The Frontstretch: Tryin' To Think Out Loud Like Matt McLaughlin : Darlington Edition by Thomas Bowles -- Sunday May 13, 2007

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Editor's Note: As the author's name might suggest, I'm not Matt McLaughlin; Darlington may be one of his favorite tracks, but one of Frontstretch's favorite reads was busy visiting a much more important Lady In Black this Sunday…his mom. Look for a special blog from Matt to run in the middle of the week, once he gets back from his travels; in the meantime, read along as I sub for him in this week's edition.

The Key Moment: Jeff Gordon waited until late in the going to flex his muscle, then stayed out during the race's ninth caution while almost everyone else dove down pit road for fresh tires. Track position turned out to be the key, as Gordon somehow kept a faulty engine cobbled together long enough to win his first race at Darlington since 2002.

In A Nutshell: Darlington with the Car of Tomorrow equaled an ice skating rink where one lane racing was all she wrote.

Dramatic Moment: Pretty much every lap out of the last 25, where Gordon's car looked ready to blow around every turn; seriously, that engine was spewing more water out the front than the sprinkler system on your lawn on a summer day. Other than that, there was some good slicing and dicing up front in the final 100 circuits between Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman, Denny Hamlin, and Kurt Busch.

What They'll Be Talking About Around The Water Cooler This Week:

How in the world did Jeff Gordon's engine make it to the finish? While several other cars with water spewing out hit the sidelines over the final 100 miles, Gordon's seemed to keep drawing water from the minnow pond next to the track in order to stay afloat. I'd be interested to see that radiator after the race, because if there was any water left in the No. 24 machine, you can bet it wasn't enough to fill a 12 oz. glass. When you're hot, you're hot I guess…figuratively as well as literally.

Don't get me wrong; I don't mind the Car of Tomorrow being hard to drive, but it's a whole other matter altogether when drivers spend their day simply trying not to wreck. While passing is usually at a premium at Darlington, running up against any lapped traffic Sunday was the equivalent of getting stuck behind Mr. Magoo in a double yellow line zone on a two lane road; there was no way around unless you wanted to do something a little crazy. I can't count on two hands the number of times simply running up against a slow car turned into an accordion effect for the entire field as no one was able to get by. I thought this thing was supposed to make it easier to run side-by-side? This is a problem.

When is Denny Hamlin's pit crew going to get it together? It's been a broken record this season; every time Hamlin puts himself in position to win, his team pulls a Three Stooges act on a pit stop to take his chances away. This week, it was the right front tire changer who bit the bullet, dropping two lugnuts on a yellow flag stop that saw Hamlin drop back 13 spots.

Speaking of Denny Hamlin, I can think of one driver he didn't feel like talking to after the race…Juan Pablo Montoya. Angry with Hamlin's driving after Friday night's Busch event, Montoya did everything possible to slide right in the No. 11's way Sunday afternoon. It wasn't too hard to do, seeing as Juan Pablo looked like he was ice skating rather than driving hard at the track too tough to tame; a lapped car for most of the day, his car was sideways more than it was straight all day long. Hamlin wasn't the only one complaining about Montoya's aggressiveness; it's been a recurring problem this season from a driver who feels like giving someone room is equivalent to giving up.

What has lit the fuel under Penske's fire? All of a sudden, the No. 2 and No. 12 cars look like they've been shot out of a cannon; Kurt Busch is now solidly in the Top 10 in points, and Ryan Newman has gone from being the next Silly Season rumor to sitting pretty with three Top 10 finishes in a row. Guess the team finally got over Matt Borland's departure. They're quickly developing into Dodge's only hope.

Anybody else catch Sterling Marlin and Mark Martin not playing nice toward's the end of Sunday's race? Looks like Sterling is more than a little desperate to prove he's not the only one that can take Ginn's equipment and run up front.

Speaking of Ginn, is anyone really surprised he was one of the first owners to publicly announce he's pursuing Dale Earnhardt, Jr. This guy's got a five-year plan to win a title, and he's willing to spend hell and high water to reach his goal; you better believe he'll throw all the money in the world at Junior in order to get him to jump. While Ginn has made strides in the right direction this year, I'd still say landing a driver of Junior's caliber is a bit of a longshot; but then again, I'd have told you the same thing about Martin this time last year. Never underestimate a billionaire.

What in the heck is Robby Gordon doing? Mr. Aggressive has made some bonehead moves during his career, but the past two weeks have been a little ridiculous; first, he cuts tires every ten laps at Richmond, then he gets to Darlington and knocks down the wall about every other turn. It seems like eons ago when Gordon was locked in the Top 20 in driver points; now, he's one bad run away from dropping out of the Top 35.

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

Ken Schrader not only the race, he was having the type of run he needed to get the Wood Brothers back in the Top 35 in owner points; that is, until he ran into an old friend in David Ragan. A flat right front tire ended the misery not too much later.

Casey Mears qualified well and ran in the Top 15 all day long, but if Hendrick's gonna dump him for Junior, that type of stuff isn't going to fly; luckily, they didn't pay enough attention to its fourth-best engine this week, ensuring the No. 25 team ended their day in the garage.

Kyle Busch wasn't having a particularly strong day to begin with, so he probably didn't mind all that much when he slammed right in the back of A.J. Allmendinger's spinning Toyota. For Allmendinger, he was having the best run of his short career, although 24th and a lap down isn't saying all that much. It was a bad day all around for Team Red Bull; Brian Vickers was simply trying to get some much needed laps under his belt in his Toyota before Jamie McMurray felt obliged to let him beat the Mother's Day traffic out of the race track.

