The Frontstretch: Matt McLaughlin's Thinkin' Out Loud: Subway 500 by Matt McLaughlin -- Sunday October 21, 2007

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Matt McLaughlin's Thinkin' Out Loud: Subway 500

Matt McLaughlin · Sunday October 21, 2007

 

The Key Moment - Ryan Newman appeared ready to get around Jimmie Johnson; however, he had to back down when David Ragan's last lap spin caused the race to end under caution.

In a Nutshell - Hand-to-hand short track combat…racing the way it ought to be.

Dramatic Moment - A two lap shootout at Martinsville had every fan in the jam-packed grandstands on their feet.

What They'll Be Talking About Around the Water Cooler This Week

Unlike some other race tracks recently, there weren't any empty seats at Martinsville. Hmm. Is there a lesson there? It seems NASCAR's three remaining short tracks are perpetual sellouts.

I guess its ironic that Newman spun Ragan earlier in the race, and Ragan's last lap spin ended Newman's chances to finally end his victory drought – a mark which now stands at 77 races.

After yet another mechanical failure, will the No. 8 team let Junior run the old style engine rather than their trouble-prone R07s for the final four races of the season?

Reports a few years ago claimed some teams were hiding traction control devices in their alternators, but the resultant alternator's durability was suspect. So, why do the same teams keep having charging system issues?

What can be done at Martinsville to keep the drivers, teams, and fans from suffering from the ill effects of exposure to carbon monoxide?

Lately NASCAR has become more and more like Formula One racing. Increasingly, one or two superteams dominate the sport, and the cars are more important than driver skill. There's not much passing, and increasingly, the real drama is played out in courtrooms – not on the track. But for all the faults F-1 seems to possess, at least their points system seems to work. This year's title came down to a three man battle for the top spot, and the driver (Lewis Hamilton) leading the points entering the Brazilian Grand Prix drove poorly, had mechanical issues, and lost the title. The key points to the Grand Prix points system NASCAR needs to look at are twofold. First, winning a race earns a driver substantially more points than finishing second, and points are only awarded to drivers who finish in what amounts to the top half of the field. All other drivers earn zero points.

Robin Miller of SpeedTV claims that a move is in the works to have Jim France take over running NASCAR while Brian France would take the reins of the Grand Am series. Let’s just say if I have a vote in the matter, I vote "HELL YES" – with apologies to fans of the Grand Am series, of course.

When a race breaks the Martinsville record for caution flags in a single event, you know it was a long race. This week, NASCAR officials decided not to red flag the event when Bill Elliott blew an engine and oiled down the track with a handful of laps to run. That’s a far cry from the week before, when the 500-miler at Lowe’s came to a halt for over 12 minutes – even as Saturday night inched ever closer towards Sunday morning. I'd just like to see some consistency in NASCAR’s calls.

Apparently, ESPN was stung by criticisms of their missing restarts during a race. They did a much better job of catching the restarts this time, and that's tough at Martinsville, as yellow flag laps pass quickly on the .526-mile short track. However, it did seem NASCAR might be trying to give the network a hand by extending the length of cautions for routine single car spins to accommodate the TV folks.

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s engine was failing for the last half of the race, but he managed to stay in the Top 5…until the last handful of laps.

If he can find a ride for next year, David Stremme ought to consider Maytag as a sponsor. He spent much of the race in the spin cycle.

Give Martin Truex, Jr. the "Cole Trickle" award, because he actually did hit everything but the pace car.

Kurt Busch had a blown tire drop him from contention.

Bobby Labonte had a solid race going until Tony Raines drove into the back of him late in the race.

The "Seven Come Fore Eleven" Award For Fine Fortune

Jeff Gordon dropped from the lead pack to 33rd when his pit crew failed to tighten a lug nut, but he charged his way back through the field and used pit strategy to contend for the win once again. A timely caution also helped Gordon, who didn't have a full load of fuel because the catch can fell out of the car during a stop. When's the last time the No. 24 team made two crucial mistakes in one race?

Denny Hamlin had an eventful day – the No. 11 car was all used up by the end of the race – but he still posted a Top 10 finish.

Juan Pablo Montoya seemed to get sideways every lap in the middle portions of the race, but he went on to finish in the Top 10, as well.

Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart could easily have been eliminated after getting stacked up in both Kyle Petty and one of Martin Truex, Jr.'s wrecks late. Edwards also nearly drove straight into the wall on one restart, but managed to gather the car back up. Edwards wound up 11th and Stewart 13th, respectively.

