To the Point: First a crash in Happy Hour practice, then a green flag pit stop for debris on the grill; last year, these were obstacles that would conquer Kasey Kahne, sending him straight to an early exit on Sundays. This year, they're just two small hurdles to overcome in an all-too-familiar trip to Victory Lane.
As low as 38th at one point, polesitter Kahne battled back from a lap behind and snuck back to the front, passing Reed Sorenson for the lead just before a driving rainstorm put a stop to the 3M Performance 400 after 129 laps were complete. With Michigan International Speedway quickly reduced to a 2-mile puddle, the race was called official, making Kahne the winner over Carl Edwards, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Greg Biffle, and Sorenson.
Who Should Have Won: Kahne. From the drop of the green flag, it was clear that Kahne's car, seriously wounded after Saturday's Happy Hour encounter with the Turn 2 wall, was suffering no ill effects from that incident after the crew worked overtime to get the car back in shape. There was some thrilling racing between Kahne and Jeff Gordon up front early, until debris on the grill trapped Kahne a lap down on lap 47 during a green flag stop. While timely cautions got the 9 car back on the lead lap, Kahne still had to drive through the field, and did so with a two-tire stop under yellow and a car that clearly stayed the class of the field, unlike Gordon's, who struggled just enough in traffic to hold him back. The fact it took only 70 laps from being trapped a lap down for Kahne to get back to the race lead was a testament to how strong the car and team were this Sunday.
Five Questions You Should be Asking After the Race Weekend:
1) With four wins this season, does Kahne have the consistency needed to post a serious run at the Nextel Cup title?
Leading the Nextel Cup circuit in the win column, it's clear Kahne is the Comeback Story of the Year after a tumultuous 2005; but can he take it one step further and claim a championship? Third in points and a near-certainty for the Chase, Kahne has been dominant on the 1.5-mile and 2-mile superspeedways, scoring all four wins at those facilities while finishing no lower than 4th at any of those types of tracks in 2006. Ironically, five of the ten tracks in the Chase are that 1.5-mile length, including three that Kahne has won at already this season in Atlanta, Texas, and Charlotte. If Kahne can somehow conquer his short track and restrictor plate demons, he may be the Chase darkhorse no one will be talking about until he's already snuck up and snatched the trophy.
2) How did Jeff Gordon's Chase chances change after Michigan?
Michigan had been the poster child for how much the 24 team had struggled in 2005, with Gordon finishing no better than 15th in his last two starts here. With the team still struggling to find a handle on Michigan-like tracks this season, there were many who thought (including this writer) Gordon's hopes for the Chase were all but done after his hard crash at Pocono. Instead, Gordon had a weekend to stand proud of, qualifying on the outside pole and leading a race high 50 laps before a late fade to the back half of the Top 10 in 8th place. With Sonoma coming up, a track where Gordon would have won in 2005 if not for mechanical failure, the 24 team now finds themselves still very much alive for a Top 10 spot.
3) Should all races be run under the threat of oncoming weather to increase aggressiveness on the track?
Sunday's race was one of the more interesting we've seen this season, because from the drop of the green flag, every car was on a mission, knowing lap 101, not 200, could be the checkered flag due to impending rain. For once, cars ran side-by-side for extended periods 20 laps into a race, not just with 20 laps to go, and exciting racing went on throughout the entire field. Makes you wonder if some Nextel Cup races would be better if shortened after all.
4) What were crew chiefs thinking bringing their cars down pit road during the final caution?
No offense, but did some of these teams know how to read a weather radar? Anyone with access to a TV or computer could easily find a radar screen that showed more yellows, oranges, and reds around the Speedway than a typical Fall in the Irish Hills. There was no question the race was about to be called; so why would drivers as high as the back end of the Top 20 come to pit road? Mark Martin, Bobby Labonte, and Scott Riggs were among those that shot themselves in the foot for around 8 to 10 spots apiece.
5) What was with the Darrell Waltrip burnout?
At the beginning of this season, the AutoZone Driving Zone feature did everything Wally's World of NBC does not – it served a purpose by educating viewers about a different part of the track and how a driver needs to attack it. Unfortunately, it's deteriorated slowly into a goofball free-for-all in which Darrell Waltrip and Jeff Hammond get into the car to do something ridiculous, like this week's poor excuse for a segment in which Jeff Hammond laughed while Waltrip did a weak burnout and squealed. If I hear, "Come on baby, light my tires," one more time, my head might explode…and that's coming from someone whose admiration of Waltrip was the inspiration for me to be in this racing business in the first place.
