Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Stewart's Brickyard Win Bad News For Competition

Don’t look now, but Tony Stewart is smokin’.

The Home Depot Chevrolet driver copped his second “Allstate 400 at the Brickyard” trophy in three years Sunday, surging past leader Kevin Harvick with less than 15 laps to go, then pulling away to a comfortable, three-second win and his second NASCAR Nextel Cup Series victory in a row.

Stewart’s win is bad news for the rest of the Nextel Cup garage, since it signals a return of the momentum that is so much a part of the Stewart/Greg Zipadelli magic. No driver in NASCAR is streakier than Stewart. When things are going badly, he can brood and pout with the best of them. But when things are going well – and they are definitely going well right now – ole’ Smoke can get on a roll faster than any racer alive.

In his championship season of 2005, the Hoosier native ripped off a torrid streak of five wins in seven midseason starts – part of 13 consecutive top-eight finishes – that left the competition gasping in his wake. In the last three weeks, Stewart has virtually guaranteed himself a place in the 2007 Chase For The Nextel Cup, and ensured that he will begin the Chase within easy striking distance of the lead. The next few tracks on the Nextel Cup schedule have been good to Stewart in the past, so don’t be surprised to see Smoke riding his current wave of momentum all the way to the beach.

Johnson Stuck In Midsummer Swoon: While Stewart surges toward the top of the rankings, defending series champion Jimmie Johnson is heading in the other direction, fast. Sunday’s 39th-place finish at the Brickyard continued a recent run of bad luck that has seen the Lowe’s Chevrolet team plummet from third in points to ninth in the last few weeks. Johnson now stands just 265 points ahead of thirteenth-place Kurt Busch, and while his place in the Chase is not yet in serious jeopardy, things are definitely heading in the wrong direction.

Johnson and crewchief Chad Knauss will attempt to turn things around this weekend at Pocono Raceway.

Earnhardt Calm In The Face Of The Storm: One might have expected Dale Earnhardt, Jr., to be upset in the aftermath of Sunday’s “Allstate 400 at the Brickyard,” when a late engine failure ruined what appeared to be a sure top-five finish. Instead, Junior was the model of decorum, thanking his team for giving him a good racecar, and taking an “aw shucks” attitude to the mechanical failure that left him just 13 points away from falling out of the Chase.

Why the kid gloves? It’s simple, really.

As a “lame duck” driver, it will take very little to turn Earnhardt’s relationship with his race team upside-down. Many in the DEI camp remain upset by the criticism he leveled at the team earlier this year when announcing his decision to bolt to the Hendrick Motorsports camp, and any further second-guessing on the part of NASCAR’s most popular driver would be like a dose of salt in those still-open wounds. Earnhardt could have lit-up the DEI engine shop yesterday, or criticized the mid-race “experiment” that left his chassis horribly out-to-lunch for a time, forcing him to battle back from outside the top-10. Instead, he bit his tongue, in the interest of keeping his team intact and unified for the final 16 races of his tenure at DEI.

Busch Still Ride Shopping: Both Kyle Busch and his agent have denied published reports that he is set to sign with Dale Earnhardt, Inc. at any moment. Busch says he still hasn’t decided which team he will race for next season, and that it may be two more weeks before he makes a decision. Shrubby is believed to have narrowed his Wish List to three teams; DEI, Joe Gibbs Racing, and Evernham Motorsports. He was scheduled to meet with DEI’s drivers and management Saturday in Indianapolis, and will reportedly do lunch with Ray Evernham later this week.

Another driver on the DEI radar is Chip Ganassi Racing's David Stremme. Sources say Stremme is high on DEI's list of potential replacement's for Dale Earnhardt, Jr., if Busch chooses to go elsewhere.

Bourdais To NASCAR?: In the aftermath of his merger with Champ Car’s Newman-Haas-Lanigan Racing earlier this week, Robert Yates said three-time Champ Car king Sebastien Bourdais could end up driving for the new Yates-Newman-Hass-Lanigan Racing Team next season. Carl Haas confirmed that there have been discussions about making Bourdais the latest Open Wheel star to jump to NASCAR, but SeaBass himself said all the NASCAR talk is overblown. Bourdais has previously expressed interest in stock cars, but says his fondest dream is to drive for a competitive Formula One team. He reportedly has an offer on the table from Scuderia Toro Rosso, one of the worst teams in the F1 paddock.

Biffle Snit: Greg Biffle may be in line for a NASCAR-sanctioned penalty, after refusing to go to the media center and complete his post-race media obligations at O'Reilly Raceway Park Saturday night. Biffle spoke to network television and to the Motor Racing Network following the race, but refused repeated requests to visit the press box. You may recall that Tony Stewart was fined $10,000 and placed on probation earlier this season for failing to visit the media center after a race at Phoenix International Raceway.

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