From the Spotter’s Stand
Jeff Gordon looked and sounded more like an unlikely 20 year-old Daytona 500 winner than a 20-year veteran with four titles in Phoenix International Raceway’s Victory Lane in February. Gordon broke a 66-race winless skid by moving past Kyle Busch with nine laps remaining to post the win.
While Gordon’s car was strong that day (138 laps led), don’t pencil him in for another win too fast. Phoenix has been repaved and reconfigured since the Cup Series’ last visit. It’s expected that until a second groove is rubbered-in, this may be a single-file show — something the drivers certainly don’t want to see — but if it races like the “old” Bristol, the fans may pleasantly surprised.
“It’s not just that there was not a second groove,” Gordon says of the Phoenix tire test conducted in August. “It was if you got a foot outside of that groove, you were either in the wall or you were going to lose a lap. It took that long to get back in the groove and clean the tires off and get back up to speed. That is the part where I say things could be very interesting and challenging.”
Two-time Phoenix winner Kevin Harvick agrres, painting a rather grim picture of what the racing could look like:
“If the second groove doesn’t come in, it is going to be a fuel mileage, single-file, tough to pass race. It will be a track position game with lots of wrecks.”
The desert also ended droughts for both Ryan Newman and Carl Edwards in 2010. Newman had gone 77 races since winning the Daytona 500 in 2008 before taking the checkers — after taking two tires rather than the full four — at Phoenix in April.
Meanwhile, Cousin Carl hadn’t back-flipped after a Cup win in 70 races prior to squeezing every last drop out of his fuel tank and dusting runner-up Newman by 4.77 seconds to take back-to-back Cup and Nationwide wins at the one-mile Avondale oval in November. This race will forever be burned into Denny Hamlin’s mind as the event where his team lost a championship. Yes, Hamlin and the team still had a shot the next weekend at Homestead, but after this bungled finish, they were mentally beaten.
Crew Chief’s Take
“Turns 1 and 2 are completely different than Turns 3 and 4 at Phoenix, which makes it difficult to find the right balance in the setup. And with a new surface as well as a reconfiguration, it’ll be all about track position. One groove — on the bottom — will probably make for a single-file race until some serious rubber gets worked into the track. Certain drivers — Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch come to mind — sort of know the tricks there. It takes a pretty talented driver to be willing to experiment out there, and Phoenix rewards the ones who find the tricks.”
Fantasy Stall Looking at Checkers: You have to figure Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards are going to pull out all the stops. Pretty Solid Pick: Jeff Gordon led a race-high 138 laps here in February. Good Sleeper Pick: Martin Truex Jr. typically notches top-15 runs in the desert. Runs on Seven Cylinders: David Ragan needs some solid showings to end the season in order to score a 2012 ride, but his 26.1-place average finish here is nasty. Insider Tip: Friday and Saturday practice sessions may be the most critical of any all season. Pay close attention.
Classic Moments at PIR
For the first time in 13 years, The King returns to Victory Lane. Bobby Hamilton, driving Richard Petty’s No. 43 STP Pontiac, leads 40 laps in the 1996 Dura Lube 500 at PIR to earn his first career Cup win.
Hamilton loses the lead on pit road, falling to fourth for a lap 266 restart, but he blows by Mark Martin and Terry Labonte within seven laps, and gets by Geoff Bodine 10 laps later to secure his first of three career cup triumphs.
“I’ve told a lot of people, there’s Dale Earnhardt fans or Bill Elliott fans, but when those guys fall out of the race, they’re still Richard Petty fans,” Hamilton says. “I thought it was pretty cool to win this race for him.”
The "No Limits" Girls received entitrely too little coverage last weekend. (ASP, Inc.)
by Matt Taliaferro
1. Tony Stewart Momentum has clearly swung in Smoke’s favor. He’s always been a streaky driver, and now that he’s “on” it may be hard for Carl Edwards to hold him off.
2. Carl Edwards Averaging a 5.6-place finish in the Chase, but Stewart is blowing Cousin Carl’s doors off in the wins department. Still, NASCAR’s points format rewards consistency over winning, so is it advantage: Carl?
