The Frontstretch: Bowles Thinks For Matt: Chicagoland Race Recap by Thomas Bowles -- Tuesday September 20, 2011

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Bowles Thinks For Matt: Chicagoland Race Recap

Thomas Bowles · Tuesday September 20, 2011


Editor’s Note: Matt McLaughlin is still suffering from health-related issues. As soon as we have a firm date on his return, you’ll be the first to know! In the meantime, please continue to send your “Get Well” messages to; we know how much he appreciates your support as his recovery continues.

The Key Moment: Tony Stewart had the pit crew to give him track position on his final stop of the race, the speed to get past Matt Kenseth on the restart and a little extra Sunoco to survive when almost all his rivals ran out of gas.

Tony Stewart used a little extra gas to pull away late, leading a fuel mileage finish to the line in the first race of the Chase at Chicagoland.

In A Nutshell: About the best you’re going to get from a cookie-cutter track whose races often win the Emmy for Least Inspired Sprint Cup Performance. But if all these 1.5-mile tracks turn into fuel mileage finishes…no one will be watching by the end of the show.

Dramatic Moment: Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth, Martin Truex, Jr. and Jimmie Johnson held a spirited battle for the lead for about 10 minutes. But then, all the crew chiefs screamed, “Save fuel!” and everyone ran like a cop was pointing a radar gun, threatening to stop them for speeding at any point over the race’s last 30 laps.

What They’ll Be Talking About The Water Cooler This Week
As I mentioned in my column Monday, a Chase debut in the country’s No. 3 media market didn’t exactly turn Chicago NASCAR-obsessed. To build a new fan following, you must build a product fans are willing to follow; and on the cookie-cutter, 1.5-mile ovals the car and tire combination continues to cause struggles for this sport.

Whenever a driver falls loses track position, has a top-5 car but then can’t get it back you’ve got a long-range problem that needs to be addressed. It’s funny NASCAR wants to stick in these big-range markets, like Chicago and Los Angeles but they won’t spend the money to actually revamp their boring racetracks in the process.
So on Saturday, NASCAR let the Nationwide Series run the final 130 laps caution free. Then, on Monday four of the race’s six caution flags were “competition yellows” or debris. So much for letting the race play out when the big money (and TV audience) is at stake. I did find it interesting through that in the final stretch of the race, where there was actual competition up front that’s when officials put the “mystery debris” caution flag away and let fuel, letting everyone ride around at half throttle decide it.

Kurt Busch claims the aluminum debris, perhaps the most legitimate of the race’s six debris cautions didn’t come from his car. Umm… has he looked at the video replay? Did the Metal Fairy randomly drop some random pieces out of the sky? That’s the only other explanation I could come up with… so why did the No. 22 team try to cover it up?

By the way, when it comes to Kurt Busch I’ve got a whiny radio transmission back. “Yes, Kurt. Unbelievable. Unbelievable. You know, this stuff gets old after awhile, I have to tell you. It just gets old. If only you could be the worst you can be, setting a new standard for verbal abuse every week. Oh wait! You did… again. Just don’t start crying when Steve Addington quits in the middle of a race because he’s sick of taking your %^&*!”

Matt Kenseth was among four drivers with a legitimate shot at the win late in Chicagoland. He ended the race out of gas, sitting 21st and scratching his head at a solid run that slipped away through strategy.

Fuel mileage criticism has been levied enough the past few months; so instead of rehashing the same old stuff, let’s just have Matt Kenseth handle it. Sayeth the ’03 Cup Series champ: “I don’t know what to do about the fuel mileage. It is really frustrating to be a race car driver and they drop the green on the last run of the day, when you are supposed to put on a show for the fans and you have to run half throttle and can’t floor it or you will run out of gas. It is pretty aggravating to do all the work and qualifying and pit stops and adjustments but none of it makes a difference. It is not a great definition of racing, but how are you going to fix it? There were so many races this year that have been like that already where the guy running half throttle, or pitted off sequence or whatever and has won. I wish they could figure out how to fix it because it is not a lot of fun.”

