The Frontstretch: Matt McLaughlin's Thinkin' Out Loud: Phoenix Fall Race Recap by Matt McLaughlin -- Monday November 14, 2011

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Matt McLaughlin's Thinkin' Out Loud: Phoenix Fall Race Recap

Matt McLaughlin · Monday November 14, 2011


The Key Moment – Kasey Kahne elected to pit early for his final stop. Meanwhile, Carl Edwards was leading the race but ran up on his old buddy Brad Keselowski, who was trying not to get lapped (and perhaps sending some subtle payback Edwards’ way.) By the time the No. 99 abandoned the effort to pass the No. 2, Edwards had given up too much time to Kahne.

Kasey Kahne proved himself anything but a “lame duck” driver, bringing home the win in Phoenix for Red Bull Racing.

In a Nutshell – At least the race wasn’t the wreckfest we all feared. Edwards and Stewart kept their respective fans on their feet most of the afternoon.

Dramatic Moment – As is typical in today’s Cup racing, the most dramatic moments followed each restart, particularly when Stewart and Edwards were side by side. The new track configuration and rain early Sunday that washed away much of the rubber from the track usually put the drivers in the outside lane at a distinct disadvantage… unless they had a big number 14 painted on the side of their car.

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

Given the stresses on the team members not knowing if they’ll have jobs after next Sunday, a win by the Red Bull Racing team was a notable achievement bordering on remarkable.

I also found it remarkable how well Stewart ran in a satellite Hendrick car while the home team boys (the Nos. 24 and 88 in particular) were so off-song all afternoon.

Cleared to race though not running the colors of his primary sponsor, Kyle Busch’s weekend at Phoenix didn’t get off to a good start. Before he could even get out of the garage area and onto the track for first practice, he lost an engine. After starting 43rd, Busch had driven to a remarkable third place before he lost another engine. Perhaps there’s a lesson there that it isn’t wise to let your behavior cause a week-long distraction to your team.

So if Tony Stewart does win the title next week, does the trophy get displayed at his shop or at Rick Hendrick’s? It’s a bit disingenuous to compare Stewart’s outfit to Alan Kulwicki’s when discussing the last championship won by an owner/driver. Kulwicki didn’t have Junior Johnson building his engines and chassis.

The drum beats started before Morgan Shepherd’s mangled race car had even slid to a stop. People want to compare Jason Leffler’s incident with Elliott Sadler in Saturday’s Nationwide race to last Friday’s Busch/Hornaday brouhaha at Texas. In both instances, a driver not running for a title took out a title contender, ending their chances at being a champion this year. But there’s a bunch of key differences.

A) Leffler is a Nationwide Series regular.
B) The incident took place under green, not under caution.
C) After exiting the infield care center, Leffler expressed immediate and sincere remorse about what had happened, accepting full responsibility for the incident and apologizing for his actions.

It was still a dumb move, and it was costly to Sadler and his team, but there’s really no comparison between what happened last Friday and what happened Saturday.

Yeah, I think Brian Vickers should be parked for next week even if Matt Kenseth was only barely mathematically still in the title hunt. I doubt NASCAR will do so, but Vickers isn’t doing much lately to see that he’s not unemployed and parked on the sidelines for next year’s Cup season.

Carl Edwards held onto that slim championship lead and is willing to defend it anywhere – Homestead or Eldora – for the season finale.

After the race, Edwards was asked if there was any track he’d rather be heading to next week to decide the championship (he has won two of the last three Homestead season finales.) When asked Sunday, Edwards could only think of a few dirt short tracks he’d prefer, while Stewart chimed in he owns a dirt track in Eldora and would be happy to settle the score there next weekend instead of Homestead. Now THAT would be interesting.

I don’t pretend to be a physics major, but something didn’t appear right with the SAFER barriers at Phoenix this weekend. Whether it was the new track configuration or the amount of incidents, I’m not sure, but it certainly did appear the barriers were “pocketing,” catching a spinning car and bringing it to a rapid stop rather than allowing the stricken vehicle to slide along while spreading the impact over a greater period of time. Some incidents, particularly during the K and N series race, seemed to tear cars apart to a greater extent than expected. By the way, congratulations to Bill Elliott’s 15-year-old son Chase who finished third in that event. And thanks to SPEED for sticking with the TV coverage, even though a pair of red flags led the race to run over an hour beyond its scheduled time slot. Not all networks provide fans with that courtesy… ahem.

