The Frontstretch: Matt McLaughlin's Thinkin' Out Loud: Ford 400 by Matt McLaughlin -- Monday November 19, 2007

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Matt McLaughlin's Thinkin' Out Loud: Ford 400

Matt McLaughlin · Monday November 19, 2007


The Key Moment - Matt Kenseth got enough of a jump on the final restart so that Kurt Busch could never get close enough to the No. 17 to offer a serious challenge.

In a Nutshell - Kenseth wins the race at Homestead, Jimmie Johnson clinches the championship, and the 2007 Cup season finally reaches its end.

Dramatic Moment - Truthfully, I've seen more drama in elementary school sack races.

Forced to choose, I'd guess the only real action I saw Sunday night was the final ten lap sprint. Other than that, Matt Kenseth pretty much had it on cruise control.

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

The Busch East series, the ARCA series, and well-heeled collectors looking for a two ton bit of garage jewelry can only absorb so many of the old-style Cup machines. Where are the rest of the teams' inventories of the outdated cars going to wind up?

In ways, the Daytona 500 feels like it was run a few weeks ago, and in other ways, it feels like it took place ten years ago. Is the NASCAR season too long, and if so, what can be done to shorten the season up?

Was this the worst season of Cup racing ever? As sorry as it was at times, I still must give that dubious honor to 1998 and the "5 and 5" disaster. But when it comes to truly lame Cup seasons, 2007 surely has a dog in the fight.

And in the end… Sunday's race marked the last appearance of the "Car of Yesterday," the tried and true workhorse of the NASCAR fleet that at least spiritually dates back to 1981 and the beginning of the Golden Era of NASCAR. The COY's ungainly successor will be the mount of necessity for all races next season, despite a troubling test at Atlanta that indicates the new car won't race worth a damn at the banked intermediate tracks that pepper the schedule. The drivers by and large prefer the old car but others will say change is inevitable. We shall see because as NASCAR's Mike Helton is fond of chiding us with quotes like, "At the end of the day, it is what is."

Jimmie Johnson's two consecutive championships is a pretty notable achievement; no driver has managed back-to-back titles since Jeff Gordon did so back in 1997 and 1998. But the task of winning three straight titles is even more daunting. No Cup driver has ever managed that feat other than Cale Yarborough back in 1976, 1977, and 1978.

It remains to be seen if Ricky Rudd will actually retire from the sport or enter the perpetual "about to retire mode" pioneered by Mark Martin and Bill Elliott. Because of how poorly he's been running the last few years, many newer fans have no idea what a talented and competitive driver Rudd was in his day, one of the few racers who ever locked horns with the late Dale Earnhardt without being intimidated for a moment. When discussing the greatest driver never to win a title, Rudd's name must be mentioned in the same breath as Fred Lorenzen, Junior Johnson, Curtis Turner, Davey Allison, Tim Richmond, and Mark Martin. Think not? Find a tape of the September 27th, 1998 Cup race at Martinsville. Rudd, the owner/driver of the Tide Chevrolet, was leading the race but was being barbecued alive in his ride due to a failed cooling system. Despite heat that blistered his backside, Rudd remained at the wheel even after his well-meaning pit crew tried to help him out during a pit stop by putting a garden hose down Rudd's back during a stop. The only problem with that? The hose had been lying in the unforgiving Virginia sun all afternoon, and rather than cooling their driver off, the dousing scalded him. In Victory Lane, Rudd gave his winner's interview flat on his back, being tended to by medical crews; however, he never skipped a beat. For the record that day, he beat some kid by the name of Jeff Gordon by a half second.

Yeah, drivers don't come much tougher than the Rooster. Godspeed, Mr. Rudd … whichever way your pleasures turn.

Well, apparently old Kasey Kahne, put a security guard flat on his butt for denying Kahne and his brother admittance to the motor coach lot. The guard then requested medical assistance for suddenly elevated blood pressure (brought about, no doubt, by dreams of a sudden fortune earned in litigation.) No, it's not right to lay hands on the hired help just trying to do their jobs (like keeping those three creepy chicks in the Dakota out of the coach lot) but this seems to me like much ado about nothing. The incident certainly isn't going to serve as fodder for a new episode of Miami Vice.

With so few short tracks left on the Cup schedule, does anyone else really miss ESPN's old "Winter Heat" season? The series provided some quality racing for the fans as they eased through the withdrawal symptoms following the Cup season proper, and it gave us all a glance at the up-and-coming drivers forging their way towards the big leagues (most notably, Greg Biffle). Of course, these days if you want to see drivers en route to the Cup series, you only have to watch the Indy 500.

