By Mike Mulhern
KANSAS CITY, Kansas
This NASCAR championship chase is getting downright weird. Make book at your own risk, because clearly no one has the immunity idol in this thing.
It was some 10 minutes past sunset when Greg Biffle and new crew chief Greg Erwin got to start celebrating their first win together. That ended an unbelievably long, rainy day, ending a strange series of nightmares for most of the Nextel Cup title contenders, in a rain-shortened LifeLock 400 that finished under caution when it was called on account of darkness at 7:15 p.m., after only 210 of the scheduled 267 laps.
But even then the bizarre continued – Biffle had been running out of gas and couldn’t maintain speed behind the pace car when the race-ending yellow came out for Juan Pablo Montoya’s spin, and Jimmie Johnson pointed to Clint Bowyer and said “There’s your winner.
“Greg was clearly out of gas, but if you can’t maintain speed….so where he coasted across the finish line (fourth) is where he should have finished.”
The first man across the finish line was Bowyer, though only credited with second: “I don’t know what to think. I thought you had to at least cross the finish line under your own power.
“It was kind of weird. He couldn’t make it across the finish line. I don’t know what’s going on. Maybe somebody can explain it to me.
“But they’re not going to pull him out of victory lane, and I’m not going to whine about it.
“What a crazy day. A lot of chase guys got in trouble, so it was a great day for us.
“I thought you had to at least maintain the caution pace, and he couldn’t. I knew it wasn’t right.”
Johnson, credited with third, was not pleased with the scoring: “I feel bad for Greg. He had a great car, and I’m not attacking those guys by any means. But the way the rule reads….and how tough points are right now, every point counts.”
Biffle, who had to survive one of the day’s big wrecks, amazingly threading his way through the late melee, was likewise confused by the ending: “I didn’t run it out of gas. But they told me to get out and they would push it to victory lane. I think they didn’t want anybody messing with the car.
“It sputtered up in three and four. It still probably has enough gas to run three laps. But it sputtered, when you’re running that low, so I shut it off. I was trying to save enough gas to do some burnouts. So I coasted down the apron.
“The race was over. They’d declared me the winner.
“I could go out and do some donuts right now, if it would make everybody feel better.”
NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston insisted this finish was quite different from an apparently similar situation involving Robby Gordon in the Montreal race during the summer when Gordon was denied victory by NASCAR for not maintaining adequate speed under the yellow – in fact because Gordon had just been spun out in that event.
Biffle quickly praised Erwin: “Greg Erwin sure has this program turned around.”
Erwin himself was jubilant but numb: “The whole program is coming together. This is what he needed, this is what we needed, we’ve been through some tough times this year, so this feels real good.”
But not for most. Call it fluke or luck or omen, but Biffle’s victory in the rain-marred and seemingly endless race marked the third straight weekend rollercoaster ride for NASCAR’s 12 title contenders.
And the tour next heads to – Talladega.
So the championship standings: Johnson is the leader, six points ahead of teammate Jeff Gordon, 14 points ahead of Bowyer, 117 ahead of Tony Stewart, 126 ahead of Kevin Harvick, 136 ahead of Kyle Busch, 142 ahead of Carl Edwards, 158 ahead of Martin Truex Jr., 177 ahead of Kurt Busch, 186 ahead of Jeff Burton, 219 ahead of Matt Kenseth, and 248 ahead of Denny Hamlin.
The dark finish raised the question of why the France family, which owns controlling interest in the International Speedway Corp., which runs this track, hasn’t installed lights here, to provide a bigger, more flexible race window. The ISC just okayed some $10 million for new lights at its Joliet, Ill., track, after its annual July Cup event didn’t have a pre-race sellout of its 75,000 seats.
What looked for a long time like a great Sunday for Tony Stewart turned voodoo in the closing miles when his left-front tire – smoking from fender damage from another crash just minutes earlier – blew. Kurt Busch, with nowhere to go, banged into him, and Carl Edwards, the Dover winner, got caught up and knocked out too.
Stewart had opened the day just two points off the tour lead, and at the rain-delay that nearly ended the race he held a huge points lead over most of his title challengers.
But when the skies finally cleared, more than two hours later, things changed dramatically – yet again, and then yet again.
