The Frontstretch: Matt McLaughlin's Thinkin' Out Loud: Charlotte-2 Race Recap by Matt McLaughlin -- Monday October 17, 2011

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Matt McLaughlin's Thinkin' Out Loud: Charlotte-2 Race Recap

Matt McLaughlin · Monday October 17, 2011


Editor’s Note: Because my columns on racing tend to be (or at least attempt to be) humorous in places and cynical in others, I sometimes feel that I should just delete them in the wake of a tragedy such as occurred Sunday at Las Vegas. I in no way want to come off as insensitive. The column below was submitted well before the Indy Car race. In fact, I hurried the final edit in hopes of getting in a motorcycle ride before watching the IndyCar finale. I am no expert in IndyCar racing, but I do enjoy catching the open-wheel events when the schedule allows. I do know that series officials, participants and fans will have a long debate over the advisability of having a race with 34 entrants at a track like Vegas given the mechanics of what they call “pack racing.” The network types will have to debate if replays of the incident were appropriate and if the race should have been canceled. But right now, that doesn’t matter. What matters is a young man lost his life twelve laps into that race. Dan Wheldon was a man of notable achievements, most notably two Indy 500 wins, an IndyCar championship and a Daytona 24-Hour victory. He is described by people who knew him best as the eternal optimist, always smiling and always ready for the next race in whatever discipline of the sport it might have been, be it an IndyCar or a go kart. He even briefly explored the idea of going NASCAR racing and we’d have been blessed to have him. Most importantly, he was a husband and father to two young children, the younger of them born just in March of this year. The highlight of this IndyCar season was surely Wheldon’s emotional and improbable Indy 500 win, captured on the last turn of the final lap; but the low point of this season was his tragic death today.

Despite Wheldon’s death, the Frontstretch Staff and I have decided to run my NASCAR column with a quick edit. I mean no disrespect to the memory of Dan Wheldon by doing what I do. I am just following his example… though at a far lesser degree of skill.

Matt Kenseth’s Charlotte victory, his first in this year’s Chase inched him closer to the top spot in the standings. But did it inch him ever closer to a crucial moment in the boardroom; signing sponsorship for the No. 17 Ford in 2012?

The Key Moment – With 25 laps to go Matt Kenseth, who’d been trying to pass Kyle Busch on the outside, snookered him by diving low to take the lead. Once Busch and Carl Edwards got to scrapping over second, the deal was sealed for the No. 17.

In a Nutshell – Blame it on yet another mile-and-a-half track. Blame it on tires that were too consistent. Blame it on the parity between the cars. No matter what the cause, nobody could blame anybody who saw that race for feeling like they’d wasted four hours of their lives.

Dramatic Moment – We’ve got a mighty thin field of candidates in this category so let’s give it to that brief battle between Kenseth and Kyle Busch after the final restart.

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

Thank God for the SAFER barriers and the HANS device. Jimmie Johnson’s wreck looked horribly similar to a certain last lap wreck in the 2001 Daytona 500.

In the aftermath of Johnson’s wreck, a large percentage of the crowd on hand erupted into cheers. I’ve never really been comfortable with folks cheering any driver’s misfortune, particularly a wreck that involved that hard a hit. At least wait to see if that driver has been hurt before applauding.


To what degree has Kyle Busch’s ego swollen? He noted over the radio during the Nationwide race that NASCAR ought to be able to see his Toyota was at a horsepower disadvantage because he wasn’t leading and Charlotte is his best track. Busch then repeated the contention during his terse post-race comments. So, let’s see… Busch has won eight of the twenty Nationwide races he’s entered this season. It’s kind of hard to argue he’s at too bad a disadvantage.

Speaking of Kyle, you think he’ll be having nightmares this week of seeing a Roush Ford closing in on his rear-view mirror late in a race? I guess his Cup engines are at a disadvantage, too?

