Cami Starr · Monday February 20, 2006
So much for a quiet start to the season. 2006 roared in like a lion with a Daytona Speedweeks filled with controversy, drama, and feel good stories. Top it all off with a controversial winner, new rivalries, and side-by-side racing to the end, and next weekend’s race at California will be hard pressed to top it.
But before we look ahead, let’s take a look back at Who’s Hot/Who’s Not following the Daytona 500 in this week’s Starr Report.
Jimmie Johnson: While it probably wasn’t the most popular win in recent years, Jimmie Johnson and his Chad-less crew did a good job on Sunday, pulling together as a team and putting themselves in a position for the biggest win of their careers. The win will always be considered tainted by some. But controversy aside, Johnson and his team were the best on Sunday when it counted, and now they have a trophy to show for it.
Clint Bowyer: Bowyer held serve as the top rookie in Daytona by finishing an impressive sixth in his first Daytona 500. After being the fastest rookie in qualifying last weekend, the RCR driver outran his nearest Rookie of the Year challenger by 10 positions. While his teammates struggled, Bowyer stayed out of trouble and gained the most positions of anyone else on the day (+31). His finish was the first top-10 in his Nextel Cup career and if his performance on Sunday is any indication, it’s the first of many.
Ken Schrader: Last year, it took Schrader nine races before he cracked the Top 10. This year, he’s one for one after his 9th place finish Sunday in the 500. Schrader showed the poise of a veteran when he avoided a pit road collision with Ryan Newman late in the going. "Listen, I’ll go to the back any time, before I tear my fenders off," he said after the race. By being able to keep his car intact, Schrader found the right lane at the right time and moved up to ninth by the end of the race. Not too bad for an "old veteran".
Casey Mears: His second place finish at Daytona showed why so many people think he’s due for a breakout season in 2006.
Tony Stewart: After making noise about the out of control behavior of some drivers in the Shootout last weekend, Stewart’s racing style on Sunday had many wondering why he couldn’t practice what he preached. He was penalized for rough driving when he mixed it up with Matt Kenseth, and also had to go to the back after leaving his pit stall with the jack. Both times, he was able to move back up through the pack. Not every close call Stewart found himself in was of his own doing; Jeff Gordon took half the credit for their earlier run-in, and Kyle Busch took a shot at him as well. For racing back through the field twice, making some great saves and finishing fifth, I’ll give Stewart a "warm" grade. But if Terrible Tony of old keeps popping up, he’ll most likely cool off, because his competitors won’t keep taking it.
Kirk Shelmerdine: This was one of the feel good stories of the week. An owner/driver team on a shoestring budget and barely a prayer for making the Daytona 500 makes the starting field in 42nd spot. But not only did Shelmerdine make the race, thanks to a little help from his friends, he remained out of trouble and on the lead lap all day to score a 20th place finish and a cool $272,008 that should help cover the tire bill the next time out.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.: Junior upped his streak of Daytona Top 10 finishes to six with his eighth place finish on Sunday. Fighting a push and a motor "like an old man," Junior still managed to lead a race high 32 laps. The trouble for the 8 car seemed to be that when Dale, Jr. tried to make a move, he didn’t have the right people behind him and several times, the field freight-trained right by him. That cost him a few positions, but it’s still a good start to the new season for Dale, Jr. and his fans.
Matt Kenseth: It’s not often we see Matt Kenseth as one of the favorites to win a restrictor plate race, but before he got tangled up with Tony Stewart, Kenseth had a strong car which led 28 laps and was easily capable of winning the race. The turning point for Kenseth, however, was getting spun out by Stewart in the middle of the race, and the loss of composure by the 17 team that followed. Kenseth got himself a penalty handed out by NASCAR for aggressive driving when he appeared to go after Stewart as both cars were coming off pit road. Kenseth claimed he just raised his hand to ask Stewart "Why did you do that?" NASCAR didn’t agree, pulling out the black flag on the 17, and when Kenseth failed to serve it, he lost a lap. In the end, Kenseth made up his laps and was able to rebound to a 15th place finish…but it could have been so much better.
