Thomas Bowles · Sunday July 16, 2006
To the Point: Looks like Kyle Busch hasn't heard of the sophomore slump. The 21-year-old Nextel Cup driver, in just his second full season, moved up to fourth in Nextel Cup points with 19 races in the books after recording his first win of 2006 at New Hampshire. Leading the final 68 laps, Busch survived a green-white-checkered restart in which several contenders behind him ran out of fuel, coasting to the line half a second in front of Carl Edwards. Greg Biffle, Mark Martin, and Kevin Harvick rounded out the Top 5.
Who Should Have Won: Busch. Leading a race high 107 laps, Busch didn't assert himself up front until late in the event, but once he did, it was lights out for everyone else. The key for Busch was making a gas only pit stop under caution on lap 212 while leading; although pitting dropped him out of first place, it allowed him to run the rest of the race without stopping, putting him in position to grab the lead back after a lap 234 caution in which most of the cars in front of him made a pit stop themselves. Restarting second behind Elliott Sadler, Busch quickly disposed of the 38 car, and never looked back.
Five Questions You Should be Asking After the Race Weekend:
1) Is there a second feud NASCAR can add to the list after Jeff Gordon - Matt Kenseth?
Yepâ€¦ it's called Tony Stewart - Ryan Newman. There were several bumping incidents on Sunday that caused controversy, but the one between Stewart and Newman clearly stood out. Stewart was in command of the race, leading 28 of the first 92 laps, when Newman, on fresher tires, came up on the 20 car and attempted to get his lap back. Stewart gave Newman a hard time, so Newman decided to drive his 12 car a little too hard into turn three on the inside of Stewart; the end result had both drivers wrecked, giving Stewart his fourth finish of 28th or worse in the last five races. Clearly, Stewart was unhappy with Newman after the wreck, claiming he was taken out, while Newman refused to apologize. With Stewart now in a more desperate mode to make the Chase, this confrontation may be worth keeping an eye on.
2) What is it with Robby Gordon and New Hampshire that makes him the center of attention here?
New Hampshire is a track known for one-on-one confrontations with Robby Gordon on the racetrack, and Sunday's event was no different. Robby renewed old bumping rivalries at the track with Jeff Gordon, who he spun out to win at this track in 2001, and Michael Waltrip, who Gordon hurled his helmet at this race last year after being wrecked by him. This time around, Waltrip got the short end of the stick, having his day ruined at the hands of Robby Gordon's bumper; Jeff Gordon was able to recover from his contact with the 7 car, contact that supposedly bent the steering linkage of his Chevrolet to finish 15th. As for Robby himselfâ€¦he soldiered onto a 19th place finish.
3) OK, so let's finally figure this outâ€¦will Danica NASCAR, or will she IRL?
After a week filled with rumors, wild comments, and conflicting interviews, the Danica situation appears to be more confusing than ever before. Patrick claimed in an interview with ESPN on Saturday that her first priority is to win the Indy 500, and to do that, she needed to be in IRLâ€¦but sources throughout the garage area I've heard have Danica fielding potential offers from not one, but two top NASCAR teams, each with the money and the flexibility to give Patrick a car she needs to win Indy in the month of May. With any IRL team hardly capable of matching multimillion dollar NASCAR offers, it should clearly come down to money for Danicaâ€¦yet she says it isn't about the money, it's where she'll be most competitive (IRL). If that's the case, though, why use NASCAR as a negotiating ploy against the IRL? That, to me, means money would have to appear to be somewhat of a motivatorâ€¦so I think the IRL vs NASCAR debate is an interesting "wait and see" case that could take a few more weeks to resolve, regardless of what Danica says.
4) Is Jeremy Mayfield really on his way out at Evernham?
Why wouldn't he be? Mayfield is suffering through the most disappointing season in his career. Just a year removed from making the Chase for the Championship, Mayfield is 32nd in points with no Top 10 finishes, along with six finishes of 31st or worse in 19 starts. Much was made about Mayfield and Evernham's "verbal war" last week, which ended in Mayfield being offered a ride with Michael Waltrip Racing if he could get out of his contract. That shouldn't be too much of a problem, as Mayfield has clearly been shown his place within his current organization since December. After making the Chase for two straight seasons, Mayfield still had his crew ripped apart by Evernham, with crew chief Kenny Francis switched to Kasey Kahne's car simply because Evernham's most marketable driver was struggling. It was clear by those changes Evernham knew who he wanted his primary team to be, and Mayfield's wasn't the one. Contrast that with the opportunity at MWR, where Mayfield could find himself top dog within the organization by 2009, when both Jarrett and possibly Waltrip have retired, and you can see why the choice becomes easy for Mayfield.
5) With seven races remaining, who is realistically still in contention for the Chase for the Championship?
Certainly, the way Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth continue to run, it looks unlikely that the 400 point rule will come into effect for this year's Chase, That means only ten drivers will be eligible, and after Kurt Busch's crash on Sunday, it appears 13 drivers are in contention for those ten spots, with Carl Edwards a longshot in 13th. Busch is now over 200 points behind 10th place, and drivers behind him like Casey Mears, Jamie McMurray, and Ryan Newman are running too inconsistently to put the run they need together in order to make the Chase from being that far behind.
