Kyle Busch looking like title threat, J.J.'s woes; more Dover lessons
Kyle Busch won at Dover for his second win and sixth straight top-10 finish
Jimmie Johnson led 225 laps, but a speeding penalty on pit road cost him
Is it too early to write off Dale Earnhardt Jr., who fell to 16th in the points?
Five things we learned on a sun-splashed afternoon at the Monster Mile in Dover, Del.
1. Kyle Busch continues to look like a serious title threat. More than any other top-flight driver in NASCAR, Busch has struggled in the Chase. He's qualified three times for the 10-race playoff and twice finished 10th and once fifth. His biggest problem in the playoffs? His inconsistency, which in the past has been fueled by his all-or-nothing, victory-or-crash driving style.
Well, no more. As I wrote in the magazine last week and on the website a few days ago, Busch has become as consistent as any driver in the series this year. He's completed more laps than any other driver in 2010 (all but one) and on Sunday he authored another championship-caliber run. He led laps, was in the top-five for most of the afternoon, beat Jimmie Johnson out of the pits late (see below), and blazed to his second win in four weeks. More impressive, this was his sixth straight top-10 finish. In other words, he's become the Jimmie Johnson of the 2010 season.
Right now, the 2010 championship battle sure looks like it will come down to three drivers: Johnson, Busch, and Denny Hamlin. And right now, the edge must go to Busch and Hamlin. After all, since the spoiler replaced the rear-wing at Martinsville in late March, their team of Joe Gibbs Racing has won five of the seven races.
2. Jimmie Johnson had another rough race. Heading into Dover, Johnson had crashed in two of the previous three races. Still, he was considered the overwhelming favorite in the garage to take the checkers on Sunday at Dover, which is one of his best tracks on the circuit. Consider: In winning both events at Dover last year, Johnson led over 550 of the 800 total laps.
With 36 laps to go on Sunday, Johnson entered pit road in first place for a green-flag pit stop. This was likely going to be the last stop of the day, and Busch was right behind Johnson. When Johnson pulled out of his stall, he mashed the gas -- a little too hard. He was busted for speeding on pit road. Just like that, he was assessed a drive-through penalty on the next lap, fell a lap down, and wasn't a factor the rest of the way. He finished 16th.
Here's the thing about that penalty: It was totally unnecessary. He clearly had the fastest car all day (he led a race-high 225 laps) and even if he would have left pit road behind Busch, he still had plenty of time to pass him. Bottom line: It was another uncharacteristic race for the four-time defending champ.
3. It was an unhappy anniversary for Junior and Lance McGrew. It was one year ago when Lance McGrew debuted as Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s crew chief at Dover. On that May afternoon Little E started 22nd, climbed into the top 10 by lap 140 of 400, reached as high as third, but faded late and came in 12th. Still, it was a solid first race for the Earnhardt-McGrew duo, and both left Dover with their hopes for the future high.
How are they doing one year later? Well, on Sunday, Earnhardt was lapped by Johnson less than a quarter of the way through the race, struggled with his handling all day, and came in 30th. He fell from 12th to 16th in the points, so, if the Chase started today, he wouldn't make it.
But it's far too early to write off this team. Yes, it only has three top-10 finishes in 12 starts in 2010, but Junior has spent more time running with the leaders this season than at any point in the previous two. But he needs to turn it on in the next month and have solid runs at Charlotte on May 30, Pocono on June 6 and Michigan on June 13. Because if he's on the Chase bubble in the last weeks of the regular season, the pressure will be as intense for this team as any in the sport, which is something team owner Rick Hendrick very much wants to avoid.
4. Brian Vickers' season is in jeopardy. Last Wednesday, Vickers, who was 20th the Sprint Cup standings, was in Washington, D.C., when he felt discomfort in his chest. After being taken to a local emergency room, a CT scan revealed that Vickers, 26, had blood clots on his lungs and legs. He was given blood thinners and two days later was cleared to fly to Charlotte, where he'll undergo more tests this week. What's important for Vickers, obviously, is his health, and that's why his team, Red Bull Racing, is benching him for an indefinite period. "He's a long term player with Red Bull Racing," said Jay Frye, the team's general manager. "Our main concern is his health."
It doesn't appear that Vickers will be back behind the wheel of the No. 83 Camry anytime soon. Doctors still don't' know what caused the clots and he could be on blood thinners for as long as six months, according to several doctors who have commented on Vickers' symptoms. Vickers likely would not be allowed to drive while he's on blood-thinners, so this means his season could very well be over. Casey Mears has taken over his ride, and this could be Mears' last chance to prove he has the talent to cut it in the Cup Series. On Sunday, he finished 22nd.
5. Kevin Harvick had a nice day. For Harvick, May is typically his cruelest month. He doesn't run well at the three traditional stops on the schedule -- Darlington, Dover and Charlotte -- but so far, so good for the No. 29 team. A week after finishing sixth at Darlington, he started 30th at Dover, steadily worked his way up through the field while keeping his fenders clean, and finished seventh. He now holds a 69-point lead in the standings over Busch.
So what should he do over the next few weeks? Go hard for victories and try to earn bonus points for the Chase. Because as of right now, you can pencil Harvick into the playoff.