Editor’s Note: With the 2007 Nextel Cup season complete, it’s now time to take a look back. This week, veteran writer Matt McLaughlin winds up the process started last Monday with his annual race review, analyzing each event of the season and giving us his take on how good – or bad – they really were.
It had to happen at long last in a season full of clunkers; NASCAR finally staged a race with utterly no redeeming social value, a stinkfest of such epic proportions it may have defined the very nadir of sports.
Did I mention I didn't think it was a very good race?
As the afternoon wore on, somebody had to win this travesty – and Tony Stewart obliged. Matt Kenseth tried to keep Stewart honest late, but failed to come close after Jimmie Johnson’s flat tire took him out of contention, handing the win to the No. 20 car. To add to the fun, NASCAR officials told Stewart not to climb the fence after the race. I guess they were afraid the jangling of chain link would wake too many fans from their comatose naps on the way up.
Isn't it about time someone at NASCAR wakes up and realizes this whole Indianapolis experiment isn't working? Stock cars just don't have the grip in the flat corners that it takes to put on an exciting race.
Unfortunately, that fact was once again proven true, as this year’s event was marred by a lot of hard crashes. And for the second time in as many weeks, Jimmie Johnson had to climb out of a badly wrecked race car. At Indy, Johnson exited with notable haste – his car wound up going up in flames.
As for those who avoided the carnage, Kevin Harvick emerged to lead the race late – but as time wound down, his car started fading badly, with a fast-closing orange Chevy filling up his rear-view mirror. Anytime cars race at Indy – whether it be stockers or open wheelers – Tony Stewart wants to win, and this was no exception. After all, this is his home field – he grew up an Indiana native. Stewart wasn't going to worry a whole lot about passing pretty as long as he got past the No. 29; muscling himself by, Harvick fell apart behind him, and a surprising Juan Pablo Montoya, who once won an Indy 500, emerged as the second place finisher. After the race, Harvick ran into the side of the No. 20 car. He said it was to congratulate Stewart – um, why don’t you try that one next time you're in a fender bender, just tell the cops you were trying to congratulate the other driver. Stewart was thrilled to win the Brickyard, Harvick was angry he lost the race, and old Juan Pablo seemed about as nonplussed by his second place finish as he was to win the Indy 500 way back when.
Kurt Busch had this one pretty much in hand at the drop of the green flag. It wasn't much fun on the eyes, but this happens sometimes in a legitimate sport – one team dominates so thoroughly that it's almost painful to watch. Other teams had to gamble to try to steal the win from the No. 2 bunch; many of them took two tires late, while Busch and the 2 team played it safe with four. Thus, Busch had to pass nine cars to retake the lead on a late restart. It took him about ten laps to do so, after which he waved a jaunty farewell to the field and drove off into the sunset.
In what might have been the story of the race outside of Busch's dominance, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. started the race in a car so bad that a clearly enraged Earnhardt sounded like he was ready to park the thing and exit the track, if not the sport. In desperation, the team took the time to change shocks, and Earnhardt charged his way up to a second place finish. Occasionally, this kid can still drive a race car up to the standards of all the hype that surrounds him.
It was clear from the outset that Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon had the dominant cars on this day. Stewart was leading the race when he charged too hard into turn one, skidding off track about halfway through the race. That seemed to seal the win for Gordon – but somebody forgot to tell Stewart that. He charged his way back to second and appeared destined to stay there when the unthinkable happened; Gordon, NASCAR's most successful road course racer, also made an unforced error heading into turn one and lost it. That left Carl Edwards with the task of running down Stewart; but in the end, it wasn't meant to be. Stewart won his sixth NASCAR Cup road course victory; and remember, this is a guy who cut his teeth driving sprint cars on dirt tracks.
In the weekend's other big story, Martin Truex Jr. sent Juan Pablo Montoya spinning after Montoya chop blocked the No. 1 car. The incident sent Montoya's Dodge into Kevin Harvick's Chevy, which was then T-boned by Harvick’s teammate Jeff Burton. Apparently unaware that Montoya had been hit by Truex, Harvick got out of his car and went after Montoya. A shoving match ensued, and for a moment, it looked like a fist fight might break out. Of course, that didn't happen; too bad, for it might have been interesting to watch. Rating: C.
