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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin’s Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2007 Richmond Fall Race Recap

The Key Moment: Jimmie Johnson left the pits in the lead during the final caution period and was never headed.

In a Nutshell: Another race where a few drivers dominated portions of the event – but there was, in fact, some great racing behind them. I just hope Frontstretch‘s own Jeff Meyer and Mr. David Poole can agree to disagree on this one.

Dramatic Moment: The three-way battle between Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart was outstanding, it’s just too bad they were scrapping for second.

As far as the much ballyhooed, all singing, all dancing, must-see-TV Chase, Kurt Busch got hit hard during the Ryan Newman/Matt Kenseth incident. Kevin Harvick had to take to the grass to avoid the mess, and his car began overheating badly. That incident had the potential to eliminate them both and put Junior into the Chase. During the ensuing red flag, the crowd went wild – but both drivers recovered with solid finishes.

Author’s Note: Of course, Junior still would have blown an engine and missed the Chase anyway, at which point the DEI engine department would had to have been put into the Federal Witness Protection Program.

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

So, Joe Gibbs Racing is now officially joining the Toyota ranks in 2008? That would seem to make it very important for next year’s Gibbs drivers – Stewart, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin – to win the Chase this year, because starting next year it seems extremely unlikely they’ll be winning races, much less championships. And will the last person out the door at Michael Waltrip Racing please shut off the lights? I’d say it’s a pretty safe bet they are no longer Toyota’s flagship operation.

When Clint Bowyer got into the side of leader Hamlin on lap 200, the No. 11 car got out of shape… but it seemed the yellow caution lights were already on when Gordon passed Hamlin to take over the lead. Why wasn’t the field frozen at the moment of caution? I don’t think that Hamlin was “below minimum speed.” He may have looked like a monkey trying to hump a football behind the wheel (to paraphrase Smokey Yunick), but he kept his boot in it with a nifty bit of driving expertise.

People have told me that given a few more races to get used to them, I’d no longer even notice the Car of Tomorrow design. Nope, sorry – it’s still “Starving Mongrel-Pork Chop” ugly.

The lawyers, AT&T, Nextel, NASCAR et al finally struck a compromise on the logos of the No. 31 car. AT&T can run their logos for the rest of this year and all of next season, but must leave the sport at the end of 2008. So, who won? The lawyers who pocketed all those fees, naturally. The other big winners were the networks that carry Cup racing. In addition to providing sponsorship for the No. 31 team, AT&T spends big bucks buying ad minutes during race broadcasts. The company was threatening to pull those ad buys if they weren’t allowed to appear on the No. 31… any more questions as to why this matter was settled? Right now, the networks are optimistic they can turn Cup racing from a venture that loses them a large fortune to one that loses them a smaller fortune.

It’s kind of sad so many newer fans have no idea how successful Robert Yates and his teams were in their prime, especially during those magic years Davey Allison drove the No. 28 Texaco car. Yates kept the home fires for Ford burning for many years, culminating in a championship with Dale Jarrett at the end of the 1999 season. Good luck on your retirement, Mr. Yates; you’ll be missed.

There have been three major fires after wrecks in NASCAR’s top series in two weeks; I thought the cable-operated fuel pumps were supposed to eliminate that. To make matters worse, it sure looked like the door foam ignited in the No. 42 car Saturday night.

You know, if those folks out in California had decided to clone Richmond rather than Michigan, they might be able to sell the place out. One more time… bring back the Southern 500! More folks attended the Darlington race weekend on Mother’s Day than showed up at California over the Labor Day weekend. Oh, and as far as complaints about the heat in Darlington…

Nielsen ratings for last week’s California race were 3.7, down from a 5.0 last year, so apparently the viewers at home haven’t embraced this alleged race, either.

The driver who now heads the points has had his crew chief suspended twice in the last two seasons for cheating. Yeah, that has to improve the credibility of our sport in the eyes of the stick-and-ball sport types. Of course, when the penalties for bad-mouthing the sanctioning body are as bad as those for deliberate rules infractions, maybe the sport doesn’t have enough legitimacy to be damaged. It’s like questioning Paris Hilton’s virtue.

Richmond is a great track, but if any team of track workers is slower to clean up the track after a wreck, they must be working at a quarter-mile dirt track in Afghanistan.

I think I’m beginning to sense the root of some of the problems the No. 8 team is having. Junior spends too much time complaining about the car and not enough time explaining what changes he needs to make it better. By the time they get him calmed down enough to figure out how to fix things, the race is half over.

The newest drinking game for NASCAR parties – Everyone has to chug a beer when the phrase “That was a great explanation, Tim” is used. Plan on having cabs on hand to get guests home safely.

Maybe I’m looking at the past through rose tinted glasses, but I don’t recall ESPN in the good ol’ days ever missing a restart.

Dario Franchitti is coming to NASCAR? I hope he leaves Ashley Judd with the IRL. Just wait until the Bubs down in Bama get a load of a guy with an Italian name and a Scottish accent. (For the record, he can drive the wheels off a car, but he’s shown an unfortunate tendency to flip them over at high speed this season. So I’d guess in his eyes, the big, boxy monster that is the Car of Horror looks pretty sweet compared to a petite open-wheel doodlebug).

