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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin’s Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2007 Bristol Night Race Recap

The Key MomentCarl Edwards used the No. 55 car as a pick to pass Kasey Kahne on lap 335, and from there, he drove off into the night.

In a Nutshell – A kinder, gentler Bristol? How are fans going to react to that?

Dramatic Moment – There was an extended battle between Edwards, Kahne and Dale Earnhardt Jr. just after the 300-lap mark that provided the best action of the evening.

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

OK, so it was a kinder, gentler Bristol… or maybe even Bristol Lite. And some fans who came expecting to see the usual carnage aren’t going to be happy. But as I see it, while two drivers dominated in the pack, there was some great side-by-side racing and a whole lot of passing… two things rarely seen at Bristol. Give the concrete a couple of years to age, have Goodyear bring some racier rubber, and my gut tells me the new Bristol configuration is going to be the greatest thing since Pop-Top beer cans.

What have Edwards and his Cup and Busch teams figured out about these concrete tracks that nobody else has?

Note to the ESPN boys in the booth and their pit rat counterparts; enough with the bogus Chase hype. The field is set: Junior is not going to make it, neither is Ryan Newman, and a driver like Bobby Labonte certainly isn’t “on the bubble.” Most fans are savvy enough to know how things stand, and dishonesty and hype diminish your professionalism.

The finish to Friday night’s Busch Series race was a barnburner, but fans at home really got fired up when their TV screens went blank right at the crucial moment. The issue was blamed on a satellite feed problem, and I guess those things happen; but ESPN needs to look into what went wrong and have a backup in place for next time. It seems that there have been a lot of audio and video snafus since they took over the schedule.

What in hell was Michael Waltrip thinking battling hard with the leaders in his chronically slow Toyota? Well, I guess that’s one way to get the sponsors some camera time, but as I see it, blocking the leaders when you’re already two laps down is dirty pool.

A NASCAR spokesperson said this weekend that the organization is getting “fed up” with the AT&T lawsuit to change the decals on the No. 31 car. RCR was warned their car would not pass tech inspection with AT&T branding on it, so the car arrived at Bristol shorn of primary sponsor decals. With the sport now holding the latest victory in a bitter court battle, the NASCAR spokesperson went on to say AT&T was being dishonest with fans. Well, speaking as a fan, I’m getting a bit tired of NASCAR being dishonest with me, and fed up with this whole sorry mess. I prefer to see battles decided on the track and not in a court of law. Frankly, the whole thing would seem a bit more palatable if Nextel wasn’t changing their name to Sprint and rebranding the sport to a new logo at the same time. For the record, I still refuse to carry a cell phone and support any law that would make it illegal to use one of the damn things in a car, restaurant, movie theater, store or sporting event.

MEYER: SIMPLE SOLUTIONS FOR THE CINGULAR LOGO PROBLEM

Most fans aren’t going to work up a lot of sympathy for a blown call by NASCAR that likely cost Kyle Busch a Busch Series win on Saturday, but the situation and how it was handled are emblematic of the sport’s current credibility problem. Late in the race, Busch postured like he was headed to pit road to “trick” fellow competitors, but then swerved back onto the track. NASCAR officials said he had committed a “commitment cone” violation; however, TV video showed clearly that not only had the infraction not taken place, it wasn’t even particularly close. Still, Busch was ordered to the end of the longest line, and while enraged, he was perhaps mindful of Robby Gordon‘s recent suspension for ignoring orders from the control tower.

Reluctantly dropping to the back of the pack, Busch took his punishment and the race resumed. In the end, he clawed his way from 25th to fourth, then argued after the race – and quite reasonably – that since the call was in dispute, NASCAR should have continued to run under yellow until they sorted the mess out. That’s not how things usually work, but longtime fans might recall an incident with the late Dale Earnhardt and the No. 3 car back in Rockingham. In that instance, a pit official claimed that a tire changer had not gotten all five lugnuts on a wheel while the tire changer argued he had. Earnhardt was ordered to pit to have the fifth lugnut installed, but when he came to a stop, it was clear that that all five lugs were in place and tight. At that point, NASCAR threw a caution flag and allowed the No. 3 car to resume its rightful place in the running order. So, it does happen, but only for select high-profile drivers, and that’s not how the rules of a sport are supposed to be implemented.

Who’s the programming genius who decided next weekend’s Busch Series race should start after 10 p.m. ET? I’m just glad I’ll be at a barbecue not covering that mess.