Well, the troubled honeymoon between race fans and ESPN is well and truly over. When Saturday’s Nationwide race ran long due to all the caution periods, ESPN ended their broadcast without so much as interviewing surprise winner Sam Hornish, Jr. Fans watching the race were told to switch to ESPNNEWS for post-race coverage. The coverage did, in fact, switch to that network after an interminably long delay. Blogs like the Daly Planet lit up immediately. Whatever good will ESPN bought back to the table thanks to fond memories of their classic coverage of the good old days has been squandered. (Though those with long memories might recall the good old days weren’t perfect, either. ABC once cut away from a Busch Series race before it concluded due to a contractual obligation to show a half-hour pre-race program leading up to the Kentucky Derby.)

Isn’t it a bit ironic when race fans miss live coverage of a restart because ESPN is showing a full screen graphic touting their “Non-Stop” coverage?

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

Kenseth won the pole for the event and led early. He began to fade as his brakes did the same, dropping him back into the field and into the clutches of Vickers, who apparently felt there was still some payback due after Martinsville.

Kurt Busch flexed his muscle late at Phoenix, but his gas tank didn’t have the strength it needed down the stretch to keep the No. 22 Dodge up front.

Kurt Busch, who’d been complaining about his car much of the race, took a surprising turn at the lead but ran out of gas. Busch and the team had trouble refiring the No. 22 car on pit road afterwards; then, to top it all off he got nailed for speeding entering pit road. That left him plummeting to 22nd.

Jeff Gordon had brake issues but it probably didn’t matter much. He’d been slow all weekend, anyway and a 32nd-place finish was the end result. I’d guess Gordon would be more than happy to help dig up the Phoenix track surface again this year.

Geoff Bodine’s return to Cup racing has been less than stellar. He was involved in three incidents on Sunday, ending his day a disappointing 37th. And here’s the amazing part… none of those crashes involved Brian Vickers or Kyle Busch.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

Stewart has had a remarkable run over the last three races, with two wins and a third-place finish. Despite some physical races in that stretch, Stewart’s cars have had nary a scratch on them after those events. Is there a lesson here?

Paul Menard thought he had an engine going south early, then got trapped a lap down in the pits when a caution flag flew. He got a free pass back onto the lead lap and drove on to a ninth-place finish.

A dropped lug nut on a pit stop caused A.J. Allmendinger to restart the race midpack but he was able to recover well enough to finish sixth. Coupled with an eighth-place finish by Marcos Ambrose, it was yet another good day for Richard Petty Motorsports. And to think, at this time last year few of us thought RPM would even survive to compete in the 2011 Cup season.

Sam Hornish, Jr. finally had his stock car breakthrough, winning Saturday in Phoenix for his first career victory in the Nationwide Series.

Former motocross wizard and current Truck series competitor Ricky Carmichael was lucky to walk away from a horrific accident on a roadway near the track Friday night. Carmichael was following a Jeep Wrangler on a two-lane highway when a vehicle coming in the other direction crossed the center line of the roadway. It struck the Jeep with such force that a tire/wheel assembly was torn off that vehicle and impacted Carmichael’s ride. Carmichael’s wife and a friend, who were passengers in the vehicle he was driving also escaped injury.

It hasn’t been easy for former open-wheel racing champion Sam Hornish, Jr. to gain a foothold in NASCAR racing, but Saturday the part-time Nationwide driver showed he belonged here with his first career win in that series.

