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.
Remember when introducing the Car of Tomorrow concept, NASCAR said the new car would allow for more side-by-side racing and passing? Well, anyone watching this Fall's Dover race knows the new car has failed to meet that design goal.
Typical of what’s getting to be the norm these days, there wasn't much racing going on early. Around lap 335, NASCAR officials decided to spice things up by throwing a debris caution. About that time, the drivers decided it was finally time to race; and with passing at a premium, a slew of wrecks ensued. Carl Edwards and the No. 99 team elected to go with two fresh tires on their final stop, while the majority of the field elected to go with new rubber all the way around. Despite the advantage of four new tires, passing was at such a premium Greg Biffle could not find a way around his teammate Edwards to take the win. After the race, Edwards’ winning No. 99 car was found to be too low; but of course, he got to keep his trophy. You just can't explain how that works to people not familiar with our sport. I usually sum it up like this: “NASCAR officials are morons.”
In a season full of bizarre races, this one takes the cake. With bad weather in the area, it seemed most teams and drivers decided they'd be lucky if this race got to the halfway point. In a refreshing change, there was actually some good racing early on in an event as most teams bet on bad weather. Tony Stewart was leading when the rains finally came, staying out on a fuel-mileage gamble and hoping the water would wash out the race. And oh, Lord, did it rain, in big overflowing soul-sucking buckets full that seemed to indicate that not only was this race over, but that Kansas was soon to become a Great Lake.
But the clouds parted, no twisters were sighted, and no houses fell on Brian France. Somehow, they got the track dried … and racing resumed. Well, actually it took awhile for the racing to get going – there was a lot of wrecking the drivers wanted to get out of the way first. One notable victim was Tony Stewart, who drove into the back of the No. 1 car on a restart. Just like that, the guy who had been poised to win the race if the rain had ended it wound up 39th. As a result, Tony Stewart's 2007 title aspirations left Kansas in the back of a wheezing Greyhound bus, seated beside a dying cowboy with a graveyard cough.
As daylight declined, Mr. Juan Pablo Montoya had a hard encounter with the outside wall, which is backed by the whole state of Kansas – the wall won. Caution flew, and NASCAR officials decided rather than having the green/white/checkered finish fans expected, they'd end the race early because it was dark out. It was so dark Mike Helton needed a five cell flashlight just to find his ego – and that's when it got really weird. Greg Biffle was leading the race, but his car was on fumes. Coming off the fourth corner, the No. 16 car sputtered and seemed to die, out of gas. Mr. Biffle's version of events was that he'd cut off the engine to save gas for the burnouts … which nobody would have seen. Because it was dark out – and Mike Helton's flashlight beam doesn't reach that far. What we do know is Biffle pulled onto the grass, and several cars crossed the start/finish line before him – at which point, NASCAR decided that Biffle won the race despite not having kept up with the pace car.
Hmm. Perhaps Biffle couldn't see the pace car because it was dark out? Or maybe he was just planning those burnouts and forgot he had to cross the Start/Finish line. Or maybe ol' Greg just stole a win right before the disbelieving eyes of the fans on hand and at home.
Sometimes the lights all shining on me, other times I can barely see, lately it occurs to me, what a long strange trip it's been.
Alice, pass the hookah, please? The bizarre just kept rolling along. At Talladega, the drivers who posted the ninth, tenth, and eleventh fastest speeds in qualifying had to go home because of the top 35 rule.
Come Sunday, Talladega was typical of a modern day restrictor plate race, as drivers tended to hang back and try to stay out of trouble until the final 15 laps. Some did so with considerably better success than others; for when it came time to race, it was as if someone had thrown an Ozark in the cesspool. Those cars that were left running after the "Big One" vied savagely for the lead. Jimmie Johnson had the front position, but Jeff Gordon knows a thing or two about plate racing. Dave Blaney gave the No. 24 a nice little push and Gordon swung out to pass the No. 48. What probably sealed the deal was Tony Stewart; trying to pass all three of those drivers, he inadvertently ran into the back of Gordon. As our late friend Benny Parsons might say, "Gordon looked like he'd been shot out of a canyon!" Gordon edged Johnson to the line by .066 seconds, while Johnson got second and Blaney third. Stewart slid back to eighth and did that scary walking around thing, muttering under his breath like a schizophrenic about to start using a McDonald’s as target practice. But most importantly, the fourth restrictor plate event of the year was over, and no drivers had been killed at Daytona or Talladega. That counts for something.
Jimmie Johnson seemed to have this event in hand, just as he nearly always has things in hand at Charlotte. But his crew chief Chad Knaus was so certain that Johnson could pass anyone, he played his pit strategy conservative. That turned around and bit the No. 48 team, as Johnson was back in the pack when an incident put him into the wall. He salvaged a fourteenth place finish after what could have been a disaster – but his chances of winning were over.
