Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Roush Rewind: AAA 400

For the second time this season, the Sprint Cup Series traveled to Dover International Speedway for the running of the AAA 400. The Monster Mile is the second stop in the Chase, and was a place where some of the Chase drivers hoped to rebound from their outing at New Hampshire Motor Speedway last weekend. Two drivers dominated the race. A.J. Allmendinger led 143 of the 400 laps, and Jimmie Johnson led 191. After starting from the pole, it was Johnson who took the checkered flag on Sunday.

After a rough weekend at New Hampshire last weekend, the Roush Fenway Racing drivers looked to Dover as a track they could redeem themselves. Roush Fenway has eight Sprint Cup wins at Dover, and their best outing at Dover came in the fall of 2008 when Greg Biffle won, followed by teammates Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards. David Ragan finished 19th that race. This time around, Ragan, Biffle, and Kenseth all struggled, finishing 24th, 19th, and 18th respectively. Edwards led only two laps on Sunday, but finished 5th.

David Ragan—Start: 29th. Finish: 24th.

Early last week, it was announced that Drew Blickensderfer, who had been serving as Carl Edwards’s Nationwide Series crew chief, would replace David Ragan’s Cup crew chief Donnie Wingo, at least until the end of the season. There has been no confirmation yet as to whether Blickensderfer will remain with the No. 6 team for next season as well. On Tuesday mornings, Ragan calls into the radio morning show Moby in the Morning. This week, Moby asked Ragan how he felt about Blickensderfer being his crew chief. Ragan replied, "We weren't getting worse, and we weren't getting any better. We needed a change." So, with a new crew chief atop the pit box, Ragan and his crew came to Dover wanting to get a good finish. However, it seems that he has yet to get rid of that little black cloud that has been following him all season.

After qualifying 29th, Ragan knew he would have a lot of work to do on Sunday. Under the first caution of the day on lap 39, Ragan was in the 26th position and radioed to Blickensderfer that the No. 6 UPS Ford was a bit tight, but good on entry and through the center of the turns. He pitted for four tires, fuel, and an air pressure adjustment. The changes helped, and Ragan was up to 19th shortly after the restart. A long green-flag run resulted in Ragan making his pit stop under green on lap 117, while in the 13th position. The plan was to make another small air pressure adjustment while making a stop for four tires and fuel. Unfortunately, things went south from there. Ragan quickly radioed to the team that he felt like he had a loose left-rear wheel. Sure enough, after he pitted again, the UPS crew confirmed that the left-rear wheel was loose. Ragan went back out in the 33rd position, two laps down.

Just like he always does when things go wrong, Ragan refused to give up. He fought hard to get back on the lead lap. Eventually, he did take the wave around under a later caution, and got one lap back, but by then he was three laps down. A lack of cautions and the resulting unusually long green-flag runs left Ragan doing all he could to gain any positions. Ultimately, he was able to move up to the 24th position when the checkered flag waved. He is 25th in the standings.

Greg Biffle—Start: 6th. Finish: 19th.

With two wins at the Monster Mile, Greg Biffle felt confident he could get a good finish on Sunday. Biffle had solid practice times and qualified 6th in the No. 16 3M Ford. When the green flag dropped, it looked as though Biffle would get the finish he needed to remain a factor in the Chase.

He was running 5th when the first caution of the day came out on lap 39. He pitted for four tires and fuel. The 3M Pit Bulls were able to send Biffle out third for the restart. Over the following run, the sun came out from behind the clouds. Biffle soon reported his car had become very loose in the sunlight, and his crew made some adjustments under a green-flag stop on lap 116. The adjustments didn’t work, and Biffle soon found himself dropping back. When the next set of green-flag stops were supposed to begin, crew chief Greg Erwin called Biffle down pit road a few laps early on lap 184. Just three laps later, Biffle’s teammate Matt Kenseth had a left-front tire blow, which brought out a caution. The caution would be the setback Biffle didn’t need. A majority of the leaders had yet to pit, and Biffle went two laps down. He took the wave around when the leaders pitted under that caution, but was still one lap down.
After restarting 22nd, Biffle spent the rest of the race trying to get in the Lucky Dog position in case the caution came out again. The caution did come out once more, but Biffle wasn’t in position to get his lap back. He was able to run as high as 16th, but slipped back to take the checkered flag from the 19th position.

Biffle remains 9th in the standings, 140 points behind leader Denny Hamlin. However, he is only 75 points behind the fifth position.

Matt Kenseth—Start: 14th. Finish: 18th.

