Road to the Sprint Cup: Part 2

NASCAR

Dale Earnhardt Jr. scored his first win of the season at Talladega in May. (Photo: Getty Images)

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This is the second of a five-part series recapping the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season, in which Kyle Busch would claim his first Cup championship.

TALLADEGA SUPERSPEEDWAY

From Richmond's three-quarter-mile oval, it was on to big, bad Talladega Superspeedway ... and it was time for teammates to shine on NASCAR’s largest track and one of its biggest stages.

Of course, no trip to Talladega would be complete without "The Big One." Trevor Bayne’s spin on Lap 47 triggered a 15-car wreck along the backstretch. Kyle Larson, David Ragan, Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick were among the drivers who got swept up in the accident. The red flag was displayed for more than 11 minutes while the safety crew cleaned up the track.

When racing resumed and things settled down, Hendrick Motorsports teammates Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson moved front-and-center. Earnhardt took the lead then got some timely blocks from Johnson in the closing laps, driving on to his first victory of the season.

Johnson – who finished second – first turned back a late charge from Harvick and Denny Hamlin, then kept Paul Menard in his rear-view mirror as Earnhardt headed for the checkered flag.

"Junior" finished .15 seconds in front of Johnson with Menard, Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr. completing the top five. Earnhardt led six times for a race-high 67 laps including the final 27 trips around the 2.66-mile Alabama oval.

Harvick finished eighth, more than enough for him to maintain a comfortable lead in the regular-season standings. He enjoyed a 40-point advantage over Truex heading into the next race under the lights at Kansas Speedway. Race Results

KANSAS SPEEDWAY

Jimmie Johnson’s mastery of mile-and-a-half ovals in 2015 continued on a Saturday night ... and into Sunday morning, thanks to a rain delay that stretched past two hours.

NASCARJohnson and his No. 48 Chevrolet flexed their muscles throughout the second half of the Sponge Bob Square Pants 400, which featured a pivotal caution with 10 laps remaining. Johnson chose to remain on the track while others pitted, turning track position into a trip to Gatorade Victory Lane.

The six-time champion took the checkered flag just past midnight local time, despite a late surge from Kevin Harvick.

The race was the fourth this season contested on intermediate-sized ovals and Johnson won three of them: in Atlanta, Texas and now Kansas City. He led just once all night, but it came when it counted most - over the final 10 laps.

His margin of victory over runner-up Harvick was a half-second. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon, teammates of Johnson’s at Hendrick Motorsports, also chose to remain on the track during that final caution and it paid off with finishes of third and fourth, respectively.

Pole sitter Joey Logano completed the top five. Martin Truex Jr. started fourth, led a race-high 95 laps and seemed poised to end a 66-race winless streak. However, he needed to pit for fuel during the final caution and wound up with a ninth-place finish – one of 17 drivers on the lead lap with Johnson at the end of the night ... or beginning of the morning. Race Results

NASCAR SPRINT ALL-STAR RACE

The Chase for championship points was on hold for a week as NASCAR headed to Charlotte Motor Speedway for the annual Sprint All-Star Race, where Denny Hamlin ended the night exactly where he started it: at the front of the field.

Kasey Kahne won the first of the four 25-lap segments. Brad Keselowski won the next two with Kurt Busch winning Segment 4. But it was Hamlin, who qualified on the pole earlier in the evening, pulling away from Kevin Harvick in the final 10-lap segment to claim victory in the annual non-points special event and take home the $1 million prize for first place.

That final 10-lap dash for cash was set up with a round of mandatory pit stops. For Hamlin's Joe Gibbs Racing crew, a lightning-fast 10.6-second stop was the key to victory.

But it was heartbreak for Keselowski. The Team Penske driver was caught speeding on pit road and forced to the back of the field, out of contention while up front, Hamlin closed the deal on his first All-Star win.

Kurt Busch finished third with Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth completing the top five. Clint Bowyer, who earned his way into the race by winning the preliminary Sprint Showdown, finished 12th in the main event. Greg Biffle, who won the first segment of the "Showdown," had three pit-road speeding penalties in the All-Star Race and finished 13th. Race Results

CHARLOTTE 600

With the month of May drawing to a close, Joe Gibbs Racing was about to begin a run of success that would carry the team through the summer with 11 wins in a 17-race stretch.

NASCARCarl Edwards kicked it off in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, managing his fuel mileage to perfection and stretching it all the way to Victory Lane. Edwards led the first two laps and the last 21 in notching his 24th career win and first at CMS, snapping a 31-race winless streak dating back to June 2014.

Edwards beat runner-up Greg Biffle to the checkered flag by 4.7 seconds. Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished third with pole sitter Matt Kenseth fourth. Martin Truex Jr. led a race-high 131 laps but needed a late pit stop for fuel and finished fifth.

Thirty-seven laps from the finish, it looked like Denny Hamlin was on his way to sweeping both Charlotte races. But a loose wheel forced him to pit and give up the lead to Truex, who then surrendered the lead himself with his late fuel stop.

Defending Sprint Cup Series champion Kevin Harvick finished ninth, which was enough for him to maintain a commanding lead in the standings with the regular season nearing its halfway point.  Harvick’s advantage over second-place Truex was 41 points heading into the next race at Dover, Del.

Kyle Busch’s climb toward the top 30 in the Sprint Cup Series point standings began with an 11th-place finish, leaving him 41st in the standings. After missing the first 11 races of the season while recovering from injuries suffered in February at Daytona, Busch needed an average finish of 16th over the final 15 races of the regular season to be eligible for a spot in the post-season Chase.

