The Frontstretch: Matt McLaughlin's Thinkin' Out Loud: Pep Boys Auto 500 by Matt McLaughlin -- Monday October 27, 2008

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Matt McLaughlin's Thinkin' Out Loud: Pep Boys Auto 500

Matt McLaughlin · Monday October 27, 2008


The Key Moment: Leader Denny Hamlin spun his tires on the penultimate restart, allowing Carl Edwards to power by him on the outside exiting Turn 2.

In a Nutshell: The new car and an old race track… a combination that goes together like peanut butter and spinach.

Dramatic Moment: Watching Jimmie Johnson roar from eleventh to second in the final three laps, taking advantage of fresh tires.

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

What are people going to be talking about around the water cooler this week? The presidential race, the economy, Wall Street, the World Series, the NFL, and just about anything but the Chase, an ill thought-out gimmick that hasn’t raised the pulse of the general population one iota.

Perhaps it’s fitting with Halloween coming up at the end of the week. Atlanta was notable as a B Grade horror film… Return of the Crab Cars! I thought NASCAR had limited the amount the teams could skew the bodies on the chassis, but some of the front cars were really dog-tracking at Atlanta.

Wow! While most tracks have struggled to sell tickets this season, the amount of empty seats at Atlanta was flat out embarrassing.

Drivers weren’t as eager to toss Goodyear under the bus as they were after the first Atlanta race this season, but they were quite subdued in their enthusiasm for the “new and improved tire.” When ten lap fresher tires allow a driver like Johnson to advance all those spots, it’s a clear indication the folks from Akron still have some work to do.

Qualifying was rained out for the third weekend in a row, the fourth time in the Chase and the tenth time this Cup season. Is this a sign of a benevolent and loving but thoroughly irritated God weighing in the Chase? Seriously, after many qualifying washouts the weather was fine the next day and the track sat vacant for hours. Can’t NASCAR at least try to get qualifying in if a window presents itself? The advantage the points leader gets in starting out front and the first pick of pit stalls is a huge bonus in an era where passing has become so difficult.

Next year, this race and the Fontana Labor Day travesty swap dates, so the Cup tour will spend three straight weekends out West prior to the season finale in the Republic of Florida.

The drumbeat is growing louder that automakers GM and Chrysler will merge, possibly even before the presidential election. Nobody knows what that could do to the two automakers’ NASCAR and other racing involvement. Personally, I’m reminded of the three-legged races at the old county fair wherein two participants roped together stumbled along at a speed greatly reduced from what they could have run on their own. But if GM is intent on shuttering Chrysler, just let me know if there’s any leftover black Challenger SRTs taking up space. I’d be happy to store one in my driveway for them…

Carl Edwards seemed blissfully unaware that Jimmie Johnson had finished second while he was in Victory Lane. In response to a TV commentator’s question in that regard, Edwards took a quick look at the scoring pylon — and the look of shock on his face was priceless.

Some want to treat it as a joking matter or pure head games, but when a fellow competitor accuses a driver of being “juiced” (on steroids), it’s time for the first real test of NASCAR’s supposed new drug testing policy to set the record straight in order to exonerate the accused and ensure fans of the purity of the sport. The accused, and the names have been deleted to protect the presumed innocent, surely has shown some of the erratic behavior symptomatic of “‘Roid Rage” over the past two seasons.

Is it just me and my eternal optimism, or does it seem there’s actually a battle in the Nationwide and Truck Series for the title under the old style points system while this year’s Cup championship seems a foregone conclusion under the Chase?

Toyota fans need not be ashamed anymore. The newest make on the Cup scene is poised to win the manufacturer’s title in NASCAR’s top three divisions in 2008.

Who’d have thunk it? Toyota is poised to claim the manufacturer’s title in all three of NASCAR’s top three touring series this year. The old saw that there’s no substitute for cubic inches in racing is about to be disproved. There’s no substitute for cubic dollars…

A MWR press release this week assures me that Michael Waltrip started his 1,000th race in NASCAR’s top touring series this weekend when considering his combined Cup, Nationwide/Busch, and Truck starts. In that period, Waltrip has won fourteen races for a lifetime batting average of .014. Let’s compare that to Jimmie Johnson’s 15.54% record of wins to starts in the Cup series. No wonder the TV media gives Waltrip so much face time; they’re practically running neck and neck. On the other hand, when it comes to running home in his stocking feet after rolling his SUV to avoid a possible DUI arrest, Waltrip is currently batting 1.000. Yes, there are Michael Waltrip fans out there. God bless ‘em. After all, Charlie Brown remained a Joe Shlabotnik fan even after Joe was released after one game as manager of the Waffletown Syrups.

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. got hit on both sides of his Chevy trying to exit the pits, and that eliminated his chances at a Top 5 finish.

