To the Point: After leading the most laps in Martinsville for the third straight race there, Tony Stewart finally cashed in on Victory Lane, holding off Jeff Gordon in a 3 lap sprint to the finish to win Sunday’s DirecTV 500. The win was Stewart’s 2nd career victory at the track, and his first since winning the Fall Martinsville race in 2000.
Who Should Have Won: Jeff Gordon. After sweeping both races at Martinsville in 2005, Gordon was going for his third straight at the track, and came tantalizingly close. It didn’t look so good early, as a cut right front tire on Lap 89 nearly ended Gordon’s chances for the win. Luckily for Gordon, there was enough debris from the cut tire to bring out a caution, and the 24 team was able to get fresh rubber without losing a lap. Methodically working his way back through the field, Gordon made it back to 5th by the halfway point, and basically hung out there until it was time to "go." And go Gordon did in the final 50 laps; moving methodically from 5th to 2nd, he clearly had the fastest car in the closing stages, and looked to give Tony Stewart a run for his money. But a series of late cautions cut short Gordon’s quest for the win, which expired for good when the 24 car slipped up on speedy dry left on the track from Matt Kenseth’s wreck during the race’s final restart.
Five Questions You Should be Asking After the Race Weekend:
1) Is Sunday’s win the beginning of a hot streak for Tony Stewart?
Gordon’s slip in the race’s closing laps Sunday could prove costly not just to Gordon, but to the rest of the Nextel Cup field. Traditionally a slow starter, it took Stewart until the sixteenth race of 2005 to win his first race; this year, it’s only taken six starts, and Stewart could have easily won 2 or 3 more this year if circumstances fell his way. What happened after Stewart’s first 2005 win, you ask? He added four more, while finishing 8th or better in his next 11 races. Talk about opening Pandora’s Box"¦
2) What was going on with all the mechanical problems?
Hard to tell whether it was Martinsville, a series of bad parts, or just the law of averages catching up, but Sunday’s race was marked by a number of cars spending time behind the wall"¦most of them not for wrecks. There were a number of gear and rear end failures on Sunday, including Bobby Labonte, Kyle Petty, Casey Mears, and David Stremme, as well as engine failures on the part of Ken Schrader, Kasey Kahne, Jeremy Mayfield, and Robby Gordon, among others. In all, 10 drivers failed to finish Sunday’s race, with a total of 18 cars spending time behind the wall, both season highs.
3) Why was the race red flagged with 7 laps to go? Not only that, but when you red flag the race, how could the track not be cleaned off to the point the 2nd place driver slips in speedy dry while going for the win?
After Matt Kenseth lost his brakes and slammed the wall in Turn 1 to cause the final caution, NASCAR chose to red flag the race to clean up the mess. Only thing was, by the time the race got restarted, there were only 3 laps to go"¦just one more lap then a green-white-checkered finish, which would have occurred if the cars circled the track under yellow. If all you gain is one lap"¦is there really a point to red flagging the event and stopping the race? Not only that, but leaving the cars running through that speedy dry during the cleanup might have made the track less slick when going back to green, giving Jeff Gordon an actual shot at the win instead of a near-miss with the outside wall.
4) Was Elliott Sadler really just intimidated with Jeff Gordon’s rear bumper?
Late in the race, it seemed Elliott Sadler would be as much of a factor for the win as Gordon, moving to third with a handful of laps left. But just as Sadler closed in on Stewart and then-second place Jimmie Johnson, Gordon began putting pressure on the 38 car, and suddenly Sadler mysteriously went high in Turn 1 and smacked the wall, fading out of the race for the win. Claiming he "locked it up" entering the turn, Sadler appeared so concerned with Gordon, he stopped paying attention to what he was doing on the track.
5) What was up with all the problems that occurred Sunday’s FOX broadcast?
Sure, Fox found itself down a man again this Sunday, as pit reporter Steve Byrnes continues to recover from a sinus infection in his eye. But, truth be told, it seemed everyone was suffering an "off week" this week on the TV crew. Almost every green-flag restart was missed. Ryan Newman supposedly intentionally caused a caution when he cut a tire late in the race"¦but you would never have known it while watching Fox, as the broadcast lost audio and then never had time to rebroadcast video replays of the incident that caused the caution. Jeanne Zelasko also continues to struggle mightily each weekend in the pits.
