Long, Hard Road

Slowed by a record number of yellow flags but capped by a furious finish, the COCA-COLA 600 highlighted NASCAR's big questions heading into the second half of the regular season
June 05, 2005

The dark Carolina sky was spitting raindrops as Jimmie Johnson strode through the infield at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte, more than ready to call it a night. An hour had passed since Johnson had won Sunday's Coca-Cola 600, which had more caution flags (22) than any other race in NASCAR history and was the most time-consuming race (five hours, 13 minutes) since 1960. Johnson had capped the second half of American racing's longest day by charging past Bobby Labonte in the last turn of the last lap to capture his third straight victory at Lowe's. Now, with the clock nearing midnight, he finally walked out of Victory Lane--and straight into a future filled with high-speed promise.

"Nobody works harder than we do at Hendrick Motorsports," said Johnson, his voice hoarse. "It's why things are kind of going our way right now."

Hendrick drivers have taken five checkered flags in 2005--two by Johnson and three by Jeff Gordon. Then again, that win total has been matched by the Roush Racing team (Greg Biffle, three; Kurt Busch and Carl Edwards, one each). This weekend the Nextel Cup Series reaches the midway point of its 26-race regular season before the green flag drops on the 10-race Chase for the Championship. The Hendrick and Roush cars will be the favorites again this Sunday at Dover (Del.) International Speedway, which brings us to the first of five questions concerning the second half of the season.

1-- Can anyone overcome the dominance of the Hendrick and Roush teams and steal the Cup?

Not likely. In addition to winning 10 of the first 12 Nextel races, drivers on those two teams occupy five of the top 10 positions in the points standings. "When you look at Roush and Hendrick, they've got seven or eight engineers [each]," says Elliott Sadler, who drives for Robert Yates and is third in the standings behind leader Johnson and Biffle. "The other teams have only one or two." That engineering advantage has been the story of NASCAR in 2005.

In the off-season the governing body made two changes that have given most teams fits: It mandated a softer tire, which flakes sooner than the old tire and thus creates handling problems for the driver, and it also reduced the size of the rear spoiler from 5 1/2 inches to 4 1/2 inches, so the cars have less rear downforce and, consequently, less grip. Almost every team in the garage is still trying to solve the aerodynamic riddles that ensued. With their engineering manpower, however, Hendrick and Roush are much closer to a solution.

Says 2002 Cup champion Tony Stewart, who drives for Joe Gibbs Racing and is sixth in the standings, "Roush and Hendrick are kind of like Ferrari was in Formula One last year, when they won about every race because they knew something that no other team did. Can other teams catch up with Roush and Hendrick? Yes. Will they? It's going to be tough."

2 -- Has last year's top rookie, Kasey Kahne, emerged as a championship contender?

An emphatic yes. Over the first two months of the season Kahne, like the rest of the Dodge drivers, struggled mightily. His new Charger wasn't as fast in traffic as the other cars. (The model's performance led some to refer to the Charger, which returned to NASCAR this year after a 28-year absence, as the Dodge Chugger.) The culprit was the car's blunt, aerodynamically challenged nose. That flaw prompted Kahne's owner, Ray Evernham, to strip the sheet metal off Kahne's car and replace it with a sleeker skin. "We had to work very hard to figure out why the new Dodges weren't faster," says Evernham. "We tested and tested, and we've made a lot of gains."

Kahne won the first race of his career on May 14 at Richmond, and over the past month he's gone from 22nd to 16th in the standings. "As bad as we were at the start of the season, I'm surprised I'm not farther behind," says Kahne, who finished 22nd or worse in the first three races of '05. "Now I feel I can definitely contend every week." (He ran up front at Lowe's until a flat tire dropped him to a 26th-place finish.)

"Kasey is the guy I'm really watching out for," says Biffle. "Once you get that first win, it becomes a lot easier to get the next one."

3 -- Was it a good idea for Dale Earnhardt Jr. to switch crew chiefs (again) last week?