Dave Blaney was on track to land a second straight Top 20 finish with his Toyota until his engine crapped out with 12 laps to go. At least his team had a chance to run the race; Dale Jarrett and Scott Riggs were among the pack of drivers just a tad outside the Top 35 who spent their Sundays as couch potatoes. In the meantime, their goal of a locked in qualifying spot became that much harder to achieve.

The "Seven Come Eleven" Award For Fine Fortune

Tony Stewart and Martin Truex, Jr. looked like goners once a yellow flag trapped them a lap behind after regularly scheduled pit stops under green. But both drivers stayed calm, got their laps back, then used every inch of the track - and then some – to battle their way back to sixth and 11th place finishes.

Kevin Harvick was also trapped laps down after green flag stops, yet was smart enough to pass the leader with a handful of laps to go. That got one of his two laps back, and a final lucky caution got him back on the lead lap. It all combined to bump Harvick from the Top 25 up to 17th.

Carl Edwards just missed a wrecking Reed Sorenson, contact which would have clearly ended his day. Instead, the Office Depot Ford continued to run up front all day long en route to a fifth place finish.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. just about knocked down the wall in the closing laps but the race was close enough to the finish he was able to hold on for a Top 10.

Of course, Jeff Gordon wins this award hands down for an engine that held tougher than Krazy Glue in the closing laps.

Worth Noting

  • Stat about to be repeated 1,000 Times This Week: Hendrick Motorsports has now won all five Car of Tomorrow races.
  • Jeff Gordon has won three of four races for the first time since the last four races in 1998. What happened that year, you ask? If you're not a Jeff Gordon fan, you don't want to know…
  • Denny Hamlin has led the most laps out of anyone in Car of Tomorrow races (563) but has failed to win any of them. To add to the Joe Gibbs Racing misery, their cars have led the most laps in three of the five CoT races, and come up short every single time.
  • A Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet has led the most laps in just one Car Of Tomorrow race, yet they've taken the checkered flag all five times.
  • Jimmie Johnson now has four consecutive Top 5 finishes (third at Darlington).
  • Ryan Newman's fourth place finish was his first Top 5 since Sonoma last June. He has three straight Top 10 finishes for the first time since September, 2005.
  • Carl Edward's fifth place finish was his first Top 5 of the season.
  • Matt Kenseth's seventh place finish was his tenth consecutive Top 15 finish.
  • An eighth place finish for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was just his fourth Top 10 this year.
  • Sterling Marlin's 13th place run was his best of the year. In comparison, teammate Mark Martin finished 14th, his second worst finish of the year.
  • Dave Blaney has now failed to finish five of his ten starts this season.
  • Casey Mears now has six finishes of 31st or worst in eleven starts this season. That's as much as the other three Hendrick cars - combined.
  • Michael Waltrip has now failed to qualify for ten straight races. Entering this year, he'd missed a total of five Cup races since 1986.

What's The Points?

Not surprisingly, Top 3 finishes by both Gordon and Johnson kept them a solid 1-2 in the standings, with Gordon's lead now 231 over his teammate. Kenseth, Hamlin, and Jeff Burton maintained their spots in the Top 5.

Behind them, there was a bit of shuffling as Tony Stewart leapfrogged over Kyle Busch for sixth place. In fact, the Shrub tumbled all the way back to 11th after his Darlington wreck, with brother Kurt, Harvick, Clint Bowyer, and Edwards rounding out the Top 10. Back in 12th, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. continues to hold down the final Chase spot by 46 points over Jamie McMurray, with Ryan Newman and Mark Martin rounding out the Top 15.

Back towards the bubble, Casey Mears remained in the 35th and final "locked in" spot with his No. 25 Chevrolet, lucking out with Dave Blaney's blown engine to retain a solid cushion heading to Charlotte, a race where Mears wrecked out last year. Read Mike Lovecchio's Frontstretch column for more info on the Top 35 race.

Overall Rating: I'd say two and a half cans of Natural Lite; occasionally, the race showed some pep but even the Lady In Black was scratching her head when she saw the Car of Tomorrow try and run circles around a speedway that can barely handle a normal race car.

Next Up: The Nextel Cup stars take a week off of "points racing" and head towards an All-Star showdown at The Winston…err, Nextel All-Star Challenge…this Saturday night at Charlotte…errr, Lowe's. Wow, have times changed. If you're wondering, the race will be televised live on SPEED, which means good luck calling your local cable company to get that channel this week!

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©2000 - 2008 Thomas Bowles and Frontstetch.com. Thanks for visiting the Frontstretch!

M. B. Voelker
05/14/2007 07:47 AM
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When did one-lane racing and spending the day trying not to wreck become something new at Darlington?

panthalassa
05/14/2007 07:44 PM
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thanks for doing this … you did a remarkable job of capturing his style and tone. coupler’three things i know he’dve addressed … debris cautions (and lack thereof), the impact of the crowd size (and loyalty through the rain) on darlington’s attempt to keep its fragile status as a cup track, and the welcome (?) absence of an embarrassing eruption of beer receptacles from the stands during the gord’s victory burnout/donut thingy.

again, ‘preciate it … ‘cause a faux matt is better than, uh, naux matt.

mmack
05/15/2007 07:35 AM
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Tom,

You did a good job on the recap.

 

Contact Tom Bowles

Recent articles from Tom Bowles:

Did You Notice? ... A Return To Richmond, Post-Spingate And Quick Hits
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