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Long, Hard Road
LARS ANDERSON
June 06, 2005
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
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June 06, 2005

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

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"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).

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