NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin’s Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2007 Chicagoland Race Recap

The Key Moment: Matt Kenseth got a good run on Tony Stewart with 38 laps to go, but Stewart held off the challenge… it was clear sailing for the No. 20 after that.

In a Nutshell: McRacing at McTrack. Perhaps the worst damn race of the season.

Dramatic Moment: Honestly, I simply don’t recall any. I guess the race was less boring in the first few laps after a restart. With passing at a premium, some drivers took insane chances.

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

Before we get started on the race, I need to take a personal moment to thank all of you who emailed me your condolences or offered your prayers for my family in the wake of my Mom’s passing on July 7th. Yeah, it was a tough week, especially Wednesday when we laid her to rest, but I am blessed with four very fine women as my sisters. The five of us all got through it, together, and knowing so many people were thinking of us during such a difficult time helped. Now that we have grieved her death, we will celebrate Mom’s life and live it as she would have wanted us, we’ll keep on living, keep on loving and keep on laughing. And in my case, I’ll keep it floored in the fast lane. Anne McLaughlin didn’t raise her only son to eat dust. As usual, in times of sadness I have found comfort in music, so I’ll close with a quote from a classic country music song:

I said to that undertaker
Undertaker please drive slow
For this lady you are carrying
Lord, I sure hate to see her go

Will the circle be unbroken
By and by, Lord, by and by

Naturally, I also have to take a moment to express condolences to the France family and their friends, as well as the families and friends of the victims on the ground following this week’s tragic plane crash that claimed the life of Dr. Bruce Kennedy, along with four others. Kennedy was the husband of Lesa France Kennedy, CEO of the ISC, a sister corporation to NASCAR and the entity that owns racetracks like Daytona, Darlington, etc., as well as the website I used to write for. Special prayers go out to the surviving victims who were so badly burned; I’ve been through skin grafts and believe me, I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. Of course, that was only my leg, not 90% of my body; I can’t imagine the pain these victims must be going through. In the midst of such tragedy, I find it deplorable that lawyers are already lining up to stake their share of potential lawsuit revenue. At times like these, people should stop pointing fingers and start holding hands.

Did that NASCAR official really tell Stewart not to climb the fence? How far will these folks go to eliminate any spontaneity and fun from the sport?

After mouthing off at Daytona by claiming he was on the outside looking in as a lame duck at Hendrick Motorsports, Kyle Busch continued his tirades this week, swearing he will not work with his teammates any further this season. Asked if his comments and attitude might cause more fans to dislike him, the young driver who shoots fast from the mouth but slow from the cranium said, “My perception has been horrible since I came into this sport, so it doesn’t really even matter any more.”

Even if he was mangling the English language to try to make his point, young Master Busch has neatly nailed the problem here. It is indeed his terrible perception of what is expected of a big-league stock car racer that has made him so unpopular with fans. And it doesn’t really matter anymore, because he’s headed for the exits down the road. Busch is a talented driver, no doubt; but a hand grenade with a loose pin isn’t going to last long in this sponsor-friendly atmosphere any longer.

See also
Voices From the Heartland: With 10 to Go, Teammates Know How You Make Your Bed!

NASCAR is a sport where the elevator from the outhouse to the penthouse is an express. Last week, Jamie McMurray scored an emotional win at Daytona. This week, he wrecked his car and finished 38th. Coincidentally, last week Stewart finished 38th after a controversial wreck with his teammate Denny Hamlin. This week, he won.

Budweiser and Junior are splitting up? This might be the most public divorce since Prince Charles and Diana parted ways. (Of course, longterm fans may recall folks were equally shocked when Darrell Waltrip decided to leave Junior Johnson and Bud back in 1986 to drive for Rick Hendrick in a Tide-sponsored car.)

It wasn’t a great day for race fans trying to convince the Sports Illustrated types our drivers are athletes. Stewart was clearly exhausted after scaling the fence – so exhausted, in fact, he forgot all about that Coca-Cola deal and drank an unlabeled bottle of water. Over on the other end of the garage, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was asked if he planned to work out to get in better shape after struggling when his power steering went out. He replied that he was planning to go home, sit on the front porch and drink beer. Tellingly, he didn’t say he planned to drink some Buds.

Well, TNT’s midsummer sojourn into NASCAR race broadcasting ended on Sunday. In an attempt to focus on the positive, let’s look at some of the good points. The nearly commercial-free broadcast of the Daytona race was an exciting new concept I hope will be expanded. For a rookie, Kyle Petty did a fine job as a race analyst; he’s not in love with the sound of his own voice and he added some great insights. (Of course, the “in-car analyst” thing at Sonoma didn’t go so well. The fact that profanity was allowed to slip through not live but in replay seemed emblematic of TNT’s “not quite ready for prime time” coverage. Also, on a minor note, when it comes to the shirts Petty wears on air, Opie Taylor called, he wants his wardrobe back). On the production side, TNT consistently did some well-put together pieces on the history of NASCAR and the legends of the sport, clearly their finest moments during their six-week stint.

