Going into the Coca-Cola 600 the Richard Childress Racing team regrouped, talked about how to improve what was lacking during the All-Star Race and readied themselves to improve their Championship standings placement by the end of the 600 miles race.
By the end of the two practices and qualifications, it was clear that RCR might have something for the competition. Jeff Burton sat atop the speed board at the end of first practice, Paul Menard found the top spot in the second practice session, and the third practice sowed both Burton and Menard in the top ten fastest speeds of the session.
Burton held on to his practice speeds and would roll off the starting grid in the 5th spot on Sunday. Menard fell back to 16th during qualifications, Clint Bowyer posted a speed fast enough to start 10th, Kevin Harvick would begin Sunday’s race back in the 28th position after fighting a tight car throughout the days leading to the Coca-Cola 600.
The Coca-Cola 600
Off the start, Jeff Burton gained track position to make fourth place by the end of lap one. Drivers began to settle in for the long 600 miles in opening laps and racing remained relatively calm on the track. Green-lap pit stops began on lap 43 when Paul Menard came in for tires, fuel, and an air pressure adjustment. Paul had no complaints regarding his car during opening laps.
Jeff Burton gave up the number one spot to come to the pits on lap 47. The 31 Caterpillar Team opted for two tires on their first stop and because of their quick work in the pits Jeff was able to restart still in the lead position. Clint Bowyer, running 12th, also visited his pit during lap 47 and took four tires and a wedge adjustment to fight tight conditions.
Menard, from the 13th position during lap 65 reported his car was good, especially in turns three and four. Kevin Harvick had been weaving in and out of traffic during the beginning of the race, and although his car was reportedly tight moved inside the top 15 at lap 86.
Harvick spent much time on his radio in the opening 100 laps telling his Crew Chief that they were fighting the same handling issues they had fought for the previous two weeks. Crew Chief Gil Martin, at one point early in the race told Kevin to simmer down, they had four hours left to figure it out. Jeff Burton remained the leader at the lap 80 restart but his earlier two-tire stop soon caught up with him and he began to fall back through the pack. By lap 89 Burton had fallen to the 9th position.
As the first quarter of the race drew to a close Bowyer was clearly unhappy with his car, the race, the track, and just about anything else he came across. Over his radio Bowyer was heard saying “There's just no passing...it won't turn...the car's tight.” Another four-tire stop with a wedge adjustment and full tank of fuel was hopefully the cure as Clint restarted in 18th position at lap 103.
The 27 crew of Paul Menard had an almost flawless top under the lap 98 caution, took four tires, fuel, and no adjustments to the car. Paul would restart 15th, behind several cars who opted for two-tire stops during the caution. Kevin Harvick's team had a good stop for fuel, tires, and adjustments; Kevin would restart 16th. Jeff Burton also took four tires under yellow and would restart 14th on the track.
The Richard Childress Racing Team drivers, along with most everyone else on the track, settled in over the next 50 laps without a lot of pushing, shoving, or jockeying for position on the track. Bowyer was still had handling issues plaguing him regardless of what the crew changed during his stops. On lap 150 Clint was running 19th and saying the car was still shoving in the nose, loose in and tight off the turns. Kevin Harvick again began working his way through the field and by lap 175 had found the 5th running position.
An extended stop for Bowyer on lap 185 to adjust the camber left him in the pits with the hood up on the car. By the time he got back on track he would be in the 21st position. At the green flag on lap 187 Paul Menard showed in 5th position after another great pit stop by his team. At the halfway mark Menard was 9th, Harvick had dropped back to 12th , Burton showed in 15th, and Bowyer was running 21st and one lap down.
Lap 210 brought Harvick back on his radio saying that his car didn't like two tires. The car was tight and Kevin was having trouble turning through the corners. The 33 of Bowyer would take the wave around under the next caution helping him to regain a position on the lead lap but Paul Menard would again be the high man on RCR and would restart in the 5th position on lap 237. Unfortunately, on lap 240 Menard got loose, headed to the wall, then down across the track.