3. Matt Kenseth Talladega and Martinsville were considered the tracks that could derail Carl Edwards’ championship hopes. Turns out, they bit Matt.
4. Kevin Harvick It looked as if Harvick was going to pull another miraculous “Where’d he come from?” finish at Texas. However, a two-tire pit call dropped him to 13th, effectively ending his championship hopes.
5. Jimmie Johnson Johnson’s four finishes outside of the top 10 in this season’s Chase are more than in the last three Chases combined. That’s amazing.
6. Kasey Kahne Kahne has only one finish outside the top 15 in the last eight races. Credit the lame-duck driver and the Red Bull Racing team (who may lose their jobs at season’s end) for not throwing in the towel.
7. Brad Keselowski Since Keselowski and the No. 2 turned things around at Indy, they’ve recorded 11 top-12 runs in 15 races, winning twice. Unfortunately, Cinderella’s slipper isn’t going to fit.
8. Jeff Gordon Returns to the track where he won in February. Unfortunately for Gordon, the track has been repaved, reconfigured and has only one good racing groove. He better qualify well.
9. Deny Hamlin Was looking for a fourth consecutive top-10 run, which would have been his best string of finishes this year. Brad Keselowski saw to that, though.
10. Clint Bowyer Would be seventh in the standings had he made the Chase. Woulda, shoulda, coulda, right? It will be interesting to see if he can elevate Michael Waltrip Racing to the next level in 2012.
"You wanna piece of me?!" (ASP, Inc.)
11. Greg Biffle Five straight top-15 showings for Biffle and the boys. Finishing strong matters.
12. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Consecutive seventh-place finishes, the best we’ve seen in a few months out of this bunch.
13. Kurt Busch Parked brother Kyle got more camera time than 30th-place Kurt at Texas.
14. Martin Truex Jr. Bowyer’s teammate-to-be has three stright top 10s. Again, finishing strong matters.
15. Kyle Busch There comes a turning point in every driver’s career. Maybe this was Kyle’s.
Just off the lead pack: AJ Allmendinger, Marcos Ambrose, Jeff Burton, Mark Martin, Ryan Newman
No article that mentions Martinsville is complete without this bad boy. (ASP, Inc.)
by Matt Taliaferro
1. Carl Edwards
Talladega and Martinsville were the wild card tracks, and the two Edwards and crew were most apprehensive about. They went into ’Dega with a five-point lead and left Martinsville up eight.
2. Tony Stewart
There is something to be said for a driver winning the championship by going out and actually winning races. That’s what Stewart is doing, with three victories in seven Chase events.
3. Kevin Harvick
Harvick gained five points on Edwards in the standings at Martinsville, but he’ll need to do better than that over the final three races to catch the 99, much less pass it.
4. Matt Kenseth
Kenseth was the points leader with 40 laps to go in Martinsville. Then it all went south, as a spin bashed his Ford to the point where he’s now 36 back and basically out of title contention.
5. Jimmie Johnson
Credit Johnson for a fine run at Martinsville — only Brian Vickers’ aggression kept him out of Victory Lane — but even sweeping the last three races may not be enough at this point.
6. Brad Keselowski
Like Kenseth, BK’s late spin was costly. The Deuce may have lost up to 12 points in the standings after a solid top 10 went up in tire smoke. The difference between -15 an -27 is massive.
7. Denny Hamlin
Comparable to Edwards’ late-season performance improvement in 2010, Hamlin and the boys have strung together consecutive runs of ninth, eighth and fifth. Another win may be around the corner.
Ed Hardy comes to NASCAR. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
8. Jeff Gordon
It’s been a disappointing Chase for Gordon and the gang thus far. In fact, his third-place run at Martinsville was the best showing he’s had since a fourth in Loudon, five weeks ago.
9. Clint Bowyer
Will Bowyer’s hiring at Michael Waltrip Racing come at the expense of David Reutimann’s full-season effort? It just might ...
