To the Point: Jimmie Johnson continued his domination at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, winning his fourth race in a row at the track after passing Joe Nemechek late in the going at the UAW-GM 500. Johnson makes a move to tie Tony Stewart atop the point standings after a bizarre race in which Stewart was one of nearly two dozen drivers to have a tire problem and wreck during the event.
Who Should Have Won: Tony Stewart. No question about it, Stewart not only seemed to have the best car on this wacky night, but the 20 team was avoiding the tire problems that seemed to plague almost every competitor throughout the event. Cruising out in front and with Chase contenders all around him suffering major problems, Stewart seemed primed to put the pursuit of his second title in cruise control—- all until he ran over debris and punctured a tire on lap 216. Stewart was able to finish 25th after that due to high attrition, but saw a championship point lead vanish from what would have been over 100 to simply zero heading into Martinsville.
Five Questions You Should be Asking After the Race Weekend:
1) How could NASCAR justify running this race?
Perhaps the question of the year; with serious tire problems and car control issues heading into the weekend that had been unsolved for months at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, NASCAR full well knew that the events of this weekend would be a debacle at best. And yet, they allowed the race to run anyway, putting all 43 drivers in clear danger with tires that blew out every 20-30 laps, sending one unlucky soul into the wall at 190 mph. Embarassment isn’t the word to describe the fallout from the weekend.
2) Which Chase driver was hurt the most by their tire failure?
Many nominees here…Rusty, Stewart, and Kenseth all were cursing the track after seeing their dreams of a solid finish ripped apart by a Goodyear explosion. My opinion, Kenseth gets the nod here…already 8th in the championship, 116 behind the leader heading into Saturday, Kenseth didn’t need another on-track incident, and his flat tires cost him 10 laps and a shot at making up much-needed ground on the points lead. Now Kenseth falls to 9th, and passing 8 other drivers with 5 races to go may be a little too much to ask.
3) Did anybody notice Denny Hamlin was in contention…in his second Cup race?
After this Saturday night, looks like this kid is the real deal. Although pit strategy got him up towards the front late, he was consistently in the Top 15 throughout the event and finished a solid 8th in a car that barely sniffs the top half of the field, let alone the Top 10. Seeing as his major competition for this ride (J.J. Yeley) seems to register a DNF every time he steps in the car, it seems Hamlin might have a slight edge in securing this ride for 2006 now.
4) Will NBC stop caring as much about NASCAR in 2006 now that they’ve pulled out of the bidding for the sport in 2007?
Revealed this week was NBC’s decision to withdraw from the TV negotiations, a move that likely puts ABC/ESPN back in the mix for 2007. More importantly, NBC picks up Sunday Night football next year, and now stuck as a lame-duck network packager, may be more likely to promote that in the late summer and early Fall than this year’s Chase. Not only that, but with Notre Dame football, will we run into a situation where NBC will (gasp) join a race in progress like we’re back in 1977? It almost happened with Notre Dame – USC on Saturday…NASCAR had to hold back the start of the race at Lowe’s by 20 minutes, which upset several fans. What if that game went into overtime? It’ll be interesting to see how this all goes down next year…
5) Will Rusty Wallace’s late-race spin come back to haunt him at the end of the ten-race Chase for the Cup?
After a horrific day full of right-side tire issues, Wallace appeared to be making an amazing recovery on Saturday night. Two laps down at one point after pitting for tire issues, he got the Lucky Dog pass twice to get back on the lead lap, only to have a tire problem again and emerge 2 laps behind the leader. Then, he had to pass the leader under green, got the Lucky Dog pass AGAIN to get him back on the lead lap, and started storming through the field, moving up into the Top 15 and in position for a Top 10 before the race was over. It would have been a finish that vaulted Wallace within 60 points of the lead, and with Martinsville coming up, the momentum would be on the 2 team’s side…but all that went away when Rusty lost it under Brian Vickers with 5 laps to go. The 24th-place finish cost Wallace over 30 points, which in this year’s championship race, may be too much to give up.
Johnson has now won the past four races at Lowe’s in Nextel Cu pand five of the last six. Since he bagan competing full-time on the circuit in 2002, Johnson has not finished lower than 7th in any points race at Lowe’s, with an average finish during that span of 2.6. Pretty good for a guy who crashed out of the race here in his first Nextel Cup start back in 2001.
Kurt Busch’s 2nd-place finish is his best since winning Richmond in September and his first Top 5 finish in the Chase.
Denny Hamlin’s 8th-place finish is the best in his short Cup career.
Ricky Rudd’s 9th-place finish is his 4th Top 10 in his last 8 races. Remarkably, Rudd is now within striking distance of the Top 20 in points after falling out of the Top 35 during the first five races of the year.
Dave Blaney’s 13th-place finish is his best since Atlanta in April, 27 races ago. Ironically, Blaney’s strong run came within 48 hours after he was told he would not be retained for the 07 ride in 2006.
Jeff Gordon record a 38th-place finish and his 8th DNF due to an accident this year. That’s easily a career record for him, the wrong record you want to set.
It’s now official: everyone in the Chase has had their mulligan. Not one driver scored a Top 10 finish in all five Chase races.
With Stewart’s crash early on in the race, his points lead quickly evaporated in the Chase for the Nextel Cup. Stewart is now tied with Johnson at the top with five races left—- technically, Stewart is on top due to the tiebreaker rule, as he has more wins than Johnson at this point in the season.
Behind those two, Greg Biffle has moved up to third, just 11 points back, while Ryan Newman falls to 4th even with a Top 10 finish in the race. He’s 17 points behind. Mark Martin rounds out the Top 5 in 5th, just 51 back after a solid 5th-place finish where he was in the Top 10 for virtually the entire 334 laps.
The second half of the Chase points standings consists of Carl Edwards, Rusty Wallace, Jeremy Mayfield, Matt Kenseth, and Kurt Busch, in order. Edwards and Wallace are still within reasonable contention, 54 and 92 points behind the points leaders, while Mayfield, Kenseth, and Busch all find themselves over 100 points behind. Still, the gap between 1st and 10th has closed to within 142 points once again, and even Kurt Busch could mathematically assume the points lead at Martinsville if everything swung his way.
Back in the standings, Elliott Sadler holds onto 11th, with Kevin Harvick, Jamie McMurray, Joe Nemechek, and Brian Vickers rounding out the Top 15. Vickers actually has a realistic shot at the 11th spot at this point after his second-half hot streak; in fact, if the Chase wasn’t in effect he would have a realistic shot at the Top 10.
Superstars Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. fell to 17th and 20th in the standings after being some of the first drivers to experience tire issues on Saturday night.
“We just came up a bit short racing Jimmie Johnson, but he’s strong here. He’s the guy to beat.” Kurt Busch
“The 48 plain got lucky. He had battery problems and everything else. Timing wise, with the way the situation was, they just plain got lucky.” Ryan Newman
“I don’t think I ran one lap as hard as I could (tonight). That’s just the way you had to race. This was not a lot of fun, to be honest with you. It just isn’t. You’re risking your best car and a good headache.” Carl Edwards
“The whole night it was somewhat like playing Russian Roulette. You would just wait for a tire to blow out and hope it wasn’t yours. It was totally a different type of racing that we normally have.” Jamie McMurray
“These track owners, I wish they’d contact somebody before they do anything to the racetrack. They had a good track here before and didn’t need to mess with it. They messed with it and messed it up and ruined it tonight for everybody.” Sterling Marlin
The Nextel Cup drivers head to the Subway 500 at Martinsville for some good ol’ classic short track racing at the .625-mile short track next Sunday.
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