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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2007 Pepsi 400 at Daytona

Editor’s Note: Due to a death in the family, Matt McLaughlin continues his hiatus from Thinkin’ Out Loud. Managing Editor and SI.com contributor Tom Bowles filled in again this week; in the meantime, please keep the McLaughlins in your thoughts and prayers.

The Key Moment: Carl Edwards looked three-wide but thought better of it on the last lap, leaving teammate Jamie McMurray free to catch the perfect side draft and hold on to beat Kyle Busch to the line in what turned into the third-closest NASCAR finish in the past 15 years.

In A Nutshell: In the last restrictor-plate race with the old car, there was a push for us to remember the good times. As the Big One stayed away, racing took precedence over wrecking in what became the second edge-of-your-seat finish at Daytona this season.

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

Looks like crew chiefs punished for pushing the envelope have continued to take things a bit too far. On the heels of pictures surfacing showing Tony Eury Jr. perched on a trailer in the infield during his suspension, NASCAR changed its rules this week to force penalized crew chiefs not just out of the garage – they’re no longer allowed on the track premises. While such a move needed to be made in order to save public face, don’t be fooled into thinking it makes a real difference. With Trackpass, RaceView, and all the other technology available to teams nowadays, is it really going to matter whether Eury’s working from his laptop in the infield – or from the nearest hotel? Text messaging can occur from anywhere, anytime – and expect the Hendrick boys to continue to take advantage of it while their head men spend the next four weeks on the sidelines.

Looks like Tony Stewart‘s temper is on the prowl again. Coming into the weekend looking for his third straight Pepsi 400 win, Stewart’s chances took a turn for the worse when he clipped leader – and teammate – Denny Hamlin coming out of turn 4 just 15 laps in. The end result sent both cars behind the wall for repairs while collecting an innocent Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the mess. Smoke pretty much was smoking out of his ears as his car sat in the garage; funny thing was, though, Stewart got in front of a camera and blamed the man he hit for the wreck! His post-crash tirade against Hamlin spewed a surprising hatred for a driver he helped tutor into the weekly top five contender he is today.

Not only were his comments ridiculous, but that little temper tantrum made me wonder just how much pressure Stewart might be feeling over at JGR. Look at the stats over the past year (July to July), and Stewart’s and Hamlin’s numbers are nearly identical – three wins, 11 top-five finishes. It’s Hamlin, not Stewart, who looks like the best challenger to Jeff Gordon for the title at this point. Everyone assumes Stewart will turn up the heat in the summer, because that’s what he’s done in the past – but is the momentum clearly on Hamlin’s side instead? Should Hamlin continue to threaten his No. 1 spot on the Gibbs totem pole, that’s the type of thing that I could see driving Stewart crazy as time marches on.

OK, so tell me this again; Nextel gets to change its name without so much as a whimper, but feels free to sue when Cingular changes its name to AT&T? It’s not that the name change from Nextel Cup to Sprint Cup isn’t allowable; it’s perfectly legal, as the contract the company signed with NASCAR specifically provided for one name change over the 10-year period they serve as title sponsor. That’s different than the Cingular/AT&T situation, which Nextel claims is illegal due to the very same contract they signed with the sport. Still, regardless of what’s down on paper, it’s hard to prove your point to the general public when you wind up doing the exact same thing you’re fighting against.

So, Kyle Busch feels a little on the outs at Hendrick. I’ll say; he spent most of his post-race comments trashing anything and everything associated with a team he’ll be leaving behind at the end of the season, going so far as to assume he’ll be “shut out of team meetings this week.” Well, Kyle should take a look back in the mirror over the last 10 laps of that race; at one point, the Hendrick cars stood 1-2-4-5 with McMurray in the middle. The only reason no one helped Kyle over the last 10 laps is because they were doing what every good race driver should in the race’s final stages; go for the win themselves. I find it interesting that in the same post-race discussion, a driver calling for team unity actually spent a good bit of time bashing the equipment and capabilities of his own car. Seems a little hypocritical, don’t you think? Also, take note of the extensive conversation Busch was having with Martin Truex Jr. in the Daytona infield during driver introductions. Nothing official yet, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to guess what they were talking about.

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

Kevin Harvick had himself in position to contend for a rare Daytona sweep, until Juan Pablo Montoya put his weekly episode of “My Life As A Giant Wrecking Ball.”

