The Frontstretch: Frontstretch Breakdown: MBNA Racepoints 400 by Thomas Bowles -- Sunday September 25, 2005

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Frontstretch Breakdown: MBNA Racepoints 400

Thomas Bowles · Sunday September 25, 2005


To the Point: Jimmie Johnson took control in the last 100 miles and outlasted a green-white-checkered restart to defeat Kyle Busch and win the second installment of the Chase for the Championship, the MBNA Racepoints 400 at Dover, Delaware.

Who Should Have Won: Kurt Busch. For most of the race, the 97 team and Busch were on a mission. Kurt openly felt that the only way to get back into contention for the championship after crashing at New Hampshire was by winning at Dover, and by the race’s midpoint the Crown Royal Ford was laying waste to the field; the 97 car led a total of 5 times for a race-high 192 laps. Unfortunately, the ending was not something to write home about. During the last 100 miles, Busch’s car faded back to 3rd behind Johnson and Mark Martin, and when the 97 team decided to pit a little early for their final green-flag stop around lap 365, the caution came out four laps later, trapping the 97 a lap down. That poor luck was followed by a flat tire on the restart that forced Kurt to pit road under green, which along with a frustration black flag penalty for speeding off pit road put Kurt 3 laps down, where he finished the day in 23rd.

Five Questions You Should be Asking After the Race Weekend:
1) Was Kyle Busch really giving all he had for Jimmie Johnson at the end of the race, or did he lay back and let his teammate win in order to give the 48 car as many points as possible towards the championship?

It appears at face value that Busch gave 110% on the final green-white-checkered restart to take the win away from his teammate, nearly getting them both loose and tapping the 48 car’s bumper on the final lap to grab the victory. Still, it was somewhat troubling to hear the announcer commentary on NBC suggesting Busch should lay back and let the 48 run away with the win; team orders have been avoided in NASCAR for a long time, and they’re what’s slowly killing the F-1 Series overseas. Hopefully, those car owners listening will ignore that idiotic suggestion and understand it’s every driver’s responsibility to race as hard as they can for the win, no matter whose team they’re on.

2) With their chances for this year’s championship all but over, are we about to see an implosion of Kurt Busch and the 97 bunch?

The crew has done a great job of staying focused throughout the Penske/Silly Season turmoil, but with the championship all but a lost cause, it’s going to be harder to ignore the simple fact that Kurt’s leaving them for what he feels is a better team at the end of the year. This could be an interesting team to watch in the final 8 races, especially if Kurt’s bad luck and frustration continues to build.

3) I know it only cost them a few spots, but what the heck was Pat Tryson thinking with a two-tire stop under yellow with 30 laps remaining when his car’s left-side rubber was over 100 laps old?

Let’s also mention here that Mark was in second place at the time of the stop, so track position appeared not to be a serious issue, especially with only 10 cars on the lead lap. How did Tryson not have confidence the 6 car would win the race on four tires, when Mark appeared to be holding back to make a final run at Johnson just before that final caution? Martin said the few points they lost wouldn’t matter in the grand scheme of things…but the sad truth is, the way the championship is shaping up that could very well bite them come Homestead.

4) Will Mike Helton’s “warning” in the driver’s meeting have a long-term effect on keeping the wrecks under control on Sunday?

In the short-term, the “don’t be bad” warning NASCAR’s given out countless times over the past few years seemed to have a bit of an effect on Sunday, with everybody giving each other plenty of racing room. There were 11 cautions, but only two incidents involving cars “touching” each other: a 3-car wreck involving Jamie McMurray, Tony Raines, and Jeff Gordon, and a late-race incident between Jeff Burton and Joe Nemechek with less than 10 laps to go. But Dover isn’t Martinsville, and the jury appears to be out on NASCAR’s latest “crackdown” effort until the teams visit a track where they bump and bang on a regular basis without spinning out.

5) When was the last time there was a race with that few cars left on the lead lap?

The answer, of course, is the Bristol crashfest in the Spring, in which only 10 cars were left on the lead lap by the end of that race. But in this event, it was green-flag racing, not attrition, that caused the dropoff of cars on the lead lap, and it was nice to see the cream of the crop rise to the top without the help of 20 Lucky Dog passes.

