To the Point: With 10 laps to go, Kevin Harvick blew by Greg Biffle to take the lead for the first time and, unlike several other lead lap cars, he had just enough gas needed to win the Subway Fresh 500 at Phoenix. Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards, and rookie Clint Bowyer rounded out the Top 5.
Who Should Have Won: Mark Martin. Greg Biffle may have led a race-high 151 laps, but the race at Phoenix belonged, for all intents and purposes, to Mark Martin. Even Kevin Harvick admitted he didn’t have the best car for most of the day in Victory Lane. Spending 111 laps out in front of the field, Martin dominated the early to middle portion of the race before loose left front lugnuts during a yellow flag pit stop sent him into the pits a second time and to the end of the lead lap cars. By that point, Martin had lapped all but about 17 cars, but with only 100 laps to go, it was too little time to climb all the way back to the front. To add insult to injury, after making an admirable comeback that could have seen him finish as high as 2nd, Martin ran out of fuel with just two laps remaining. He finished 11th.
Five Questions You Should be Asking After the Race Weekend:
1) With Kevin Harvick’s contract up at the end of 2006, does this win get Richard Childress Racing and Harvick to sign on the dotted line?
After coming out and saying he’d like to stay with RCR for the foreseeable future, Harvick backed up his commitment to his current team by winning both the Busch Series and Nextel Cup races this weekend. Owner Richard Childress is out on safari, but rumors run wild that he’s concerned about the high price resigning Harvick is going to cost, especially with Toyota likely to bid for him; still, with wins like this one that put the 29 in contention for the Chase, chances that the pair will stay together increase by the minute.
2) What is it with Arizona and the Buschs?
Last Fall, big brother Kurt got himself suspended in Phoenix after an incident with local police; this time around, little brother Kyle left the track under a firestorm of controversy. The younger Busch won the pole for the race, only to get himself sent to the back of the pack after an early caution for speeding on pit road. It was there, running in midpack, where he met his competitive demise courtesy of Casey Mears. After contact with the 42 car sent him spinning into the Turn 1 wall, Kyle’s not-so-smart retaliation move of smashing into Mears’ rear bumper cost Kyle 5 laps and, most likely, even more laps in the garage for his crew to repair additional damage. To his credit, Kyle chose not to be interviewed at the track and cause more credibility damage, but still, the night didn’t serve as one of the brighter moments in his career.
3) Is Michael Waltrip’s Nextel Cup operation in trouble?
Ohhhh yeah. After getting bumped in the rear by Kyle Petty, Waltrip became the epicenter of an eight-car wreck that sent his car to the garage on a wrecker and took away his spot in the Top 35 in owner points. After a dreadful start to the year, Waltrip is now 40 points from getting back into "locked in" position, something he’s needed to make the Nextel Cup field two weeks in a row. Having posted only the 43rd best qualifying speed for the Daytona 500, Talladega, one of Michael’s best tracks, could instead turn into his biggest nightmare considering the strong field expected to show up. As everyone knows, there’s nothing more momentum-killing then the dreaded DNQ, and would Toyota reconsider its standing with Waltrip if he misses a race?
4) When was the last time that there was a Nextel Cup race decided on fuel mileage?
The short answer is last August at Michigan, when Jeremy Mayfield held on to win the race that firmed up his inclusion in the 2005 Chase for the Championship. That was 21 races ago…a pretty long time in the NASCAR world. So, it seems that if there’s one thing this new tire and handling package has delivered on, it’s been removing fuel out of the equation in all but one or two races per year.
5) How could Tony Stewart keep a straight face after being penalized by NASCAR for changing qualifying tires?
OK"¦apparently the Top 10 qualifiers have to start the race on the same tires they qualified on, unlike everyone else in the field. Stewart broke that rule, and neither he nor his team denies it. The penalty sent Stewart to the back of the pack, which ended up not making a difference as the 20 team charged into 2nd place. The bigger question is, why the heck is there a silly little rule like that in the first place, and how does it make sense? I’d like an explanation"¦because I sure can’t think of one.
Tony Stewart: After being assessed that rare penalty for changing his tires, Stewart started the race 43rd, but methodically worked his way through the pack with his usual style and grace. In the Top 5 for much of the last half of the race, Stewart only led 6 laps but came home with a championship-caliber 2nd place finish, solidifying his place in the Top 5 of the Nextel Cup standings.
Carl Edwards: In his first race with new crew chief Wally Brown, it looked like Edwards was headed for a disappointing finish again after contact with Kyle Petty for the second time this season (this one on pit road) damaged the left front fender of his Ford. With Bob Osborne out of the picture, it was a true test to see how Brown would calm Edwards down in the heat of the moment"¦and Brown succeeded. Edwards stayed out of trouble, brought a good car back into contention, and came home with a 4th place finish at the end of the day.