Worth Noting

  • Kahne’s victory ended an 81-race long winless drought. He last won at Atlanta in the fall of 2009.
  • Edwards finished second for the sixth time this season and the second time in two weeks.
  • Stewart’s 25th-place finish at Kansas has got to be looming large in his rear-view mirror right now. Prior to the season, I said that the new points system penalized a driver more for a bad run than it rewarded him for winning. Any more questions?
  • Jeff Burton (fourth) has had top-10 results in three of the last four races. Oddly enough, he has only one other top-10 result this year.
  • Ryan Newman’s fifth-place finish was his best since he also finished fifth at Michigan in August. Newman has finished fifth seven times this season.
  • Almendinger (sixth) has strung together back-to-back top-10 finishes for the first time this season.
  • David Reutimann finished seventh, his best result this season other than his second-place performance at Kentucky this July. He has one more race to go before he attempts massive career resuscitation outside of Michael Waltrip Racing, where careers go to die.
  • Marcos Ambrose (eighth) scored his twelfth top-10 finish of this season.
  • Paul Menard’s ninth-place finish was only his second top-10 result since he won at Indy way back when.
  • Clint Bowyer (tenth) managed his sixth top-10 finish in the nine Chase races run to date.
  • Joey Logano (eleventh) enjoyed his best finish since Watkins Glen.
  • Jimmie Johnson (fourteenth) has missed a top-10 finish in four of the last five races. At this time of year? Alice, pass me the hooka.
  • Kyle Busch has finished 27th or worse in the last three races he hasn’t managed to get himself thrown out of. You know what? I’m beginning not to like that little bastard.
  • The top-10 finishers at Phoenix drove five Chevys, three Fords and two Toyotas. The top finishing Dodge driver was Brad Keselowski in eighteenth.

What’s the Points?

Edwards arrived at Phoenix leading Stewart by three points and he departs Phoenix still leading Stewart by three points. The other ten Chase contenders are now all mathematically eliminated. Too bad it’s not the Chase that’s being eliminated.

Kevin Harvick remains third in the standings, but is now 51 points out of the lead. Brad Keselowski moves up a spot to fourth, while Jimmie Johnson moves up a spot to fifth. Johnson trails Keselowski by three points.

Vickers’ latest dastardly deed dropped Kenseth two spots to sixth in the standings, two points behind Johnson. And then… the thundering pack has left them in the dust. Earnhardt holds serve in seventh spot, but is a whopping 102 points out of the lead. (As an aside, Earnhardt’s teammate Jeff Gordon fell three spots to eleventh. So why is everybody discussing what a lousy season the No. 88 team has had while not noting the struggles of the No. 24 outfit?)

Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman are tied, 107 points out of the top spot. Busch gets the nod for the eighth position currently with his two victories to Newman’s single win. Hamlin is tenth, then Gordon while Kyle Busch fell another spot to twelfth in the standings.

Kasey Kahne’s late season resurgence moves him within five points of Clint Bowyer for the less-than-coveted “Best Of The Rest” spot, thirteenth in the points. Some notable drivers that have just one more race to gain any form of redemption in the standings include; Mark Martin (20th), Jeff Burton (22nd), Joey Logano (24th), and Jamie McMurray (27th).

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 three bottles of Corona, still damp from having been floated across the Rio-Grande-o, across that lazy river.

Next Up – With bruised ribs and broken rhythm, the beat up old Buick that has been this year’s Cup season limps off towards Homestead gushing oil from every gasket, smoking badly, listing hard to the right and with a bad rod knock. One way or another, this interminable season ends next week so we’ll all have something to be thankful for the following Thursday.

Contact Matt McLaughlin

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Going By the Numbers: A Week Without Racing Can Bring Relief But Kill Momentum


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11/14/2011 12:26 AM

“(As an aside, Earnhardt’s teammate Jeff Gordon fell three spots to eleventh. So why is everybody discussing what a lousy season the No. 88 team has had while not noting the struggles of the No. 24 outfit?)”

Because Gordon was on a hot streak entering the chase and was actually highly competitive for a bunch of race wins this season, something that can’t be said for Junior.

Gordon and Kyle Busch did not run nearly as badly over the entire season as their points results will make them look, thanks to the chase. While Stewart didn’t run nearly that well…

11/14/2011 07:11 AM

American cars list to the left, aka Detroit lean.

11/14/2011 08:11 AM

watched bits and pieces of the race. i think i’m done with the sport.

i find it interesting that he only tv time that dale earnhardt jr gets is his nationwide commericals. saw where team changes coming, so his crew chief says.

i was wondering the same thing about stewart and championship since he’s a hendrick satelite organization. will hendrick be on stage with the owners?

Carl D.
11/14/2011 08:28 AM

Putting Geoff Bodine in the #36 car went about as well as the New England Patriots signing Albert Haynseworth. What was Tommy Baldwin thinking?

For a guy who’s looking for a job next year, Brian Vickers hasn’t done himself any favors lately. Then again, maybe he’s trying to catch Joe Gibbs eye.