Beyond that, there were still some kinks that need to be worked out. I will admit TNT’s race coverage was hampered by some bad weather, something which can’t be blamed on a network. But Bill Weber’s self-aggrandizing style is only forgivable in that he’s nowhere near as loathsome as DW, and some of the pit-road talent left something to be desired. All in all, I will take into consideration the size of the network and their relative newness to the sport, so I give them a B-minus. If I were in charge, I would ask Dr. Jerry Punch if he’d like to warm up for the ESPN segment of the season next year by being lead analyst, and I’d ask Kyle Petty to return. Then, I’d make sure all the races ran “flag-to-flag” like the Daytona coverage. Also, while diversity in the pit reporter lineup may be important, I’d try to find women reporters whose voices didn’t sound like they were trying out for voice parts as an animated mouse in a Disney cartoon. Now, excuse me; I have to get back to preparing not to watch Saving Grace.

Could the flatbed crew for Sunday’s race have taken any more time to load up the stricken No. 48 car? What did they have to do, consult the owner’s manual for instructions on how to operate the rig?

Some people have called for a second date for Chicagoland, noting the city of Chicago itself (about 50 miles away) is the third-biggest market in the country. Of course, I figure these are the same folks who schedule root canals for healthy teeth just because they like to suffer.

The Hindenburg Award for Foul Fortune

Jimmie Johnson clearly had a fast car, and it showed; he dominated major portions of the race. Unfortunately, a cut tire put him hard into the wall and left the No. 48 car in 37th place.

Earnhardt Jr. was running in third when he lost his power steering and began losing positions quickly. In fact, it wasn’t a good weekend for the whole DEI squad with Martin Truex Jr. and Paul Menard also suffering mechanical problems. Come on, guys; just because it says Bud on the car doesn’t mean you have to drink Bud while working on the car.

Ward Burton simply had nowhere to go when Dave Blaney lost a tire and spun directly in front of him, another hard blow for the struggling team of Larry McClure.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award for Fine Fortune

It was a pretty fair weekend for Kenseth, who finished second in Saturday’s Busch race and second again in Sunday’s Cup race.

Clint Bowyer overcame a pit-road speeding penalty but still finished eighth.

Kurt Busch had to start shotgun on the field, but drove through the pack early and often to finish sixth.

Race winner Stewart almost got caught up in the Blaney/Burton wreck… but slid by unscathed.

Worth Noting

Stewart’s victory in Chicago was his first win since Texas last fall. It was also his first top-10 finish in three races. But the second half of the season has started, and this is when Stewart typically makes like Frampton and comes alive. If I were Joe Gibbs, I’d have the calendars in the No. 20 rig turned to July at Daytona come next February.

Kenseth (second) now has three straight top-10 finishes.

After hitting a rough spot in the road, Kevin Harvick (third) has rebounded with four top-10 finishes in the last five races. Kurt Busch (sixth) has also scored top 10s in four of the last five races to bring himself back up to 14th in points.

Jeff Burton (seventh) has top-10 finishes in three of the last four races.

Jeff Gordon‘s 11th-place finish was his worst since he won at Pocono.

David Stremme had his best finish since Charlotte.

Johnson suffered his third DNF of 2007. In all of 2006, Johnson had just one DNF.

The top-10 finishers drove six Chevys, two Fords and two Dodges.

The top-finishing Toyota pilot was Jeremy Mayfield in 26th.

Juan Pablo Montoya in 15th was the top-finishing rookie yet again.

What’s the Points?

Gordon continues to lead the points, now 303 markers ahead of Hamlin in second and 346 ahead of Kenseth, who remains third.

Of the contenders, Johnson took the biggest hit, dropping three spots to seventh in the standings. That allowed Jeff Burton, Edwards and Stewart to advance one spot each to fourth, fifth and sixth, respectively.

A little further back, Harvick overtook Kyle Busch for eighth in points once Busch had a tantrum lite and ran into the No. 8 car late in the race. Bowyer overhauled Truex for 10th, while Earnhardt Jr. remains in 12th place with a 30-point cushion over Ryan Newman, who is 13th and first in line for that final Chase spot should someone falter. Kurt Busch in 14th is 77 out of the Chase, and 15th-place McMurray needs to make up 111 points in the next seven races to get into the big dance. To do so, I’d suggest he win a few more races and hit a few less walls.

Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans with one being a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic): Give it one lousy warm skunked can of Iron City. I’ve had more fun cases of the flu.

Next Up: The Cup circuit takes a rare weekend off. Enjoy it; it’s the last one until the end of the season. Racing, or some semblance thereof, resumes in two weeks at Indy. Maybe this Mindy chick that Gene Simmons is always singing about will be there?

Editor’s Note: The title of the country music song Matt mentions in this week’s piece is “Will The Circle Be Unbroken?”

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