What in the world was J.J. Yeley thinking? In his post-race comments after the race, the excuse for pushing Matt Kenseth on the last lap, a NASCAR no-no is he didn’t know the rule existed. At best, for someone who’s been a Cup driver for six years that’s a terrible excuse considering most casual fans learn that inside the first three weeks. At worst, some Ford or Roush-Fenway official made a secret order, one that became a big mistake as someone, somewhere had a major brain fart. Yeley does bring up an interesting point, though, about every driver in restrictor plate races getting “pushed” on the final lap with the new two-car tandems. That does mean NASCAR officials should clarify the rule… but it’s hard to side with Yeley on this one.

First Menard’s Richmond spin, setting Harvick up for victory then Yeley’s push of Matt Kenseth across the finish line (remember, Front Row Motorsports gets engine and chassis help from Roush). How much worse will team orders get in a Chase that still appears wide open?

Clint Bowyer is navigating his way through the real-life video game of NASCAR free agency. But which options will keep from disappearing into thin air before it’s too late?

Looks like Clint Bowyer and 5-Hour Energy have a career-saving marriage in the works. Rusty Wallace admitted this weekend the sponsor was all but gone, pairing with Bowyer for a reported 20 races as they’d rather use their money to run Cup. Rumor has it Michael Waltrip Racing is now the frontrunner, with the team exploring a reported expansion to three cars. But keep in mind there needs to be other money, from Toyota backing to additional sponsor funding in order for this deal to be complete. If I’m David Reutimann right now? Coming off an ugly finish this weekend, a race where he was the defending champ I’d be doing my resume tonight just in case.

There’s one name that popped up in the race for the No. 33 car sweepstakes that could pull a major upset. If Childress can get the sponsors to agree, how about sliding Mark Martin inside the No. 33 in a one-year deal to keep the team afloat for Austin Dillon? You’ve got a veteran driver, teaming with another leader in Jeff Burton that’s willing to take less money to stay involved. The Stewart-Haas Racing deal is not yet complete, so this one bears watching considering Burton and Martin have worked together in the past.

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

Just about everything that could go wrong, did go wrong for Kyle Busch. A decision to take two tires didn’t work, the pit crew lost him 20 spots, he ran over aluminum debris at the 300-mile mark and ran out of gas on the white flag lap. Winding up 22nd, Busch scored points by at least publicly restraining from throwing anyone under the bus – that’s exceptional under the circumstances. But for a guy whose challenge is overcoming adversity, that’s one explosive-laced playoff welcome package to hold heading to Loudon.

Denny Hamlin didn’t have much for momentum going into the Chase, and Monday’s race did nothing to change that. Last of the Chase finishers, Hamlin’s hopes of a championship are shot.

Denny Hamlin limped into the Chase so badly few thought last season’s runner-up had any chance to contend. Two flat tires and some on-track contact later, he did nothing to indicate this ten-race stint will be anything more than a test session. The No. 11 was 31st, dead last out of the 12 Chase finishers after starting the day seeded 12th.

Jeff Gordon entered the day a championship favorite; he ended it with major questions surrounding this program’s intermediate track setup. Never a contender, Gordon seemed frantic at times during the race, radioing the car was tight from the center off but also suffering from a lack of rear grip elsewhere. Tight, loose, tight loose… not even Alan Gustafson can Goldilocks two opposite problems into place. Running out of fuel on the last lap added insult to injury; he wound up an ugly 24th.

Chad Johnston is turning into the gambling addict of Sprint Cup crew chiefs: somebody better keep him off the craps table in Vegas. Leaving Martin Truex, Jr. out during the final caution, hoping another yellow would force a round of stops his strategy backfired when the race went green the rest of the way. Truex, who went from the lead to 18th, learned a hard lesson… or did he? Kudos to this group for stepping up, recognizing they had nothing to lose and going for the win.

Speaking of gas, a long list of drivers will look back on that white flag lap with disgust. Among those hurt the most: Johnson (3rd to 10th); Kenseth (4th to 21st, courtesy that Yeley assist); Ryan Newman (5th to 8th); and Paul Menard (7th to 20th).

