Well, hopefully someone out there read my earlier article and watched the NASCAR race at Bristol this evening. I took the time to write an article (hopefully the first in the series) 'splaining the Chase for the Nextel Cup. Now I'll throw out some thoughts regarding the race tonight, the outcome, and changes in the standings. In respect for folks relatively new to the sport, I'll throw in car numbers and primary sponsors to help you relate names with their car).
-Matt Kenseth (#17 Dewalt car) wins his second race in a row, and clinches a place in The Chase, and is now only seven points behind point leader Jimmie Johnson. Kenseth is looking good on the short tracks, which tend to be his strength. Look for him to run well again next week at California Speedway (2 mile superspeedway) where he started and finished first in February, and the following week at Richmond (3/4 mile short track).
I will officially declare the Kenseth-Jeff Gordon (#24 DuPont car) over and history. Jeff and Matt ran close tonight, with Jeff even rubbing Kenseth to move him out of the way at one point. But Gordon gave the spot back to Kenseth, and it was clean racing from there. Kenseth was racing to secure his spot in The Chase, Gordon is still questionable, but looking better each week for the past month.
-The top five: Kyle Busch (#5 Kellogg's car) was closing on the 17 in the waning laps, and traffic was helping his cause, but a good finish that moves him back up to fourth in the points. This race was a nice bounce back for "Shrub", who finished 39th at Michigan the previous week. I don't see Kyle as a real threat to win the Cup, but you can't count out a Hendrick team car, and Busch could well take a supporting role to teammates Johnson and Gordon.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (#8 Budweiser car) came home third after starting 40th. Clever pit strategy by Tony Eury, Jr. and the Bud crew helped get Junior up front, and he stayed there for the duration. His position in the top-10 is still tenuous, but he did move up to ninth from the cellar. He'll need good runs at Cali and Richmond to stay in the hunt, but has been inconsistent at Fontana. Junior's fans are holding their collective beer breath, and for good reason. To miss The Chase this year would be a double-whammy for the Earnhardt nation.
Scott Riggs (#10 Valvoline car) isn't a contender for The Chase, but this was a great run for the number three team for owner Ray Evernham. He outpaced teammate Kasey Kahne (#9 Dodge Dealers car) who finished 12th and Elliott Sadler (#19 Dodge Dealers car) who crashed and wound up 39th. Riggs battled Jeff Gordon for the last 30 laps and finally got by the four-time champion cleanly, though the two had words after the race. I like Riggs - he's shown talent and the ability to run up front, and is showing it now that he's getting better equipment with Evernham. He should finish in the top-20 in points, and if the team will give him the support he deserves, may challenge to make The Chase in 2007.
Jeff Gordon outran rookie Denny Hamlin (#11 Fed Ex car) to the line for fifth, and with leading laps moves the Rainbow Warrior up to fifth in the standings, 408 points behind teammate Johnson (whose car Gordon is half-owner of). Gordon's DuPont Chevy looked like the class of the field at times, but struggled in traffic in the later third of the race. His battle with Scott Riggs was the race to watch at the end, and I was holding my breath. The 10 car was clearly stronger, but he did well to be patient and not wreck Gordon. Gordon fans have a lot to like, as he runs very well at Fontana (California), and the team's mid-size track program is clearly improved over the past couple of seasons. Richmond is a crapshoot though, so hopefully JG will run well enough next week to prevent a mediocre run or potential disaster at the Virginia short track.
-Also rans: Denny Hamlin ran well in sixth, moving the rookie up two spots in The Chase standings from eighth. I've been real impressed with this kid. The two wins at Pocono were great, but his consistent finishes and place in The Chase are raising a lot of eyebrows. Hamlin could play Carl Edwards (#99 Office Depot car) from last year, surprising many with a good finish down the stretch.
Speaking of smilin' Carl, he came home seventh, keeping his Chase hopes on life-support. IF (note that is a BIG "IF") points leaders Johnson and Kenseth falter over the remaining two races (fat chance, but it could happen) and Edwards can run strong, he could make The Chase in his second full season in Cup. I don't see it happening, though, simply because if you look up "Consistency" in the NASCAR dictionary, you'll see Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth.
Ryan Newman (#12 AllTel car) has been a complete disappointment this season as has Penske teammate Kurt Busch (#2 Miller Lite car). Newman finished eighth tonight, but this season he hasn't even been the strong qualifier he has been historically. Newman and Busch, who has dominated at Bristol but was taken out of contention early and came home 37th, have both been mathematically eliminated from The Chase. Maybe next year, the Penske cars will be more competitive coming down the stretch.
Jeff Burton (#31 Cingular car) and Jimmie Johnson rounded out the top-10 at Bristol. This locked Johnson into The Chase, and Burton recovered some of the loss he took last week at Michigan. Burton is a guy I've liked for a long time, not my favorite, but he is a class-act (except for the rare moment he loses his cool "Mr. Good Guy" safe driver image with a bad move) and makes a good spokesman for State Farm. I look for Jeff to be in the broadcast booth when his career is over, and he's shown good ability in that regard. But then again, anyone's better than Wally Dallenbach - at least Burton can be said to have had a good career.
Jimmie Johnson... What can you say? The driver is good, the car is good, the crew chief is good, and the team is good... Week-in and week-out. The question is, can he win the Championship? We'll have to wait and see. At this point, only the 48 can beat the 48. Unfortunately, this could happen if their focus blurs.
-Not so good night: Elliott Sadler crashed and finished 39th after a strong qualifying run and a tenth-place finish last week in his first start for Evernham. They'll get over it and be stronger next year for it.
Clint Bowyer (#07 Jack Daniels car) suffered a freak left-rear wheel failure (I'm curious to see what exactly happened there) resulting in a meeting with the wall. The rookie has run pretty well this season, especially when Tony Stewart (#20 Home Depot car) hasn't tried to teach him on-track wisdom.
Mark Martin's number six Triple-A (like the auto club your parents belong to) Ford Fusion just wasn't with the program, which is unusual for this team. Martin's 28th place finish dropped his points standing like Rocky dropped Ivan Drago. He's now the cellar-dweller in 10th, and cannot afford another bad run, lest he end his otherwise great career (except not being able to pull off a championship though he has been runner-up several times) on a down note. Word came out today that Martin will not run in Cup next year, due to the limit on number of cars a team can field. Perhaps car owner Jack Rousch will find a way around this run to field Martin in a handful of races, but perhaps it would be better for Martin to focus on his full-time racing in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. I'd put money on him winning a championship in truck.
Oh, did I mention Tony Stewart finished 22nd? The only thing that comes to mind is, "Wha happened?" Color me baffled on this one, as the Rushville Rocket started fifth, and fell back from there. I didn't see a boat anchor dragging from his car, so maybe this was just one of those nights for Smoke. He was moving back up in the standings after briefly faltering six weeks ago at New Hampshire, but is teetering on the brink. This is going to be close for the two-time (and defending) champ.
The one thing that stood out to me was the fairly clean racing tonight. There may have been a few mishaps and typical Bristol rubbing, but all-in-all it was a fun race to watch, with no after-effect stories for NBC to glom on to next week. That's refreshing.