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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Frontstretch Breakdown: 2006 Dickies 500 at Texas

To the Point: Late-race wrecks. Pit-road penalties. A fourth point leader in eight playoff races.

Yeah, just another typical week in this year’s Chase for the championship. And through it all, it’s the defending champ with no chance of repeating that keeps stealing the spotlight.

Dominating the race for the second straight week, Tony Stewart survived a green-white-checkered finish over Jimmie Johnson to take his first career win at Texas Motor Speedway. Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Clint Bowyer rounded out the top five. Meanwhile, Johnson’s second-place finish catapulted him into the point lead with two races left in the season, moving 17 markers ahead of Matt Kenseth, who finished 12th.

Who Should Have Won: Stewart. Was there ever any doubt? Charging forward from his eighth starting spot, Stewart was up front by lap 43 and proceeded to lead 278 of the final 296 laps. Sure, Kasey Kahne and Johnson made some late charges, but anytime someone seemed to give the No. 20 car a run for their money, Stewart would actually try, and, well, let’s just say he showed ’em what his car was made of.

Five Questions You Should be Asking After the Race Weekend

1) What, if anything, should the punishment be for the late-race incident between Harvick and Scott Riggs?

The ugliest wreck of the day at Texas happened with just a handful of laps to go, with a loose-running Riggs desperately holding onto a top-five finish over both Johnson and Harvick. Blocking to hold his spot, Riggs caused Johnson fits but eventually let him work around the No. 10 car, Harvick wasn’t as patient. That sent Riggs into the turn 4 wall in a hurry, which led to the team scurrying to get to Harvick after the race was over.

Details are still sketchy, but the crew found Harvick and his wife and caused a post-race melee, one big enough to shake up a NASCAR official caught in the crossfire and shove DeLana Harvick to the ground. With everyone within a mile of the incident invited into the NASCAR trailer, this investigation bears watching, 105 points behind in the Chase, any points penalty would likely strip Harvick of any chance he has left at the Cup championship. Unfortunately, for a melee that caused injury to a neutral party, points and probation seem not only a likely punishment for Harvick, but justified.

2) What will you remember most about Terry Labonte‘s final start?

It certainly wasn’t the in-race performance; Texas Terry needed a champion’s provisional to make the field in the first place and changed shocks twice en route to a disappointing 36th-place finish, 23 laps down. Still, no amount of handling problems could force anyone to ignore the beautiful paint scheme on the No. 44. Filled with memories that ran from Labonte’s second championship to his Bristol win with a wrecked racecar, they inspired longtime fans to celebrate the past in order to wish him well on his future. Spending the most of the weekend wondering what all this fuss was about, Labonte handled his retirement the same way he handled his driving career – with dignity, humility, and class. Hopefully, the younger generation watched enough of the pomp and circumstance to learn a thing or two from a man the sport sorely needs more of.

NEFF: A FOND FAREWELL TO TERRY LABONTE

3) Who’s left in the battle for the Chase with two races remaining?

Not too many. With many of their rivals having problems, Kenseth and Johnson worked to separate themselves from several drivers in the Chase field; whereas two races ago, eight drivers were within 100 points of the lead, only four share that same distinction after Texas. Denny Hamlin is one of those drivers, but as a rookie it’s hard to consider him a realistic contender; Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Harvick are longshots, 78 and 105 points out of the lead.

So, barring a miracle, the title will come down to the two people it would have been decided under in the old system: Johnson and Kenseth.

4) Why is Texas still a one-groove racetrack?

Rain had something to do with it on Sunday – the showers during the late morning hours wiped away rubber buildup and made the track a slippery slope to navigate. The problems lie deeper than that for Texas, though, and mirror those experienced at Charlotte. Simply put, the track is too fast. A track record of over 196 mph was set during qualifying, and while race speeds were significantly slower, cars are still so close to the edge of control they can’t handle the difficulty of being side-by-side with another car. It doesn’t help that tire problems reared their ugly heads, too; almost half a dozen right-front-tire failures were experienced Sunday, another indicator of the track’s speedy surface.

5) Why does NASCAR start races under both the green and yellow flag?

This is something I’ve questioned for years; with rain causing a 30-minute delay in starting the race, NASCAR chose to not only have the cars run extended pace laps while drying the track, but to run them four laps under a “competition caution,” too. To me, that doesn’t make much sense, why would those laps have to count? Can’t you just have 12 pace laps or something? To me, the drop of the green flag should be cars accelerating to full speed. Anything less deprives the fans of the beauty of what is the beginning frenzy of a race.

Solid Runs

Johnson: Working hard to run down Kenseth for this year’s title, this week’s run for Johnson finally made that dream a reality. While he never had anything for Stewart, Johnson put together a solid second-place run with a fifth- or sixth-place car, doing what he needed to do to maintain momentum. After falling as much as 156 points out of the lead, this comeback has been nothing short of amazing.

Harvick: Late-race snafu with Riggs aside, Harvick pulled through on a weekend where his Cup chances were on life support. Having endured a week of criticism for pulling double duty in Busch and Cup at two different venues, a move which admittedly hampered practice time and possibly performance for his Cup car at Atlanta, Harvick was determined to put that behind him. Like Johnson, this was never a winning car, but it was a top-five car, fulfilling its potential by finishing third and keeping dwindling title hopes alive in the process.