“Tony had a tire rubbing for a long time, and Kurt was doing everything he could to stop, but then there was all that smoke, and the next thing I knew I was up against him,” Edwards said dejectedly. “I guess there are more important things in life…but this is pretty tough. But I’m not going to let this get us down.
“My spotter had been saying NASCAR should bring Tony in for repairs. But I see both sides of it. If that had been our car, we’d have been begging to stay out there too.”
Just seconds later Denny Hamlin got tagged in heavy traffic and turned.
During a dramatic crew chiefs’ battle to outguess a pending thunderstorm, Greg Zipadelli made a daring call not to bring Stewart down pit road for gas, as their rivals peeled off one-by-one to fill up, and the fuel-mileage gambit appeared to work perfectly when a monsoon rain suddenly swamped Kansas Speedway with Stewart holding a big lead over most of his Nextel Cup title challengers at lap 148.
It was the fourth race this season affected by rain, and yesterday’s twists of fate could have turned the Nextel Cup championship standings topsy-turvy, if not for the skies finally clearing more than two hours later.
NASCAR managed to restart the race under a green-yellow at 6:10 p.m. CST and green-green at 6:20, facing sunset at 7:03 pm, and no lights at this track. NASCAR’s plan was to let the field run to lap 225. Crashes shortened that goal to 210. And when Montoya spun, NASCAR called it a night at 208, declined to call for a green-white-checkered because of the darkness. What happened next, well that may take a while for NASCAR to adequately explain.
Just moments after the long-awaited restart after the lengthy rain delay, a big crash took out title contenders Matt Kenseth and Martin Truex Jr. and damaged Stewart’s nose. The crash was triggered when Ken Schrader, on the inside of a three-wide, lost it and blocked the track. The key, however, was that pit stops had jumbled the running order of cars on the track and left many of the leaders trapped physically in the middle of the pack behind slower cars.
That set up the chain of events that doomed Stewart.
It was a very painful turnaround for Stewart. At the red flag for the rain, Stewart had gained a major edge in the points race, Jeff Gordon had taken a huge hit, and Kurt Busch and Hamlin had had great comebacks foiled.
Stewart would have been the new leader, 46 points ahead of Bowyer, 86 ahead of Edwards, 105 ahead of Johnson, 110 ahead of Gordon, 138 ahead of Kevin Harvick, 162 ahead of Truex, 164 ahead of Kyle Busch, 220 ahead of Jeff Burton, 229 ahead of Kenseth, 238 ahead of Kurt Busch, and 270 ahead of Hamlin.
It also raised the question of did the fans get their money’s worth with only 222 miles of racing.
At the rain break Stewart was leading, just ahead of Greg Biffle, title challengers Harvick and Bowyer, and Edwards in 11th. But the rest of the championship contenders, having just had to pit for gas, were more than a lap behind: Kurt Busch (who led 76 of the first 148 laps) 24th, Johnson 27th, Hamlin 29th, Gordon 30th, Kenseth 31st, Truex 32nd, Burton 40th, and Kyle Busch a crashed-out 43rd.
“This would have been a devastating day for us,” Kevin Manion, Truex’ crew chief, said.
And moments later it was, when the big crash on the restart sent Truex behind the wall.
ABC eventually turned the coverage over to ESPN2 about 5 p.m. CST.
Why so much rain this season? “Because God doesn’t like the car-of-tomorrow either,” one driver cracked.
It was yet another tough day for some NASCAR title challengers, and Kyle Busch wasn’t a bit happy with Dale Earnhardt Jr. for punting him into the wall early in the 400. But Earnhardt was extremely apologetic.
“It was a pretty stupid move on his part,” Busch snapped after finishing 41st. “I’m sure these guys he’s going to be working with next year don’t really appreciate this because they’ve a championship they can win this year…and he doesn’t.”
That’s reference to Earnhardt taking over Busch’s current ride with car owner Rick Hendrick.
“I don’t know what happened, you’ll have to ask him,” Busch went on. “I gave him a lane, to let him go on the outside, because I knew he was going to have a run off the corner. And I got run into on the backstraight for absolutely no reason.
“I don’t know what he was thinking or what the problem was, but this is very, very unfortunate for my guys. We had an awesome car, maybe a car that was going to give me a top-three definitely, if not the win.
“I was just cruising, minding my own business, and just got run over.
