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

The Key Moment – With two laps to go, Jimmie Johnson finally made the race-deciding pass on Matt Kenseth after a fiercely waged eight-lap battle.

In a Nutshell – Another sedate parade of a race that didn’t get interesting until the final 30 laps. It’s like having to eat a bucket full of manure to get a thin slice of cheesecake as dessert when you’re through.

Dramatic Moment – New England scored two late-race touchdowns, oh, right, sorry.

Kenseth and Denny Hamlin put on one heck of a battle late in the race until Hamlin finally spun out and put himself in the wall.

That final 10-lap battle between the Nos. 48 and 17 was all a fan could ask for, other than having to endure three hours of tedium to see a good finish.

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

The NFL. Enough said.

Severe problems call for out of the box solutions that might seem insane at first, and even the second or third time you hear them. A problem plaguing most Cup races right now is that the drivers are content to ride around in formation, just putting themselves in position to take a run at the top 10 or even a win in the final 20 laps. It might be brilliant strategy, but it’s not much fun to watch. So here’s this week’s off the wall solution: Cut race lengths in half everywhere but the road courses and hold two races that pay a full complement of points. For example, Sunday’s 500-miler at Texas would become a pair of 250-mile races, with the winner of each collecting 190 points. There’d be a 20-minute intermission in between to allow networks to get a gaggle of ads out of the way, and to get cars reset for the next event. Then, the starting field for the second race would line up with the driver who led the most laps in the previous race on the pole, the driver who led the second most laps on the outside pole, etc. until everyone who led a lap in the first race was in place. Then, the drivers would line up based on the positions where they finished in the first event. Any driver and team whose car was destroyed in a wreck or suffered mechanical problems would start at the rear of the field in a backup car. As for the end of year 400-miler at Homestead? You could divide it into four 100-mile sprint races using the above rules, but with a 15-minute intermission between segments. If a team destroyed both their primary and backup cars before the final segment, well… at least they’d get a jump on the traffic.

As crazy as it sounds, I think this idea has merit. Fans in the stands and at home would see better racing, and they’d have two chances to see their favorite drivers win on a single afternoon. The points race would be much more volatile, too, with four races’ worth of points to collect at Homestead. Hey, maybe it’s not perfect… but the current TV ratings and amount of empty seats at the races say something radical has to be done soon.

With Bruton Smith having purchased the New Hampshire track from Bob Bahre, a lot of fans in New England are concerned they might lose one or both of its race dates. That’s always a possibility, but I don’t think so. If nothing else, Smith has proven ready to dump truckloads of money to tear down an existing track and rebuild it. He did it at Las Vegas, he did it at Atlanta and he’s done it numerous times at Texas. My guess is he razes NHIS and rebuilds it as a ¾-mile hybrid of Bristol and Richmond, then surrounds the place with grandstands reaching towards the sky a la Bristol. And even if New England fans lose one race in the process, with a new track, they might actually see a good race at long last.

Talk is finally dying down about NASCAR’s version of “Water-gate” after last week’s race at Atlanta, where water was found to have contaminated the fuel in several racecars. The most notable victim was Hamlin, whose team thought he had three gallons of gas left. Well, he had three gallons of water instead, and failed to come up to speed on a restart while leading the race. The incident also ended the day for Martin Truex Jr., who had a great run going on at Atlanta prior to slamming into the rear of the disabled No. 11 car on that restart. How such a thing is allowed to happen in a sport supposedly run by professionals baffles me.

Ratings for last week’s Atlanta race were down almost 17%. I’m sure some ABC executives had to be talked down off a ledge once those ratings were released. Here’s the rub; present a poor product poorly, and viewers will not watch in droves. Add in the Chase, the CoT, later starting times and a dearth of interesting personalities in the sport, and you have the makings of the perfect storm for ratings disasters. The old attitude of NASCAR brass to fans who didn’t like the changes they were making and announced their intentions to leave the sport was, “Go ahead you backwards crackers, we’ve got a better quality of fan waiting to replace you.” So, where are they? As the Boss hisself might say, “Don’t you worry, don’t you fret, we’re living in the future, and none of this has happened yet.”

It’s a sign of the new era of racing when Kenseth radioed his team to ask, “Would it be better just to settle for second?” as he battled Johnson for the lead. If Junior Johnson ever heard one of his drivers say that over the radio, he’d have fired his ass.

Sam Hornish Jr. hasn’t been able to make a Cup field despite numerous attempts. Now, there are rumors that Penske South is considering swapping the points earned by Kurt Busch and the No. 2 team to the struggling No. 06 outfit and Hornish. After all, if Busch doesn’t make the race on speed, he’ll likely get a past champion’s provisional starting spot, while the No. 2 team’s points would guarantee Hornish made the first five races of next season. And apparently, NASCAR is hunky-dory with this chicanery. Me, I think it’s unfair. Why reward a driver who hasn’t earned a single point at the expense of drivers who have run the full season this year to the best of their abilities?

