Thursday, November 11, 2010

Chase Coverage: Texas Wrap-Up Report

Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR
Texas Motor Speedway played host to the eighth race of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, and for all that happened it may have been the best race of the year!

We saw a shakeup in the points standings: Denny Hamlin is the new leader with Jimmie Johnson falling out of the top spot. Johnson had his own problems during the race, as his pit crew appeared to fall apart and Chad Knaus decided to switch crews mid-race, possibly a first in the history of the sport. Kyle Busch incurred NASCAR's anger by giving the middle finger to a NASCAR official - oh, did we mention his in-car camera captured it too? And Sunday was apparently a night for fighting - it was shades of Cale Yarborough and Bobby Allison when Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton went at it!

Twelve of our contributors run through how the Chase drivers fared at Sunday's exciting race at Texas.

1. Denny Hamlin (Leader) - Holly Machuga
After not qualifying well for the race at Texas Motor Speedway, Denny Hamlin won the AAA Texas 500 on Sunday night. Hamlin started in the 30th position and struggled with the car in the beginning, but soon brought the car up into the top 10 for the remainder of the race. Denny also won the previous race this year at Texas.

This marks No. 11 team’s eighth win of the season, and his 16th career win. He has also led a total of 994 laps this season.

This race also put Denny Hamlin 33 points over four-time champion Jimmie Johnson. In the past four years, Johnson has had a cushion over second place, but this year, Denny Hamlin has surpassed him.

When asked about the last restart, Hamlin answered, “It was exciting. I figured I had been pretty good on the top on restarts once we got our car tightened up enough that I was pretty confident I would be OK. But restarts have been my Achilles heel all Chase long, all year long. I just can't seem to get it together.”

The Chase has been exciting before, but never has it been this exciting with two races remaining in the season.

2. Jimmie Johnson (-33) - Rebecca Kivak
For the first time in four years, Jimmie Johnson left the eighth race of the Chase for the Sprint Cup without the points lead. Johnson went into the AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway with a 14-point buffer at the top of the standings. After a grueling race that included an unusual pit crew swap halfway through, Johnson finished ninth but lost ground to race winner Denny Hamlin in the standings. The four-time Sprint Cup champion now sits 33 points back in second place.

The driver of the No. 48 Lowes Chevrolet started 17th in Sunday’s race. Johnson reported a loose racecar but was climbing through the field, breaking into the top 5 on lap 42, when his run was marred by a series of slow pit stops. Johnson lost multiple positions on pit road in four of seven stops, including two where the No. 48 crew had trouble changing the right front tire. Before the stop on lap 113, Johnson had made his way up to second and led lap 110 during green flag stops. After the tire issue, the 16.5-second stop relegated Johnson all the way back to 12th. Johnson worked to get back into the top 5 before pitting on lap 153, but after problems with the right front again, the lengthy stop dropped him back to 13th.

As I’ve been covering the No. 48 throughout the Chase, I’ve noticed that the crew has been having slow stops in nearly every race, but usually they were able to recover. On Sunday, they didn’t, and progressively got worse. The lack of performance lead to the call heard ‘round NASCAR: in the middle of the race, crew chief Chad Knaus made the daring decision to swap out the No. 48 crew for the No. 24 crew, who were available after Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton wrecked during a caution on lap 191.

After the switch was made, Johnson restarted in 14th and climbed up to 6th by lap 250, when he came in for the first stop with the 24 crew. The stop went off seamlessly at 12.6 seconds. The next stop on lap 188 was even faster, clocking in at 12.3 seconds. After all three stops performed by the 24 crew, Johnson did not lose positions on pit road. The 24 crew shaved off valuable time from the 48 crew’s stops.

When the last caution came out on lap 330, Johnson stayed out. At the final green flag, Johnson restarted sixth but was held up by Greg Biffle, who had been reporting gear problems. As a result, Johnson crossed the finish line ninth at Texas, bringing home his seventh top-10 finish of the eight Chase races but losing the points lead.

