The Frontstretch: Frontstretch Breakdown : Subway 500 by Thomas Bowles -- Sunday October 23, 2005

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Frontstretch Breakdown : Subway 500

Thomas Bowles · Sunday October 23, 2005

 

To the Point: Jeff Gordon put to rest a five-month Victory Lane drought by wheeling his car to the winner’s circle at the Subway 500 at Martinsville Speedway Sunday. Gordon stayed out during a caution around lap 350, took the lead by lap 360 and held off current Nextel Cup point leader Tony Stewart to claim the Martinsville season sweep.

Who Should Have Won: Tony Stewart. For the first 350 laps, Sunday’s race was the Tony Stewart show. The only time the 20 car was passed by ANYONE on the track was by the 21 of Ricky Rudd on lap 2…after that, Stewart began laying waste to the field. At times building up a lead of several seconds, Stewart led 200 of the race’s 250 laps, only being shuffled back during different pit sequences under caution. But once Gordon took the lead on one of those pit strategy calls by lap 360, Stewart’s car suddenly seemed to fall off, and no matter what the 20 team did the final 150 laps, they never seemed to muster up enough car to significantly challenge Gordon up front. In fact, Stewart had all he could handle with Jimmie Johnson in the last 50 laps for second place, and had to inevitably knock the 48 out of the way to claim the spot.

Five Questions You Should be Asking After the Race Weekend:
1) Are the struggles for Jeff Gordon finally over? And did this win secure Steve LeTarte a job for 2006?

Make no bones about it, the past five months have been the worst stretch of Gordon’s career, so despite his win this April at Martinsville, many weren’t expecting this team to seriously contend for the win. The fact Gordon did is a testament to Steve LeTarte, winning in just his 6th start as crew chief and unifier of this team reeling after too many DNFs and the departure of Robbie Loomis. But are the struggles really over? Gordon has still continued to have problems at intermediate tracks, and perhaps one should hold judgment on giving LeTarte a true passing grade until you see Gordon up front once again at tracks like Homestead. And keep in mind Brian Whitesell won in Martinsville back in 1999 when Ray Evernham left as Gordon’s crew chief, yet found himself in a different role at Hendrick Motorsports the next year. So stay tuned, Gordon fans…LeTarte may not be entrenched here yet.

2) Has the Chase become a two-man race?

Clearly, Johnson and Stewart were the class of the Chase drivers on Sunday, with many of the others experiencing problems to varying degrees. The fact that those two were tied for the points lead coming in allowed them to open up some distance in the Chase as a result, with third-place Ryan Newman now over 60 points behind with 4 races left. Certainly, any driver 70 or more points back would have a tough road to hoe to catch the top two, but one needs look no further than Jimmie Johnson’s fantastic 2004 finish (4 wins in 5 races) to know that any of the 10 could come back under the right circumstances.

3) How did Martinsville join the bandwagon that is “Cautionfest 2005?”

Martinsville continued an all too familiar trend for this season, setting a record for the number of cautions with 19 in 500 laps. This time around, there weren’t that many mysterious “debris” cautions, so NASCAR can’t be faulted all that much…although it seems on a short track you might not need to throw a caution for every spin if the guy just does a 360 and keeps going. It seems 10 to 15 years ago that situation would occur on the track and the race would stay green…now, NASCAR’s playing it ultra-conservative. That’s fine for safety’s sake, but in the end those calls will lengthen the race—- and the yellows—- at a short track like Martinsville.

4) Could the television coverage have been any worse this weekend?

A week after NBC revealed it would not play any part in the NASCAR TV deal in 2007, it already seems like the network is beginning to drop its standards. NBC threw up a full screen soundbite from Mike Helton instead of showing us a green-flag restart on Sunday; in hindsight, as bad as that was it was actually better than leaving the fans with a commercial instead, something they did for about a dozen of the 19 restarts during the event. NBC also had a Fox-like pro-wrestling stunt they showed way too much of and failed to adequately cover stories like Bobby Labonte and Jeff Burton’s runs until the race was just about over. And let’s not even get into what a mess the Memphis broadcast was for the Busch Series…makes you wonder how these broadcasts are going to go in their lame-duck year of 2006.

5) Can Martinsville do anything to fix its crowded pit road before 2006?

The pit road on Sunday was another Martinsville mess, with a narrow pit road packing cars tightly together, and several minor incidents causing near-panic during caution flag pit stops. Since it seems like the number of cars remaining on the lead lap in a race will only grow every year, it makes sense to address this problem for 2006 by either widening pit road or only allowing 20 cars at a time to come down and pit during a caution period; at some point, a driver’s going to make a costly mistake and someone’s going to get hurt if a solution isn’t found.