Dale Jarrett: A 10th-place finish was a good showing for the 1999 Nextel Cup champ. A nice start to the season for a veteran possibly in this final year.
Jeff Gordon: Many people tagged Gordon to win his second straight Daytona 500, but as it turned out those expectations were a bit too lofty. Starting outside the front row, Gordon led just one lap on Sunday before his day took a turn for the worse. After making contact with Tony Stewart, which he took partial blame for, Gordon had to make repeated trips to pit road that put him at the back of the field. Transmission problems also dogged the team, but it was a late race encounter with Kurt Busch that ended his changes of bouncing back and put him 26th in the final rundown.
Petty Enterprises: Hopes were high for the revamped Petty Enterprises team going into Sunday’s race after both drivers qualified in the Top 12. But those hopes were dashed early for Kyle Petty, as his day effectivelyu ended before halfway with Carl Edwards’ car riding on top of his hood. Bobby Labonte lasted a bit longer, making it up to seventh at one point after having to start at the end of the field following an engine change. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t meant to be for Labonte in his Petty debut. He finished 35th after he was caught up in the Jamie McMurray/Jeff Burton accident with just five laps to go.
The Busch Brothers: It was an interesting day to say the least for the brothers from Las Vegas. Older brother Kurt had a strong run going before getting tangled up with his old car now driven by Jamie McMurray, falling to a 38th-place finish. A sarcastic Busch didn’t fake any sympathy for McMurray, when he was knocked out of the race shortly after just as Busch was being interviewed by the TV crews. Things weren’t much better for his younger brother. After mixing it up near the front all day, Kyle got the black flag from NASCAR for pushing Tony Stewart down below the yellow line. While big brother found help from his new teammate, Kyle didn’t have such an easy time of it. “I didn’t have much help out there today except for my brother Kurt (Busch), whoops, in fact he was my only help," he said after the race. Busch finished 23rd.
Carl Edwards: Edwards wasn’t doing any backflips over his Daytona run on Sunday. He was the first casualty of the day, finishing 43rd after getting tangled up in the first yellow of the day. But his Mama should be proud; Carl gave a very polite and respectful account of the events after the race. "I saw Mr. Green get turned around there in the Best Buy car and I just have to apologize to Petty Enterprises and everybody on the 45 car. I thought Green flipped over or something because we went in the smoke, so I just dove to the bottom and Kyle came down. I should have been more worried about stopping my car than people from behind running into me, and I ended up being the guy that got Kyle. It’s a terrible day. I hope the rest of the show is good. I just feel bad for my whole crew and Kyle’s crew."
Jeff Burton: Burton led early after starting on the pole, but things went downhill quickly for the RCR driver. Problems on pit road cost the team valuable positions all day, and the team could never quite get a handle on the car, putting the driver in the bad position of trying to make something happen. When he tried to push it, the outcome wasn’t good, and Burton wrecked with just four laps to go, finishing 32nd.
Jamie McMurray: McMurray had one of the better cars out there on Sunday, but seemed to find trouble at almost every turn. Troubles on pit road put McMurray back in the pack, and then contact with Kurt Busch late in the race didn’t help things either. While Busch was giddy about McMurray finally wrecking with four laps to go in the race, Jamie was a bit more courteous in his comments. "First off, I need to apologize to Kurt. I got into him. That was 100 percent my fault. I feel really bad because he had a car capable of winning today and I kind of screwed that up for him. We had a good car. I tried to make a move on the outside and I got hung out, and then the 31, I don’t think he could help it. He just got tight and there wasn’t a whole lot you could do from there." Whatever his intentions, the results were a 37th place finish and another tough run for Roush Racing.
Up next is California. Will Jimmie Johnson be able to make it through a weekend without any inspection problems? Can the new Penske teammates continue to play nicely together? Will Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth team up to get revenge on Tony Stewart? Only time will answer those questions…but I can’t wait to find out.
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