Knaus’ call to bring in the 24 crew was successful in getting Johnson back up front on restarts and put him in position for a top-5 finish if not for Biffle and his gear issues. On Monday, it was announced that the No. 48 and 24 teams would switch crews for the final two Chase races. Though many are already counting out Johnson as the title race closes in, the No. 48 team is known for pulling out the stops when adversity strikes. I have no idea how this call will play out in the last two races, but past history has shown not to count out Johnson and the 48 team when the going gets rough.

3. Kevin Harvick (-59) - Amber Arnold
When the dust settled on Texas, not only did we have a new points leader, but we had a physical battle between two unlikely drivers, a penalty call more suitable for a football game, and a switch of players on a championship team in the middle of the race.

Despite all of these things, luckily, Kevin Harvick was able to keep his eye on the prize. In a race where the most controversial decision for the 29 team was Gil Martin making the call for four tires when other guys took two, Harvick managed for the most part to keep the car in contention all day. The 29 team ended up in 6th place when the checkers flew after rolling off from the 26th position. 

The 29 team is still third in points, 59 points out of first and 26 points out of second. When the Chase for the Cup rolls into Phoenix, Harvick and Denny Hamlin have their work cut out for them. Phoenix is a track the 48 does very well at and could easily seal the deal on.

4. Carl Edwards (-317) - Amanda Ebersole
Pack up the boots and cowboys hats, Texas is now over and in the books! And WOW what a race it was … fights, finger flipping and a new leader in the Chase to the Sprint Cup.

Before I recap the Cup race, I would be amiss to not mention Carl Edwards’ win in the Nationwide race on Saturday afternoon. This means we got to see Carl do his celebratory back flip, this time with a new twist where we got to see Carl run into the stands to be with the fans. (The backflip was in perfect form.) Although he won the race, Brad Keselowski did claim the Nationwide Series title. 

For the Cup race I was hoping for a sweep … so bad!! Carl and the team have not won since 2008 in Homestead, so it's been almost two full years. But signs are there that he and the team are so close to a win.  Carl is qualifying better; he started at Texas in the third position. Handling was the issue that plagued Carl, loose off the corners but tight in the center. Pit road was also an issue, but not the stop itself: it was getting out of the stall which was directly behind Jamie McMurray, and there were problems getting around him, which caused track position to be lost.

At the halfway point, Carl was in 10th but positions were again lost during a green flag pit cycle leaving him in 16th, although the adjustments that crew chief Bob Osborne made were helping with the handling and now the car was just free off of the corners. On the final caution, the debate between Carl and Bob was two tires or four, but the call was made for two and Carl would restart in 12th place. We ended the race with a green-white-checkered flag, and Carl got shuffled back to 19th and couldn’t regain those positions. He finished the race in 19th but due to the misfortunes of fellow Chase drivers Kyle Busch and Jeff Gordon, Carl gained points and is now fourth in the standings. He is 317 behind our new points leader Denny Hamlin. 

5. Matt Kenseth (-325) - Whitney Richards
Matt Kenseth came to Texas Motor Speedway tied for the most top-five finishes of any other active Cup Series driver at that track. On Sunday, he showed once again why Texas is one of his strong tracks. Despite qualifying 19th and dealing with high water temperatures on the No. 17 Crown Royal Ford, he fought his way to the front and became a factor for the win. However, in the end, Kenseth crossed the line as the runner-up.
Kenseth took the green flag from the 19th position for the AAA Texas 500 on Sunday. Within the first 10 laps, he had cracked the top 15. When the first caution of the day came out, Kenseth reported that the No.17 Ford was free entering the turns and lacking grip. He pitted for two tires, fuel and an air pressure adjustment.  After restarting 17th, he got up to the 12th position, but told crew chief Jimmy Fennig that the car was loose and still lacking grip. Over the next few green-flag stops, Kenseth’s pit crew made more adjustments, but the car continued to lack the grip Kenseth needed to be competitive.
A pit stop under caution on lap 60 had Kenseth’s crew making a track bar adjustment. On the following restart, Kenseth said the car was turning better but had gotten looser. He worked his way up to 8th before he had to give the team bad news. The water temperature had become too high, forcing Kenseth make an unscheduled pit stop under green. The crew checked the grille and found that some paper debris was blocking the air intake. The stop sent Kenseth to the back of the field. He was 38th, one lap down once he returned to the track.
The team knew that there was still plenty of time to get things turned around. While the loose-handling conditions still plagued him, Kenseth fought to get back on the lead lap. His big break came in the form of a caution on lap 152, during which he had been in the Lucky Dog position. After he was back on the lead lap, Kenseth began his charge to the front and never looked back. Kenseth had fought his way up to 2nd before the final caution of the day. The race restarted with just three laps remaining, and Kenseth took the lead following the restart. Just when it looked like Kenseth was going to keep the lead, he got loose off the turn, which allowed the No. 11 of Denny Hamlin to get around him. Hamlin went on to win the race, and Kenseth finished 2nd. The great finish helped Kenseth move up three positions in the standings to 5th.
6. Jeff Gordon (-331) - Genevieve Cadorette
Jeff Gordon started in 15th position at the Texas Motor Speedway but never got a chance to finish the race. At lap 192, he was put into the wall hard by Jeff Burton; the 24 car was totaled.