Following a disappointing finish at New Hampshire Motor Speedway last weekend, Matt Kenseth came to Dover International Speedway anticipating having a great run in the AAA 400. Kenseth considers Dover as one of his favorite tracks and has seen a lot of success at the 1-mile speedway, where he’s accumulated one win, 10 top-5 finishes, 15 top-10 finishes and two poles. Kenseth and the Crown Royal crew were hoping to add to those impressive stats, but just like at New Hampshire, the team just couldn’t catch a break.

Throughout the weekend, Kenseth’s No. 17 Crown Royal Ford looked like it would be rather competitive on Sunday. There were three practice sessions over the weekend, in which Kenseth finished 6th, 13th and 4th. Even Kenseth’s spotter Mike Calinoff felt confident they had a great car for Sunday’s race. Kenseth took the green flag from the 14th position to start the 400-lap race. When the first caution of the day came out on lap 39, Kenseth took the opportunity to inform crew chief Jimmy Fennig that the No. 17 Ford was a bit loose, free on entry of the turns, and lacking grip. Kenseth pitted for four tires, fuel, air pressure and track bar adjustments. After restarting 15th, Kenseth told Fennig the changes had helped, but the car was still a bit loose.

A long green-flag run followed, and Kenseth had worked his way well inside the top 10 when a second round of green-flag stops began around lap 180. While fighting the No. 11 of Denny Hamlin for position, Kenseth had to work his way to the bottom to try to get to pit road. He missed the commitment line and tried to slow his car down. The move caused the left-front tire of Kenseth’s car to blow out, causing considerable damage to the left-front of the car. Under the resulting caution, Kenseth pitted numerous times so his crew could repair the damage. He restarted 26th, one lap down on lap 194. Kenseth worked his way up to 18th after that and focused on getting into the Lucky Dog position to get back on the lead lap.

Unfortunately, the caution he needed never came out. Even with the damage, Kenseth had been running comparable lap times to the leaders, but was unable to get back on the lead lap. He was forced to accept an 18th place finish.

Kenseth came to Dover 11th in the standings, 136 points behind leader Denny Hamlin. His 18th place finish kept him in the 11th position, and he is now 165 points behind Hamlin. With the 2nd race of the Chase completed, it looks like Kenseth’s hopes of being the 2010 champion might be over.

Carl Edwards—Start: 10th. Finish: 5th.

Dover is one of Carl Edwards’s favorite tracks. He and his team knew they had to perform well on Sunday if they wanted to gain any ground in the standings. Edwards qualified the No. 99 Aflac Ford in the 10th position, and remained inside the top 10 for much of the race.

In the opening run, Edwards reported to crew chief Bob Osborne that his car was a little tight, and when a caution came out on lap 39, he pitted for four tires, fuel, and wedge and air pressure adjustments. Edwards was 10th on the following restart and held onto that position until a second pit stop for more adjustments helped him gain some ground on the drivers ahead of him. He had worked his way back up to 6th by lap 175. When the caution came out for teammate Kenseth’s blown tire, Edwards pitted for four tires, fuel, and a wedge adjustment, which helped improve the handling.

By lap 214, Edwards had cracked the top five. At this point, the No. 99 Ford was a little loose, but Edwards was still able to run down the drivers ahead of him. On lap 268, Edwards made another green-flag stop for tires, fuel, and track bar and air pressure adjustments. The adjustments helped, and Edwards was third by lap 286. The caution flag waved on lap 292, and Edwards’s crew made their best stop of the race. The 12.29-second stop helped Edwards remain in the third position. However, he lost a few positions on the restart. As the race wore on, a final round of green-flag stops was made. Edwards led two laps, gaining those valuable bonus points for leading a lap, before pitting on lap 365. The Aflac crew performed the stop in 13 seconds, and once everything had cycled through, Edwards was sitting in the 6th position. Edwards gained one more position before the race ended t o finish 5th.

The top-5 finish helped Edwards gain one position in the standings. He is currently 6th, 73 points behind leader Denny Hamlin.

Race winner: Jimmie Johnson

While A.J. Allmendinger was the strongest non-Chase driver on Sunday, the second Chase race would be won by a Chase driver. Jimmie Johnson led nearly half of the 400-lap race, showing he’s more than ready to make the “drive for five” to get his 5th consecutive Sprint Cup championship. Congratulations to Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team on their victory!

Can Jimmie Johnson win his 5th consecutive Cup championship? Will Roush Fenway Racing get another win before the season ends? Is Carl Edwards now the only hope Roush Fenway has for winning the championship? Anything can happen! There’s 8 races left.

The Chase continues…

Next up: Price Chopper 400 at Kansas Speedway October 3, 2010.

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As you all have probably noticed, the format of the Roush Rewind has changed a few times over the season. Today’s change is a new format I thought I would try out. I think it helps it flow better. Feel free to leave a comment and let me know what you think about it. I’m open to suggestions on how to improve this column.

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