The Frontstretch: Frontstretch Breakdown: Aaron's 499 by Thomas Bowles -- Monday May 1, 2006

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Frontstretch Breakdown: Aaron's 499

Thomas Bowles · Monday May 1, 2006

 

To the Point: Jimmie Johnson found an opening underneath teammate Brian Vickers coming to the white flag and proceeded to hold off Tony Stewart to win a frantic finish to the rain-delayed Aaron’s 499 at Talladega. Vickers came to the checkered flag in third, followed by Jeff Burton and Jamie McMurray.

Who Should Have Won: Jeff Gordon, Elliott Sadler, and Matt Kenseth. There were clearly several candidates for this award, as 22 cars led at least one lap during the frenetic pace of restrictor-plate racing at Talladega. However, Gordon, Kenseth, and Sadler clearly were the class of the field, leading a total of 105 laps between the three of them. Unfortunately, it appears timing is everything in these types of races, and when it was time to go to the front in the last handful of laps, each one of these drivers was shocked to find that they simply didn’t have the friends they needed when it counted: the three men finished 15th, 16th, and 6th. Perhaps it has gotten to the point at Daytona and Talladega where the second you prove you’re fast enough to stay up front, you get left out to dry so others make sure you’re someone they don’t have to contend with on the last lap.

Five Questions You Should be Asking After the Race Weekend: *1) Who’s to blame for this year’s version of the "Big One?"

Rarely does a race at Daytona or Talladega go by without a big wreck that takes out half the field, and Monday’s race wasn’t even 10 laps old before this "Big One" reared its ugly head. Long story short, five cars driven by Cup drivers with less than five years of experience—- Brian Vickers, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, Ryan Newman, and Martin Truex, Jr.—- headed into Turn 3 at Talladega five-wide. Anyone with half a brain knows that’s not going to work out, and Edwards couldn’t help but get Kyle Busch loose, causing the 5 car to spin and inciting a wreck that affected 15 cars by the time things were all said and done. In this case, it appears if you had to technically blame one person, you’d blame Edwards—- he’s the guy that got the 5 car swirly in the first place. In this case, though, it appears the credit should go to all five—- they all decided to keep on the accelerator pedal on lap 9 in a situation where most veterans would back off to ensure things didn’t get to that point, and 15 cars paid the price for that.

2) Will there be any repercussions next week at Richmond for any of those drivers?

Well, it seems that even though he wasn’t really at fault this time, Kyle Busch is going to get the Riot Act from both the media and the garage area. A few comments by drivers after the incident appeared to point the finger at Busch, and things are almost to the point where it’s guilt by association—- if you’re a Busch and within five feet of a wreck, it’s now automatically your fault. It’ll be interesting to see what happens this weekend at a short track, where somebody can give someone else just a little spinout without many consequences to let another driver know how he feels. If I were Kyle, I’d run and hide from the field.

3) Should Brian Vickers’ Hendrick teammates have protected him instead of passed him when he was in position for the win?

No, but that doesn’t make Vickers’ loss any less heartbreaking. With two laps to go, Brian Vickers looked to be in position to collect his first Nextel Cup win after four years of trying. With Jimmie Johnson directly behind him in second, the finish appeared to be shaping up like the D.E.I. 1-2 finishes of old, where Michael Waltrip would serve as Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s best blocker and keep him in position to take the win. Instead, coming to the white flag Johnson got his run on Vickers, forced his way underneath him, and that was that. It’s the way racing should always be, but that doesn’t mean most fans weren’t left hoping for the upset that never was.

4) Was the Denny Hamlin one-lap penalty a bad precedent for NASCAR to set?

YES. Hamlin triggered a six-car wreck late in the race by diving below the yellow line to try and pass"¦however, instead of getting penalized for that NASCAR tacked on an aggressive driving penalty for starting the "mini-Big One" and parked the 11 car for a lap. While Hamlin did clearly send cars spinning, this is one of those horrible, horrible precedents NASCAR will set where next race at Daytona someone will spin someone else out and they won’t get penalized, driving fans, crew, and media members all insane. NASCAR did say they would get tough on aggressive driving"¦but you don’t have to forcibly hand out a penalty from a back-of-the-pack wreck late in the race to prove that point.

5) Has D.E.I. officially lost its edge at the restrictor-plate tracks?

Absolutely. It’s now been six restrictor-plate Nextel Cup events since a D.E.I. car has wound up in Victory Lane, and none of the team cars were a serious factor on Monday. Truex, Jr., of course, was involved in the early accident, but Dale Earnhardt, Jr. never seemed to be able to get his car to work near the front, struggling in midpack before spinning out on his own off Turn 4 just before the halfway point. Despite getting hit by Tony Stewart, it appeared there was no outward damage to the 8 car during the spin"¦but Earnhardt, Jr. never ran right after that problem and ended up with a blown engine before the day was done. The 8 car has now led just 11 laps total in the last three Talladega races"¦when even his father’s classic paint scheme can’t bring out the best in Earnhardt, Jr., you know his team needs to go back to work on this plate program.