Who’s Smiling on Monday:
Tony Stewart. Sure, Stewart would have liked to grab the win but the second place finish allowed him to create the distance he had prior to Lowe’s with everyone else in the Chase save Jimmie Johnson. Even with Jimmie, Stewart was able to post a 15-point advantage after knocking the 48 out of the way for second with just 10 laps remaining in the race.

Kurt Busch. At one point, it looked like curtains for Kurt’s hopes to grab his second consecutive Cup title when he got impatient and turned Michael Waltrip into the wall around the race’s midpoint. NASCAR quickly slapped Busch with a one-lap penalty for rough driving, and the 97 was battling from behind the rest of the day after running in the Top 10. However, a more patient Busch got his lap back through the Lucky Dawg and then picked his spots, climbing slowly up through the field to 6th by the end of the day and keeping his faint hopes for the title alive with four races left.

Bobby Labonte. Amidst rumors of his imminent departure from Joe Gibbs Racing, Labonte quietly turned in one of his best runs of the season Sunday, finishing a solid 4th with a car that ran in the Top 10 virtually all day. While all 3 Gibbs cars ran well on Sunday, usually the bad luck bug has come to bite the 18 car to ensure they don’t have a solid finish; but this time, Labonte avoided the numerous spins around him to rise up into the Top 5.

Denny Hamlin. The third member of the Gibbs outfit, Hamlin had an eventful day, as contact with another car caused him to be black flagged for a hangning rear bumper, putting him a lap down early after a solid Top 10 qualifying run. But Hamlin battled back, getting the Lucky Dog near the race’s midway point and calmly working his way back through the pack to claim his second Top 10 finish in just his third career Cup start. To give you an idea of how impressive that is, names like Gordon, Earnhardt Sr. AND Jr., Stewart, and Johnson didn’t accomplish that. I think it’s just a formality at this point that the Fed Ex job is his for 2006.

Who’s Hungover on Monday:
Rusty Wallace. Perhaps no one was hurt more by this race than Wallace, King of the Short Tracks who needed a Top 5 finish at Martinsville, if not a win, to keep alive his hopes for his first Nextel Cup title since 1989. However, for Rusty it simply was not meant to be. He had a solid car throughout the day, running in 3rd to 5th for almost all of the first 450 laps, but was never a serious threat to take the lead. Then, on a late-race restart, Rusty struggled to get under the lapped car of Casey Mears coming off Turn 2, and when he checked up was hit from behind by Jeff Burton and turned into the backstretch wall. A wounded 2 car finished the race in 21st place, and any hope for a title, and perhaps a win for Rusty in his final season appears to have gone up in that backstretch smoke.

Mark Martin. For Martin, as well, it appears his chances for a second title took a serious, if not fatal, hit on Sunday. The 6 car was junk for most of the day, as nothing the team seemed to do to fix the car helped Martin drive it. Running from 15th to 25th for most of the race, the car’s serious handling problems caused Martin to use the brakes way too much, and by the 400-lap mark, they were beginning to give way. When they finally did, a brake-less Martin put the car in the fence off Turn 4, and then was unable to stop in his pit stall, nearly running over his helpless crew. The car had to go behind the wall, and a dejected Martin fell to 34th in the final results.

Jeremy Mayfield. A third contender hurt badly in the points on Sunday, Mayfield’s hopes for a title now appear to indeed be all but mathematically finished. Running in the Top 10 most of the day, a flat right front took Mayfield to the pits under green, throwing him 3 laps down and rendering him unable to make up that distance through the Lucky Dawg. The trouble dropped Jeremy to 28th in the rundown and over 200 points behind Stewart with four races left.

Ricky Rudd. Stewart led the most laps in this race, nearly 300 of them in fact, but for most of the race’s first 200 laps he had Rudd behind him as a solid second place competitor, with a car that appeared capable of challenging Stewart with just a few small adjustments. But coming to lap 175, Rudd’s chances for his first win in nearly three years quickly fell apart. Mike Bliss got forced into the wall by Scott Riggs coming off of Turn 4, then turned down into traffic, causing a chain reaction of hits that caused Sterling Marlin’s car to turn directly into Rudd’s and send the 21 into the inside wall. Rudd did have an amazing recovery for a Top 15 finish, but it could have been so, so much better.

Brian Vickers. As if having to mark the one-year anniversary of losing best friend Ricky Hendrick wasn’t bad enough for Vickers, the race itself made things worse. A tire problem put Vickers 2 laps down early, and that was followed up by a oil line coming off the car, forcing the 25 team behind the wall and back to a 36th-place finish. That result likely takes Vickers out of the running for 11th-place in points after a red-hot second half of the season mad ehim a longshot to grab the position.