10. Kyle Busch
Has been wholly unspectacular throughout the Chase, which begs the question, “Why is he rated so high on this list?” Answer: Because he still has the ability to win on any given weekend.
11. Kasey Kahne
A strong six-race run comes to an end in Martinsville, which has never been a great “Kasey track.”
12. Kurt Busch
Sliding the wrong way since the win at Dover five weeks ago.
13. Jeff Burton
Follows runner-up showing at Talladega with a sixth at Martinsville.
14. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
In lieu of a top-5 finish, it was at least good to hear Junior having fun in Martinsville.
15. Greg Biffle
Averaging a rather pedestrian 13th-place run over the last month.
Just off the lead pack: AJ Allmendinger, Marcos Ambrose, Mark Martin, Ryan Newman, Martin Truex Jr.
There’s a reason why Talladega continues to endure and endear itself to NASCAR Nation. Vito Pugliese provides a first-hand account of this past weekend’s racing from the 2.66-mile behemoth.
While some experiments and initiatives in NASCAR have not performed as expected, there are some constants that continue to produce. One of them has been producing for over 40 years: Talladega.
As I have written here and elsewhere quite often, everyone loves nostalgia — going retro is all the rage. From the newest versions of the Chevrolet Camaro, Dodge Challenger and Ford Mustang, to the endless ’70s and ’80s remakes that are cranked out of Hollywood like P-51s during WWII, the past is always in style, and for those who fancy old-school NASCAR, it’s hard to beat Talladega — and last weekend’s Good Sam Club 500 was no exception.
Well, at least for the last 25 laps. Even Tony Stewart suggested cutting it down to 40 if most drivers were just going to cruise for the majority of the afternoon. But I digress.
One of the facets of NASCAR that permeated from the 1950s to the 1970s, was that of manufacturer loyalty among fans and racers alike. That aspect became relevant once again on Sunday, as team (and manufacturer) orders were apparently delivered — both internally and externally.
Ford’s Trevor Bayne was in position to help his childhood hero and racing idol, Chevy’s Jeff Gordon, to the finish in the final laps. Gordon’s teammate and BFF drafter, Mark Martin, got mangled with eight laps to go when Gordon, Martin, Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano stacked up coming off Turn 2. Bayne committed to Gordon over the radio under caution, but then the partnership dissolved halfway down the backstretch, with Bayne betraying his bumpership, and falling in line with the Ford of quasi-teammate Matt Kenseth.
In this era of two-car tandems that have dictated that a driver work with whomever and whatever goes fastest, it is refreshing to see the element of manufacturer loyalty return. That’s not to say that I was happy to see Gordon get smoked on the white flag lap on what more or less was a lie on Bayne’s part (told to Gordon, who went out of his way to help the youngster during Speedweeks in Daytona). But when I first started following NASCAR intently, a Chevrolet driver working with a Ford driver was something just short of heresy.
Back in the heyday of manufacturer involvement, it was the superspeedways at Daytona and Talladega that inspired competition between brands — so much so that Dodge and Ford developed wildly-successful models named after each respective track. In 1969, Dodge released two models specifically to better compete on the fast tracks: the flush-grilled fastback Charger 500, and later the Charger Daytona and Ford’s Torino Talladega.
During the 1990s, the same philosophy was echoed throughout the field. You wouldn’t see Dale Earnhardt drafting with Geoff Bodine in a Ford (OK, bad example), or Bill Elliott’s Ford partnering with Rusty Wallace’s Pontiac. As much cross-pollination as you could expect would be an Oldsmobile or Pontiac working with a Chevy Lumina. The Ford teams were islands unto themselves for the most part — which wasn’t a bad thing a couple of years later when it seemed everyone ran a Ford Thunderbird.
