The Frontstretch: Frontstretch Breakdown : Pepsi 400 by Thomas Bowles -- Sunday July 2, 2006

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Frontstretch Breakdown : Pepsi 400

Thomas Bowles · Sunday July 2, 2006

 

To the Point: Defending race champion Tony Stewart picked up right where he left off. Dominating the event for a second straight year, Stewart fought his way back to the front after pitting under a late yellow on lap 149, passing Boris Said for the lead with 3 laps to go to take the win in the Pepsi 400. Stewart was aided by a late caution flag on the final lap for debris in Turn 3 which derailed any challenge the Busch brothers could have made behind him for the win; Kyle and Kurt finished 2nd and 3rd, respectively, with Said and Matt Kenseth rounding out the Top 5.

Who Should Have Won: Stewart. Leading 86 of a possible 160 laps, Stewart wasn't quite as dominant as in 2005…but it was close enough. The No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet could get to the front with ease, and after restarting 10th on lap 152 after pit strategy shuffled him backwards, it took but 2 laps for Stewart to assert himself and move back into second position. Clearly, Stewart was on top of his game.

Five Questions You Should be Asking After the Race Weekend:
1) How could NASCAR throw a caution flag on the final lap…for debris?

Since I first discovered NASCAR as an eight year old kid back in 1989, the finish on Saturday night ranks up there as one of the most puzzling decisions I've ever seen. The fact that no one looked able to mount a final charge on Tony Stewart for the win is besides the point…when have you ever seen a caution thrown in any major racing event on the final lap…for debris?

I'm all about safety, but on the final lap, you've got to trust the 43 spotters around the race track to inform their drivers that there might be debris in the racing groove in turn three, and trust those 43 drivers to avoid it that one time (turns out the debris, part of a shredded tire, was quickly pushed out of the racing groove). Should someone hit it, they only have a quarter of a lap to the finish line. Don't ever end the race on a judgment call…yet that's just what NASCAR did.

Call me cold-hearted…but NASCAR's become the over-protective parent that gives their straight A, trouble-free 17-year-old daughter an 8:00 PM curfew. At some point, you've just got to back off.

2) Why did so many teams make four tire stops during a late caution on lap 149?

When a late caution came out with a dozen laps to go after a long green flag run, all but two teams dove down pit road, and the majority took four tires. Only half a dozen crew chiefs were smart enough to take two, and just TWO crew chiefs were smart enough to avoid the wild scramble and stay off pit road.

Here's my problem with pitting and taking four tires as a crew chief…you know every car can make it to the end on fuel, and you know historically there's a big wreck at Daytona within the last ten laps. So, realistically, you're looking at five green flag laps on old tires if you stay out, in which half those laps are run getting up to speed. Doesn't that negate any disadvantage? In the end, taking fresh rubber cost Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon a strong finish, as the pit stop put them far enough back in the field to be an innocent victim of the expected big wreck.

3) Has Dale Earnhardt, Jr. lost his title as master of restrictor plate racing?

At the very least, Earnhardt's no longer getting the Nextel Cup equipment he needs to push his way to the front. After qualifying 35th, Dale, Jr. led just twice for 8 laps, and he noticeably struggled to keep up with the leaders. If not for the late cautions, the No. 8 car would have placed 19th, running by itself far back from the main pack; as it is, the 13th place finish was the worst result for the 8 car at Daytona since February 2003. Since Dale, Jr. dominated the race the night before in his Busch car, all signs point to equipment as the problem, not lack of talent on the track.

4) Why was Dodge so far off at restrictor plate races this season?

While Kurt Busch's Dodge finished third, the DaimlerChrysler brand combined to lead a total of three laps Saturday, all under the yellow flag. When you dig deeper, you'll find Dodges have combined to lead 41 of a possible 548 laps in restrictor plate races this season. Evernham Motorsports, the strongest Dodge team to date this year, had their cars finish 20th, 25th, and 36th at Daytona; none of them were a contender at any point during the event.

Clearly, there's work to do in the Dodge camp before their visit to Talladega during the heart of the Chase.

5) Was Saturday's race enough to spark a momentum shift in the points championship?

Looking for his third straight restrictor plate victory, point leader Jimmie Johnson looked to be a strong contender Sunday; then, he simply got loose and took himself out of the mix by crashing himself smack into Bobby Labonte. The finish marked the fifth straight race Johnson has finished outside the Top 5, hurting his momentum heading into a July / August stretch where the 48 team admittedly struggled in 2005, collecting just three Top 10 finishes in the nine races leading up to the Chase.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the coin Matt Kenseth survived contact on pit road with Dave Blaney's car, an incident that dropped him back to 37th in the running order, to charge back to the front and finish 5th. The run gives the 17 team momentum to go along with their confidence heading into this stretch, where they collected five Top 5 finishes in the nine races leading up to the Chase.

With Kenseth closing to within 13 points of Johnson after this race, it'll be interesting to see what happens now, to say the least.

Solid Runs
Kyle Busch – Admittedly not a fan of restrictor plate racing, Kyle's career record is less than stellar - he had a top finish of 23rd in six career starts at Daytona and Talladega entering Saturday night. Despite not leading a lap, to run in the lead pack all night and ultimately finish second was a huge step in the maturation process for Busch. With its first Top 5 finish since Dover, the 5 team appears headed back in the right direction.