After a long walk to the apron, still upset with what happened, Gordon started to shove Burton and the two exchanged heated words; their altercation was mediated by NASCAR officials. Once they calmed down, they were both taken to the medical center in the same ambulance.

Burton took the blame for the crash, saying the sun got in his eyes and insisted that the he inadvertently plowed into Gordon. The incident had started a half a lap earlier when Gordon tried to pass him from underneath but knowingly cut him off. After the caution flag came out, Burton said he pulled up next to Gordon to acknowledge him but the sun got in his eyes and caused the wreck.

Gordon didn’t buy it and he was unapologetic. "He was trying to talk to me, to explain what happened," Gordon said. "He thought I came up on him and he didn't mean to wreck me. But I'm sorry. I will never believe that. I've been driving a race car long enough to know what your intentions are and I know what they were right there."

Frustrations have been high since Gordon fell out of contention in the Chase after Kurt Busch appeared to have deliberately wrecked him, forcing a 20th position finish in Martinsville; things haven’t been so hot for the 24 DuPont team. "I don't know. The last few weeks just have not gone our way," Gordon said.

After the Jeff versus Jeff incident, the DuPont pit crew was then recruited to the 48 car. We found out Monday that the DuPont team will now be Jimmie Johnson's pit crew and Gordon now will use the 48 pit crew.

On Tuesday, a NASCAR spokesman said no penalties would be issued to either Jeff.

7. Kyle Busch (-339) - Rebecca Kivak 
(Note: Lindi Bess was wrapped up in a Women in NASCAR interview)
Kyle Busch's weekend at Texas Motor Speedway started out on a high note but quickly spiraled downward for the talented and passionate driver. By the time the checkered flag waved at Sunday's AAA Texas 500 Sprint Cup race, Busch's temper got the better of him, capturing the wrath of NASCAR and afterward hitting his pocketbook.

Busch won Friday's Truck Series race and was aiming to pull off a trifecta of victories in NASCAR's three top series. That ended Saturday in the Nationwide Series, when Carl Edwards thwarted the Joe Gibbs Racing driver's attempt to make history by winning his sixth consecutive series race at Texas. However, Busch's anger was roused when he claimed Edwards jumped the final restart, passing Busch to go on and win the race. Busch let his frustration known by dropping a profanity during his post-race interview in the media center.

When the green flag dropped at Sunday's AAA Texas 500, Busch knew he would have work to do, starting back in the 29th position. He wasted no time in piloting the No. 18 M&Ms Toyota Camera to the front and was running as high as third in the first 75 laps before a piece of debris flapping on his front bumper affected the handling of his car, causing him to fall back but remain in the top 10. On lap 159 Busch said he received a bump from the No. 9 car and spun out, but he kept the No. 18 Toyota off the wall. He pitted for repairs, but upon leaving pit road he tried to beat the pace car to the line to remain on the lead lap and was caught speeding. NASCAR called him in to serve a one-lap speeding penalty.

