To the Point: Kasey Kahne officially put last year’s sophomore slump behind him, outdueling Mark Martin during a long green flag stretch run to the finish to win the Golden Corral 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Who Should Have Won: Robby Gordon. Yeah folks, you’re not reading that wrong; the OTHER Gordon had the fastest car for the majority of the race, yet never got a chance to showcase it up front. As the green flag dropped on Monday, Gordon charged quickly from his 36th starting spot into the Top 10, clearly able to move his car into any racing line and pass cars left and right. But just when it looked like Gordon would be a factor up front, a tire problem forced him to pit road around lap 115, and a caution soon after trapped him a lap down. Gordon ended up earning that lap back the hard way, passing the leader on the track before a series of cautions gave him a chance to slowly pick off cars on the lead lap and get himself back into contention. Finally, with 20 laps to go Gordon found himself running in third place, within sight of leaders Martin and Kahne"¦and then he had another tire go down. Gordon got a penalty for speeding on pit road to add insult to injury, and ended up 28th.
Five Questions You Should be Asking After the Race Weekend:
1) Does Sunday’s win label Kahne a championship contender in his third season?
Hard to say. Clearly, the chemistry between Kahne and new team director Kenny Francis is working better than anyone would have dared to believe after the horrible season Kahne endured last year. Certainly, it appears the 9 car is the strongest Dodge organization out there right now, and is a strong contender to make the Chase. Still, one win does not a championship make, especially when Jimmie Johnson continues to finish up front like he does.
2) What was the problem with tires Monday, and should we be concerned again?
Just when you thought the tire issues were settling down a bit"¦tire failures became a big factor in Monday’s race. Right fronts went down on several cars, and there were complaints up and down pit road the tires wouldn’t last more than 40 laps. Still, the fact the drivers were able to run the final 58 laps under green shows you that teams were at least able to adjust through the race to beat the conditions, not have the conditions beat them. But with Texas and Charlotte on the horizon, Goodyear would be wise to make sure they fix whatever’s wrong with their harder tire compounds"¦and soon.
3) Was it the right decision for the race to be held on Monday?
Certainly, the amount of people viewing the race went down, both in the stands and on TV. Ratings will almost certainly dip as the race was held while most people were at work, and reports had only 20,000 people in the stands for the Monday show, as most people had to leave Georgia to go back to their own jobs, as well. Maybe NASCAR should have another open weekend in their 2007 schedule to accommodate a possible rain date?
4) Was the Bill Lester experiment a success or a failure?
A little bit of both. Lester, the first African-American to qualify on the Cup circuit since 1986, enjoyed the early part of the weekend with his 19th place qualifying run. However, that appeared to raise not only media attention but expectations from outsiders, and unfortunately, Lester didn’t fulfill them. His goal of a Top 20 was never seriously within reach; the 23 car ran the whole race, but was clearly off the pace from the start, and Lester finished 38th, 6 laps down. Clearly, room for improvement there"¦but Lester will get another opportunity.
5) Where were Chris Myers, Jeanne Zelasko, and Jeff Hammond?
Chris Myers has become an enigma"¦at Las Vegas, he should have called in sick, then at Atlanta, he and Jeff Hammond do the Sunday show yet disappear for the Monday event with no explanation. While it was nice not to have to go to the Hollywood Hotel while green-flag racing was going on for a VISA Race Break"¦it would have been nice to know where the heck they went. It should be noted that Jeanne Zelasko wasn’t anywhere to be found in the pits, either…maybe she was chasing down that backup motor.
Mark Martin: For the past three seasons or so, it seems the 6 car is at its best during a long green flag run. And therein has lied the problem for Martin at the end of Nextel Cup events"¦three of three races heading into this weekend had been decided by green/white/checkered finishes. So, you can understand Martin’s disappointment with a 2nd place finish when a long green run appeared to play into his hands late in the race"¦still, 4th in points is exactly where Martin wants to be, early in the season as it is.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.: For the third straight week, the 8 team improved, with Dale, Jr. not only having the fastest car he’s had all season long, but a 3rd place finish to back up that speed. While the team knows they still have aways to go, the smile on Dale, Jr.’s face when he exited the car said it all"¦the 8 team is back and ready to attack the top of the Nextel Cup points ladder.