Worth Noting:
Jeff Gordon’s win was his first in 23 races, the first time since the 2001-02 season that Jeff’s gone that long without a win. It was also the first time in 22 races that Gordon had finished in the Top 5—- easily the longest drought of his entire Nextel Cup career.

Despite Jimmie Johnson’s third-place finish, he failed to lead a lap at Martinsville. In fact, Johnson didn’t lead a lap at both Martinsville races this year after winning the Fall race back in 2004.

Bobby Labonte’s fourth-place finish is his best since New Hampshire in July. It’s the only track this season that the 18 team can claim a Top 10 finish in both races (Bobby ended up 6th in the Spring race here).

With a 14th-place finish on Sunday, Kyle Petty has now put together back-to-back Top 15 finishes for the first time since August, 2002.

It’s feast or famine for Mark Martin; he has two Top 5 finishes in the Chase, combined with two finishes of 34th or worse, including the 34th-place finish he had on Sunday.

Points Shuffle:
With his second-place finish, Tony Stewart broke the tie with Jimmie Johnson and now leads the Nextel Cup Chase, but not by much. Johnson’s third-place finish kept him within striking distance, but his inability to lead a lap—- combined with Stewart leading the most laps—- put him 15 points behind the leader with four races to go on the season.

Behind those two, however, some distance has been opened up in the standings. Ryan Newman moved from fourth to third on Sunday, but fell 63 points behind the leader. Greg Biffle’s only notable accomplishment on Sunday was some late-race contact with Tony Stewart as a lapped car, and his struggle dropped him to a 20th-place finish and 4th in the points, 83 behind Tony.

Like Biffle, almost everyone else in the Chase appeared to struggle Sunday. Carl Edwards moved to 5th pretty much by default, as his 26th-place finish dropped him 149 behind the top spot. Despite his problems, Rusty Wallace actually moved up a spot, from 7th to 6th, but is now 166 points back of the lead, just four points ahead of new 7th-place point man Mark Martin. Kurt Busch’s strong run moved him up a tie for 8th with Matt Kenseth; both are 172 points behind the 20 car. Lastly, Jeremy Mayfield brings up the rear in the Chase, falling to 10th, 216 points behind; his chances are all but over with four races remaining.

As a side note to the Chase, the race for 11th is heating up. Jamie McMurray still leads in that department, but Kevin Harvick, Joe Nemechek, Elliott Sadler, and Jeff Gordon have all closed to within 62 points of the position. Needless to say, that fight will go down to the final race at Atlanta. And in the race for 25th in the owners’ points, Mike Wallace and the 4 team were behind the wall on Sunday with a rear gear problem, dropping them over 200 points behind the 11 team after Denny Hamlin’s strong run. Looks like the 4 will be qualifying on time in Daytona next February.

Quotable:
“We just want to keep honoring those folks that were lost, and I can’t think of a better way to do it than to pull this DuPont Chevrolet into victory lane and celebrate here. I know they’re looking down on us and really smiling.” Jeff Gordon, discussing his thoughts on winning almost one year after the Martinsville tragedy that saw 10 die in a plane crash heading to the track

“I just thank Jeff and Mr. Hendrick for the opportunity. We have such a strong team and such a strong foundation here. I’m just kind of one player in the role. Fortunately today it worked out…I’m just really looking forward to the future.” Steve LeTarte

“He’s (Biffle) an idiot…If (Biffle) came around here I’m afraid I’d have to strangle him right now.” Tony Stewart on NBC, commenting about how Biffle held him up as a lapped car at the end of the race

"(Jeff) Burton got me and sent me around. We had problems with the lapped cars all day. It was terrible. They were racing their brains out trying to get the Lucky Dog. That’s all it was, and it caused a lot of problems…It’s hard to take that one. We were top five all day long and with 16 to go that happens. It’s just unbelievable. We had it pretty close at the end. It was really pretty good, and I know we could have got a top five out of it. It was just a bad deal." Rusty Wallace

“The guys battled hard and we did everything we could. We’ve got four more and we’re gonna go battle back. From wherever we’re at, we’re gonna move up.” Mark Martin

“I used to get excited about stuff like that (my rough driving penalty). That’s NASCAR and they make their decisions, so we have to abide by them.” Kurt Busch

Next Up:
The Nextel Cup drivers turn towards another one-and-a-half mile speed demon, as the Atlanta Motor Speedway plays host to the Bass Pro Shops/MBNA 500 this coming Sunday.

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