Lessons learned at Chicagoland
David Reutimann upset the stars of NASCAR to win at Chicagoland Speedway
Jeff Gordon's frustrating winless streak extended to 48 straight races on Saturday
Jimmie Johnson spun out and faded down the stretch to a 25th-place finish
For NASCAR's most yawn-inducing stat of the season's first half, look no further than Victory Lane. Just seven winners in eighteen races made the top seem like an exclusive country club, the boring type filled with rich snobs that stopped adding new members around the turn of the century. As title favorites Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin led the way, scoring five victories apiece, the list included no first-time winners, filled instead with "been there, done that" owners like Joe Gibbs, Rick Hendrick, and Roger Penske shutting out the unsuspecting peasants below.
That Goliath-like dominance has left the Davids of the stock car world desperate to simply survive, let alone thrive in an environment that's made it difficult to stay competitive. How ironic, then, that their first punch back in what seems like an eternity comes from a man whose name is synonymous with the biblical underdog. That Saturday night shocker from a most unexpected source leads off our five things we've learned from Chicagoland:
1) David Reutimann pulled the upset of the year in Sprint Cup.
With just one career Cup victory to his credit, Reutimann isn't exactly a household name in NASCAR. Add in career finishes of 43rd, 14th, and 12th at Chicagoland with zero laps led, and it's safe to say LeBron was a bigger favorite to win Saturday night's race.
But perhaps the fourth-year driver will earn more respect after beating a pair of four-time champs. After Johnson took himself out of contention -- we'll get to that in a minute -- Reutimann had to pass one of the best in the business, Jeff Gordon, to take control of the race. The two went at it tooth-and-nail for about 15 laps, running side-by-side in one of the best intermediate track battles we've seen this season.
"Stay on him, he'll make a mistake," was crew chief Rodney Childers' advice over the radio, trying to reassure his pessimistic driver.
Too bad Reutimann didn't buy it for a second.
"Are you kidding me?" he said after the race. "He's Jeff Gordon. When is he going to make a mistake?"
But even legends push their luck someone else's way a time or two. Eventually, the No. 24 got loose enough for the No. 00 to squeeze on through, and that was all she wrote as Michael Waltrip Racing's top driver went virtually unchallenged the rest of the way. It completes an amazing turnaround for a guy that started the year with three blown engines in eight races, running no better than fifth while leading only 12 laps in the season's first half. Critics openly questioned whether Reutimann's lone win -- at the Coke 600 last year in a rain-shortened victory -- would leave him as one of NASCAR's one-hit wonders.
"I know from just speaking with him, he has said that there was an asterisk next to that win," said Carl Edwards, one of several drivers to personally congratulate the well-respected Reutimann. "I know this is really special for him. I know for me personally, my first win was a really big deal, but my second win felt like it kind of galvanized me and my team and put a stamp on the fact we belonged in Victory Lane."
Can it do the same for Reutimann, who's now in position to pull off a second shocking upset? All of a sudden, he's within 96 points of 12th-place Clint Bowyer and fighting his way back into Chase contention.
"We may fly under the radar," he said. "But the people that matter know we can contend."
And now everyone else does, too.
2) Second isn't always the first loser -- especially for Ford's favorite son.
What's been a nightmare year for Edwards suddenly seems to be turning around in just the last two weeks. Following a 25th-place disaster at Loudon -- in which the No. 99 got lapped under green not once, but twice -- runs of sixth and second have helped solidify his place within the top 12.
"We're definitely on the event horizon," he said. "We just have to figure out how to do that every week."
The key, as always, is adjusting the car to improve over the course of the race, something the No. 99 excelled at in Chicagoland. Edwards was clearly the fastest during the last 30 laps, falling just short of Reutimann in putting together his best run since Pocono last June. That's crucial for the Blue Oval crowd, resigned to watching soon-to-be ex Kasey Kahne be the only standout lately in equipment he's walking away from. At 30, Edwards is their only star left capable of becoming both championship and marketing gold.
There's certainly a long way to go. Edwards led just two laps, doubling his season total, and remains just 74 points ahead of 13th in the Chase. But they're headed in the right direction.
2) What does Jeff Gordon have to do?
It was a big night for Gordon, celebrating his 600th consecutive start in a career that began way back in November of 1992. NASCAR's one-time Wonder Boy is now one of its elder statesmen, his 82 wins good enough for sixth on the all-time list.