With Harvick down for the count, it was Clint Bowyer who appeared to have his first win all lined up for Richard Childress Racing; he led a race-high 55 laps on the night. But a sudden electrical problem dropped him off the pace for half a lap, just long enough to put him back in the pack and out of position come crunch time.

Speaking of all crunched up, that would describe Sterling Marlin‘s car after a possible top-10 finish turned hard right towards the outside wall, courtesy a cut Goodyear tire.

Casey Mears appeared to have the perfect drafting partner, running up front with his best friend Jimmie Johnson charging to second, just in time for the No. 48 to hang him out to dry with a handful of laps to go. I didn’t see Casey complaining about not having a teammate to draft with after the race, though, Kyle better run and tell him how he was wronged!

As previously mentioned, Hamlin and Stewart‘s on-track spat didn’t just affect them; it wrecked the day of Earnhardt Jr., as well as Reed Sorenson and Bobby Labonte before the race was even 10% complete.

The “Seven Come Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

Looks like McMurray‘s nice guy image finally paid off for something. Edwards had every inch of horsepower to pull alongside McMurray on the last lap, but chose to push his teammate to the win instead.

Matt Kenseth‘s car looked like it couldn’t draft past a dump truck all night long, but somehow, some way, he put himself in the right spot to steal an eighth-place finish at the end.

Kasey Kahne had an in-race sponsor change; the I Pronounce You Chuck and Larry Dodge became “I Pronounce You All Torn Up” after a lap 3 tangle with Jeff Green. But a number of lengthy stops on pit road to get it fixed, along with a late-race tire strategy, propelled Kahne to a surprising ninth-place finish with a car that looked more like it should have been racing in the Modified series.

David Ragan watched all the other rookies either hang in the back of the pack or find their way into trouble all night long. While they struggled, he simply shined; he followed up his fifth-place run in February with a 12th-place finish Saturday night.

Worth Noting

  • McMurray’s victory ended a 166-race winless drought. Only Jeff Burton (175) and Marlin (170) have gone longer in between victories in NASCAR’s modern era.
  • Kyle Busch (second) had his first top-five finish since Richmond in May.
  • Kurt Busch (third) also had his first top-five finish since Richmond in May. In the past seven races, he hadn’t finished better than 12th.
  • Edwards (fourth) had his first top-five finish at Daytona in six career starts.
  • Gordon (fifth) now has finishes of ninth or better in 13 of the last 14 races.
  • Both of Kahne’s top-10 finishes this year have come at Daytona – a track where he had never run better than 11th at before this season.
  • David Gilliland (11th) had his best finish since Talladega in April.
  • Earnhardt Jr. (36th) has three consecutive finishes outside the top 10 at Daytona for the first time in his Cup career.
  • Stewart (38th) led a total of 658 laps this season – but just 11 of those have occurred in the last six races.

What’s The Points?

If this were the old system, Gordon would be cruising to his fifth championship. Even with a 43rd-place finish, Hamlin held onto second place in the standings – but he now trails Gordon by 277 with eight races until the Chase begins. The rest of the top five avoided wrecks and held serve, with Kenseth, Johnson, and Burton all over 380 points out of the top spot.

In the second group of five, Edwards blew by Stewart for sixth, while Kyle Busch moved up two spots to eighth. Harvick and Truex each dropped a spot to ninth and 10th, respectively.

Bowyer used Earnhardt Jr.’s wreck to put some distance between 11th and 12th; the gap now stands at 102 points, with Junior holding down the final slot in the Chase. Junior himself now stands only 49 ahead of McMurray, who moved up one spot to 12th with his win. Ryan Newman is only 61 back in 14th place.

Overall Rating (with a one being a stinker and a six-pack being a classic): Even though restrictor plates lead to man-made racing, you can’t help but give this one five-and-a-half cans of your favorite beer. You can’t ask for a better finish at a track steeped in both history and tradition.

Next Up: The second half of the season begins in earnest in the Upper Midwest, as the teams head to Chicagoland for another edition of the cookie-cutter 400 in a track that’s supposedly in the Chicago market – but over an hour away from the city itself.

Remember, this commentary isn’t the only column Tom Bowles does; make sure to catch his Secret Star Of The Race in the Monday edition of the Frontstretch Newsletter. If you’re not getting the newsletter, you’re missing out on all the latest news, information, and commentary from some of your favorite Frontstretch writers. How could you NOT sign up for something that’s FREE! Gravitate here to add your name to the list today.

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