“Last year (after early problems in the chase) we didn’t come back. But we’ve had two pretty good races this time, and hopefully we can get back on track. It’s three in, and we still have seven more to go.”
Earnhardt called the incident “an accident. I want to apologize to his fans and their team and Kyle. That was a bad mistake on my part.
“I just ran into the back of him. We were coming off the corner and I was running the high-side. I thought for a second he was going to give me the bottom. A lot of guys will run the bottom down the straight if they know you’re running the top, and for a second it looked like he was.
“And then he just moved up and I got into him.
“I was screaming as I was going by for him to save it, but he couldn’t gather it up.
“It was my fault. That’s the last bunch I would want to mess up. They’re in the championship race and I know how hard it is to win one of those things.”
“I hate it for those guys, and I’m sure as good a driver as Kyle is, he can bounce back,” Tony Eury Jr., Earnhardt’s crew chief, said. “It’s just two guys racing at a track where momentum is big, and they’re each trying to give the other a break, and one goes one way and it was unexpected.”
It was tough weekend all the way around for Kyle Busch, and even Saturday’s victory in Saturday’s Busch 300 – a thriller win over Matt Kenseth in front of a crowd of some 82,000 – had a big cloud over it.
That 300 win is in some doubt now, with NASCAR inspectors telling car owner Rick Hendrick the engine manifold on the winning car did not pass post-race inspection.
Doug Duchardt, Hendrick’s vice president for development, said he didn’t learn of the issue until well after he’d left Kansas Speedway Saturday night when “they told us we had failed inspection.”
That was about five hours after the race was over….an inspection issue in itself, given the championship playoffs on the Cup side of the garage, with the possibility of a similar late-night issue following the Homestead finale. A late post-race inspection issue just last week at Dover led to a 25-point penalty assessed Cup winner Carl Edwards.
NASCAR spokesman Jim Hunter says inspectors saw something inside the manifold they didn’t like, but Hunter said that doesn’t necessarily mean it failed inspection, not yet at least. “We’re taking it back to the R&D center (in Concord, N.C.), because we want to be sure if it’s right or wrong,” Hunter said. “We want to be right. We think, but we don’t know for sure.
“We want to be sure before we issue any penalties. If it winds up being a gray area and there is no penalty, we’ll announce that too.”
Duchardt said he would be surprised if NASCAR took the win away.
NASCAR teams do considerable work to engine manifolds, cutting them apart to reshape the interior runners for better air flow, and sometimes trying to cover their alterations with special techniques.
Duchardt said he still didn’t understand what questions NASCAR might have, because he said NASCAR first got a good look at this particular manifold in 2004 when Kyle Busch finished third at Homestead, Fla.
“NASCAR has had an issue with our Busch manifold, and we’re still awaiting final word from them what the situation exactly is,” Duchardt said.
Roush: “I talked with NASCAR, and they said it was an ‘interpretation’ problem between inspectors.
“I don’t know what that means…but I had an ‘interpretation’ problem, or a misrepresentation between two inspectors, after a Truck race – and it cost me a championship. But I don’t know what they’ll do about it.
“I just became aware of the issue this morning. I’ve been so embroiled with last week’s penalty that I missed that.”
Roush, Kenseth’s car owner, says he has not yet seen the manifold in question, but NASCAR said he would be allowed to see the manifold, no matter which way NASCAR rules.
“The issue is inside the manifold,” Duchardt said. “The exterior is defined, but the inside is not as defined. So what happens is we have to show NASCAR the manifold ahead of time, and they say ‘It’s okay,’ and we go down the road.
“This (particular manifold inspection) occurred sometime between 2003 and 2004. The late Randy Dorton had that meeting with NASCAR and with two of the NASCAR inspectors who were here Saturday night, and since then we have been running this manifold.
“The physical piece they took we know campaigned at least at Homestead in ‘04 (where Kyle Busch finished third), and we run this one at the intermediate tracks. NASCAR has seen this manifold when we won in ‘05 (Kyle Busch at Charlotte) and when Casey Mears got second at California (this past February).
“Most importantly last week at Dover NASCAR took 10 (Busch) manifolds from different teams, as they are looking at rules for next year, and they had an absolute twin to this manifold for two days, and we were not told of any issues with that. So we’re trying to understand what’s changed.”