Carl Edwards – Second place is the first loser in racing, but Edwards needed a rebound for his team following their pit road miscues at Pocono, as well as himself after a broken transmission in the Kentucky Busch Race the night before. Leading 25 laps, Edwards' shot at the win was denied by his last pit stop, in which Kahne beat Edwards out of the pits by a foot…but the mission for the 99 team was still accomplished.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – Running a special Father's Day scheme honoring his father and grandfather, Dale, Jr.'s car was a throwback, and so was his run, a reminder the days not long ago where the 8 car was a contender for the win at every track on the circuit. Finishing a career best third at Michigan, this team is getting tantalizingly close to making that step again.
Greg Biffle – Biffle's fourth place run was not especially surprising, as he was the defending champion of this race, but it was significant in that the Biff moved into the Top 10 in Nextel Cup points for the first time all year. With six consecutive Top 10 finishes, hard to see the 16 car leaving that lofty perch anytime soon.
Reed Sorenson – Sorenson was another driver that had a horrific night in the Kentucky Busch race, crashing hard into the Turn 2 wall. So not only was Sunday's race one of redemption, but a confidence-builder, as a pit road decision to stay out during the race's 8th caution put Reed up front and nearly handed him the win should the rain showers have come just a bit earlier. Still, a first career Nextel Cup Top 5 is nothing to sneeze at for Sorenson.
Tony Stewart – Just three weeks removed from his shoulder injury, Smoke took another hard hit into the outside wall when a tap from Jeff Green sent the 20 spinning early on. Initially furious, Stewart spun his car in the garage area and took his anger out with a sledgehammer, helping to fix his wrecked machine before calming down quickly when the TV cameras finally pulled him aside a few hours later. Stewart finished 41st.
J.J. Yeley – After seeing a near-certain victory in the Busch Series slip away with 10 laps left Saturday night, Yeley had high hopes at Michigan, only to be tapped from behind by Jamie McMurray on lap 31, igniting a crash that collected several cars and sent the rookie behind the wall in a Cup race once again. After a promising start, Yeley's now gone a dubious 13 races without a Top 10 finish, while his rookie teammate is busy winning and his veteran teammate polishes his championship trophies. Ruh-roh.
Matt Kenseth – One of the strongest cars in Saturday's final practice, Kenseth was a pre-race favorite, but his chances for the win were dashed early after making contact with Bill Lester on pit road with just a dozen laps complete. The team made several pit stops to repair the front end, then Kenseth drove his way back through the field…only to spin out coming onto the backstretch 50 laps later. Losing a lap with flatspotted tires, Kenseth did use the Lucky Dog to his advantage, eventually getting back up to 13th by the end of the event…but it could have been so much better.
Mark Martin – As if Martin hasn't had enough pit road miscues this year, Pat Tryson made the ill-fated move of pulling Martin down pit road for tires during the final caution, just before the sky opened up and the rain came pouring down. The move cost Martin almost 10 positions (17th to 27th) and a spot in the Nextel Cup standings; what's worse, a car strong early in the weekend ran like junk all day, and Martin is suddenly looking like a man who's become frustrated after too many wasted opportunities with winning race cars.
With Jimmie Johnson's sixth place finish combined with Matt Kenseth's on track struggles, the point lead for Johnson increased from 48 to 74 after Michigan. The real shuffling, though, occurred behind the top two. Kasey Kahne's win vaulted him up two spots to third in points, with Dale, Jr. also moving up two spots to fourth. Mark Martin's misfortunes, on the other hand, dropped him two spots to fifth, now 306 out of the point lead.
In the second half of the Top 10, Tony Stewart dropped two spots from fourth to sixth after his crash, with Jeff Burton and Kevin Harvick maintaining seventh and eighth place. Denny Hamlin's 12th place run allowed him to hold onto the ninth spot, but not by much; he's just two points in front of the newest member of the Top 10, Greg Biffle. 488 points out of the lead, Biffle now holds an 11 point advantage over Jeff Gordon and a 12 point advantage over Kyle Busch for the final spot in the Chase.
"The team has done a great job this season and they give me a car capable of winning every week. I made ‘em work a little harder this weekend, but everything worked out." Kasey Kahne
"It was nerve-racking. We knew it was going to rain, and we kept watching the radar in the pit box. I was afraid someone in the back that didn't have anything to lose was going to take a chance and do something to beat us. You sit up there with your heart pounding trying to figure out what to do." Kenny Francis, Kasey Kahne's crew chief
"Does J.D. Gibbs know the invoice he's going to get for fabrication work Monday? I've told him it's not cheap." Tony Stewart, joking around after the race about working on the car behind the wall after his wreck
The Nextel Cup tour finally goes Road Trippin'…on the track. The first of two road course races this year will be held at Infineon Raceway in the wine country of northern California next Sunday, as the Dodge/Save Mart 350 hits the airwaves on FOX next Sunday at 3:00 EST.
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