Thomas Bowles · Monday August 8, 2005
To the Point: Tony Stewart put nearly a decade of frustration in open-wheel & stock cars behind him at Indianapolis, winning his first Brickyard 400 after a thrilling duel with Kasey Kahne throughout most of the race’s second half.
Who Should Have Won: Tony Stewart. There are a few others who could have fit here; Kahne had a strong car, as did polesitter Elliott Sadler. But the truth of the matter is, no one in this race wanted it as badly as Stewart, and unlike previous years, not only did Stewart have the car he needed to win, but he was able to avoid the mistakes that have cost him here many times in the past.
Five Questions You Should be Asking After the Race Weekend:
1) With Tony Stewart winning his dream race and taking over the point lead after four wins in six starts, can he be beaten for the Nextel Cup title? In a points system without the Chase, Stewart would have the fat lady warming up her sheet music, he’s so close to leaving everyone in the dust right now.
2) Sad but true, this column is on its third week and tires are about to be mentioned for the third time. Is it possible to ever have a full fuel run in Nextel Cup again with these Goodyears? It was left front tires flat all over the place on Sunday, just like Pocono in June; and just like in that race, it appeared rumble strips were an issue, as a safety crew had to go fix them after Bobby Hamilton Jr’s tire tore them to pieces (I can just see NASCAR asking Indy to remove their rumble strips; Tony George’s laughter would be heard for miles and miles). And just like about every other race this year, there was never a round of green-flag pit stops due to all the cautions. When will we stop blaming the teams and the tracks for this problem?
3) Now that Earnhardt, Jr. is all but assured of being out of the Chase, will fans of the 8 car seriously stop watching after Race 26? Although several critics of NASCAR’s “playoffs” would love to see ratings plummet with Dale Jr. no longer in the running for the title, are you really a true race fan if you stop watching at race 27? It’s not like the 8 team and Junior are going to stop trying to win.
4) Was it appropriate for NBC’s Dave Burns to interview Jimmie Johnson when he was clearly suffering from concussion-like symptoms? The media crew was all over Johnson on pit road as soon as he exited his car, despite the fact he was knocked unconscious from the crash and had to be physically pulled out by Chad Knaus. A clearly agitated Chad then had to hold back the media as Johnson was checked over by safety officials and caught his breath. While Jimmie consented to an interview to “say he was OK,” his answers showed he was clearly not, and Johnson was sent to a hospital shortly afterward. I know drivers need to be accessible, but should NASCAR be drawing a line here if the media doesn’t know how?
5) Do some of the NASCAR tracks on the circuit need to look at widening pit road? Most pit roads were designed with the thought that 43 cars would almost never be pitting at the exact same time during a race, but with increasing numbers of cars finishing on the lead lap, pit road has become a giant traffic jam, with incidents nearly every week (Greg Biffle & Ken Schrader the latest on Sunday).
Who’s Smiling on Monday:
Tony Stewart. This win was a dream come true for Stewart, who has said repeatedly he would give up his Nextel Cup title for one win at Indy. The post-race celebration confirmed this was no regular win, as Tony did a slow backwards victory lap with tears in his eyes before pulling up by his suite of family and friends to jump out and shake hands. Stewart then drove to the finish line and climbed the fence with his crew before grabbing an Old Spice towel and laying down by the start-finish line, exhausted. It was a landmark victory for Stewart who may have finally put the years of hostility from the fans behind him (read this week’s Bowles-Eye view for more on that). His fourth win in six starts, Tony now takes over the point lead and is the defending champion next weekend at Watkins Glen. Can you say championship favorite?
Kasey Kahne. Certainly, Kasey would have liked to end Sunday in Victory Lane, but in this up-and-down sophomore season of his, I’m sure he didn’t mind a runner-up finish, a nice way to celebrate a contract extension with Evernham’s team that locks him up in the 9 car reportedly through 2010. For awhile there, it looked like the 25-year-old youngster would be celebrating in Victory Lane, passing Stewart for the lead on lap 134 and holding it through the race’s final caution period from laps 146 to 149. But Kahne failed to get a strong restart, let Stewart get under him coming off turn 2, and that was it; there was no way Stewart would let it slip away once he got in front, although Kahne gave it all he had in the last 11 laps.