I think maybe Kenseth’s appeal to his main sponsor Crown Royal to reconsider leaving the team at the end of the season in Victory Lane sounded a little desperate. But I suppose it’s just another sign of how tough finding funding is right now.

If Kenseth became the inadvertent father of the Chase with his single-win 2003 championship, what’s NASCAR going to do if points leader Carl Edwards holds on to take this year’s crown with just one victory? Will they dump the Chase? We can only hope.

Is Gordon out of this year’s Chase? He has two good tracks coming up (Talladega, six wins, Martinsville, seven wins) but after that there’s three tracks left on the schedule that haven’t been so kind to Gordon. At Texas, Phoenix, and Homestead Gordon has made a combined 58 starts with just three wins.

If the rumors are true, Kurt Busch’s team will be looking for a new crew chief with the departure of Steve Addington after Homestead.

Rumors began circulating this weekend Steve Addington would be leaving Kurt Busch’s No. 22 team at the end of the season. While team spokespeople were quick to deny any such move was afoot, listening to Busch and Addington over the radio during the race it’s pretty clear the thrill is gone. By the way, it’s a little tough to rub your lucky charms when you’re wearing an anti-submarining safety harness.

The promoters at Charlotte don’t miss a trick. They apparently added something to the yellow paint on the outside track walls that throws up a huge amount of sparks when a car brushes those walls. There’s some sparks on impact at all tracks, but at Charlotte casual contact produced fireworks worthy of an Alice Cooper concert finale.

Isn’t it odd just as Brad Keselowski was about to go a lap down NASCAR had to throw a debris caution? The caution was for debris and the debris was a can of Miller beer, the same brewery that sponsors Keselowski’s car. Was it an overly zealous (and stupid) fan of Bad Brad, or does the driver keep a six pack aboard during races just in case?

In a classic bit of understatement even ABC/ESPN’s Alan Bestwick was forced to admit, “On a night when it’s proven hard to pass….”

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

Saturday night’s big loser was Johnson, who’d run midpack much of the race but as is typical emerged inside the top 10 late. That forward progress, of course was rudely halted with a one-way trip to the wall that ended his day (34th). Oddly enough, Charlotte used to be Johnson’s best track; he once won four straight points races here. This year, the No. 48 team has suffered but two DNFs… both at Charlotte.

Jeff Gordon was also off song most of the evening, but pit strategy and a timely caution flag in the midst of a green flag session of pit stops moved him into the top 10 as magically as anything Scotty ever pulled off in the transporter room. I’m sure Gordon would have been thrilled to leave Charlotte with an eighth-place finish but the car got out from under him late in a three-wide situation and he spun out en route to 21st. Johnson and Gordon both losing it at Charlotte due to unforced errors? Until Saturday night, that was unthinkable.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. endured the bad luck bug yet again during this Chase; his No. 88 Chevy had a loose wheel en route to a disappointing 19th-place finish.

What didn’t go wrong for Greg Biffle Saturday night? While leading the race, his team was penalized for missing a lug nut and the No. 16 fell off the lead lap. A free pass got him back in contention, though and Biffle once again drove determinedly towards the front. En route, he encountered Tony Stewart and felt Stewart had run him into the wall. (The tape seemed to indicate Stewart never hit Biffle.) Incensed, Biffle decided to show his displeasure by banging into Stewart. The move cut down the left front tire of the No. 16 and Biffle drove into the wall himself. Now that’s just stupid; he was lucky to hang onto 15th.

As if Dale Earnhardt, Jr. can’t lose a championship all by himself, his team insists on helping him do so every week. The No. 88 car had a lackluster run most of the evening until a wheel left loose during a pit stop (for a second straight week) was the icing on the cake. Junior wound up 19th.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

Kyle Busch actually had a good weekend, finishing second in both the Nationwide and Cup races. Just don’t expect to see him satisfied Toyotas aren’t at a disadvantage until he wins every race and laps the entire field before the first round of pit stops.

Carl Edwards freely admits that Charlotte hasn’t been one of his better tracks. I’m sure a third-place finish and his leaving still leading the points was satisfying for him.

