To the Point: Carl Edwards became the third driver to accomplish a season sweep in the last three weeks of Nextel Cup racing, putting his car out front in the past 150 miles and coasting to victory in the Bass Pro Shops/MBNA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Edwards won by a good 3 seconds over second place Jeff Gordon, with Mark Martin, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and Matt Kenseth rounding out the Top 5.
Who Should Have Won: Dale Earnhardt, Jr. At the end of the race, Carl Edwards’ car was the fastest on the track, but for Dale, Jr., a 4th-place finish was a big disappointment considering the way he ran. The 8 car was a rocket ship from the drop of the green flag, moving into the Top 5 by the 50-lap mark, taking the lead by lap 53, and driving out to over a 6-second lead on the field at one point during one of the race’s 40-lap green flag runs. Dale, Jr. ended up leading 142 laps on the day; not only was that the first time all season he led the most laps in a race, but it was over five times the amount of laps the 8 car had led in races one through thirty-two on the Nextel Cup schedule (27). Unfortunately for Dale, Jr., though, none of those laps led in the race came past lap 208, as handling issues in the second half caused the 8 car to slowly fade back to fourth. It was the team’s seventh Top 5 of the year, but a dejected post-race Dale, Jr. knew it could have been so much better.
Five Questions You Should be Asking After the Race Weekend:
1) What heck was the deal with NASCAR throwing the caution flag today? If I throw my hot dog wrapper on the track, will they call a caution for debris?
Sunday’s race was a classic example of NASCAR’s Yellow Flag Tour 2005. Of the nine cautions in the race, four were for debris, and another two were caused simply by cars scraping the wall, then continuing on without getting in harm’s way of the rest of the field. In fact, it was questionable whether debris even caused the second caution of the day; there was smoke from Elliott Sadler’s tires as he headed towards pit road, and it appears a unnecessarily panicked NASCAR official prematurely called for a yellow to be thrown, thinking there was a blown engine on the track. While it’s nice for safety’s sake that NASCAR is ready and willing to throw the caution to prevent disaster, the yellows are spiralling out of control. News flash; for every 1-inch piece of metal NASCAR picks up, there’s several others you don’t see scattered about on the racing surface. Long green flag runs shouldn’t be a thing of the past, but if NASCAR continues down the yellow flag road, I guarantee you we’re on pace to have no more than 2 or 3 of them in 2006, and that’s a travesty.
2) Can Carl Edwards be taken seriously as a championship contender?
With Edwards’ win on Sunday, NASCAR’s newest young sensation moved into a tie for fourth place in points, just 107 out of the lead with three races to go. That’s a tough road to hoe, but there’s a few important points swinging in the 99 team’s favor. Two of the final three events are at 1.5-mile tracks, Roush Racing specialties; championship leaders Johnson and Stewart appear to be focused on themselves and not the rest of the Chase field, no matter how much they try and say they’re worrying about others; and most importantly, the 99 team feels they have nothing to lose. Even if Edwards finished 10th in the Chase, this would have easily been called a successful season for the 99 bunch; anything else is gravy. Yeah, a championship would be one of the biggest upsets in Nextel Cup history…but there wouldn’t be such a thing as upsets if they didn’t happen.
3) What was the deal with NASCAR suddenly cracking down on pit road?
The speeding penalties on Sunday were nothing new; for those who were surprised, you just haven’t been paying attention. The only reason this was a big issue on Sunday is the leaders were the ones constantly getting called for it (Mark Martin, Matt Kenseth among others). Kudos to NASCAR on this one for cracking down and making sure no one’s getting an edge they’re not supposed to have by speeding down pit road. However, Kyle Busch’s “pass in the grass” penalty appeared to be a bad call; Biffle clearly pushed the 5 up into the grass exiting the pit area, and Busch shouldn’t have been penalized for someone else’s mistake.
4) How can Kurt Busch improve his image when his move to the 2 car does nothing to his actual personality?
Busch’s hot-and-cold personality was never more noticeable than during Sunday’s event. Three Chasers were eliminated from championship contention due to wrecks or mechanical failures: Busch, Jeremy Mayfield, and Rusty Wallace. But while the last two drivers mentioned were ready and willing to give extensive interviews in the face of extreme disappointment, Busch appeared to be on the verge of throwing another tantrum. Everybody saw the man behind pit wall who had to do some clever maneuvering to avoid the path of a speeding 97 car entering the garage, and Busch refused all interview requests both during and after the race. While having your championship hopes dashed would be upsetting to anyone, the professional and mature thing in this sport is to collect your thoughts and face the media with dignity intact. Busch failed to do so, and again left everyone wondering if he’s ever going to truly change.