I don’t know who developed the color changing graphics on the No. 42 Texaco car, but that was one of the coolest paint schemes I’ve ever seen. It’s almost enough to make me buy another diecast car again. Almost.

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

Denny Hamlin was running in the top five when his engine began laying down; it finally expired in fiery fashion on lap 210. For Hamlin, it was his first DNF since Martinsville in the early spring of 2006, and only the second in his 67 Cup starts to date.

Matt Kenseth had won the last two Bristol night races, but couldn’t avoid hitting the spinning No. 88 car late in the race, a wreck which ended his evening.

Martin Truex Jr. had a car that seemed to be a contender until lugnuts left loose on a pit stop forced him to the pits for a second time, and he had to restart at the back of the line of lead-lap cars. I guess his 11th-place finish was decent in retrospect.

Maybe David Ragan ought to be sponsored by Maytag, because he was in the spin cycle all night. Three of the night’s nine cautions were caused by solo spins involving the No. 6 car.

Jeff Gordon ran up front early, but pitted late in a green-flag sequence of stops just before a caution flag flew. That trapped Gordon a lap down, and while he eventually regained that lap, he was mired in traffic and hit from behind while slowing for the Ricky Rudd/Truex wreck.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

The fans on hand got to see the entire race, which even started on time. Considering the grim weather forecast that made it seem unlikely they’d be able to get the race in this month… that’s amazing. And, I might add, a huge relief after Michigan.

While he’ll probably remember this race as “one that got away,” second-place finisher Kahne was lucky to finish the race at all after nearly driving into the stalled car of Johnny Sauter. That was a masterful piece of driving on Kahne’s part. Coupled with a win in the Busch Series race, it was a great weekend for a driver who had been in danger of becoming irrelevant.

Edwards came close to wrecking himself after getting bumped by Juan Pablo Montoya early in the race, but Edwards also did a masterful job of driving to keep control.

After being a backmarker most of the night, Tony Stewart and the No. 20 car came alive late in the race to score a fourth-place finish. The top-five result helped Stewart take over second place in the points standings.

Doug Randolph took over as Bobby Labonte‘s crew chief prior to Michigan, and the No. 43 team has top-10 finishes in both races since. Just don’t tell Kyle. He might break his other hand.

Worth Noting

  • Edwards scored his second win of the season and his first top-five finish since Chicago. His victory was the first by a Ford driver in a Car of Horror.
  • Kahne scored his first top-five Cup finish of 2007.
  • Clint Bowyer‘s third-place finish matches the best of his Cup career. Bowyer also finished third at Fontana last September.
  • Stewart has top-10 finishes in the last six Cup races. He’s won three of those events.
  • It’s now been seven races since Kurt Busch has finished worse than 11th.
  • Kevin Harvick has missed the top 10 the last four times out.
  • Waltrip’s 23rd-place finish was actually the second best of his season.
  • The top-10 finishers drove two Fords, four Dodges and four Chevys. The best finishing Toyota pilot was Waltrip in 23rd.
  • Montoya’s 17th-place finish was the best result earned by a rookie.

What’s the Points?

Gordon still leads the points despite three consecutive disappointing finishes. The night’s big winner was actually Stewart, who leaps two spots into second… although he’s still a sobering 349 points behind Gordon. For the record, even if Stewart wins the next two races and Gordon finishes last, the No. 24 will finish out the regular season as the points leader.

Hamlin and Kenseth each fell a spot to third and fourth, respectively. Behind them, the rest of the top 12 held position. If 12th-place Kurt Busch finishes 15th or better in the next two races, he will be in the Chase even if Earnhardt Jr. wins both events and leads the most laps.

Beyond the circle of Chase contenders, Labonte and Montoya each moved up a spot to 17th and 18th, respectively, while Jamie McMurray fell two spots to 19th. JJ Yeley took over the 20th spot from Mark Martin, who did not race this weekend.

Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans, with one being a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic) – I’ll give this one four cans of icy cold Coors Light. Watching real racing rather than wrecking at Bristol left me feeling less dirty than the usual Bristol night race… even if it wasn’t as much fun.

Next Up – Here’s what I know. Next weekend is Labor Day weekend, and the Cup Series should be heading to Darlington for the Southern 500. Tragically, that won’t be happening. They tell me there will be a race somewhere out in southern California. I plan to ignore it. But on a brighter note, if Brian France gets a DUI charge out there, the jail sentence for rich, white, famous people is apparently 83 minutes.