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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Frontstretch Breakdown: 2006 Checker Auto Parts 500 at Phoenix

To the Point: As the sun set on another Arizona Sunday, Kevin Harvick worked to ensure his Chase for the championship didn’t suffer the same fate.

Too bad you can only do so much when your main competition spends the day clogging your rearview mirror.

Harvick outlasted Jimmie Johnson following a restart with three laps remaining to take his second Cup win of the year at Phoenix. Denny Hamlin, Jeff Gordon and Carl Edwards rounded out the top five. The season sweep bumped Harvick to third in the championship standings, but with Johnson finishing second, he wasn’t able to gain much ground on the points leader, moving to within 90 of the top spot with one race left. Johnson’s other main competition for the title, Matt Kenseth, had an awful-handling car and wound up 13th, falling 63 points behind heading into the season finale at Homestead next Sunday.

GLADDEN: HARVICK SWEEPS 2006 CUP SEASON AT PIR

Who Should Have Won: Harvick. Leading 252 of 312 laps at this tricky 1-mile oval, Harvick’s stats were impressive, although slightly deceiving. The No. 29 car was dominant but not overwhelming all day; Harvick endured consistent challenges from both Johnson and Edwards, then needed to fight through the two-tire pit strategy of Mark Martin to take back the lead late in the race. Fighting a battery problem, Harvick’s voltage was so low by the end he actually needed a tow to Victory Lane; but when push came to shove, the No. 29 had the car to hold off the rest of the field in crunch time.

Five Questions You Should be Asking After the Race Weekend

1) Is the championship for Johnson a done deal?

Not quite. With a healthy lead of 63 points, Johnson needs to finish just 12th next week to win his first career title, regardless of what anyone else does. But the upcoming race at Homestead has not been kind to the No. 48 team. Last year, their car was junk all weekend, with Johnson finishing 40th after wrecking before the race was even half over. Qualifying has also been a problem; Johnson’s average start position there is a measly 34.5 since 2004. With Kenseth, Hamlin, and Harvick still within striking distance, Johnson will have to do far better than that to make his title dreams reality.

2) What was NASCAR’s rationale in throwing the late-race red flag?

No question about it; the end of the Phoenix race was sloppy at best. The final 85 laps featured seven cautions, six for crashes; that’s in comparison to just two debris cautions thrown during the race’s first half.

Of course, NASCAR isn’t to blame for wrecks and impatience. What they can be criticized for is their insistence on throwing the red flag during the race’s final caution on lap 307, when a faulty oil line from Clint Bowyer‘s car caused Casey Mears to spin out. While there was plenty of oil in turn 1, it could have been cleaned up easily without stopping the field for over 10 minutes; with a green-white-checkered finish assured, what would one lap of extra racing have saved? There were plenty of times in recent months where fuel mileage was a factor towards the end of the race (New Hampshire and Chicago come to mind), yet NASCAR had no problems letting the cars circle around under the yellow flag. With fuel not even a factor at Phoenix, why do things differently?

Bottom line, NASCAR needs to make a policy on when they’re going to use the red flag late in the event. The precedents they’ve set with this procedure simply don’t make sense.

3) Has the inner turmoil at Roush affected their bid for the championship?

It certainly seems that way. Kenseth came out and publicly commented this week about his apprehension for how the five-car superteam will perform in 2007. Over the last two months, the organization has learned it will lose flagship driver Martin after 19 years following the end of this season; pair that with the poor performances of Jamie McMurray, Greg Biffle and future Roush rookie David Ragan, and you can see how Kenseth and the No. 17 bunch haven’t had the greatest support system as of late. Stats for his four Roush teammates during the Chase: 36 starts, only five top-five finishes.

This week, those struggles were addressed when it was announced that the No. 6, No. 16, No. 26, and No. 99 cars would all have different crew chiefs in 2007. Only Reiser and Kenseth were revealed to be staying together; but with so much change happening around them and discussed for weeks beforehand, in many ways that twosome suffered just as much, left on an island as a “single-car team” during this year’s Chase. That’s led to a Chase with no wins, no top-three finishes and a second championship trophy that’s likely left unclaimed.

4) With tempers flaring during late-race wrecks Sunday, who had the most to be upset about?

McMurray. The No. 26 car was having its best run since Dover in June, running comfortably in the top 10 before Tony Stewart decided to bumpdraft McMurray on the front straight. If there’s any consolation, McMurray did deliver one of the quotes of the year because of his misfortune (see “Quotables below”). Honorable mention: Jeff Green, whose promising day turned disappointing during the Stewart-McMurray wreck, then got cut short courtesy of a bump by Tony Raines.

GLADDEN: MCMURRAY HOPEFUL DESPITE DISHEARTENING YEAR

5) Could Robert Yates survive effectively as a one-car team?

Absolutely not, although it looks to be the direction they’re heading; DEI has made a generous offer to purchase the car owner points for the No. 88 to give rookie Paul Menard a jumpstart on 2007. No teammate means no veteran around to both tutor and tame the raw talent of David Gilliland: who knows how the rookie will do by himself in ’07? Not only that, but single-car teams have gone the way of the dinosaur; none of them will finish amongst the top 25 in 2006 owner points. Yates is better off running the No. 88 without a sponsor to start 2007.

Solid Runs

Johnson: There’s no better way to work towards a Nextel Cup title than to never let your competition out of your sight. That’s exactly what Johnson did Sunday; charging forward from his 29th starting spot, he was in the top 10 within 45 laps, continuing to work his way forward until he passed Harvick for the lead on lap 134. In the end, it was Harvick who had the better car, but Johnson fell no lower than seventh the rest of the day, ending up the runner-up finisher on a day where he looked far more like the next champion.

