How quickly things change in the world of Nextel Cup. Just two Sundays ago, Roush Racing found itself in victory lane while several Hendrick drivers landed in the garage with broken engines and shattered confidence. But this week, the tables were turned in the other direction.
Jimmie Johnson led 107 of 267 laps, including the last 55, to win a caution-filled UAW Daimler-Chrysler 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Johnson led fellow Hendrick driver Kyle Busch to the line by a little over a second to claim his first victory of the 2005 Nextel Cup season. Johnson’s win snapped the dominance of Roush Racing at the track, whose teams had won in five of the previous seven races held there. Instead, this time it was teams owned by Rick Hendrick who streaked across the line in a 1-2 finish, with a third Hendrick driver, Jeff Gordon, finishing fourth in the event.
The race featured a record-tying 25 lead changes among 12 drivers, and early on Ryan Newman, Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch, and Greg Biffle were among those spending time at the front of the pack. But as the second half of the race took shape, Johnson’s was the car that consistently came to the front. The 48 car took the lead for the first time on lap 147 and continually showed he had the best car over a series of late cautions in the last 100 miles. Johnson was able to streak away from all challengers after the race’s final restart on lap 228, extending his lead over Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman, and others as they exchanged in a heated battle for second place on back.
Gordon and Newman eventually made contact, nearly wrecking both drivers and sending young Kyle Busch through the opening and into second place. The younger Busch couldn’t catch Johnson in the closing laps, but held on for his best-ever career Cup finish; Busch had failed to 1even crack the Top 20 in eight previous Cup starts. Brother Kurt recovered from a lugnut problem on a late pit stop to charge through the field and finish third, giving the brothers a 2-3 finish in front of their hometown crowd.
“Congratulations to my brother,” said Kurt after the event. “And the advice to Kyle (officially stops now) because he beat me fair and square.”
Kurt’s finish was the only bright spot in a difficult day for Roush, which experienced the bad luck gremlins Hendrick had just two weeks earlier. Mark Martin was in the garage with engine problems at the 100-mile Mark, and struggled to a 30th-place finish. Carl Edwards was caught up in an early wreck, and struggled in mid-pack all day, finishing 14th. And Matt Kenseth, going for his third straight Las Vegas victory, may have had the most dominant car once again, but a tire problem around lap 75 put him two laps down; although he eventually recovered for a Top 10, he was never a factor again up front.
Gordon held on after his contact with Newman to finish fourth, with Kevin Harvick rounding out the top five, as the 29 team bounced back from a 42nd-place starting spot after a fuel cell violation in qualifying. Greg Biffle was sixth, with Casey Mears, Matt Kenseth, and Tony Stewart right behind. Ryan Newman faded from second to tenth in the final rundown, and was upset with Gordon after the race, claiming Gordon hit him on purpose.
“You’ll have to ask Ryan Newman, I guess,” said Gordon about the contact. “I wasn’t driving his car when he forgot where the brakes were.”
The race was one of the wildest ever held at Las Vegas, with 10 cautions shattering the previous record of 6 from four previous events. The most serious crash involved Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who got into the back of Brian Vickers on lap 13, triggering a multi-car wreck in turn 1 that destroyed both cars and also sent Bobby Labonte and Ricky Rudd behind the wall. The latter two drivers now find themselves 38th and 39th in points, almost 400 points behind the leader after three poor finishes to start their season. And for the 8 team and Earnhardt, the finish dropped them down to 27th, leaving them 100 points and 17 drivers behind the Top 10.
”(The wreck was) a big mistake on my part. I got to the corner too hard and it’s really not a fault of (Brian’s) at all,” said a disappointed Earnhardt after the wreck. “I apologized to him and everyone and Hendrick Motorsports. And hopefully next week will be a lot better week.”
Kurt Busch used his third-place finish to hold onto the point lead, taking a 15-point advantage over Jimmie Johnson into the race at Atlanta next week. Greg Biffle, Jeff Gordon, and Carl Edwards, all drivers from the Roush or Hendrick stables, round out the Top 5 after Sunday’s event.
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