Cami Starr · Tuesday March 14, 2006
The players were the same as in Fontana, but the outcome was different this week as Jimmie Johnson got the best of Matt Kenseth in Sunday’s UAW-Daimler Chrysler 400. With his second win of the season, Johnson keeps his hot status three weeks into 2006. Behind him, though there was plenty of movement in the standings following several rolls of the dice in Vegas.
Who hit the jackpot and who went bust? Read this week’s Starr Report to find out Who’s Hot and Who’s Not in Nextel Cup after another week out West.
Jimmie Johnson: It may be getting as boring for you guys to read this as it is for me to write it, but there is no denying Johnson is the hottest driver on the circuit right now. This week comes with a twist…he’s also the most excited. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Johnson as pumped up as he was in the car following the checkered flag on Sunday after squeaking by Matt Kenseth in a drag race to the line for the win. In three races, Johnson now has two wins and a second place finish, which gives him a 52 point lead over Kenseth heading into Atlanta. The odds of me winning the powerball are greater than the odds of Johnson keeping up this pace. Still, just think of the impressive resume Darian Grubb has built up in just three weeks on the job.
Kyle Busch: He’s probably off Tony Stewart’s Christmas card list (again), but with two straight Top 10 finishes and the sixth place spot in the points, who cares? Busch ran a solid race following a strong qualifying effort on Friday. And if Kenseth would have been a bit more aggressive at the end of the race, he could have come home the winner should the top two have tangled coming to the checkers. Still, I’m sure he’ll take his third place finish and six point jump in the standings and be ready to move onto Atlanta.
Casey Mears: Granted, he dropped two positions in the points to fourth, but Mears is still one of only two drivers that have earned top 10 finishes in each of the three races this season. Going back to last year, Mears has now earned five top 10 finishes in his last six races. A good call on pit road for two tires during the final yellow helped him pick off a few drivers at the end and gave him the honor of being the driver to gain the most positions during the race, coming from 38th to a 9th place finish.
Greg Biffle: Biffle snapped his cold streak with an eighth place finish on Sunday to nab his first Top 10 finish of the season. After the disappointment in Fontana, the team rebounded and put together a solid run on Sunday. He was also the biggest gainer in the standings, moving up 13 positions to 25th going into Atlanta next week. The question with Biffle isn’t talent, but simply whether his luck and equipment can continue to hold up. He won’t earn back all the points he lost in the first two races, but more runs like he had Sunday will help bring him back up to the spot most people believed he would be in at the start of the year.
Robby Gordon: What a difference a season…and a new engine supplier…can make for one team. After three races last year, Gordon had a DNQ at Daytona followed by two mechanical DNF’s. This year, he has 2 top-15 finishes and sits 14th in the overall point standings. Is Gordon Chase material? Probably not, but he is running well this year at tracks other than road courses, and more importantly, is finishing races without blowing engines. Gordon had a relatively quiet day moving up from 32nd to 12th, but his good run is a mark in the plus column for the little guys.
Jeff Gordon: While his teammate and “protÃ©gÃ©” Jimmie Johnson is stealing the limelight, Jeff is quietly making his way back up into the top 10 in points thanks to his fifth place finish at Las Vegas. He wasn’t dazzling and didn’t lead any laps, but Gordon was a steady fixture in the Top 15 all day and made an impressive run in the final half of the race. With the problems of Daytona behind them, Gordon and his team continue to make progress each week, which could prove to be bad for the competition as Bristol and Martinsville creep ever closer.
Tony Stewart: After a Top 5 start at Daytona, things have turned south for Stewart in the past two races, as engine woes and bad luck have reared their ugly head in the 20 camp. Following last week’s engine failure, Stewart seemed to have rebounded nicely with a solid Top 5 run in the making at Vegas. But after leading 54 laps, the day took a downturn with nine laps to go when he had a flat tire after hitting the wall while trying to find his way around Kyle Busch. The result was a 21st place finish, and a drop to 19th in the final standings. Surely, Smoke will bounce back next week in Atlanta. But will the next driver that gets in his way get more than just a "˜wave’ out of the window like Kyle Busch got on Sunday? If this bad luck continues, I would say that’s a safe bet.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.: As the season progresses, you hope that your results will improve. But that hasn’t been the case for Dale Earnhardt Jr. so far in 2006. He started off strong at Daytona with an eighth place finish, but has dropped each week since and finished 27th in Vegas. It’s not that he didn’t run well Sunday…after starting 42nd, he moved up to the top 15 by the midpoint of the race and looked to be heading for a decent finish. It was the final caution that bit Dalr, Jr., as he was busted for speeding entering pit road during the final caution of the race. The bright side for the team is that they are running better than last year, but they need to work on eliminating those little mistakes that cost them so many positions and points in 2005.
Ryan Newman: Newman had plenty of time on his hands Sunday to prep for his next Gillette Young Guns commercial after being the first driver out of the race. The whole weekend was a bust for Newman, who had to start at the end of the field following an engine change after qualifying. He was lapped early and was outside the Top 30 before a flat tire on lap 91 sent him into the wall. Newman deflected some of the blame onto the tires, saying after the race “Goodyear’s got some work to do.” But he and his team can’t avoid some of the blame on this one. After running two straight races in the old Intrepid with less than stellar results, they need to do what good college students do and buckle down, study hard and figure out how to work with the Charger.
It’s time to leave the glitz and glamour of Vegas behind and head to Atlanta next week. Will we go four for four in overtime races this season? Can Kyle Busch stay on Tony Stewart’s good side for more than a week at a time? Will Jimmie Johnson finally finish outside the top two? Can Casey Mears continue his streak of good fortune? Only time will tell, race fans, and I can’t wait to find out the answers!
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