Carl Edwards – He may not have come out on top in the Cup race, but after winning the Busch event on Saturday and finishing 2nd on Sunday, Edwards will certainly take those finishes with the type of inconsistent year he's had. Add to that the fact Cousin Carl had never finished higher than 12th in a Cup car in three previous Loudon starts, and this finish was exactly what the 99 team needed to keep their faint Chase heartbeat alive.
Mark Martin – After rising to a season high third in points after Dover, just 216 out of the lead, Martin had gone five races without a Top 10 finish entering Sunday, putting him in a position where he needed to stop the bleeding or risk falling out of the Top 10 in points. Sunday's run accomplished that; for the first time in over a month, Martin's car improved consistently throughout the course of the day, quietly rising all the way up to a 4th place finish in the final running order.
David Stremme – It's been a season to forget for the Ganassi rookie, and this race certainly didn't earn Stremme any more respectâ€¦well, at least in the eyes of Kurt Busch. Still, the driver of the No. 40 Coors Light Dodge was able to recover from that potential disaster and move up to an 11th place finish, a career best and the third Top 20 finish in the last four races.
Dave Blaney – With the focus on "teammate" Michael Waltrip's miserable season, everyone has seemed to forget just how bad Bill Davis' other driver has had it recently. As such, it was a pleasant surprise to see the No. 22 CAT Dodge running up near the front for extended periods Sunday, spending time in the Top 10 before settling into a 13th place finish, easily a season best.
Kurt Busch : Other than Tony Stewart (whose plight was explained in the five questions above), no one was hurt more in New Hampshire than Kurt Busch. For the second straight race at this track, Busch found himself taken outâ€¦this time, it was in turn four by David Stremme, when Busch was simply biding his time and simply setting himself up for a Top 10 finish. Now, the car which had the most momentum of the cars looking to get into the Chase now has the least, as the 38th place finish dropped him 206 out of 10th and in a nearly impossible position for the last seven races.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. : For the past nine races or so, Dale, Jr.'s been more lucky than good, moving his way up in the point standings by virtue of Top 15 finishes instead of finishing up at the front of the pack. Well, that luck caught up with the 8 car on this dayâ€¦just 134 laps into this Sunday's race, the engine expired on the Bud Chevrolet, and Dale, Jr. finished dead last, dropping him from third to seventh in points.
Joe Nemechek : In a season filled with enough rotten luck to fill a decade's worth of racing, the Army car was finally putting together a run it could be proud of, running comfortably in 6th placeâ€¦until he found the back bumper of Denny Hamlin coming out of turn four. Just like that, Nemechek was wrecked, his day was over, and the car found itself 41st in the final running orderâ€¦par for the course in what has been a frustrating season.
Elliott Sadler : In what proved to be a microcosm of Sadler's season, the 38 team found itself in perfect position for a Top 5 finish after great fuel mileage got them up front in the final 100 laps of the raceâ€¦only to see the race go to "overtime" and their car run out of fuel, dropping them to 25th in the final running order.
The points really did shuffle after New Hampshire, although the top two drivers in the standings stayed very much the same. Jimmie Johnson's 9th place run, combined with Matt Kenseth's 14th, allowed the driver of the 48 car to stretch his lead to 68 over Kenseth with seven races remaining in the "regular season."
Behind them, though, it's a dogfight for the final eight Chase spots. Jeff Burton, by virtue of another Top 10 run at Loudon, moved up to third in points, with Kyle Busch fourth and Mark Martin fifth after their strong runs. Kasey Kahne dropped down to sixth, with Dale, Jr. seventh and Kevin Harvick eighth. Jeff Gordon and Greg Biffle find themselves tied for the ninth spot, the final two drivers currently eligible for the Chase.
For the first time since March, Tony Stewart finds himself on the outside looking in as far as the Top 10, now 11 points behind Biffle and Gordon in 11th place. Denny Hamlin is 12th, 18 out of 10th, with Carl Edwards 146 behind in 13th place, the last driver with a realistic shot at the Top 10.
"We feel like we had a good car from when we unloaded here (at the track). We were always able to keep our car up front and out of the pack, and out of trouble. It was great." Kyle Busch
"It was a great race (today) if you were a fan. With the pit strategy like it was, cars were back in the pack, cars that were leading were out front. You were on pins and needles to make sure you weren't caught up in something." Rick Hendrick
"I got wrecked by Ryan Newman. Everybody races each other different. And there's guy are really good at give and take and there are guys that aren't. Ryan is one of those guys who is not good at the giving part." Tony Stewart
"We were on fresh tires. I don't know if Tony knew that or not, but regardless, he didn't live up to what he preaches and that's move over and let a faster car go - especially a car on fresh tires trying to get a lap back." Ryan Newman
"It was very difficult with the conditions today. The track was very hot with this weather. The tires weren't holding up very well at all. Cars were slipping and sliding around. It was just very difficult to pass on this track. Any time you have those types of conditions, you're going to see a lot of guys losing control and you're going to see them getting into one another." Jeff Gordon
The Nextel Cup series continues to stick around the Northeast, heading from New Hampshire to Pennsylvania for a second go round at 2.5 mile Pocono Raceway, where rookie Denny Hamlin won his first Nextel Cup race back in June. The Pennsylvania 500 can be seen next Sunday on TNT beginning with the prerace show at 1:30 EST.
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