To the Point: Taking a trip to Bristol is like taking two straight pulls on the slot machine at Vegas; you never quite know what you're going to get, and the chances of hitting big twice in a row are slim to none.
Guess Matt Kenseth has amazing luck.
Kenseth passed Dale Earnhardt, Jr. to take the lead on lap 399 and went on to lead all but one of the final 102 laps to win the Sharpie 500 Saturday night, becoming the first driver since Dale Earnhardt in 1987-88 to win back-to-back August races at Bristol. Sweeping both the Busch and Cup Series races on the weekend, Kenseth built a comfortable margin of .591 seconds at the finish between himself and second place Kyle Busch, with Junior, Scott Riggs, and Jeff Gordon rounding out the Top 5 finishers.
Who Should Have Won: Kenseth. Jeff Burton may have led the most laps, pacing the field for 263 of the first 381 circuits, but when it was time to shine, the DeWalt Ford Fusion driven by Kenseth was the one who stepped up to the plate. In the last 100 lap segment, the No. 17 car was flat out in a league of its own, never being significantly challenged while dicing through traffic like it was racing at Michigan the previous weekend, not a half-mile short track with one primary groove. Kenseth's skill was rewarded with his second straight win on the Cup tour, the first time he's done so since February 2004.
Five Questions You Should be Asking After the Race Weekend:
1) Who's the championship favorite just two races from the Chase - Johnson, Kenseth, or someone else?
Having led the points most of the season, Johnson still has a slight edge, especially since he's visited Victory Lane in the series' biggest races this season - Daytona and Indianapolis. Clearly, though, Kenseth is going to pose a strong challenge to Johnson heading into the championship fight. His two straight wins this month have also been paired with a runner up finish at Indy, while Johnson has followed up his win at the Brickyard with ho-hum finishes of 17th, 13th, and 10th, leading exactly 1 lap in that span in comparison to Kenseth's 204. Those numbers add to a chilling stat for Johnson; in the last five races in the regular season the past three years, he's had just two Top 5 finishes in 13 opportunities. Let's put it this way: it could be critical for the No. 48 team's morale to pad those stats before Richmond, otherwise the No. 17 bunch steals the favorite's role.
2) When will Jeff Burton win a race?
More and more, the season is looking like a disappointment for Burton if he can't find a way to get back to Victory Lane. For the fifth time in the last seven races, the Cingular Chevrolet led a significant portion of the race, this time pacing the field for 208 of the first 250 circuits at Bristol. Like clockwork, though, as the race ticks away the No. 31 car suffers a meltdown, and Saturday was no different, with Burton tumbling backwards to ninth over the final 100 laps. Afterwards, the frustration from the entire organization was evident, and it's rather obvious that unless Burton puts it together at the checkered flag, this team's appearance in the Chase will be nothing more than thatâ€¦an appearance.
3) Why was Bristol so tame this time around?
Usually, the night race at Bristol resembles the type of fireworks one rarely sees on the politically correct NASCAR tour nowadays, with fighting, bumping, and backstabbing a regular occurrence. This year, though, the field spent most of this night playing nice, with the race's 10 cautions the second lowest total for a night race at Bristol this decade. Even more surprising, half those yellows weren't caused by bumping and banging but from one car tire failures (more on that later). So, why the politeness? It seems the answer might lie with points and Silly Season. For the drivers up front, the points are so close that one slip-up by anyone 3rd through 11th would knock them out of the Chase for good, and with so many vulnerable, too many people spent the night trying not to be the victim. Not only that, but with Silly Season settled earlier every year, the drivers towards the back of the pack in points aren't fighting for their jobs, so there's not much desperation, either. Bristol needs desperationâ€¦when you don't have it, you don't wreck.
4) Waitâ€¦say this to me againâ€¦tire failuresâ€¦at Bristol?
That's right. With several long runs Saturday night, it appeared that both crew chiefs and Goodyear were caught off guard with the possibility that a race here might go green for longer than 50 laps; when it did, someone's right front tire was living on borrowed time. It didn't help that the track surface was falling apart, either; hopefully, a repave job during 2007 will help alleviate the problems that were being seen for future races.
5) Is Robert Yates Racing in more trouble than we're being led to believe?
Well, the alarm wasn't sent out for Todd Parrott to return home just because things were going hunky dory. At one point, the team looked to expand to three cars in June with Ward Burton, Stephen Leicht, and Elliott Sadler. Now, Gilliland has torn up three cars in two weeks, and so far has shown nothing but indicators that he needs more time in Busch. At least Citifinancial realized that with Leicht, stating point blank to Yates they don't want their driver in Cup before 2008. With Burton's sponsor deal dead, that just leaves Yates with one car for 2007, barring an unforeseen miracle; and with the Toyota onslaught coming, keeping that car in the Top 35 will be a chore in itself. Hard to believe we could see a one car Yates team with DNQs next year, but that's certainly possible.