And Jeff Gordon’s day began with him driving the pace car at the Indianapolis 500 and ended with the four-time champion driving 600 miles in the Coca-Cola 600, in which he finished 15th. Race Results

DOVER INTERNATIONAL SPEEDWAY

NASCAR’s next stop was "The Monster Mile" at Dover, where Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. showed plenty of speed throughout the day. But six-time champion Jimmie Johnson was strong down the stretch.

Truex started on the front row alongside pole sitter Denny Hamlin and would lead a race-high 131 laps but could do no better than sixth place. Harvick emerged as a prime candidate for victory in the second half of the race and was leading when an ill-timed yellow flag flew.

Johnson saw an opprtunity to grab the lead on the ensuing restart and did just that. He started 14th and led just once all day, for the final 23 laps in the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. Johnson easily managed three late restarts that helped send the race past its scheduled distance, driving away to his series-leading fourth win of the season.

Johnson’s 74th career victory lifted him from fifth to third in the 2015 regular-season standings, trailing leader Harvick by 76 points. With the win, Johnson became the first driver with back-to-back victories in Dover’s springtime Cup Series race since Hall of Famer Bobby Allison won two straight in 1982 and 1983.

Chevrolet claimed the top four finishing positions and eight of the top 10. Race Results

POCONO RACEWAY

After weeks of knocking on the door to the Winner’s Circle, Martin Truex Jr. finally pushed it open at "The Tricky Triangle."

Martin Truex Jr.The Furniture Row Racing driver had led the most laps in each of the previous three races, but circumstances kept him from ending a winless streak that was approaching two years. On this day, after starting from the inside of the second row, Truex hit his stride as the race passed the halfway mark.

For the fourth race in a row, Truex once again led the most laps – 97. This time, he closed the deal. The margin of victory over runner-up Kevin Harvick was nearly 1.5 seconds with Jimmie Johnson finishing third – giving Chevrolet a sweep of the top three spots for the second week in a row and the fifth time in the last six races.

Harvick’s second-place finish was his eighth of the season through the first 14 races in defense of his 2014 Sprint Cup championship. It came on crew chief Rodney Childers’ 39th birthday.  Following Pocono, Harvick led the standings by 39 points over Truex.

Harvick and Johnson were the only drivers with multiple wins as the regular season headed into its second half. Race Results

MICHIGAN INTERNATIONAL SPEEDWAY

From Pennsylvania, it was on to Michigan International Speedway - where defending Cup Series champ Kevin Harvick showed strength near the mid-point of the Quicken Loans 400. But as rain clouds gathered over the two-mile oval, teams began to strategize with the prospect of a shortened race looming.

It was Kurt Busch in the right place at the right time as showers moved in over Michigan's Irish Hills, shortening the race and rewarding Busch with his 27th career win. It was his third victory at MIS for three different car owners: Jack Roush in 2003, Roger Penske in 2007 and now Gene Haas in 2015.

With a third-place finish, Martin Truex Jr. became the first Cup Series driver to open the season with 14 top 10s in the first 15 races since Hall of Famer Richard Petty in 1969, 11 years before Truex was born.

Kyle Busch had a setback in his climb toward the top 30 in the Sprint Cup Series point standings.  He wrecked about one-fourth of the way into the scheduled race distance and finished 43rd, leaving him 39th in the standings; nine positions below the cutoff for Chase eligibility. Race Results

SONOMA

But as the series headed west to Sonoma, Calif., for the first road-course race of the season, Busch’s comeback was about to take a turn for the better.

NASCARHe started 11th and led just 17 laps, but benefitted from a late caution brought about by Casey Mears’ broken axle. A trip to pit road for four fresh tires put Busch in prime position to chase down Jimmie Johnson and others who remained on the track with old rubber.

From the drop of the green flag on the final restart, Busch quickly began his march toward the front and easily moved past Johnson for his final lead of the day.

He had missed the first 11 races of the season while recovering from injuries suffered in February at Daytona International Speedway, returned to competition in May and on June 28 - making just his fifth start of the year, Busch steered the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota to his 30th career Cup Series victory.

Older brother Kurt finished second, marking the first time that the Busch brothers finished one-two in Sprint Cup Series competition. Clint Bowyer ran third with points leader Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano completing the top five. Johnson held on for sixth place. Race Results

DAYTONA INTERNATIONAL SPEEDWAY

As the Sprint Cup Series returned to Daytona International Speedway for its traditional July weekend, rain once again played a role. The Sunday start of the race was delayed by some four hours and it would finish after 2:30 a.m. Monday morning!

Dale Earnhardt Jr. started from the pole and after briefly yielding the lead to Austin Dillon, who started second, he moved in front at Lap 9. The No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet would be a familiar sight at the front of the field all night as Earnhardt would lead a race-high 96 of the 161 laps contested.

He passed teammate Jimmie Johnson to take his final lead 45 laps from the finish and remained in front the rest of the way to post his second win of the season and his fourth career Cup Series victory at "The World Center of Racing."

As Earnhardt took the checkered flag, contact between Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick triggered a multi-car crash that sent Dillon’s Chevrolet hurtling into the catch fence along the frontstretch. The impact separated the engine block from Dillon’s racecar, which landed upside down on the track. The driver climbed out and walked away from the scene with a seventh-place finish.

Earnhardt’s winning margin over runner-up Johnson was 12 one-hundredths of a second. Hamlin was credited with third place, Harvick fourth and Kurt Busch was fifth. Race Results

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