Editor’s Note: Due to a family emergency, Matt McLaughlin was unavailable for Thinkin’ Out Loud; Managing Editor and SI.com contributor Tom Bowles filled in for this edition. Matt will return next week; in the meantime, please keep the McLaughlins in your thoughts and prayers.
The Key Moment: Crew chief Mike Ford finally figured out the best way for the No. 11 pit crew to keep costing the team a race win; don’t leave the outcome in their hands. Ford gave Denny Hamlin two tires during a pit stop with 44 laps to go at New Hampshire, putting the No. 11 car out front in clean air. The sophomore sensation responded by holding off a frantic late charge by Jeff Gordon to snag his first win of ’07.
In A Nutshell: A mixed bag. Take a racetrack already hard to pass on, make it 10 times harder to pass with the Car of Tomorrow, and you’ve got yourself a bore. Still, it’s a race that got mildly interesting at the end; intense racing among Hamlin, Gordon, and Martin Truex Jr. ended with a close finish that left everyone on their feet.
What They’ll Be Talking About Around The Water Cooler This Week
Alright, it’s been over 48 hours and I’m still scratching my head. How can Brian Vickers can be sent home after a post-qualifying violation one week after Gordon and Jimmie Johnson were put in the field without even turning a lap? Vickers’ violation was for the car being too low, but at least he had a time good enough to make the field on time; that’s more than Gordon or Johnson could say, as they got in on “provisionals” at Sonoma. Without a guaranteed starting spot, Vickers had no such protections, and as such he packed his bags and handed his starting spot to “44th-place” Chad Chaffin. That’s ironic, as it was Chaffin who got sent home at Pocono last year when a similar violation occurred with his old team; other than that, this decision hardly seems fair when compared to the special slots given to the No. 24 and No. 48. Isn’t it time to fix a rapidly destructive provisional system? Or is it time for Red Bull to pony up and become NASCAR’s official drink of choice? Maybe then their car would actually have been allowed to start the race,
Speaking of being too low, the No. 5 and No. 70 cars failed post-race inspection this week for the exact same violation as Vickers. If they’re convicted, that means four Hendrick-supported cars were caught “cheating” in a 10-day time span. This time around, the penalties will likely be worse; if NASCAR’s willing to shell out six-race suspensions for violations on Friday, you can only imagine the carnage that could ensue from problems discovered during the actual race itself. Eight races? 10? Stay tuned on this.
It looks like I’m going to need more than one tutoring session this week. Please, someone make me understand why someone would try to jack a car back up by using a wheel hub. When the jack fell on Carl Edwards‘s pit stop, the response of the jackman was to try and lift the car up by putting it where the left rear tire would go! And with the approval and support of the pit crew coach, no less! No matter what the coach thinks, that blunder easily made the difference in Edwards falling a lap down after the stop; as Kyle Petty said best on TNT, “That’s not very efficient.”
David Ragan is having a surprising rookie year, but he’s got to stop running into everything that moves. If Kurt Busch wasn’t on probation, he’d be searching for his head on pit road after it was promptly severed in two. Believe me, that’s not a veteran you want to anger.
The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune
Edwards spent most of this race tearing through the field like a bat out of, well, that place down below. But as soon as he snagged the lead after starting way back in 22nd, that dropped jack on a pit stop led to his crew falling into chaos; 47.6 seconds later, his chances for the win were all but over, although the Lucky Dog gave him a chance to salvage a respectable 13th.
Fellow Roush driver Greg Biffle appeared to have a car that was reasonably strong as well, and was on his way to trying to impress before a bad tach reading gave him three pit-road speeding penalties within 100 laps of each other.
Dave Blaney won the pole, but switched his car with a Caterpillar bulldozer before the race, a move that might have cost him. In all seriousness; for whatever reason, Blaney lost the handle on his Toyota and finished 29th, one lap off the pace to kill what had been a promising weekend. All in all, it was an awful day for every Camry in the field, as David Reutimann lost a cylinder and Jeremy Mayfield‘s front splitter broke in two.
The “Seven Come Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune
Hamlin was lucky to be in contention for the win after nearly spinning out after contact with Juan Pablo Montoya early on; the bump ‘n grind left an impression on Hamlin’s left rear bumper panel.
It was clear that having their crew chiefs “suspended” did nothing to diffuse the luck of both Gordon and Johnson. Both finished in the top five with ease, and Gordon would have won if he had another five laps in the race.
Jeff Green joined Hamlin in taking two tires on his last pit stop; the move brought him up to fourth and he was able to hold on for a solid sixth-place finish, matching his best effort of the season to date.
Vickers‘s loss was Chaffin‘s gain; he took a car that originally didn’t even make the starting field (or 11 other races this season) and brought him off in 36th without any major incidents.
- Hamlin’s win finally gave him his first CoT victory in eight races; with the victory, he continues to lead all drivers in laps led during these particular events (624).
- Gordon collected his fifth straight top-10 finish.
- Truex has finished third or better in four of the last five races, including his win at Dover.
- Dale Earnhardt Jr. picked up his second top five and fifth top 15 in the six races with Tony Gibson as crew chief (Tony Eury Jr. returns from his suspension next week).
- Green’s sixth-place finish was his first top 10 finish since Phoenix in April. He now has three top 10s on the year; that’s as many as he’s had the past three full Cup seasons combined.
- Jeff Burton (seventh) has two straight top 10s for the first time since April.
- Ward Burton has now made only eight of 17 races this season, with five of those starts resulting in DNFs (he was 43rd Sunday).
- In eight CoT events, not one team has needed to go to a backup car.
What’s The Points?
When the top two drivers in points finish 1-2 in the race, it’s a given they’ll remain on top of the standings, and that’s exactly what happened. Finishing second, Gordon’s margin on Hamlin shrinks to 156, but that’s still enough for nearly a full-race cushion on his closest challenger.
Behind the top two, the rest of the top 12 drivers remained the same, although quite a few moved around. Matt Kenseth holds the third spot, with Johnson moving up to fourth and Jeff Burton moving down to fifth. Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick and Edwards remain sixth, seventh and eighth, with Kyle Busch jumping to ninth and Truex, holding serve in 10th. Bowyer drops two spots to 11th, with Earnhardt Jr. holding the 12th and final Chase spot. Junior’s margin over 13th-place Newman now stands at 127; Newman’s the only driver within striking distance to knock someone out with nine races until the Chase.
Overall Rating (with a one being a stinker and a six-pack being a classic): I’m going to give this one three cans of generic local brewery stuff. The CoT made New Hampshire a bore for most of the race, but another exciting finish was right in line with what this car has provided almost every time out.
Next Up: NASCAR finishes the first half of its 36-race season right where it began; at the hollowed ground of Daytona International Speedway. Although plans are for the CoT to run restricted engines at Talladega, the Pepsi 400 will be the final race of plate madness with the Car Of Soon-To-Be-Yesterday, marking the end of an 18-year-era of nail-biting excitement, with all-too-tragic results far too often. Catch the race Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. on TNT; the network plans “Wide Open Coverage,” making it the first time any Cup race has been shown flag-to-flag without commercial interruption.