The Frontstretch: Frontstretch Breakdown : Subway 500 by Thomas Bowles -- Sunday October 22, 2006

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Frontstretch Breakdown : Subway 500

Thomas Bowles · Sunday October 22, 2006

 

To the Point: Emotional in Victory Lane, Jimmie Johnson captured a special opportunity to honor innocent lives lost, two years later. In doing so, he suddenly has a chance at his first Nextel Cup title once again…one that seemed lost as recently as two weeks ago.

Surviving a thrilling duel with rookie Denny Hamlin in the final six laps, Johnson held on to win by a car length at Martinsville's tricky short track. The win marked his first checkered flag at the track since the tragic Hendrick Motorsports plane crash killed 10 people the day the No. 48 team won here in 2004. Hamlin held on for second, with Bobby Labonte, Tony Stewart, and Jeff Gordon rounding out the Top 5. In the points race, Jeff Burton's engine expired early, knocking him out of the top spot and closing up the championship Chase - Matt Kenseth now leads the standings, but eight of the ten drivers are within 100 points of the lead with four races left.

Who Should Have Won: Johnson. Usually, teammate Jeff Gordon is the class of the field at this track, but this time it was the Lowe's Chevrolet that had no trouble running up front. Leading a race-high 245 laps, Johnson fell back to 10th after pitting under caution with 100 laps to go - but while other frontrunners got stuck in traffic, Johnson moved forward with ease, taking the lead for the final time from Bobby Labonte on lap 445. The fact he never gave it back is impressive considering the amount of times Hamlin hit the the No. 48 in the closing stages; on the restart from the race's final caution on lap 494, Johnson's vehicle was treated more like a bumper car than a race car, but he was able to keep control and hang on for the win.

Five Questions You Should Be Asking After the Race Weekend:

1) Was Sunday typical short track racing, or were drivers being a little too overaggressive?

Overaggressive. 18 cautions on Sunday were one short of the race record, and too many yellows were caused by bumps that didn't have to happen. The biggest offenders were "rookies":/tbowles/ , but veterans weren't completely guilt-free; Ryan Newman and Casey Mears were among those involved in several bumpfests that turned to frustration…then spinouts. In all, 27 of the 43 starters were officially involved in some sort of accident, and less than a half dozen race cars ended the event completely "clean." Of course, that's part of what a short track is all about…but those numbers should be lower.

2) Why didn't more drivers stay out on old tires instead of pitting over the final 100 laps?

Most drivers on the lead lap pitted for their final fuel stop with 160 laps left; with the boatload of cautions that occurred after that, it would have been easy for any of them to make it the rest of the way. Shockingly, though, almost all lead lap cars pitted one more time for tires and gas during a caution on lap 401. Six drivers didn't - including Bobby Labonte, Casey Mears and Jeff Gordon, all of whom finished in the Top 6.

What a surprise! Choosing track position over tires on a track where it's always impossible to pass…and you get a good finish. Meanwhile, cars who ran up front before that caution, like Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Carl Edwards, Kasey Kahne, and others, never quite made it back to the positions they were in before they pitted despite fresh rubber.

This scenario happens every year at Martinsville…yet, every year crew chiefs make the same mistake of bringing their cars to pit road too late in the race. It's amazing.

3) How badly did Denny Hamlin want that race?

As bad as he wanted Richmond, if not more so. For the second time this year, the Virginian let it all hang out at a hometown track, only to come up just short and settle for second. This time, though, he stepped a bit over the line; Johnson was respectful in his post-race interview, but he shouldn't have been so kind. The amount of bodyslamming Hamlin did to the No. 48 car over the final six laps nearly took both contenders out, and showed that the youngster does still have that yellow stripe on his back bumper. Luckily, this turned into a case of no harm, no foul.

4) How would you judge Ward Burton's comeback?

About average. Driving for a single car team that has yet to finish in the Top 15 this season, Ward didn't have the best equipment, and it showed. Of course, merely qualifying for the event was impressive after two years out of the sport, and while the No. 4 car was spun out at one point, Burton kept the car in one piece during the race. But even after a series of Lucky Dogs put Ward on the lead lap late, he failed to take advantage…ultimately coming home 26th. Certainly, everyone wants the likeable driver back in the sport, and the finish should get him a second chance in the No. 4 car…but I doubt Robert Yates took a second look after that performance, you know?

5) Alright, so who has the upper hand in the Chase NOW, you so-called expert?

This thing has just taken on a life of its own. Usually, everyone has one mulligan in the Chase…but so many drivers have had two, some three, that everybody has been able to stay alive simply by default. While Burton may have started a fade most have been waiting for Sunday, Johnson clearly made a big move with his win, closing to within 41 points of new point leader Kenseth. But with 1.5-mile tracks looming, it's the No. 17 team that should have the upper hand now that they're back on top of the standings. If anything, it seems Kahne might be Kenseth's biggest challenger…after ending Kansas 273 points out of the lead, he's gained 174 points the last three weeks, and he won at both Atlanta and Texas in the Spring, the next two tracks on the schedule.

Solid Days

Petty Enterprises – Initially, this didn't look to be their day. Kyle started the day 14th, but spun out before the race got to lap 5 and went to the rear; Bobby Labonte started 30th, got mired back in traffic, and went a lap down. For once, though, luck went this team's way; Petty didn't suffer damage in the spin and worked his way to the front with a strong car, while Labonte used both the Lucky Dog, then pit strategy to assume the lead shortly after lap 400. As the laps clicked down, fans stood in anticipation of the No. 43's first victory since 1999, as Labonte had a front-row seat to the side-by-side antics of Johnson and Hamlin; while the Cheerios Dodge came up just short, his 3rd place finish - combined with Kyle's 10th - marked the first time two Petty cars finished in the Top 10 since Phoenix in November of 1999.

