In the wildest race in Kansas Speedway’s six-year history, Stewart’s Home Depot Chevrolet coasted out of fuel for the final half-lap of the race, yet still managed to beat out Casey Mears to the line to win Sunday’s Banquet 400. Mears, who ran out of gas himself coming to the checkers, came home second, with Mark Martin third and Dale Jarrett fourth on fuel mileage gambles. Those four drivers ran the final 71 laps without pitting after stopping during the race’s final caution on lap 196. Jeff Burton came in for a splash of gas, but recovered to finish fifth, extending his point lead in the process to 69 over Denny Hamlin after several Chase drivers were caught up in a wild mess of spins, mechanical problems, and pit road penalties.
Who Should Have Won: Jimmie Johnson. In a race that held a new twist at every turn with several early cautions, it took awhile for Johnson to assert himself out front; but as the race entered its final segment, the Lowe’s Chevrolet took off like a rocket ship. Leading 80 of the final 87 laps, the No. 48 car had a six-second lead built up over Stewart before fuel mileage played a factor in the closing stages. Forced to pit for gas, Johnson slowed to enter pit road on lap 262 only to see the spinning car of Kahne in front of him, trying to pit himself until his brakes locked up in the process. Thinking there would be a caution, Johnson turned back on the track, but Kahne recovered from the spin, and the yellow flag never came out. Instead, the No. 48 car was forced to pit one lap later, and Johnson was frazzled enough to draw a penalty for speeding exiting pit lane, dropping him to 14th in the final running order and putting his Chase chances on life support.
Five Questions You Should Be Asking After the Race Weekend:
1) Is Kansas finally coming out of its shell?
No question about it. In its sixth year of hosting Nextel Cup races, Kansas is the most recent of the half-dozen “cookie-cutter” tracks to be added to the schedule, but is easily the most advanced in its progression from one groove snoozer to edge-of-your-seat excitement. Last year’s race was a dud, but people forget the 2004 race here was a thriller, and this year’s edition surely didn’t disappoint. Especially intriguing is how turn 4 has the potential to become one of the trickiest left turns of any superspeedway on the circuit, building a reputation that could one day stand alongside Charlotte’s turn 4 and Dover’s turn 2. No less than 10 drivers spun during the race due to a hard tire combination that caused a chronic loose condition off the corner.
That same combination, though, led to exciting racing throughout much of the event. With two and three abreast racing the norm, not the exception, this track solidified its worth on the Nextel Cup schedule Sunday.
2) What was with all the Chasers spinning out on Sunday? Which Chaser recovered the best from their problems?
Talladega was supposed to be the race where half the Chasers left the track attached to a wrecker, but it turned out Kansas was just as tricky – no less than five championship contenders found themselves facing the wrong direction at some point Sunday. Some of those wounds were life-saving: when Ryan Newman pulled a 360 in front of the field on lap 15, Kevin Harvick and Gordon had to turn left through the grass to avoid a major wreck. Hamlin and Matt Kenseth, on the other hand, lost a never-ending battle against ill-handling race cars; both never recovered from their lazy spins off turn 4. Finally, Kahne’s ill-advised skid while trying to pit caused him to run out of gas.
Of those five, Harvick was able to recover the best. As low as 39th after the spin, he finished 15th; that, along with a Busch Series win Saturday, should maintain his momentum. As for the other four, they struggled at best, with Hamlin finishing 18th, Kenseth 23rd, Kahne 33rd, and Gordon 39th.
3) Why didn’t more drivers, Chasers and non-Chasers alike, take their chances on fuel mileage?
Because they couldn’t; no need to risk it when you have no chance. The latest any driver in contention pitted was on lap 196, meaning anyone who tried would be running those 71 laps – equivalent to 106.5 miles – on one tank of fuel. Typically, running over 100 miles under green puts a 22-gallon Nextel Cup fuel tank on empty. So, while drivers like Greg Biffle, Johnson, Kenseth, and others had their finishes suffer by diving down pit road and making poor strategy decisions on pit lane, the alternative would almost certainly have been running out of gas.
4) What does Mike Bliss‘ lawsuit against Haas CNC Racing reveal about driver salaries?
Buried amongst the Chase talk this weekend was a wrongful termination lawsuit made public between Bliss and Gene Haas, owner of the No. 66 car driven by Bliss in 2005. As a part of the dispute, Bliss’ driver salary was revealed, a rare look into the eye of Nextel Cup contracts that we rarely see. And, well, looks like the guy was paid pretty nicely for his services. 28th in points last year, Bliss made $400,000 in base salary this season, but also collected 40% of race purses and 30% of souvenir sales. With race earnings of over $3 million, that meant Bliss earned an additional $1.2 million over the 36-race season, giving him a final salary that likely climbed well over $2 million. In comparison, 28th place on the PGA Tour money list, Mike Weir, has made $1.8 million this season.
What does this tell you? Driver salaries, rumored to be out of control, may actually be closely aligned with the salary distributions in some of the other major sports, surprising in the wake of the contract wars of 2005. So, it looks like you can’t blame rising sponsorship costs on that, after all,
5) How quickly can Juan Pablo Montoya get up to speed?
Finally released from Formula 1 obligations this week, Montoya’s NASCAR training has begun. Already entered in an ARCA race at Talladega October 6th, Montoya put down the sixth fastest time in testing, impressive for his first time in a stock car. Still, keep in mind that Talladega is the easiest of the oval tracks to master in terms of speed; equipment can make up for any driver shortcomings. Even if Montoya gets a top five in that race, be sure to reserve any and all judgment until after he races at a track where you actually have to use the brake. In truth, Montoya’s shortened season is more likely to resemble David Gilliland‘s in the No. 38; a whole lot of potential, a whole lot of wrecks, and a constant eye towards learning as much as possible for 2007.