Solid Runs
Brian Vickers: Clearly, after being in position to win with two laps remaining a 3rd was not what Vickers would have hoped for, but it’s still his best finish of 2006, one that allowed him to climb four spots in the standings to 14th.

Jeff Burton: After two of his three teammates found their cars in shambles following the lap 9 wreck, the immediate concern for Burton was finding people to draft with. No worries"¦using his past relationship with Roush to his advantage, Burton’s No. 31 Cingular Chevrolet could be seen drafting with former teammates Kurt Busch and Matt Kenseth en route to a solid 4th place run.

Jamie McMurray: It’s still too early to judge whether the Bob Osborne switch to the No. 26 team is working, but the early results are pretty good. As in Daytona, McMurray had a strong restrictor-plate car. but took the important step of bringing it home to the finish, gathering his first Top 5 of the season to go with a 14th place run at Phoenix under Osborne’s watch.

Robby Gordon: With all the tough luck Gordon’s had this year, it would have been easy to lose momentum, but the No. 7 team continues to bring top quality equipment to the track each week. Finally, this time around no engine expired and no freak caution occurred that trapped this team laps behind the leaders, and Gordon responded to bring home a 10th place finish.

Tough Days
Mark Martin: Martin had one of the fastest cars in Talladega practice, but all that matters little when you become an innocent victim of a wreck before lap 10. Martin finished 35th, ending a streak of 12 consecutive Top 15 finishes dating back to late 2005. Think Martin dislikes restrictor-plate racing? He’s now been involved in the "Big One" the last three times at Talladega.

Ryan Newman: Several other notable drivers had their days wrecked by the Lap 9 incident (Kasey Kahne, Sterling Marlin) but the wreck might have affected Newman more than any other driver. His third straight run outside the Top 30, Newman’s 33rd place finish dropped him to 26th in points, 573 out of the lead. No one’s come from that far back to make the Chase"¦which means that barring a sudden burst of momentum, Newman’s team should already be looking to 2007 just nine races into 2006. Wow.

Greg Biffle: Biffle’s in just about in the same position as Newman, except his ending Monday was worse; his own team shot themselves in the foot, again. The 16 car possessed the only Roush engine to fall apart, as Biffle burned out a piston and finished 38th. Now 23rd in points, he’s in slightly better shape than Newman due to his strong on-track performance when the car does run to the finish, but the Biff will need no mistakes from here on out simply to have an outside chance at the Chase.

Michael Waltrip: After dodging wrecks all day and putting up a solid showing, Waltrip was poised to break back into the Top 35 in owner points"¦until he got just enough of a six-car pileup late in the going to lose his brakes and ruin his day. Now 36th in points entering Richmond, a track he hasn’t exactly shined at, Waltrip will have a tough road ahead to avoid missing his first race of 2006.

Note: Dale Earnhardt, Jr. also qualifies for this category, but no need to explain his situation all over again.

Points Shuffle:
Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson went at it again at the top of the standings, swapping the lead for the fourth time in five races. This time, it’s Johnson who moved out in front, with his win putting him 21 ahead of Kenseth nine races into the season.

Behind the top two, Tony Stewart moved up to third, 78 behind, while Kasey Kahne and Mark Martin drop to fourth and fifth after being involved in the early wreck. Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Kyle Busch, and Dale Jarrett round out the Top 10, with Jarrett taking the 10th spot from a wounded Casey Mears car with his 12th place finish. Mears fell to 11th, with Jeff Burton 12th"¦the final car within the 400 point window for the Chase for the Championship.

Quotable:
"Today was probably one of the best restrictor-plate races I’ve been a part of. The competition was intense and tough, but everybody seemed to really do things in a cautious manner. I’m not sure what everyone else saw, but it was an awesome, awesome race." Jimmie Johnson

Hmm"¦compare that with"¦
“They were five wide in front of me. There’s absolutely no reason to be five wide, especially that early in the race. All these young guys are out there trying to make something happen. We had another 170 laps to do that. They just weren’t using their heads." Sterling Marlin’s view of the Lap 9 wreck

"In today’s day and age it’s hard to have fun (at Talladega) when you know that the pin is out of the grenade. It’s just a matter of time before it goes off." Mark Martin, after the Lap 9 wreck

“You come down to the last couple of laps, and teammates or not, all bets are off. He (Jimmie Johnson) learned what he had to do, obviously, because those guys still respect him out there, and they’re still pushing him to wins.’’ Brian Vickers

Next Up:
The Nextel Cup series has a short turnaround, figuratively and literally; they have two less days than usual to get their cars ready to go from the fast pace of Talladega to the short track action of three-quarter mile Richmond International Raceway. The Crown Royal 400 can be seen on FX live with the pre-race show at 7:00 PM EST Saturday night.

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