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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Frontstretch Breakdown: 2006 Ford 400 at Homestead

To the Point: Greg Biffle was looking for some late race magic to salvage a lost season. Jimmie Johnson was doing everything possible to ensure his season wouldn’t end up lost.

Turns out both drivers got exactly what they wanted.

In the Nextel Cup season finale, Biffle charged into the lead late and then held off Martin Truex Jr. in a green-white-checkered finish to win at Homestead-Miami Speedway for the third consecutive year. It was Biffle’s first victory since Darlington in May in a season that saw him fall from second to 13th in the year-end standings. 2006 Chase for the Championship participants Denny Hamlin, Kasey Kahne, Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth finished third through sixth. In the end, though, none of them did enough to catch up to the No. 48 team; Johnson finished ninth in the race to take the title by 56 points over Kenseth.

Who Should Have Won: Truex Jr. Come on, admit it, if you didn’t watch the race, you thought I just made a giant type-o. Fortunately for DEI’s once-struggling rookie, I’m telling the truth, Truex had a phenomenal race in which he ran second to teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. for quite sometime, then led for 27 laps in the race’s second half before a poor pit stop under caution put him back in traffic with 75 laps to go. That turned out to be too little time for Truex to make up the deficit; but he certainly tried his best, making a banzai move in the last two laps to take second from Kahne while giving Biffle all he could handle coming to the checkered.

Five Questions You Should be Asking After the Race Weekend

1) Was all the drama manufactured on Sunday, or did anyone really have a chance at catching Johnson?

Yes, the drama was legit, although Kenseth was the only driver who had a real title shot. A series of early cautions caught Johnson pitting out of sequence, and a loose lugnut on a pit stop did nothing to help his cause. The problem actually vaulted Kenseth into the points lead for a short time as the No. 48 car fell well outside the top 30. Johnson worked his way back through the field with ease to take back control of the points, but he was never a top-five car by any means; with Kenseth running between fifth through eighth most of the night, any sort of slip-up by Johnson, even in the final laps, would have given the title away.

2) Was this simply just Johnson’s year?

This Chase will always be defined as the one where luck triumphed over hard-fought racing. When you add up Johnson’s final statistics, though, it’s hard not to be impressed with what they’ve done to finish off the year; a win, four seconds, and a ninth in the final six weeks is not too shabby. Yes, Johnson needed bad luck from other contenders to work his way back into the title hunt; but in the end, it was the strength of his driving, his car, and his team that helped him pull through. Even in the old system, the No. 48 would have won the title over Kenseth, making it a championship that’s hard to be critical of.

3) With Johnson capturing the Cup and Mark Martin finished racing full-time, who is the best driver not to win a title?

Just like in other sports when the 0-fer gets off the schneid and wins the “Big One,” it’s time for the great debate to begin. Jeff Burton clearly fits the mold here; a former Martin protege, his 18 wins are the most of any 2007 full-time Cup driver without a title. With 13 full seasons under his belt, Burton’s best finish in the standings was third in 2000, although this year he led much of the Chase before a late season slump did him in. Right behind him on the list? Why, none other than Earnhardt Jr. 17 wins and seven full seasons on tour have yet to net Junior better than a third-place finish in points.

4) How was Juan Pablo Montoya‘s Cup debut?

Much better than the final results will indicate. Struggling early, Montoya fell a lap behind the leaders and needed the Lucky Dog on lap 190 to get his race back on track. When given that chance, though, the Colombian made a valiant charge, working his way up to 13th before problems in the pits dropped him out of the top 20 and sent him back into traffic, where he fell victim to a late-race accident with Ryan Newman. While the car fell apart into a million fiery Texaco Havoline pieces, Montoya looked every bit put together as he heads towards a fierce rookie battle with Paul Menard, AJ Allmendinger and others in 2007.

5) What will NASCAR do about qualifying next season?

One other note on Montoya; simply putting his car into the field with no “locked-in” spot to fall back on was an accomplishment in itself. Sunday’s field saw a season high 13 cars get sent home, including the fully-sponsored NAPA Dodge of Michael Waltrip, Ward Burton and Roush Racing rookies David Ragan and Todd Kluever. Most importantly, only a handful of those cars won’t be back to qualify for the Daytona 500; when you add in the Toyota teams, that means a consistent entry list of 55-60 cars for the first five races of the season. With only eight “open” spots available for teams who did not finish this year in the Top 35 in owner points, this issue will be one of the biggest to keep tabs on heading to Daytona in February, as changes may be in the works to give more of these “outside” teams a chance.

Solid Runs

Hamlin: He may have fallen just short in his bid for a title, but Hamlin’s run at Homestead gave his fans plenty to cheer about. As always, the No. 11 car improved with every round of pit stops, and the 2006 Rookie of the Year finished the highest of the five drivers contending for a title in third place. No doubt Hamlin will begin 2007 as one of the championship favorites.

