Who Should Have Won: Kyle Busch. It’s actually a bit of a tougher call here than most might realize, as Carl Edwards looked like he was ready to dominate the race out front before losing a tire and spinning out on lap 47. But Edwards had worked his way back to the leaders by the last segment of the race, and even he didn’t have anything for Kyle, whose car was a rocket ship in the final 100 laps and did everything it needed to do in order to stay out front.
Five Questions You Should be Asking After the Race Weekend:
1) Who the heck was responsible for the metal debris that caused the final caution? And yes, I know that was a huge piece of debris, but is that the latest you’ve ever seen NASCAR throw a caution for that type of stuff? I mean, we had less than 25 miles to go on a 2-mile track…people’s Chase fortunes should not have lived or died on that piece of metal, and I think for McMurray and Newman that may end up being the difference. On a side note, Scott Riggs, Robby Gordon, and several others are probably not too happy about that caution either, because the late wreck that tore up their race cars would never have happened.
2) What was everyone thinking following Kyle Busch down pit road on that last caution? Why does Kyle Busch even pit?? There’s less than 10 laps to go on the restart, and you’ve got the best car. If several drivers in the Top 10 had used their heads and stayed out on the track, not backmarkers Robby Gordon and Jeff Green, there’s no way Kyle would have worked his way back to the front. True, it all worked out for the 5 car, as it should have, but…
3) Alright, who was really buying into all that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. conspiracy theory stuff to get him in the playoffs, now that the 8 car is finally eliminated from the Chase? Truth is, Earnhardt, Jr. was out of the running for this year’s title long before tonight, and no type of playoff system Brian France can concoct will protect you if you can’t put your car up front. Ditto for Jeff Gordon, because he’s on the outside looking in too if his car at Richmond runs like it did at California, and to be honest, he doesn’t deserve to be in the way they’re running.
4) I know NASCAR’s trying to cater to the West Coast audience, but why are they starting a race that’s guaranteed not to end until after midnight Eastern Standard Time? Not everyone has Labor Day off, and I’m sure several of the sport’s younger fans were fast asleep for hours by the time this race was over. Starting the race two hours earlier at 6 ET would have not only secured an earlier finish, but would have allowed the race to end in darkness on the West Coast as well AND in primetime.
5) Does it bother anyone else how NBC doesn’t automatically cover the Top 3 leaders’ pit stops when everyone pits under caution? I mean, I know Ryan Newman’s fighting for the Chase and all, but putting him as one of the three drivers on the screen when he’s running 15th is meaningless when he won’t be a factor in the race off pit road.
Who’s Smiling on Monday Besides the Winner:
Carl Edwards. There may not have been a happier man in the building besides Kyle Busch than Edwards Sunday night. Out front early, it looked like it was the 99 team’s race to win, not the 5’s, until a left rear tire came apart for Carl on lap 47. Spinning out, Edward’s chances for the Chase were about to hit a skidding halt, with a likely 42nd-place finish on the other side of that outside wall and Carl’s questionable short track record being put to the test on Saturday at Richmond. But miraculously, the car spun just short of the barrier, nobody hit Edwards, and there was no real damage to the car. That left the team and Carl with 400 miles to work their way back to the front, and they did just that, with Carl battling back to a 4th-place run and all but assuring his spot in the “playoffs.”
Matt Kenseth. Not the back-to-back wins several were predicting, but a 7th-place run for Kenseth this weekend vaulted him into the Top 10 in points, enhancing his chances to make the Chase after a horrific start to 2005. The 17 team never had a car capable of winning the race, but kept it steady in the Top 5 most of the night where Matt could stay out of trouble and run in clean air. A couple of late passes on the final restart that pushed Kenseth out of the Top 5 could cost him though if the 17 runs poorly at Richmond.
Jamie McMurray. For the first 475 miles, the race at California was a disaster for Jamie and his Chip Ganassi team. McMurray never got a handle on his race car, and the 42 seemed to fluctuate from 15th to 25th just about all night. At one point, Jamie was almost 75 points behind the Top 10, and his chances of making the Chase were just about over. Then, the miracle debris caution occurred with a dozen laps left, and when all teams pitted McMurray’s team decided to go with just two tires. The move pushed Jamie up into the Top 10, and shockingly, the 42 car had enough grip after that to hold his position from there; Jamie’s 8th-place finish put him one point above the cut line for this year’s Chase as a result.
Ricky Rudd. Certainly, this was not a week for Rudd to smile, as the passing of his father on Tuesday caused Ricky to let Jon Wood practice and qualify the car this weekend. Rudd was close to his father, a man responsible for sponsoring Rudd’s first runs on the Nextel Cup tour back in the late 1970s as part of a small, family-owned operation. This weekend, Rudd was at the track, but as he said himself, his head was clearly not in the game. On Sunday, however, the 21 sprang to life, and Rudd methodically came from the rear of the field to finish 9th, a run that did his father proud.
Who’s Hungover on Monday:
Jeff Gordon. One look into Gordon’s eyes after the race, and you had no problem seeing the frustration he has with his car. Week in, week out, the 24 is like a ping pong ball through the field. It’s either really good or really bad, 5th or 25th, and lately it’s ended up on the wrong end of that back-and-forth movement as the checkered flag falls. Sunday was no different, as Gordon started strong, then faded, then came back to the Top 10, then chose not to pit on a caution with 35 laps left and dropped like a rock to the back of the field. Call me crazy, but there was something about seeing Gordon fight with Tony Raines for 30th with 20 laps left in one of the biggest races of the season that doesn’t seem to bode well for Robbie Loomis’ career, no matter what anyone says. Gordon fell to 12th in the points, but in several people’s minds, it might as well be 25th.
