To the Point: When Matt Kenseth starts near the front, you can be assured the rest of the field is in big trouble.
Starting a season-best third, the DeWalt Ford caught fire in the second half of the race at Michigan and simply smoked the field, surviving both caution flags and pit strategy to lead 67 of the last 75 laps and take the checkered flag in Sunday's Nextel Cup event. In what was nearly a replay of Chicagoland one month earlier, Jeff Gordon found himself with a strong car in the closing laps that could gain on Kenseth, but this time he couldn't make up the distance and was forced to settle for second. Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne, and Mark Martin rounded out the Top 5.
Who Should Have Won: Kenseth. Several others had strong cars that fell back due to problems of their own making; Dale Earnhardt, Jr.'s crew missed a lugnut that had him fighting back from 20th late in the race, and Carl Edwards messed up the aero on the front of his Ford in the final 50 laps. Even if those two had been able to stay up front, though, it was clear Kenseth would have held them off, and while second place Gordon was strong, it was too little, too late.
Five Questions You Should be Asking After the Race Weekend:
1) How long will it take for David Gilliland and Elliott Sadler to get up to speed with their new teams?
For Sadler, it should still take a couple of weeks, as the No. 19 team he inherits is very much in a state of disarray. Still, he had an amazing debut, qualifying second and benefiting from a late pit call by crew chief Chris Andrews to get the car a season-best finish of 10th. As for Gilliland, the road might be a bit tougherâ€¦tearing up one car in Nextel Cup final practice and a second one during the race, he's certainly a rookie that will go through some growing pains, although the Yates clan is willing to let him wreck their entire fleet the rest of this year if necessary in exchange for a promising future. Everyone agrees Gilliland has that; don't get your hopes up for this year, though.
2) Does Mark Martin's declaration Todd Kluever will drive the 06 in 2007 carry much weight?
It looks more and more like a smokescreen all the time. Martin may want Kluever to take over, but it's clear more than ever after this weekend he clearly isn't ready for Nextel Cup. After tearing up his primary car in Friday practice, Kluever came out and qualified with no laps on the backup car, putting it in 38th spot. Any respect gained with Roush from that impressive performance, though, was exchanged with disappointment after an early wreck left him in the garage area in 43rd after completing just 10 laps. Combine that with Kluever breaking not one, but two transmissions in a row in the Busch Series, a rarity nowadays, and Mark better be prepared to sign the Cup contract that's heading his way.
3) Other than Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson, can anyone else be considered a Chase lock with three races left?
No - not even Kevin Harvick, third in points and a chunky 216 ahead of 11th place Kasey Kahne. What's the reason? Two short tracks known as Bristol and Richmond. With unpredictable wrecks leaving you an innocent victim more often than not, the possibility exists that any of these drivers can bite the bad luck bug two races in a row and find themselves on the outside looking in before they snap their fingers. Bottom line, other than the top two no one else should begin to take it easyâ€¦otherwise, they'll be taking it easy racing for 11th the rest of the year.
4) What was with the record number of caution flags on Sunday?
Good, hard racing, that's what. The track set a record with 10 cautions, and while a few were for tire failures, there didn't seem to be any consistent problem. More of the yellows seemed to be caused by drivers simply losing control racing hard, such as Kevin Harvick's spin while battling for the lead heading to lap 23. Overall, the race was aggressive and easily one of the best seen all year; the panic heading to the Chase has a lot to do with that, as well as Michigan's wide, multiple grooves.
5) What would have happened if Jeff Gordon actually caught Matt Kenseth?
No one knows for sure, but it seemed the two drivers are handling that incident in two different ways. Here's what happened when they were asked about it.
Kenseth's Take: "I forgot about it. Do you want more than that? Honestly, I guess, I thought of Las Vegas, Bristol and Chicago, because all three of them races I ended up losing and the guys put me in position to win, and all three of them races the last run we had our car a little too tight, similar to what we were today on our last set of tires."
Gordon's Take: "It was fun running Matt (Kenseth) down there and battling up front. I wish we had a few more laps but that's probably a good makeup for what happened in Chicago. I think that I would have liked to have gotten up there and shown I could pass him clean and race him clean, because I like racing with Matt."
Kasey Kahne: It may not have been a win, and Kahne may not have led any laps Sunday, but fourth certainly felt almost as good as Victory Lane. His first Top 5 since his Michigan win in June, this medicine was just what Kahne needed as he heads to a track at Bristol where he typically struggles next week.
