Editor’s Note: Take a sneak preview at Frontstretch’s newest column, the Frontstretch breakdown. Look for these to appear starting next week on Mondays after every Truck Series, Busch Series, and Nextel Cup race!
To the Point: Dale Earnhardt, Jr. pulls an upset, putting a halt to his 2005 slump, passing Scott Wimmer with a handful of laps to go to take the victory at Chicagoland over Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, Brian Vickers, and Tony Stewart.
Who Should Have Won: Matt Kenseth. He had the dominant car all race long, leading 176 laps of the first 240 before falling short to Dale Jr. A caution for debris on lap 239 forced all the lead lap cars in for one final stop, and Robbie Reiser’s call to put 4 tires on the 17 car doomed him to the back of the Top 10 behind several cars who took no or two tires. Kenseth never recovered; he raced Tony Stewart too hard coming back through the pack, and came up three laps shy of catching Jr.
Five Questions You Should be Asking After the Race Weekend:
1) Will this win be the beginning of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s hot streak, or is this just a blip on the radar screen to what has otherwise been a bad season?
2) Is it going to take someone getting hurt after hitting the wall with a flat to force NASCAR to allow Goodyear to bring a harder tire compound to the track? Those were some scary crashes on Sunday.
3) With Jamie McMurray signed with Roush Racing beginning in 2007, will Jack Roush be able to convince Mark Martin to stay one more year in 2006? And if he doesn’t, will someone like Ricky Craven be willing to accept “lame-duck” status in order to drive for one of Nextel Cup’s top teams?
4) Could Robbie Loomis’ job be in jeopardy with the 24 team? Right now, Gordon looks the 4th-best out of 4 Hendrick teams; who would have thought that would ever happen unless Jeff was still racing at 50.
5) With Jimmie Johnson finally putting 11th on back over 400 points behind the leader, will we finally stop hearing all this nonsense about the 400 point barrier coming into play? Only 3 times in the modern era has more than 10 drivers been within 400 points after 26 races, and it wouldn’t have been an issue last year if Johnson hadn’t had the worst August of racing on record.
Who’s Smiling on Monday:
Jimmie Johnson. The 48 team looked to be on its way to a miserable finish on Sunday after Johnson pitted for a flat right rear tire just around the race’s midway point. But a series of cautions got the Lowe’s Chevrolet back on the lead lap with enough time to work through the field, and the 48 pulled off another championship-caliber finish in 3rd.
Tony Stewart. There were doubts among many in the garage that Tony Stewart would even drive all 400 miles on Sunday, after a vicious practice crash knocked him unconscious in Friday practice, and forced J. J. Yeley to qualify the car. But not only did Tony compete, he came all the way from the rear of the field to post a 5th-place finish, and might have had a shot at winning the race had he been able to stay out in front of Kenseth during the last run.
Ricky Rudd. Rudd had a pit road speeding penalty with only 50 laps to go that dropped him from the Top 5 to 30th spot. But a determined Rudd was able to charge through the field and finish a solid 7th.
David Stremme. 16th may be nothing to write home about, But David Stremme did a respectable job in his first outing in a Nextel Cup car, staying out of trouble and finishing on the lead lap.
Matt Kenseth. 2nd was the first loser for the 17 team; Kenseth easily had the best car he’s had all year, and a walk-in-the-park win was taken away by the series of late cautions.
Jeff Gordon. Clearly, Gordon couldn’t wait to get out of Chicagoland. He was well down the charts in all the practice sessions, qualified poor, and then ran like junk the whole race, finally taken out of his misery when Mike Bliss tapped him in the rear and sent him into the wall with a handful of laps left. Gordon finished 33rd and dropped to 15th in the points, the lowest the 24 team has ever been at this point in the season.
Kyle Busch. The younger Busch had a shot at his first Nextel Cup win, running in the Top 10 for much of the day until the 5 made contact with Greg Biffle exiting pit road. Busch lost his composure, it seemed, afterwards despite having only minor damage, and faded to 20th place.
The Goodyear victims. Sadly, there were a bunch of them on Sunday, and any flat tire in Chicagoland almost automatically meant their car would be sent up straight into the wall. Carl Edwards, Jeff Burton, Elliott Sadler, Dave Blaney, and Michael Waltrip were just some of the drivers who found themselves a victim of the softer tire compound.
Dale Jr.’s win broke a 19-race winless streak dating back to Phoenix last November. Sunday was also the first time the Budweiser car had led a lap since Talladega in the Spring.
Matt Kenseth’s 2nd-place was his best since finishing 2nd in New Hampshire in September, a span of 27 races.
Jimmie Johnson’s 3rd was his best run since winning the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte in May.
Casey Mears’ 9th place finish was his first Top 10 since Texas in April.
Rusty Wallace finished 12th, the first time in the last seven races he has failed to finish in the Top 10.
Travis Kvapil’s 43rd-place finish due to an engine failure continued a streak of 13 straight races the rookie has failed to finish inside the Top 15. Kvapil has now fallen to 33rd in points, and is getting close to the “danger zone” of the Top 35 qualifying cutoff.
Johnson’s dramatic come-from-behind run up the finishing order to 3rd place allowed him to expand his lead over Greg Biffle in the Nextel Cup Standings. Biffle had a reasonably strong showing on Sunday, but faded late and finished 11th; his gap behind Johnson is now 108 heading into New Hampshire next weekend.
Behind Biffle, Stewart maintained his hold on 3rd place in the standings, but Elliott Sadler’s crash saw him drop one spot in the standings to 5th, with Rusty Wallace moving up to 4th place, 248 behind Johnson.
Ryan Newman maintained 6th position, followed by Mark Martin, who moved up one spot to seventh. McMurray had a horrible weekend after announcing his partnership with Roush, finishing 22nd and dropping to 8th in the points.
After finishing 6th, Jeremy Mayfield cracked the Top 10 for the first time all-year in 9th place, and Kurt Busch rounds out the Top 10. Dale Jarrett falls to 11th, but now is over 400 points behind the leader and out of the Chase.
While NASCAR mega-superstar Dale Earnhardt, Jr. had a red-letter day, he only moved up to 13th in the standings, and remains over 100 points out of the Top 10. Jeff Gordon’s crash pushed him back to 15th in the standings, 502 points back of teammate Jimmie Johnson.
“Kevin Harvick. He’s just a punk. He just has to race like a chicken…he can’t beat anybody heads up.” – Greg Biffle in the Busch race Saturday, when asked about Harvick’s surprising inability to pass leader Reed Sorenson on older tires, which kept Biffle a lap down and gave Harvick the Lucky Dog
“It’s a helpless feeling. There’s nothing that you can do about it. Our car is balanced and good and we’re within NASCAR’s guidelines on air pressure and we’re still blistering tires. That’s something that we’ve got to look at because we’re going to hurt somebody.” – Alan Gustafson, crew chief for Kyle Busch’s #5 team
“I don’t know what’s going on. We’ve been struggling pretty bad. It’s very frustrating.” –Jeff Gordon, after crashing out of the race with Mike Bliss
“I’m not going to lie. It wasn’t the most fun thing to do today.” –Tony Stewart, after racing 400 miles Sunday following a hard practice crash over the weekend that knocked him unconscious
The Nextel Cup crew heads to the snoozefest of the Northeast, otherwise known as the New Hampshire 300 at the one-mile speedway in Loudon.
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