While sitting in his car, Busch uttered a string of obscenities on the scanner and then flipped off the NASCAR official in the pits who called the infraction. The in-car camera caught the gesture and it was broadcast live briefly on ESPN. NASCAR wasn't pleased and parked Busch for two more laps for what they deemed "unsportsmanlike conduct" after his "inappropriate gestures." Busch argued with crew chief Dave Rogers about NASCAR trying to deny his right to free speech, but Rogers begged the driver to shut up and serve the penalty. Busch apologized to his crew publicly after the race.

Busch went from having a car to contend with to finishing 32nd, two laps down, falling from fifth to seventh in the points standings and 339 behind new leader and teammate Denny Hamlin.

The penalties for Busch didn't end on the track. NASCAR announced Tuesday that Busch would be fined $25,000 for the obscene gesture and put on probation until Dec. 31.

"I accept NASCAR's penalty and realize what I did during Sunday's race at Texas was inappropriate," Busch said in a statement after the fine was announced Tuesday. "Even in my relatively short time here in NASCAR, it's pretty obvious to everyone that I wear my emotions on my sleeve. Sometimes that passion has allowed me to find that little something extra I needed to win, and other times it's made me cross the line. Sunday at Texas was one of those days. I lost my cool, plain and simple. It's not acceptable, and I know that. I apologize to NASCAR, its fans, all the partners who support Joe Gibbs Racing, and all the people who work so hard to give me a race car that's capable of winning races every week. All of those people deserve better from me, and I owe it to them to keep my emotions in check."

8. Tony Stewart (-363) - Unique Hiram
The AAA Texas 500 turned out to be a break even point in regards to start/finish positions for Tony Stewart; however, he dropped to 8th in the Sprint Cup Chase points standings. A big gamble was taken by this
team during the final caution of the race on lap 328 when they decided to give up running in second place behind race leader Greg Biffle in order to get four fresh tires. As a result, Smoke restarted in the 16th position and he was only able to make up five spots, which resulted in him finishing the race in the 11th position.

“Hindsight being 20-20, I probably should’ve stayed out, but we took a gamble and, really, what do we have to lose?” said Stewart, who now has 12 top-12 finishes in 18 career Sprint Cup appearances at the Texas track. “We really don’t have anything to lose. We’re eighth in points, so who cares? I’d rather take a chance on doing something to go forward than worry about losing spots and going backward.  I know there are lots of teams that are grateful to run eighth in points, but we’re not one of them. It doesn’t mean anything to me at this point. I want to do everything we can to try to go forward and gain everything we can get. If that means taking a chance, knowing that we can lose points and lose spots, so be it. I thought that was the right thing to do, but it obviously wasn’t. We’d already stayed out once on those tires and it worked out then, but I don’t know that I was good enough to stay out again. I might’ve finished a couple of spots better, but I’d rather take a chance on finishing better than finishing worse.”

There will definitely be a lot of gambles taken in the next two final races by this #14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevy race team and its driver. It is quite evident that is has become the mission to either win one or possibly both of the final two Cup races for this determined team.

9. Greg Biffle (-372) - Stacie Ball
How about that Greg Biffle? Wow, is all I can say. I was pulling for him all race long at Texas Motor Speedway and in no way was I thinking I would see what I saw. Next to the race at Kansas Speedway a month ago, this probably was my favorite race of the 2010 Chase so far. I think everyone knew the Texas AAA 500 would be dramatic, yet for the different Chasers we had no idea until we saw it being played out by the 43 different racers on the track. 

Before the field had even completed one lap, Biffle had taken the lead from Sadler and was able to maintain it until the first caution on lap 11. He reported that the car was a little too loose and the Pit Bulls adjusted accordingly. They sent him right back out in the lead for the restart on lap 16. Biffle again maintained the lead until the next caution but would exit the pits in the third position as more significant adjustments were made to tighten the loose racecar.
 
Biffle was quickly back at the front of the field and remained there through another yellow-flag stop for further adjustments on lap 60. During the long green-flag run that followed, Biffle informed the team that the car kept getting looser. He lost the lead to Mark Martin on lap 97 and then fell back to fifth during a round of green-flag stops that began on lap 103. 
 
