To the Point: Tony Stewart came out and laid waste to the field on Sunday, leading 232 of 300 laps at New Hampshire to win his third race in his last four starts. Kurt Busch, Bobby Labonte, Kyle Bush, and Greg Biffle came closest to the dust left behind by Stewart to finish in the Top 5.
Who Should Have Won: Tony Stewart. Stewart easily had the best car all day, and while it looked like the brothers Busch might have something for Tony after the race’s final caution, in the end Stewart was simply toying with them. In fact, perhaps the only challenge Stewart had during the entire race weekend was climbing the fence for the second time in a month to celebrate another win.
Five Questions You Should be Asking After the Race Weekend:
1) Who the heck lit a fire under Tony Stewart and Joe Gibbs Racing? Can they take the points lead from Jimmie Johnson in the next month, and if they do, will they ever give it back, Chase be damned?
2) How can the Goodyear tires struggle at a track like Chicagoland, a relatively new track that shouldn’t be going around shredding rubber, but then hold up perfectly fine at New Hampshire, a track known to be tough on tires? Some things just boggle the mind.
3) What mysteriously went on to give Mike Bliss a black eye, and why is everybody being so tight-lipped about it in the Jeff Gordon camp? Yes, what goes on outside the track is your own business, but it is notable that if Gordon punched Bliss in the garage area, he’d probably be sitting on the sidelines Sunday. Is that fair?
4) Does Michael Waltrip’s sudden departure from DEI mean that the Eurys aren’t far behind? The Toyota rumor of signing Waltrip as a full-time driver makes perfect sense. What a marketing coup if that is true; all Waltrip has to do is take a one-year gig at Roush or Haas CNC Racing, and then be the big-name driver Toyota needs to debut in 2007. And will the resulting distraction of all this hurt Earnhardt Jr.’s Chase chances?
5) A question for Kevin LePage, boSPOKER.net, and the #37…how much money can a sponsor give a team when their entire business is based around playing poker…for free? Hope this isn’t a scam, but after LePage was part of the failed YokeTV deal with Morgan-McClure in 2004, it’s a little surprising to see him be a part of a ”.com” sponsor no one’s heard of a second time around.
Who’s Smiling on Monday:
Kurt Busch. The 97 team seemed to have fallen flat as of late, having fallen to 10th in the point standings with just one Top 5 to show for themselves since mid-April. And at a track where he’s won two straight races, Busch got off to a rough start; he spun by lap 30, and a poor pit stop dropped him back to 38th position after the first 60 circuits. But Busch battled back to the front and finished second on a day where he clearly had the second-best car to winner Tony Stewart. More importantly, he gained five spots in the points and some breathing room in the fight to defend his title.
Kyle Busch. The younger brother of the defending champion had a more consistent day, running in the Top 5 and briefly challenging Stewart to grab his first Cup win after the final restart on lap 240. The younger Busch’s aggressiveness there may have caused his car to fade some late, as he fell back to 4th by race’s end; he fought tooth and nail with hard-charger Greg Biffle to keep that position, too, something Busch may not continue to do once points-racing and the experience factor start setting in. But after recording his 5th Top 5 finish in 19 starts, he continues to impress.
Bobby Labonte. It’s been a week of wild rumors for Labonte, with newspaper and the internet suddenly reporting that the veteran driver would leave Gibbs after the 2005 season. Not only did Labonte angrily deny his imminent departure from Gibbs, but he let his driving do the talking on the track, with a strong third-place finish that was easily his best run of the year, apart from his near-upset win in the Coca-Cola 600.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. After his surprising win, Jr. needed a solid run that would maintain his momentum, and he didn’t disappoint, despite having to deal with the media hoopla dealing with the future of the 15 car all weekend. The 8 team has been consistent at New Hampshire, with three Top 10 finishes in Jr.’s last four starts there heading into Sunday, and he ran a smooth race with a decent car to a ninth-place finish. Suddenly, a Chase bid hanging on life support is starting to look like a possibility.
Matt Kenseth. Sure, Kenseth certainly wasn’t thrilled about punting his future teammate into the wall on lap 30 (read McMurray below for more info), but the bottom line is the 17 car came home 10th, the team’s 6th finish of 11th or better in the last 7 races, and moved to 160 points out of 10th. Kenseth’s been able to remain under the radar with the misfortunes of Gordon and Earnhardt, Jr. ahead of him, but the 2003 champion may be quietly be putting himself in the best position of all 3 to make NASCAR’s version of the “postseason.”