Jeremy Mayfield. Fighting for a championship spot for the second straight year, Sunday did a lot to give Mayfield some breathing room and silence the critics who claim he hasn’t run up front enough to be deserving of a spot in the Chase. While he clearly didn’t have a winning car, Mayfield had a solid 4th-place machine that stayed in the Top 5 just about all day. It’s the type of solid performance Mayfield needs to stay where he is in the points, and he’s starting to have them at just the right time, creeping almost 100 points clear now of 11th-place Jamie McMurray while maintaining his 8th position in points.
Matt Kenseth. Put on Chase life support after Pocono, Kenseth knows he needs Top 5s every race from here on out to have a shot at the Top 10, and Sunday he delivered. It was vintage 17 team back to their consistent finishes of late, as Matt worked his way into the Top 5 early with pit strategy and never really fell back after that, finishing 5th. For a man that has more rumors swirling around him then he should with a contract that runs through 2006, he’s red hot, although Kenseth will probably regreat his two Pocono runs come race 27 this season. (By the way, for all you “Kenseth is leaving Roush” fanatics, don’t you remember Greg Biffle last year? Roush contracts = Walls of unbreakable steel. I doubt Kenseth is going anywhere).
Honorable mention : Brian Vickers (3rd, best Indy finish); Casey Mears (came back from being punted into the grass by Kurt Busch to finish 6th); Mark Martin (7th in possible final Indy start); Jeff Gordon (strong finish to 8th to gain valuable ground in the Chase).
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Hard to say that any team in the running for the Chase had more to lose than the 8 car this weekend, and unfortunately for Junior, he lost it all after being spun into the frontstretch wall on a lap 63 restart (Earnhardt finished 43rd). Being dumped by Mike Skinner wasn’t Junior’s or anybody’s fault, but you never put yourself in that type of situation when you’re not in the back of the field to begin with. Sunday was a microcosm of the “flat track blues” that continue to dog Junior throughout the past few years of his Nextel Cup career. From the drop of the green, the car fell to the back, so slow at one point NASCAR nearly black flagged him for failing to meet minimum speed. Junior knew the car was junk, the team knew the car was junk, and no one had the answers to make it better, a major step back to the early weeks of 2005 where Earnhardt Jr. and his team could never seem to click in the right direction. It would have taken a miracle to get that car to victory lane…and now, it will indeed take a miracle to put the 8 team in the Chase.
Jimmie Johnson. Indy has not been kind to Johnson in his four full seasons of Nextel Cup, and this weekend was no exception. The weekend started off strangely, with the 48 team failing inspection due to rear end problems; the team missed the five-minute clock, and Johnson was forced to start on a provisional in 42nd. On race day, the car slowly came up through the pack but Johnson still struggled with the car’s handling, so much so that he spun out once by himself while running in the Top 10. He was lucky not to hit anything, but in hindsight Johnson may have wished he did after the vicious hit he took a few laps later. A blown tire on lap 146 sent Johnson hard into the Turn 4 wall, briefly knocking him unconscious and knocking him out of the race, as well as the points lead. Johnson still has yet to lead a lap here, and now has a best finish of 9th in four Cup starts.
Elliott Sadler. A day which started with such promise for Sadler ended with the Virginian shaking his head in disbelief. Starting on the pole for the first time in his career at Indy, Sadler had the dominant car early and often, leading 39 of the first 93 laps. But on a green-flag restart on lap 97, Sadler was snookered by Stewart on a restart and fell behind the 20 and several other cars, ground the 38 car never could make up as the car handled poorly in traffic. Still, the 38 team was headed towards a solid Top 10 finish to right their ship…only to see Sadler fall off the pace after the final restart with what he thought was a flat tire (whether it actually was flat only the team knows). The 32nd-place finish left Sadler deflated and on the outside looking in points-wise, dropping from 9th to 12th with 5 races left to work his way back up.
MB2 Motorsports. Certainly, no multi-car team left the weekend with a bigger pile of junked race cars than MB2. Boris Said started the mess by hitting the wall in Saturday’s qualifying, although he recovered to make the field; he then suffered a flat and numerous problems during the race to finish 31st. But at least he had all four fenders left on his car after Sunday; Joe Nemechek and Scott Riggs weren’t so lucky. The 01 team looked to be a contender, with Front Row Joe surging through the pack and up towards the Top 5 before a flat tire ruined his day, his car, and his faint hopes for the Chase (Joe finished 28th). Meanwhile, Riggs had a solid Top 15 run going before a struggling Kurt Busch got loose and tapped the 10 car straight into the wall; Riggs finished 35th.