I know track’s ad departments need to show the marquee drivers who will put butts in the seats. But the latest Martinsville ad is out of hand. It features four drivers: Gordon, Earnhardt Jr., Stewart and Johnson, all of whom drive Chevys. When Fords are shown in the ad, they are inevitably wrecking. But no Toyotas are highlighted, so I guess the Martinsville PR folks do know what they’re doing, after all.

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

Carl Edwards took the lead of the race nearing the halfway point, but he knew his engine was terminally ill; it erupted in smoke 15 laps later. But you have to like this guy’s attitude. “Damn, that was fun.” Blowing an engine was fun? You’ve really got to try a root canal, Carl. You’ll have a hoot.

Maybe Earnhardt Jr. needs to go talk to Edwards. He didn’t seem to think blowing an engine was any fun. Of course, he’s had a lot of chances to get to accept it this season. Even Junior’s biggest detractors won’t be able to say he didn’t go down with both guns blazing trying to make the Chase.

Hamlin had a strong car and a shot at the win until his hand brushed the kill switch while he reached for a bottle of water during a pit stop. He lost 20 positions and could only fight his way back to sixth. Hamlin has won one race this season, but he’s “almost won” another half dozen more.

Jamie McMurray had a top-10 run going when he got swept up in the big wreck of the night.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

Johnson‘s team cost him the lead on one pit stop, but made it up to the driver at crunch time.

Gordon felt he had damaged the clutch on his car leaving pit road after the first stop, but still went on to finish fourth.

Harvick had to dodge several wrecks directly in his path, and when his car was overheating on pit road, it looked terminal. Still, he held on to finish the race in seventh place, clinching his chances at a title.

Juan Pablo Montoya emerged from a fiery wreck both unscathed and seemingly amused.

David Ragan finished third. I wasn’t sure he was ever going to finish a race the way he ran earlier this season.

Normally, finishing 23rd and 24th isn’t considered great fortune, but for Team Red Bull to get both cars in the race, have them both finish the race, and finish in the top 25 is notable… and for the second straight week, no less. They’ll probably be mixing their Red Bull with Dom Perignon tomorrow.

Maybe it’s best for NASCAR that Harvick did make the Chase. If not, we’d all be talking about all the points he lost when the right side door foam caught fire in his car earlier this season and forced him to bail out.

Worth Noting

  • Johnson won both Richmond races this year. Prior to this season, he’d had just one top-10 finish at Richmond in nine starts.
  • The top-10 finishers drove seven Chevys, a pair of Dodges and a lone Ford. David Reutimann in 13th was the top-finishing Toyota.
  • The 12 drivers who made the Chase will compete in nine Chevys, two Fords (Kenseth and Edwards) and a Dodge (Kurt Busch).
  • Johnson won back-to-back races for the second time this season. Two other drivers have won back-to-back races, Gordon (Phoenix and Talladega) and Stewart (Chicago and Indianapolis). Two teams, Hendrick and Gibbs, have combined to win 16 of 26 races this season.
  • Stewart has top-10 finishes in seven of the last eight races, winning three of those events.
  • Ragan enjoyed the best finish of his Cup career. Other drivers enjoyed not being run into by Ragan.
  • Jeff Gordon posted his first top 10 finish in four races.
  • Johnny Sauter posted the first top-five finish of his 56-event Cup career.
  • Harvick posted his first top-10 finish since Indianapolis.
  • Kasey Kahne has scored three consecutive top-10 finishes.
  • Kurt Busch hasn’t finished worse than 11th in the last nine Cup races.
  • JJ Yeley scored his second top-10 finish of the season, as he keeps the seat in the No. 18 car warm for Kyle Busch.
  • Reutimann posted the best finish of his Cup career.
  • Earnhardt Jr. suffered his sixth DNF of 2007, the fifth such result caused by a blown engine.
  • With 10 races still left to run, Chevrolet has already locked up this year’s manufacturers’ title. If you’re surprised, you haven’t been paying attention.

What’s the Points?

Wow, if NASCAR had just left the Chase format at 10 drivers, there’d have been some excitement. Kurt Busch and Martin Truex Jr. would have ended the regular season tied in points, and both would have made the Chase (that’s the rules). Behind them, Harvick would have missed the Chase by five points. Gee, looks like NASCAR’s expanding the field to 12 drivers trying to make sure Junior, Stewart and Gordon all made it backfired big time.

Under the old points system, Gordon would be first in points, 410 markers ahead of fourth-place Johnson. That’s under the points system the way God and Dale Earnhardt ordained it. But with the advent of the Chase, Gordon moves down to second, 20 points behind Johnson. 12th-place Harvick is given a mere 664-point mulligan, and is now 30 points behind Gordon. Hey, I’m not going to be out lighting off fireworks to celebrate Gordon’s fifth title, but the man clearly earned it this year, no matter who wins it.

But on to reality. Heading to New Hampshire, Johnson now leads the points, Gordon is second and Stewart is third. Edwards and Kurt Busch share fourth, while six drivers are tied for fifth and Bowyer is 12th. What an abomination that is. I really hate this Chase Deal.

Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans with one being a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic) – I give this one three bottles of cold Corona served by a comely lass. If you just ignored the fact that the No. 48 car was on cruise control for the win ahead of them, the battling inside the top 10 behind him was outstanding for the final 40 laps.

Next Up: The Chase hype kicks off in earnest at New Hampshire, a track unlikely to provide any semblance of real racing, but one that could be the perfect recipe for a pleasant fall afternoon’s nap. Repeat after me… “This is not your father’s NASCAR.”

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