There were also orders of another kind at Talladega, namely Chad Knaus instructing Jimmie Johnson to ding up the rear of his car if he won to avoid any post-race template troubles. Considering the suspensions that were levied to the Michael Waltrip Racing teams for unapproved windshields last weekend, it’s probably for the best that ol’ Five-Time got drilled in the door by Andy Lally late in the going. A bit coincidental, considering the winner was Clint Bowyer, whose title hopes were dashed a year ago after having 150 points docked following a win at New Hampshire for what was alleged to be damage suffered by getting a push from a wrecker that caused his car to be out of tolerance.
One couldn’t help but be reminded of the 1985 Winston, when Darrell Waltrip just happened to blow the engine (some would claim the over-sized engine) in his Junior Johnson-prepared Monte Carlo SS immediately after taking the checkered flag.
The racing itself on Sunday was a bit 1980s-ish, as well. Speeds hovering consistently around 200 mph meant that the track, which was the first to honor the stock-car mark, was once again being used for what it was designed. We saw packs break away and catch up, as well as single-file racing, not unlike the days when cars had to lift through the corner as drivers sawed on the wheel — not so much driving as they were keeping their cars from lifting off and trying to feel where the front tires were pointed. Racing at speeds which most aircraft go wheels-up, that big blade on the back has to be a bit comforting, particularly when getting shot head-on into a wall at these speeds.
Reagan Smith’s impact in his black Chevrolet was both sobering and eerily reminiscent of Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s fatal crash at Daytona in 2001. It was a testament to how far the sport has come safety-wise, as SAFER Barriers, HANS devices and any other acronym that has prevented the unthinkable from happening the last decade is one area where waxing poetic about open-faced helmets, smock dipped in some sort of concoction which was allegedly fire retardant (though most likely just Epsom salt) falls flat on its exposed face. It is nothing but dumb luck or divine intervention that prevented more drivers from dying during the 210-plus mph era of the late ’70s and mid- ’80s.
What is unique about Talladega is that it was conceived during an era when all of the tracks were different; each with its own idiosyncrasies. It’s kind of like NASCAR itself. What other track was said to have been built on a Native American burial ground, is allegedly cursed, had a driver boycott before its first race and, even though cars nearly ended up in the stands twice in virtually the same spot, routinely witnesses fans buying tickets to sit up front, right where said cars tore into fencing?
More than that, the track is as big a part of the racing story as the title bout it was hosting.
The wildcard of the Chase pulled a fast one on the front-runners and their title hopes. Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Ryan Newman, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick all took huge hits, while Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon all but had their Wonka tickets punched. In the end, it wasn’t about fuel mileage or a 30-car junkyard — it came down to two teammates with no championship implications whatsoever. And no one seemed to care one way or another that no Chasers were contending for the win.
We’ve since grown accustomed to seeing wide swathes of open seating, some tracks going so far as to widen the seats to help fill up the empty spaces where fans used to shoehorn in, or going so far as to remove entire sections of grandstands. Not so in Eastaboga, Alabama.
This go ’round I took to the seats rather than the media center. Sure, I had my Garage Pass in hand but decided to watch the race with the fans. And by “the fans,” I mean fans that still have a rabid appreciation for the sport, as every single seat that was available in the Birmingham Tower was filled.
What economic downturn? Those Occupy Wall Street miscreants couldn’t hold down much more than a wet fart if their lives depended on it in comparison. They’ve got nothing on my people (particularly in the hygiene department).
There were more bodies seated, on time and ready to go than there are at my church on most Sundays. Couple that with a flyover by a pair of F-22 Raptors (including a super slo-mo pass over the backstretch that looked like it was going about 100 mph courtesy of thrust vectoring) and a Kenworth pulling a massive American flag. There was a bit of relief amongst the chaos that is Talladega that at least here, things still make sense.
It’s not often you see and feel what racing was like 15 or 20 years ago — literally. A fat, sweaty stranger mere inches from you is gross, but once the race starts and everybody is standing, there actually is a bit more room. And if you knock back a few pops, your own breath and BAC trumps anyone else’s BO. Sure, those seats might be metal and some are a bit rusty, but every one of them was filled, and it was elbow-to-elbow. And no one seemed to mind. (A side note: Talladega is in the process of redoing the seating, expanding each seat to 22” so feel free to go nuts this holiday season and embrace your inner Adam Richman.)
