2004 NASCAR Champ Strikes Gold Out West

Dale Jr at Sonoma

Poor back-to-back finishes have Earnhardt Jr. looking ahead to this weekend's Sprint Cup Series race at Daytona. Junior is typically one of the favorites when the series hits the two restrictor-plate tracks at both Daytona and Talladega (photo courtesy: Tom Pennington, Getty Images Sport)

The 2004 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Championship wasn’t decided until the last lap at Homestead-Miami Speedway when Kurt Busch became the first to hoist the “Chase” hardware. The exciting racing of the new system led to the closest points race in NASCAR history. Well, that was until last November…

Denny Hamlin entered the 2010 NASCAR Ford Championship Weekend with just a 15-point lead over four-time reigning Champion Jimmie Johnson and a 46-point margin over Kevin Harvick. Hamlin’s lead is the closest margin between first and second in Chase history, bettering the 18-point difference Kurt Busch held over Johnson in 2004. Tickets for this year’s Ford Championship Weekend—Nov. 18-20 at Homestead-Miami Speedway—are on sale NOW. For ticket information, click [HERE] or call (866) 409-RACE.

Busch has been able check-off two items on his 2011 “to do” list. In collecting his first victory of 2011 at Sonoma, Kurt Busch finally has a road-course win to his credit.

The 2004 Sprint Cup Series champion dominated a rough road-course showdown at Infineon. Busch led a race-high 76 laps and beat four-time Sprint Cup Champion Jeff Gordon by almost 4 seconds for his first NASCAR Sprint Cup win of the season, and first in 21 road-course starts. Reigning Ford 400 winner at Homestead-Miami Speedway and current NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Championship leader Carl Edwards finished third; and maintains the series point lead by 25 over Harvick in the NASCAR Race to the Chase standings with 16 races of the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season in the record books. Tickets for this year’s Ford Championship Weekend—Nov. 18-20 at Homestead-Miami Speedway—are on sale NOW. For ticket information, click [HERE] or call (866) 409-RACE.

"It's a great sense of satisfaction," said Busch. "All the hard work from the guys back at the race shop where it starts. The times that we've tested. The execution here at the racetrack this weekend. It was a great feeling to know that I've won on a road course."

Edwards, who opted to remain at Infineon Saturday instead of traveling to Road America in Wisconsin for the NASCAR Nationwide Series race, maintained his Sprint Series points lead with the finish, standing 25 points ahead of Harvick and 33 ahead of Jimmie Johnson. Busch is now fourth, 34 behind Edwards.

"I think this is a huge weekend for us," Edwards said. "We started out terrible. We changed plans right at the end of practice on Friday. We all got together and talked about it. . . . That was the call of the weekend. Ended up giving us two hours of practice. We got to really work on the car, and that's what made this a good day for us."

Edwards was a popular preseason pick to unseat five-time Sprint Cup Champion Jimmie Johnson this fall when NASCAR crowns a Champion at Homestead-Miami Speedway Nov. 20. Tickets for this year’s Ford Championship Weekend—Nov. 18-20 at Homestead-Miami Speedway—are on sale NOW. For ticket information, click [HERE] or call (866) 409-RACE.

Gordon, meanwhile, gained ground in the standings. He climbed three spots to ninth, which puts him inside the group in position for an automatic berth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

He did so by staying out of trouble a year after getting caught up in several incidents at Infineon.

"There were times today where we didn't have the car and I gave up the spots," Gordon said. "I wasn't going to try to push the issue. I guess that's good and bad. I didn't have a car that could even try to pass anybody or block anybody down in Turn 11 for most of the race. So I had to give up a lot of those spots and bite my tongue and hope that we could get it fixed or get track position, which it worked out.”

Things were jumbled after that late caution, with some drivers on new tires and others on older rubber. Some who expected to be in contention were farther back and began to aggressively attempt to drive to the front.

But Busch calmly pulled away and stayed out of all the aggression going on behind him.

The chaos came to a head with eight laps left when Juan Pablo Montoya (see sidebar) pushed Brad Keselowski nearly off the track trying to charge to the front despite Keselowski leaving him an opening, causing Keselowski to come back on the track and tag Montoya. The Earnhardt Ganassi Racing driver spun on Lap 102, but no caution came out. Paul Menard then caught Ryan Newman, who spun for the second time of the afternoon

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was not immune to the roughhousing either. After climbing as high as third in the NASCAR Championship points standings, and staying there for three weeks, Junior Nation has seen the rug pulled out from under his Hendrick Motorsports team the past two weeks. An incident not of his own making sidelined the No. 88 car after only 45 laps at Sonoma.

A 21st-place finish a week earlier at Michigan was disappointing, but his 41st place finish at Infineon with a cooked engine dropped Earnhardt Jr. to seventh in the standings.

“I was seeing beating and banging, but that is just the way the road courses are,” said Junior. “This place … it is the way these races here have been for awhile. You know what you sign up for when you show up on Friday.”