Who’s Smiling on Monday Besides the Winner:
Rusty Wallace. Still winless in his final season, Rusty tried his best to grab one Sunday, coming up a little short with a 3rd-place finish. Still, the car was a solid Top 10 effort most of the day, and improved from start to finish, with Wallace in position to win on the final restart. That’s all you can ask for, and with some solid tracks on the horizon for Rusty in Charlotte and Martinsville, this team could find itself on top of the points by the end of October.

Mark Martin. Sure, Martin could have easily been battling Jimmie Johnson for the win if he got four tires instead of two on that final stop. However, in the grand scheme of things Martin is right where he needs to be, now just 21 points out of the top spot and with the momentum of two straight solid finishes in the Chase. If he can avoid the bad luck at Talladega, another serious veteran contender.

Kyle Petty. After a strong start to the year, things have faded into a very forgettable season for the leader of Petty Enterprises. Which is why Sunday’s 8th-place run was so important in so many different ways. Unlike the Spring race at Bristol, Kyle actually had a Top 10 car most of the day, and just needed the track position to get himself where he needed to be, which he received by a timely caution 30 laps from the end of the race when several lead lap cars had already pitted under green. With Robbie Loomis coming back on board, there’s clearly a fresh attitude over at P.E., and Sunday was the first step in turning things in the right direction.

Carl Edwards. Certainly, the majority of Sunday’s race was not at all what the 99 team had been hoping for, with Carl rotating back and forth between 20th and 25th for most of the race. But as in New Hampshire, Edwards’ car slowly improved over time, and the team caught a lucky break, as Edwards stayed out when most of the leaders had already headed to pit road. That call to stay out guaranteed Carl a Top 10 finish, and the 9th-place result at least allowed Edwards to hold his ground heading to Talladega next week.

Who’s Hungover:
Kurt Busch. His problems already well documented above, Busch’s tire problem and late-race fall from the top more likely than not ended his chances at a second straight championship. Anything less than a Top 5 at Talladega, and Busch should be spending the majority of the time with his lawyers to get 2006 straightened out instead of worrying about 2005.

Matt Kenseth. Once again, the 17 team appeared headed for a solid finish after battling back from adversity. Kenseth had a flat left rear tire when running in the Top 5 that knocked him off the lead lap until the race’s midpoint and forced him to use the Lucky Dog and solid pit stops to slowly work his way back towards the Top 10. In fact, Kenseth was doing just that…and then the right front went flat, throwing Kenseth into the wall and ending his day on lap 369. On the bright side, Kenseth seemed remarkably composed and upbeat in the post-race interview; could this be the 48 team of the 2005 Chase?

Greg Biffle. Like several of his Roush teammates, Biffle had himself a flat tire late in the going, although in his case it didn’t hurt him as much as it could have. Only trapped one lap down, “The Biff” battled back to 13th, but missed a critical opportunity to take a reasonable lead in the championship standings after running in the Top 5 virtually all day.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Early on, it looked like the 8 team was ready to challenge for a surprise Dover win, remaining in the Top 5 for the early part of the race. But while the team easily would have had a car capable of running up front, a strange brake problem that appeared out of the blue drove Dale, Jr. to pit road within the first 100 miles and left him several laps down to the leaders. The team could never determine the cause, and the Dale, Jr. even admitted himself that he may have panicked and brought the car to pit road a little too soon without trying to see if the car would improve after two or three more laps on the track. It seems that’s just par for the course for the 8 team this season.

Bobby Labonte. There are several others who could fill this space, but I just couldn’t help but notice how badly the 18 team ran this week. I mean, how is Bobby putting up with this junk? When you’re a multi-car team with a multi-million dollar sponsor and you’re finding yourself struggling to pass damaged racecars on the track, then you’ve got a serious problem. Make no bones about it, somebody’s getting fired over there before 2006 begins; the only question is who.

Worth Noting:
Jimmie Johnson’s win was his third at Dover, but the first time he had visited Victory Lane there since he swept both Dover races in 2002. It was also the first win for Jimmie since the Coca-Cola 600 in May.

Kyle Busch 2nd-place finish gives him an average finish of 2nd in two Dover Nextel Cup starts.