There is a reason why even in the midst of yet another recession, where people are careful where and how they spend what little discretionary income they have right before Thanksgiving and Christmas, that many still make time for Talladega. With all of the talk of fuel-mileage races dictating a championship and conspiring to ruin racing, Sunday was an old-fashioned superspeedway race, where two of the fastest cars ran up front all day, pulled away from the pack at the end and settled it amongst themselves.
It’s not that hard to see why people keep showing up to Talladega in droves as they always have and why its two dates continue to be the most popular of the year:
From the Spotter's Stand
Kevin Harvick rained on Junior Nation's parade at Martinsville in April, when he slid by Dale Earnhardt Jr. wqith four laps remaining to earn his first Martinsville Grandfather clock.
Kyle Busch led a race-high 151 laps before Earnhardt brought back images of his legendary father, executing a textbook “bump 'n' run” to get by his arch-rival. However, 17 laps later Harvick made the race-winning pass — his first of two over Earnhardt this year for the win with less than five to go.
Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon have combined to win 14 of the last 17 races at the shortest track on the Cup circuit — with only Kevin Harvick (2011), Tony Stewart (April 2006) and Rusty Wallace (April 2004) breaking the trio’s impressive streak.
Last year, Hamlin was the Mayor of Martinsville, leading 172 laps in March, but needing a late charge on a green-white-checkered restart to beat runner-up Joey Logano and seven-time winner Gordon (92 laps led).
Hamlin won his third straight and fourth in six runs at Martinsville during the return trip in October, edging out runner-up and two-time winner Mark Martin and taking the first of his two checkers in the Chase.
Crew Chief’s Take
“Brakes, brakes, brakes. Being able to get good forward bite off the corner allows for passing and plenty of speed in the straightaways, then braking hard twice a lap at the entrance to Turns 1 and 3 takes its toll. It’s not nearly as fast as Bristol, but we have as much contact at Martinsville as we do at Bristol. There aren’t as many incidents because the pace is slower. The faster you run, the more you’re on the edge of grip. When you lose grip, you make more contact. It’s inevitable, but a driver has to keep cool. The ones who don’t like to be touched don’t do well here.”
Fantasy Stall Looking at Checkers: Prior to a 12th in April, Denny Hamlin had averaged a 2.4-place finish in his last nine Martinsville starts. Pretty Solid Pick: Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon are the other two you have to keep an eye on. Good Sleeper Pick: This is one of Junior’s favorites, made evident by his 12 top 10s in 23 starts. Runs on Seven Cylinders: Quite a few, led by Greg Biffle and David Reutimann. Insider Tip: It’s best to stay with the Big Three of Hamlin, Johnson and Gordon.
Classic Moments at Martinsville Speedway
The media in attendance for the 1960 Virginia 500 are treated to a luxury unheard of in the formative years of stock car racing: An air-conditioned press box — a NASCAR first.
It’s another NASCAR first as well, as Richard Petty wins his first of a series-best 15 races at Martinsville Speedway.
Petty leads laps 316 through 333, but relinquishes the lead to Bobby Johns, who takes over for the next 48 laps until he suffers a rear-end failure.
Jimmy Massey assumes the lead but is overtaken by Petty one lap later. The King leads the final 116 circuits to capture his second career Grand National win. Petty wins three races in the 1960 campaign and finishes second in the standings. It is another four years until he breaks through for his first title.
For those who have followed Jimmie Johnson’s five-year reign in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, his performance in the 2011 Chase for the Sprint Cup is none-too-alarming. A deceptive 10th-place run to start the playoffs, followed by an 18th-place hiccup placed the five-time defending champion in a 29-point hole out of the gate. Were fans, pundits and competitors watching and wondering intently? Of course. Were they writing off Johnson and ace crew chief Chad Knaus as afterthoughts under a new, simplified, points-format. Absolutely not.