Ryan Newman. The ping pong atmosphere that surrounded Gordon’s team was a part of Newman’s night as well. The 12 car never seemed to hit on the right setup, and the 12 was bouncing back and forth between 10th and 20th for the majority of the night, with the last set of tires also sending Newman towards the back. An 18th-place run dropped him out of the Top 10, and now the 12 has to hope he doesn’t get run over at Richmond, a place where he’s never won, in order to make the Chase. Not known for short track success, this could be a tough road to hoe.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Millions of fans turned off their sets early last night, and one can only hope it’s not for the rest of the season as NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver was officially eliminated from Chase contention. Never a factor and again struggling on an intermediate race track, Dale Jr.’s engine went up in smoke while he was running towards the back on lap 211, and the 38th-place finish mathematically eliminated him from the title hunt. Now, the question is whether the team will relax with the pressure off and try to win some races.
J.J. Yeley. In his first start of the year in the Fed Ex car in what is likely a 2006 audition for the ride versus Denny Hamlin, Yeley had a solid Top 10 qualifying run on the weekend, but then followed that up by backing the car in the wall on lap 3. If you’re counting at home, that’s 3 Nextel Cup starts and 2 DNF’s due to accidents so far in Yeley’s career, with a DNQ or two mixed in. Not exactly a stellar resume to sell to Fed Ex after they spit out unproven Jason Leffler in half a season…
Kyle Busch’s win made him the youngest Nextel Cup winner in history at 20 years old. Busch is only four days younger than the previous recordholder, Donald Thomas, who won at the old Atlanta speedway in 1951.
Tony Stewart’s 5th-place run was his 11th consecutive Top 10 finish, and 9th Top 5 during that span.
Jamie McMurray’s 8th-place was his best finish at a non-restrictor plate track since Darlington on Mother’s Day. It’s also the best run for him since he announced he was leaving the 42 team to join Roush Racing for 2007 back in early July.
Back in 23rd, Bobby Hamilton, Jr. gave his team their 3rd Top 25 finish in the last 8 races (with 1 DNQ in that span). Considering the 32 car had only 4 Top 25 finishes in the first 17 races, that’s a big improvement.
With a 40th-place finish after a blown engine, Bill Elliott now has 3 DNF’s in the 8 races he’s run this season.
After Sunday’s race, six of the Top 10 drivers in points had clinched their spots in the Chase for the Championship. Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, Greg Biffle, Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin, and Kurt Busch maintained their points positions Sunday (Busch actually gained a spot) and ensured themselves of being in the 10-race Chase come the conclusion of Saturday night’s race at Richmond. Those six drivers could take next weekend off if they wanted to.
Behind those six, it’s a furious battle for the final four spots in the Chase. Jeremy Mayfield dropped one spot to seventh in points, but finds himself 145 points ahead of 11th place, so all he needs is a 39th-place finish to secure a position in the Top 10. For the next three drivers though, it’s not so simple. Carl Edwards is 86 ahead of 11th, but still needs a Top 15 finish to secure his spot, not a lock considering the many short track issues he’s had this year.
Matt Kenseth used his third consecutive solid finish to vault to 9th in the points Chase, the first time all year he’s been ranked in the Top 10; however, he’s just 10 points ahead of 10th-place Jamie McMurray and 11 ahead of Ryan Newman in 11th. Behind those three, Jeff Gordon lurks 30 points out of 10th place, with Elliott Sadler 52 points back in 13th. Dale Jarrett, Kevin Harvick, and Joe Nemechek round out the Top 16, but all three are mathematical longshots to have a chance at the Top 10, being over 100 points behind with one race left.
Behind the Chase contenders, Brian Vickers moved up to 17th in points, knocking Dale, Jr. down to 18th, a career-low for him at this point in the season. Michael Waltrip and Kasey Kahne also moved up one spot apiece, knocking Jeff Burton out of the Top 20 in points and down to 21st.
“To be able to beat all 42 competitors out here on the NEXTEL Cup Series level. It’s just amazing. It’s been a great task…but these No. 5 team guys deserve it so much. We should have been here at least five times or so but we haven’t been able to close the deal. But tonight we did.” – Kyle Busch on his win
“We’re just thinking about everybody in the gulf coast right now and all the National Guard soldiers that are down there helping everybody and supporting the efforts of rebuilding that place (the Southeast) and getting everything out of there. It’s been a tough week for us here and we’re excited to go home and we have a home to go home to.” – Greg Biffle
“I didn’t really expect it (to be back in the Top 10). We’re not in it yet. We still have another week to go.” – Matt Kenseth on his Chase chances
“We’re still alive. We’ve got our heads just barely below water, but we’ve got time to pick it back up and get a breath of fresh air.” – Ryan Newman after finishing 18th
“We sucked today. That was just pathetic. We haven’t (been running good). That’s why we’re where we are at. We’ll go to Richmond and see what we can do.” – Jeff Gordon after finishing 21st
The Nextel Cup drivers finish up their 26-race “regular season” at a fast-paced short track, as Richmond International Raceway hosts the Chevy Rock ‘n’ Roll 400 this Saturday night.
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