Jimmie Johnson: After last week’s Bristol debacle, Johnson needed a good run, and while got just what the doctor ordered Sunday. Johnson led 195 laps on the day before fading out of the battle for the win late, ultimately finishing the race in 3rd. It was the 8th straight Top 10 at Martinsville for Johnson, who regained the Nextel Cup points lead.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.: For the 8 team, it was a day that championships are made of. After messing up the right front corner of his car during a lap 2 wreck, Dale, Jr. lost half his front bumper and all protective covering around his right front tire. Still, he was able to take a wounded car mired deep in the pack and run it right through to the Top 5"¦only to drive in too hard into Turn 3 while trying to pass Ryan Newman on lap 317, causing Dale, Jr. to spin out and hit the inside wall on his LEFT front corner. After all that damage and falling to the back of the lead lap for a 2nd time, Dale, Jr. STILL worked his way back up through the pack, taking a car without much of its sheet metal to a solid 4th place finish.
Elliott Sadler: Despite his late race tango with the Turn 1 wall, Sadler was solid on Sunday, running in the Top 10 for almost 450 laps of the race and ultimately coming home in 6th place, his first Top 10 finish since running 4th at the Daytona 500.
Scott Riggs: A Daytona DNQ has made it a forgettable season so far for Riggs, marked more by simply trying to stay in the Top 35 in owner points than his performances on the track. That changed a bit on Sunday, as Riggs avoided the engine problems of his teammates and charged through the pack to claim his first Top 10 of the season (10th).
Matt Kenseth: Kenseth’s horrific late race luck continues to haunt him. After running in the Top 10 for virtually the entire day, the 17 car lost its brakes with less than 10 laps to go and slammed into the Turn 1 wall, dropping Kenseth back to 24th place and costing him the points lead. It was the 4th straight race in which Kenseth’s position has dropped significantly in the last 50 miles of the event.
Jeff Burton: After starting 20th, Burton had worked his way into the Top 10, but lost out when Kurt Busch got loose in Turn 3 while passing him for position, pushing up the track and knocking Burton into the outside wall. Burton finished 34th, his third straight finish outside the Top 10.
Kasey Kahne: One of the hottest drivers on the circuit entering Sunday, Kahne didn’t disappoint, running solidly in the Top 5 for the race’s first half. Kahne was appearing to pose a challenge to Stewart and Johnson up front"¦until a dropped cylinder led to a blown engine and a trip to the garage area by lap 377. Kahne finished 35th.
Greg Biffle: The bizarre 2006 season for Biffle continued at Martinsville, where Biffle was running in the Top 10 early until attempting to pass Jeff Burton for position on Lap 109. Biffle got a little loose coming out of Turn 2 and tapped Burton slightly in the rear, sending himself spinning hard into the inside wall. Biffle wound up 31st on the day.
The problems for Matt Kenseth and success for Jimmie Johnson caused the points lead to change again, as Johnson reassumed his spot at the top of the standings by 59 over new second-place points man Mark Martin, who finished 13th Sunday. Kenseth fell to third, 60 points behind.
Kasey Kahne’s engine woes dropped him from second in points into a tie for fourth with Kyle Busch, 101 behind the leader. Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Elliott Sadler, and Casey Mears round out the Top 10 in the point standings six races in.
Further back, the race to remain in the Top 35 in owner points continued to heat up, with the cars of Sterling Marlin, Ken Schrader, Jeremy Mayfield, Michael Waltrip, and Bobby Labonte within 15 points of each other in 32nd through 36th. Labonte ended up the odd man out after Sunday and will have to qualify on time at Texas (although he has the champion’s provisional to fall back on). The 43 car now finds itself just 6 points behind the 55 car of Waltrip in 35th.
"Greg (Zipadelli) and I had talked before the race about not worrying about leading the most laps, but to lead the right one today"¦being able to hold that 24 car off is what really made me happy today, because Jeff (Gordon) is so good, especially late in the race like that." Tony Stewart
"I thought, man, we got a shot at this thing"¦then the caution came out and then the red (flag) came out. I drove down in there (turns one and two on the restart)...the car just completely jumped sideways on me. At that point, I was doing everything I could just not to wreck"¦I just had to be so easy after that I didn’t have any shot at getting at Tony." Jeff Gordon
"Beating and banging, man I was worried that my car was really tore up too bad to be competitive. I want to thank my team for working so hard to get me back on the race track, cutting everything away the way they did to be out of the way and working on it so the car still drove great. They didn’t give up. Just proud of the effort they gave me today." Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
The Nextel Cup series goes from the rough and tumble world of the short tracks to the fast and furious superspeedway in Texas. The one-and-a-half-mile track hosts the Samsung/Radio Shack 500 next weekend. Prerace activities begin live at 1:30 PM on Fox and MRN.
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