The 82,000 who thought they saw Busch beat Kenseth cleanly might question how NASCAR inspectors could have passed Busch’s car before the race and then decided after the race that something was wrong.
“It’s an interpretation; there are no rules on dimensions,” Duchardt said. “That’s why we physically have to show the part to NASCAR before we use it.
“And we did that with this manifold before the 2004 season. And the casting hasn’t changed, and our understanding is the interpretation hasn’t changed.
“The Busch manifold rules are difficult for everyone, and NASCAR is trying to fix that for ‘08.”
THE NASCAR NOTEBOOK
Jacques Villeneuve himself made the call to run Talladega next Sunday, Mike Brown, general manager for Bill Davis’ Toyota team, says.
The Villeneuve move puts him smack in the middle of this year’s Nextel Cup championship, at one of the tour’s trickiest tracks, and men like Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch have expressed sharp disapproval.
“We evaluated where we stood with him, after the Talladega car-of-tomorrow test, and after the Truck race (at Las Vegas), and he actually was the one who came to us and said ‘Hey, I’d like to run the Cup race at Talladega,’” Brown said.
“We expressed the same concerns that all the drivers had. But in restrictor plate racing, so far we’ve hardly run a plate race without a big wreck…and to my knowledge JV didn’t cause any of those.
“I could probably name 10 or 15 drivers in the field here today who need to take a good hard look at how they approach restrictor plate racing.
“Jacques is very aware of the points situation, and what we’re trying to accomplish. But at the same time we’re trying to grow our program and get him prepared for the Daytona 500. And that race is very important for the sponsors we’re talking to.
“NASCAR feels comfortable with it, Jacques feels comfortable with it. We’ll take it one lap at a time. But he’s fully aware of the situation.
“Some of the competition needs to realize there is no perfect way to run a restrictor plate race.”
The Villeneuve announcement was handled oddly Friday, in a one-page press release from a PR firm in England, while Davis himself was in Arkansas at a major cattle sale, and while Villeneuve was at home in Montreal.
“I understand, but it was something that came together quickly last week, after Jacques got time to evaluate where he was in the program, and what everybody wanted to do, and what we were able to do. In a perfect world we could have planned a better way to introduce it,” Brown said.
“Jacques tested with these guys at Talladega for two days. And he feels comfortable doing this. This isn’t something we pushed for. We were content to stick with our original schedule.
“But when a Formula One champion and Indy 500 champion says he’s ready, you’ve got to trust his instincts.”
Villeneuve will now skip the Talladega ARCA race. “But he’ll run the Truck race Saturday, and those Trucks are a lot like the cars-of-tomorrow,” Brown said.
After Talladega? “We’ll continue to run him in all the Truck races,” Brown said. “We have penciled in the Phoenix Cup race in November.
“And we’ll have him testing a lot too, the Atlanta car-of-tomorrow, and to Kentucky and Iowa, to further the learning curve.”
ABC’s telecast of last Sunday’s Dover 400 showed an increase in viewers over last season’s fall race, but ABC’s 3.5 rating was still not very impressive for a major network sports broadcast. And it was well off the weekend’s top sports event, NBC’s Sunday night NFL between Chicago and Dallas, which drew an 8.9 rating.
It was the second straight championship playoffs disappointment for NASCAR and TV. The 10-race chase opened with a mediocre 3.3 rating for the Loudon 300.
ABC says Dover was watched in 3.9 million households, which translates to 5.5 million viewers. Last fall’s Dover race, on TNT-cable, was seen in 3.4 million homes.
Tony Stewart could have been tagged with a penalty for using obscene language in a brief exchange with a TV cameraman during Saturday practice. But NASCAR officials shrugged off the issue after reviewing the encounter, which occurred when an ESPN cameraman, during a live clip on pit road, approached Stewart and Robby Gordon, who were engaged in a private conversation.
Stewart, not realizing the camera was live, told the cameraman to buzz off. ESPN broadcasters quickly apologized to the viewing audience for the bad language.
Juan Pablo Montoya was hit with a $10,000 fine after a similar situation during the Phoenix weekend in April.
Greg Zipadelli, Stewart’s crew chief, was angry with the media over the situation, saying they had no right to intrude on a private conversation like that. In fact, the cameraman had apparently been told earlier by NASCAR officials to leave that part of pit road.