NASCAR Race Weekend Central

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

The Key Moment – When Jeff Gordon buzzed the rear tires on the final restart, Clint Bowyer ran into the back of him, propelling the No. 24 forward rather than passing him.

In a Nutshell – More of the same tepid brew. The finish was exciting, but you had to endure a lot of spread out processional racing for several hours to see it (and stay awake).

Dramatic Moment – Whether the drama was real or manufactured as a ploy, that final restart had fans on their feet.

Waiting to see if Kyle Busch was going to flat out park his soon-to-be former teammate on the penultimate restart to steal the win. It’s not like there’s a lot of love lost between Busch and Hendrick Motorsports.

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

Was Gordon really concerned about running out of fuel, or playing possum knowing the No. 07 team was monitoring his radio? He sure had enough gas to do some extended burnouts.

In the event a stricken car really oils down the track like the No. 66 did Saturday night, should NASCAR allow the teams to have a crew member go to the car under the red flag and clean the windshield or remove a tear-off for safety’s sake? It seems unfair to make a team decide whether to let their driver try to finish the race with obstructed vision, or pit and surrender track position to get the windshield cleaned off. I seem to recall the late Dale Earnhardt riding around at Martinsville during a caution and popping half out of his car with a rag to clean the mud off his windshield without penalty. It worked, but it was a damn fool thing to do. He could easily have fallen out of the car.

Is it possible for a team to get overconfident and cost their driver a win? It appeared that crew chief Chad Knaus was so confident that Johnson could pass cars at will that he played his pit strategy conservatively, repeatedly dropping his driver back in the danger zone. Time after time, Johnson was able to drive back to the lead, but it didn’t work out so well that last time.

Did anyone else review the finishing order and think they were hallucinating? Michael Waltrip in 10th? Tony Stewart up to seventh and Kasey Kahne in eighth despite their wrecking on pit road? Ricky Rudd in 11th? Dave Blaney sixth? David Stremme ninth? What’s in that tea, Alice?

It appears that Bowyer might be ready to contend for a title after all. Is his pit crew?

Why didn’t Jeff Green do the courteous thing and drop down onto the apron when his engine expired? That cleanup seemed to drag on forever. Even after taking all that time, the track was still a mess. Should the red flag have flown for a second time, or were network affiliates demanding they get their local news broadcasts on by 12:15?

For the second straight week, ESPN/ABC hustled off the air after the race, interviewing only the winner and one or two drivers. If they’d just start these dang races earlier, they’d have more time to do post-race coverage. A race that ends after midnight Eastern time is ridiculous.

On a brighter note, it looks like the dog that is ESPN’s “Draft Tracks” has finally been dragged behind the barn and dispatched with a single bullet. Surely, a lot of money was spent on the “technology” but that dog just wouldn’t hunt.

Editor’s Note: While Draft Track did not make air Saturday night, it continues to be a part of ESPN’s plan for the foreseeable future, and will be aired in future broadcasts.

Let’s see. The Chase was supposed to improve TV ratings. It hasn’t. The Chase was supposed to sell tickets in the grandstands. There were an alarming number of empty seats at Charlotte once again, so that didn’t work. The Chase was supposed to increase the intensity of the racing. To say it hasn’t done so is an understatement. The Chase was supposed to make the title battle more exciting. It hasn’t worked out that way. It’s Gordon’s title to lose now, just like it was after the regular season ended. It’s time to scrap this mess. If there has to be some sort of convoluted points system to help NASCAR compete with the NFL, let someone creative and intelligent like Humpy Wheeler design the system, not Brian France. Everything Brian France knows about stock car racing could be written on the head of a pin with a magic marker.

It’s a bit confusing for fans who aren’t mechanically inclined, but I’ve been asked this more than once lately. With all the cars required to run the same final drive ratio under the new rules and with all the tires the same circumference, why don’t all the drivers have the same pit road rpm to maintain pit road speed? NASCAR mandates that fourth gear in the transmissions be a 1:1 ratio, but teams are still allowed to run whatever first, second and third gear ratios they decide. Most drivers use second gear readings to maintain pit road speed.

Wait a second. Dale Earnhardt Jr. slaps the wall and knocks his car out of contention and there’s no video to show what happened? Even the announcers seemed shocked by the damage to the side of the No. 8 car under caution. I thought they had at least three cameras trained on the Junior at all times.