Late in the race, Jeff Gordon emerged as the leader; but – at least according to team scanner traffic – he was desperately low on fuel. Clint Bowyer was positioned in second, looking for another win, but when Gordon bogged on the final restart, Bowyer ran into the back of the No. 24 car, propelling it forward rather than making the pass. D’oh. You've got to hate when that happens.
Beating and banging and caution flags are part and parcel of Martinsville. But the new cars were so ill-handling that a record 21 caution flags slowed the action in a 250-mile race. Yeah, it was ugly at times. Early in the race, it seemed the field was unable to run more than ten miles without carnage ensuing.
Still, a late caution set up a good ol’ fashioned short track-style sprint to the finish. Jimmie Johnson had the lead, but Ryan Newman seemed to have his number. Just as Newman set Johnson up for the pass, though, David Ragan spun out for what had to be the hundredth time this season to help ensure him the “Not Ready For Prime Time” driving award. Johnson won the race under caution, the teams packed up what was left of their ugly new cars, and everyone went home.
Jeff Gordon's fifth championship seemed almost a foregone conclusion despite Johnson's win at Martinsville. But at Atlanta, Jimmie put everyone on notice he still had a dog left in the fight.
As was normal this season, the first three quarters of the race were pretty sedate – but they heated up nicely late in the event. In fact, things got outright bizarre. Denny Hamlin was leading the race, but his team had badly miscalculated how much gas was left in the tank of the No. 11 car. On a restart, Hamlin ran out of gas and set off a field-decimating wreck. It was later learned that Hamlin and several other drivers had water in their gas tanks rather than fuel because of contamination issues in the pits.
With the sophomore in the garage, the field lined up for an all out shootout green/white/checkered finish … but it was not to be. Moments after the pack took the green flag, Dale Earnhardt, Jr.'s rear tire took an unexpected detour towards Decatur. The race then finished under yellow, with Jimmie Johnson once again hoisting the hardware.
He's baaaaa..ck. Matt Kenseth seemed to have this race in hand after a fierce duel with Denny Hamlin. While battling for the lead, Hamlin managed to wreck himself out of the race, seemingly handing the win to the No. 17 team. But a certain someone in a blue and silver Chevy with a big number 48 painted on the sides had something to say about that. Johnson dogged Kenseth in what might have been his best race of the season to take the lead with eight laps to go. And once Johnson had the lead, trying to take it from him was like trying to pry a T-bone steak out of the jaws of a pit bull. Johnson’s victory moved him into the points lead – and he wasn't done yet. This driver was out to prove he was one very, very bad doggie.
Johnson's three race streak seemed to finally get the better of the seemingly imperturbable Jeff Gordon. Gordon had a fast car, but got into an on track squabble with Kevin Harvick – after which, the No. 24 car was never up to speed again. In the meantime, Martin Truex, Jr. had the lead; but Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson had faster cars. Once again, it was up to Kenseth to keep Johnson honest; but even the driver of the No. 17 car seemed daunted by the task, having asked over the radio whether to settle for second at Texas the week before. Once again, Johnson eventually got his number, driving on to his fourth straight win. After the race, Jeff Gordon conceded the title as well despite a spectacular season for him and his team. Gordon tried to backpedal away from his comments that week, but my guess is his surrender speech didn't help boost ratings for Homestead much.
It was all over but the shouting at Homestead, and there wasn't much shouting, either. With a whimper rather than a bang, the unseemly less than spectacular spectacle came to a preordained end at Homestead. Jimmie Johnson knew he didn't have to win five straight races to win the title, and he adjusted his level of aggression accordingly. But Matt Kenseth had nothing to do but run for pride, and he did so accordingly… dominating the race. With no on-track drama to speak of, the media had a field day with an off-track incident in which Kasey Kahne put a security guard on his butt for denying his brother admittance to the motor coach lot. The fans let out a collective yawn. Doubtless, an out of court settlement will cost Kahne a bundle of cash; but as the newly anointed Bud Man, he has plenty to spare.
As the laps clicked off, Kurt Busch tried to run down Kenseth late – but it was not to be. Kenseth finally won a race, and Johnson took the championship for the second straight year. With that, the 2007 Cup season came to its long overdue end about a month too late based on the TV ratings for the last four weeks of the season. It remains to be seen how many fans will tune in next year to see Johnson vie for his third straight title, Gordon vie to win his fifth, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. try to finally win another race with his new team, and the rest of the field try to chase down the Hendrick Juggernaut like yappy little terriers in pursuit of a semi.
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