11/14/2011 08:29 AM

Three bottles?!? Were we watching the same race? Whenever the race had me nodding off I flipped the channel to the one having “Stephen King day”. The action there was much more realistic.

11/14/2011 08:35 AM

Might it be time for NASCAR to ask Vickers to pee into a cup? What is with that guy? His erratic driving/actions surely warrant a drug test, one might think. If Robby Gordon was involved in the actions Vickers had been involved in, he (Gordon) would be driven from the sport.
Anyone who tries to compare a Stewart title to Kulwicki’s title should be shot. Great article.

11/14/2011 08:54 AM

No doubt they need to give the winner more points. If Edwards wins the Cup (which he probably will considering they are going to Miami) NASCAR needs to seriously consider giving the winner more points to avoid having a “1 win” Champion.

11/14/2011 09:16 AM

Sean – thanks, you beat me to that comment about the 24’s season vs the 88.

Obviously as a 24 fan, I’d be a lot happier if they had continued to run well in the mini-series of races for the 10 race trophy. It is still weird to me that Jr will finish higher in the points than Gordon because of the “chase”.

On another note, ESPN is a complete fail for broadcasting the races. I use trackpass to follow the action – there’s no real point in even tuning into the broadcast.

Stephen HOOD
11/14/2011 09:21 AM

Did Kyle ruin his engine running from the back to the front? Occasionally, I’ll notice a backbencher whose car suddenly is running up front only to have the motor implode. Was Kyle pushing the motor beyond its capabilities, thus his miracle run to the front was actually a foolish move of desperation? I’ll give the guy kudos for his skill set, but managing a car is still important in these days of parity.

Bill B
11/14/2011 09:33 AM

I watched it, but for the life of me I can’t think of anything worth commenting on…. 2 cans at most.

11/14/2011 09:58 AM

There’s definitely been a shortage of classic races this year, but let’s be honest… ok, I’ll be honest with me anyway: Come Sunday after Thanksgiving when I’m sitting down watching football… I’ll be wishing there was a race on that I could watch because football’s just not the same. Maybe I’m crazy but I’d just rather be watching racing. We need a NASCAR Southern winter series that runs around the South and the Southeast when the weather gets cold (and doesn’t include any Cup drivers) to tide us over until February. That way we can have racing year round.

If Carl Edwards wins the Cup with one win, that proves once and for all that this stupid “Chase” is a failure, because if I remember right, Kenseth’s 1 win Championship season was thre reason for the Chase, no?

11/14/2011 10:49 AM

Countray— Being Honest….I will be right there with ya in the withdrawl dept. football sucks

Big Ed
11/14/2011 11:32 AM

Earnhardt holds serve in seventh spot, but is a whopping 102 points out of the lead. (As an aside, Earnhardt’s teammate Jeff Gordon fell three spots to eleventh. So why is everybody discussing what a lousy season the No. 88 team has had while not noting the struggles of the No. 24 outfit?)

Could have something to do with the 88 having the 24’s entire crew and cars from last year. I think that tells the story about Jr.

Carl D.
11/14/2011 11:36 AM

Let’s be REALLY honest here… in the Fall, Saturdays are for college football, and Sundays are for racing. And professional football is something we watch between Thanksgiving and the beginning of Speedweeks because there’s nothing else on.

11/14/2011 01:03 PM

Holy commercials!! That was the worst race/ad ratio that I’ve ever seen. ESPN made a ton of money yesterday and they should be proud of themselves. They’ll milk that cow dry one more time before putting the ’11 season out to slaughter.

11/14/2011 01:18 PM

It would be great if Edwards wins the title without a win next week. Another Cup champ with 1 win. I thought the Chase was supposed to prevent this?

11/14/2011 01:45 PM

Re: vickers/kenseth these “cars” don’t handle around each other!great job na$car

11/14/2011 03:27 PM

ESPN’s coverage was a joke, particularly for people that don’t have 40 inch screens. Trying to watch the race on that split screen is trying for those of us who are in that category. A couple of times they went from the split screen directly to full screen commercials. I’ve lost patience with ESPN. Other then restarts after a caution, this race was another follow the leader bore fest.

just talking
11/14/2011 03:31 PM

Glad you mentioned the K&N race – terrific race, side-by-side, tough, tight racing – no prima donnas, no fake cautions – great to see

Walt B
11/14/2011 04:07 PM

NASCAR should suspend Vickers for what might be his last Cup start!

