In the Rearview: Monster Mile mayhem
June 03, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
Related: Results | Standings
VIDEO: Post-race reactions | Johnson penalized for restart | Tempers boil over between Gilliland and Newman
Woulda. Coulda. Shoulda.
Oh, the opportunities that presented themselves at Dover International Speedway, in a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event that contained enough subplots to fill a John Grisham novel. Juan Pablo Montoya, Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin, Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson -- all of them felt the sting Sunday, and may well feel it again a few months from now once the playoffs begin in NASCAR’s premier series.
In the end, the unlikely winner was Tony Stewart, who -- one week after wedging himself back inside the top 20 in points -- took a giant step toward Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup contention with a victory that would have seemed completely unlikely just a few Sundays ago. Granted, Stewart showed flashes of improvement a week earlier at the Coca-Cola 600, but even with that performance in NASCAR’s longest race, few though he was capable of a feat like the one he recorded on the 1-mile track.
Regardless, there were plenty of others who had to be gritting their teeth in the aftermath of the Monster Mile. How difficult is it to win races at NASCAR’s top level? Consider the case of Kenseth, who by any account has had a sensational season, but has also left plenty of potential race wins on the table. That was the case again Sunday, when he was the class of the field before his engine expired. Sure, he has three victories, and remains in position to be the No. 1 seed in the Chase. But looking back at Daytona, Talladega, Richmond, Charlotte, and now Dover -- he could easily have a comfortable gap over everyone else.
Drivers say it all the time -- it takes a million things to go right to win a race, only one to go wrong to lose it. They echo that refrain so often because it’s true. Looking back, it seems downright astounding that Johnson was able to maintain such a level of excellence that enabled him to win five straight titles. Particularly in contrast to Sunday, when a jumped restart kept him from what would have been a third victory of the season.
It was an easy call, according to NASCAR’s Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton, and he was right -- Johnson got so far ahead of the field so quickly, it was reminiscent of Carl Edwards last year at Richmond, where a penalty was also in order and assessed. A victory would have knotted Johnson with Kenseth in the win column. Instead, Five-Time wound up 17th on what (after Martinsville) is his best track, and saw his points lead trimmed to 30 over Edwards. Sure, more opportunities loom throughout the summer, but again, at this level, nothing is guaranteed.
Montoya surely knows that. Oh, how JPM’s first oval-track victory might have thrown a pipe wrench into the Wild Card picture. He’s still 22nd in the standings and needs to get into the top 20 to qualify, but given the improvement seen in that No. 42 car in recent weeks -- and with two road-course events still remaining -- the potential is there for Montoya to have his say before it’s all decided. Same with Kurt Busch, doomed Sunday by pit strategy, but whose No. 78 car has been running consistently well long enough that it’s hard to believe it’s going to fade anytime soon.
It’s so easy to imagine Sunday turning out so differently, and with Kenseth, Johnson or even Montoya in Victory Lane. Instead there was Stewart, recording a victory for a Stewart-Haas organization desperately in need of some positive momentum and reminding everyone that nothing in NASCAR’s top series comes easy.
A step back. Hamlin’s pursuit of a Chase bid hit its first speed bump Sunday in the form of a cut tire that sent him to a 34th-place finish. After a pair of strong finishes at Darlington and Charlotte, he fell two positons to 26th. Stewart’s victory made it tougher for Hamlin, who now almost has to win in addition to cracking the top 20 in points. He’s 74 points behind 20th-place Ryan Newman heading to Pocono next week.
He needed that. For once, Brad Keselowski was contending at the front rather than dealing with a multitude of problems. The reigning Sprint Cup champion finished fifth at Dover, a needed result after placing 36th, 32nd, 15th and 33rd the past four races. No coincidence, perhaps, that it was crew chief Paul Wolfe’s first race back from suspension. Of course, the No. 2 car was found to be too low in post-race inspection so Keselowski may be facing a penalty along the lines of the six-point deduction levied against Martin Truex Jr. for a similar offense earlier this season.
Keeping it up. Kurt Busch may have finished 12th after pitting late Sunday, but that doesn’t detract from how well the Furniture Row Racing team has run lately. It was easy to chalk up Busch’s near-miss in the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race to his car being better on short runs. It was easy to say his near-miss in the Coca-Cola 600 was due to bringing the same car to the same track. Now? He and crew chief Todd Berrier have clearly hit on something, and they could crash the Chase should they steal a victory along the way.
INSIDE THE NUMBERS
150: Number of laps led Sunday by Kyle Busch, whose hopes of a weekend tripleheader sweep did not materialize. But after a rough Coca-Cola 600, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver needed at the least a solid finish, and he got that in a fourth-place result that moved him from 11th to ninth in the standings.
6: Number of in-race engine failures this season by drivers from Joe Gibbs Racing or Michael Waltrip Racing, which both receive their power plants from Toyota Racing Development. Sunday was a tough day for TRD, with contenders Kenseth and Martin Truex Jr. going out for what Truex said was the same type of failure.
216: Number of Sprint Cup events since Truex’s first and (to date) only victory on NASCAR’s top series, which came at Dover in 2007. Sunday the MWR stalwart started second, led two laps, and was among the contenders late in the event before an engine failure sent him to a 38th-place finish.
THEY SAID IT
“As much as I hate to say it, it’s good to be back in the media center.”
-- The always media-friendly Tony Stewart, opening his press conference after recording his first victory of the season Sunday at Dover.
“Did I get a nice dinner out of it? Let’s see. No, went home and went right to bed. I think I ate something on my bus. I think I had half of a banana, a little chocolate protein shake and two beers. That’s what I had.”
-- Danica Patrick, speaking about the aftermath of her crash with boyfriend Ricky Stenhouse Jr. the previous weekend at Charlotte.
“I was certainly shocked and floored by what I saw. Everyone says that television doesn’t do it justice, and we were able to go in person and see the damage and what a tornado can do. Man, it really got my attention.”
-- Jimmie Johnson, on his visit to tornado-stricken Moore, Okla., on Thursday.
Gordon climbing. Here comes Jeff Gordon, who continues to move toward Chase position. His third-place result Sunday lifted the four-time champ to 11th in the standings, just 10 points behind Paul Menard in 10th. It was a big move for the Hendrick Motorsports mainstay, who was 15th in points exiting the Coca-Cola 600 just a week ago.
Trending down. Others went in the other direction. The engine failure was crucial for Truex, who fell five spots to 14th in points and is looking more and more like he might need a victory to make the Chase. The same could be said for Jamie McMurray, who fell five spots to 19th after a promising start to the season, and needs to reverse that trend to keep any hopes alive.
Strong encore. Remember the questions a few weeks ago about Richard Childress Racing? Clearly, Kevin Harvick doesn’t. He backed up his Charlotte victory with an eighth-place run at Dover that moved him up two spots to fifth in points. Suddenly, Harvick is looking more and more like a candidate for a high Chase seed.
For the Sprint Cup Series, it’s a trip to the Tricky Triangle that is Pocono Raceway, which was resurfaced prior to last season’s events and where the always-speedy Generation-6 car promises to be blisteringly fast. Joey Logano is the defending winner. The other two national tours are bound for divergent destinations, with the Camping World Truck Series heading to Texas Motor Speedway for a Friday night race, and the Nationwide Series en route to Iowa Speedway for a Saturday evening affair.
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