Burton Wins at Texas, Dale Jr. Dominates Before Crash
Bud Team Leads 96 Laps Before Crash, Suffers Blown Engine
Jeff Burton became the first driver to repeat as the winner of a NASCAR Nextel Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway, as he took the checkered flag in Sunday's Samsung 500. Matt Kenseth was second while Mark Martin finished third. For much of the day, it looked like the first two-time Texas titlist would be Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the No. 8 Budweiser team, as they led 96 laps, and repeatedly opened leads of three seconds or more before a strange incident ended any chance of victory. On lap 252, while running second, Dale Jr. was behind the lapped car of Tony Stewart rounding turn four when the aptly-nicknamed "Smoke" spun out, creating a giant wall of thick tire smoke. As Dale Jr. slowed down in the midst of the murky mess, Kyle Busch, who was running third, slammed hard into the Bud car from behind. Despite the damage, the Bud crew went to work on the red #8 machine, making repairs and keeping Dale Jr. on the lead lap despite multiple pit stops under the caution flag. The race ended for the Bud car on lap 288 when the engine imploded, resulting in a 36th-place finish.
However, Dale Jr's day was not done, as a crewmember from Kyle Busch's crew interrupted Dale Jr's media session to ask if Driver #8 would step into the #5 car (the car that had smashed into his own only 30 minutes before) to finish the race after Busch had left the premises. Soon, Dale Jr. was being strapped into the Hendrick Motorsports car, and he completed the final 10 laps of the race, improving Busch's finishing position one spot ahead of Hendrick teammate Jimmie Johnson. At the conclusion of the afternoon, Dale Jr. found his own car in 36th, and - for the first time ever - had driven a car other than the No. 8 Budweiser machine in a Nextel Cup event. Dale Jr. dropped to 18th place in the Nextel Cup standings, but is only 43 points out of the top-12.
Key Moments: Dale Jr., starting 12th (based on the owner's point standings, as Bud Pole qualifying was washed out by inclement weather Friday evening), didn't stay there long, as he moved forward like a sharp knife through a toasty tub of butter, climbing into the top-five by the 33rd lap. Taking advantage of a fast car and a series of lightning-strike pit stops, Dale Jr. took the lead for the first time on lap 97, and then led --- laps until giving up the lead on lap 249 to Kurt Busch. Only three laps later, Dale Jr. was involved in the Stewart spin/Busch smash, and was forced to make four pit stops during the ensuing caution period, including a final stop to install a new transponder from NASCAR (the module that emits a signal to trigger NASCAR's elaborate electronic timing and scoring system). Running 15th and still on the lead lap, the battered and bent Bud car circled at a reduced pace for thirty additional laps before the engine expired. Almost thirty laps later, he returned to the track in the yellow-and-blue #5 car to complete the final laps of the race.
Dale Jr. Quotes:
"Am I disappointed? Yeah - but there are a lot of ways to deal with it. We didn't do anything ourselves to cause the misfortune. We just had some bad luck. That car was a rocket and that should make everyone at DEI (Dale Earnhardt Inc.) happy because they built me a great car and a great motor. We were really fast in traffic and out front in clean air. That's a tribute to (crew chief) Tony (Eury) Jr. and the whole team. A great car and great pit stops. It shows we can keep up with the big guys by working harder and smarter. It was a lot of fun while it lasted. It's cool to be able to see the fans in the stands going crazy like that when we take the lead. Add it all up and that's how I'll be able to sleep well this week."
About the crash: "Tony (Stewart) came out of the pits and blended in on the backstretch. He went into turn three and I saw he was wild loose - sliding and wobbling. He finally spun in turn four and I couldn't see anything in all the smoke. I just slowed down. I couldn't see anything but a lotta smoke and I figured the guys behind me couldn't either and they'd slow down too. But Kyle hit me from behind. He's a good guy, and I know he didn't mean to do it, but he hit me hard."
About the blown engine: "It was a great motor, I'll tell ya. But, sometimes when you spin backwards like we did, it hurts the engine and it eventually gives up. That may have been what happened - but were abusing that thing on every restart so I'm sure that doesn't help either. But it was haulin' while it lasted."
Dale Jr. was soon pulled from the media swarm to climb into the #5 car. After the race, the media throng again clamored for comments.
What did the car drive like?: "Like it was wrecked."
Why would you get in another car? "Because they asked me. I have some friends on that team - and I'll always jump at a chance to climb into someone else's car to see what it's like. They used to do that all the time back in the day. You'd have relief drivers getting into someone's car almost every week, so it was kinda like a step back into NASCAR history or something. Old school! It was cool."
Best Radio Chatter:
Spending a good portion of the day in the lead, Dale Jr's chatter was rather limited - but he was certainly enjoying himself as he passed Jeff Gordon for the lead and then swept around lapped cars using what is becoming a Dale Jr. hallmark - running high in the corners, only inches from the wall...
Dale Jr.: (leading and passing a lapped car, lap 187): "I dunno if the top groove is fast... but it's a helluva lot of fun!"
After a lap 240 pit stop when the Bud car came in first, and easily departed in the same position:
Dale Jr: "Good job!! High-fives all around!"
The Stewart/Junior/Busch incident took place a dozen laps later:
Steve Hmiel (spotter): (frantic) "Watch out! Spin in front of you! Spin in front of you!"
Tony Eury Jr. (crew chief): (after the Bud car has come to rest in a battered heap on the infield grass): "Alright, fire it up Bud. It may not be too bad. Let's see what it looks like... (watching the car pass) OK. We don't look too bad. No panicking. We're still in this. (to spotter Hmiel) Looks like what we got was a shot in the rear?"
Hmiel: "Yeah. I think we'll be good. It looks like just the decklid."
Dale Jr.: "Which way was the 20 (Stewart) spinning? I couldn't see him and I didn't know what else to do but slow down."