5) Have NASCAR’s two biggest stars finally turned their programs around?
After second and fourth place finishes Sunday by Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt, Jr., fans of both drivers are eagerly anticipating the 2006 season. And for good reason; Steve LeTarte has stablilized and rebuilt the chemistry of a 24 team in shambles by the end of the regular season, and Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s car has been fast everywhere the Cup Series has been since getting cousin Tony Eury, Jr. as crew chief last month.
Who’s Smiling on Monday Besides the Winner:
Jeff Gordon. A four-time winner this season, Gordon’s Martinsville victory proved that his bid for the Chase in 2005 wasn’t lost on the short tracks. It’s the intermediate tracks where this team has struggled, with zero Top 5s on that type of track since Darlington in May. So, with that said, Gordon’s season-high second place run on a non-restrictor plate superspeedway was impressive, and continues to build the resume of surprising crew chief choice Steve LeTarte. Viewed by many in the media as a temporary replacement, you’d think at this point LeTarte has easily secured an opportunity for 2006.
Mark Martin. Picked by many in the garage as a prerace favorite, Martin lived up to the billing, leading 32 laps early on before getting caught for speeding on pit road and sent to the back of the longest line. Martin’s cool, calm reaction to the penalty aided in his quick march back through the field, working his way back into the Top 5 by the race’s midpoint. Still, it seemed the car was never quite as good as the first 50 laps; Martin got up front for just a handful of circuits in the race’s second half, and was forced to settle for third place. But this was exactly the kind of run the 6 team needed to keep their faint championship hopes alive, and you could tell Martin knew it as he was all smiles after the day was over.
Jamie McMurray. Everybody knows McMurray’s not in the best position right now, a lame-duck driver for as much as another year if his contract dispute doesn’t get resolved next week. But in the face of such continual drama, the 42 team has suddenly turned on the jets after a season spent muddling along in mediocrity. McMurray now has back-to-back Top 10 finishes for the first time since May, and with his sixth place finish Sunday capped off a solid run in which he was a part of the top dozen cars for virtually the entire 500 miles.
Denny Hamlin. A 19th place run may be nothing to write home about, but it represents Denny Hamlin’s third consecutive Top 20 finish in the #11 Fed Ex car, the first time that’s happened all season. Haven’t seen more “Who is this kid?” buzz around the circuit since some kid named Jamie McMurray came out and won Charlotte in his second race in the Cup series. McMurray also has a 2003 Rookie of the Year trophy at home…something to keep in mind for Denny in 2006.
Kurt Busch. Already documented above, Busch’s chances at defending his 2004 title crunched into pieces at the Turn 3 wall on Sunday. A right rear tire went flat around the midpoint of the race, causing Busch to lose control and smack the concrete hard with the front of his car. It probably didn’t help Busch’s mood that the car wasn’t really Top 5 material before that wreck, either. The biggest question for Busch now becomes where he’ll end up next season. Hopefully the lawyers can answer that by the end of this week.
Rusty Wallace. For the third race in a row, Wallace was involved in a wreck, this one effectively ending his championship chances. The 2 car had nowhere to go early on when Mike Skinner cut a tire and shot up the track, hitting the 66 of Kevin LePage on his way into the outside wall. LePage got turned and spun into Wallace, knocking his front end out of whack and sending the 2 car behind the wall. Now 267 points back when he could have been only 50 points behind with better luck, Rusty can at least now concentrate on the one thing missing from a stellar final season; getting back to Victory Lane.
Jeremy Mayfield. Last but not least, a Chase already going poorly for Mayfield got even worse on Sunday, as a mechanical failure put the team behind the wall early and out to pasture with a 38th-place finish. Now a distant 10th in the Chase and without crew chief Slugger Labbe, fired earlier in the week, Mayfield’s team can now go back to the drawing board and figure out a new strategy for how to approach the last 10 races should they make the playoffs in 2006, because the approach they’re currently using hasn’t worked for the past two seasons now, and it shows.