This year, Chevrolet has dominated the Cup series like no make has since Buick back in the early ’80s. To see such total dominance beyond that, one has to refer back to the boycott years of 1965 and 1966 when Ford and Mopar ran roughshod over their opponents. It doesn't matter if this was the Car of Tomorrow or the old cars, Chevys just put a beat down on the other three manufacturers this season. Why? It could be argued that Chevy has the best teams. But there's a footnote there. The best teams get the best drivers. The best teams and the highest profile drivers get the biggest checks from their sponsors. And at Helton's proverbial "end of the day," the team with the most bucks wins. Welcome to the brave new face of NASCAR. This sure isn't Bud Moore's NASCAR any more.

With all the Chase hoopla this week, a sponsorship announcement this week didn't raise many eyebrows. Next year, longtime NASCAR stalwart sponsor Texaco Havoline will back the 42 car of one Juan Pablo Montoya for half the season while a chewing gum company will take primary sponsor honors for the other half. So what, right? The split sponsorship arrangement is becoming more prevalent in the sport as the cost of backing a team continues to rise out of sight. But in this instance, when a big oil company isn't able to pony up for the full year even in the era of $3.20 a gallon gas and record profits … that's got to a be a warning sign.

It would appear (the method of choosing a winner is too convoluted to go into here) that Juan Pablo Montoya will be this year's Cup Rookie of the Year. So that will be the first time a non-American native has won this honor, correct? Nope. Back in 1974, Canadian Earl Ross took the same award while then driving for legendary driver/owner Junior Johnson.

With Toyota locked out of Cup Victory lane this season, the only foreign make to post a win in NASCAR's top rank to date is Jaguar. Back in 1954, Al Keller drove a Jag to a convincing win on the road course in Linden, New Jersey. In fact that day four of the drivers who finished in the top 6 drove Jags and another was at the wheel of a Hudson. Jaguar? Hudson? New Jersey? What a long strange trip it's been!

I know a lot of you will now refocus your attention on the NFL and holiday preparations, skipping NASCAR coverage until next February. We'll see you all then. But before you sign off I want to once again offer thanks to all of my readers for your friendship, your constructive criticism, and all the kind words. Obviously, this has been a difficult season for me with the loss of my Mom. I want to especially thank all those who took time to write those kind notes and to all of you who offered your prayers for my family, though we never met. God bless you all, and I wish you the happiest possible Christmas season and all the best in the coming New Year.

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

Tony Stewart lost a Top 10 finish when the crew made adjustments not to his liking on the final stop. Stewart backed the No. 20 car into the wall hard, and Stewart's typical smart-ass sarcastic comments after the wreck showed his obvious displeasure.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. didn't close out his career with DEI with a win, as he and the team had hoped. In fact, he spun out entering the pits to bring out a caution, then was wrecked from behind on the subsequent restart. Kyle Busch's last ride with Hendrick Motorsports was less than memorable, as well.

Some folks don't like him, but you have to feel for Jeff Gordon. He averaged a fifth place finish in the ten Chase races, but still lost the title by a wide margin. That's the sort of scenario that has to have a guy tearing his hair out wondering what in heck he has to do to take another title. (For the record, were it not for the Chase format, Gordon would be celebrating his sixth Cup championship tonight.)

The "Seven Come Fore Eleven" Award For Fine Fortune

Matt Kenseth had a failing battery and felt certain he had a tire going down prior to the final restart. The battery lasted long enough to finish the race, and the tire, in fact, wasn't flat. Kenseth completely dominated beyond aside from that.

Kurt Busch lost a lap early in the race after his crew left a wheel loose on a stop. A timely caution allowed Busch to get his lap back, though, and some determined driving got him up to second place by the end of the race.

Martin Truex, Jr. slapped the wall in his Chevy in Saturday's practice and the team had to make hurried repairs. The rebuilt car was able to post a Top 10 finish, and at times, Truex actually challenged the No. 17 car for the lead.

Jeff Burton's car was awful early in the race, and his day could easily have ended when he ran into the back of the No. 8 car on a restart. As such, a Top 10 finish was a solid result.

Dave Blaney ran in the Top 10 most of the race before fading to finish twelfth late. It's been a tough year for Toyota and its teams, but Blaney clearly earned "Best in Class" honors among the Camry drivers this year.

Martin Truex, Jr. and Denny Hamlin earned the big checks for making the Chase, but don't have to rent tuxedos and make awkward speeches in New York like the drivers who finished above them in the Top 10.