Juan Pablo Montoya ran in the Top 10 most of the day, and was moving towards the front when a pit road collision and subsequent repairs dropped him back into the “least common denominator” pack. A subsequent wreck ended his day.

Jeff Burton struggled all day, but wound up wrecking his car after Dave Blaney drifted down into him. Burton finished eighteenth and watched any far-flung title hopes evaporate away.

Michael Waltrip had actually made his way into the Top 10 when he popped a tire and slapped the wall. He probably should have parked the car at that point, as most of the subsequent cautions in the race were caused by Waltrip spinning on stuff falling off his car.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

Early in the event, Carl Edwards had a bad karmic moment and insisted over the radio that his engine was self-destructing. Well, that old mill held together well enough to power him to a race win Sunday. Combined with his Nationwide victory on Saturday, it was a pretty fair weekend for Edwards.

Jimmie Johnson had an eventful day. A slip up on the start of the race nearly put the No. 48 into the side of the No. 16 car, which could have triggered a field-decimating wreck and left Johnson dead last. Then, a pit road penalty dropped Johnson off the lead lap and down to 30th position, but neither the driver nor the team panicked. Johnson got the free pass and began working his way back up towards the front of the field. A gamble to take fresh rubber during the final pit stop paid off in a big way, with Johnson able to power his way to a second place finish. If the Championship chase was over after Martinsville, it’s “overer” now…

It hasn’t been much of a season for Kurt and it hasn’t been much of Chase for Kyle, but the Busch brothers did OK by themselves at Atlanta, finishing fifth and sixth.

The way Greg Biffle floundered most of the day, I’m sure he was satisfied to leave Atlanta with a Top 10 finish.

Worth Noting

  • Edwards’ win was his seventh of the season, one more than Jimmie Johnson and one less than Kyle Busch. The three drivers have combined to win nearly two thirds of this season’s points-paying Cup events.
  • Edwards has finished first, second, or third in five of the last seven Cup events. Were it not for his disasters at Talladega and Charlotte, we might actually have a points race on our hands. All together now, kids: “At the end of the day, it is what is.”
  • Jimmie Johnson has Top 10 finishes and four wins in the last nine Cup races. Those finishes include a pair of runner-up results.
  • Denny Hamlin (third) managed his best finish since Richmond early last month.
  • David Ragan (eighth) hasn’t finished worse than 13th in his last five Cup races.
  • Jeff Gordon (ninth) has managed to post three straight Top 10 finishes for the first time since Darlington, Charlotte, and Dover this Spring. Last season, he posted Top 10 finishes in 30 of 36 races.
  • Tony Stewart (17th) hasn’t earned a Top 10 finish since he won at Talladega.
  • The Top 10 finishers at Atlanta drove five Fords, two Chevys, two Toyotas, and a Dodge.
  • Sam Hornish in 24th was the top finishing Rookie of the Year candidate.
  • Atlanta and Charlotte are sister tracks since Atlanta was reconfigured — and you can tell. Seven of the ten drivers who finished in the Top 10 at Charlotte two weeks ago also posted Top 10 results at Atlanta. For comparison’s sake, only four drivers who enjoyed Top 10 results at Atlanta this spring repeated the feat Sunday.

What’s the Points?

Jimmie Johnson maintains his points lead and is now 183 ahead of Carl Edwards in second. If Johnson finishes ninth or better in the remaining three races, he’ll be champion even if Carl Edwards wins all three events and leads the most laps in each. If Johnson leads even a single lap at Texas next week, he’ll only need to finish tenth or better in the final three races to claim the title.

Carl Edwards moves up two spots in the standings to second, but he’s got a Quixotic challenge ahead of him catching Johnson. Greg Biffle and Jeff Burton each slid down a spot and they are currently third and fourth, respectively. The last interesting points battle might be for runner-up honors this year. Edwards leads Biffle by two points and Burton by 35 with Texas, Phoenix, and Homestead to go.

Kevin Harvick and Jeff Gordon each advanced a spot to fifth and sixth in the standings, respectively. Clint Bowyer backslid two spots to seventh. Further back, Matt Kenseth advanced a position, wresting ninth place in the standings from Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

David Ragan now leads Kasey Kahne by 224 in their battle over the less than coveted 13th place in the points.

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 two cans of lukewarm generic stuff. For the most part the field, circled the track at well spaced intervals just waiting for the monotony to be over.

Next Up: The Cup series spends the next two weeks in Texas and Arizona for their annual Mild, Mild, West tour.

