To the Point: With two wins in a row at Watkins Glen, it looked inevitable Tony Stewart was going to bring a third trophy home on Sunday. With main rival Kurt Busch back in the pack and the road course ringers unable to keep up, Stewart brushed aside Kevin Harvick to take the lead with nine laps left, poised and ready to spend the rest of his afternoon soaking up the sunshine in Victory Lane.
Harvick never got that memo.
In a stunning move, Harvick regrouped and passed Stewart back with a shade over three laps remaining, and then held on to take the checkered for his first Cup victory on a road course. Stewart was forced to settle for second, fighting off both Jamie McMurray and Robby Gordon on his way to the finish line. Carl Edwards rounded out the Top 5, moving up after a wild last lap that jumbled the running order and affected the finishes of Chase contenders Kasey Kahne, Jeff Burton, and Busch among others.
Who Should Have Won: Kurt Busch. Winning both the pole and the race in the Busch Series on Saturday, Busch started 1st in the Cup race, too, as his Penske team had clearly found a superior setup. Leading 38 of the first 53 laps, all Kurt had to do was make his final pit stop under green, and victory would have either been his or Tony Stewart's. But when Joe Nemechek spun to bring out the yellow on lap 54, Busch dove onto pit road for his regularly scheduled stop - except pit road became closed for the yellow flag just a second before. Choosing to ignore the black flag, Kurt and crew chief Roy McCauley lost a heated battle with NASCAR officials, forcing the No. 2 car to stop in turn one on the restart and race from the rear. Six laps later, Busch was caught up in a wreck at the back of the pack, and his car was never the same after that. To add insult to injury, the Miller Lite Dodge spun out on the last lap, too, relegating Busch to a 19th place finish and ending his hopes for a road course upset.
Five Questions You Should be Asking After the Race Weekend:
1) Did Kurt Busch deserve to be penalized?
While it's incredibly unlucky considering the circumstances, the answer is yes. Replays showed the red light indicating pit road was closed came on less than a second before Busch passed the commitment cone, making it impossible for him to swerve out of pit lane as the yellow flag came out. NASCAR said if Busch had simply driven on through and not stopped, he wouldn't have been penalized, but I do agree with the No. 2 crew that scenario was completely unrealistic. Why in the world would Kurt drive through the pits when neither NASCAR nor his crew chief (who had no idea at the time) told him the car hit pit road a split second too late?
Still, the bottom line is simple; whether it was .01 seconds or 10 seconds, Busch came down pit road too late. Whether the cop stops you going 55 in a 30 mph zone or 31, you're still speeding; you can't avoid the penalty and the speeding ticket that goes with it (well, unless you're good at pleading your case). McCauley apparently needs to brush up on his law courses, because his best defense wasn't good enough for the NASCAR policeâ€¦and the team very likely paid the ultimate price, a chance at the Nextel Cup title.
2) What was with all the pushing and shoving on Sunday?
When Kurt Busch and Robby Gordon pulled their best Bristol impression Saturday in the Busch race, beating and banging to the finish line for the win, the tone was set for the following day. Before the first turn of the first lap, Kasey Kahne had bumped polesitter Busch out of the way heading for turn one, and the fight was on, with a race record 10 cautions for 22 laps (in a 90 lap race, no less) before things were all said and done.
While some of these yellows were preventable, a lot of them were simply a case of impatience and desperation. There are a lot of drivers fighting for a championship in the Cup series right now, and several more simply fighting for their rides; in the end, that tension caused a race that usually is about give and take until the last 10 or 15 laps to be all take, all the time. The worst was the last lap, in which no caution came out but which saw Boris Said and Ryan Newman make contact and spin out while running for 5th; Jeff Burton and Kurt Busch make contact and spin out while running in the Top 10; J.J. Yeley spin off course after the inner loop; and Kasey Kahne lose control in the second to last turn.
3) Is it time for the Lucky Dog rule to be tweaked?
More like it's time to go back to an original rule and NOT use the Lucky Dog on road courses. During the race, Kyle Busch actually drove his car into the GARAGE to fix his car due to a broken track bar, and came out five laps down. You'd think his day would be over; yet, because nobody gets lapped on a road course and everyone was busy playing demolition derby (see above), Busch was able to get all five laps back through a series of timely cautions.
Now, it's not Busch's fault that a rule broke in his favor, and he took full advantage of that opportunity, finishing 9th to further cement his position in the Chase. At the same time, what if Kyle Busch ends up 10th in points after Richmond, 20 points ahead of 11th, when the No. 5 car would have been a shoe-in for 36th if not for the Lucky Dog? It would almost be like Kyle got a "free pass" into the championship Chase. No question, this rule has to be fixed.
4) How has Kevin Harvick slipped under the radar?
One of the most outspoken personalities on the Nextel Cup circuit, Harvick has quietly become a Nextel Cup championship contender without much fanfare. With his fifth Top 5 in a row, Harvick has moved up to third in points, and remains in contention to become the first driver in series history to win both the Busch Series and Nextel Cup titles in the same year, an almost unthinkable accomplishment as little as six years ago; yet, it seems Harvick's decision to replace Burney Lamar for one race in his Busch Series car has gotten more publicity.
That's what happens, I guess, when you lead the Busch Series standings by so many points you turn the title race into a rout. That's what happens, too, when you go from being on shaky ground with Richard Childress and your entire team to resigning a long-term deal in April and rebuffing a multi-million dollar offer from Toyota.
Between the tenacity of defending champion Tony Stewart, the career year comeback story of RCR teammate Jeff Burton, and the consistency of Matt Kenseth, Harvick is hardly the sole title contender in a race that's clearly Jimmie Johnson's to lose. But with two wins already this season, he can hardly be counted out.