Worth Noting

  • Jeff Gordon set the modern era record for Top 10 finishes in a season, with 30 such results on the year.
  • Johnson's 6,733 points scored in the Chase is a new record for the four-year-old convoluted championship season. In fact, Jeff Gordon's 2007 points total would have claimed the championship in the first three years of the Chase.
  • Matt Kenseth ended the season on a strong note, with five Top 5 finishes in the last five races.
  • Ford won a race for the first time since Kansas. At season's end, Ford pilots managed just seven victories (all in Roush Fenway-prepared entries). Dodge drivers have claimed three points wins, and Toyota drivers got blanked.
  • The Top 10 finishers at Homestead drove six Chevys, three Fords, and a Dodge.
  • David Ragan in tenth was the top finishing rookie at Homestead.
  • Kurt Busch scored his first Top 5 finish since his win at Michigan in August.
  • Too little, too late, but Denny Hamlin scored his best finish of the Chase at Homestead (3rd).
  • It was a breakout season for some young drivers. In addition to scoring his first win, Martin Truex, Jr. also enjoyed fourteen Top 10 finishes in 2007. Coming into this year, he'd only managed six top 10s. Clint Bowyer opened a lot of eyes with his win at NHIS, seventeen Top 10 finishes, and a distant but honest third place finish in the final points. Bowyer managed to make a lot of pundits, yer humble scribe included, look foolish after we predicted his making the Chase was a fluke and he was certain to finish twelfth in the standings.
  • Mark Martin earned Top 10 finishes in 11 of his 24 Cup starts this season. His average finish of 14.8 was actually better than Kevin Harvick's season total.
  • David Stremme started the season and ended the season with 11th place finishes.
  • Jimmie Johnson won the title and the most races of any driver this season. This is the first time the driver who won the most races in a season also won the championship since the advent of the Chase. In fact, the last time a driver won the most races and the championship in the same season was Jeff Gordon in 2001.
  • The Daytona 500 is the next points race on the schedule. It is interesting to note that only two drivers, Jeff Gordon (1997) and Jimmie Johnson (2006) have won the Daytona 500 and the championship in the same season in the last ten years.

What's the Points?

Let the final tally show that Jimmie Johnson beat Jeff Gordon by 77 points in this year's championship battle.

Kenseth’s win propelled him forward two positions to fourth in the final standings. Kurt Busch's second place finish moved him up three spots to seventh.

Kevin Harvick took the biggest hit in the points Sunday, tumbling three spots to tenth. Kyle Busch and Tony Stewart each fell a spot to fifth and sixth, respectively.

Ryan Newman earned "Best of the Rest Honors," securing 13th place in points, 52 ahead of Greg Biffle who moved up a spot to 14th. Casey Mears advanced a spot to 15th, while Dale Earnhardt, Jr. fell two spots to end the season 16th.

In the owner points battle, Dave Blaney and the No. 22 outfit clung to 35th place in the standings. As such, they will automatically be awarded starting spots in the first five races next season.

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 it two cans of warm generic stuff with an added glass of champagne raised high to celebrate the long overdue conclusion of a less than engaging season.

Next Up - At long last, the NASCAR community settles in for a long winter's nap after the perpetual train wreck that was the 2007 Cup season. At long last, we can all dream of saddle time on Sunday afternoons and glasses of beer. Of course, there's the banquet, a three hour commercial occasionally interrupted by commercials to "look forward to.” And preseason testing starts in just a few weeks.

The Frontstretch Newsletter, back in 2014 gives you more of the daily news, commentary, and racing features from your favorite writers you know and love. Don’t waste another minute – click here to sign up now. We’re here to make sure you stay informed … so make sure you jump on for the ride!

Today on the Frontstretch:
Racing to the Point: NASCAR Has Its Own Heartbreak Kid
Beyond the Cockpit: Brittany Force, the Fastest Force
Voices from the Cheap Seats: Advertising for Dummies
Who’s Hot / Who’s Not in Sprint Cup: Off Week-Richmond Edition
Couch Potato Tuesday: Picking The Best IndyCar On-Air Personalities


©2000 - 2008 Matt McLaughlin and Thanks for visiting the Frontstretch!

M. B. Voelker
11/19/2007 09:12 AM

Considering that complete snoozer of a final race for the aero-monstrosity, I don’t want to hear one word about the COT creating boring races next year.

I blame the rock-hard tires. Consider 2004, when the aero-monstrosity had the soft tires the short-spoiler version was designed for. That Homestead event was a race for the ages with Championship contenders being put to the back by misfortune and then being able to race their way up through the field to the front.

Tires that wear = good racing.