The “Seven Come Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was horrible on new tires. He was horrible on old tires. By the race’s halfway point, it was all crew chief Steve Letarte could do to pull out a top-15 finish. But low and behold, after a three-month disappearance the ability for these two to put their heads together and make the right adjustments on the No. 88 car suddenly appeared out of nowhere. Charging into the top 10 during the final run of the race, fuel mileage played in their favor for once and left them sitting on the “podium” third.

Penske Racing, down the stretch seemed headed for a miserable day. Between Brad Keselowski’s verbal meltdown, a poor pit strategy call by Paul Wolfe and handling issues that never died down, it was a miracle the No. 2 car even ended up on the lead lap. Right alongside him sat Kurt Busch, who led 64 laps early only to drop like a rock during the final 50 miles of the race. But when everyone ahead started running out of gas, Lady Luck smiled down and left them fifth and sixth, respectively at the checkered flag.

Kasey Kahne, an intermediate track specialist hit the wall so hard early in the race it’s a wonder his Red Bull Toyota didn’t pull inside the garage. But his crew hung in there, kept adjusting and a Lucky Dog on the race’s final caution led to a second chance. Kahne made the most of it, charging to 12th while cultivating a setup that makes him a sleeper at Kansas and Charlotte.

For every driver that ran out of fuel, there’s one that blew past them at full song. Among the biggest gainers late: Earnhardt (6th to 3rd), Carl Edwards (8th to 4th), Clint Bowyer (12th to 7th), Mark Martin (13th to 9th).

Worth Noting

  • Tony Stewart, with his victory has now won a race in 13 consecutive seasons. That’s the longest active streak for any Sprint Cup driver on the circuit.
  • Kevin Harvick (2nd) has a 1.5 average finish the past two races, his best since winning Fontana and Martinsville back-to-back this Spring.
  • Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (3rd) had his first top-5 result since Kansas in June – a span of 14 races. That, ironically was also a fuel mileage finish.
  • Carl Edwards (4th) now has three consecutive top-5 results.
  • Jeff Gordon (24th) had his worst on-track performance since Richmond in May.
  • Greg Biffle (26th) hasn’t finished in the top-10 in six races… despite leading 92 laps and being a consistent top-5 fixture early in events during that stretch.
  • Denny Hamlin (31st) has gone without a top-5 finish since Loudon in July.
  • The Bowtie Brigade knows how to save some gas. Seven of the top-10 cars were Chevrolets, with two Dodges and a single Ford rounding out the manufacturers. Toyotas, struggling with their fuel mileage could only muster a 12th with Kahne.
  • Trevor Bayne, while not running for the Rookie of the Year award was the highest-finishing freshman at 23rd.

What’s The Points?

Kevin Harvick, by simply keeping his car filled with gas used that runner-up finish to open a seven-point lead in the championship over Stewart. Carl Edwards is third, ten points back with an edge over Kurt Busch by one. Dale Earnhardt, Jr., in perhaps the biggest surprise of all jumps up to fifth in the standings; he’s now 13 markers back of the No. 29.

Ryan Newman sits tied for sixth, along with Brad Keselowski as both are just 14 points off Harvick’s pace. Interesting note: if Keselowski earned the bonus for his three victories he, not Stewart would be sitting pretty at second in the standings. Jimmie Johnson sits eighth, now 16 points out but easily within striking distance.

Really, this Chase is still a crapshoot as only four drivers have cause for concern after this event. Kyle Busch, at -19 drops from the top seed to ninth and needs to have his Joe Gibbs Racing team forget about Chicagoland quickly. Kenseth sits 10th, 24 off the pace but is heading to Loudon, a track where he hasn’t finished better than 17th in four seasons. Jeff Gordon, sitting 11th is now 25 off the pace and has four 1.5-mile track hurdles left to clear. And Hamlin, dead last is 41 behind Harvick and must be perfect the rest of the way to have a chance.

In the “Best Of The Rest” category, Clint Bowyer slipped in front of A.J. Allmendinger; the margin is now eight points heading to a race where Bowyer is the defending champ.

Overall Rating (from one to six beer cans, with a one being a clunker and a six being a perfect race): We’ll give this one three solid cans of generic stuff. At times, the racing was better than expected at this racetrack but that’s not saying a whole lot. And a fuel mileage finish, for the first Chase race? Not exactly the way you’d want it on paper.