Kahne: Speaking of ’07 title favorites, Kahne had a solid run at Homestead to end his Chase on a high note. Leading the most laps, Kahne paced the field for 90 circuits but didn’t have the car to contend with Biffle when it mattered, especially on restarts; his sluggish handling on the get go dropped him from second to fourth during the green-white-checkered finish.

Kenseth: Perhaps the ’06 title favorite, Kenseth will spend the offseason wondering what might have been after coming up just short. At least on Sunday, the No. 17 team acquitted themselves well; Kenseth had a top-10 car all day despite never leading a lap in the race. Finishing sixth, it was just the third finish of ninth or better during the Chase for a team that was dominant in the regular season.

Scott Wimmer: After driving an underfunded Cup car for much of 2006, Wimmer’s been picked up by Richard Childress for a part-time Busch Series effort in 2007, and didn’t waste an opportunity to impress his new boss in a one-race Cup deal. Not only did he qualify at Homestead, Wimmer ran in the top five during the race’s first half. Eventually, the car faded, but the 12th-place finish was still something to be proud of.

Tough Days

The Busch Brothers: Clearly, the luck of the Chase has run out on the Busch brothers ever since Kurt won the 2004 Nextel Cup championship. Kyle‘s title bid in 2006 was nothing short of a disaster; he wrecked at Loudon in September before a lap was even complete and simply never recovered. Sunday, that type of luck reared its ugly head yet again; Kyle had what appeared to be a winning car early on, but then lost the handle on his Chevrolet and slammed the wall, finishing 38th. As for older brother Kurt, well, he couldn’t even finish that high. Hitting the wall himself to cause the race’s first caution, a second, harder crash a few laps later put the No. 2 in the garage and a disappointing 43rd, putting him 16th in the final point standings.

Sterling Marlin: Marlin’s bad luck got downright terrible during the final quarter of the season; strong runs during the Chase with new crew chief Slugger Labbe were offset by wrecks and mechanical woes. The latest gremlin to befall the team was engine failure at Homestead, and the price was costly; the 37th place finish kept Marlin’s No. 14 team 36th in owner points, securing the final “locked-in” spot for Kyle Petty‘s No. 45 and forcing Marlin’s team to make first five races of 2007 – including the Daytona 500 – on speed.

NEFF: TOP 35 BUBBLE BREAKDOWN AFTER HOMESTEAD

David Gilliland: Attempting to keep Robert Yates from going winless as an owner for the first time in his 18-year history in the sport, Gilliland had the best run of his career going, putting the No. 38 Ford up as high as fourth. Unfortunately, that’s when the rookie stripe on his rear bumper decided to rear its ugly head; by lap 175, the No. 38 had hit the wall twice, on its way to a 33rd-place finish, 11 laps down. With Dale Jarrett‘s 33rd-place run, that left Yates on the outside looking in on Victory Lane in 2006.

Points Shuffle

Unofficially, Johnson’s final margin over Kenseth is 56, giving him his first career Nextel Cup title. Hamlin won his personal battle with Harvick for third place, ending up 68 behind Johnson while becoming highest-finishing rookie in NASCAR’s modern era. Harvick fell to fourth after Homestead, 78 behind, while Earnhardt Jr. remained in fifth place, 147 back in the final tally.

In sixth through 10th, little changed after Homestead; Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton remained sixth and seventh, while Kahne moved up one spot to eighth. Martin finished a disappointing 18th in his final race with Roush Racing to drop to ninth spot; Kyle Busch ended up in 10th place.

Behind the Chasers, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and Biffle remained 11th, 12th, and 13th, while Casey Mears and Brian Vickers rounded out the top 15.

Quotable

“I’ve been working my whole life to get in this position to be a champion, it’s what I’ve always wanted to be, and to now be a champion means the world to me.” – Jimmie Johnson

“I’m happy to finish second to Jimmie [Johnson]. Them guys have been the guys to beat the last four years, really, for a championship – man, they’ve been unbelievably fast and consistent. Them guys really deserve it, and it’s been a great year.” – Matt Kenseth

“I love Doug [Richert]. We’re good friends. We just didn’t hit it off like we needed to next year and we’re hoping to bring good things with Pat [Tryson] next year, this is the same car I’ve won with three years in a row, and these fans down here at Homestead-Miami are something else.” – Greg Biffle

“It doesn’t make it wrong for me to do something else, it makes it weird. It’s not wrong just because I stayed (at Roush for 19 years). My cup has been running over all year. That’s it. I don’t know what else to say, if it was half-full, I’d be crying.” – Mark Martin

“I think it was fine today. It was same as the Busch, no big deal. The crew we had did a fantastic job, and it was great. I knew when I signed with Chip that it wasn’t going to be easy. I’m racing against great drivers, and it was awesome racing against them today. I think it’s been getting better and better race by race.” – Juan Pablo Montoya

Next Up: Sadly, the 2006 Nextel Cup season has come to a close. But you can still watch the drivers celebrate the fruits of their labor! The season-ending banquet will be held at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City and televised by TNT on Friday, December 1st at 9:00 p.m.

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