Margo L
11/19/2007 11:15 AM

For the record ,as you put it , the Chase format is the only one there is , so it doesn’t make the slightest difference what might have been . Gordon will celebrate a fifth title when he wins it under the same rules as everyone else . If he was counting on winning with a 5th place average , then he was ignoring his team mate outperforming him at every race .
Lets feel sorry for somone who actually deserves it . Clint Bowyer is one who did a tremendous job all year .

11/19/2007 03:43 PM

Margo L –

I give props to Clint Bowyer – he did a fantastic job this season. But to imply that Jeff Gordon shouldn’t be recognized along those same lines is insane. He had the most top tens and the most top fives – I would say he performed “tremendous” all season long. But your bias probably won’t let you recognize that.

11/19/2007 03:56 PM

No question that the 24, 48 and 07 all had “tremendous” seasons, by any measure. Best of the best, and all that.

I am certainly happy the “aero-monstrosity” is gone for good…now, just need to get rid of it in the Nationwide Series.

Softer tires would…umm…Rock :) I don’t think there can be any question that Bad Tires = Bad Racing. No amount of aero-manipulation can change that.

Here’s to hoping the folks at GEM (9,19,10) get their engineering woes sorted out!

11/19/2007 05:24 PM

Even though i stopped watching races this year, i still enjoyed reading your monday column all year and i look forward to reading it next year. The sport has become something i cannot watch. I’ve been to either a busch or cup race every year since they opened the gates to homestead in 1995 and this year i passed. That bad

11/19/2007 05:51 PM

Matt – I am glad this season is over. Just didn’t have a good feel to it.

The bright spot was your articles. Always look forward to your commentary. Have a great off-season.

11/19/2007 07:33 PM

Tide FORD Matt ;)

rob fischer
11/19/2007 08:40 PM

yo matt, you give a nice far well to Rudd, yet you forget about the 1999 winston cup champ, Mr. Dale Jarrett. Man, ya let me down brother :(

11/19/2007 11:56 PM

Jarrett will be back for a few races early next season. When he leaves for good I will give him a nice send off despite his defection to the evil empire of Toyota and the intolerable NAPA and UPS commercials that he has done this year since joining the Village of the Damned, Michael Waltrip Racing.

In a contemplative moment in the garage as DJ was fading badly with RYR in relief for Ernie Irvan after gathering his comments for Mike Calinoff’s site I offered DJ this sage advice based on Bob Dylan:

And when the bottom finally fell out,
I became withdrawn,
the only thing I knew how to do,
was to keep on keepin’ on like a bird that flew,
tangled up in blue….

I’d like to think that that sage advice turned his career around. Of course to do so I would have to ignore the fact after my classic literary reference he looked at me as confused as a purple ass babboon trying to change the voltage regulator on a Panhead. I had that effect on a lot of people in the day with my scything rock quotes born of dreaming of women and glasses of beer. But maybe it sank in later?

11/20/2007 01:42 AM

Matt, this has been the year that this 45 year old lifetime fan has thrown in the towel. It used to be that 11:00-12:00 on Sunday was reserved for the couch and a few cool ones while tuned into the real Nascar on the Real ESPN back in the day waiting for the start of the weekends Winston Cup race. This weekend I asked the wife if she wanted to catch a movie Sunday afternoon not even giving a thought to the last race of the season or the crowning of this years mega team champion. I used to rail against the new order of Nascar in hopes that changes would come and that the Powers That Be of Nascar would come to see the errors of their ways, but it has all been for naught.

I’ve said for the last couple of years I would start spending time in the garage building rods and just basically getting work done with the race on in the background, and that time has now come. I’ve probably seen maybe 10% of the racing this year and really didn’t miss a thing, as Nascar is just a thin veneer of what it once was. If you told me 20 years ago that Nascar would not get me cranked on any given Sunday I would have called you crazy. I just can’t see wasting a whole day on the new manufactured and fake Nascar.

I’m sure Brain France will find someone to fill the empy seats at the 3 races per year I no longer attend, and all the pousers will be happy that I have given up on the sport I used to love as they have all told me that if I don’t like the new Nascar I should stop watching and do something else with my time. Well, it’s all yours now. My new sport is watching the ratings tank and reading the old timers on Mondays giving their learned perspectives on the downward spiral of the shell of the sport I used to follow.

11/21/2007 12:02 AM

Nice tribute to Ricky Rudd. He is indeed one of the best ever to not win a title. That, combined with not winning a Daytona 500, probably kept him from the superstar status he deserved. But his all-too-brief stint in the 28 car proved that with the right equipment, he was easily a threat to win the championship. Also of note was his impeccable record on the road courses. More than anything though, he should be remembered for his class, his smarts on the race track, and of course his unbelievable toughness.