The Frontstretch: Frontstretch Breakdown: Auto Club 500 by Thomas Bowles -- Sunday February 26, 2006

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Frontstretch Breakdown: Auto Club 500

Thomas Bowles · Sunday February 26, 2006

 

To the Point: Matt Kenseth was the benefactor when the two fastest cars in Sunday’s Auto Club 500—- Greg Biffle and Tony Stewart—- exited the race with engine problems. Kenseth’s DeWalt Ford then held off Jimmie Johnson and teammate Carl Edwards to take the win at California Speedway.

Who Should Have Won: Greg Biffle. For over half the race, it looked like Biffle was on pace to coast to the biggest margin of victory in a Nextel Cup race in years. Leading 149 of the first 196 laps, Biffle stretched his lead over the rest of the field to over 13 seconds at one point, turning the race into a stinker until a debris caution brought everyone back together on lap 197. Still, after that caution Biffle continued to be the car to beat, despite falling behind other cars with different pit strategies. On lap 225, Biffle was on his way towards reassuming the lead and taking the win"¦and then the engine let go. Within the next five laps, Biffle was sitting in the garage area, and the team could only watch as the 17 team coasted to a win the 16 should have had.

Five Questions You Should be Asking After the Race Weekend:
1) Was that the "cleanest" NASCAR race we’ve seen in years?

Without a doubt. Sunday’s California contest featured the following by lap 200:

All 43 cars still running, the worst of which was listed as 5 laps behind the leader.
Just 3 caution flags, all for debris on the race track.
Only one actual spin (Denny Hamlin while attempting to get onto pit road), with no real incidents of bumping on the race track, and no cautions thrown for wrecks.

In the last 50 laps, there were a few more cautions and two engine failures, but no cars ever hit the wall (or any other car for that matter) and the race’s green-white-checkered restart following the final caution was exceptionally clean. What a positive sign for a series that suffered under far too many yellow flags in 2005.

2) Is Biffle the 2006 version of Bobby Labonte?

Sort of. Labonte’s 2005 season got off to an awful start, as the 18 team was involved in several mechnical failures and wrecks not of their own making to fall out of the Top 35 in points. After two races, Biffle is headed in that same direction in 2006, although he has run far better than Labonte ever did last season. A decent run in Daytona spoiled by a flat tire on the last lap, combined with Sunday’s California engine failure leave Biffle in 38th in Nextel Cup points, over 230 points behind after just two races.

3) Has Jimmie Johnson really suffered without Chad Knaus as crew chief?

Two races into his suspension, it looks like the answer is, not really. Daytona is an easy race to call from the crew chief’s spot, as the ins and outs of the draft make it difficult to truly make a difference from pit road. But in a race like California where handling is at a premium, Grubb’s adjustments allowed the 48 to overcome a slow pit stop during an early caution and work its way back into contention. Johnson finished runner-up to Kenseth, but it certainly felt like a victory to the team under the circumstances.

4) Is anyone in position to challenge Roush at the heavily aerodependent, one-and-a-half to two-mile tracks like California, Michigan, Las Vegas, and Kansas?

Early results show that other than Tony Stewart, no one really had a chance against the Roush brigade. At one point, all five Roush cars were within the Top 7, and if Biffle’s engine hadn’t blown, all five cars would have easily finished the race in the Top 10. Expect more of the same dominance at Las Vegas, as the Roush teams continue to have these types of tracks figured out far more than any other competitor.

5) Why doesn’t any other track follow California’s lead and build wide, comfortable pit boxes for the drivers?

Unlike Daytona, Sunday’s pit stops at California were a walk in the park. The boxes are wide and give the driver plenty of room to pull in and pull out, reducing the chances of cars getting together on pit road. Of course, tracks less than a mile in length don’t necessarily have the room to take this step, but any big track should follow California’s model and produce these longer pit stalls, as the days of uncrowded pit stops under yellow, with 7 or 10 cars finishing on the lead lap in NASCAR, are long over.

