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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2007 Centurion Boats at the Glen

Editor’s Note: Matt was out of the office for this race, off on vacation in New Jersey; in his place, Managing Editor Tom Bowles tackles this week’s edition of Thinkin’ Out Loud from Watkins Glen International Raceway in Western New York.

The Key Moment: Jeff Gordon simply spun himself out heading into turn 1 with two laps to go, setting up a furious battle between Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards for the win. Overdriving his car, Edwards missed the corner and slipped into the sand trap in the second-to-last turn of the race, giving Stewart an uncontested run to the checkered flag.

In A Nutshell: So much for boring fuel strategy races at road courses. After a ho-hum beginning, Watkins Glen turned into the twilight zone, with a fight, a crazed fan, an unnecessary NASCAR red flag, and a giftwrapped trophy for a race winner who had to fight his way back through half the field. I’d compare it to a really good roller coaster at Six Flags; by the time it was over, you weren’t sure exactly what you just did or how you got to the end of the ride, but you had this weird desire to get back on and do it all over again.

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

Let’s get right to it – Juan Pablo Montoya vs. Kevin Harvick, the playfight of the century. While the emotion from the two drivers was great to see – as my commentary today alludes to – the fight itself was hardly a slugfest. It was more like baby shove here, baby shove there, and don’t come any closer, or I might shove you with all five fingers! All kidding aside, NASCAR has announced that neither driver will be fined for their on-track actions – and that’s nothing but a good thing for a sport that needs this boost of raw emotion. As for who’s to blame for their whole mess, really neither driver is – the replays show it was Martin Truex Jr.‘s bump that started all this commotion in the first place. But in Montoya’s case, that shows how a reputation can catch up to you over time – after making contact with Harvick at Daytona, one of a long line of poor decisions when racing with other drivers, he’s got drivers thinking any sort of contact from him is automatically his fault.

OK, so I understand a lot of oil was dropped during the Montoya – Harvick – Burton trifecta; but was a red flag really necessary? I wonder if the collective groan from the stands, television compound, media center, and garage made it all the way into your living room. I mean, it’s great NASCAR’s trying to make things as safe as possible, but in the old days I remember speedy dry getting the track clean within five minutes – and you know what, they didn’t even have to stop the race to get that done.

I’ve already spoken on the Kyle Busch to Joe Gibbs move, but perhaps the biggest domino that’s yet to fall in this whole deal is what this move does for Dale Earnhardt Inc. Pretty much assured like the rest of the media (and fans, no less) that Kyle was headed to their camp, Max Siegel and Teresa Earnhardt seem by all accounts to be back at square one – and the free agent market isn’t exactly swimming with “A” quality talent. Thus, take note of Jeremy Mayfield‘s recent announcement he would be departing from Bill Davis Racing – a two-time Chase participant, the 38-year-old Mayfield could serve as the perfect compromise candidate to round out DEI’s program for next year. Perhaps he sensed that opportunity when he made himself available? Who knows, but don’t be surprised if Mayfield appears on the short list of candidates for the No. 8 ride.

How must you feel if you’re Scott Wimmer? Still young and talented, you come over to a team in Richard Childress Racing and do everything asked of you. You contend every week out in a part-time Busch Series ride, then qualify for the Brickyard 400 Cup race in a one-shot deal and running in the top 10 before problems on pit road. Yet, you sit there and watch your car owner bend over backwards for every driver available – Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch and now JJ Yeley – to find what he calls “the right fit” for a driver of his fourth team. Yet, with Wimmer already good friends with the volatile Harvick – as well as having a decade or more of his career still to go – you would think a good fit would be right in front of his face, would it not? Sometimes, I wonder what these car owners are thinking,

Please repeat this statement to yourself out loud: “Kyle Busch is the face of Toyota’s future.” Yeah, it sounds weird to me, too. What were the odds on that line being spoken back in 2005?

