Thomas Bowles · Sunday May 21, 2006
To the Point: Bad test session, new pavement, harder tire—- none of that could stop Jimmie Johnson from continuing his domination at Lowe’s Motor Speedway. Surviving a pit road speeding penalty that left him as far back as 19th, Johnson charged through the field to win the Nextel All-Star Challenge easily over Kevin Harvick. Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, and Ryan Newman rounded out the Top 5.
Who Should Have Won: Johnson. When the 48 car passed Kevin Harvick for the lead during the second green flag lap of the final segment, did anyone really believe he could be caught? The victory is the third Cup win in a row for Johnson here; he also has a streak of four consecutive Nextel Cup points-paying races won at Lowe’s.
Five Questions You Should be Asking After the Race Weekend:
1) How could Lowe’s, NASCAR, and Goodyear let a year pass by, go through several tests, repave the track a second time, and still not have fixed what’s wrong with the speedway?
The most telling statement of the All-Star race was made by Tony Stewart when he claimed the speedway was "virtually impossible" to pass on. All night long, the new, harder Goodyear tire compound had cars driving on an ice skating rink, unable to pass and struggling to keep their cars from spinning around into the wall due to no grip on the race track, especially coming off turn four. There was very little side-by-side racing in an event in which aggression is openly encouraged, as well as several drivers wrecking by themselves because their cars were so loose, an ominous sign that threatens the competitiveness of next week’s Coca-Cola 600 for the second year in a row.
Now, to be fair several drivers think time and rubber put down on the track will be the only thing needed to fix the problems seen this weekend. Still, it’s tough to swallow that after months of testing and a year to think about the problems from 2005, races at Lowe’s Motor Speedway appear destined to be either a single-file parade or a crashfest of blown right front tires for the foreseeable future. It’s getting to the point the repaving decision is threatening to taint track president Humpy Wheeler’s Hall of Fame career as he nears retirement. Hopefully, after Saturday night’s issues all sides will finally come up with a better fix"¦but after a year already to think about things, it’s doubtful a solution’s going to appear out of thin air now.
2) Guess Matt Kenseth and Tony Stewart never got over their Daytona fight after all?
It certainly appeared that way Saturday night. Stewart and Kenseth made contact going into turn one in the third segment of the All-Star race, spinning out both of them and ending their already tough nights (both the 20 and 17 were wounded in an earlier crash). The two drivers came out of the race hot, each accusing the other of causing the wreck and reminding everyone how tempers flared just three months earlier between the two when Stewart spun out Kenseth on the back straightaway at Daytona. While for most drivers the All-Star Race is the type of event where memories of being wrecked fade quickly, this is one situation where there won’t appear to be an apology from either side anytime soon.
3) Is there anyone capable of challenging Jimmie Johnson next week in the 600?
Don’t think so. After some horrible test and practice sessions in which Johnson claimed the "new" Lowe’s was nothing like the track he had dominated for years, the 48 car came out and was clearly the class of the field Saturday night. The only chance everyone else appears to have is if Johnson beats himself, which he almost did Saturday night when speeding entering pit road caused a pass through penalty in segment one and nearly left the 48 car a lap down.
4) Who lit a fire under Mark Martin?
Martin, known for being perhaps the "gentlemanly" racer on the circuit, was nothing of the sort in the All-Star Race. Both Scott Riggs and Jamie McMurray were on the receiving end of Martin’s front bumper, ruining both their nights, and an excitable Martin criticized Kasey Kahne and boldly vowed to return to the All-Star race in ’07 after being crashed out by Kahne midway through the event. It was a rare night of intriguing behavior for a man who usually prides himself on racing the right way.
5) With so many teams using the All-Star race as a test session, should the format of the race be tweaked?
More than ever, it appears that drivers running the Nextel Open or even the All-Star Race itself immediately turn the event into a test session for the 600 if they don’t appear to have the winning race car early on. To fix this, you can either give each race shorter segments (or shorten it to one segment altogether), or state that any car competing in the All-Star Race cannot be used in the 600 the following weekend. Otherwise, too many teams will continue to worry about points racing—- even on a weekend where no points get awarded.