It appears so, given what took place last Saturday at Lowe's. After the final practice before the 600, Earnhardt, new crew chief Steve Hmiel, teammate Michael Waltrip and Waltrip crew chief Tony Eury Jr. gathered in Junior's hauler for 30 minutes, comparing notes on how the two DEI cars were handling and what setups were working best. Though it's standard practice for multicar teams to share information, the DEI teams have remained devoutly autonomous, essentially acting like two single-car teams who happen to be housed under the same roof. But in his first act as crew chief, Hmiel, who remains DEI's technical director, instituted a long-overdue open-door policy with Waltrip's team.

"We'll bounce aerodynamic things off each other," says Hmiel, whose predecessor, Pete Rondeau, never clicked with Earnhardt in 12 races as Little E's crew chief. "Our tire guys will work together. It'll be more similar to what the teams that are winning all the races are doing."

That spirit of cooperation, however, is still a work in progress. On Lap 246 of Sunday's race, Earnhardt, running closely behind Waltrip, tried to cut down under his teammate and ran into the back of Waltrip, causing both cars to wreck and go out of the race. Moments later Tony Eury Sr., who is DEI's director of competition and Junior's uncle, fumed to a NASCAR official, "[Dale Jr.] does that s--- every time Michael is ahead of him." With his 33rd-place finish, Earnhardt fell four spots, to 15th in points; Waltrip is 18th.

On the bright side, Earnhardt and Hmiel were able to get more speed out of the Budweiser Chevy with their pit-stop adjustments throughout the night, advancing to as high as eighth after running as low as 32nd.

4 -- Will sentimental favorite Mark Martin, who is retiring after the season and has finished second in the points race four times, qualify for the Chase?

Absolutely. Expect the 46-year-old Martin, who's 12th in the standings, to not only qualify for the Chase but also be in the hunt for the Cup right up to the final race of the season, in Homestead, Fla., on Nov. 20. Why? Well, he's in a Roush car--and Jack Roush, the team's deep-pocketed owner, will spend whatever it takes to give Martin the ultimate retirement gift: a championship.

Martin has been driving for Roush since 1988, and they've been together longer than any other current driver-owner combination. "The commitment Mark made to me and to Roush Racing was huge," says the 63-year-old Roush. "I was not established. There was a lot that I didn't know. He hung with me and kept the faith."

Roush, whose drivers have won the last two titles--Matt Kenseth in 2003 and Kurt Busch in '04--wants to reward Martin's loyalty by giving him the best equipment of the driver's 19-year Cup career. This season Martin has had five top 10 finishes and won the All-Star race on May 21 in Charlotte. Nearly every driver in the garage expects Martin to surge in the standings over the next three weeks as the circuit visits three of his favorite tracks: Dover (where he has three wins), Pocono (where he finished second last August) and Michigan (where he has won four times).

"We've [run] in the top 10 in every race but one this year," says Martin, who on Sunday got caught up in an accident and finished 28th. "We could get on a roll here."

5 -- Who's going to win the chase for the Nextel cup?

SI is sticking with the 33-year-old Gordon, the four-time Cup champ who was the magazine's preseason pick. On Sunday a piece of track sealant broke loose and damaged Gordon's car. Though he limped to a 30th-place finish, he is still fifth in points. "I've been with Jeff a long time [since 1999] and honestly think he's driving better than I've ever seen him," says Gordon's crew chief, Robbie Loomis. "We've gotten caught up in a few wrecks, but those weren't Jeff's fault. He's entering his prime, and with the kind of race cars that Mr. Hendrick has been giving us, we'll be tough to beat."

"Roush and Hendrick are like Ferrari was in Formula One last year, when they won about every race," says Stewart. "Can other teams CATCH UP? Yes. Will they? It's going to be tough."

COLOR PHOTO FRIENDLY RIVALS Hendrick teammates Johnson (48), who went on to win, and Gordon, who wrecked, pushed each other early in the race. COLOR PHOTOGEORGE TIEDEMANN/GT IMAGES SHINING Johnson celebrated his second win of '05 with wife Chandra and Hendrick.
COLOR PHOTOTERRY RENNA/AP TEAM TROUBLEEarnhardt (8) bumped Waltrip, wrecking both cars and DEI's night.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)