Clint Bowyer: For Bowyer, the track where he made his Nextel Cup debut one year earlier gave him his best performance in the series to date. Leading 21 laps during the middle stages of the race, at one time Bowyer looked like he might even be a contender for the win as a rookie; late adjustments to the car caused him to fade back in the pack a bit, but solid fuel mileage boosted him to a career-best 5th at the finish, allowing him to retake the lead in the Rookie of the Year battle.
Kasey Kahne: While Kahne has been impressive at nearly every track on the Cup circuit this year, he qualified a rather pedestrian 22nd at Phoenix. Fortunately for Kahne, he finished much farther up the ladder and proved why he’s become a championship contender; working with Kenny Francis to make his car better throughout the day, he slowly improved a few positions on each pit stop, from a 20th place car at the start to a 6th place car at the finish.
Kyle Busch: As noted above, Busch had a race gone wrong at Phoenix, as his indisrections on the track and in the pits led to a 36th place finish. Now 9th in the standings, 208 behind leader Matt Kenseth, Busch is in danger of falling out of the Top 10 with one of his least favorite tracks, Talladega, next on the schedule. Busch’s failures also continued the winless streak for Phoenix polesitters; that now stands at 0 for 20, all-time.
Greg Biffle: Wherever the black cat is that walked past Greg Biffle in the offseason, somebody better find it before it walks in front of someone else; that’s one powerful feline. For the third time in eight races this season, Biffle led the most laps in the race, tops in the series. In those three races, he now has finishes of 15th, 16th, and 43rd to show for his efforts. This time around, Biffle was running a strong 2nd after being passed by Kevin Harvick for the lead before running out of gas with just two laps remaining. Now 21st in points, Biffle needs to hope he avoids the Talladega "Big One," or else his Chase hopes border on life support.
Robby Gordon: For the second time in three events, the series’ leading owner-driver suffered engine failure and wound up 41st, causing a once-promising season to continue to go south. It’s now been five races since Robby had a finish inside the Top 15, and he’s fallen to 32nd in owner points, causing concern to creep in that with one more bad finish, the organization will once again have to concentrate entirely on just making races.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.: Having won twice at Phoenix, Dale, Jr. was looking forward to this event to turn his season up a notch; instead, he turned the lapped car of Kyle Petty while running in the Top 10, causing a crash that left him with a wounded racecar and a 23rd place finish. With Talladega next week, though, morale shouldn’t be so bad back at the shop.
Note: Michael Waltrip and Mark Martin also qualify for this category"¦but their exploits were talked about at length above and need no further explanation.
For the third time in four races, Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth swapped the point lead, with Kenseth grabbing the top spot over Johnson with a quiet but consistent 3rd at Phoenix to Johnson’s 7th. Behind them, the order of the Top 5 remained relatively unchanged, with Kasey Kahne breaking a tie with Mark Martin to move into third place by himself, 51 back of Kenseth. Martin fell to fourth, 66 behind. Tony Stewart remained in fifth place, 77 behind the leader and 96 ahead of a sixth-place tie between Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Jeff Gordon, continuing the separation the Top 5 drivers have begun to achieve from the rest of the pack.
Behind that sixth place tie, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, and Casey Mears round out the Top 10 in Nextel Cup points, with Mears 273 behind Matt Kenseth and just 14 ahead of 11th place Dale Jarrett. Sixteen drivers remain within the 400 point window to be eligible for the Chase, with the last of those being Carl Edwards. Among the drivers currently outside the Chase looking in: Biffle, Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch, Brian Vickers, and Jamie McMurray.
"We didn’t have the best car today"¦but we had the best car when it counted. All I know is that since Richard (Childress) has been gone (he’s on safari in Africa) we are undefeated, (so) I don’t know what that means!" Kevin Harvick
"I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I didn’t think there was anything wrong with the way anyone was driving. We went almost 100 laps under green. It was good racing, I thought." Ryan Newman, after being involved in a wreck with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Kyle Petty
"I have a lot of respect for Kyle"¦I want him and all the other drivers to have respect for me as well, and that ain’t the way to get it. It makes me sick to have something like that happen." Dale Earnhardt, Jr. after that same wreck
"I’m devastated. We had a pole-winning car and were three times faster than everyone else in the field"¦ I’m harder on myself than anyone. I’m a competitor and I take this seriously. It was just a devastating day." Kyle Busch
"We drove it to the pits (tonight), and that’s all that matters." Kasey Kahne
The Nextel Cup series hits the high banks of Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama for the second of four restrictor plate races this season. The pre-race installment of the Aaron’s 499 will hit the TV screens on Sunday at 1:30 PM ET on Fox, with the race itself to follow sometime thereafter.
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