OK, here’s this week’s picks for the dumbest and smartest guys in the world. British financier Robert Kauffman has agreed to buy half of Michael Waltrip Racing, and will manage his investment via the internet. That’s like sailing a check to buy half the Titanic from the base of the iceberg it just hit. On the other hand, Dale Jarrett tried to save whatever dignity he has left intact by announcing that he’ll run five races and the All-Star event for MWR, after which he’ll retire. Retrospect will prove that Jarrett officially retired from racing when he cashed that big check from Toyota. Since then he’s occasionally been cruising around laps behind the leaders cashing some big paychecks.

Congressional aides being sent to Talladega and Charlotte to study situational preparedness for a terrorist attack at a major sporting event (i.e. – a NASCAR race) were advised to get more inoculations to come to a stock car event than if they were headed to the Sudan. OK, I read all I could find on the story, and these folks were not only going to the races. They were going to hospitals and other healthcare facilities to see how prepared the institutions that would be faced with a massive influx of patients in the wake of a biological or chemical attack at a race were for such an eventuality. As such, there is some logic to getting immunized against diseases like influenza and hepatitis. But can you imagine the uproar if these same folks were being sent to an NBA game and had been given the same list of advised health precautions? Maybe the aides should have been told, “Don’t drink the water.” Not that there’s anything wrong with it, of course, but at $3 a bottle it’s just too dang expensive.

With all the open-wheel stars headed to NASCAR racing, are IRL and Champ Car team owners going to be forced to cruise skid row offering free bottles of wine to vagrants to fill the seats for their races next year? Tony George and the powers that were at CART back when there was still a CART are to be commended for destroying what was once the predominant form of motorsports in this country in record time. As you sow, so shall you reap,

Last week the politicos in Concord ordered Bruton Smith to stop building his new drag strip at Lowe’s Motor Speedway. At which point, Smith pointedly said he was going to take his ball and go home, taking with him the tens of millions of dollars the races pump into the local economy. Now, the same politicians are proposing tax incentives to help Smith build his new drag strip. A note to yuppies looking to build a new McMansion near a racetrack that predates your subdivision by four decades: be prepared for a little noise and traffic occasionally, or buy elsewhere. A quick online search should help you locate the Mason-Dixon Line quickly. Ya’ll want to be on the north side of it.

Lately it seems that there’s little reason to watch the first two-thirds of a stock car race. Drivers run around in circles positioning themselves for the laps that really count often separated by several second intervals. So, here’s my prescription for improving race ratings. Call it the TiVo approach. In addition to the live broadcast for the hardcore, offer one-hour coverage on a cable network. Use the first 20 minutes to catch viewers up on what happened in the first three-quarters of the race with highlights, then cut to the live race for its finish. Some people have a high threshold for boredom as evidenced by the fact folks still watch baseball. But in this era of instant internet satisfaction, I’m not sure there’s enough viewers to keep the current Cup races viable.

Matt Kenseth‘s official sponsor for the event was “Carhartt for Women.” Hey, I love my Carhartt jacket and overalls I wear to go snowmobiling. I am warm-blooded and they help me survive winter. But nothing looks worse on a woman than a Carhartt jacket. Heck, those bulky mustard colored jackets could make Heather Locklear look frumpy. Stick to the Levi’s denim jacket, ladies. We’ll keep you warm.

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

Ryan Newman made a kamikaze pass on the penultimate restart to take the lead, but wrecked a lap later. He felt he had a tire going down. It appears more likely he hit oil that hadn’t been cleared from the track.

Johnson clearly had the dominant car until it got out from under him late in the race. While a 14th-place finish was a lot better than things could have turned out, I have little doubt that Johnson would have won barring the wreck. Running out of gas late didn’t help much, either.

Kenseth‘s title hopes were all but dead, anyway, but he drove the last few nails in the coffin with his lap 157 solo wreck. The next two wrecks were just shoveling more dirt.

Denny Hamlin was making lemons out of lemonade when his transmission finally fragged with 10 laps to go after threatening to do so for much of the race.

Kevin Harvick‘s night was ruined by a flat tire early in the race. The fact Harvick misdiagnosed which tire was flat made a bad situation worse.

All Bill Elliott was trying to do was help get the storied No. 21 team back into the Top 35 in points. He ended up taking a violent hit into the outside wall after Casey Mears blew a tire while passing him.

Kurt Busch was having a strong run prior to a pit-road collision. His night took a turn for the worse when his engine dropped a cylinder.