Kurt Busch – Kyle's brother has been running strong week in, week out for the past month, but overcame adversity at Daytona when a battery change under yellow halfway through the race put him at the back of the pack. The 3rd place finish for the 2 car now puts this team in serious contention for a run at the Top 10.

Boris Said – After starting from the pole, Said was quickly shuffled back in the pack, and it was pit strategy, not overall performance, that put the 60 car in position for an upset win. Frank Stoddard's call to stay out during pit stops under yellow on lap 149 gave Said the lead, but give the driver credit; Said stayed up front until lap 158, then held off an onslaught of challengers to remain in the Top 5 on old tires, finishing 4th. It looks like we may be seeing this man in more races than just the road courses, sooner rather than later.

Casey Mears – With the focus on the pressure being off Brian Vickers since leaving Hendrick, everyone's forgotten that the same could be said about Casey Mears leaving Ganassi. Since making the announcement he'll drive for Hendrick in 2007, Mears has two Top 10s in three races, including a 7th place run on Saturday night.

Tough Days

Jeff Gordon – Fresh off the momentum of his win at Infineon, Gordon was running solidly up front at Daytona, leading 27 laps, more than anyone not named Stewart. However, Gordon was among the cars who took four tires under that late caution and got shuffled back in the pack, and it came back to bite him when he was at the wrong place at the wrong time when Greg Biffle spun out. A sure Top 5 plummeted into a 40th place disappointment, and Gordon again finds himself on the outside looking in at the Chase.

Greg Biffle – Speaking of Biffle, he was having his strongest restrictor plate run since winning this race back in 2003 before his spin. Breaking loose all by himself coming off turn two, Biffle found J.J. Yeley's front bumper, and let it all go to waste. Finishing 31st after the resulting wreck, Biffle's frustration must be compounded by the fact that the accident took out teammate Mark Martin as an innocent victim, among others.

Jimmie Johnson – Proving that no one in NASCAR is perfect, even the points leader, Johnson made perhaps his biggest error of the season to date Saturday night. While running in the Top 5, Johnson lost control of his race car entering turn three and found himself slammed into the side of Bobby Labonte's No. 43 Dodge, ruining the days of both men and plummeting Johnson down to 32nd on the final results sheet.

Bobby Labonte – Speaking of Labonte, he was one of a handful of respectable Dodges on the night, running his Petty Enterprises car into the Top 5 before being taken out by Johnson. With a lack of attrition until late in the race, Labonte finished 42nd and diffused any momentum that could have been gained after the team's best run in weeks.

Points Shuffle:
As previously noted, the points race has now heated, with Johnson holding the top spot by a scant 8 points over Kenseth. Despite a rough race, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. moves up to third in the standings, with Kasey Kahne dropping a spot back to fourth.

Tony Stewart's win boosted him up two spots to fifth place, dropping Mark Martin to sixth and Jeff Burton to seventh. Kyle Busch bumped himself up four spots to eighth with his runnerup finish, with Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin each moving up a spot to round out the Top 10. Those two will have Greg Biffle and Jeff Gordon breathing down their necks, as they dropped to 11th and 12th in the standings but remain just 6 and 14 points, respectively, from cracking their way back into the Top 10.

Quotable:
"I don't know why I do half the stupid stuff I do, I'll be honest. I felt good after the end of the race until I got stupid and went up the flagstand again. I thought this year I'd be smarter - go down, crawl through the gate and call it day. I got down there (amongst the fans) but there was a mosh pit. So I did learn one thing. I'm too old for binge parties and all that stuff…I'll be a chaperone instead." Winner Tony Stewart describing his postrace celebration, in which he again climbed the Daytona fence and then climbed over it into a crowd of fans, before being escorted back to Victory Lane

"I would have done anything that Kyle needed me to do to help him go to Victory Lane…that's a commitment I'd make." Kurt Busch

"For the first time in my life, I'm speechless. It's the biggest thing I've ever accomplished in racing." Boris Said after finishing 4th

"We needed that last caution like we needed a hole in the head. You knew they had to have at least one wreck." Mark Martin

"Nobody knows how tough it is out there except us, and it's just heartbreaking." Bobby Labonte after being wrecked on lap 148

Next Up:
After a month of racing at a wide variety of tracks, NASCAR returns to the "cookie cutter" 1.5 miler of Chicagoland Speedway for the USG Sheetrock 400. Race coverage begins Sunday at 3:00 PM EST with the prerace show on TNT ( not FOX).

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Beyond the Cockpit: Alexis DeJoria On The 300 mph Women of the NHRA
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Melissa
07/03/2006 09:21 AM
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What I want to know is whos car that tire piece came from? And the reason I think NASCAR called that last caution was because at one point that piece of tire was in the racing groove. Doesn’t matter though the Busch brothers were not close enough to make a run on Smoke. He had them all covered for the 2nd year in a row.

Rajeev Jaswal
07/04/2006 08:30 AM
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Throwing a caution when the tire was off the groove was ridiculous. Smoke was too strong for Busch brothers to get by him. I am glad Tony finally got into the victory lane after a rough patch of 6 weeks. I hope this will help build momentum for his summer streak and we may see 2005 all over again. Way to go “Smoke”!!

Matt
07/10/2006 08:05 PM
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“Smoke.” It just sounds so dumb.

 

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Recent articles from Tom Bowles:

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