Worth Noting

  • The win was Johnson's third consecutive victory at Martinsville, his fourth overall, and his tenth consecutive Top 10 finish at the track.
  • Ryan Newman finished second for the third time this season.
  • Jeff Gordon (3rd) hasn't finished worse than 11th in the six Chase races to date.
  • Kyle Busch (4th) has Top 5 finishes in four of the six Chase races; wrecks at Kansas and Talladega are what’s killed his title hopes.
  • Matt Kenseth (5th) drove to his first Top 5 finish of the Chase, and his first such finish since Michigan in August.
  • Greg Biffle (7th) had a Top 10 finish at Martinsville for the first time in his career.
  • Juan Pablo Montoya (8th) enjoyed his best finish since Indianapolis.
  • Clint Bowyer (9th) hasn't finished worse than 12th in any of the six Chase races.
  • Martin Truex, Jr. (19th) has now gone five consecutive races without a top 10 finish.
  • Kurt Busch (31st) finished 25th or worse for the fourth time in the playoffs. Prior to the Chase, he hadn't finished worse than 11th in nine consecutive races.
  • The Top 10 finishers drove six Chevys, two Dodges, and a pair of Fords. The best finishing Toyota was David Reutimann in 17th.
  • Montoya was the top finishing rookie of the race for the 14th time this season.

What's the Points?

For all intents and purposes, this year's championship battle has come down to a two man affair. Jeff Gordon still leads the points, but Jimmie Johnson’s victory closes him to within 53 of his Hendrick Motorsports teammate. Clint Bowyer remains third, but is now 110 points behind Gordon, probably an insurmountable gap with just four races left to run. Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch remain fourth, fifth, and sixth, respectively; Stewart is 244 points out of the lead, while Edwards and Busch are tied, 280 points back.

Looking further back, Kurt Busch had the worst points day amongst the title contenders, dropping three spots to tenth. That allowed Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, and Jeff Burton each to advance a spot to seventh, eighth, and ninth. Truex and Kenseth remain behind them all, three full races worth of points out of the lead and planted securely in the Chase basement.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. maintains "Best of the Rest" honors in 13th. However, he is now just 66 points ahead of 14th place Ryan Newman. 15th place Greg Biffle is a further 29 points behind him, while Casey Mears fell two positions to 16th, allowing Newman and Biffle to each advance a spot.

On another note, Michael Waltrip moved up two spots to 44th; he is a mere 5,031 points out of the lead (and only 2,580 behind 13th place Dale Earnhardt, Jr.).

Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans, with one being a stinker and a six pack an instant classic) We'll give this one a five, though it might have been a six had the race ended under the green flag – or simply if the action hadn't been slowed 21 times by caution flags.

Next Up - This many Yankees haven't headed to Atlanta since Sherman led the March to the Sea.

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Ken in Va.
10/22/2007 04:49 AM
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The chase is not down to two. It’s down to one—Hendrick. It doesn’t matter which one of the drivers wins the chase. To me, they’re clones of each other. The chase has become about as exciting as kissing your sister.

tucsondon
10/22/2007 05:00 AM
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I dunno, Matty, it looked like there were a LOT of empty seats. The grandstands were 80% full at best. Even the original Fathead, Jimmy Spencer commented on the Speed Victory Lane show that they looked half full. Furthermore, Kenny Wallace added to it by saying that he hoped that Martinsville doesn’t suffer the same fate as the Rock.

J. Furjanic
10/22/2007 06:01 AM
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Maybe, just maybe Jim France can save NA$CAR. It’s not Martinsville’s fault for the empty seats, it’s NA$CAR.

Forget pop culture, the NA$CAR touring car, variable starting times, 1.5 mile cookie cutter tracks, and get back to what made the sport great, the RACING !

Scott
10/22/2007 06:01 AM
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I noticed also that there were a lot of empty seats. I saw this right after ESPN/ABC mentioned about having a “packed house.”

I this is true about King Brian leaving for Grand Am, then it cannot happen soon enough. I just feel sympathy for the people in Grand Am.

Janice
10/22/2007 06:13 AM
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Matt,

Hum, I must of watched a different race. I saw empty seats at Martinsville, a fair amount of them.

Also, ESPN might of caught the restarts, but, in my opinion, they sure missed lots of cautions. Everytime they came back from commerical, I could tell by the sound that there was a caution on the track.

I’m also confused, I thought the next to the last restart was with 10 laps to go…How come no single file restart? Maybe the lap crawl was different on my tv.

Ed
10/22/2007 06:17 AM
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I must be almost completely cured. For the first time in years I didn’t watch Martinsville and I’m really not interested in reading Matt’s recap. Sorry Matt, you are still the best.

Mark
10/22/2007 06:52 AM
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I have some obsevations about several points you made . All of the constant whining by Dale Jr. about his engine , just makes him look foolish . How bad can your engine be if you are running in the top ten and higher while whining ? Hendrick is going to have his hands full with this guy .
The same teams who were running traction control before , are still running it now ,remember when a certain race winner tried to do a victory burnout a few years ago and forgot he had traction control . The engine stalled each time he tried . It doesn’t need to be in the alternator , it can be hidden in several possible locations .
There will be empty seats at ALL nascar races and we all know the reasons why .

mmack
10/22/2007 07:30 AM
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“Robin Miller of SpeedTV claims . . . “

Matt, half of Robin Miller’s “reports” are misguided speculation and unfounded rumor, another quarter are his own wishes, and the last quarter MIGHT contain a kernel of truth, wrapped up in his own spin. So you shouldn’t put your faith in ANYTHING Robin claims. Besides, he’s OPENLY critical of NASCAR and its fans on WindTunnel, so who would tell him the truth? If he did stumble on something, well, even a blind dog can find a bone once in a while. As you might write, if Robin Miller claimed the sun would rise in the East tomorrow morning I’d still call the National Weather Service tonight to confirm it.