Contact Matt McLaughlin

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Today on the Frontstretch:
Championship Caliber? What Does That Even Mean?
Mirror Driving: Winning Vs. Points, Needing a Boost, and The Lady’s Last Dance?
Nuts for Nationwide: The Curious Case of Elliott Sadler
Happiness Is…Arrogance, Less, Next, and the Outdoors
Frontstretch Foto Funnies: It’s Not Gonna Fit…


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10/27/2008 07:12 AM

Can anyone tell me why Michael Waltrip seemed to be the most important driver during the Atlanta race ? The breathless announcements that Waltrip was one of the fastest cars on the track , hes driven into the top 20 . Of course 19 other drivers were faster , but the Waltrip name was mentioned repeatedly . Then he puts it into the wall all by himself , then the tire blows , and for the rest of the race he refuses to park the car , choosing instead to shower the track with sheetmetal . Why won’t he face reality , get out of the car and let someone good drive it .

Shayne Flaherty
10/27/2008 08:12 AM

I think you meant to say A.J. Allmendinger finished 14th. Riggs finished 43rd.

10/27/2008 09:03 AM

i think michael waltrip is on the na$car payroll so that when his car gets wrecked, they permit him to stay on track to justify “debris cautions”, espcially after jr threw na$car under the previous week.

10/27/2008 10:18 AM

Waltrip is a joke, but hey, at least he’s managed to make a career out of being a joke. You can’t blame him for that.

Is it just me, or are the cars still crab-walking excessively down the straightaway? I thought NASCAR cracked down on that in the rules… God these cars look stupid.

And yes, there’s a better points battle in Nationwide than Cup, but it’s involving two Cup drivers so what does it matter. As usual, the Craftsman Truck Series is putting on the best show, and by far the closest points battle, doing it the good ol’ fashioned way. It really is the best stockcar racing on the planet right now.

But then again, ARCA’s points battle was pretty exciting right til’ the end too—no Chase there either!

10/27/2008 10:25 AM

I’m not so sure that Driver X is on steroids or anything else . And the fact that a fellow competitor says he is carries no weight whatsoever , unless he is a doctor , and we all know he isn’t . Using the media to do your backstabbing for you is a time honored tradition in the sport . Take for example the shamefull railroading of Tim Richmond by Richard Petty . The best thing any driver with legitimate concerns can do is tell NASCAR , not the media . Because if it turns out not to be true , a drivers career is often finished anyway .
When simply changing four tires allows a car to go from nowhere to the front in a handfull of laps , obviously the tires still need vast amounts of improvement . And are we really supposed to believe that Bruton can build track after track , but can’t seem to find the money to repave Atlanta ? Its’ a great track , but just letting it die seems silly .

Managing Editor
10/27/2008 10:28 AM


Thanks for pointing out the error! It was a mistake from an old template, and we’ve removed it accordingly. Matt didn’t mean to say Allmendinger, though — he’s had a handful of Top 10 finishes at non-restrictor plate tracks this year (Kansas, Watkins Glen).

Thanks for writing and reading the Frontstretch!

10/27/2008 10:44 AM

Even though it was another COT/Chase snoozer, I like worn pavement tracks and tire strategy.

Had any of the cars in front of JJ changed tires prior to the final restart, they may have won the race (assuming they beat JJ and his gift-wrapped pit box off of pit road)

Some of the best racing over the years has come on tire eating tracks at Darlington, Rockingham, etc.

However, as Matt said, the COT and a worn race track are no match. It was a shame to see the normal multi-grooved racing in the corners be an act of survival as every driver was truly driving on the “edge”.

Thanks to Fantasy Racing (no Chase format), to keep my interest in the sport.

10/27/2008 11:27 AM

What in the wide wide world of sports happened to Hotlanta? Cripes that was boring…with empty seats on a nice day to boot. I flipped between the race and a documentary on A&E about Jose Canseco. How bad do I have it? Apparently, not “bad” enough.

10/27/2008 11:27 AM

Did’t watch any laps last week, and only about 10 this week. Weekends are so much better now. Yes, good ole Waltrip. Quite a joke. Both him and Kyle need to face the music, and these sponsors need to wake up and move on. I never go to Napa.

10/27/2008 12:06 PM

Under the old points system (listed as Classic on Jayski) the points race would actually be closer!

Bill B
10/27/2008 12:14 PM

The Chase,,,zzzzz.
ESPN’s coverage,,,zzzzz.

At least this article was interesting.

I’m not going to pick on Waltrip (why bother) but I will say that NASCAR should have a 3 strike policy. You cause 3 cautions, you’re parked.

10/27/2008 12:23 PM

i wonder if bruton smith is waiting to see how atlanta on labor day weekend racing does before he goes and spends any money on the asphalt. they built all those suites and tore down weaver grand stands (cheap seats) for motorhome parking after tornado touched down a few years ago, and they’re having all kinds of difficulty filling those suites. and now the stands, that’s the worst attendance i’ve seen at that track in a very long time. almost looked like a monday rain out race. with 2 auto plants closing down in georgia in the past 2 years, plus layoffs all over the place, people are holding onto their money. plus foreclosure rates in georiga are high as well. i normally go to ams, but i can sleep at home on the couch don’t have to spend money for gas or deal with traffic or weather. now i am making plans to attend labor day race, as friends are coming in from out of town that weekend. saving now for it.