Next Up: We head to a Chase market the series abandoned, No. 7 in the country (Boston) so they could run an average race in market No. 3. Go figure. Loudon, New Hampshire is your destination, a one-mile oval where Tony Stewart was part of a 1-2 finish with Ryan Newman this July.

Could Smoke be saving his summer surge for early Fall? Either way, don’t hold your breath; last Fall’s race here was decided on (gulp) fuel mileage. Here we go again…

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Fantasy Insider: Team Revelations For NASCAR’s Short Tracks



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Brian France Sucks
09/20/2011 07:31 AM

In other news, the NA$CAR Hall of Fame lost a whole pile of dinero this year, costing Charlotte taxpayers dearly. But wait, the NA$CAR PR staff assures us it will turn a profit this year. They put their crack scheduling team on the job and found all it needs is some visitors. So they increased capacity and found official sponsors for facility toilet paper and floor mats.

Bottom line: All NA$CAR cares about is $$$, or the allure of $$$. The racing doesn’t matter to them. Who needs Rockingham, Darlington, and Wilkesboro when some “excitement” can be manufactured with a timely wave of the yellow.

Matt L
09/20/2011 09:15 AM

3 cans was generous. Putting this type of racing against the NFL will not work.

09/20/2011 10:05 AM

If you save your tires and win you are a genius.
If you save your motor so you can get everything out of it the last few laps, you are a wily veteran.
Why is there so much whining when someone saves fuel?

09/20/2011 10:29 AM

It was an ok race. The dominos fell to make a fuel race, so what. I thought the end was exciting and hilarious at the same time. I certainly did not want a caution thrown to fix the fuel situation.

Bill B
09/20/2011 10:42 AM

I agree with Matt L, one can at most. If you watched the last 5 laps of the race you saw everything that mattered.

RE “Why is there so much whining when someone saves fuel?”
Because driving slower to save fuel is counter-intuitive to what races should be. Anything that keeps the cars from maximizing speed is frowned upon by most.

09/20/2011 11:02 AM

Tom thanks for talking again about team orders, after a little research, which Amy missed last week, I found that at Richmond last week;

Lap 162 Landdon Cassel (hendrick chassis & engines) spins. Jr gets his first Lucky Dog

Lap 246 Jimmie Johnson (hendrick driver) dive bombs Kurt Busch. Jr gets his 2nd Lucky Dog

Lap 304 Cassell (hendrick chassis and engines) spins on Frontstretch. Jr on lead lap no caution.

Lap 384 Paul Menard spins into infield. Jr lap down caution thrown. Jr gets 3rd Lucky Dog.

Yes Menard caution helped Harvick win race but it also GUARANTEED Jr made chase.

Cassel spun on track Jr on lead lap no caution, Menard spins into infield Jr lap down caution thrown.

09/20/2011 11:06 AM

It sounds like this race was more fun to be at, rain delay and all, then it was to watch on TV. I was there, thought it was a blast, and to be very very honest, couldn’t really tell that anyone was on fuel strategy, except when Truex went sailing past Stewart. I then looked at my wife and said “no way does Truex make it on fuel”, and came to the realization that the 14 team knew the same thing. My basic message is this. At the track, 160 (lets say) doesn’t look that much different from 180, as long as everyone is running 160…and you don’t have the 3 wise men talking about fuel non stop for the last 30 minutes of the race. 4 cans by being there live.

09/20/2011 11:48 AM

The only reason this race would get three cans of beer, was because it ran on Monday, not up against the NFL. Although I rated it as zero cans, due to the gas milage finish. Where the hec was the mystery caution when it was REALLY needed? Does Brian France actually get excited about running ouy of gas? Maybe they should go to yet smaller tanks to match the capacity in his head.

09/20/2011 12:01 PM

Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t NASCAR shrink the fuel cell after the Charlotte 2005 debacle to save Goodyear from the embarassment of their inability to build tires that last more than ten laps? Perhaps that has something to do with the preponderance of fuel mileage finishes?

09/20/2011 12:52 PM

Bill, you don’t think that saving tires or the motor slows down the car?

