To the Point: Sometimes, it’s the pit crew that gives the driver the best chance to win. Crew chief Doug Richert made the right call from the box, making sure driver Greg Biffle made his last stop under green just a few laps earlier than everyone else. Biffle came out at the head of the pack once stops cycled through, then held off a stiff challenge from Jeff Gordon late to win his second consecutive Dodge Charger 500 at Darlington Raceway. Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. rounded out the Top 5.
Who Should Have Won: Biffle. The cars of Biffle, Kenseth, and Johnson were pretty evenly matched up front most of the night, with only Gordon able to crash their parade late in the event. Of those four, Biffle simply timed his pit stop perfectly when the last 115 laps were run under the green flag. Pitting just a handful of laps before everyone else, Biffle was able to gain an extra 3 seconds a lap on his new tires before the other contenders pitted for fresh rubber; the move catapulted Biffle from 4th to 1st, and it was fairly smooth sailing for the 16 car from there, leading the last 48 laps.
Five Questions You Should be Asking After the Race Weekend: *1) Is there a window of opportunity for Biffle to make the Chase after all?
After burning a piston at Talladega, it appeared Biffle’s Chase for the Championship in 2006 was all but done, as he found himself 232 points behind 10th place Dale Jarrett and 23rd in the standings. Just two races later, a 4th and Saturday’s win by Biffle combined with timely attrition by other drivers moved him up to 14th, 106 behind Jeff Burton for the last spot in the Top 10. Surely, there’s still a long road to hoe"¦but there does appear to be at least one spot up for grabs in the Top 10, and at this point, Biffle is back in the mix for it.
2) Now that Dale Jarrett’s bolting Yates for Toyota, who or what will be the next Silly Season domino to fall?
Now that Jarrett’s decision is official, there’s a lot of options opening up on the table for drivers available in "˜07. Certainly, while Yates development drivers Stephen Leicht and Matt McCall appear to be headed towards a competition for the 88 ride, Casey Mears now has an attractive option available should he choose to bolt Ganassi, and Brian Vickers will now come under increased scrutiny as he continues to be inconsistent over at Hendrick. Both drivers will likely be looked at to push the next domino forward. Keep in mind that Toyota also still has several rides to fill, so Silly Season 2006 appears more and more to be a driver’s market by the day.
3) Will a strong second place run by Gordon finally calm the critics complaining about his lack of focus?
Not really. Quick, name the driver that finished runner up to Biffle in last year’s Dodge Charger 500? Yep, you got it"¦Jeff Gordon. Gordon finishing in the Top 5 at Darlington is a near lock no matter what type of season he’s having, simply because he’s so good there. The rest of May and early June will truly determine the 24 team’s future; after Darlington last year, this team crashed out of three straight races, dropping out of the Top 10 in points and never recovering until it was too late.
4) How can Goodyear bring a tire that lasts at Darlington, leading to a stretch of 115 green flag laps, yet struggles to deliver as promised so many other places?
It’s a really good question, one that needs to be asked to Goodyear. The only reasoning that makes sense to this writer is that Darlington hasn’t been repaved in so long and the series has been coming to the track for so many years, it gives Goodyear more tire notes than anywhere else, making it easy on them to bring a tire that works.
5) Can traditionalists finally breathe easy that Darlington is here to say?
It appears to be that way, although you never know. For the second straight year, this race sold out, and there are whispers of seating expansion plans at the Lady in Black. Drivers and fans alike appear to love the new date (although there occasionally are complaints about no more Labor Day Southern 500) and with intriguing new ideas like having NASCAR moms give the command to start engines, Darlington is weaving a new tradition all its own.
Matt Kenseth: With no career Top 5s in 12 Darlington starts, Kenseth never really has gotten along with the Lady in Black, but with the way the 17 team has run this year, no track is really an obstacle for them at this point. Kenseth’s 64 laps led were easily a career best at Darlington, as was the third place finish, allowing him to keep Jimmie Johnson within sight in the standings.
Jimmie Johnson: Speaking of Johnson, despite winning Talladega he had only led 3 laps in the last four races, so the point leader needed a bit of a confidence building run to prove his team could still run up front as well as collect points. One 4th place finish later (with 81 laps led): mission accomplished.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.: It was a strange night for Dale, Jr.; fighting a flu bug all week, he clearly wasn’t 100% at one of the worst tracks to drive with an illness. Yet, when the smoke cleared at Darlington the 8 car was 5th in the final rundown, a finish that had to feel like a win for a team still riding high after their Richmond success.
