To the Point: Rumors of cheating, two blown engines, and a track that ate up and spit out three championship contenders.
Nope, none of that could keep Richard Childress Racing out of Victory Lane.
For the first time since November 2001, Jeff Burton took the checkered flag in a Nextel Cup race, scoring the win in Sunday’s Dover 400 to put RCR on top for the third straight week. Winning for the first time in his last 175 tries at the Cup level, Burton’s quest for the checkered flag wasn’t easy – he fell back early in the race with a poor-handling racecar, then had to play it safe after watching teammates Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer have their engines sour over the final 50 miles.
His equipment intact, Burton then survived a thrilling, 30-lap duel to the finish with Matt Kenseth, taking the lead for the first and final time with six laps to go and slowly pulling ahead while Kenseth ran out of gas on lap 399. As Kenseth coasted to the pits, Carl Edwards streaked by to finish a distant second in the race, with Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch and Greg Biffle rounding out the top five. Meanwhile, several championship contenders found their Chase chances mashed by the Monster Mile, with Kasey Kahne, Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. among those who had problems that severely damaged their chances to win this year’s title.
Who Should Have Won: Kenseth. The fastest car for most of the day, leading a race high 215 of 400 laps, Kenseth had a Dover win in the palm of his hand. Too bad the Monster Mile ran roughshod over his crew. Comfortably in the lead during a lap 324 caution flag, Reiser kept his driver out on the track while 10 of the remaining 12 drivers on the lead lap came to pit road. Despite only two cars staying on track, a nervous Reiser was worried about track position, and took his chances the DeWalt Ford could survive the final 102 laps on fuel and older tires. Neither held up; fading tires caused Kenseth to fall into the clutches of Burton as the race wound down, and a dry fuel tank with two laps to go was responsible for the No. 17 tumbling down the running order to a 10th-place finish.
Five Questions You Should be Asking After the Race Weekend
1) With cheating allegations and an employee lawsuit among the headlines circling around RCR, can Burton’s team be considered a serious contender for the Nextel Cup title?
Absolutely. If anything, refuting allegations this week that RCR had inserted a bleeder valve into its tires to control air pressure simply made Burton more motivated to send his car to Victory Lane. The clean-cut driver actually swore in the Media Center on Friday, which happens about as often as Edwards frowns. Burton made some clear statements of passion both in that press conference and on Sunday that shows he means business, and now that this team finally has the winless monkey off their back, the possibility they could get on a hot streak is high. Looks like my prediction for Burton to finish 10th is about to eat some serious crow.
2) Why was the Monster Mile more treacherous than usual?
Dover has always been known as a tough track, as the steep banking and tight corners cause drivers to be on the edge of control. This weekend, though, things were especially bad, as overly aggressive setups and right front tire wear combined with a track surface low on grip to turn the race into a mini-demolition derby. The Busch Series race slogged through a record 13 cautions in 200 laps, and Sunday’s Nextel Cup affair was marred by 10 cautions for 48 laps, with eight cars officially retired due to crashes, the most accident victims since Talladega in May. When a talented driver like defending series champion Tony Stewart simply loses control on his own, you know you’ve got a challenging track on your hands that should be feared by both rookie and veteran alike.
3) Have the championship hopes of Kyle Busch and Kahne come to an end?
No, and almost. Speaking of Stewart, his crash happened right in front of Kahne, who had nowhere to go but to plow right into the side of the Home Depot Chevy and total both racecars. Finishing 38th and now 182 points behind Burton with eight races left, the No. 9 team still has a glimmer of hope only if Kahne can succeed on the five 1.5-mile tracks remaining at the level he could earlier in the season. He’ll need to win at least three of those five to have a chance at the championship.
Kahne fans, look on the bright side, at least he has a chance, unlike Kyle Busch. After having his engine go south on lap 111, the No. 5 placed 40th in the final results. Now 10th in points and 227 out of the top spot, Busch’s hopes for the title lie somewhere in the range of zero, and, well, zero.
4) Why didn’t Kenseth and Reed Sorenson come in and pit during the race’s final caution on lap 324?
With only 13 cars on the lead lap at the time (one of which was the Lucky Dog and would automatically start at the back), there was no such thing as bad track position for the No. 17 team – they had the car to battle back to the front if there was a bad stop. Unfortunately, having nearly lost the June race on old tires to Jamie McMurray likely affected their decision, keeping them from realizing that tires were wearing differently on this cloudy, dreary day when the track surface struggled to give drivers grip. Kurt Busch and Sorenson followed Kenseth’s lead, and Sorenson also ran out of gas as a result, spoiling what had been a career run for the rookie after he led 39 laps earlier in the event. Only Busch was able to gain from the move, coming home fourth.
5) What the heck has gotten into Bill Davis Racing?
For the first 25 races this season, life at BDR was a nightmare at best, with flagship driver Dave Blaney finishing no better than 14th in any event. Enter Tommy Baldwin, cut loose from his role at Robert Yates Racing and free to return to BDR, where he made magic with former driver Ward Burton through several seasons in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Just like that, it’s like a switch has been flipped; the last three events, Blaney has finished fourth, ninth and 12th, finally able to steal a little bit of coverage away from the Chase field as a result. Having struggled mightily for most of his seven seasons on tour, it’s nice to see the 43-year-old beginning to make some noise.
