When the green flag flew on the seventh annual running of the AAA Texas 500, it seemed almost as an afterthought to a difficult week, with the passing of patriarch Russ Wallace, the plane crash injuring Rick and Linda Hendrick, and of course the parking of Kyle Busch after his detrimental on-track actions during the Truck race.
[media-credit name=”Credit: Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR” align=”alignright” width=”272″][/media-credit]Yet, when the checkered flag finally flew at Texas Motor Speedway, there were some surprising, as well as not so surprising, moments from the third to the last race of the 2011 season.
Surprising: After back to back wins, it was surprising to see that even Smoke was a bit overcome, albeit by the intensity of the race, emotion and the heat of Victory Lane.
“This is for the Wallace family,” Stewart said after getting out of his car. “And for Mr. Hendrick and his wife. And I had a buddy that passed away when we were at Charlotte and I didn’t want to forget him.”
Yet even with splashing some water on his face, Smoke still had to take a seat in Victory Lane, while those around him fanned him with their Stetson hats to allow him to catch his breath.
Tony Stewart, however, bounced back quickly. He then donned the traditional black hat and took some shots with the guns in celebration of scoring his 43rd career victory, his fourth win of the season, and his second victory at Texas.
Stewart also re-affirmed that his sights are firmly set on winning that coveted Cup championship. With his race win, Smoke is now just three points behind leader Carl Edwards.
“I don’t think we have to say anything,” Stewart said, unlike last week where he talked some smack in Victory Lane. “Our performance speaks for itself.”
“Do not count us out of this thing,” Stewart said. “We did everything we needed to do today.”
Not Surprising: Roush Fenway Racing did not disappoint or surprise at the mile-and-a-half track where they have been so dominant all season. RFR had three of their drivers in the top five, with Carl Edwards in second, Matt Kenseth in fourth, and pole sitter Greg Biffle in fifth.
The team combined to lead 124 laps at Texas Motor Speedway, with Edwards leading 14, Kenseth leading 87 and Biffle leading 23. Even David Ragan, whose future remains uncertain, finished in the 12th position.
“I’m proud of our guys today,” Edwards, behind the wheel of the No. 99 Aflac Ford Fusion said. “We wanted to beat Tony and pad the lead, but we are still the point’s leader.”
This was Edwards’ sixth top-10 finish in 14 races at Texas Motor Speedway. It is his 24th top-10 finish to date in the 2011 season.
Greg Biffle, behind the wheel of the No. 16 Ford Fusion, started from the pole to bring his car home for a top-five finish.
“We had a pretty good car,” Biffle said. “The last pit stop, I slid through the box and that probably cost me a third-place finish or a couple of spots anyway. We fought hard and came back.”
“It’s hard to be disappointed when you run in the top five,” teammate Matt Kenseth, driver of the No. 17 Crown Royal Ford Fusion, said. “I wish we could have performed a little better, but that’s all we had.”
“This has always been a pretty good track for our organization.”
Surprising: It was a bit surprising to see how current Michael Waltrip Racing driver Martin Truex, Jr. did, finishing eighth in his No. 56 NAPA Auto Parts Toyota, in spite of the big changes announced for the MWR organization prior to the race.
“I am really proud of my entire NAPA team today,” Truex Jr. said. “The NAPA Know How pit crew was on it.”
“We are moving in the right direction and I appreciate all the work MWR is doing to get us in contention.”
Not Surprising: After learning that he was no longer a member of the MWR team after the 2011 season, it was no surprise that the woes on the track continued for driver David Reutimann. The driver of the No. 00 Aaron’s Dream Machine finished 22nd.
“It was very difficult,” team owner Michael Waltrip said of his decision to let Reutimann go. “I love David. He’s a great man and he’s always been there to do anything I needed him to do.”
“I know it was hard for David to get the news,” Waltrip continued. “I’m thankful that he drove for me for so long.”
Surprising: After such a Cinderella run, Brad Keselowski’s championship hopes have all but gone up in smoke. The driver of the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge had a very difficult day at Texas, finishing 24th.
“Just a tough night,” Keselowski said. “We couldn’t get the speed out of our car that we needed and fought all day for track position.”
“We lost the handling on the car right in the middle part of the race and adjustments were made to make it better and it just made it worse,” Keselowski continued. “It was unfortunate.”
Not Surprising: One driver who continues to make noise, however, was AJ Allmendinger, who scored another top-10 in his No. 43 Best Buy Ford Fusion for Richard Petty Motorsports.
“That was probably the most comfortable I’ve ever felt on a mile-and-a-half, especially one like this,” Dinger said. “It was fun.”
“From the start we were just passing cars and making good adjustments,” Allmendinger continued. “It was a good fight to 10th but overall, and more importantly, that’s something to build on.”
Surprising: It was a bit surprising to see that Brian Vickers’ intense driving style carried over from Martinsville to Texas. On lap 201, the driver of the No. 83 Red Bull Toyota assisted with bringing out the second caution by tussling with Juan Pablo Montoya and Geoffrey Bodine.
“Stupid Vickers ran over a lapped car,” came over JPM’s radio, summing up yet another tough day at the office for ‘The Sheriff’, who finished 21st.
Not Surprising: Kasey Kahne continued his string of top-10 finishes, scoring the third spot in his No. 4 Red Bull Toyota. This was Kahne’s fourth top-10 in 15 races at Texas Motor Speedway.
“We were really close,” Kahne said of his almost-winning run. “I wanted to win really bad today.”
“It was a great race for us,” Kahne continued. “This has been our best time the whole season.”
Surprising: Taking the wheel of the No. 18 M&M’s Toyota Camry from sidelined Kyle Busch, Michael McDowell surprisingly was not able to capitalize on his prime opportunity. Even with Busch looking on atop the pit box, McDowell could not get his car dialed in and finished 33rd.
“We obviously were hoping for more and were hoping for a big day,” McDowell said. “But that wasn’t meant to be.”
“Gave it all I had and we just struggled pretty much all day long.”
Not Surprising: McDowell was not the only JGR driver to struggle at Texas Motor Speedway. Joey Logano, driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota, blew an engine on Lap 262, and Denny Hamlin, behind the wheel of the No. 11 FedEx Office Toyota, struggled all day, finishing 20th.
“We just fought an ill-handling car all day,” Hamlin said. “It’s probably one of the worst that we’ve had in a long time.”
“We’ll have to go back to the shop and look at it,” Dave Rogers, crew chief for the No. 18, said of the entire team’s performance. “This tire at this track is pretty tricky. You have to dare to lean on it and it’s not comfortable getting in the corner.”
“We have to look at it for sure.”
Surprising: Although not mathematically eliminated, it still seems surprising to think that, without some sort of miracle, Jimmie Johnson will not be on the championship banquet stage this year. With his struggling performance at Texas, including a spin through the grass on Lap 240, the driver of the No. 48 MyLowes Chevrolet, managed to finish fourteenth and is now back 55 points to the Chase leader.
“I fought a loose race car all night long and I lost it,” Johnson said. “And I think sliding through the grass did some damage.”
“It didn’t really drive good after that.”
Not Surprising: With a sixth place run in his No. 24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet, it was not surprising that it felt like a win to driver Jeff Gordon.
“We moved up right away,” Gordon said. “I thought we had a car that could compete for the win but when the sun went down, it changed for us and we lost a little bit there at the end.”
“Compared to the way we ran here earlier in the year, it is almost like a win for us.”