Reed Sorenson. The 19-year-old Chip Ganassi sensation qualified for his first Nextel Cup race Sunday, but experienced a rude awakening to the struggles of the organization on NASCAR’s top level. Sorenson ran in the 20s most of the day, got lapped, then found himself turned into the wall by Scott Wimmer after doing some hard racing midpack following a restart. Clearly, not the result this phenom would have liked to show he’s capable of making a run at 2006 Rookie of the Year.
- Carl Edwards’ third victory this year is the most by a driver in their first full season since Jimmie Johnson in 2002. Also, he’s the first driver to sweep both Atlanta races since Bill Elliott did it back in 1992.
- Jeff Gordon’s second place finish following his Martinsville win gave him his first back-to-back Top 5s since Talladega and Darlington back in the Spring.
- Mark Martin’s third place finish was his third consecutive Top 5 at Atlanta.
- Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s fourth place finish was his best since winning Chicagoland in July.
- Jeff Burton’s seventh place finish gave him his first back-to-back Top 10s since Martinsville and Talladega in April.
- Rusty Wallace and Jeremy Mayfield had their worst finishes of the year (36th and 38th).
Despite Stewart’s 9th-place run, Jimmie Johnson was unable to capitalize Sunday. A Top 10 car for most of the day, the defending champion had the handling on his car go away in the last two segments of the race, causing him to fade to a 16th place finish. As a result, Stewart’s lead is now 43 with three races remaining. Those two drivers are now the only two that control their own destiny; if either one wins the last three races and leads the most laps in each, they win the championship regardless of what anybody else does.
Behind Stewart & Johnson, the remaining five drivers within striking distance will need varying degrees of help to get back in the thick of things. Greg Biffle gained a few points back Sunday with a 7th place run, passing Ryan Newman for third, but remaining 75 back of the lead. Fourth place is now a tie between Carl Edwards and Newman, who struggled to 23rd on Sunday after starting on the pole; both are 107 behind after Sunday. These three drivers can get back in the hunt with strong Top 5 finishes, but ultimately need a ho-hum Top 15 from Stewart somewhere to get themselves back in the hunt.
Mark Martin’s strong third place run moved him up to sixth in points, but he remains 143 back with three to go; ditto for Matt Kenseth, whose fifth place finish moved him up to seventh, but only gained him a handful of points, moving within 155 of Stewart. Both these drivers can still win the title, but they’ll need a DNF or very poor finish from Stewart to realistically have a chance to get back in it.
Meanwhile, 8th through 10th in the Chase have been all but mathematically eliminated after Sunday’s chain of events. Rusty Wallace drops to 8th, but is now 257 behind Stewart. Busch is 9th, 260 back, and Jeremy Mayfield rounds out the Top 10, 314 points behind.
In the race for 11th, Jamie McMurray continues to hold on, but he now has a suddenly hot Gordon nipping at his heels, 42 points behind in 12th. Elliott Sadler is 60 points back in 13th, with Kevin Harvick and Joe Nemechek still in contention and rounding out the Top 15.
Finally, Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s strong run kept him from dropping out of the Top 20 in points; he’s now 19th, 101 clear of 21st place point man Ricky Rudd.
“I can’t believe we ended up winning the race. That’s pretty cool to say the least. I just can’t get over the fact that we’ve won three races so far this season. That means so much to me that I can’t describe it.” Carl Edwards
“I’m happy. Obviously, we wanted to run a little better than we did. But at the same time, we did what we needed to do. We needed to gain some points and we did. A 43-point lead with three races to go isn’t a cakewalk by any means, but it gives us a small amount of breathing room.” Tony Stewart
“It was one of those deals. We finished 16th. It’s not the end of the world. But there are three to go and we’ll just keep fighting from here.” Jimmie Johnson
“If I had cars like that every week, man, I think I could drive until I was 60.” Mark Martin
“That’s three in a row now. It’s absolutely unbelievable. I can’t believe I came the whole season with no problems, and right now at the very end, it goes all to hell.” Rusty Wallace
For the first time ever, the Nextel Cup Series returns to the one-and-a-half mile Texas Motor Speedway for the second time in one season. The Dickies 500, seventh in the 10-race Chase for the Championship, is scheduled for next Sunday at 3:30 EST deep in the heart of Texas.
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