Blue team does it right, gets no reward
Las Vegas, Sunday: Phil Burkart and his blue Checker, Schuck's, Kragen team did just about everything right in Las Vegas. They made two solid qualifying laps, including their best run of the entire season in the final session, and then made the right lane's second-best lap during the first round (coming in only behind the stellar 4.828 posted by teammate Del Worsham.) For the effort, they were relieved of their responsibilities after the conclusion of that round, having been edged by Tommy Johnson by a grand total of 8-thousandths of a second. The difference was barely visible on the stop-action replay, as the nose of Burkart's car was equal to the leading edge of the front wheel on Johnson's machine, while both were screaming forward at more than 318 mph. In a year full of such incredibly close losses, this one may have been a tad easier to take, and not only because the team has become numb to these sorts of repeated frustrations. Burkart also knew his team had sent him on a great lap, he had done his job at the starting line, and he was leaving Las Vegas in 8th place on the POWERade points sheet, an improvement of two positions over where he entered this event.
During qualifying, Burkart posted a solid 4.821 on Friday night, in front of a packed house at "The Strip." At the time, some of the other big hitters were cranking out low 4.70s, and Robert Hight sent the huge crowd into delirium with a gigantic 4.687, so Burkart's solid effort was only good enough for the 12th spot overnight. Once a couple of other cars improved during Saturday's first session, and Burkart did not, he entered the final lap sitting somewhat precariously in the No. 14 slot, and by the time he ran his lap he was hanging tight, but only in the 15th position. 4.750-seconds later, Burkart had posted his quickest lap of the season, and for a brief while he was in the top half of this race field. As a few other teams also stepped up, he eventually landed in the No. 10 position, which earned him a date with Tommy Johnson.
"When we ran the 4.75, I knew it had jumped us way up the sheet, but then some guys came in behind us and we ended up 10th, which was kind of a shocker," Burkart said. "We were back in the pit servicing the car by the time the session ended, and someone told us we were in 10th. We couldn't believe it, but that just tells you how good the conditions have been here. After all the rain we've been dealing with, we've had three straight days of beautiful, gorgeous, almost perfect weather, and I lot of teams were taking good advantage of that.
"Knowing we were back in the bottom half, we knew the lane choice thing would probably be important, and when we saw we were matched with Tommy, we knew we'd have a stout opponent on our hands. The track here is very good, but there is a tunnel going under it and that creates a bump out there past half-track. For some reason, the right lane lane just didn't want to hold these cars quite as well as the left, and we knew we'd be over there. We just had to give it our best shot."
Getting that shot required getting back one half of the blue teams' crew chief duo, as Marc Denner suffered from a severe case of food poisoning throughout Saturday night and into the morning. There was great doubt he'd be physically capable of being with the team for round one, and for much of the morning Denner was in the medical building at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, receiving fluids intravenously. His counterpart, Chris Cunningham, got the car and the team ready, and Denner made an appearance just in time to warm up the blue CSK Monte Carlo.
"Marc was in bad shape, and anyone who has had food poisoning knows just how horrible it is," Burkart said. "Somehow, he helped get us warmed up in the pit, but right after that he had to go straight back to the medical facility. We went up to the lanes pretty sure we were going to race without him, and it was like a professional football team drawing a play in the dirt for our guys, because Marc handles a lot of the start-ups duties up there. Chris can handle almost all of it, but guys were still divvying up who was going to do what, because there's a lot to do up there. But, Marc miraculously appeared just as we pulled around the tower for our pair."
With the visage of their sick co-leader in front of them, the team prepped Burkart's car, sent him on his burnout, and awaiting his lap. As is nearly always the case, Burkart left the line first by a hefty margin, leaving with a .067 to Johnson's .083 reaction time. The two cars streaked down the track side-by-side, each pounding out huge numbers and somehow each avoiding any serious pratfalls going over the tunnel bump.
Near the finish line, a few odd flames popped from Burkart's left-side headers, signifying a slight malfunction within the left-side cylinder head, and Johnson inched ahead to take the win with a 4.813 to Burkart's 4.837.
"Just another one of those laps where I never saw him, and I didn't know who won until we got to the other end," Burkart said. "But hey, when the other guy beats you by 8-thousandths, and you both run about as well as you can, you just move on and try to feel good about how you did. We ran our best lap of the year, moved up to the 8th spot on the points sheet, and did a lot of really good stuff. All that, and Marc is still among the living, so it's not totally bad. Just a little frustrating."
A lot of good work, and no reward.
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