*To the Point*: At the end of September, Kasey Kahne’s dreams of a championship title appeared to be in critical condition.
Turns out it’s nothing a little October medicine couldn’t cure.
After finishing second at Talladega the previous week, Kahne came out and dominated at Lowe’s, leading 134 laps and surviving a wacky race of attrition and pit strategy to come out on top in the Bank of America 500 and close to within 160 of point leader Jeff Burton. Kahne took the season sweep at the track over Lowe’s legend Jimmie Johnson, who placed second; point leader Jeff Burton, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and Bobby Labonte rounded out the Top 5 finishers. Burton left Lowe’s with a lead of 45 points over second place point man Matt Kenseth, who finished 14th Saturday night.
*Who Should Have Won*: *Kahne.* For several years now, this track has been Johnson’s personal playground, with the No. 48 team racking up four straight points paying wins over 2004 and 2005. Even he has to admit, though, that’s there’s a new kid on the block; both races this year, it was Kahne who had the upper hand when it counted. After Johnson threatened to run away with the win shortly after halfway, the No. 9 team led by Kenny Francis made all the right adjustments, and Kahne stormed back to the front to lead all but five of the final 78 laps. Looks like Johnson and the rest of the Nextel Cup faithful have some homework to do for Lowe’s in the offseason.
*Five Questions You Should Be Asking After the Race Weekend:*
*1) Who thought it was a good idea to put out the green flag, with safety vehicles still positioned all over the race track?*
For some unexplainable reason, someone in the NASCAR tower thought to send the cars to the green flag after the race’s second caution Saturday night – with a safety vehicle parked right in the exit of Turn 2. It could have been one of the most disastrous accidents in NASCAR history – just imagine a car at 160 mph slamming into a stopped vehicle, with safety workers not belted securely inside. Luckily, TV cameras and more alert officials threw the yellow flag immediately after taking the green, but the ridiculousness of the situation was not lost on several drivers and crews, who vented both during and after the event. After having to red flag the Busch race the day before to figure out an officiating call, the sport certainly left the Speedway with a black eye by the end of the night on Saturday.
*2) Why has the racing at Lowe’s deteriorated?*
The easy answer is the repaving job and the new surface; the more complex one is too much “speed”:/tbowles/4683. When the track got resurfaced, the smooth pavement simply became too quick to handle stock cars, and now they’ve got to do something to slow the speeds. Simple as that, no amount of fuel cell shrinkage or tire combination will change the fact that it’s now too dangerous to run side-by-side at this track; it’s that quickness that is also causing the carnage in terms of wreckage on Saturday night; half the field ended up with damage from some sort of wreck. Last I heard, racing wasn’t built on a single-file wreckfest, so hopefully, some major work will be done in the offseason to change that.
*3) What was J.J. Yeley thinking?*
Surely, every rookie is entitled to make their mistakes, but Yeley’s was somewhat inexplicable. Attempting to dive onto pit road, Yeley did so from the outside lane, leaving Mark Martin a sitting target as he suddenly slowed and dove down at a sharp angle to the inside of the track to reach pit lane. Martin got spun headfirst into the wall, Yeley’s night ended in a shower of sparks, and a final championship opportunity for Martin and the No. 6 bunch was almost certainly lost.
*4) Should Dale Jarrett be penalized for parking in front of Reed Sorenson’s pit?*
Absolutely not; it was actually a hilarious way to prove a point. After Sorenson not only made contact with him on pit road, but tapped him in the rear bumper under green, causing a wreck, Dale Jarrett made sure his mangled race car found his way to the pit stall of the No. 41. Once there, Jarrett parked the car for a good minute and a half to prove his point, then turned the engine back on and drove his mess of a race vehicle back to the garage. In what may have been karma for Sorenson, he wrecked hard shortly after that and finished the race in the garage as well, Sorenson did apologize on TV for the accident, but with the way Jarrett treated the youngster, don’t expect the two to exchange Christmas Cards anytime soon.
*5) Halfway through the Chase, who’s got a chance at the championship, and who’s title hopes are finished?*
Well, eight drivers of the ten have _some_ sort of shot. Both Kyle Busch and Jeff Gordon are out, even the four-time champ can’t make up the type of deficit that both he and his young teammate are facing with five races left. Kahne and Johnson have that sort of deficit, too, but have shown enough strength in the Chase to win three or four of the last five races, something they’ll need to do to have any shot.
Martin, Denny Hamlin, and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. have a more reasonable chance, but have to seriously step up their game in the last five to be considered true contenders. More than likely, it looks like the championship will come down to just three men – Jeff Burton, Matt Kenseth, and Kevin Harvick.