Not surprisingly, the full-contact race at Sonoma led to a shakeup in the Sprint Cup points standings.

Kurt Busch moved up three spots, to fourth, with his win and Gordon moved up three spots, to ninth, with his second-place finish.

The drops in the standings were even more dramatic. Earnhardt Jr., who finished 41st, fell from third to seventh. He still has nearly a full-race cushion – 45 points – on 11th-place Denny Hamlin, who dropped from ninth to 11th and now sits 12 points out of 10th.

There are 10 races left before the Chase For The Sprint Cup, which will consist of the top 10 drivers in points plus the two drivers from 11th to 20th with the most wins. Tickets for this year’s Ford Championship Weekend—Nov. 18-20 at Homestead-Miami Speedway—are on sale NOW. For ticket information, click [HERE] or call (866) 409-RACE.

Hamlin has a win, but Tony Stewart, who dropped from 10th to 12th in the standings, doesn’t. He is 15 points behind 10th-place Ryan Newman, his teammate at Stewart-Haas Racing.

Brad Keselowski, who has a victory, remained 22nd in points but is just 12 behind 20th-place David Ragan. He needs to get into the top 20 to be eligible for a wild card.

After Race 26, the Top 10 drivers plus two wild cards not in the Top 10 who score the highest number of victories will contend for NASCAR’s Chase For The Sprint Cup Championship “playoff” system—the winner of which will be crowned at Homestead-Miami Speedway during Ford Championship Weekend for a 10th consecutive season this fall. Tickets for this year’s Ford Championship Weekend—Nov. 18-20 at Homestead-Miami Speedway—are on sale NOW. For ticket information, click [HERE] or call (866) 409-RACE.

Next up for the Sprint Cup drivers is Daytona on Saturday, July 2 (6:30 p.m. EDT, TNT and MRN Radio). Tickets for this year’s Ford Championship Weekend—Nov. 18-20 at Homestead-Miami Speedway—are on sale NOW. For ticket information, click [HERE] or call (866) 409-RACE.

Rough Day for Miami's Montoya

JPM Climbs Aboard His Chevy

South Florida resident Juan Pablo Montoya finished 22nd at Infineon to sit 16th in the points standings in his Chase for a Sprint Cup Championship on his “home track” of Homestead-Miami Speedway Nov. 20.

Montoya made contact with several drivers – including teammate Jamie McMurray – and even at one point apologized on his radio to Ryan Newman, whom he had a run-in with at Richmond earlier this year.

Montoya wound up getting spun out by Brad Keselowski after racing Keselowski aggressively late in the race and also raised the ire of Kasey Kahne after spinning Kahne. Montoya was not apologizing to either of them.

“I got on [Keselowski’s] bumper, moved him a little bit, got beside him and passed him and he just plain and simple wrecked us,” Montoya said. “It's hard when people don't know how to race on road courses and think they do."

“It's OK. We had fun.”

In Montoya’s view, the incident with Keselowski was just road-course racing.

“I guess he didn’t like it,” Montoya said. “I mean, it is just hard to run with people who have never run well on road courses or have no experience at it.”

Montoya said he wouldn’t talk to Keselowski – “You have to talk to smart people,” Montoya said – but Keselowski likely would tell him the same thing he told the media afterward.

“I don’t take any pride in all that stuff, but at some point you have to run your own deal,” Keselowski said. “It was pretty obvious that it was eat or be eaten, and I wasn't going to be eaten."

Keselowski wasn’t the only one mad at Montoya. Kahne spun following contact with the Earnhardt Ganassi Racing driver.

“I got beside him and he knocked me a couple of times and they just don't give me any room, so it was hard,” Montoya said.

Kahne disputed that theory. He said he was on old tires and was a little bit slow at that point.

“Montoya just drove through me at the top of the hill,” Kahne said. “That was obvious. … I was just driving into the corner. He got mad probably because I beat him into Turn 1 when he was beside me off of [Turn] 11, and he just wrecked me into [Turn] 2.

“That’s why he got mad. He didn’t get mad because I didn’t give him any room.”

In his television interview, Kahne took a shot at Montoya, who won last year on the road course at Watkins Glen while EGR teammate McMurray won the Daytona 500, the Brickyard 400 and the fall race at Charlotte.

“Last year, when his cars were really, really good and Jamie McMurray was the man, Juan still couldn’t win a race,” Kahne said about the former Formula One and IndyCar driver. “So that shows about what he can do in NASCAR.”

Tickets for Ford Championship Weekend—Nov. 18-20 at Homestead-Miami Speedway are on sale now. For ticket information, click HERE or call (866) 409-RACE.

Next up for Montoya and NASCAR’s best is Daytona International Speedway on Saturday, July 2 (6:30 p.m. EDT, TNT, MRN Radio)—Race 17 of 36 en route to Ford Championship Weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Nov. 18-20).

Follow Montoya on Twitter:

@JPMontoya

Follow Homestead-Miami Speedway:

@HomesteadMiami

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