Once again, the road-course ringers come up short. That will officially extend to 33 the number of years since a road course-only specialist actually won a road-course race in the Cup series (Mark Donahue at Riverside in January, 1973). To me, that continues to make me feel road course ringers are slightly overvalued, although watching Boris Said and Ron Fellows work their way through the field is definitely worth the price of admission.

Just how did that crazed fan get onto the track to ask Matt Kenseth for an autograph? I know the red flag was out, but shouldn’t some sort of security have been watching the fence where the guy jumped over? On a side note, this was definitely the funniest thing to happen to the sport all year.

Is it just me, or is ESPN SportsCenter on about 14 times over the course of the day? Yet, it was that program which led to some shortened post-race coverage at the end of the race.

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

Earnhardt Jr. had taken a car which ran like junk all weekend and put it in the top five. Of course, that was before the engine blew to smithereens for what seems like the umpteenth time this year for the No. 8 team; Junior finished 42nd to drop from Chase contention.

Gordon had the car to beat, leading a race-high 44 laps until he overdrove turn 1 with just two laps left – and paid the price.

Jeff Burton was busy minding his own business, in contention for a top-10 finish before getting involved in the Montoya – Harvick mess. Ditto for Jamie McMurray, who saw his Chase chances all but evaporate after fading to 34th.

Regan Smith is busy looking for a full-time ride for 2008, but the spinning car of Brian Vickers did him no favors when it swerved up in front of him. The No. 01 wound up 37th on the day.

Kyle Petty couldn’t even make a lap before his car broke down; after several trips in and out of the garage for repairs, he broke a radiator and finished dead last.

The “Seven Come Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

Stewart nearly killed his chances when he drove his car off course midway through the race, falling well outside the top 10 as a result. He worked himself back into contention the hard way – then watched and waited to see if anyone would make a mistake. They did.

Edwards pulled one of the slide jobs of the year not to hit the wall once he got off course on the last lap – not only that, but he accelerated through the sand trap and to the checkered flag limping, coming home eighth to salvage a top-10 finish.

Robby Gordon appeared to have everything going against him; a poor starting spot, an early spin and terrible pit stops. But somehow, he came through it all with his car and his temper intact, finishing fifth to put the punctuation mark on a roller coaster week.

Ryan Newman did his best to try and wreck out of this race, first by himself and then with help from Clint Bowyer. But when the dust settled, the No. 12 stayed on the lead lap each time and worked his way back to 14th at the finish, keeping himself in Chase contention.

Worth Noting

  • Stewart’s win marks his third in his last four starts, the first time that’s happened since 2005. Ironically, that’s the year of Stewart’s last title.
  • Denny Hamlin (second) had his best career Cup finish in four road course starts.
  • Fellows (fourth) had his best Cup finish in three years.
  • Robby Gordon (fifth) now has five top-20 finishes in seven races.
  • Jeff Gordon now has finishes of ninth or better in 13 of the last 14 races.
  • Earnhardt Jr. (42nd) now had five DNFs this season – with four due to engine failure.
  • David Gilliland (11th) had his best finish since Talladega in April.

What’s The Points?

As Jeff Gordon said so himself, what is the point of the old points system for him? He’s in another time zone right now, carrying a 344-point lead over Hamlin heading to Michigan. Behind those two, Kenseth, Stewart, and Carl Edwards round out the top five.

Behind them, Jeff Burton, Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Harvick and Bowyer round out the top 10. Behind them, the race for the final Chase spot heads up: Truex and Kurt Busch round out the current field, but Newman sits just 96 points behind in 13th. Earnhardt Jr. dropped down to 14th, 100 back, and has a tough road in front of him.

Overall Rating (with a one being a stinker and a six-pack being a classic): Gotta give it five cans of Heineken. If only all road-course races could be like this.

Next Up: Next Sunday, the series heads from the winding roads of Watkins Glen to the Irish Hills of Michigan for the annual summer 400-miler. The 3M Performance 400 will come your way this Sunday, August 19th, at 1:00 p.m. on ESPN, or your local MRN affiliate.

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