To the Point: Kyle Busch passed a dominant Greg Biffle with less than 30 laps remaining to win Sunday at Phoenix in a race overshadowed more by what happened off the track than what happened on it. That was made easier by the points picture becoming even more clearer on this day, with Tony Stewart finishing 4th to Jimmie Johnson’s 7th, raising his lead to 52 points and putting him in the driver’s seat for his second title at Homestead on Sunday.
Who Should Have Won: Greg Biffle. After a horrific race at Texas in which the 16 team suffered through tire failures and a myriad of other problems, they certainly turned it around on this day. Biffle led over half the race and was clearly the car to beat until a series of different pit strategies put Busch at the front of the field with older tires. That shuffled Biffle back in the field, and by the time he had made his way back up to second and caught Kyle, his tires were all but used up. It’s doubtful the win would have made a difference in Biffle’s push to catch Stewart for the championship; that dream likely ended last week, although he’s still mathematically eligible entering Homestead. Still, for a disappointed Biffle a win would have sure been nice.
Five Questions You Should be Asking After the Race Weekend:
(Note: For information on the Kurt Busch situation, please read this week’s Bowles-Eye View).
1) Did anybody pay attention to the actual race?
Between the team limits rule entered into effect before this week’s race, along with the driver changes, tire leasing rule, testing limit, and Kurt Busch’s suspension, there was so much for any random NASCAR fan to think and talk about that during the long green-flag runs it seemed like a sideshow that the race was even on. Kudos for NBC to making Kurt Busch’s suspension the lead story and making sure all angles were covered on it throughout the race, as well as Alan Bestwick making sure he addressed the issue with younger brother Kyle in Victory Lane.
2) So, with a team limit of four teams, and Jack Roush and Rick Hendrick getting to keep the teams they have…what exactly changes here?
NASCAR’s new rule of four teams to one owner is a step in the right direction, but clearly needs work. Hendrick and Roush appear likely to keep the 4-5 teams they have at least through the 2009 season, which means we’re not going to be giving back any teams to other car owners with this new rule.
Additionally, if Yates, RCR, Gibbs, MB2, DEI, Evernham, and Penske all add a fourth car in the next few seasons, that means we’ve still got the capability of 36 cars owned by just 9 organizations. And, to be honest, the situation I just described doesn’t appear to be all that far-fetched. Why couldn’t NASCAR have just done three?
3) Will the new testing rules actually cut back on schedules for Nextel Cup teams?
The new rules, allowing six mandatory test dates on Nextel Cup tracks but no more, should cut down on the amount of off-track testing by teams at least slightly. That move, combined with a tire-leasing program, will make it difficult to accurately gather information for a track like Darlington if you’re testing at a non-Nextel Cup facility. Still, you’ve got to believe the Roush and Hendrick teams of the world will still be out there every week, testing at random facilities as they always do in an effort to gain every piece of information they can.
4) How lucky was Dale Earnhardt, Jr. to grab that win in Chicagoland?
The last best chance for Dale, Jr. to win this season was at Phoenix, a track this DEI team has dominated over the last two seasons. But a cut right front tire sent the 8 car back to the garage early, and left a clearly frustrated Earnhardt wondering what might have been. Who would have guessed that there’s a possibility the 8 team won’t even finish in the Top 20 in points when the 2005 season is all said and done?
5) Will Denny Hamlin be next year’s version of Kyle Busch?
Early indications appear that way. Hamlin’s pole-winning run in just his 6th career Nextel Cup start was impressive, but even more telling was his ability to not only lead early on but stay a solid 2nd behind a dominant Greg Biffle for most of the early part of the race. Hamlin eventually faded to a 13th-place finish, but he’s clearly proven himself to be someone to look out for as a frontrunner in the 2006 race for Rookie of the Year.
Kyle Busch’s win marks the first time a rookie has won more than one race in a season since Jimmie Johnson in 2002.
Jeff Gordon’s third place finish at Phoenix left him winless at the track, the track with the most starts for Gordon (13) where he has still not won.
Jimmie Johnson has now failed to lead a lap in three of the last four races in the Chase.
Robby Gordon’s 8th place finish was his first Top 10 at an oval track this season.
At this point, Tony Stewart now is solidly in the driver’s seat concerning the championship. The lead is now 52 points over second place Jimmie Johnson, so as long as Stewart can finish 9th or better in this Sunday’s race at Homestead, he’ll win the 2005 title no matter what anyone else does.
Johnson, meanwhile, may have to look behind him for second place, as Carl Edwards is charging up behind him. Only 35 points behind Johnson, Edwards lost just 10 points to Stewart on Sunday and may have been the only one capable of overtaking Stewart if he had only been able to get a stronger start in the Chase. Biffle moved to 4th in points after Sunday’s win, but he is 103 points back and, like Edwards, will almost certainly need to have Stewart suffer a mechanical failure to have a shot at the championship.
162 points back, Mark Martin maintains 5th spot, but will have to wait until next year to try and grab the title which continues to elude him. Behind Mark, Ryan Newman, Matt Kenseth, Rusty Wallace, Kurt Busch, and Jeremy Mayfield round out the Top 10. Newman and Kenseth can likely rise no higher than fifth, while Wallace and Mayfield can rise no higher than 8th after the series finale this Sunday.
The battle for 11th is hot and heavy behind the top contenders. Jeff Gordon finished 3rd and moved 10 points ahead of Jamie McMurray for the spot, with Elliott Sadler just 41 behind Gordon in 13th. Kevin Harvick is the only other driver with a shot at the 11th spot, 106 points behind in 14th.
Other important points battles have been decided. Michael Waltrip has clinched the 25th and last cash-paying points position in the Nextel Cup standings, while the 77, 22, and 11 teams are now well clear of Morgan-McClure Motorsports #4 for the 25th and final spot in owner points.
“I’m behind my brother 100 percent. I just want to apologize to all of his sponsors for taking a true champion out of the race today.” Kyle Busch
“We tried hard and we put in a lot of work (this weekend). We just came up a little bit short. It’s not over until the last race at Homestead. It’s going to be tough (to beat Stewart now).” Jimmie Johnson
“Well, I think I’ll just take the weekend off.” Tony Stewart, when asked about his thoughts about Homestead next Sunday
“It’s the last straw for Roush Racing. We’re retiring as Kurt Busch’s apologists, effective today.” Roush Racing President Geoff Smith
“Hopefully (Kurt) can put a positive spin on it (this weekend’s incident) and keep a lot of other people out of trouble in the future. But, it’s a dangerous game, man, when you get behind the wheel of a car, no matter if you just had a couple of martinis – it doesn’t matter.” Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
After a nine-month season of exciting ups and downs, the 2005 NASCAR Nextel Cup season concludes this Sunday at Homestead Motor Speedway with the Ford 400.
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