5) What happens next in the Ray Evernham, Robert Yates, Elliott Sadler, and Jeremy Mayfield saga?
Sources say it's all but assured the details will work themselves out in the next week, with Sadler moving over from Yates to take Mayfield's place in the No. 19 Dodge. As for the No. 38 he leaves behind, it's clearly David Gilliland's call as to whether or not he wants the car for the final 12 races, with Mayfield mentioned as a surprising fill-in. More surprising to me is that Ward Burton's name hasn't come up, even though it's common knowledge he had been working with Yates for months on a sponsor deal, a surefire sign that deal may now be on life support. Ironically, both the No. 19 and No. 38 cars found the gravel trap on Sunday, a surefire indication of how their seasons have gone. At least Sadler recovered from his incident to finish 8th, a strong ending to his career at RYR if it is over, while Bill Elliott struggled to 27th in a one race deal with old car owner Evernham.
Tony Stewart – While his winning streak at the Glen came to an end, Smoke ran strong all day and began to show signs of the summer streak most have been expecting. Ending a bit of a mini-slump, the second place finish was the first Top 5 for Stewart since winning Daytona the first week of July, and gave him some breathing room as he looks to lock up his spot in the Chase.
Jamie McMurray – In both the Busch Series and Nextel Cup races this weekend, McMurray found himself third heading into the final lap behind two aggressive drivers that could have easily wrecked each other fighting for the victory. Unfortunately, neither situation went McMurray's way, but his third place in Cup was his best run since Dover in June, and put a positive spin on what has been a frustrating season with Roush.
Robby Gordon – Anything less than a win at a road course is disappointing for Gordon, but he has to be satisfied with a 4th place finish after crashing at Infineon earlier this year. With Robby's best result of 2006 just 10th entering this weekend, this run could be the lift this team needs to sneak into the Top 20 in points by season's end.
Scott Pruett – No question, 2006 has been the year most of the road course ringers would like to forget, with just one cracking the Top 10 in both races. At Watkins Glen, Pruett held up the flag, running conservative all day to ensure a solid 7th place finish and, more importantly, get the No. 40 team the breathing room it needed to stay in the Top 35 in owner points for the foreseeable future.
Greg Biffle: A rarity that drivers get included on this list two weeks in a row, Biffle's poor luck made it impossible to leave him out. After a crash in qualifying had him starting from the rear, Biffle was moving up slowly but surely; that is, until Kyle Petty decided to take his front bumper and move Biffle into the fence just before the inner loop. Forced into the garage for repairs, the No. 16 placed 38th, and Biffle's 2006 championship future has been officially changed from "who may sneak in" to "what might have been."
Kasey Kahne : Since Biffle made the list twice…Kahne can't help but get added, too. The No. 9 team had high hopes after Kahne began the day on the outside of the front row, but it seemed they could never quite hang with the leaders. Still, Kahne was in position to finish reasonably well, until for the second straight race, he lost control on the second to last corner of the last lap. Just like that, Kahne was down to 22nd, and his mission to make the Chase had lapsed into critical condition.
MB2 Motorsports : While a seven car incident two thirds of the way through the race collected Chase contenders Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch, it was MB2 that ingested the most Tylenols after that headache. Both Sterling Marlin and Joe Nemechek had their cars too damaged to continue, giving the team eight DNFs between the two cars. 30th and 35th in owner points, these teams haven't been disappointing this season - they've been disastrous.
Terry Labonte : After finishing third at Infineon, longtime fans were hopeful Texas Terry could work that magic once again in his final start on a road course; but before the race was 5 laps old, Labonte's chances for the win went cold. A broken rear end sent the team behind the wall for 10 laps for repairs, and Labonte spent the day nursing the car home to 37th.
For all the shuffling that occurred on the race track at Watkins Glen, the Top 10 in Nextel Cup points remained fairly stable. Jimmie Johnson finished 17th, but was able to extend his lead to 124 over 21st place finisher Matt Kenseth. Harvick's win moved him past teammate Burton for third in points, with Kyle Busch holding steady in fifth place, 370 out of the lead.
Mark Martin remained in sixth, with Tony Stewart's second place run moving up two spots from ninth to seventh. Denny Hamlin and Jeff Gordon each dropped a spot to eighth and ninth, while Dale Earnhardt, Jr. held his ground in tenth. Dale, Jr. remains 54 points ahead of Kasey Kahne for the final spot in the Chase, with Kurt Busch now 12th, but 172 points out of the Top 10 and a longshot at best to make it in.
"I think to race Tony, who obviously everybody knows is one of my good friends and has won here a lot and a lot on the road courses, makes (the win) that much more special because you had to beat the guy that's been on top here." Kevin Harvick
"At the end it was fun, racing with Jamie, and my buddy Kevin Harvick there, it's two guys who you trust when you're around them. You know you can race side by side with them and not have a problem. We didn't, we didn't have any trouble there." Tony Stewart
"We put ourselves in position for NASCAR to make a call, and it didn't end up in our favor. Bottom line. Each week, it's a new call and when you put yourself in position for them to make a call they're not going to make it. There was no missing the commitment line. I was on pit road when the green light was on when I made (the commitment)." Kurt Busch
With the road course portion of the schedule complete, NASCAR heads back to both the ovals and the tranquility of Brooklyn, Michigan, for a second go round at 2-mile Michigan International Speedway. The GFS Marketplace 400 comes your way live at 2:00 PM ET on TNT and your local MRN affiliate.
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