Ever so quietly, Kevin Harvick has positioned himself for a second-half Chase run despite leading just 11 laps in five postseason races.

Kevin Harvick had to take to the grass to avoid the Gordon / Kasey Kahne / David Ragan incident but still wound up sixth.

Considering his involvement in the above incident, Kahne had to be thrilled to finish fourth.

It was another good race for Richard Petty Motorsports. Once again, like at Dover two weeks prior they had both cars (Marcos Ambrose 5th, A.J. Allmendinger 7th) finish inside the top 10.

Worth Noting

  • The win was Kenseth’s third of the season but his first since Dover in the spring. The finish was also his fourth consecutive top-10 result.
  • Kyle Busch’s second-place finish was his first top 5 of the Chase.
  • Edward’s third-place performance was his eighth straight top-10 result. He’s the only driver to notch top-10 finishes in all five Chase races to date.
  • Kahne’s fourth-place finish was his third consecutive top-5 result – easily a season high.
  • Ambrose (fifth) scored his third straight top-10 finish.
  • Kevin Harvick (sixth) has run twelfth or better in the last seven races.
  • Denny Hamlin’s ninth-place finish was his first top 10 of the Chase.
  • Joey Logano’s thirteenth-place result was his best since the Bristol night race in August.
  • Gordon (21st) has missed a top-10 result the last three times out.
  • Johnson’s 34th-place finish was his worst of the season.
  • The top-10 finishers at Charlotte Sunday drove four Fords, three Toyotas and three Chevys.
  • The top Dodge finisher Sunday was Kurt Busch in thirteenth.

What’s the Points?

For the record, under this year’s Chase format fifth-place Tony Stewart is 24 points out of the lead. Under the traditional Latford system that took into account season long performance, fifth-place Matt Kenseth would be 32 points out of the lead.

Back to reality, I guess. Edwards maintains his lead in the standings and is now five points ahead of second-place Kevin Harvick. Matt Kenseth advances two spots to third, just seven markers out of the lead.

Kyle Busch advanced four positions to fourth in the standings, 18 points behind the top spot. Tony Stewart moved up two positions to fifth, 24 points behind Edwards.

Brad Keselowski’s Cinderella season took on a bit of a pumpkinesque tint at Charlotte with a noncompetitive run and a drop of two positions in the standings to sixth. Kurt Busch, in tandem fell two spots with his Penske Racing teammate to seventh.

Johnson took the hardest hit in the standings, falling five spots to eighth but more importantly 35 points out of the lead. While you can never count the No. 48 bunch out, they are now in the unenviable position of not only having to run well, but hoping that seven drivers ahead of them all suffer some manner of misfortune in the next five weeks.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. sits ninth in points, while Ryan Newman rounds out the top 10. Jeff Gordon fell another spot to eleventh in the standings, a seemingly insurmountable 66 points out of the lead. In fact, I’d say it’s fairly safe to say everyone from ninth-place Earnhardt on down is realistically out of title contention this year.

Things are actually getting interesting in the Best of the Rest category just outside the top 12. Clint Bowyer is currently thirteenth, just three points ahead of A.J. Allmendinger. Fifteenth-place Kasey Kahne is eight points behind Allmendinger and one point ahead of sixteenth-place Greg Biffle.

Further back, Mark Martin is twentieth in the standings and Jeff Burton finds himself 24th in the rundown. Who’d have thunk?

Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans with one being a stinker and a six pack an instant classic) — I don’t think I can even give this one a single beer. I have to save beers to hand out to trick-or-treaters at the end of the month.

Next Up – It’s on to Talladega for another restrictor plate event… racing for the least common denominator. It’ll be interesting to see if the newly resized plates and lowered cooling system pressures (not to mention a prohibition against slathering slippery stuff on the bumpers) will break up the “tandem racing” duos we’ve been seeing in this sort of event as of late.

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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10/17/2011 01:42 AM

Nascar can’t be happy with a Ford in the lead.