Mears: Casey may have benefited from his fuel mileage to finish second, but don’t be fooled – the No. 42 car was a top-10 machine all day, with Mears’ performance reminding observers of a time not long ago when he took a Ganassi car to the front at every intermediate track on the circuit. Sadly, that has not been the case this season, as this was Mears’ first top five on a 1.5-mile track since Homestead at the end of 2005.
Martin: The defending champ of the race, Martin hardly looked the part, his car junk from the drop of the green flag. Even a two-tire strategy couldn’t keep him in the top 10 for more than a handful of laps. Yet, there was the No. 6 at the end of the race, hanging on for third with an empty fuel tank. Maybe this year luck is on Martin’s side.
Fuel Mileage Underdogs: This race proved a gift to several other struggling teams, all able to pull a solid finish out of the day with good fuel mileage. Jarrett came home fourth, his first top five of the year, while Ken Schrader snuck in a 13th-place run for the Wood Brothers. Bill Elliott and old sponsor Melling snagged a season-best 16th driving the overlooked No. 37 for R&J Racing, while Travis Kvapil and Sterling Marlin brought their struggling teams home 19th and 20th.
Richard Childress Racing: While the streak of three straight Cup wins came to a close, this team finished Sunday strong. Point leader Burton had Newman spin directly in front of him, yet came through the mess undamaged en route to fifth. Harvick was 15th after spinning to avoid that same mess. Perhaps the biggest kudos for RCR, though, should go to Clint Bowyer. At his hometown track, Bowyer led early and had a contending car, only to spin out by himself shortly after halfway. The crew could barely fuel the car after that, the rear end was so bent out of shape; but somehow, some way, Bowyer saved fuel and ran fast enough to end up ninth. What a piece of driving!
Evernham Motorsports: On Friday, it looked like this team would finish 1-2-3 after Kahne and Scott Riggs qualified on the front row. Sunday, they were lucky not to finish 41-42-43. Elliott Sadler started the disaster, inexplicably slamming into Jamie McMurray‘s car while leaving pit road on lap 12; that sent the No. 19 behind the wall for repairs, knocking Sadler back to 40th. Then, Riggs began to self-destruct after being forced to pit under green for a vibration on lap 165; the No. 10 ended the race four laps behind in 34th. Just ahead of him was Kahne in 33rd, who never dominated up front as expected, instead running the race in the back half of the top 10 before his fuel mileage gamble turned sour as mentioned above. Without question, Kahne’s Chase is now officially down the tubes.
Gordon: Although not as bad as Kahne’s title chances, Gordon’s hopes for the championship took a serious hit Sunday. Running in the top 10 after his early spin, the Rainbow Warrior was poised to keep Burton within striking distance; but with 29 laps remaining, the fuel pump failed, sending him straight to the garage. He finished 39th and now sits 120 out of the point lead.
Hamlin: All year long, everyone’s been waiting for that rookie mistake out of this kid; at Kansas, it finally happened. With a car that refused to turn well all day, Hamlin finally lost control and spun off turn 4 on lap 153, effectively ending his chances at a good finish. 18th in the final rundown, it could have been a lot worse, but the rhythm and momentum this team lost on Sunday will likely cost them down the road.
Kenseth: Other than Kahne’s fall from grace, Kenseth’s inability to run up front was the surprise of the weekend. The No. 17 team was simply never on its game from Friday to Sunday; Kenseth qualified eighth, but dropped like a rock at the drop of the green flag, spinning out at one point because his car was handling so bad. Kenseth thought perhaps a gear or axle was off-kilter on his race car, but the team never pinpointed a mechanical problem, and he was forced to soldier on to finish a mediocre 23rd.
With Sunday’s strong run, Burton’s point lead expanded to 69 over new second-place Hamlin with seven races remaining. Martin moved up to third place, 70 back, with Kenseth falling to fourth, 84 out of the lead. Harvick rounded out the top five in points, now 96 out of the top spot after leading the points at New Hampshire just two races ago.
Gordon’s fuel pump problem dropped him to sixth, 120 back of the lead, with Dale Earnhardt Jr. holding steady in seventh, 123 behind. Johnson remained in eighth, 165 behind Burton, while Kyle Busch and Kahne rounded out the top 10, over 200 points behind and no threat for the title.
Behind the Chasers, Stewart’s win put him 270 points in front of Biffle in the race for 11th place.
“It was just [Zippy] yelling at me on the radio to save fuel [at the end]. The bad thing is that he’s got a stopwatch, so he knows whether I’m slowing down enough. He’d click the stopwatch, and I’d pick it up a little bit during a lap and think that I was going to get away with it, and he’d yell at me on the backstretch to slow down. So, it’s good on his part because we just work so well together.” – Tony Stewart
“The track is an awesome racetrack. It’s a lot of fun. It had multiple grooves today, which was huge. [But] it looked like those last two seams at the top of the track they filled with some sort of tar was very slick and very inconsistent, and if you hit it, it really changed the balance of your car.” – Casey Mears
“I just hate missing opportunities to gain points. We had the speed. We’ve had the speed the last few weeks, we just need some luck to come our way.” – Jimmie Johnson
“Based on my past experience, my expectation would be to wreck next week at Talladega, but so far I haven’t had a disaster, so let’s go see what happens. If we come through Talladega, we might have a chance.” – Mark Martin
Next Up: After a surprise thriller in the Midwest, the series moves on to a guaranteed thriller in the southeast, with the fourth and final restrictor-plate race of the season at Talladega, Ala. A brand new pavement awaits at the 2.66-mile superspeedway, where the UAW-Ford 500 will be held shortly after 2 p.m. ET this Sunday. Pre-race shows begin at 1:30 p.m. ET on both NBC and MRN.