap 55 for a chasis adjustment for a car that he repeatedly told crew chief Chad Knaus was a very loose, one that never did tighten up.
Leader Stewart came down pit road and got no adjustments, just four tires and fuel, the same for Juan Pablo Montoya.
Kurt Busch retook the lead but he too needed to make a pit stop and did so with 33 laps remaining. That put David Stremme who had wrecked earlier, into the lead but he too headed for pit road.
Scott Speed inherited the lead for the first time but once he made his pit stop that would put Kyle Busch and Stewart back in the top two positions.
On lap 61 a viscous accident took place in turn nine when contact between Kasey Kahne and Sam Hornish Jr. sent Hornish head on into the tire barriers which air lifted him back across the racetrack and into Jeff Gordon. Gordon then went head on into the steal railing collecting Jeff Burton and Andy Lally.
They all walked away unhurt.
The race would be red flagged with 27 laps to go so that all debris and the race cars that had come to rest in the middle of the track could be cleaned away.
After being released from the infield care center Jeff Burton said, "When I saw Hornish go out [toward the tire barriers] I knew he was coming back and there was nothing I could do."
The carnage was cleared 19 minutes later and the field was rolling again. During that time crew chief Darian Grubb told his driver Tony Stewart that thunderstorms were about 17 miles away.
The race restarted and Stewart grabbed the lead away from Kyle Busch with Marcos Ambrose stalking them both in third. Greg Biffle and Juan Pablo Montoya rounded out the top five with 24 laps to go.
Stewart held a one and a half second lead with 22 laps to go as Ambose, Biffle and Montoya all battled for position. Busch was then passed by both Ambrose and Biffle and had Montoya breathing down his neck.
The caution flew again after Elliott Sadler spun and was hit by Patrick Carpentier with 19 laps to go. Stewart's crew chief was still not sure that his driver could make it to the end on fuel.
The restart happened with 17 laps to go and Stewart was able to hold off Ambrose in turn one and Carl Edwards passed his teammate Biffle for the fourth spot. Stewart slowly began to drive away as Kyle Busch closed in on Ambrose.
Boris Said was shown off the pace heading for turn ten as the racing outside the top ten had drivers going through the grass, off the race track and side-by-side lap after lap.
Stewart continued to lead with 13 to go as Kurt Busch went through the grass to pass Max Papis. Carl Edwards, after passing Biffle, was then all over the back bumper of the third place car of Kyle Busch.
The polesitter meanwhile, Johnson, was working over Truex Jr. for the 10th position but it was up front that all the action was happening. Kyle Busch went off track opening the door for Edwards to finally get the position.
With 10 laps to go Stewart held a comfortable lead over Ambrose although his fuel situation was still unknown. Ambrose began to close in on Stewart with seven laps left.
It was smooth sailing for Stewart to the checkered flag as he picked up his fifth career Watkins Glen win, and third of the 2009 season.
Marcos Ambrose followed Stewart to the finish line. "He [Stewart] just didn't make a mistake." Finishing third of was Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch was fourth and Greg Biffle came home fifth.
Juan Pablo Montoya, Kurt Busch, Max Papis, Clint Boywer and Denny Hamlin rounded out the top 10.
But it was Stewart that was back in victory lane again this season and once again at Watkins Glen. After leading the most laps Stewart is just about locked into the Chase and holds a 260 point lead over Jimmie Johnson.
Monday afternoon Tony Stewart sent a message to the rest of the competition. "This is my house right here."