Each week, Frontstretch Senior Staff Writer Becca Gladden looks at the weekend's Nextel Cup race from a reporter's point of view, covering the Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How of the race…but she’s off this week, so Assistant Editor and Who’s Hot / Who’s Not columnist Cami Starr fills in.
Whoâ€¦gets my shout out of the race?
This week’s prestigious award goes to No. 24 head wrench Steve LeTarte, who won a risky gamble late in the race by letting Jeff Gordon stay on track rather than pit an obviously overheating DuPont Chevy. That gave Gordon both the lead and the track position he needed to pull away for a surprising win. Of course, it should be noted that a 211-point lead entering Darlington gave Gordon plenty of breathing room, making the risk a whole lot easier to take. Had the circumstances been a bit different, LeTarte could have told Gordon to ease back and ride around in a spot where he could have had clean air and didn't have to overwork the motor, or, worse yet, brought him into the pits to try and put a band-aid on the problem. Still, by going for it LeTarte reinforced the point that this team is in it to win it all this season.
Whatâ€¦has gotten into Jeff Gordon?
Has impending fatherhood given him a new lease on life and renewed his competitive fire? Gordon captured his third win of the season, already eclipsing his number of victories for all of 2006. In 11 races this year, he has ten Top 10 finishes, with his one major “boo boo” a measly 12th at Atlanta. Add five Bud Pole awards, one more than he had the past two seasons combined, and it’s easy to see Gordon’s undergoing some type of career renaissance. It's been nine seasons since Gordon put up double digits in the win column, but with the pace he’s on now, that may be well within reach this year.
Whereâ€¦will Dale Earnhardt, Jr. go next year?
That seems to be the million dollar, make that multi-million dollar, question of the weekend. Ever since Junior turned the NASCAR world upside down and gave it a good shake this week, everyone is playing prognosticator and trying to figure out where he'll be hanging his helmet in 2008. A few television stations already went so far as to say he had already inked a deal with Richard Childress Racing Thursday night. While that deal was quickly denied, rumors still run rampant; there are even a few gambling sites that will let people make wagers on where Junior will wind up next season. Right now, the favorite seems to still be RCR, with Hendrick Motorsports running a solid second. Joe Gibbs Racing is an outside possibility, as they might have an issue with the Budweiser sponsorship…meanwhile, Ginn Racing says they are "in play” as a Chevrolet team on the rise. Seems like this story will take on a life of its own over the coming weeks and months.
Whenâ€¦will Denny Hamlin finally win a race?
Hamlin has been so close in the CoT races to earning that first win of the season, but something has always happened to keep him just shy of a trip to Victory Lane. He was leading at Bristol with twenty to go before a faulty fuel pump issue; at Phoenix, it was a pit road speeding penalty that cost him his shot at the checkers. At Richmond, it was a bunch of late race cautions, and Sunday at Darlington, it was a twice dropped lugnut during a pit stop with less than 60 laps to go. Before that, Hamlin led a race-high 179 circuits around the Lady In Black; even with the pit road blunder, he was able to bounce back and finish in second behind Gordon. Still, a runner-up finish proved little consolation to the driver of the No. 11 after the race. "This has got to end," he said. "We have to win a race sooner or later. Everybody will talk about how Hendrick won another race, but this was our race (to win)."
Whyâ€¦wasn't there a debris caution thrown at the end of the race?
I know Tony Stewart is anti-debris caution, but according to the top two finishers Sunday, there should have probably been one thrown in the closing laps. Both Jeff Gordon and Denny Hamlin said they were surprised a yellow wasn't thrown to set up a green-white-checkered finish, a scenario which would have probably resulted in a win for Hamlin. "Somebody's entire underbody was on the track," Hamlin said. "I knew a caution was going to come out. I knew it. If it had, it's game over. But there was no caution, and Hendrick gets another break." Hamlin said he didn't want to "open that can of worms," but that's not really any fun, is it? Especially when Gordon was backing him up. "Absolutely should have been a caution at the end, but there shouldn’t have been one before that, so that’s why I’m not saying anything about it," said Gordon. "I was pretty upset they threw that caution. There’s wasn’t a thing on the race track, but I will say there at the end – debris, oil, everything you can imagine was on that race track, and that comes back to the inconsistency. I’m glad they didn’t they throw it at the end, but I didn’t understand why they threw it earlier. It can work with you or against you, today it worked for us.” I wonder how long it will take the NASCAR conspiracy theorists to pick up on this one? Of note, FOX television actually showed the debris for the caution Gordon was referring to – so he’d best check the replays before taking that statement to the rest of the national media. Oops! Too late…
Howâ€¦much longer will Ryan Newman's winless drought continue?
In case you haven't noticed, Ryan Newman is starting to turn things around after over a year of struggles. In Sunday's race at Darlington, he led 30 laps, ten times more than he had in the first ten races this year, and up until ten laps to go, he was sitting pretty in second place, just waiting for Gordon's engine to blow. A slow but steady fade left him settling for a fourth place finish, but it still led to a jump up five spots to 14th in the standings. Newman now has three straight Top 10 finishes to his credit, but Sunday was the first day in a long time he seemed poised to threaten for the win. It's been 56 races since he went to Victory Lane at Loudon in September, 2005; that’s also the same amount of time since he put together a string of three Top 10s…until Sunday. Certainly, 2007 seems to be shaping up as the year of the Chevrolet and Hendrick Motorsports, but on the odd day when someone else gets to Victory Lane, it could be Newman’s Dodge crashing the party.
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