Busch: The Chase hasn’t worked out to be Kyle’s shining moment, but the No. 5 team should hold their heads high after a solid effort at Texas. Crew chief Alan Gustafson gambled on a two-tire stop that put Busch among the leaders, and he was able to bring the car home with a fourth-place finish, his first top five of the Chase. Eighth in points with two races left, the title is long out of reach, but there’s still plenty of momentum left for this team to grab for 2007.

Earnhardt: If NASCAR had a contingency award for grittiness, Junior would have won the prize, hands down. Under the weather all weekend with the flu, Junior felt he was going to throw up inside the car on more than one occasion; what’s worse, he lost focus and slammed himself into the turn 4 wall after Bowyer got him aero loose while battling for position. At the height of all that madness, the No. 8 car dropped to 34th on lap 170; but in a performance that would have made his Daddy proud, Junior took that beaten and battered racecar and drove it up to a sixth-place finish by the checkered flag.

Tough Days

Jeff Burton: Clearly, momentum had left this team in the form of Robby Gordon‘s roll-bar padding at Atlanta, Texas merely provided the final nail in the coffin. Struggling already with an ill-handling car, Burton had a right front tire blow on lap 90 that hurdled him into the wall and threw him out of the Chase. Finishing 38th and falling 184 points out of the lead, the joy of leading the standings for several races has now become a distant memory for the No. 31 bunch.

STAFF: WHAT’S THE CALL? DEBRIS CAUTIONS

Kahne: The winner of the spring race at Texas, Kahne looked like the only person who might have a car capable of battling Stewart up front. Easing his way into second in the race’s latter stages, he seemed ready to put the bad luck of the Chase behind him; and then, the car went dead. It was a blown engine, under a caution, no less, that forced Kahne into the garage for a second straight week. Finishing 33rd, Kahne is likely faced with the prospect of ending his first Chase exactly where he started it, in 10th place.

Kenseth: A 12th-place finish in nothing to sneeze at, but for the NASCAR points leader heading into Sunday’s event, it was a lost opportunity that left him wondering what might have been. With two consecutive top-three finishes at this track, Kenseth was expecting a breeze; instead, it was a nightmare from the drop of his green-flag qualifying lap. The No. 17 car struggled to 36th on the grid; once there, Kenseth could never get the breaks he needed to move his way completely to the front of the pack. A pit-road speeding penalty pushed him to the end of the longest line, a late-race spin caused minor damage to his car, and he was never able to run higher than his main rival, Johnson, all day long.

Marlin: Marlin’s team has shown improvement since Slugger Labbe came on board, but the urgency of keeping the team in the Top 35 in owner points doesn’t have them growing fast enough. After qualifying 31st, Marlin’s car handled like junk before becoming junk in a lap 209 wreck that also severely damaged the cars of Ken Schrader, Mark Martin and Dave Blaney. Perhaps Marlin got the worst of it, though, finishing 40th, he now has to qualify on speed at Phoenix, as the No. 14 team is now 36th in owner points.

Points Shuffle

The Chase, as previously mentioned, is now a two-man race; Kenseth’s 12th-place run combined with Johnson’s second-place finish put Johnson ahead by 17 after eight Chase races. Earnhardt moved up to third, 78 points behind, while Hamlin fell back a spot to fourth and is 80 out of the top spot. Harvick rounds out the top five, gaining 16 points to move within 105 of first place.

Jeff Gordon now leads off the second half of the top 10, but is all but out of it as far as the Chase is concerned, 157 behind Johnson with two races left. Burton, Busch, Martin and Kahne round out the top 10, all of whom have fallen over 180 points behind the leader and need a miracle to even find themselves entering Homestead with an outside shot at this year’s championship.

Meanwhile, with his second straight win, Stewart pulled 357 points ahead of Carl Edwards in the race for 11th and has now clinched his spot on stage at the Waldorf, providing he can simply start his car and complete a lap in just one of the final two events this season.

Quotable

“I’ve been racing 27 years and I can count on two hands the amount of times that I’ve had a car that was as good as this one was tonight. It’s just an honor to drive a car when it’s that nice.” – Tony Stewart

“We just hope we can lead this thing at the end of the year. That’s the goal.” – Jimmie Johnson on regaining the points lead

“He got loose and crammed to the bottom, I committed to go low. He got loose, and I got into him, and he wrecked.” – Kevin Harvick on his wreck with Scott Riggs

“I think we’ve got to get back and do some work on our performance. We’ve got to run better than that. We don’t deserve this [title] if we don’t run better than what we ran tonight. That’s the bottom line.” – Robbie Reiser, Matt Kenseth’s crew chief

“I’d like to thank all the fans. It’s been a great ride.” – Terry Labonte

Next Up: Leaving the flatlands of Texas behind, the series heads for the flat track of Phoenix for one more go round with the 1-mile oval. The Checker Auto Parts 500 will be run Sunday, November 12th shortly after 3:30 p.m. ET, with pre-race shows beginning at 3 ET on both NBC and MRN.

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