Johnson and Knaus proved why they are not to be counted out with so many miles left to go in NASCAR’s grueling 10-race Chase marathon, making statements with second- and first-place showings in the latest two events. The win — a dominating run in Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway — landed Team 48 in third place in the Chase standings, a mere four points behind Carl Edwards, who has proven to be the playoffs’ most consistent driver thus far in 2011.
“I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about that stuff,” Johnson said of any naysayers. “If you’re watching and reading all the headlines, you can get caught up in a lot of stuff that just really isn’t important.
“I’ve known in my heart the speed that we’ve had as a race team when we were in Chicago and unfortunately finished 10th because of fuel mileage. I know we were a heck of a lot better than 18th at New Hampshire but the damage to the car put us in 18th; Dover we were strong, and then (the win) here.
“Again, I don’t pay attention to that stuff that’s out there — I live in my little world, and I know what my team is capable of. We showed today what we’re capable of when we’re all performing at the top of our game, and hopefully we can do that for six more weeks.”
The praise Johnson heaped on his team was well deserved. His pit crew — at times the Achilles heel of the operation and Knaus’ target for multiple changes — was spot on throughout the day, maintaining all-important track position.
The event came down to a green-white-checker restart — NASCAR’s version of overtime — when Johnson’s teammate, Jeff Gordon, suffered a blown engine. The field was bunched up for what would be the deciding three laps, and Johnson wasted no time in disposing of second-place (and eventual runner-up) Kasey Kahne, on the restart and cruised to a .548-second win. Brad Keselowski was third, followed by Matt Kenseth and Edwards.
Edwards had an especially eventful day, realizing just two laps into the 272-lap affair that he and crew chief Bob Osborne had missed the setup. His No. 99 team diligently went to work adjusting his Ford, and although they lost a lap at one point, screamed through the field late to record the top-5 finish.
It was the type of effort that wins championships, though Edwards was more apt to shrug it off as good old-fashioned racing luck.
“We’re lucky because we had to have luck go our way,” he said. “We had two cautions that were timed perfectly, so that was a big deal. But we’ve messed up enough in the past that I’m pretty proud of our ability to just kind of take our bad days and just keep plugging along. It’s kind of a little test when you go through something like this to see if somebody melts down or if you can kind of keep going through it, and I’m glad it worked out today, but there was a lot of luck involved, as well.”
Kevin Harvick, who sits second in the point standings, was sixth. Last week’s winner, Kurt Busch, was 13th, now 16 points out of the Chase lead.
Gordon, whose blown engine with three laps remaining brought out the final caution, finished 34th and fell a whopping 47 points back in the standings with six races remaining.
If not for Kenseth's smile, you'd think these two were having it out again. (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
by Matt Taliaferro
1. Jimmie Johnson Attention race fans: Do not count Jimmie Johnson out of the Chase until he is mathematically eliminated (which probably will not happen). Thank you. That is all.
2. Carl Edwards The preseason favorite to unseat Johnson had a quiet regular season but has pieced together six straight top 10s — including runs of fourth, eighth and third in the Chase — to tie for the points lead.
3. Tony Stewart Stewart seemed resigned to the fact that Dover would be unkind ... and it was. Expect the team to regroup at Kansas, where Stewart has two wins and was eighth earlier this season.
4. Jeff Gordon Gordon came into the Chase hot, but has cooled with finishes of 12th and 24th sandwiching a fourth-place run. You have to figure his No. 24 team will get it together, but the performance bears watching.
5. Brad Keselowski The eight-week breakout run Keselowski enjoyed — which may be the story of the year in the sport — comes to an end. However, this team’s strength remains that it doesn’t know it shouldn’t be here.
"Honestly Doc, I don't even know what Fastenal is." (ASP, Inc.)
6. Kevin Harvick Clinging to the points lead thanks to his four regular season wins and top-12 finishes. Still, Harvick seems to be lacking some of the mojo that got him here. Maybe he should pick a fight with Kyle Busch.
7. Matt Kenseth Running out of fuel in the Chase’s first race at Chicago may come back to haunt Kenseth, who had one of the best cars there. The result was a 21st, with fifth- and sixth-place runs since.