Edwards: His championship hopes dashed long ago and his sophomore slump of a season trudging towards the finish line, Edwards used Dover as a building block for 2007. Leading 21 laps after qualifying sixth, Edwards was a victory contender until he forgot to come down pit road while leading under caution, eventually forcing him to pit out of sequence and fall back in the pack. That would have ended his charge earlier in the year, but Edwards persevered, bore down and battled back to a solid second-place finish, albeit eight seconds behind race winner Burton.
Gordon: In one sense, Gordon should be kicking himself, failing to lead a lap despite winning the pole. Still, just because Gordon never ran up front doesn’t mean he wasn’t consistent, running between fifth and 10th for the majority of the event before staging a late charge to finish third. Now up to second in the standings, the Rainbow Warrior has a prime opportunity to steal the points lead next week while some of the other main challengers struggle to get themselves going.
Martin Truex Jr.: The season has simply been miserable for Truex; he’s silently watched the rest of the rookie class improve while his team has appeared to slowly get worse. Back at his home track, though, Truex showed signs of life, with a career-best sixth-place finish to his credit after running strong all day. The No. 1 team still has a long way to go, but they now have something they can build on.
Bobby Labonte: Since crew chief Todd Parrott returned to RYR in midsummer, Labonte has struggled behind the wheel of the Petty No. 43, with a best finish of 19th in his last seven starts. A mediocre day appeared to be in the cards once again Sunday, until a timely lap 298 caution during pit stops kept Labonte one of 11 cars left on the lead lap. The car came to life after that, and Labonte’s resulting seventh-place finish became his best since Bristol back in March.
Harvick: The championship leader after his win at Loudon last week, Harvick had high hopes for Dover, but was never really a factor at the front of the field. Still, the car seemed capable of finishing solidly within the top 10, where Harvick was running until the engine quickly went south during the last 50 miles. Eventually having to pull it in with 366 laps completed, Harvick fell to 32nd with his first DNF of the season in either Busch or Nextel Cup.
Earnhardt Jr.: After pacing the field during Happy Hour practice, expectations were high for the No. 8 team Sunday, expectations that never would pan out. Junior simply struggled to sneak into the top 10 Sunday before a flat tire under green forced an early pit stop and trapped him two laps down. Losing the handle of the racecar after that, the No. 8 car got lapped on the track a third time before limping to the finish in 21st, losing valuable ground in the Chase.
David Ragan: After announcing this week that the competition for the No. 6 car was wide open among his four rookie drivers in lower series, Roush must be looking for Plan B, as NONE of those four have given the impression they are Nextel Cup ready. Ragan became the latest dud, barely making the starting field, he lost control of his car on lap 47 and plowed into the inside wall, finishing 42nd.
Scott Riggs: Qualifying second, Riggs’s problems began on Friday when he missed a shift during that run, a no-no that caused his Evernham Motorsports team to change engines before the start of Sunday’s race. Of course, that put Riggs at the back of the field, and he was never able to overcome the loss of track position, with the Monster Mile eventually having sympathy for him and ending his day in the outside wall of turn 4. Riggs ended up 34th in the final rundown.
With eight races left in the Chase, the standings are now jumbled once again, with Burton’s win vaulting him into the points lead by six over new second-place man Gordon. Kenseth’s 10th-place run kept in third, now tied with Denny Hamlin and just 18 points out of the top spot. Harvick’s blown engine dropped him to fifth, and he now sits 54 points behind his teammate in his quest to win both Busch and Nextel Cup titles in the same season.
Mark Martin leads the second half of the top 10, locking in at 75 points out of the lead after Dover. Earnhardt Jr. falls to seventh, 102 back, while Jimmie Johnson, Kahne, and Kyle Busch round out the top 10. 136, 182 and 227 points behind, it’s unlikely at best that any of them will gain the ground they need to make a serious run at the title.
“Today was just backwards of what most of our races have been lately. We had a really good pit stop at the end. Scott [crew chief Miller] had the car right at the end. Those two things together are why we won.” – race winner Jeff Burton
“He ought to be ashamed of himself. It’s a sad state of affairs when a 5-year-old can hold himself to a higher standard than an adult.” – Jeff Burton, when asked about how he feels about the person who started the RCR cheating rumor last Sunday
“I just don’t understand what we did there at the end. We gambled for fuel, but there was really no reason to gamble because we had the best car.” – Matt Kenseth
“This [Dover] is just a big Bristol. Those restarts, there was a time where we were 12th or 14th but basically lining up like, 28th, and you’re just nervous, you know. You know there’s not a thing you can do when they start wrecking. You can try and drive it through there or close your eyes, but it’s going to be pure luck if you make it through.” – Jeff Gordon
“This Chase thing needs a lot of work, and it’s not a matter of how many cars make the Chase. It goes a lot deeper than that.” – Tony Stewart, after taking out Kasey Kahne
“We’re done.” – Kyle Busch, when asked about his championship chances
Next Up: After two races on the East Coast, the Chase gets a little taste of the Midwest, as Kansas Speedway plays host to the Nextel Cup stars for the running of the Banquet 400. Coverage is scheduled to begin on Sunday, Oct. 1st at 1:30 p.m. ET on NBC and MRN.