Wrap: Stepping up and falling apart


ESPN.com takes a look at what went down in the racing world this past weekend.

Biggest surprise: Tim Wilkerson, who drove his single-car effort to a Funny Car win at Houston this weekend.

Also, Morgan Shepherd finishing 32nd at Martinsville. It's his first result better than 38th since a 32nd-place effort at Rockingham 10 races ago ... in 1999. That run for Junie Donlavey also marked the last time Shepherd finished a Cup race before Sunday. Shepherd does have four career Cup wins, the last coming in the Wood Brothers No. 21 car in 1993 at Atlanta.

Biggest non-surprise: Dan Wheldon scoring his first IndyCar victory, winning at Motegi this weekend. He's been too good not to find victory lane this year.

Also, Paul Tracy winning at Long Beach. Just as non-surprising was Tracy making early use of the new push to pass button to blast by Bruno Junqueira and Sebastien Bourdais to take the race lead.

And Tony Stewart nearly wrecking Ryan Newman. Tapping a guy is one thing, but nearly spinning him? Par for the course for Stewart lately. Newman's own talents are all that kept the 12 car from hitting the wall on Sunday.

Finally, Chad Reed scoring another SX win.

Biggest relief: Rusty Wallace finally ending his much over-hyped victory lane drought with Sunday's win at Martinsville. Wallace gets that monkey off his back, and the rest of us finally get to stop hearing about the winless streak.

Biggest disappointment: Jeff Gordon. In one of the more bizarre occurrences you will see, Martinsville Speedway -- and Gordon's victory hopes -- fell apart before everyone's eyes, with a chunk of concrete damaging the front of Gordon's No. 24. Gordon was running second at the time but had led the most laps and seemed en route to his first win of the year. Instead, multiple pit stops to repair the damage under caution dropped Gordon back to 21st. He did manage to rally to a sixth-place finish.

Also, Jimmy Vasser -- and the start of the Champ Car season. A first-turn crash reminiscent of a few F1 starts in recent years took the '96 series champ out of the mix far too early. The rest of the race was OK, but the new rules might need some tweaking ... at least according to second-place finisher Junqueira. "Unfortunately, the ways the rules are, you have to play it safe," Junqueira said. "I caught (Tracy) twice but, the way the rules are, there is no race. It was a great crowd today, but one thing they didn't see was a fight between me and Tracy."

And Sam Hornish Jr. crashing out at Motegi.

Gutsy move: Karen Stoffer's Pro Stock Bike win at Houston. Considering who has come before her in that category (three-time PSB champ Angelle Savoie, who beat Stoffer in the first all-female PSB final round back in '02 at Reading), it's no surprise that a woman can top the bike bracket on any given weekend. Still, Stoffer became just the seventh woman to score a national event win with her Houston victory. It's a nice early birthday present for Stoffer, who turns 40 on Wednesday.

Also, Honda finally winning at Motegi. Surprising that it took so long, but Honda put the time and money into winning this one. Of course, having Wheldon and Tony Kanaan leading the charge didn't hurt, either. Honda and Toyota each had five cars finish in the top 10. Not pretty math, Chevy fans.

Another Motegi finish -- rookie Kosuke Matsuura's solid yet eventful eighth-place finish at home in Japan -- is also worthy of mention.

Finally, the exciting back and forth between eventual winner Petter Solberg and Marcus Gronholm at the New Zealand Rally.

Boneheaded move: It's unusual to see Jimmie Johnson in this category too often -- a runaway tire during a pit stop put his team here a couple of weeks ago -- but failing to pit under caution late in Sunday's race essentially cost him the win. "It was a mistake," said crew chief Chad Knaus. "What are we going to do?" Knaus knew the 48 car's chances of winning disappeared when the rest of the leaders hit the pits ("We don't have a prayer," he said), but Johnson did manage to hold on and finish fourth.

Also, Joe Nemechek taking out Ken Schrader. And not that he specifically did anything wrong, but replacement rumors won't go away anytime soon for Johnny Sauter if he holds up the leaders as a lapped car or tangles with teammates. Still, Sauter's performance this year really hasn't been that bad. He deserves a full-season tryout.

Redemption: The Champ Cars. The series might not be what it used to be, but there's still plenty of talent in the field and the series is still running -- and that's something. Paul Gentilozzi played a major role in saving the Champ Car series from extinction, and his efforts were rewarded when the series kicked off its '04 campaign at Long Beach. And as icing on the cake, Gentilozzi himself won the Trans-Am Long Beach Grand Prix on Sunday.

And Rick Crawford, who rebounded from breaking his foot in Atlanta last month to hold off Dennis Setzer en route to winning Saturday's Craftsman Trucks race at Martinsville.

Random stat: 17 and 13. Nelson Philippe, 17, generally stayed out of trouble and ran a clean race in his Champ Car debut, finishing three laps down in 13th. Philippe became the youngest driver to start a Champ Car race.

Random thought: Should NASCAR have allowed the 24 team to work on Jeff Gordon's car during the red flag period brought out while workers repaired the Martinsville Speedway surface? It certainly seems like the fair thing to do. After all, the damage incurred by the 24 car was essentially non-race related (it was not just one of them racin' deals) and was no fault of Gordon's. But a rule is a rule, as Sterling Marlin knows all too well. Allowing any team to work on a car during a red flag -- though it might seem like the right call -- would just open a Pandora's box and force NASCAR into a situation where Mike Helton and Co. would need to make these calls on a case-by-case basis. Rather, NASCAR took the only action -- or inaction, really -- it could, forcing Gordon to just make the best of an unfortunate situation.

To take a step back, the track was falling apart. How ridiculous is that?!

General amazement: Valentino Rossi's dominance used to make him a regular candidate for this category -- but that was before he moved from Honda (the team with which he won his two MotoGP championships) to the presumably weaker Yamaha operation (Honda had taken the checkered flag for all but three of the 32 races in the first two years of MotoGP). New ride? No matter. Rossi still won the MotoGP opener in South Africa, narrowly beating Max Biaggi to the finish. Biaggi, by the way, was on a Honda.

Quote: "We're going to win this damn championship ... darn championship." -- Wallace after winning at Martinsville.

Photo: Check out the photo of the week. Right, that's what winning feels like.

Photo II: Check out the other photo of the week. Think Wheldon's pumped?

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