Stewart’s win is his fourth in six starts, the best run of any Nextel Cup driver since Jimmie Johnson won four times in five starts from mid-October to mid-November 2004.
Kasey Kahne’s 2nd-place run was his second Top 5 finish in two Indy starts.
Casey Mears’ 6th-place run was his best since a 4th in Texas back in April (14 races ago).
Sterling Marlin’s 9th-place run snapped a 13-race drought without a Top 10 finish. Marlin’s last Top 10 was a 5th in Texas back in April; Marlin was 6th in points after that day. He’s now 25th.
Bill Elliott’s 23rd-place finish continued a remarkable streak of 11 finishes on the lead lap in 12 Indy starts. Elliott has failed to complete just one lap in any Brickyard 400, finishing 23rd one lap behind in 1999.
Bobby Hamilton finished 27th in his first Nextel Cup start since a 10th-place run at Homestead in November 2002, a span of 92 races.
For the first time all year, Tony Stewart leads the points, as his win and Jimmie Johnson’s crash vaulted him in front by 75 points. Johnson fell one spot to second but stayed 36 points of Greg Biffle, who struggled with a multitude of problems Sunday to finish 21st and fall 111 behind Stewart.
Rusty Wallace was another top driver who struggled on the weekend, crashing his primary car in qualifying Saturday and then limping home 25th, good enough to maintain 4th in points by 59 over Kurt Busch.
Mark Martin moved up to 6th, just 10 out of the Top 5 and 68 in front of 7th-place Ryan Newman, who had a disastrous race and poor-handling car on Sunday, placing 34th. Newman fell 355 points behind the leader and is now just 14 points ahead of 8th-place Jeremy Mayfield. Dale Jarrett moved up to 9th, 72 points behind Newman and 9 clear of new 10th-place man Carl Edwards. At this point, it appears those are the 4 yet to lock up spots in the Chase, as everyone from 6th-place Mark Martin and above is a near-lock with just five races left.
Behind Edwards, the race to sneak in the Top 10 is fast and furious. Jamie McMurray remains 11th, 12 points out of a Chase spot, while Elliott Sadler’s crash dropped him from 9th to 12th, 24 behind the Top 10. Kevin Harvick remained 13th and Jeff Gordon moved up to 14th, both drivers remaining within 100 points of the Top 10. Matt Kenseth moved into 15th, 168 points behind 10th-place Carl Edwards and with faint hopes of a “playoff” run staying alive.
Further back, Earnhardt Jr.’s crash dropped him to 16th, 191 behind 10th-place Carl Edwards and 627 behind Tony Stewart. Joe Nemechek, Jeff Burton, Michael Waltrip, and Kyle Busch rounded out the Top 20.
“I’m dying right now (laughing). Too tired to chase fences right now. But give me five minutes and I’ll be ready.” – an exhausted Tony Stewart on his win
“If the people at home knew what the first six years of a roller coaster it was at the Brickyard 400, they’d understand how important this was to this team.” – Greg Zipadelli, Stewart’s crew chief
“I’m happy for Tony. Tony is today’s ultimate racer. He’s the ultimate racer of this era. He’s pretty excitable, but he’s very fair. He’s given me more respect than I deserve.” – Mark Martin
“I don’t know what to say. I thought I had a tire going down. I don’t know if it was or not. I guess not. I don’t know. It’s just not our year. It’s not meant to be. The guys gave me a great car and it’s just not meant to be.” -Elliott Sadler, after a late pit stop dropped him to a 32nd-place finish
“Thought we had a really good shot at a Top 10…you know, (until we) had a big-eared knucklehead that wanted to use an excuse that the car got away from him. You know, he’s a champion. A Nextel Cup champion. He apologized, of course.” – Scott Riggs on his wreck
“I don’t really remember coming from Turn 4 to the pits. I just remember kind of waking up on pit road and the guys were pulling me out of the car.” – Jimmie Johnson after his wreck
“If we make the Chase, we make it. If we don’t, we don’t. We’ll still try to win some races before the year is out.” – Dale Earnhardt, Jr. on his “playoff” chances
The Nextel Cup crew travels East to Watkins Glen, New York to tackle their second and final road course race of the year, the Sirius Satellite Radio at the Glen.
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