Solid Runs
Jimmie Johnson – Documented above, Johnson’s second-place finish was especially impressive with the absence of crew chief Chad Knaus. In the Top 10 most of the day, the 48 team was best when it counted…at the end.

Kasey Kahne – Consistent all day, Kahne led his No. 9 Dodge Charger to a 4th-place finish, the first time in 12 races he’s finished in the Top 5 in Nextel Cup. Easily the best-running Dodge on a day most of them struggled, Kahne seemed relieved to finally have a decent run under his belt, his 4th place standing in points a far cry from his tough start of a year ago.

Jeff Burton – The Daytona 500 polesitter struggled during that race, but had everything put together at California on Sunday. Burton’s 5th-place was a late boost for a car that had run around 8th to 13th all day, a sign the 31 is getting better as the race goes along. While Harvick continues to struggle, it appears both Burton and rookie Clint Bowyer are heading in the right direction at RCR.

J.J. Yeley – The last time we saw Yeley in a Cup car at California, he was sending Joe Gibbs’ 11 car into an early spin that likely cost him any chance of landing the Fed Ex ride for 2006. This time around, he acquitted himself well with Gibbs’ #18. The 8th-place run for Yeley landed him as the highest-finishing rookie, and vaulted him into second-place early in the 2006 Rookie of the Year race.

Tough Days
Greg Biffle – Certainly, Biffle was the car to beat on Sunday, but above-mentioned engine problems did him in to a 42nd-place finish.

Tony Stewart – Right behind Biffle in the garage area was Stewart, who failed to finish a race for the first time since April 2005. Stewart had overcome a myriad of problems, including having a slow pit stop under caution and a flat left front tire under green, to pull back into contention during the race’s final 50 laps. He was running solidly in the Top 5, poised for another good finish"¦until the engine let go. Stewart finished 43rd.

Penske’s Teams – For polesitter Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman, the experiment with the Dodge Intrepid did not produce the results they were hoping for. Newman’s car struggled throughout the race, eventually going a lap down, and Busch’s car suffered through a spin and was never a factor, finishing the better of the two teams in 16th place. Newman finished 20th"¦with most of the teams running the Chargers struggling, too, there’s plenty of room for improvement in the Dodge camp.

Michael Waltrip – In his first non-restrictor plate race away from the D.E.I. stable, Waltrip showed how much work his new team has in front of them. Supposedly on seven cylinders throughout the early part of the race, the team went through severe handling problems, and ran 42nd or 43rd throughout much of the event. Waltrip ended up 36th, 3 laps behind the leader, with a car that was clearly headed for the junkyard after Sunday.

Quotable:
"The DeWalt Ford Fusion was awesome, and we had a great pit crew with these guys behind me"¦we’ve got great people here. We’ve got a lot of loyal people. We’ve got people that want to work hard and want to win. I’ve been very blessed to have such a great team that works so hard at it." Matt Kenseth

"Sooner or later you’re bound to find a point where something is gonna give and today (it) did, so we’ll look at it and study it and hopefully not have that failure the rest of the season." Greg Biffle

"We got up there about halfway through, and kept working on it from there. A couple of good cars fell out and we got a top five out of it. It was a good effort." Kasey Kahne

“We had a good day, but a bad day"¦Dropping out is not the way you want to end the day, by any means. But at the same time, to run as well as we did today and to fight back from what was handed to us, I’m almost as excited as if we won the race just from the standpoint of what we were able to overcome." Tony Stewart

Points Shuffle:
While it’s still very early to talk about points, Johnson’s 1-2 finish in the first two events gives him a healthy 39-point advantage over Casey Mears, who finished 7th on Sunday. Matt Kenseth, Kasey Kahne, and a surprising Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who struggled but finished 11th in this week’s race, round out the Top 5.

On the other side of the coin, drivers currently ranked outside the Top 35 in points include Bobby Labonte, Sterling Marlin, and Greg Biffle.

Next Up:
The Nextel Cup series has itself an early weekend off before returning Sunday, March 12th to run their annual 400-mile race on the one-and-a-half mile track in Las Vegas.

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