Kyle Busch: After a 39th at Michigan, Bristol was make or break for Kyle, and although he doesn't have his brother's talent at this trackâ€¦yetâ€¦he certainly took it up a notch here Saturday night. Running smart and focused, Busch forged his way through the field to 2nd, and he's now a strong fourth in points and fairly safe for the Chase.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.: Starting 40th, Junior's car was junk at Bristol all weekendâ€¦until the drop of the green, when it suddenly jumpstarted to life. By lap 117, Tony Eury, Jr. had used pit strategy to bring the No. 8 car to the front, and they never really faltered after that, with Junior bringing the car home in 3rd after fading late to both Kenseth and Busch. Still vulnerable to the Chase, Junior's confidence level is at least rock solid once again.
Scott Riggs: It's a bit of a longshot, but what if Riggs comes back this season and finishes 11th in points after missing the Daytona 500? It'd be quite a story, and the No. 10 team is doing everything they can to make it happen. The 4th place finish at Bristol was a season high for Riggs and moved him up to 19th in the standings, and the spunk Riggs showed in a postrace conversation with Jeff Gordon after the race showed he's not about to back down from his newfound instensity (see Quotable section for more).
Michael Waltrip: Not a misprint here; for the first time this season, the NAPA car actually showed signs of life. Waltrip quietly ran on the lead lap until the final few laps of the race, keeping his nose clean and packing his bags from Bristol with a 16th place result, a season best for his fledgling team. Not overly impressiveâ€¦but something to build on, for sure.
Greg Biffle: When The Biff looks back on this season after missing the Chase, he'll realize that it's not so much that his team went backwards this year rather than it suffered from too many bad breaks. After handling problems landed him a ho-hum 19th place finish, the No. 16 bunch would need a miracle next week to even have an opportunity to try to qualify for the Chase at Richmond.
Kasey Kahne: Yes, in one sense Kahne's 12th place finish at Bristol isn't all bad, considering he has yet to climb higher than 10th here in six starts. But with many of his Chase competitors running well around him, Kahne needed a better performance to put his championship destiny in his own hands; now, he needs to rely more on Mark Martin's "bad luck":/tbowles/4898/, or the bad luck of someone else.
Kyle Petty: Completing 1,499 of a possible 1,500 laps his last three starts at Bristol, this track is still one where the Petty Enterprises leader runs wellâ€¦but not this time. While attempting to dive underneath Dave Blaney entering turn one, Kyle dug his own grave and spun out; struggling to a 34th place finish after that, 19 laps down, the No. 45 car is now just one more bad race away from having to qualify on speed. Ruh roh.
Clint Bowyer: With his Chase hopes destroyed, Carl Edwards may have the better reason to be mad at Tony Stewart, but Bowyer is the driver that is still struggling to recover from that Pocono incident. Bowyer has been inconsistent with a 4th, a 14th, and a 33rd since then, and was mediocre at Bristol before a wheel came off the car, crashing him hard into the turn three wall and hurtling him towards a 38th place finish.
Editor's Note: For more on Mark Martin's tough day, please read this week's "Bowles-Eye View":/tbowles/4898.
Kenseth's second win in a row really tightened up the battle at the top of the points race between him and Johnson; the two are now a mere seven points apart with two races left in the regular season. Behind them, Kevin Harvick remained third, with Kyle Busch vaulting three spots to fourth and Jeff Gordon inching up one spot to round out the Top 5.
Denny Hamlin jumps two spots to sixth, with Jeff Burton up two to seventh and Tony Stewart dropping three to eighth after a mediocre, uncharacteristic 22nd place at Bristol. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. creeps up one spot to ninth, while Mark Martin tumbles a whopping six spots to round out the Top 10. Martin is 90 points ahead of Kasey Kahne for that last Chase spot, with Kahne the only driver within shouting distance of the ten contenders with two races remaining.
"I didn't think we had quite the car today, honestly. I thought Jeff Burton had everybody covered, but once you get to the lead - even at the half-mile tracks - clean air helped my car. If the 5 would beat us out of the pits, he would have won." Matt Kenseth
"It's just a rough day when all the guys in front of you in points finish ahead of you in the race. There are so many good race teams right now. We've got to figure out how to be better than them." Kasey Kahne
"I just tried to tell him (Jeff Gordon) good job, good race, and he tried to tell me to pass him on the straightaway. I did the same thing he would have done. He was holding me up in the middle of the corner, and when I was away from him he was driving a whole car length up in the corners. When I got to him the last 15 laps he was on the bottom. I could have dumped him, but I didn't. I told him good hard racing, and he would have done the same thing." Scott Riggs on Jeff Gordon
"I was definitely holding him up. There was no doubt about it. There are ways to pass, and hey I've been there before and moved guys. I was more concerned that he was going to spin me outâ€¦when you get more experience racing with the guys up front, you do things a little bit different." Jeff Gordon on Scott Riggs
With two races left, NASCAR heads out West for its newly minted Labor Day adventure, Sunday night racing in California. Hopefully, the crowd comes with them this time. The Sony HD 500 comes your way live from Fontana at 7:00 PM EST on NBC and your local MRN affiliate.
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