Scott Riggs seemed to have a top-10 finish in hand when he crashed late in the race.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

If Gordon was, in fact, in danger of running out of fuel, he pulled a rabbit out of his hat there at the end. He was also quite fortunate that Junior never got back to his rear bumper before cooling off.

It was a pretty good weekend for Jeff Burton with his win Friday night and his fourth-place finish on Saturday night after being a non-factor for most of the event. Hey, finishing a race is an improvement for this team.

Kyle Busch appeared to be a driver looking for a place to wreck when misfortune dropped him back in the pack. His team got him calmed down, and Busch managed a respectable and clean third-place finish.

Tony Stewart‘s night looked like it was over after a pit-road collision. But the team patched the car back together well enough that Stewart managed a seventh-place finish.

As Stremme struggles to find a new ride, a ninth-place finish at Charlotte is a nice addition to his resume.

Blaney (sixth) had his second consecutive top-10 finish.

Despite his spin that triggered the Kenseth-Andretti wreck, Waltrip is currently shown as finishing 10th. How the Hell did that happen?

Rudd is rapidly approaching full retirement and missed several races after being injured at California. But he will not go quietly into the long good night. Rudd posted an 11th-place finish at Charlotte, which was a real morale booster for Yates Racing as they struggle to find sponsorship for 2008.

Worth Noting

  • Gordon is averaging a fourth-place finish in the five Chase races run to date. That sort of statistic is going to make him tough to beat. The four Hendrick drivers have combined to win 14 of this season’s 31 points races to date.
  • Bowyer has a win and two second-place finishes in those five Chase races.
  • Kyle Busch actually has three top-five finishes in the five Chase races. It’s those 36th and 41st place results in the other two events that have doomed his title chances. Stewart has four top-10 finishes in the same five races, but his 39th-place finish at Kansas looms large.
  • Burton (fourth) drove to his first top-five finish since Labor Day in Fontana.
  • Stremme (ninth) had his best finish since Talladega this spring.
  • Waltrip’s 10th-place finish matched his best of the season.
  • Rudd (11th) returned to racing with his best finish since Sonoma.
  • AJ Allmendinger (15th) scored the best finish of his Cup career.
  • Chevrolets claimed the top four finishing spots and five of the top-10 positions. The top 10 was rounded out by two Dodges, two Toyotas and a lone Ford.
  • Allmendinger in 15th was the best-finishing rookie.

What’s the Points?

Gordon continues to lead the points. He lost that points lead several times during the race according to the “if points were awarded now” graphics. They weren’t; as per usual, the points were awarded after the race concluded. That silliness has got to stop. Johnson is still second, but is now 68 points behind Gordon. Bowyer remains third, a further 10 points behind Johnson. Realistically the title battle has boiled down to these three. Stewart remains fourth in the points, but is 198 out of the lead.

Behind the top four, Burton moved up two spots to 10th, while Kyle Busch moved up two spots to sixth. The bad news for Busch is that he is almost two full races worth of points out of the lead. Carl Edwards moves up a spot to fifth, but the leaders are a trail of dust on the horizon ahead of him.

Harvick took the biggest hit in the points, dropping three spots to eighth. Martin Truex Jr. and Kenseth each dropped a spot; they are now 11th and 12th, respectively, and would need space aliens to kidnap Gordon, Johnson and Bowyer to have a chance at the title.

In the Best of the Rest competition, Earnhardt Jr. maintains 13th spot. Mears bypasses Newman for 14th, but is 122 behind Earnhardt despite the fact he’s won a race this year and Earnhardt has not. Did I mention the current points system is screwed up? Newman is 15 points behind Mears.

Back in the pack of the Invisible Men, Bobby Labonte moved up a spot to 17th. JJ Yeley moves up a spot to 18th, while Jamie McMurray drops to 19th. Kasey Kahne fills out the top 20, displacing Juan Pablo Montoya.

Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans with one being a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic) – I’m torn on this one. It might have been a three, a long, drawn out race with a decent conclusion. But I give it four cans of adequately chilled domestic stuff on sale. I suppose after the Talladega race, any sort of imitation of real racing would look as good as a stale bologna sandwich might to a starving man.

Next Up – Set the Wayback Machine for the fall foray to Martinsville Speedway, a quaint artifact from our collective past Brian France hasn’t found a way to shut down yet.

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