Rainy weather once again screwed up a Cup weekend. In fact, the weather was so bad at Michigan, the race was postponed until Tuesday.
But no sort of delay whatsoever could slow down the Miller Lite Dodge. Much like Pocono, Busch just had the car, the will, and the strategy to get the job done; there was no stopping him. In fact, he led nearly half the race. Martin Truex, Jr. tried to keep Busch honest, but you could almost hear Kurt hollering, "Look Ma, no hands!" by those final few laps.
There were many unanswered questions going into this year's Bristol Night Race. With a new track configuration, the new cars, and that same old hanging from the rafters crowd, what sort of race would they see?
At first, they saw a doozy. Two of fans’ biggest pet peeves this season were NASCAR's officiating and the ESPN coverage of the races, and they combined into the perfect storm during Friday night's Busch race. Kurt Busch was leading the event, and feigned as if he was going to enter the pits during a caution. He swerved back onto the track, and few drivers behind him were fooled; but the fools officiating the race decided Busch had violated the commitment cone. TV footage showed clearly he had not, and it wasn't even a particularly close call. But in their eagerness to get the race restarted, NASCAR officials sent Busch to the back of the pack, even as ESPN footage clearly showed there had been no violation. Worse yet, in the waning laps, with two drivers running side-by-side, hell-bent to leather for the win ESPN's video feed mysteriously died. Fans missed the end of a great race as a result.
Unfortunately, Saturday night's attempt wasn't as good. In fact, by the standards of Bristol it was downright sedate, Bristol Lite. Carl Edwards passed Kasey Kahne on lap 335 and drove off into the night, causing fans to howl in outrage. They'd been expecting bread and circuses, mechanical carnage, and furious drivers throwing crap at each other; what they got instead was a stock car race.
There are very few things I know for certain in life. I will listen to others’ opinions, and modify my own if their points are logical. But I know this much to be true, as certain as I know the redemptive power of rock and roll, and that Harley Davidsons are the only motorcycles worth owning. I know that on Labor Day weekend, the Cup circuit ought to be racing at Darlington in an event called the Southern 500, held in the late summer heat. Cup racing separates the men from the boys; Darlington separates the heroes from the mortals. To run a Cup race anywhere else that weekend borders on blasphemy; unfortunately, NASCAR’s been doing it for four straight years now. "Modernized Tradition" my skinny white Irish ass.
C'mon Matt; calm down, have a beer, and take a deep breath. What's done is done. It's over.
Well, to quote Bluto from Animal House, “Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell, no! It's not over until we say it's over!”
Richmond could have been the greatest stock car race ever, and those watching on TV would never have known. All ESPN wanted to talk about was the field being set for the CHASE. It was pretty much preordained who was in and who was out – barring mass space alien abductions of drivers – but they wanted to thump that drum until our ears bled anyways.
Fortunately, the racing wasn't all that good. Jimmie Johnson had the field pretty well covered throughout, although there was some spirited battling behind him for Top 10 finishing spots.
All in a dream, all in a dream, the loading had begun, loading Mother Nature's silver seed for a new home in the sun. Yes indeed, the all-singing, all-dancing, three ring circus that is the Chase kicked off. And what better place to launch this boffo, Rock ‘em – Sock ‘em battle to death Championship than New Hampshire International Speedway. Well, I dunno actually; perhaps a rutted quarter-mile dirt track in rural Montana under the cover of darkness would compare? At least then there'd have been some action.
In the meantime, Clint Bowyer might have been stung by criticism he didn't belong in the Chase because he'd never even won a Cup race. Well, he responded pretty impressively; he didn't just win at NHIS, he spanked the field. Hey, I love a first-time winner as much as anyone, but this race is neck and neck with Chicago as the worst event of the year.
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