1) it’s not a chevy and 2) no Hendrick drivers drive a Ford.

Maybe they’ll mandate a restrictor plate be put on all Ford engines like they did with Toyota after Toyota built a better engine that was perfectly legal.

Or maybe nascar will just declare the 48 the champion because he almost died.

10/17/2011 06:31 AM

tv ratings are up??
with product like that?

10/17/2011 07:49 AM

Just a quick point on Wheldon’s death. I believe that the stunt that the race promoter pulled relative to having him start at the rear of the pack in order to get to the front for a $5 million payday needs to be looked into very carefully.

Was Wheldon careless in slowing down, thinking he could get more track position? Was he taking unecessary chances? Not saying this is what happened, but it needs to be investigated.

We all hate conservative, big picture racing. But I think we need to think about unecssecary chances just for a bigger payday.

Starting with the 100K bonus at ‘Dega next week for 100 lead changes. And while I’m at it, ditch the All-Star race as well.

10/17/2011 08:23 AM

We’ll have to see next race if the fans who show up for the wrecks cheer the carnage, especially at the end of the race.

10/17/2011 10:14 AM

Your intro was superb. Thank you. I, btw, read you for exactly 3 reasons: 1. You are (often) humorous. 2. You are (always) snarky. 3. You handle the language with the deftness of one who has, as Malcolm Gladwell posited, practiced his craft for the requisite 10,000 hours.

As to dissin’ KYBU — watch your tongue. There are alleyways and other tenebrous quarters where you might encounter a fate most foul. ;)

Bill S.
10/17/2011 10:47 AM

Matt, I assume you will go to your grave hating Kyle Busch (and heartily cheering any wreck he is in), but explain to me why it is “ego” for Kyle to be unhappy with second place, when it is great competitive spirit for anyone else? Racing is not supposed to be about finishing second. And yes, in point of fact, Kenseth did outpower (not snooker) Kyle at the end of Saturday night’s race.

And why did you give a pass to Carl Edwards for his crybaby act after the race when he “lectured” Kyle on how he was supposed to simply move over if Carl wanted a position?

Kyle is all but out of championship contention. He should use the final five races for payback. First, to the thugs Harvick and Childress, and then to the media whore and resident prima donna, Carl Edwards. Play the spoiler and let Kenseth get the championship he deserves rather than letting those other two douche bags have a chance at it.

And yes, Matt, you WOULD cheer a Busch wreck and even more enthusiastically a Busch injury. Because that is the kind of bitter old man you have become.

10/17/2011 10:51 AM


Saw One Hell of a race this weekend passing through the field bumping and rubbing, tempers flowing and plenty of exiciment.

It was the ARCA race at Toledo. I can remember when nascar races were like this more weeks then not and the stands were well and fans talked about the race all week. Nice memory.

Did nascar save 5 time from going 2 laps down when they throw the caution for Trevor when he was slow down the backstretch? That is the problem with the “new” nascar, debris cautions,lucky dogs and wave around. Strategies are gone.

Bill B
10/17/2011 11:32 AM

I’ll just say this about fans cheering the Johnson wreck. I think most of them would have been happier if Johnson had just volunteered to accept a 34th place finish without wrecking.

Otherwise what a clunker of a race. Only one car seemed to be able to pass others (Biffle) and he made sure to “fix” that himself. If it wasn’t for cautions that mix things up in the pits, the race might be decided in qualifying due to the lack of passing.

Matt, Gordon’s car didn’t “get away from him”. From what I saw, Ragan slid up into Kahne, Kahne slid into Gordon and it was on.

RIP Dan Wheldon. What a sad day. A reminder to all racing fans that maybe they shouldn’t cheer wrecks, ever.

10/17/2011 12:27 PM

Matt, I thought your notes pre-column were well done. I don’t follow Indycar very much, but I’m so very sorry to hear that Weldon lost his life in that race. RIP Dan and God bless his family.