That Spanish language broadcast on ESPN’s sister channel is actually a great way to pass the time. When I watched that coverage, I had no idea what they were talking about. When I returned to the English language coverage, it seemed way too many of the ESPN talking heads had no idea what they were talking about.

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

For the second week in a row, Hamlin was in position to win a race, only to end up with a miserable finish. Last week, it wasn’t his fault. This week, it was. Maybe he’s taking this “Fall Backwards” thing too literally?

AJ Allmendinger squandered a fifth-place starting spot by wrecking not once, not twice… but three times. The third incident on the backstretch finally ended his day. It’s almost like he let off the brakes and ran his Camry into the wall to end the misery after spinning the second time.

For the second straight week in a row, Kyle Busch lost a shot at a win in the pits late.

Clint Bowyer‘s team left a tire loose on a pit stop, forcing him back to the pits under green. Unfortunately, Bowyer misdiagnosed which tire it was, and he was forced to pit yet again – ruining his shot at a top-10 finish.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

Johnson almost got put into the wall when his soon-to-be-departed teammate Kyle Busch ran him hard on lap 277, using the lapped car of Bowyer as a pick.

Kenseth‘s day could easily have been ended when Hamlin lost control beneath him on lap 273.

Despite two flat tires that dropped him well back in the pack at times during the race, Kurt Busch left Texas with a top-10 finish (eighth).

Jeff Gordon almost wrecked on pit road on the final pit stop before pushing hard to finish seventh. Not great, but… a bigger incident might have handed the title to Johnson.

Kevin Harvick drove blind through a huge cloud of smoke after Casey Mears and Tony Stewart went spinning to escape Texas with a top 10 finish in an ill-handling car.

Despite getting spun by Mears in the No. 25, Stewart left Texas with a respectable 11th-place finish.

Worth Noting

  • The win was Johnson’s ninth of the season and his third in a row. For the record, the four Rick Hendrick teammates have now combined to win exactly half of this season’s 34 points races.
  • Gordon is not only chasing Johnson, he is chasing history. Gordon now has 28 top-10 finishes this season; the most top-10 finishes a driver has achieved in the modern era is 29 by Dale Jarrett in 1999. If Gordon finishes in the top 10 in either of the next two races, he ties the record; if he finishes in the top 10 in both, he breaks it.
  • Kenseth (second) has three consecutive top-five finishes for the first time since Fontana, Las Vegas, and Atlanta early this season.
  • Truex (third) had his best finish of the Chase.
  • Kyle Busch (fourth) has top-five finishes in three of the last four races.
  • Jamie McMurray (ninth) enjoyed his first top-10 finish since Dover. He’s averaged about a 27th-place finish in those five races in between.
  • Elliott Sadler (12th) had his best finish since Kansas. Scott Riggs‘s 13th-place finish was his best since Kansas, as well; it was also his final ride in the No. 10 Dodge, as Patrick Carpentier takes over at Phoenix.
  • The No. 8 team says they want to send Dale Earnhardt Jr. off with a win; um, maybe they ought to settle for a top 10? It’s been five races since Junior has finished even that well.
  • The top-10 finishers drove six Chevys, two Fords and two Dodges. The top-finishing Toyota was Dave Blaney in 21st.
  • The top-finishing rookie at Texas was Juan Pablo Montoya, who finished 25th, limping his wounded Dodge engine around the track on seven cylinders.

What’s the Points?

Johnson takes over the points lead, just as he did after this race last season en route to the championship. He now leads second-place Gordon by 30 points. Bowyer remains third, but a loose wheel dropped him to a staggering and probably insurmountable 181 points out of the lead.

Kyle Busch moved up two spots to fourth, but he is a sobering 339 points out and cannot win the title if Johnson so much as starts the final two races.

Behind Busch, Stewart and Carl Edwards each dropped one spot to fifth and sixth in the points, with Edwards now fifth. Jeff Burton bypassed Harvick to take over seventh; behind them, Kurt Busch held serve in ninth.

As Bill Murray might say, “It just doesn’t matter,” but Kenseth now rounds out the top 10, dropping Hamlin to 11th in points.

Hamlin and Truex are technically tied for 11th. If the season were to end right now (and if only a merciful God would allow it to), the advantage would go to Hamlin. Both drivers have one win and two second-place finishes; Hamlin, however, has four third place finishes to Truex’s three.

Far behind that, Earnhardt Jr. hangs tenaciously to that 13th-place “Best of the Rest” title, now just 68 points ahead of Ryan Newman. Newman moved up two spots, pushing Mears and Greg Biffle down to 15th and 16th, respectively.

Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans with one being a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic) – Well, let’s see. 30 miles in the saddle of the Nightster on a brisk autumn day when most of the posers already have their Harleys stored for the winter, killing time waiting for the race to start. That’s a six-pack of frosty Sly Fox French Creek Hellis served by Heather Locklear in Daisy Dukes.

As for the race itself, we’ll give it three cans of Lone Star, an odd combination beer and paint remover popular in Texas, with a shot of Jack Daniel’s Single Malt chaser for the last 10 laps.

Next Up – It’s off to Phoenix for the penultimate race of the Season That Would Not End.

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