To the Point: His back against the wall and his hopes for the Chase on life support, Kasey Kahne was faced with two options entering Sunday night’s race at Fontana. He could play it safe, finishing as high as he could while hoping someone else in front of him would make a mistake; or, he could be super aggressive, go out there hard and try to win the race.
Kahne chose the latter.
Surviving a pit-road speeding penalty and a late-race fuel-mileage gamble by Reed Sorenson, Kahne inherited the lead for the final time on lap 249 when Sorenson ran out of fuel and held on to take the win in the Sony HD 500. The win marked Kahne’s fifth of the season, all of which have occurred on tracks 1.5-2 miles in length.
Who Should Have Won: Kahne. Leading 130 of a possible 250 laps, it didn’t take long for everyone to understand the No. 9 was clearly the fastest on this night. Kahne should have led even more laps, but a pit-road speeding penalty on lap 157 took him from the lead to the tail end of the lead lap, and it took a two-tire pit stop during the race’s seventh and final caution on lap 193 to vault him back into contention and snag the track position he needed to move back to the front. Had Sorenson and others not tried their fuel-mileage gambles, the outcome of this one would have never been in doubt.
Five Questions You Should be Asking After the Race Weekend
1) How do Kahne’s Chase chances stand now?
It’s hard to argue they’re not in pretty good shape. Kahne’s win cut the deficit from 11th to new 10th-place driver Jeff Burton down from 90 to 30 points heading into Saturday night’s slugfest at Richmond. That track’s been good to Kahne, giving him his first win in May of 2005; it was a run that was followed up with an eighth last September. The team was off on their setup during the first Richmond race this year, but you’d have to believe they’ll come loaded for bear this time around, and Kahne has the track record here to finish high enough to gain the points he needs.
2) If Kahne is close enough to move up – who looks the most vulnerable to fall out after California?
Mark Martin is busy finding the most creative way to lose a title in his final season, but it actually looks like Burton may be the odd man out when it’s all said and done. Three years removed from his last top five at Richmond, Burton’s best finish at the track with Richard Childress Racing has been a mediocre 15th. That won’t be good enough if Kahne runs in the top five.
While it’s a longshot, don’t forget about Jeff Gordon, either. He may be fourth in points and finished fifth at California, but Kahne still lurks 102 points behind him, and the Rainbow Warrior has finished 39th, 30th and 40th in his last three starts at Richmond. Another disaster like that on Saturday night, and the door may be open wide enough to induce a shocking Chase exit if no one else has problems. No question about it, Brian France should have his box of tissues on hand, just in case.
3) Why is NASCAR racing at California – in September?
Let’s take the Southern 500 out of this argument for a minute, because that’s been beaten to death. This weekend marked my first time at the track, and while I’m no fan of heat as it is, it was an absolutely unbearable 95-100 degrees the whole weekend. Of course, it got cooler at night, but the Sunday race starts during the day at 4:00 p.m. Ontario time, who wants to wait hours in the heat for that? No wonder the race doesn’t sell out, the NASCAR fans out West are just as dedicated as everyone else, but there’s a limit to how far they will go. No amount of marketing will get them to a track in that weather, and I don’t blame them.
4) Will teams not in the Chase for the Nextel Cup get more aggressive?
Sure hope so. We’ve been waiting for it for weeks – teams with nothing to lose taking chances on the track in order to either win the race or grab some attention, perhaps dealing a Chase contender a fatal blow in the process. We thought that would start at Bristol – instead, every driver from 11th on back was more polite than Miss Manners on her best day, moving over for each Chaser like their cars were army tanks. Then, at California, it seemed the Chasers were in a league of their own at one point, the top-12 spots occupied by the top 12 in the points standings at halfway. Finally, somebody showed some guts at the end of the race, as rookies Sorenson and Clint Bowyer among others tried to win on fuel mileage. Hopefully, teams will do more of that in the coming weeks and forget about the points so the top 10 isn’t always filled with the conservative racing from the cars racing the points system for a title.
5) Is the future of Petty Enterprises in doubt?
Not completely, but all the progress the team made earlier in the year is slowly eroding. Todd Parrott somewhat surprised the No. 43 bunch by leaving to go back to Robert Yates Racing a few weeks ago, and Bobby Labonte really hasn’t run the same since (26th on Sunday night); the search for his permanent crew chief is going slowly at best. Meanwhile, Kyle Petty‘s 35th-place finish at California dropped his team out of the Top 35, meaning he’ll have to qualify on speed at Richmond this weekend, and that’s a dangerous proposition. Petty’s qualified 33rd or worse for 18 of 25 races in 2006 in another forgettable season; one DNQ, and there could be a snowball effect where this team misses several races in a row. Not the best thing you can show potential sponsors for 2007, that’s for sure.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: To say Junior was happy after finishing second at California was an understatement. The No. 8 team had flat out sucked here for the past few years, with Junior registering three straight finishes in the 30s before placing 11th in February. Now, instead of another middle-of-the-pack finish that would have thrown his Chase hopes in doubt, Junior heads to Richmond as the defending champion and with enough of a cushion in points that he should get into the Chase easy even if he has a bad day.
