MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Thoughts, observations and a few questions following Sunday's Subway 500 here at Martinsville Speedway, the sixth race in the Chase for the Nextel Cup.
Excuse me, please, while I take another bite out of my crow sandwich and wipe the egg off my face. I was one of many sports writers who wrote off the Lowe's team. After their horrible Chase start, the seemingly endless string of bad luck and the Talladega "incident," who could have imagined that Jimmie Johnson and Co. would be third in the standings, just 41 points out of the lead? That's exactly where they are after winning here Sunday.
It almost was a storybook ending for local hero Denny Hamlin. He and the local fans at Martinsville Speedway were disappointed by his second-place finish. They shouldn't have been. Hamlin's daring attempt at a late-race pass of a more experienced Jimmie Johnson may not have succeeded, but it once again showed than Hamlin has the kind of hired killer personality needed to win in this sport.
Johnson said after the race that at one point he had some real concerns about the outcome of his side-by-side battle with Hamlin in the waning laps.
"When we went into Turn 3, I knew that the angle I had on him would put him into the grass," Johnson said. "That could have been bad for both of us, so I went high and gave him a clean line through the corner."
Had Johnson not used his head at that point, both drivers easily could have ended up spinning out – and we might be talking about race winner Bobby Labonte instead.
Speaking of Labonte, the veteran driver definitely was ready to take the bows if the Johnson-Hamlin swordfight proved to be disastrous for both. Labonte admitted after the race that he didn't have the car to beat those two, but his experience and desire to win easily would have been enough to hold off the rest of the field.
Everyone seems to be rooting for a Labonte/Petty win. It's coming. The motorsports media will just have to wait to write about one of the greatest comeback stories ever seen in the sport.
I'm all for rookies getting their feet wet, but Martinsville and Bristol have to be the two worst tracks to do it.
Ragan was involved in four separate incidents that brought out the yellow flag, and his inexperience drew the ire of Kevin Harvick (who didn't even know who was in the No. 06 Ford), Ken Schrader and Tony Stewart, who described Ragan after the race as being "a dart with no feathers."
At one point during a caution, Harvick suggested over the radio that someone needed to sit Ragan down and "tell him how this works." Stewart also suggested that NASCAR should have just called him in and parked him.
It will be entertaining to see how Juan Pablo Montoya does here (and at Bristol) next season.
Harvick continues to have what I call "champion's luck." He was involved in a few incidents, including one that sent him to the pits several times to have his fenders pulled out. He then had to sweat out another RCR engine valve spring failure, this time on his teammate Jeff Burton's engine. Team owner Richard Childress had to remind him over the radio to watch his engine RPMs just in case. Finally, Harvick's ignition box failed, forcing him to switch to the backup.
Despite it all, Harvick scored another top-10 finish and moved up to second in points.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. seemed destined for a top-five finish until his spin on lap 477. It put him far back in the field and sent Junior fans rushing to the exits, diminishing the massive sea of red in the grandstands.
I maintained prior to this race that Martinsville could be Burton's Waterloo. It was. His failed valve spring was costly, dropping him from the points lead into fifth place.
Hasn't the unpredictability of each of these first six races made this the best edition of the Chase yet?
Elliott Sadler looked very racy midway through the race. Smart pit strategy and hard racing had the Virginian running up with the race leaders for more than 100 laps. He was in the top five when his engine inexplicably quit running.
Martinsville Speedway is known for two things: having the tightest corners in NASCAR and its red hot dogs. Yes, bright red frankfurters. They come loaded with a combination chili/coleslaw topping and they're delicious. And they're just $2 each, which leads one to eat too many and subsequently end up reaching for massive quantities of Tums to settle the stomach.
The headlines read: "Daytona 500 winner Ward Burton returns to Nextel Cup competition at Martinsville." Ho-hum. He finished 26th, which was on the lead lap. Maybe he finally has gotten it out of his system.
Frankie Stoddard, here as Ragan's crew chief, told me that he and partners Boris Said and Mark Simo have a deal to run seven Nextel Cup races next season with the No. 60 Ford Fusion.
There was big buzz all weekend around Champ Car driver A.J. Allmendinger's pending defection from open wheel to NASCAR with the Red Bull Toyota team, starting next weekend in Atlanta.
Bill Elliott told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he was bought out of his contract with Red Bull so Allmendinger could be put in the car as teammate to Brian Vickers next season. Allmendinger already is scheduled to drive the No. 24 Toyota Tundra in the Craftsman Truck Series race at Atlanta next Saturday, and an announcement is expected in the coming week about him also driving the Cup car.
More and more people in the NASCAR garage are questioning whether the NASCAR-mandated four-team cap is the only reason Jack Roush is looking to sell half of his NASCAR business. Rumors have been swirling for weeks about how deep an effect Ford's downturn is having on the Cat in the Hat's operation.
Too often, the reality that auto racing is a team sport gets lost in the shuffle, as it usually is the driver getting all the attention on the telecasts and in the race stories.
In reality, the team concept is an ever-present fact of life in the NASCAR garage.
The men and women of NASCAR's Nextel Cup teams always are hard at work early in the morning – when most of us would rather be sleeping – and often well into the night. And they work under some of the most demanding and dangerous conditions imaginable.
Jimmie Johnson couldn't thank his team fast enough on Sunday for helping put him back into contention for the championship. A good deal of the credit goes to crew chief Chad Knaus, whose positive reinforcement serves as a steady hand on the rudder when the seas get rough.
When the checkered flag flies at Homestead a month from now, keep in mind that the 2006 Nextel Cup championship will have been won by an entire team – not just the driver.