By lap 305, after a lengthy stay behind the wall for repairs Menard had rejoined the race and was several laps down in the 34th running spot. Harvick had again moved into the top 10 and was running 9th, Jeff Burton was 19th, and Clint Bowyer showed in the 20th position. Lap 340 brought about a restart after almost the entire field came for fuel and tires. Harvick dropped on the restart from 4th to 3rd place, while Jeff Burton was 18th, and Clint Bowyer was in the 13th spot.
With 55 laps to go Clint Bowyer had moved into the top ten while Harvick was holding onto 4th position. By lap 370 there had been some moving for position; some won but RCR lost the battle. Harvick was back to 9th, Jeff Burton to 10th, Clint Bowyer in 11th, and Paul Menard was in 29th and 18 laps down. With 10 laps to go, leaders lapped Menard again putting him 19 laps down.
Bowyer slid back to 11th place with 10 laps to go, had fallen to 13th on lap 292, and 12th on lap 293 but regained the 11th position on lap 294. While Clint was sliding backwards, both Burton and Harvick were moving forward. Lap 293 found Harvick and Burton in 8th and 9th places, respectively and by the next lap they had both moved up one position each to the 7th and 8th spots. With five laps to go the yellow waved for the Jimmie Johnson engine failure.
During the caution in an unusual display of teamwork Menard, several laps down but in line with his teammates on the track and Burton making up the middle of a RCR sandwich pushed the 7th place car of Harvick around the track. This let Kevin shut off the 29 car and save fuel for the upcoming Green-White-Checker finish. Upon the restart Burton got caught up a pile of cars who seemed unable to go. The 31 car spun as cars jammed the brakes all around in attempts to avoid one another.
Kevin stuck to the bottom of the track, avoided the pileup, and took over the 4th position. At the white flag, Harvick was challenging for third. As the leaders rounded turn three leader Dale Earnhardt, Jr ran out of gas. Second and third place cars lost fuel pressure as well and Harvick was able to dive below the slowing cars between turn four and the finish line to cross the finish line as the winner of the 2011 Coca-Cola 600.
Bowyer would finish 15th on the day and holds steady in the 8th position in the Championship standings. Burton ended his race in the 29th running position and gained one spot in the standings. Jeff now shows in the 22nd position in points. Menard crossed the line 29th and 19 laps down, losing another three spots in points, sliding to 20th position. Harvick's win improved his standing to 2nd place, up three spots from two weeks ago and now 36 points back from points leader Carl Edwards.
Looking Ahead to Kansas...
Paul Menard has just four starts under his belt at Kansas Motor Speedway, his best finish of 8th place coming last year. Paul's goal for the week should be to end his race in the top ten. With an average finish of 14.6 at Kansas Kevin Harvick has laid the groundwork to possibly earn back-to-back wins. If Harvick can pull it off, it would be his first Cup win at Kansas.
Just two of Jeff Burton’s 10 starts at Kansas have offered up top ten finishes but his intermediate track average is better than his 18.5 average finishing spot at Kansas. If Burton keeps the car underneath him, Kansas could be the jump start his season so badly needs.
A Kansas native, Bowyer is chasing his first win at this track along with the other RCR drivers. When asked about racing at Kansas Speedway, Clint says “I’m really excited about it...Once it (the track) was built, I drove by it every week and would set goals just to be able to drive there in anything. I never dreamed I would be able to drive an ARCA car there, let alone start a race in a Sprint Cup Series car.” It would be a big win for Bowyer as his best finish in Kansas has been in the runner-up finish in 2007. This could be Clint's week to shine at his home-state track.
Don’t miss the action in the Mid-West all weekend long, starting with two practices on Friday, qualifying on Saturday, and culminating on Sunday afternoon with the running of the STP 400 beginning just after 1pm. Tune in to find out if RCR can find the top spot again this week at Kansas Speedway.