Mark Martin: Another driver who never had the car to win but was consistently capable of running up front, Martin drove a clean, conservative race to finish fifth and all but lock up his spot in the Chase. As long as Bristol and Richmond don't deal him two wrecks, it'd be a real shock to see the No. 6 team not make it.
Greg Biffle: After wrecking out at Watkins Glen, Biffle was in need of a "bounce back" race, and Michigan provided just that, as the 16 team had themselves in good shape all day and came home 7th. The unfortunate thing for Biffle is he failed to really pull closer to a Chase spotâ€¦ but at least he kept the leaders within sight, and that's all you can ask for on a day where other drivers specialized in eliminating themselves from contention.
Reed Sorenson: Quickly, Michigan is becoming Sorenson's favorite Cup track. After finishing 5th in June, the No. 41 car didn't run strong until late in the race, when, for the second time in a row here, the team used pit strategy to move their way into the Top 10. However, the car was good enough to stay there, and Sorenson ended up in 8th place, giving him his first track in history with two career Nextel Cup Top 10s.
Jeff Burton: Sunday's polesitter, Burton, had high hopes his winless streak would finally end on this day; but the engine had other ideas. Dropping back from the start, the No. 31 car lost an engine after lap 17, and the 42nd place finish dropped Burton from a near lock for the Chase to downright questionable should something like that happen again in the next three events.
Kurt Busch: One week after a devastating penalty, it appears the 2 team has finally been shot in the foot one too many times. Complaining of handling problems from the drop of the green flag, Busch in general began dropping like a rock before finally losing control to cause a caution not once, but twice. The second time, the outside wall took a good chunk out of the Miller Lite car, and Busch was forced to settle for 40th, making him all but officially out of the Chase.
Kyle Busch: Just like with his brother, Kyle had a case of sheer bad luck on Sunday, with a possible flat tire the culprit of a wreck that sent him into the fence. Finishing 39th, Kyle is vulnerable heading to a track at Bristol where paybacks are ugly and oftenâ€¦ something Kyle should be very aware of the next 500 laps.
J.J. Yeley: If you had forgotten "young gun" Yeley is still a rookie, you had to be reminded on Sunday, with a wreck causing the young driver to total his third race car on the weekend (2 Cup cars, 1 Busch car). Guessing this track won't be one of Yeley's favorites for a long time to come.
With Sunday's win, Kenseth took a sizeable chunk out of Jimmie Johnson's point lead, as Johnson smacked the wall on lap 1 and struggled all day, eventually finishing 13th. The lead now stands at 58 points with three races left until the Chase; both drivers also "clinched" their spots Sunday, meaning they are "locked in" to the Chase unless both of them fail to start the final three races.
Behind the top two, it's nailbiting, to say the least. Kevin Harvick remains third, 317 behind, with Mark Martin fourth, 395 back and the only other driver within 400 points. The margin between Martin and 10th place Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is just 89 points, with Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, and Jeff Gordon all lodged in between.
Kasey Kahne remains in 11th place, now just 49 behind Junior and 10th place, while Greg Biffle has become the only other driver with a realistic chance of making that Chase, 189 points back of Junior in 12th.
"It always feels good to win. It's always special to win here at Michigan with Jack and having his whole operation right down the road in Livonia and that's where it all comes from and where it all started. It's good to come here and win with all the people from Roush Industries here and all the people from Ford, too." Matt Kenseth
I think the biggest thing that happened, probably, is that we wrecked his car so hard at Chicago and the guys back in the shop put this car back together pretty much the way it was, and I think that made a big difference for us this weekend because the car ran just like it was, and that was key." Robbie Reiser, crew chief for Matt Kenseth
"That was one more off the list. If we can get through Bristol without wrecking, it'll look pretty good." Mark Martin On The Chase
"I did adjust it on the wall - but it tightened it up a little too much. I just made a misjudgment there. We had a great car all day, Office Depot, and all of guys did a great job. I had fun, right up until that. We'll just go on, keep our heads up, the worse thing we can do right now is get down, but it's just another one of those days. My guys did great. Everyone did a great job." Carl Edwards
A far cry from the Irish Hills of Michigan, the series next heads down to the concrete half-mile in Bristol, Tennessee, for one of the most anticipated races of the year - the annual Saturday night short track shootout under the lights. The Sharpie 500 comes your way live at 7:00 PM EST on TNT and your local PRN affiliate.
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