Dyno Dave
11/14/2011 04:07 PM

For what it’s worth, Stewart’s 25th-place finish at DOVER (NOT Kansas) has got to be looming large in his rear-view mirror right now…

11/14/2011 04:36 PM

Homestead next week, Stewart comes in first, leads the most laps. Edwards comes in second, never leads a lap. Tie. Stewy wins! Trophy goes back to Rushville.

11/14/2011 04:45 PM

wonder if stewart will have a melt-down if he misses out on championship by a few points?

Roger T
11/14/2011 06:08 PM

Please Tony, win!! Cannot stand to think about everyone fawning over Crazy Carl the rest of this year, and all of next!!!

Doug in Washington (State)
11/14/2011 06:52 PM

Actually, cfool, if Stewart wins but Edwards comes in Second and leads the most laps, Stewart would score 47 points and Edwards 44 points. That’s the tie scenario. If Edwards came in 2nd and led no laps, but Tony won an led the most, Tony would win by 3 points. (Winner gets 43 points plus 3 bonus for winning, plus on for leading. That’s 47, or 48 if leading the most laps. 2nd place is 42)

If Stewart wins the race, he wins the Championship no matter what Edwards does. Same for Edwards.

The actual “clinch” scenarios:

For Edwards:
1) Win the race.
2) Finish ahead of Stewart

Edwards can also win finishing behind Stewart, but it depends on laps led. If Stewart leads the most laps, Edwards must finish no worse than one position behind AND lead a lap. If Stewart leads A lap but not the most, Edwards can finish 2 positions down IF he heads a lap, and 3 down if he leads the most.

If Stewart leads NO laps, Edwards can win finishing 2 positions behind with no laps led, 3 positions behind with one lap led, and 4 positions behind with the most laps led.

For Stewart:

1) Win
2) Finish ahead of Edwards by 5 positions, or 4 positions if Stewart leads a lap, or 2 positions if he leads the MOST laps.

11/14/2011 07:34 PM

Funny… After reading all the posts above I see several comments on Jr, Gordon, Stewart, and a few dissing Carl Edwards; however not a single mention of Kahne and the red Bull team’s feat in winning the race.

One can only wonder why all the pre-race, race, and post-race shows only focus on two or three drivers every week. The only people watching are all bowtie fans.

This race had its moments. Side-by-side racing, three wide, green flag lead changes, team strategy, payback, blown motors, gas mileage flubs, melted beads, brake problems, etc. You can’t ask for much more in a race, unless you’re a Stewart, Gordon, Jr, Harvick, or Johnson fan.

Lot’s of hippocracy here.

Sharon J
11/14/2011 08:37 PM

I agree with the post on the K&N Series and am glad you mentioned it. These kids are good and it was nice to see Blaney win and Elliott come in not far behind. Good racing but not long enough.

11/15/2011 12:18 AM

Matt – Glad to see you provided congratulations to Chase Elliott for his 3rd place finish in the K&N series. His father was my favourit for years.Just wondering why you did not congratulate young Mr Blaney who won the race? Regarding the Nationwide race – ESPN lost a vote of confidence with me when they cut to ‘another sport’ before post race interviews. Pure bush league!

11/15/2011 04:24 AM

Good luck SMOKE. I hope you are our next Champion. P.S. We still miss special “K”.

11/15/2011 12:45 PM

Boy did Kahne ruin the script for ESPN this week. Its shows pretty evident in the race coverage when someone other than their chosen ones win the race. he was leading all the 2nd half of the race and they still never talked about him until about 5 laps to go. Pitiful.

Guess Jimmie Johnson isn’t a chosen one anymore. They barely mentioned him. Funny how ESPN drops you like a bad habit when you aren’t a winner anymore.

Is this what Nascar has become that the championship is being overshadowed by the Kyle Busch crap from a week ago? This reinforces for me even more that nobody cares about the Chase. So why not get rid of it and put the focus back on the individual races like it was when Nascar what thriving.

And where the hell has Brian France been? He should be front and center at these final races. Talk about poor leadership.