And btw, I agree with other posters. Channel surfing past ABC a few times yesterday I saw that not every seat in the house was full.

Mike
10/22/2007 09:43 AM
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They showed plenty of empty seats from the blimp shots. It wasn’t as bad as last year’s fall race, but there were plenty of empty seats. You can blame that squarely on the conjoined twins of I$C and NA$CAR and their not caring about the fans or the facilities, only the almighty dollar.

Robin Miller’s report about Jim France taking over is interesting considering I heard it last month at the Wilkes County Racing Heritage Celebration from a person well connected to NA$CAR. You have to pity the poor Gran Am Series under the guidance of King Brian.

But on the plus side for him is that the cars are pretty much spec series cars like what NA$CAR is now. Plus more of the “beautiful people” go to those races than Cup races, so he’ll be able to rub elbows with folks like Jacque LeStrap, sip wine, eat escargot, and be a complete and total snob like his friends. If he actually has any friends.

Short tracks are where it’s at and is where NA$CAR really got it’s start. Get rid of these cookie cutters and bring back some real action to places that NA$CAR has seen fit to abandon in pursuit of the almighty buck.

Derrick
10/22/2007 10:53 AM
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When Dale jr. is in position to win a cup title the ratings and attendance will sky rocket until then we just have to hope somebody similar to Dale sr. like STEWART to stop JIMBO and WONDER BREAD!

Margo L
10/22/2007 12:09 PM
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I have to admit that the thrill is gone concerning nascar . I started watching F1 racing at the urging of my friend , and their racing and their season in general were much better than nascar . The tv coverage is far superior and the commentators ALL KNOW WHAT THERE’RE TALKING ABOUT . Sundays’ F1 race was as exiting as nascar used to be .If the nascar broadcasts and cup racing in general don’t improve , i’ll be watchimg F1 next year .

falcon325
10/22/2007 09:03 PM
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WRT the attendance at Martinsville, I was at the race. Hadn’t planned on going, but a couple of daughters harangued me into driving up. I didn’t buy my tickets from I$C. We had no problem negotiating some great seats for 2/3rd face value. There were, in fact, empty seats at green flag, most noticeably, the “Chicken-bone Alley” seats down in turns 1 & 2. But it was a great crowd; I would estimate 95% of the seats were full.

What was striking was the number of fans who left as the race progressed and their favorite driver wasn’t faring well. By the checkered flag, I would say that 80% was about right. I’ve seen fans leaving early at lots of races in the past, but never in those numbers. There was still a heck of a lot of good racing left, and Martinsville is not THAT hard to get out of.

Going back to Martinsville live reminded me of what we have lost. There are legitimate criticisms that can be leveled at short-track racing at an old track like Martinsville. I was struck by how long the lines were for the ladies restrooms. That was one clear example of how the demographics of racing have changed. But short-track racing is exciting. My neck hurt the next day from the constant turning to catch the action going on all over the track. And as grateful as I am for flag-to-flag TV coverage, you can see so much more watching live. It was fun watching Gordon knife his way through the field after the lug-nut problem. It was fun watching all the little dramas developing between drivers back in the pack. Little E’s engine blowing up at the end was impressive. His tailpipes were spitting out basketball-sized puffs of grey-black smoke in every turn.

All that made it more of a mystery to me why fans who paid big bucks to see a race on a gorgeous Fall afternoon saw fit to get up and leave with a hundred laps of racing left. Must be The Brian’s “casual fans.”

Heim Joint
10/25/2007 11:34 AM
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Matt,

I was at Martinsville for both the CTS race and NCS race. In my estimation the CTS race was a much better race. How can you call the COT event a “premier” event, when the trucks turned the track 8 mph faster than the COT did. I thought there were quite a few more folks in the stands on Saturday than normal, and yes there were an awfully lot of vacant seats on Sunday. I have been going to Martinsville since the early 60’s, and this is the latest I have ever left the stands. Granted the race started later than it normally does, but the 20 cautions didn’t help matters. As far as people leaving early, a lot of people go to Martinsville that live within 300 to 400 miles from the track. These people drive back home that night to go to work on Monday.

How many other people saw the very authentic looking Dale Earnhart walk down through the stands in the 4th turn and wave to all the fans? He looked exactly like Dale Sr. Many folks waved and cheered, and some even stopped him to have their pictures taken with him. I saw him sit down and have his picture taken with a little boy. He had Dale’s walk and even had his wave down pat. It was exciting for me, as I was a big fan of Sr’s.