Bowyer: While the other cars gambling on fuel mileage fell by the wayside as the laps wound down, Bowyer’s Chevrolet made it all the way to the checkered flag, going the last 55 laps of green-flag racing without needing a stop on pit road. The third-place finish Bowyer earned as a result will certainly help to heal all of the bad luck this team’s had the past month or so.
Denny Hamlin: Most all the Chase contenders ran well at California, but Hamlin’s consistency in his rookie year continues to stand out amongst the crowd. Leading laps early and staying in the top 10 virtually all 250 laps, Hamlin finished sixth for his seventh straight top 10; that’s the best streak amongst all 11 drivers in contention for the title. The way this team runs, they’re as much a threat for the championship as anyone.
Dale Jarrett: While RYR’s new rookie David Gilliland continues to struggle under Parrott, spinning out again this weekend, it seems Parrott’s presence has brought Jarrett back to life. The past four months, it’s been hard to tell if Jarrett’s still been racing, he’s been so far back in the pack; but all of a sudden, since Parrott’s return the No. 88 was running in the top 15 at Michigan before the engine blew, and now has finishes of 15th and 10th to its credit after scoring a top 10 at California, Jarrett’s first since Atlanta in March.
Burton: In theory, 16th place isn’t all that bad, but when you’re racing the 10 best drivers on the circuit, that’s not going to be good enough. So it was for Burton on Sunday night, an ill-handling car dooming him to the outside of the top 15 and pushing him to 10th in the points, just two behind Martin and 30 ahead of Kahne.
Jimmie Johnson: 11th place at the finish is nothing to cry about, but it’s the zero laps led statistic that should have the No. 48 team scrambling after California. Since winning Indy, Johnson has led just one lap in the last four races, a big reason why he’s lost the points lead to Matt Kenseth. If Johnson doesn’t start pushing the issue up front again, he won’t get it back.
Bill Elliott: While Elliott continues to keep Team Red Bull at bay, mulling over his decision to race full-time next year, he better hope no one pulls that offer off the table. Forced behind the wall at California due to mechanical problems, Elliott finished 42nd, his sixth result of 22nd or worse in six starts this season.
Robby Gordon: A year of ups and downs continued for Robby at California, as transmission failure on lap 193 gave him the unique stat of being the only driver officially retired from the race at the end of 500 miles. Understandably, the team place 43rd.
With just one race to go in the regular season, the points standings got closer with some major shifts. Those changes started at the top: Kenseth’s seventh-place finish, combined with Johnson’s 11th-place run, gave Kenseth the points lead over Johnson by nine. Kevin Harvick remained third in points but is 342 behind and can only move down, not up, after Richmond. Gordon’s strong fifth-place run vaulted him up to fourth in points, 387 back of Kenseth, with Kyle Busch rounding out the top five, 394 points behind.
Earnhardt Jr.’s runner-up finish moved him up to sixth in points, 412 back of Kenseth and a point ahead of rookie Hamlin in seventh. Tony Stewart sits eighth, 444 points behind, with Martin ninth, 457 back. Burton falls to 10th, 459 behind and 30 points ahead of 11th-place Kahne, the only other driver still eligible to make the Chase.
Technically, any driver from Harvick on back can miss the Chase with a bad finish on Sunday night, although it would take Harvick finishing 43rd and every other Chase driver having a good night for him to fall out. There’s also a possibility if Johnson and Kenseth both struggle that the 400-point window will come into play; but in all likelihood, after Richmond one of these 11 men will be on the outside looking in at a title.
“I came here telling myself, ˜You gotta win, you gotta win, you gotta lead laps. That’s all you can do if you want to make this Chase.’ You can’t expect to win. You can’t expect to lead the most laps just because you want to. It’s way too tough competition. We just hit everything right this weekend. It was a huge weekend. I’ve never won at California Speedway, so to win pretty close to home, Seattle isn’t too far from here or Enumclaw, Wash., so it was pretty nice to get a west coast sweep.” – race winner Kasey Kahne
“I know I wasn’t driving very hard. I wasn’t holding it open down the straightaway and I was lifting as early as I could. They told me we were two laps short and we ran out with two to go. Usually we run out before they say. Our engineer is usually pretty good [with gas mileage], so he was right on target when he said we were short two laps.” – runner-up Reed Sorenson
“I’d love to leave Richmond as the points leader. I think it would help to go into the Chase as the leader, so that would be great.” – Matt Kenseth
“I don’t think Kasey [Kahne] is really to blame for whoever doesn’t make the Chase. It’s so close in points. I like Kasey a lot and I don’t want to look at him as an adversary in that way. I want to enjoy racing with him. He’s a great competitor and a lot of fun to race with. Whoever does make the Chase deserves it, and I hope we’re a part of that program.” – Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Next Up: The Nextel Cup whirlwind heads back east for some classic Saturday night short-track racing at the ¾-mile facility in Richmond, Va. The final race of the regular season, the Chevy Rock ‘N’ Roll 400, will be seen at 7:00 p.m. ET Saturday night on TNT, as well as aired on your local MRN affiliate.