Coming into California, there were a number of unknowns. New spoiler and tire rules. New Dodge Charger. New drivers trying to take their turn at the front of the pack. But at the end of the day, it was the hard-charging veteran from the West Coast who picked up where he left off at the end of 2004.
Greg Biffle won his second straight non-restrictor plate race on the Nextel Cup tour Sunday, taking the Auto Club 500 by a handful of car lengths over Jimmie Johnson and teammate Kurt Busch. Biffle’s victory, the 4th of his career, backed up some strong statements he made at the beginning of the race weekend. Biffle had claimed heading into Sunday that he had the fastest car after qualifying 5th for the race, and that he would jump up to take the lead after just five laps. Turned out he was wrong; It took him just four laps.
However, victory lane wouldn’t come easy for the Post-It/National Guard Ford, as Biffle had to survive getting trapped a lap down under caution after making a green-flag pit stop to charge back and take the win. That mistake happened on lap 107, when debris from a blown tire brought out the third caution of the day and trapped frontrunners Kurt Busch, Greg Biffle, and Ryan Newman one lap down. Of those three, Biffle and Busch got their lap back on the next caution flag when Dave Blaney hit the wall on lap 144; still, both drivers had to charge through another 25 cars who still remained on the lead lap. The Roush drivers found it hard to charge through traffic, stuck in midpack as the laps wound down, and the race appeared to have been handed to MB2 Motorsports driver Joe Nemechek. Nemechek, who led the most laps on the day, took the lead after the lap 107 caution and led nearly unchallenged until his engine blew with just a shade under 75 laps remaining. A disappointed Nemechek finished 39th.
The U.S. Army car’s misfortune then appeared to send the race into a showdown between Kevin Harvick and young Carl Edwards, shooting for his first career Nextel Cup win. However, a series of late cautions changed the outcome of the event. With 33 laps remaining, Jason Leffler’s engine blew to bring out the final caution, just a handful of laps after the field had been to pit road under another yellow for Michael Waltrip’s blown engine. Leaders Harvick, Jeff Gordon, Johnson, and others stopped for four tires; Edwards did as well, although a bad pit stop on the earlier caution, combined with a logjam on pit road, had shuffled him back in the pack and taken him out of contention for the win.
While most of the lead lap cars came in for four tires and fuel, four drivers decided to stay out and gamble with the tires they already had: Kurt Busch, Biffle, Mark Martin, and Rusty Wallace. And when the green flag waved on lap 222, Busch and Biffle, now up front, used the clean air to quickly pull away and settle the race amongst themselves. Biffle passed Busch for the lead on lap 228, and then held onto a loose handling race car to make it to the checkered flag.
Johnson tried to make the last laps interesting, cutting through traffic and charging from over half a straightaway behind with four fresh tires to chase down Busch and Biffle with just two laps to go. Johnson slipped underneath Busch and passed him for second on the white flag lap, but the side-by-side battle with Busch cost him the momentum he needed to get up to Biffle, and the Lowe’s Chevrolet was forced to settle for second.
Jamie McMurray, who took two tires on his final stop, finished fourth, the best of the new Dodge Chargers, which struggled in their first non-restrictor plate event. Carl Edwards came back from his two poor pit stops to finish fifth, followed by Kevin Harvick, who struggled after his final stop and never advanced back through the field. Mark Martin’s gamble didn’t work as well as Busch’s and Biffle’s, but his seventh-place finish gave Jack Roush four cars in the top seven spots. Elliott Sadler finished eighth after a two-tire stop, and Ryan Newman, who finally got his lap back during one of the late cautions, charged all the way up to ninth by race’s end. His teammate Rusty Wallace completed the Top 10.
Further down on the final results, several drivers found themselves struggling away from Daytona glory. Dale Earnhardt Jr. followed up a spectacular 3rd at Daytona with a miserable run at California; the team suffered multiple flat tires on the left front of the car which put the team many laps down, and the Budweiser Chevrolet finished 13 laps down in 33rd. Scott Riggs was 4th at Daytona, but developed problems with the Hendrick engine in his Chevrolet and finished 33rd. In fact, Hendrick engines seemed to be failing left and right, with Nemechek, Riggs, front row starter Brian Vickers, and Daytona 500 winner Jeff Gordon all experiencing problems. Gordon’s engine bit the dust while he was running in the top five with just a handful of laps to go; he faded to 30th by race’s end.
And then, there are those drivers who have decided to start the season with the monkey on their back. Ricky Rudd was turned into the wall by Bill Elliott and then had his engine fail, giving him his second poor finish in a row. Kasey Kahne followed up a Daytona crash with another one in California, losing control of the car on his own while running 3rd. Matt Kenseth suffered a flat tire and finished 26th to go along with a 42nd at Daytona. And then there was Michael Waltrip, who had his engine blow for the second straight race, a string of bad luck which had him wondering aloud on the radio, “It’s going to be hard to keep my job at this rate.”
After his second straight runner-up finish, Kurt Busch took the points lead in the Nextel Cup standings by 5 points over Jimmie Johnson. Mark Martin, Carl Edwards, and Greg Biffle round out the top five, giving Jack Roush four drivers in the thick of the points race. Elliott Sadler, Tony Stewart, Rusty Wallace, Sterling Marlin, and Jeff Gordon complete the Nextel Cup Top 10. The series now takes a week off before returning to action in Las Vegas on March 13th.
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