By Mike Mulhern
So there’s too much emphasis on the guys in NASCAR’s championship chase, and not enough on everyone else?
That’s been a complaint from those so ignored.
But in this year’s chase there is really little else to talk about except the title fight between Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, and Clint Bowyer lurking in the shadows. Which is one reason the Carl Edward-Matt Kenseth run-in at Martinsville got so much attention.
But this is Texas Motor Speedway, the home of the ‘weird,’ when it comes to NASCAR racing. And it’s a place where neither Gordon nor Johnson has won.
In fact this wicked 1-1/2-mile track has been particularly tough on Gordon.
“But I can honestly say this is one of the first times I’m excited about racing here,” Gordon says. “I’ve always loved the facility, but it’s been hit-or-miss for us.”
Indeed, some of his meanest hits have come right here.
And as much good luck Gordon and Johnson have had this season, they’re overdue for a couple bad finishes. But none of their rivals seems to be stepping to the plate. Johnson and Gordon each have won two of the last four Nextel Cup tour stops; in fact Johnson has won four times since Labor Day weekend.
So maybe this is Bowyer country.
Bowyer, who has been overshadowing teammates Jeff Burton and Kevin Harvick, comes into Sunday’s 500-miler 111 points behind leader Gordon. Bowyer’s record lately has been remarkable; the second-year driver has gone 46 races without a DNF, and this weekend he’ll be running the car he nearly won Charlotte with. He finished a tense second at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, and followed that up with a sixth Sunday at Atlanta.
However the downside to the Chevy threesome, Gordon, Johnson and Bowyer, is that this place has been a Ford track over the years, with car owner Jack Roush typically pulling out a victory. Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth both had good shots at winning Atlanta, and Greg Biffle won in Kansas City.
“Texas is a track where I either run really well or really bad,” Biffle says. “It’s the type of track where we typically run well…but for some reason we seem to have bad luck a lot. This spring we had a battery issue and had to change a battery during the race. We ended up with a sixth-place finish but it took a lot to get there.
“Winning at Texas is a little different than winning anywhere else—because you get cowboy hats for the whole team and they give the driver a set of pistols. Those are pretty cool. And they always remind you of a win in Texas.”
“Texas is a lot like Atlanta,” Kenseth, fourth at Atlanta, says. “And we’ve had some success. I’ve always enjoyed the racing—it’s fast. And since the pavement has aged a little, there are multiple grooves, and once your car starts sliding around on old tires, you can search out a different groove. I always enjoy that style of racing. It’s more challenging.
“And our car’s performance is as good as it has been all year. That makes it fun to come to race track when you have that.”
Bowyer will likely have to chop 50 or 60 points off Gordon and Johnson here and then chop another 50 or so off the two at Phoenix if he expects to go into the season finale at Homestead-Miami with a decent shot at the title. He’ll need to be within 30 points of the leader going into the last race, history says.
So far Bowyer and crew chief Gil Martin are hanging tough.
“If Jeff or Jimmie has one bad race, we could be right there,” Bowyer says optimistically. “Things have definitely been going our way. We gained a few points on those guys in Atlanta, though we struggled the whole race.
“We got lucky and ended up with a decent finish…and that’s something we’ve gotten a lot better at. Historically we’ll run good and end up with a bad finish. This time we ran poorly and had a good finish. That’s been the biggest difference in our program.
“I’m really looking forward to Phoenix next week. We’re taking the same car we won with at New Hampshire (last month), so I’ve got a lot of confidence in that car. And I usually run well at Phoenix.
“We run pretty well at all three of these tracks, so there’s no reason not to be optimistic.”
Gordon’s spring win at Phoenix was his first ever, in 15 seasons. Johnson, fourth in the spring, has never won at that flat one-mile.
Bowyer isn’t sure what it might take this weekend to close up in the chase. “A top-five is the number one goal,” he says. “But it seems we need to win to compete with the guys we’re racing for the championship.
“We’re improving on our best finishes at just about all of these tracks since the chase started, so if we can do that this weekend, that’ll be a good day for us.”
Bowyer ran 16th here in the spring. His best finish was a fifth last fall.
THE NASCAR NOTEBOOK
Over in the Toyota camp, things just might be turning around, finally.
Brian Vickers snapped out of his slump with his fifth top-10 of the year. “We know we can race well, we just need to figure out what we have to do to qualify better,” Vickers says. “What we did at Atlanta was a huge step in that direction. For the first time in a long time, we not only made the race, but we were contending for the fastest time in practice, and we were in the top-15 in qualifying.
“What we applied at Atlanta is not going to work at every track, but it’s going to work at a lot of them.”
Car owner and teammate Michael Waltrip too appears to be getting a better grip on things: “Three in a row in the top-20 and three in a row on the lead lap. If you do that once, you got lucky. But when you do that three times in a row, you’re doing something right.
“We are obviously getting it better. And it is coming at a perfect time, because we know when we race into 2008, we have to be ready to go, we have to start the season right.
“I would venture to guess that of all the Cup teams in the last six races, our points total is probably in the top-20, or at least top-25. It goes to show you how this team has been able to overcome a terrible start.”
AJ Allmendinger, 16th at Atlanta after a 15th at Charlotte, likes what he’s seeing now: “Texas is just like Atlanta and Charlotte – It’s scary, but you just have to suck it up and hang on.
“We have a solid program that has made great gains this year. And I’m also getting more comfortable in the car. But it’s always tough to qualify.”
When it comes to having luck turn around, Kevin Harvick would like to be on hand when his does. He was off the mark at Atlanta (starting 34th, finishing 15th), and at Charlotte he was stymied by three flat tires.
Harvick will start off the weekend in style – The city of Houston has declared today Kevin Harvick Day. That’s because his sponsor Shell is based in Houston.
This place, Harvick says, is all about speed: “Texas is a fast race track. Besides Dover, it’s possibly the biggest sensation of speed, other than a qualifying lap at Atlanta.
“The transitions up off the corners are a lot different than Charlotte. The banking out of the corners really flattens out as you exit. And it really hard to get a hold off turn two. You are either really loose up off turn two or you’re pushing the front end really bad. It is a fine line.
“Our cars have run well at every track in the chase, and we have made some big gains on the 1-1/2-mile.
“We have just had a lot of stupid things happen to us the past seven races. I think I have had more flat tires since the chase started than I have had my entire career.”