To the Point: For the second straight week, a Nextel Cup event was dominated by one driver as Kurt Busch cruised to the win in the Pennsylvania 500, holding on over several late cautions to beat Rusty Wallace and Mark Martin to the line.
Who Should Have Won: Kurt Busch. No question about it, Busch had the best car. He passed polesitte Jamie McMurray before the first lap was up and led six times for 131 laps, including the last 21. Busch would have led even more if not for a rough 17.5 second pit stop near the three-quarter mark of the race which forced him to race his way back to the front.
Five Questions You Should be Asking After the Race Weekend:
1) With shifting taken away and attrition down to near-zero, will Pocono ever have an exciting race again? There’s serious concerns now about more than just the tunnel turn.
2) After a roller-coaster year, is the 97 team and Kurt Busch finally back on track to defend their title? And did they plan the roller-coaster ride all along, knowing that last year all they had to do was make the Chase and then reach their peak in the last 10 events?
3) Alright, when we’re on the equivalent of a road course, was it really necessary to have SEVEN cautions for debris? 500 miles wouldn’t be so long if it wasn’t being run at 55 miles an hour.
4) Is Carl Edwards beginning to get a little too aggressive? Kasey Kahne certainly seemed to think so Sunday.
5) Despite all the post-race posturing, don’t Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. have to be getting a little nervous at their Chase chances? Indy’s a lot like Pocono, and neither performed well on Sunday…which means another bad race could be on the horizon.
Who’s Smiling on Monday:
Kurt Busch. For the second straight week, the 97 team showed signs of life, and this time, they ended up in Victory Lane. Busch drove flawlessly, and despite a pit stop error Busch kept his composure, didn’t criticize his team, and calmly drove back to the front. Having clearly figured out how to win the title under this new system, you have to wonder if there was a lot of experimenting going on for races 27 to 36 that caused the problems Busch had back in May and June.
Rusty Wallace. After quietly pushing himself up to 4th in points, Rusty’s starting to do some talking on the track. While never really having a car capable of challenging Busch, this second-place run was the 9th straight finish of 12th or better for the 2 bunch, and all but locked up a Chase bid, barring six DNFs in the final six races. With no top-level driver available for the 2 in 2006, it was a bit of a surprise for Rusty to reiterate his desire to retire for 2006 & beyond, because it’s increasingly clear he’s more than capable of driving this car for several more years.
Mike Bliss. The 2005 season in the 0 car has been anything but Bliss-ful for Mike, highlighted by a possible off-track run-in with Jeff Gordon that left him with a black eye. Turns out his owner has no sympathy, because rumors have Bliss all but kicked to the curb for 2006…which means it’s only natural Mike responded with his best run of the year, a 9th-place finish. NASCAR Silly Season Rule #1: The week the first serious rumor surfaces that has you kicked to the curb, you score your Top 10 finish to make your owner briefly rethink his decision.
Jamie McMurray. Believe me, 11th is nothing to call home about…but considering the 42 team had to survive not only a battery replacement but a messed-up front end after hitting Ryan Newman, this was actually a decent finish. More importantly, it was critical this team show some signs of life after McMurray’s lame-duck status was officially confirmed this week, or risk implosion…luckily, they rose to the occasion.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.. Clearly, 32nd was not the finish Junior was hoping for at a track that wreaked havoc with the 8 car this season. What’s worse, Indy has some similar characteristics to Pocono, and despite the 8 car’s past success there the team can’t be feeling all that confident about that type of track after racing the way they did on Sunday. Chicagoland masked the fact this team still has a lot of work to do; the Top 10 is still possible, but only if they don’t shoot themselves in the foot again.
Robby Gordon. When you’re the only car with a mechanical failure at Pocono both races this season, you know you got problems. And when you’re the worst in points of all the fully funded teams (behind a team that secured a sponsor DURING the season, no less), then you’ve got to be just a little frustrated. Robby’s been running better, but no one would know it if they looked at the final results sheet.
Matt Kenseth. Tire problems. Brake problems. Pit road problems. Kenseth had it all packed into one race, with the result being a finish of five laps down in 36th, and his Chase chances all but disappearing.
Kasey Kahne: Kahne’s gone through the typical NASCAR “sophomore slump,” with one of the highest crash rates of any driver on the circuit this season. Sunday, though, was not his fault he ended up in the wall; a certain 99 car might have been a little too aggressive in attempting to make the pass. Still, 27th is not really where Kahne needed to be ending his day. Who would have thought the 9 would be out of the Top 20 at this point in the year?
Rusty Wallace’s 2nd-place run was his best since winning Martinsville last April, a span of 48 races.
Tony Stewart’s 7th-place finish was his worst since Pocono last June. Wow.
Mike Bliss’ 9th-place run was his best effort of the year, and first Top 10 finish since a 4th at Richmond last September.
Jeff Gordon’s 13th-place run was the 10th straight race he had failed to grab a Top 5 finish. That’s his longest streak since a 12-race run at the end of 1999 and the beginning of 2000, when Ray Evernham first left the team.
After a few weeks of moving and shaking, the points for this week remained largely stable. Johnson held onto the lead with a ho-hum 12th-place run, and the driver of the 48 now finds himself up 66 points over new second-place points man Tony Stewart. Stewart passed Biffle after the 16’s late brush with trouble on Sunday, and Greg now finds himself in 3rd, 87 points behind the leader.
The rest of the Top 10 remained unchanged. Rusty Wallace remained 4th in the points, but closed to within 182 points of Johnson with his second-place run, the closest he’s been since March. Kurt Busch, Ryan Newman, Mark Martin, Jeremy Mayfield, Elliott Sadler, and Dale Jarrett held their own in that order and fill out the current Nextel Cup Top 10. However, Jarrett’s margin over 11th-place Jamie McMurray shrank to just nine points, and Carl Edwards now lurks 12 points back of a Top 10 spot. the pressure’s on, as all three drivers are now more than 400 points behind the leader, assuring the Top 10 is needed in order to make the Chase.
Perhaps the biggest blow in the points was to NASCAR’s veteran drivers trying to break into the Top 10. Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Jeff Gordon, and Matt Kenseth all failed to break into the Top 10 on Sunday, with Earnhardt Jr. and Kenseth failing to crack the Top 30. As a result, the drivers find themselves 14th, 15th, and 17th in Nextel Cup points, and all of them are at least 110 points out of a Top 10 spot. In fact, Kenseth is now 223 points behind with six races remaining, putting his hopes for the Chase on life support at best.
“It’s just a matter of having everything fall our way (to get to Victory Lane). It’s a big win for us.” – Kurt Busch
“A little pavement job wouldn’t hurt…hey, I wouldn’t complain but I’m never coming back, so I don’t care.” – Rusty Wallace on the condition of Pocono’s racetrack
“We thought we had the perfect strategy until we had 50 cautions there at the end.” – Mark Martin
“Our car was okay today, nothing great, but we’re still missing something here. But, we did move up through the field some from where we started at 45th.” – Casey Mears (not a misprint)
The Nextel Cup tours enjoys a much-needed breather before returning to action two weeks from now for one of the biggest races of the year, the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
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