Kenseth, McMurray move into top 10; Little E out
FONTANA, Calif. -- Kyle Busch became the youngest winner in NASCAR's top series Sunday night, a feat that was almost an afterthought with most of the focus on the battle for the final spots in the Chase for the Nextel Cup.
Nextel Cup Series Standings
(unofficial through Sept. 4)
Rank Driver Behind 1. Tony Stewart -- 2. (+1) Greg Biffle -209 3. (-1) Jimmie Johnson -258 4. Rusty Wallace -313 5. Mark Martin -421 6. (+1) Kurt Busch -456 7. (-1) Jeremy Mayfield -497 8. Carl Edwards -556 9. (+2) Matt Kenseth -631 10. (+2) Jamie McMurray -641
At the end of Sony HD 500, the bottom of the top 10 in the Nextel Cup point standings was shaken up, with Matt Kenseth and Jamie McMurray in and Ryan Newman and Jeff Gordon out with only one more race before the start of the 10-man, 10-race finale.
NASCAR superstar Dale Earnhardt Jr. was officially eliminated from "The Chase for the Championship" when the engine in his Chevrolet blew up on lap 211.
"That's the end of our Chase," he said. "We've stunk all year. We haven't had a good year. I'm surprised you all are surprised."
That didn't bother the 20-year-old Busch, the brother of reigning Cup champion Kurt Busch, as he celebrated his breakthrough victory at California Speedway.
"It's unbelievable," said the rookie whose previous best finishes were seconds this year in Las Vegas and Dover, Del. "We should have been here at least five times this year, but we haven't been able to close the deal."
The previous youngest winner was Donald Thomas, who was four days older than Busch when he won in Atlanta in November 1952.
Driving a Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports, Busch led 95 laps on the way to the victory in his 31st career start.
Busch was leading on lap 240 when debris brought out the 10th of 11 cautions in the race. With the race scheduled to end on lap 250, Busch faked as if he was going to pit on lap 241 and, when all the other leaders followed, he went ahead and pitted.
His crew put on only two tires and Busch was able to beat everyone else back onto the track and hold the lead to the end.
"My nerves were getting to me," Busch said. "When I made that last pit stop [under caution], everybody followed me in and I thought, 'Cool, we're going to be all right.' That stop is what got us the win."
While Busch took control late in the race that was extended to 254 laps because of a caution period, the battle within a battle was raging for positions in the standings.
Only the top 10 drivers in the points following next Saturday night's race at Richmond, Va., will be eligible to contend for the championship during the last 10 races of the season.
Busch, driving a Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports, led 95 laps on the way to the victory in his 31st career start. But the focus throughout the long night was on the contenders for the Chase for the championship.
Kenseth, coming off his first victory of the season last week in Bristol, Tenn., had another strong night, finishing seventh. He has charged from 17th in the points following the Pocono race July 24.
Edwards solidified his spot in the top 10, remaining eighth and all but clinching a spot, while Kenseth moved to ninth, 10 points ahead of McMurray, who is one point ahead of Newman and 30 in front of Gordon, who began the night in 10th.
Going into Richmond, the final lineup for the Chase remains unsettled, with only 62 points separating eighth-place Kenseth from 13th-place Elliott Sadler.
A crash on lap 247, involving Robby Gordon, Scott Riggs, Scott Wimmer, Jeff Burton and Sterling Marlin gave Biffle one last shot at Busch, but he was unable to challenge the youngster after the green flag waved for a two-lap shootout on lap 253 -- three laps after the scheduled finish.
"Kyle got a great restart," Biffle said. "Great job by those guys tonight. They deserve it."
Busch came close to winning earlier this year, finishing second in Las Vegas and Dover, Del.
Jeff Gordon, who struggled throughout, appeared to finally get back into contention when he got into the top 10 late in the race. But a handling problem sent the three-time California winner reeling from 10th on a restart on lap 216 to a 21st-place finish.
"It's just one of those nights," he said. "It was pathetic. We'll go to Richmond and see what we can do. It doesn't matter right now [where we race]. Everywhere we go, we either stink or we're good. Apparently what we've done in the past doesn't mean anything right now."
Newman also was disappointed with his 18th-place finish.
"We're still alive now," he said. "We've got our heads just barely below water. We've got a chance to come up for a breath of fresh air."
Information from The Associated Press and SportsTicker was used in this report.
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