Kevin Harvick: The All-Star Race has never really been all that kind to Harvick, but he excelled Saturday night, winning segment two of three and placing second for his best ever All-Star finish, holding up the RCR banner as teammates Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer failed to qualify.
Jeff Gordon: On long runs, the three-time All-Star Champion looked like he might be able to at least hang with Johnson, but this is not a race of long runs, and the 24 was too slow on restarts to be a factor. Still, a third place finish keeps the momentum going from a strong Darlington race last week.
Kyle Petty: In a touching move by the fans, Petty was the lone Nextel Open driver voted in to the All-Star race, causing an automatic $250,000 donation by his sponsors to the Victory Junction Gang Camp. To make things even better, Petty survived the annual All-Star Race carnage to bring his car home in 8th place, giving his camp an additional $100,000 + in donations. With teammate Bobby Labonte finishing 6th, the Petty camp is all smiles heading into next week.
Scott Riggs: Riggs had some bad luck in the All-Star Race, getting spun and having a tire go down, but he certainly ends up on the plus side of the equation for an impressive victory in the Nextel Open. Riggs’ first career Cup victory in any type of race affirmed his team has recovered completely from their Daytona DNQ.
Kasey Kahne: The polesitter for the All-Star Race, Kahne had high expectations that never panned out. He was shuffled from the front early in segment one, finishing eighth, but started third in segment two due to the special inversion rules and quickly took the lead. However, double file restarts ended up being the death of Kahne’s chances; after receiving a strong challenge by second place Mark Martin during a restart, Kahne charged hard into turn one on the outside"¦and promptly lost it coming out of turn two. Since the wreck happened at the front of the field, it damaged several contenders, including Greg Biffle, Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, and Martin, among others. Kahne’s car and enthusiasm also found themselves finished for the evening.
Michael Waltrip: With one of the toughest fields to qualify for next week, Waltrip did himself zero favors, crashing out by himself a car he was planning to take to next week’s Coca-Cola 600 in the All-Star Race. One of the most intriguing storylines of this week will be whether this team will be able to dodge the dreaded DNQ.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.: While Dale, Jr. didn’t wreck like half his compatriots, it would be an understatement to call his night a major disappointment. Starting 17th, Dale, Jr. was never a factor and fought a car so tight even radical changes made by Tony Eury, Jr. failed to help it. An irritated Dale, Jr. uttered rare moments of public frustration on the radio, and ended up finishing 9th without leading a lap the entire All-Star race.
Casey Mears: As if Mears’ momentum hasn’t been shattered enough as of late, the Ganassi driver caused the first caution of the Nextel Open by crashing out off of turn four by himself, finishing 29th of 29 in a race he was hoping to win to advance to the All-Star Race.
"That was a mess out there. My engineer and I looked at each other about eight laps from the end and said "˜What can go on next?’" Chad Knaus
"It’s the Nextel All-Star crashfest, (but) I think (Matt Kenseth) screwed up on this one. If he thinks I did that and that was my fault, he’s screwed up in the head.” Tony Stewart on his wreck with Kenseth
"Tony is always mad at somebody. I’m not gonna go out there and do the name calling like he does every week"¦.If he was under there and I cut him off and made a mistake, then I made a mistake." Matt Kenseth
"I was humbled to walk out on the stage in the presence of the drivers that were in the Nextel Cup all-star event. It’s got nothing to do with what you did or anything like that. Those fans put you there." Kyle Petty
"The track still tore up a lot of racecars. I’d rather go fast and blow a right front, knowing we can slow down than the way everybody else crashed out there tonight." Ryan Newman
"Obviously, this (All-Star) race is a shootout. You want to go for everything. The 600, everybody is going to be cautious. If you’re not cautious, you’re going to be crashed." Kasey Kahne
With the All-Star Race out of the way, it’s time for the real thing, as the longest race of the year gets ready to run from Charlotte. The Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe’s kicks off this Sunday at 5 PM on Fox.
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