*Jimmie Johnson* – While Kahne streaked to the win, second wasn’t all that bad for Johnson – he finished at the Top 3 at Lowe’s for an astounding eighth consecutive time, and got his championship chances back on track after the Talladega debacle. Now, the bad news, he only gained 10 points on this man,
*Jeff Burton* – For most of the race, it looked like Burton was headed towards another bout with bad luck. Transmission failures on both his teammates’ cars left the No. 31 team praying to simply make it to the finish, luckily, that’s exactly what happened. Good thing the team built a fast car to boot, the third place finish was the fourth Top 10 for Burton in the Chase, allowing him to expand his point lead.
*Bobby Labonte* – After Todd Parrott packed up his toolbox and left Petty Enterprises midseason, Labonte’s struggled to push forward with the No. 43 bunch, however, Saturday night proved to be a big step in the right direction. Driving a solid Top 15 car all night, Labonte had luck go his way during a late caution that trapped most of the field one or more laps down while leaving him on the tail end of the lead lap. Eventually getting the yellow flag he needed to catch up to the rest of the field, the No. 43 charged to the front in the race’s final segment and came home 5th. Just a little under 200 points out of the Top 20, it’s now still possible for Labonte to give this team its highest points finish in several years.
*Tony Raines* – Without question, Raines had the best run of his short tenure with the No. 96 team Saturday night. Charging to the lead more than once during the night, he had a car capable of running with the leaders, and wasn’t afraid to be aggressive at a track where aggressive got you in the wall before you could blink. Still able to bring the car home in one piece, Raines finished 7th and snagged his first Top 10 of the season, as well as his best finish since 2003.
*Denny Hamlin* – In the garage before two laps were even complete, Hamlin had what could only be described as an awful experience at Lowe’s. When Robby Gordon got loose and spun off of Turn 4 the first lap, it set up a dozen-car melee that got several drivers qualified towards the back of the pack involved, unfortunately, Hamlin was the only Chaser among them with enough damage to be forced back to the garage. In a race with heavy attrition, Hamlin recovered to come home 28th, but the rookie’s confidence has now taken a huge hit, heading to a track where he wrecked in the Spring. That spells trouble, or so it seems.
*Jeff Gordon* – After qualifying a dismal 41st, Gordon flew up through the field like a rocket ship and had a Top 5 car at worst, until the engine let go in his DuPont Chevrolet. Coming home 24th, Gordon fell to 10th in the standings and now stands over 200 points behind with 10 races left, making it a virtual impossibility for him to win the championship.
*Kevin Harvick* – While teammate Jeff Burton has avoided the Bad Luck Bug, Harvick has absorbed it since winning at Loudon to start off the Chase. This week, it was transmission problems that caused the No. 29 to backpedal as the laps counted down – winding up 18th, it was a failed opportunity to keep pace with the No. 31 bunch, and now Harvick finds himself in a deeper hole than he’d like heading to a short track where he could have regained the point lead.
*Todd Kluever* – This kid might be a candidate for worst racing week of the year. Let’s see, heading into Lowe’s, he finds out he loses his No. 6 Nextel Cup ride to teammate David Ragan, then gets to hear his car owner say he’s only available for a limited Busch Series schedule in 2007 “so we can see if that makes him develop better.” Then, the kid had a strong run in the Busch race, only to have mechanical problems mess up his day. As if that wasn’t bad enough, he qualified for the Cup race only to lose it on his own and spin like a wildman down the backstretch, eventually collecting Ken Schrader and several others in the mess. Anybody got a Goody’s lying around for this guy? Anyone?
Jeff Burton’s win, combined with problems for several other Chasers, opened his lead up to 45 over Matt Kenseth with five races left. Harvick sits 89 back in third place, while Mark Martin falls to fourth, 102 back after his wreck with J.J. Yeley. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. moved up to 5th, 106 behind Burton but heading to a track where he historically hasn’t performed well.
Denny Hamlin’s wreck sent him tumbling to 6th in points; he’s now 137 behind Burton. Jimmie Johnson held down the 7th spot after Lowe’s, 146 back, while Kasey Kahne’s win moved him within 160 of the lead in 8th. Kyle Busch moved up to 9th, a distant 195 out of the top spot, while Jeff Gordon’s engine problem sent him tumbling to 10th, 216 behind.
In the race for 11th, Tony Stewart has things comfortably in hand, still 213 ahead of 12th place Carl Edwards despite four straight Top 10s for the No. 99 team.
(No Quotable this week; check out Frontstretch’s live Charlotte coverage at the track this past weekend for all the quotes you’ll ever need!)
With the Chase halfway complete, the circuit heads from the high speeds of Charlotte to the slowest track on the circuit, Martinsville Speedway, to kickstart the final five races on the schedule. The half-mile paper clip oval should provide some high-stakes short track action, with pre-race festivities beginning live Sunday at 12:30 PM on NBC and MRN.