Paul Menard: So, let me get this straight"¦the most talented rookie class Nextel Cup has had in years, and the highest rookie finisher on Monday wasn’t ANY of them? Young Paul Menard raised a few eyebrows in his first ever Nextel Cup start on a oval, staying out of trouble all day and then charging to the front when it mattered the most, finishing 7th. Menard’s highest position he had all day was at the end of the race"¦that’s how you want things to be when you’re a rookie. 2007 Rookie Class, watch out!
Kyle Petty: While the other half of Petty Enterprises experienced the ultimate letdown, Petty’s #45 raised the spirits of the entire organization. Clearly, Petty was never as fast as teammate Bobby Labonte all weekend, but slowly and steadily worked his way through traffic, capitalizing on strong handling during a long green flag run at the end of the race to work his way into the Top 10, finishing 8th. Now up to 24th in points and traveling to Bristol, a track where Petty finished 8th last year, this team has more momentum then it’s had in years.
Carl Edwards: Edwards doesn’t want to hear the phrase "sophomore slump" thrown around, but after Monday, he’ll have no choice. At arguably his best track in Nextel Cup, Edwards was a flop, smacking into Dave Blaney on pit road early, damaging the right front of his car, and then suffering a right front tire failure shortly thereafter. Battered and bruised, Edwards just rode around the rest of the day after that, finishing 40th, 12 laps off the pace.
Bobby Labonte: Early on, this looked like a day to be proud of for Labonte, who streaked out front from his 4th starting spot to lead 13 laps early in the going. But only 56 laps in, while still running solidly near the front, engine failure reared its ugly head, and Labonte found himself the first car out of the race in 43rd.
Matt Kenseth: Lost in the hubbub of Robby Gordon’s tire problems was an almost identical issue that happened with Matt Kenseth’s car. Like Gordon, Kenseth was forced to pit for a flat tire around lap 115, only to be trapped a lap down by an untimely caution. Like Gordon, Kenseth got his lap back and charged all the way back through the field to put himself second with less than 50 laps remaining. And, like Gordon, Kenseth found himself on pit road again just when he was in contention for the race win with a second tire problem"¦the only difference was, he got no pit road speeding penalty, so he was able to recover somewhat and finish 13th.
Kevin Harvick: A contender early, Harvick had to make a green flag pit stop for a flat tire, then wrecked himself while trying to get his lap back, making contact with Kurt Busch on the backstretch. While the race continued under green, Harvick limped to the pits, and struggled on to a 39th place finish, 12 laps behind.
Jeremy Mayfield: A year ago, Mayfield was a championship contender. After a tire problem Monday that sent him into the wall and towards a 41st place finish, he’s 34th in points.
Jimmie Johnson cooled off a bit from his sizzling 2006 start, finishing 6th in Atlanta and never leading a lap. Still, he leaves the speedway with a healthy 50 point edge on Kasey Kahne in the Nextel Cup standings, with Kahne moving from 4th to 2nd after his Atlanta win.
Behind Kahne, Matt Kenseth drops to 3rd, 78 points back, while Mark Martin moves up a spot to 4th, 90 behind the leader. Casey Mears endured a horrific Atlanta performance, finishing outside the Top 10 in 21st place, and dropping to 5th in points, 136 behind Johnson.
Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Kyle Busch, Dale Jarrett, and Clint Bowyer round out the Top 10 at this early juncture of the season. As for notables on the outside looking in, Tony Stewart is 12th, Ryan Newman 17th, Greg Biffle 21st, and Carl Edwards a disappointing 30th.
“As Mark was reeling me in, I was doing all I could to go fast"¦I wasn’t about to let him pass me easily, that’s for sure. It was quite a battle. I’m happy how it all turned out.” Kasey Kahne
“I certainly didn’t save anything (at the end). I’m proud as can be of the effort that we made. We probably had the fans standing on their feet there for a little bit, and that’s what it’s all about.” Mark Martin
“It’s a good start to the season"¦my cars are way better, my people are better, my guys are better, the attitudes are better. Everything about it is just better. I’m looking forward to the rest of the season.” Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
“We’ve had four good race cars at four races and didn’t have anything to show for it. We had a good run today"¦That’s the first time I’ve seen the Top 10 in about 20 years, so that’s a good run for me.” Kyle Petty
The Nextel Cup series heads to that Golden Goose of all short tracks, Bristol Motor Speedway, for the running of the Bristol 500 Sunday at 1:30 PM EST.
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