Jeff Gordon – Anything less than a race win at Martinsville is a disappointment for Gordon, but considering his streak of three straight DNFs, finishing 5th is something to be proud of. Dominant early, Gordon led 165 laps, contending until crew chief Steve LeTarte brought the DuPont Chevrolet in to pit under caution on lap 366, 30 laps earlier than the leaders. While the strategy eventually worked out, Gordon damaged his car during the short period of time he ran midpack, ruining the handling just enough so they couldn’t win. Still, Gordon now technically has an outside shot at the title, 141 back with four races to go…and no one would have thought that possible after last week.

Jeff Green – Reunited this week with new crew chief Harold Holly, Green was happy for two reasons; not only did the pair win the Busch Series title together in 2000, but the move was a sign Haas CNC actually will keep its driver for more than a full season, the first time in team history that's happened. With a vote of confidence assured, team and driver responded; Green brought the car home eighth for his second Top 10 in three races.

Matt Kenseth – 11th isn't all that great for what's supposed to be a championship team, but considering Kenseth's record at Martinsville entering Sunday - an average finish of 17.2 - he will gladly take a Top 15 and move on. It wasn't easy; the R&L Carriers Ford spun coming out of Turn 4 at one point, and was lucky not to hit anything, and Kenseth later got involved in an on-track feud with Kevin Harvick. They'll be dueling much more than that in the final four races; Harvick has moved into second place in the standings, with only 36 points separating the two.

Tough Days

Jeff Burton – Looks like RCR's tendency to be occasionally overaggressive came back to bite them Sunday; the engine package they gave the No. 31 and Burton couldn't even last half the race. If it's any consolation for the engine tuner, things weren't going well to begin with; during Petty's spin on lap 4, the No. 31 car had run into Joe Nemechek hard enough to loosen the hoodpins, ruining the Chevy's handling for the rest of the day. Put out of his misery by the engine failure, Burton came home 42nd and dropped out of the point lead.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – A Top 5 car all day, Junior suffered a bit of a setback with 100 laps to go when he pitted under the yellow flag and several cars stayed out, putting him outside the Top 15 for the restart. While Junior charged back up to 8th, he got a little greedy as the laps wound down, getting impatient with Kasey Kahne in front of him and racing him side-by-side into the corner, spinning himself out and taking away a large chunk of points he sorely needed to gain ground. Winding up 22nd, the end of November looks more and more like Junior sitting around wondering how he gave his title dreams away.

Kyle Busch – With Burton's engine failure, there was a chance for even Kyle to get back into the hunt for the championship…but a late race spin by David Ragan (one of many for the 06 car on the day) sent the No. 5 car into the outside wall in order to avoid the wreck. The car drove like junk the rest of the way, and Kyle finished 18th, losing his chance to get back involved in the Chase.

Mark Martin – Clearly, Martin's comments about the title "not being meant to be" seem like they're coming true. After posting the 42nd best time, then crashing his primary car in Friday's practice, Martin seemed to be doing better with the backup; he drove it right into the Top 10 during the race. But with a handful of laps left, water exited the engine, taking a solid finish with it and relegating Martin to 24th.

Points Shuffle:

As previously described, Kenseth's 11th place run moves him into the point lead with four races remaining, 36 ahead of Kevin Harvick. Jimmie Johnson jumps four spots to third, five points behind Harvick, with Denny Hamlin another six points back in 4th place. Burton's engine failure cost him dearly; he drops from first to fifth in the standings, 48 out of the top spot.

As for the other five Chasers, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. dropped from fourth to sixth in points but gained on the lead; he's now 94 behind. Mark Martin fell to seventh place, 96 back, while Kasey Kahne is now just 99 points out in 8th place, completing the list of drivers with a realistic shot at the title. Mathematically alive are Jeff Gordon, 141 behind in 9th, and Kyle Busch, 171 back in 10th.

Quotable:
"I'm proud of winning here. It means a lot to the organization with the tragedy we had two years ago. We weren't able to celebrate then, and it's a bittersweet celebration now, but we're definitely excited to be here." Jimmie Johnson

"You don't want to wreck from the lead, and you don't want to win one like that. You can maybe rub the guy out of the way and take the win, but you don't want to wreck ‘em. That's just a bad deal. I had that in mind, and Jimmie had the best car, and he deserved to win…so he did." Denny Hamlin

"That was my mistake. I was tryin’ too hard. I felt like we were quicker than (Kasey) Kahne, so I was anxious to get all I could and get around him. I was under him, but the rear brakes locked, and the wheels started hopping and I spun out. We had a great car, and we had something for ‘em all except for the 48 (Johnson). It got down the end of the race, and I got greedy. I can’t blame it on nobody but myself." Dale Earnhardt, Jr. on his spin with Kasey Kahne

"We had a rookie out there that was kind of a dart with no feathers. The best thing would have been to black flag the 06 and park him for the rest of the day and save half the cautions." Tony Stewart

"I had a ball. I think they did a good job with the car." Ward Burton, on his return to the sport

"Stuff happens, and everybody in the Chase has had trouble. We certainly didn't want this to happen, didn't need this to happen, but at the same time, it did happen. But by no means are we out of this thing." Jeff Burton

Next Up:
With the short track schedule complete, the series now heads back to the "bread and butter" of the Chase - 1.5 mile ovals. Atlanta Motor Speedway is next up on that list, with the Bass Pro Shops 500 scheduled for Sunday, October 29th at 3:00 PM EST. Racing coverage starts at 2:30 LIVE on NBC television and your local PRN radio affiliate.

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