10/27/2008 01:00 PM

Don’t understand how anybody can think that Sunday’s race wasn’t exciting. Yes, it’s football season, election time, etc., etc., but to a NASCAR fan whose favorite driver is in the running for the championship, it’s pretty exciting. And even though many people think it’s a runaway for Jimmie Johnson, he and Chad aren’t taking anything for granted, so why should we?

I’d like to nominate Bill Elliott for the Hindenburg Award for Foul Fortune. This was probably his final Cup race at his home track, and to be taken out early in the race by a rookie driver was indeed unfortunate.

Do you really think Greg Biffle was satisfied with a top 10 finish after talking smack all week about Jimmie Johnson needing to bring his A-game to Atlanta because he had something for him? Biffle sure changed his tune after the race.

10/27/2008 02:27 PM

I haven’t watch a single chase race this year. And I haven’t missed it. In fact, I don’t recall watching any 1.5 mile tracks this year except charlotte and that’s enough.

And it doesn’t help that I absolutely HATE espn.

Can we start a write-in campain to get the truck races on sunday afternoons instead of these boring cup “races”?

Thank God there’s the NFL to provide some excitement.

10/27/2008 03:00 PM

And ain’t it sad that the 17 doesn’t get the slightest of mentions for leading the most laps at a track where he’s never dominated. Figures. My God…I’m so damn sick of the 48 and 99 already. Give us fans of other drivers somethin’ once in a while would ya?!?!

Oh wait, you musta been friggin’ asleep when he led all those laps.

Well, WAKE the hell UP!!!

10/27/2008 03:25 PM

I don’t know what’s happening to me. I’m beginning to think like you. LOL Less fans in the stands, less fans watching on TV, less fans giving a darn about anything Nascar, one pycho-erratic driver, one driver with the personality of a beer left out in the sun all weekend, and what do you have? A weekend at Atlanta. Now we have a Monday full of stale-beer Jimmie and Mr Ed on the net which I refuse to read. The economy has tanked, and Brian is doing just swell with his COT. I just can’t say enough about that darling splitter and the lovely bump stops. The gorgeous wing adds the finishing touch. Just three to go. After 55 years of being involved in racing, I surely can find something more interesting.

Gerry Blachley
10/27/2008 03:39 PM

Apparently you have no idea what is going on, Napa wants the car on the track.. Michael Waltrip has earned some respect , just how many junk cars has he had to sit in, before getting a good ride. If Jimmy would have to of worked his way up he sure as hell would not be where he is to day.

10/27/2008 04:38 PM

Gerry-I’m assuming you mean if JimmIE had worked his way up…which is a ridiculous comment. Jimmie never had a thing handed to him. He probably worked harder to get to where he is than many, if not most of the drivers out there. He didn’t have a three-time champion brother’s coattails to ride. You don’t have to like the guy, but give him his due. He has worked his tail off since he was 14 and never had anything handed to him.

10/27/2008 05:01 PM

As boring and uninteresting as I find Johnson, he definitely didn’t have anything handed to him. He ran roughshod over the competition in offroad trucking, ran great in the ASA, and was very consistent in the Busch series driving for an underfunded team in Herzog Motorsports, even winning once. He deserves the seat he’s in.

10/27/2008 06:01 PM

Amy , you only have one note . Its okay for people not to be a constant cheerleader for Johnson . There is no law that says everyone must be a fan of the 48 . We all know you are . We get it . But others have just as much right to post against JimmIIEEEEE as you do to carry the torch for him .

10/27/2008 07:49 PM

Cubic dollars has always been the only way to beat cubic inches

10/27/2008 10:23 PM

Hey Amy, Jimmy may come to a motor home near you with a roll of toilet paper, and fall off his golf cart, too. How terribly boring.

10/28/2008 01:52 AM

Personally, I like the idea of new tires being faster than old ones (so long as the tires last a fuel stop without blowing). Don’t we want to see more passing?

And I like a track that’s worn – beats one-groove follow-the-leader boredom on new pavement. Reminds me of Darlington/Rockingham.

If NA$CAR wants good racing, they need to ditch the bump stops and cut engine horsepower by a third (via reduced displacement, not restrictor plates/tapered spacers).

10/28/2008 12:46 PM

so who’s the accused, and who’s the accuser?

10/29/2008 11:25 AM

If Napa wants the car on the track, then they are a bunch of idiots.