Jeff Gordon. The weekend didn’t start on the right note for Jeff, with questions asked about a mysterious black eye on Mike Bliss’s face, stemming from a supposed confrontation at the airport about Gordon’s wreck at Chicagoland. And by the end of the weekend, it was the 24 team staring at another “black eye.” Gordon was quietly running around in 6th, trying to sew up a Top 10 to get on track, when the brakes failed with only a handful of laps remaining. Gordon soldiered on to 25th, and would have likely finished worse if NASCAR had taken the car off the track for failing to meet minimum speed as it was clearly doing. Jeff wouldn’t speak to reporters for half an hour after the event, and it’s clear the frustration is clearly taking its toll. Word is Brian France is readying his emergency 100-point “good guy” bonus for drivers he needs to see in the postseason in case it’s needed for the 24.
Jamie McMurray. The newest member of the Roush Racing family looks like he’s going to have to sit down and talk with one of his teammates before he heads over to join the team. Matt Kenseth was rumored to be angry with Jamie McMurray back at Pocono in June, claiming he held him up, and whether it was that incident or Matt just not thinking, McMurray was all but run over and put into the wall to cause one of the race’s first cautions. McMurray responded by trying to run into Matt on the track, and clearly was not happy. Nor should he be; the wreck dropped him to 11th in points, exactly where the 42 was last year when they were in the outside looking in on the Chase.
Elliott Sadler. It’s well known that Sadler and McMurray are buddies off the track, but I’m sure Elliott was none too happy about sharing the “I got dumped” award with his friend on Sunday. Sadler was having a solid Top 10 run when Mark Martin, of all people, hit him in the rear heading into Turn 3 and wrecked his day. Tough to get mad when the driver that hits you is known to race clean; however, the DNF dropped Sadler to 9th in the standings, and three straight finishes outside the Top 20 have now dropped the 38 car out of “lock” status for the Chase. As such, Sadler was nowhere to be found when the media came to interview him after the race.
Stewart’s win marked the first time in his Nextel Cup career he had won three races in four starts. Traditionally a late bloomer, it’s also the fastest Stewart has gotten to three wins in a season since 2000, when he won six times. Where was Stewart’s third win that year? New Hampshire.
Kurt Busch’s 2nd-place run was his best since winning at Phoenix in April (11 races).
Bobby Labonte’s 3rd-place finish was only his second Top 5 all season.
Rusty Wallace’s 8th place finish was his 8th straight run he finished 12th or better.
After a promising start to the season, Sunday’s 29th-place finish was the fifth time in the past six races Kyle Petty failed to finish in the Top 25.
The points battle at the top closed up on Sunday, with Jimmie Johnson having an uncharacteristic “under the radar” type of day and finishing 13th. Combined with Tony Stewart’s win and Greg Biffle’s 5th-place finish, Johnson’s lead now stands at 77 over Biffle and 85 over Stewart. It’s the closest Stewart has come to leading the points this late in the year since the 20’s championship year in 2002.
Behind the Top 3, Rusty Wallace seems to have nearly locked up a Chase spot, now 230 points behind Johnson, but 95 ahead of the 5th-place tie behind him and over 200 points ahead of 11th place Jamie McMurray. The 5th-place tie belongs to Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch, with Mark Martin and Jeremy Mayfield close behind in 7th and 8th.
Sadler’s crash dropped him to 9th in the standings, the last driver within 400 points of leader Jimmie Johnson. Dale Jarrett benefited from Jamie McMurray’s wreck to move into 10th place and the final Chase spot. Behind him, McMurray fell to 11th, followed by Carl Edwards, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Kevin Harvick, and Jeff Gordon. Dale Jr. finds himself 59 points out of 10th, while Gordon is 120 behind with 7 races to go.
Bobby Labonte and Ricky Rudd continued their surge in the points after disastrous starts, now 23rd and 24th, respectively. But at this point, their chances for the chances are near-impossible at best.
“Yes, it wore me out climbing up the fence again today. And yes, I’m still too old and still too fat to be doing it. (But) I’m going to have to hire a trainer because I plan on winning some more races this year.” – Tony Stewart
“I just pretty much got taken out. I had him (Kenseth) cleared on both deals, and when you wreck somebody there’s just no excuse in it.” – Jamie McMurray, on his wreck with Matt Kenseth
“I didn’t think Biffle raced me as clean as I wanted to be raced. I wanted to make sure it was over and done with there before we got on any more weeks. He’s going for a championship here and I don’t want to screw him up.” – Kyle Busch, explaining why he briefly talked with Biffle after the event about their late-race battle for 4th
“Today is all about the pit crew and the driver…We had a 35th-place car at best.” -Robbie Reiser, crew chief for Matt Kenseth’s #17 car (Matt finished 10th)
The Nextel Cup crew series heads back to the mountains of Pocono Raceway this Sunday for the July running of the track’s 500-mile race.
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