Hamlin: With a car never capable of running up front, Hamlin’s day was a disappointment to him, but a model of consistency for a rookie looking more experienced than half his competition. Starting 22nd, Hamlin originally had a 15th-place car, but each adjustment made the handling just a little bit better. Before you knew it, the No. 11 snuck into the top 10, with Hamlin biding his time before fighting his way up to third over the race’s final 50 laps. 90 points behind Johnson, Hamlin may not win the title this year, but he’s certainly made a strong statement about his future championship prospects.

Edwards: Reunited with old crew chief Bob Osborne, Edwards continued his string of solid performances in the Chase with a fifth at Phoenix. The only other car capable of running with Johnson and Harvick, Edwards even had an outside shot at his first win of the season. In the end, a delayed reaction time on a late restart proved to be his downfall; Gordon had no choice but to slam the rear bumper of the No. 99 heading to the green, a move that left Edwards out of shape enough to drop from third to fifth in the span of a straightaway.

Martin: Vowing this week to make his final two races with Roush “fun,” Martin did just that at Phoenix. Taking a chance with a 10th-place car, he took the lead with a two-tire stop under caution on lap 256, holding off Harvick and Johnson valiantly for almost 30 laps before being passed for good on lap 283. While the No. 6 car faded to sixth by the finish, it was still the best run for this team since Kansas on October 1st.

Tough Days

Kenseth: Third in the spring, Kenseth had high hopes for Phoenix after qualifying 10th; unfortunately, hope was a word that never materialized on Sunday. With a car that looked like it was racing on ice, it was all the 2003 champ could do to keep it out of the wall. While a late surge kept fading title hopes alive, a 13th-place finish means Kenseth will need the perfect weekend at Homestead to have any chance; even then, it might not be enough.

Busch: Busch’s day was a classic example of how things have gone for him in the playoffs. Running around 12th, the No. 5 car was good, but not great; Busch was just “there” most of the day until Stewart threw the car of McMurray right in front of his path. An unlucky Busch hit the No. 26, broke the steering, then vented his frustrations in the garage area, an all too familiar bout with immaturity that, along with playoff disappointment, has plagued an otherwise stellar sophomore season.

Robby Gordon: Gordon’s progress with his team this year has been hurt by races where he looks more like a rookie than a seasoned veteran. That was the case at Phoenix, where Gordon’s No. 7 Chevrolet served as a moving obstacle course for most of the day before being put out of his misery by the No. 61 of Chad Chaffin. After making contact several times under green and under caution, Gordon’s car was severely wounded the rest of the way; he finished 32nd, five laps down.

NEFF: TOP 35 BUBBLE BREAKDOWN AFTER PHOENIX

Sterling Marlin: Battling back after his team fell from the Top 35 at Texas, Marlin qualified well at Phoenix and was heading towards a top-15 finish. Unfortunately, one bad turn is all you need in this business, and Marlin had one; losing control of the No. 14, he slammed the wall hard off turn 4, wrecking both his car and his future. Unless a miracle happens at Homestead, the 49-year-old will need to qualify for the first five races of 2007 on speed.

Points Shuffle

Documented in detail above, the margin between Johnson and Kenseth stands at 63 with one race left in 2006. As long as Johnson finishes 12th or better, the title is his. If he doesn’t, Kenseth can capitalize, along with Harvick or Hamlin, both of whom are tied for third, 90 points out of the top spot. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is also mathematically eligible, but he’s 115 points back in fifth, making him little more than a longshot to take home the trophy.

Behind the top five, the race for Best of the Rest is in full swing, with Gordon the highest in points mathematically eliminated from title contention; he’s 162 behind Johnson in sixth place. Jeff Burton runs seventh, 225 markers out of the lead, with Martin eighth, 273 points back. Kasey Kahne moved up one spot at Phoenix to ninth place, but remains a distant 319 points behind; Busch rounds out the top 10, 359 removed from the top of the standings heading to Homestead.

In the battle for 11th, Stewart officially clinched that position at Phoenix; he’s now 323 ahead of Edwards in 12th.

Quotable

“I wasn’t going to lose this race.” – Kevin Harvick

“I seriously don’t have any clue what to expect, I don’t have any strategy other than to go down and finish ahead of [the other Chase drivers].” – Jimmie Johnson on being the points leader heading to Homestead

“Only if [Johnson] blows up [do we have a shot the title], and [even] then, we’re running so bad right now that I don’t feel like we can beat anybody. He’s gonna have to have problems, and we’re gonna have to have a lot of good luck.” – Matt Kenseth on his title chances

“The sun is straight in your eyes all the way until you have to brake. You just guess and make sure you don’t hit the guy in front of you on restarts. That should start the race an hour earlier, that causes wrecks.” – Kasey Kahne on Phoenix

“Needless to say, I’ll be buying my Irwin Tools at Lowe’s.” – Jamie McMurray, after being wrecked by Tony Stewart

Next Up: From the desert to the tropics: Nextel Cup travels from Phoenix to Miami to wind up their season at the 1.5-mile Homestead-Miami Speedway. The Ford 400 is scheduled to run on Sunday, November 19th, with pre-race shows beginning at 2:00 p.m. on NBC and MRN. The event marks the final time NBC will cover the sport for the foreseeable future; their half of the schedule will be covered by ESPN beginning in 2007.

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