Editor’s Note : Becca Gladden has this Wednesday off of Big Six and will return to the column next week. In the meantime, Managing Editor Tom Bowles takes her place!
Each week, the Frontstretch looks at the prior weekend’s NEXTEL Cup race as if we were back in journalism class, covering the “Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How” of the race, the drivers, even the commercials. Check back every Wednesday for the fun and thought-provoking commentary of the Big Six.
Who ... Is the only Chase contender currently with a streak of seven straight Top 10s? The answer, surprisingly enough, is not Kenseth or Gordon but Denny Hamlin. The rookie’s solid sixth place finish at California left him in decent shape to make the Chase with one race to go; quietly consistent over the past month, Hamlin has developed the potential to become a darkhorse for the title in just his first season. The future keys to success for Denny? Avoiding both bad luck and the weary eyes of us media types, who will swing back his way should he jump out to a solid start in the Chase the next few weeks.
What ... Happens to Jeff Burton’s race car the last 100 miles of every race? Do they throw in lead weights through the passenger window? Do they give Burton a cup of poison and call it Gatorade? Do they start getting too aggressive in their quest to finally get a win? No matter what the real reason is, any adjustments or decisions made to the Cingular Chevrolet automatically send Burton drifting backwards after running up front all day, and it’s getting frustrating for all involved. California was no exception; the last set of adjustments turned Burton from a Top 10 race car into a 16th place also-ran, losing 20 or so points he may desperately want back when the checkered flag falls at Richmond Saturday night.
Where ... Did Jimmie Johnson go to relax the week the racing was at his hometown track? Why, that’s easy…Alaska. Yes, Alaska…looking to get away from the pressure of the Chase, Johnson embarked on a fishing trip with buddy Casey Mears, among others, in order to clear his mind for the upcoming battle for the championship. Unfortunately, the cool weather up north did nothing but add to the chill he’s been experiencing with his race car lately; Johnson failed to lead a lap for the third straight event, and watched his point lead disappear to Matt Kenseth with one race to the Chase.
When ... Is Paul Tracy going to begin to grasp oval track racing in a stock car, if at all? In Saturday’s Busch race at California, he clearly showed his rookie stripes, making contact which J.J. Yeley that indirectly caused a major wreck in turn one a short time later. Eventually, Tracy wrecked out and placed 42nd, adding to his dismal record in the limited schedule he’s driving this season. In six Busch events, Tracy has yet to place higher than 24th; yet, despite his struggles, the Champ Car vet has announced he’ll be running more Busch races next year for Riley-D’Hondt Motorsports. Tracy’s reputation in open wheel keeps the doors open for now…but they can’t stay open long if he stays racing at the back.
Why ... When California-haters make their argument that the track shouldn’t have a second date do they always fail to mention the heat? This year’s Labor Day weekend was particularly unbearable in Ontario, with the thermometer hitting 95 for much of the weekend. The race apparently failed to sell out once again, but who can blame the fans for not coming out? The 4:00 PM start date is the worst possible time to begin the race in blistering heat, with many fans sitting in seats that have no shading. Southern 500 aside, if this track needs two dates, they’re better off in April (better fan interest) and October (better weather).
How ... Impressive has the reliability at a track like California become? In a 500-mile race, just one car found itself in the garage area by the checkered flag; Robby Gordon’s Chevrolet, whose transmission broke back after 193 laps were completed. That means that in two California races this year, 81 of a possible 86 cars finished the race, with the least amount of laps anyone completed being 386 of a possible 500 miles. That’s a pretty good record for a race that used to be a lot tougher on equipment.
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