Denny Hamlin: The Lady in Black has a long and storied history of chewing up rookies and their cars into little tiny pieces; simply finishing the race here is a major accomplishment for them. Well, not only did rookie Hamlin win the Busch Series race the night before, he followed it up with a 10th place finish in Cup, the first rookie since Ryan Newman and Jimmie Johnson to accomplish that in his first Darlington start.
Carl Edwards: Perhaps no one lost more momentum this weekend than Edwards. After three straight Top 10s, Edwards had climbed back to 13th in points after a slow start and found himself knocking on the Chase’s front doorstep. After struggling early at the Lady in Black, Edwards fought back from outside the Top 30 and appeared to have a fourth straight Top 10 in sight, possibly a Top 5"¦then, without warning, the oil pump belt came off and simply ended his day. Edwards finished 39th and dropped to 17th in points.
Kevin Harvick: Harvick liked the Lady in Black so much, he decided to take a piece of the track home with him! Seriously, a chunk of Darlington race track came up and broke through the 29 car’s front grill area, puncturing the radiator. A disappointed Harvick had to pit for repairs and ended up 37th, 17 laps behind, breaking a streak of five Top 10 finishes in six races.
Tony Stewart: Darlington is just about the only place Stewart and his team has yet to figure out. In his entire career, Stewart’s only led 8 laps here, and 7 of them were in the spring of 2002, where he ended up involved in a frightening crash and left with a concussion. Saturday night was the same old story"¦the 20 car skated around the track like it was an ice rink, falling out of the Top 20 around the halfway point and nearly losing a lap twice before saving face with a somewhat reasonable 12th place finish.
Brian Vickers: Hate to keep harping on it, but can’t help but think things would be different if Vickers got helped to Victory Lane instead of left out to dry by his teammates a few weeks ago. Call it bad karma; since that race, Vickers has crashed twice in two starts, this time wrecking all by himself on the back straightaway at Darlington before even 100 miles were in the books. Finishing 41st, Vickers now has dropped out of the Top 20 in points.
Jimmie Johnson now appears to be settling in atop the point standings, moving 93 ahead of second place Tony Stewart after Saturday night. Matt Kenseth moves to within one point of Stewart in third, with Mark Martin holding serve in fourth and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. gaining one spot to round out the Top 5.
Jeff Gordon jumped three spots to sixth, with a Top 10 by Kyle Busch pushing him up one spot to seventh. Weekend polesitter Kasey Kahne never got a handle on his car all night and finished 21st, causing him to move down one spot to eighth. Harvick’s troubles dropped him four spots to ninth in points, with his RCR teammate Jeff Burton sliding into 10th after a 9th place finish in the race.
Meanwhile, Casey Mears now finds himself on the outside looking in no matter how you look at things. Mears slips to 15 points behind Jeff Burton in 11th place, and now is 406 behind Johnson for the point lead, causing him to fall outside the 400 point window needed to qualify for the Chase.
"We never give up. It’s just exciting to be back in Victory Lane. A few more laps and Gordon would have got there, but"¦I’m pretty excited." Greg Biffle
"I got into the wall a little bit down in Turns 3 and 4 (while passing Kenseth for 2nd) and I don’t know if it knocked the tow out of it or what but I picked up a big push and I was shocked that I even caught the 16. I had one good opportunity, and with a little bit more room from a lapped car"¦I might have been able to get it turned underneath him." Jeff Gordon, complaining about passing lapped car Ken Schrader in the corner with two laps to go, disrupting his momentum
"When you come to your bad places and run good it feels really good. We started (our setup) with how Greg won the race here last year, so it’s nice when teammates win races and you can look at their stuff and try to learn off that." Matt Kenseth
After some hard racing the last few weeks, it’s time for the Nextel Cup stars to take a deep breath and have a little fun with the All-Star races next up on the schedule. The Nextel Open and Nextel All-Star Challenge are scheduled to run from Lowe’s Motor Speedway in Charlotte, starting at 7:00 PM this Saturday night and televised live on FX.
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