09/20/2011 01:18 PM

I believe when the new car arrived, teams went back to the 22 gallon fuel cells. I also believe that it was about the same time that Goodyear started bringing a harder tire compound to the track. The biggest issue right now is that with the configuration of the current car, Goodyear can’t build a tire that gives up enough that the teams need to come for tires before they run out of fuel, but doesn’t cause safety concerns by blowing up. In the interest of safety, Goodyear is building hard tire compounds, and thus the tires last longer than a fuel run, causing fuel mileage races. If Goodyear were able to figure the tire compound out, NASCAR wouldn’t have issues with fuel mileage races. If the car can only go 50 laps on fuel, Goodyear needs to build a tire that will only go 40 laps, and have zero grip but not blow out.

Doug in Washington (State)
09/20/2011 01:39 PM

Well, if the drivers don’t want to slow down and conserve fuel they certainly don’t have to. You can always pit to fill up. No one forced anyone to make the pit/no pit calls they did. The guys that ran out gambled and lost. Tony crossed the line first. Overall average, he was the fastest.

The only way NASCAR can stop fuel mileage races is to throw a competition caution inside the final fuel window and require everyone to pit for fuel. Is that what all you anti-fuel mileage people want?

Hell, lets take all strategy out. Lets have a competition caution every ~50 laps, and everyone has to pit for 4 tires and fuel.

Bleh. I’d rather have a fuel mileage race than a plate race any day.

A Red Carr
09/20/2011 05:59 PM

Weather was perfect in New Hampshire on Sunday. Crystal clear with temp in the sixties. Of course NA$CAR chose to change schedule and go to Chicago!

Bill S.
09/20/2011 06:09 PM

I don’t know why Joey Logano was not given orders to spin out with 10 to go. Then Kyle could have come in for a splash! For being a former NFL coach, Joe Gibbs certainly does not do much in the teamwork department! Is this a team sport or not? If not, outlaw teammates tandem-drafting at Dega. There is some sarcasm here, but why is some teammate help OK, but some not? Other than it’s NASCAR, so nothing makes any sense.

09/20/2011 08:11 PM

Anybody grumping about fuel milage take a look at “Kevin’s” comment in Racing with Rich… contenders. I think you’ll like it

09/20/2011 09:36 PM

If there is a competition yellow to check tire wear shouldn’t it be mandatory for every car to change all four tires?

I thought the rule stated that a car could not be pushed across the finish line on the last lap. Wasn’t there a race at Talladega where a car was pushed almost to the finish line and the driver got the win? (Harry Gant?)

A radio transcript from the tower that you will never see:
“Starter! Throw the Yellow! A Hendrick car needs a caution!”

09/21/2011 12:28 PM

I gave this race 0 cans of beer. ‘nuff said.

09/21/2011 03:22 PM

Racing is about getting to the finish line first. Not having to stop and refuel works and has worked for over 50 years.

09/21/2011 09:48 PM

I was listening to the “Jeff Gordon” channel on Sirius during the Chicagoland race. On the last lap I heard what I am pretty sure was Matt Kenseths voice: “Get the 38 to give us a push” at least twice. Then I heard a different voice (I assume either the spotter or crew chief) reply: “Can’t get pushed on the last lap”. As the TV showed them (the 17 & 38) coming out of turn 4 heard over the radio: “Get the 38 to back off”. Why I was able to hear this on the Gordon channel, I have no idea, but being a Kenseth fan, I’m very sure it was him.

09/23/2011 01:28 PM

I don’t know what planet you watch races from Tom, but about the only time I hear about the no-push rule is when it happens, not every three weeks.
Also, Kyle Bush deserved a foul fortune award for getting his nose aerodynamically screwed up by the piece of debris that didn’t come off of his brother’s car.
It’s why he lost positions and ran out of gas.


Contact Tom Bowles

Recent articles from Tom Bowles:

Did You Notice? ... A Return To Richmond, Post-Spingate And Quick Hits
Did You Notice? ... Breaking Down A Sprint Cup Season Eight Races In
Did You Notice? ... Drivers Still Make A Difference... But Silly Cautions Don't
Did You Notice? ... NASCAR's Free Agent Lynchpin, Uncomfortable Reality And Gambling
Did You Notice? ... Toyota Trouble, Limping Into Action And Testing The Waters

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