NASCAR Race Weekend Central

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

The Key MomentRyan Newman appeared ready to get around Jimmie Johnson; however, he had to back down when David Ragan‘s last-lap spin caused the race to end under caution.

In a Nutshell – Hand-to-hand short track combat, racing the way it ought to be.

Dramatic Moment – A two-lap shootout at Martinsville had every fan in the jam-packed grandstands on their feet.

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

Unlike some other racetracks recently, there weren’t any empty seats at Martinsville. Hmm. Is there a lesson there? It seems NASCAR’s three remaining short tracks are perpetual sellouts.

I guess it’s ironic that Newman spun Ragan earlier in the race, and Ragan’s last-lap spin ended Newman’s chances to finally end his victory drought – a mark which now stands at 77 races.

After yet another mechanical failure, will the No. 8 team let Dale Earnhardt Jr. run the old-style engine rather than their trouble-prone R07s for the final four races of the season?

Reports a few years ago claimed some teams were hiding traction control devices in their alternators, but the resultant alternator’s durability was suspect. So, why do the same teams keep having charging system issues?

What can be done at Martinsville to keep the drivers, teams, and fans from suffering from the ill-effects of exposure to carbon monoxide?

BOWLES: JOHNSON PROVING EXCEPTIONAL IN TITLE DEFENSE

Lately NASCAR has become more and more like Formula 1 racing. Increasingly, one or two superteams dominate the sport, and the cars are more important than driver skill. There’s not much passing, and increasingly, the real drama is played out in courtrooms – not on the track. But for all the faults F1 seems to possess, at least their points system seems to work. This year’s title came down to a three-man battle for the top spot, and the driver (Lewis Hamilton) leading the points entering the Brazilian Grand Prix drove poorly, had mechanical issues, and lost the title. The key points to the Grand Prix points system NASCAR needs to look at are twofold. First, winning a race earns a driver substantially more points than finishing second, and points are only awarded to drivers who finish in what amounts to the top half of the field. All other drivers earn zero points.

Robin Miller of SpeedTV claims that a move is in the works to have Jim France take over running NASCAR while Brian France would take the reins of the Grand Am series. Let’s just say if I have a vote in the matter, I vote “HELL YES” – with apologies to fans of the Grand Am series, of course.

When a race breaks the Martinsville record for caution flags in a single event, you know it was a long race. This week, NASCAR officials decided not to red flag the event when Bill Elliott blew an engine and oiled down the track with a handful of laps to run. That’s a far cry from the week before, when the 500-miler at Lowe’s came to a halt for over 12 minutes – even as Saturday night inched ever closer towards Sunday morning. I’d just like to see some consistency in NASCAR’s calls.

Apparently, ESPN was stung by criticisms of their missing restarts during a race. They did a much better job of catching the restarts this time, and that’s tough at Martinsville, as yellow-flag laps pass quickly on the .526-mile short track. However, it did seem NASCAR might be trying to give the network a hand by extending the length of cautions for routine single-car spins to accommodate the TV folks.

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

Earnhardt Jr.‘s engine was failing for the last half of the race, but he managed to stay in the top five… until the last handful of laps.

If he can find a ride for next year, David Stremme ought to consider Maytag as a sponsor. He spent much of the race in the spin cycle.

Give Martin Truex Jr. the “Cole Trickle” award, because he actually did hit everything but the pace car.

Kurt Busch had a blown tire drop him from contention.

Bobby Labonte had a solid race going until Tony Raines drove into the back of him late in the race.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

Jeff Gordon dropped from the lead pack to 33rd when his pit crew failed to tighten a lugnut, but he charged his way back through the field and used pit strategy to contend for the win once again. A timely caution also helped Gordon, who didn’t have a full load of fuel because the catch can fell out of the car during a stop. When’s the last time the No. 24 team made two crucial mistakes in one race?

Denny Hamlin had an eventful day – the No. 11 car was all used up by the end of the race – but he still posted a top-10 finish.

Juan Pablo Montoya seemed to get sideways every lap in the middle portions of the race, but he went on to finish in the top-10, as well.

Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart could easily have been eliminated after getting stacked up in both Kyle Petty and one of Truex’s wrecks late. Edwards also nearly drove straight into the wall on one restart, but managed to gather the car back up. Edwards wound up 11th and Stewart 13th, respectively.

Worth Noting

  • The win was Johnson’s third consecutive victory at Martinsville, his fourth overall and his 10th consecutive top-10 finish at the track.
  • Newman finished second for the third time this season.
  • Gordon (third) hasn’t finished worse than 11th in the six Chase races to date.
  • Kyle Busch (fourth) has top-five finishes in four of the six Chase races; wrecks at Kansas and Talladega are what’s killed his title hopes.
  • Matt Kenseth (fifth) drove to his first top-five finish of the Chase, and his first such finish since Michigan in August.
  • Greg Biffle (seventh) had a top-10 finish at Martinsville for the first time in his career.
  • Montoya (eighth) enjoyed his best finish since Indianapolis.
  • Clint Bowyer (ninth) hasn’t finished worse than 12th in any of the six Chase races.
  • Truex (19th) has now gone five consecutive races without a top-10 finish.
  • Kurt Busch (31st) finished 25th or worse for the fourth time in the playoffs. Prior to the Chase, he hadn’t finished worse than 11th in nine consecutive races.
  • The top 10 finishers drove six Chevys, two Dodges, and a pair of Fords. The best finishing Toyota was David Reutimann in 17th.
  • Montoya was the top-finishing rookie of the race for the 14th time this season.

What’s the Points?

For all intents and purposes, this year’s championship battle has come down to a two man affair. Gordon still leads the points, but Johnson’s victory closes him to within 53 of his Hendrick Motorsports teammate. Bowyer remains third, but is now 110 points behind Gordon, probably an insurmountable gap with just four races left to run. Stewart, Edwards and Kyle Busch remain fourth, fifth and sixth, respectively; Stewart is 244 points out of the lead, while Edwards and Busch are tied, 280 points back.

Looking further back, Kurt Busch had the worst points day amongst the title contenders, dropping three spots to 10th. That allowed Kevin Harvick, Hamlin and Jeff Burton each to advance a spot to seventh, eighth and ninth. Truex and Kenseth remain behind them all, three full races worth of points out of the lead and planted securely in the Chase basement.

Earnhardt Jr. maintains “Best of the Rest” honors in 13th. However, he is now just 66 points ahead of 14th-place Newman. 15th-place Biffle is a further 29 points behind him, while Casey Mears fell two positions to 16th, allowing Newman and Biffle to each advance a spot.

On another note, Michael Waltrip moved up two spots to 44th; he is a mere 5,031 points out of the lead (and only 2,580 behind 13th-place Earnhardt Jr.).

Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans, with one being a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic) – We’ll give this one a five, though it might have been a six had the race ended under the green flag – or simply if the action hadn’t been slowed 21 times by caution flags.

Next Up – This many Yankees haven’t headed to Atlanta since Sherman led the March to the Sea.

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