On Lap 138 he reclaimed the lead and maintained it until a caution came out on lap 150. He pitted for two tires and fuel and restarted second behind Joey Logano. He took the lead from Logano on lap 201 and never looked back. Leading most of the next 98 laps other than a few during two green-flag pit cycles as the next caution flag did not fly until lap 299.
 
At that point Biffle informed Erwin that he believed he had lost first and second gear after the last green-flag stop. The crew prepared to give fresh right-side tires and push him out of the pit box. The delay put the No. 16 in the eighth position for the restart on lap 304. While he lost a few positions by having to restart in third gear, he quickly gained them back and drove up to the fourth position. 
 
A final caution came out on lap 327 and the frontrunners all stayed out. Biffle again restarted with a disadvantage in the fourth position. He lost one spot to Logano but was able to hold on for a fifth-place finish.
 
"We need to continue to work on our drive train to be better each week,” said Biffle. “We had the fastest car all day and we have to be happy about that but you hate to have a win slip through your fingers like that. We had great pit stops and Greg Erwin made great calls. It's just unfortunate that it ended the way it did." 

Biffle and the 3M team moved up to ninth in the point standings. They are 372 points behind the new points leader and nine points out of eighth.
 
After being in the lead with the best hand of cards at the table most of the race, I would say Greg Biffle and the rest of the 3M team are ready for the last two of the season along with the Chase. 
 
I have never been so excited for the last two races in the season like I have been this year. I thank each and every Chaser by making this year's way more interesting than the last few years!

10. Clint Bowyer (-397) - Amy McHargue
Clint Bowyer came into Texas hoping for another big win; he didn't get the day the he wanted but the weekend was a good one for the team. Clint restarted 6th after the first caution on lap four. Bowyer had a quietly solid race up through the last section of the race, generally hanging in the teens among top drivers on the track.

With 51 to go Bowyer was calling his team on the radio, saying “It's stupid loose...I gotta come in before I hit something.” The team said he would close to making it on fuel. After the pit cycle Clint found himself in 17th position, looking for the front of the pack. Caution after caution came out, however, and finally with three laps to go Bowyer found himself in the seventh spot on the track.

Bowyer finished the race in Texas in the 7th position and moved up in Chase standings. Clint earned 146 points on Sunday. With two races to go, Bowyer has made his way into the 10th spot in the Chase to the Championship. The RCR #33 team is now just 72 points away from claiming the fifth spot in points standings. Another good week and we could see Clint Bowyer finish the season in the top five by the end of the season.

11. Kurt Busch (-435) - Katy Lindamood
(Katy has been having Internet connectivity issues and will post when she is able)

12. Jeff Burton (-473) - Genna Short
What began as a rather promising day for the 31 team quickly turned violent. Jeff Burton started mid-pack in 16th and had moved up to 11th by lap nine.

On lap 54, the 31 pitted with a mysterious issue. He lost a lap but just five laps later, a caution brought out by Sam Hornish gave Burton the free pass back onto the lead lap. He hung back for a while but muscled back up after another round of pit stops. He landed in 10th on the restart at lap 163.

That wouldn’t be the last anyone would hear of Burton.

On lap 191, the 31 and 24 were involved in a wreck. According to Gordon, Burton had done it intentionally. And he was not pleased. Burton did later admit it was his fault.

“We were coming off of turn four and he (Jeff Gordon) drove underneath me. I should have let him go and I didn't.”

The confession did not come before the pair found themselves in a fight which easily turned out to be the biggest story out of Texas.

Says Jeff:

“The caution came out and he pulled up next to me to tell me he was upset at me and he went on. Then, I went to pull up to acknowledge him, to say he was right. I turned left and he was turning left and we just hung up. When we hung, off we went.”

They then went to NASCAR therapy: riding together in the ambulance to the infield care center. Burton still admits that he was entirely at fault.

“I, honestly, don't know what happened. It was 100 percent my fault. It was like once we got together, I couldn't get off of him. I didn't mean to hit him. I meant to pull up to him and tell him he was right because he was upset with me for what happened off of turn four. I should have let him go. I don't blame him for being for mad. I would have been mad, too."

As they say, though, boys will be boys.





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