8. Kurt Busch Busch throws his hat back into the championship hunt with an impressive — and somewhat unexpected — win in Dover over Johnson, who he described as his “arch-nemesis.”
9. Kyle Busch A sixth at Dover helped his cause after subpar 22nd- and 11th-place showings. Leading laps is Kyle’s calling card, but he hasn’t done that since the onset of the Chase.
10. Ryan Newman There’s quite a gap between ninth and 10th on the list. Newman is sliding down the rankings thanks to 25th- and 23rd-place runs which have deep-sixed his Chase chances.
11. Dale Earnhardt Jr. That third-place run to open the Chase is proving to be the fuel-mileage fluke we believed it to be.
12. Clint Bowyer If he expects to run better at Michael Waltrip Racing next season he needs to think again.
13. AJ Allmendinger Back to his seventh- to 12th-place ways after a couple of down weeks.
14. Denny Hamlin Averaged an eighth-place finish in the three races prior to the Chase. Averaging a 26th-place finish in it.
15. Greg Biffle If a non-Chaser is to win a Chase race, Biffle may be that guy at Kansas.
Just off the lead pack: Marcos Ambrose, Kasey Kahne, Mark Martin, David Ragan, Martin Truex Jr.
Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson entered Sunday’s AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway ranked ninth and 10th in NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup — in 28- and 29-point holes. Many were already throwing dirt on Johnson’s bid for a sixth straight championship, while Busch was merely an afterthought in the title hunt.
That all changed in the Chase’s third race.
Busch got the jump on Johnson twice during late-race restarts — the first with 42 laps remaining and again with 35 to go — and never relinquished it, winning his second race of the 2011 and his first career on Dover’s high banks.
“My guys on pit road did a phenomenal job to be consistent, to be smooth, and to put us out there where we needed to be,” Busch said. “And I was able to wrestle the lead away from the 48 car (Johnson) and got to his high side and took the lead. And then with the final pit stop, Steve (Addington, crew chief) was thinking four (tires), I was thinking four, but we switched to two tires, and that was the perfect call.
“We beat Johnson out of the pits, had the inside lane on the final restart and we just took it to him. I knew we needed to get that jump on the restart and we never looked back.”
Johnson held on for second, while Carl Edwards overcame a mid-race pit-road violation and charged through the field to finish third. Kasey Kahne and Matt Kenseth rounded out the top 5.
Tony Stewart, who won the first two races of the Chase and came into the Dover weekend the points leader, struggled throughout the day and finished 25th. That, along with the top-3 runs by Busch, Johnson and Edwards, tightened the standings up. Kevin Harvick and Edwards now sit tied for first, although Harvick’s four wins trump Edwards’ one in the tie-breaker. Stewart and Busch are now tied for third, nine points out, while Johnson jumped five spots to fifth, only 13 points in arrears.
“Are we out of it, still?” Johnson joked with the media afterwards. “Last week I was considered done.”
Johnson’s 157 laps led were the most any driver on the day, although Edwards seemed to have the best car early, having led 116 of the first 176 circuits. His pit-road speeding penalty dropped him two laps off the pace, though, and he spent the remainder of the day making up ground.
“It’s really easy to say (that) if we would not have made that mistake we would have won,” Edwards said of the penalty. “I definitely took myself out of position to fight for the win by doing that. So that’s something that painful, and I’m going to think about it — I’m going to think about it all the way home.”
The top-nine drivers in the standings are all still alive for the title with seven races remaining. Jeff Gordon, in ninth, is only 19 points out of the lead, while Kyle Busch (eighth) in 15 back and Kenseth and Brad Keselowski are tied for sixth, just 14 out.
Keselowski’s magical nine-race run — he had recorded nine straight top-12 finishes, including two wins — came to an end when his Penske Dodge threw a power steering belt. Until then, he had been a consistent top-10 car and had led two laps. Like Edwards, the malfunction dropped him two laps down and, while he was able to make it back onto the lead lap, he ran out of time and settled for a 20th-place finish.