Rusty Wallace’s 3rd-place run was his best finish at Dover since the Fall of 1996, when he ran 2nd.

Kyle Petty’s 8th-place run matches his best run of the season, at Bristol in the Spring. This is the first year Kyle has put together two 8th-place finishes or better since 1999.

Jeff Gordon’s crash dropped him to 14th in points. The lowest in points Jeff’s ever finished in 12-year Nextel Cup career is 13th, in his rookie season.

Points Shuffle:
With Stewart’s struggle to 18th-place on Sunday, the Race for the Chase took on a fresh look after Dover. Jimmie Johnson’s victory pushed Stewart out of first place in the points, as the 48 team moved to the front by 7 over new second-place points man Rusty Wallace.

Behind Rusty sits teammate Ryan Newman in third, who used a solid fifth-place run to close within 12 points of the lead. Mark Martin’s strong run moved him up three spots to fourth, only 21 behind Jimmie Johnson and just 2 ahead of Tony Stewart, who falls out of the points lead for the first time since July and drops into a fifth-place tie in the standings with Greg Biffle.

Behind the top six, 7th through 10th in the Chase have some work to do. Jeremy Mayfield had a strong Top 10 on Sunday, but his struggles in New Hampshire leave him 81 points behind the leader and 7th in points. Ditto for Carl Edwards—- a 9th-place run couldn’t make up the ground lost last Sunday, and he sits 8th, 103 points back of Johnson. Behind Carl, Matt Kenseth fell to 9th after his Dover accident, 124 points back, yet still 46 points clear of Kurt Busch, who remains 10th in the standings, 170 points behind the leader and all but out of it as we head to Talladega.

The race for 11th in points is heating up, as well, with the accident between Jeff Gordon and Jamie McMurray allowing Elliott Sadler to slide into the 11th slot with a strong run on Sunday. Kevin Harvick moved up one spot to 12th, and Jamie and Jeff saw themselves fall 2 spots to 13th and 14th.

Lastly, Kyle Petty’s strong Top 10 made him one of the biggest points movers on the weekend, mnoving up 3 spots from 31st to 28th.

“It was just a real solid day for the Lowe’s team today…on the…green-white-checkered, (Kyle Busch) was all over me and ran me real hard, which he’s supposed to do. And it was a great race. I’m just thankful to bring the Lowe’s Monte Carlo (to) Victory Lane.” – Jimmie Johnson

“I know (Jimmie’s) a Chase factor, but it doesn’t much matter to me. I’m trying to race as hard as I can to win. (But) I didn’t want to wreck him or anything, because that wouldn’t be the right thing to do.” – Kyle Busch, on racing the 48 car for the win

“They (the team) tried to win. I told them ‘I’ve got 34 wins. Don’t do that.’ You need every point you can get here…it’ll be OK. (But) I love Pat Tryson for trying to win. He won me a race here staying out just about a year ago or so. I’m happy for him to make those decisions.” – Mark Martin

“The crazy thing is I’m probably driving right now better than I ever drove in my life. I guess I don’t need to be retiring, but hey, I’ve made the decision to do that. Still, the thing I want to do is go out on top of my game, and I think we’re doing a good job out there for these fans.” – Rusty Wallace

“We got on the outside and Jamie McMurray just flat out took everybody out. I think that maybe his spotter told him he was clear and he just turned left going into Turn 3 and wrecked himself, unfortunately, and a bunch of us other guys.” – Jeff Gordon

“I’m gonna walk away today knowing I gave 100 percent. It didn’t turn out like we wanted to, but everybody put in all the effort they could. We had a competitive car and were in decent position to get a good finish, but it just wasn’t meant to be.” – Matt Kenseth

Next Up:
The Nextel Cup drivers roll the dice in Alabama on the circuit’s largest track, as the teams run the UAW-Ford 500 at Talladega Superspeedway next Sunday. The wild card of the Chase, the restrictor-plate 2.66-mile track is a place where huge wrecks are the norm, not the exception, and wild finishes can—- and will—- determine the outcome of not only the race, but the championship as well.

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NASCAR Mailbox: Past Winners Aren’t Winning …. Yet
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