But despite another successful season, he has to wonder when victory 83 will ever come. A third-place finish proved small consolation Saturday night, as Gordon's winless drought now stands at the longest of his career -- 48 races. It's part of a disturbing long-term trend that's personified by a failure to close the deal:
Starts 1-100: 12 wins, 36 top-5's
101-200: 33 wins, 70 top-5's
201-300: 13 wins, 42 top-5's
301-400: 11 wins, 42 top-5's
401-500: 10 wins, 39 top-5's
501-600: 3 wins, 44 top-5's
What's amazing is despite closer competition, Gordon's scored more top-5 finishes in the last few years since he called the sport his own personal playground in the late 1990s. But the point in the race he and old crew chief Ray Evernham excelled at -- making that final adjustment that gets them over the top -- proves to be his Achilles' Heel with Steve Letarte. As the laps wound down, the No. 24 faded after losing the lead to Reutimann and simply fought to come home third.
"We've had the consistency," he claimed after another night of close, but no cigar. "We just haven't had the car to win or all the pieces [together] as a team. Blame it on me, blame it on incidents, I don't like to point fingers, but we haven't gotten to Victory Lane."
"There was a few years when we were winning every third or fourth race. Now we win three every 100. I'd like to get back to some winning ways."
His Chase depends on it.
4) Having a baby, then running a race? Not recommended.
It's been a busy week for Jimmie Johnson, whose wife gave birth to an as-yet-unnamed baby girl on Wednesday. While the four-time champ wisely passed up an hour special to announce it, his hectic travel schedule surrounding the birth probably played a role in causing him to lose focus. After leading the first 92 laps, he mistimed an entrance onto pit road and spun out in the middle of green-flag stops. That started a comedy of on-track errors that would include a phenomenal save through the grass, then a smack into the outside wall after cutting a tire en route to running 25th, one lap off the pace.
It's the latest in a long list of disappointments for Johnson at Chicagoland, a track where he's never won in nine career starts. But how would you drive just 72 hours after having your first child? Considering he made trips back-and-forth to the hospital, next-to-no sleep makes a rough day excusable for a first-time dad. Privately, the No. 48 squad has to be breathing a sigh of relief he even ran at all; the team had Aric Almirola on standby the last few weeks, and worried a badly timed labor would force him to miss a start. Now, they can focus on the playoffs with Johnson's off-track distraction reduced to the joy of changing diapers.
5) Rick Hendrick needs to give Mark Martin some relief.
At 51 years old, Martin's become a master at avoiding controversy to the point he makes Switzerland look like they're taking sides. But the veteran lost his cool not once, but twice this week, lashing out at constant rumors surrounding his future before tangling with Juan Pablo Montoya on the last lap.
It's the second, on-track incident we'll be hearing about for days after the Colombian insinuated Martin "needed driving lessons." The two exchanged heated words, after the contact with a passionate Martin telling reporters afterwards, "I'm not going to take no $%^&."
But the more worrisome stat to me is that it was a battle for 15th, not the win that Martin breezed to here last July. Never a factor all weekend, frustrations mount on the No. 5 team as off-track distractions continue about whether he'll return to the team next season. For months, Hendrick has dangled the carrot of uncertainty out there, signing Kasey Kahne with no place to put him for 2011. That's left everyone under the sun speculating whether Martin will leave a year early, despite repeated denials from driver, owner, and business manager Bennie Ertel.
For the record, my sources report that Kahne's still headed to the No. 09 and emphasized Martin's contract with Hendrick takes priority (he's signed through the end of next season). But without announcing where Kahne goes, Hendrick allows the rumors to run wild, putting this team on the defensive to the point their on-track focus gets disturbed. With the off week looming, Hendrick has a prime opportunity to finish up the details for Kahne, announce his future, and get the attack dogs off Martin's back for the time being. That's a must, otherwise last year's championship runner-up may find himself on the outside looking in on the playoffs this year.
Race Grade: C. Chicagoland is typically one of the worst races all season, its cookie-cutter, 1.5-mile design producing a stale batch of single-file competition. But this year's edition came packed with a little drama, different faces up front, and ultimately an upset winner. Bristol or Martinsville it's not, but this time at least the racing didn't leave fans sleeping on the couch from start to finish.
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