I was at the race in Charlotte and it was incredibly boring to watch – even AT the track there wasn’t any racing to see. Of course at the end of the race we all got to see the ugly side of things as the laps wound down.

I disagree that Gordon spun out by himself, the 4 hit him after the 6 forced his car underneath them both. I understand that restarts are a great place to make up positions, but turn 2 at Charlotte probably requires a little more finesse – not evident by either driver of the 4 or 6.

Also, I never cheer a wreck – just on general principles – until I see the driver get out and walk away. Life is short, you just never know.

Again, so sorry for Dan Weldon’s family. RIP.

Carl D.
10/17/2011 05:53 PM

I’d like to echo the thoughts of many at how tragic the loss of Dan Wheldon is… not just as a race car driver, but as a father, a husband, and as a human being. We can debate the contributing factors once the shock has passed and respects have been paid. Rest in peace, Dan.

I’m gonna fight the urge to respond to one of the other comments. Today just ain’t the day.

The Mad Man
10/17/2011 06:13 PM

RIP Dan. And condolences to your family, friends, and fans.

When Bayne ran out of fuel, it took the ever watchful eyes of NASCAR 2 full laps to wave the caution flag. Until that point, Bayne had been steadily moving up through the pack. You probably didn’t see it on TV. He had the fastest car during a good portion of the second half of the race. But then, you probably didn’t see that at home. As to his fuel problems, you can bet that both Leonard and Glenn Wood drove from Stuart down to the shop in NC to have a few words with the team.

When Johnson hit the wall in Turn 2, yes, some fans cheered. When the car came to rest in Turn 4, fans cheered some more. When he got out of the car, the fans cheered again.

Should Edwards pull a Kenseth with a 1 win championship, how many “tweaks” will be generated by the “soda” drinking palm tree hunter from Daytona Beach to once again prove that even though 80% of the fans hate the Chase and it’s a failure, that he’ll keep trying to make it work until he buys a football team for LA and tries to dictate policy to the NFL Players union and the NFL Commissioner?

10/17/2011 07:14 PM

Matt, Very classy of you to start off your column with an heartfelt acknowledgement of Dan Wheldon’s death.
I find it kind of scary that IndyCar was able to put together such an organized tribute to Dan on such short notice.
Over to Nascar, although I have no affinity for Jimmy Johnson, when I saw the crash, the first thing that popped into my head was Dale Earnhardt’s fatal crash at Daytona. Did feel relief when he was able to get out of the car.
I am a big Matt K fan, but that has to be the ugliest Victory Lane picture ever, unless you are color blind.

Denise W
10/17/2011 08:14 PM

Thank you Matt for your touching and respectful comments on Dan Wheldon. I’m primarily an IndyCar fan but I do enjoy stock cars too. Racing has sustained such a loss with Dan’s passing – a first class driver; classy individual.

10/17/2011 08:44 PM

I got Dan Weldon’s autograph and had my picture taken with him at this years Brickyard 400. Dan was one of the nicest drivers I’ve met.God Bless you Dan!

10/17/2011 09:33 PM

R.I.P. Dan Wheldon

another good read Matt

The Bear
10/17/2011 10:34 PM

Jim; Your points are totally worthless,I was at this race(Vegas), the wreck started directly below our seats in turn one; Wheldon NEVER lifted!! Nobody in this tragedy never had the chance to lift! It was a UGLY scene from the start!! (Remember, I was there!!) God Speed, Dan Wheldon,hope to never see this happen again in my old lifetime!! TO any Driver!!

Funky D
10/18/2011 01:04 AM

I did cheer JJ’s self-induced demise, but absolutely only after it was quite clear that he was able to walk away from a brutal hit. Even before Dan Wheldon’s shocking and tragic passing, JJ’s wreck was a reminder that it is just a sport.

Was it me, or did the view from Wheldon’s car as the wreck was starting just totally creepy? RIP Dan, out thoughts and prayers are with your family as they mourn, and as we mourn with them.