Editor’s Note: With the 2007 Nextel Cup season complete, it’s now time to take a look back. This week, veteran writer Matt McLaughlin starts the process with his annual race review, analyzing each event of the Nextel Cup season and giving us his take on how good – or bad – they really were.
Today marks part one of the four-part series. Enjoy!
The Daytona 500
I’ve got to say two things up front. I don’t like plate racing – it’s contrived excitement, in my opinion – and I didn’t care for the three o’clock starting time of this year’s race. God and Bill France, Sr. intended the 500 to start at one in the afternoon – no later. As for the race itself, things were tepid for most of the afternoon. Tony Stewart had a dominant car all of Speedweeks, and he looked poised to win the 500 with ease. But a speeding penalty on pit road (or a penalty for stinking up the show, Stewart contended later) got him irate, and he self-destructed in the form of a devastating wreck. Kurt Busch, in another fast car, was a victim of Stewart’s implosion.
With that turn of events, a race broke out; what can be said about that last few laps other than it would have made a fine opening scene for Days of Thunder 2007? As Kevin Harvick and Mark Martin drag raced towards the checkers side-by-side, mechanical mayhem was erupting behind them as Kyle Busch got out of shape and set off a field-decimating accident. Caught up in the wreck, Clint Bowyer got the worst of it; he wound up crossing the start-finish line upside down and on fire. That chaos caused Martin to hesitate just a bit, expecting a caution that never came and opening the door for Harvick – he prevailed by inches over Martin to win. With NASCAR slow to throw the final yellow flag and rules uncertain as to when the racing actually ended and the caution began, I still feel Martin won this race. Rating: B-
Most fans don’t tune into Fontana expecting much action. This year, they got all that and less at what is quickly becoming the most putrid track on the circuit. Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth were the class of the field in a race that came down to the men on pit road. Kenseth’s crew got their boy out of the pits first late, while Johnson’s crew faltered and dropped their boy from contention. Harvick seemed poised to make a run at the No. 17 but had a tire equalize, handing the uncontested win to Kenseth. Rating: D
Questions abounded as the circuit headed off to the newly reconfigured Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Among them: Why did the Cup circuit take a week off after just two events? Would the newly configured track at Vegas provide better racing? And – perhaps most important of all – would the new Goodyears stand up to the speed? Well, as for the track I think it’s like a newlywed’s stew; give it a little seasoning, and it ought to be much better.
The race turned out to be a Hendrick parade; Johnson and Gordon combined to lead 200 laps on their way to a 1-2 finish. It was not to be their last such finish of the season. In retrospect, the Las Vegas race was a foreshadowing of this year’s championship; Gordon led more laps than Johnson, but Johnson led the ones that counted. Rating: C
The Atlanta spring race didn’t live up to the normally stellar standards of the track, but at least things did get interesting at the end. Stewart was leading, but Johnson in second clearly had the faster car and was gaining fast. A battle ensued, as Johnson was of the mind to pass Stewart… but Stewart was not in the mind to be passed. It all came to a head with three laps to go. Johnson made a three-wide power move inside of the No. 20; Stewart drove into the corner for all he was worth to hold the No. 48 but slid up into the wall, forced to fall behind. Johnson went on to win the race, his second in a row. Little did we know that finish was destined to happen a few more times this year, as well. Rating: B-
The Bristol spring race featured the equally anticipated and feared debut of the Car of Tomorrow in a points-paying Cup event. Even jaded fans who had seen pictures were aghast at the site of the ugly little brutes lined up nose-to-nose in numbers prior to the start of the race.
Gibbs teammates Stewart and Denny Hamlin dominated the early stages of the event before mechanical issues felled them both. Stewart fell victim to a broken fuel pump drive cable, while Hamlin had an engine lay down late. That left Kyle Busch in the lead, but Jeff Burton was close behind. Everyone expected Burton to lay a bumper to Busch to make the pass – this is Bristol, baby! – but Burton ran Busch clean, allowing the kid to take home the trophy instead. As for the race winner’s take on the CoT? “I’m still not a big fan of these things. I can’t stand driving them. They suck.” Succinctly put, sir. Rating: B
Some hoped that a race’s worth of familiarity would make the CoT look more normal, or at least less ghastly. Nope – the cars were still so ugly you’d have had to tie a pork chop to the rear wing in order to get a starving dog to relieve itself on one.
Once again, the Gibbs cars looked strong early. So did Harvick’s Chevy… but it turned out were some design flaws to the new rides. First, Harvick broke a fuel-pump drive cable just as Stewart had at Martinsville. Then, the No. 29 car set itself ablaze when heat from the exhaust system set the mandated impact-absorbing foam inside the car on fire. Whoops; so let me get this straight? NASCAR took five years to design and test a new car, yet they failed to find it had a propensity to set itself ablaze?
But in the end, despite the problems Martinsville provided the sort of dramatic finish this classic track often does. Teammates Johnson and Gordon raced hammer and tongs against one another, making contact several times with smoke billowing off their tires – though fortunately, not out of their doors. It was to be the best finish of the season in this humble writer’s opinion, and again, a foretaste of things to come. Rating: A- The minus is just because the cars were so painfully ugly.
Johnson and Gordon were once again forces to be reckoned with, but they both fell off the pace this week because of crashes. In Johnson’s case, the incident was unavoidable; in Gordon’s case, the error was unforced.
That left other title contenders to battle up front. As badly as Kenseth had been running early in the race, you’d have thought the only running he’d do late in the race would be after his crew chief with a hammer to beat him. Instead, Kenseth found himself in a heated battle with Burton. The two raced hard but clean, and in the end, Burton was able to hold off Kenseth to take the checkers.
In an odd twist, Kyle Busch ran over Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s contending Chevy after a caution flew, and both cars were wrecked. Busch stormed away from the track as a result, even though the No. 5 team was able to repair the car. That left Junior, of all people, to hop aboard the No. 5 car to finish the race – again, that appears significant only in retrospect. Rating: B+
A pattern was being set at the CoT races. The Joe Gibbs Chevys started the races strong… and the Hendrick Chevys finished them stronger.
Hamlin dominated this race early, only to have his campaign felled by a pit road speeding penalty. (Or another one of those, “Don’t stink up the race!” penalities?) That left Stewart with the lead… but Gordon wanted it. Eventually, Gordon put a bumper to the No. 20 car to make what was ultimately the winning pass on Joe Gibbs Racing… again. Mr. Stewart was miffed after the race and declined comment to the press; Mr. Hamlin looked dejected. But there was no denying the dominance; it was three for three as far as the Hendrick cars and CoT races. Other teams were left scratching their heads wondering how to catch up to the fleet foursome from HMS. By the end of the season some of them were probably considering rocket-propelled grenades. Rating: C-
Welcome to the ugly reality of restrictor-plate racing; most drivers were content to fly in formation for most of the race to avoid wrecking their cars and potentially life-threatening injuries. Normal action did begin to heat up late, though. A green/white/checkered flag at a plate track is the equivalent of throwing a stick of dynamite into the cesspool and ducking for cover. Gordon still had the lead when David Ragan was kind enough to wreck to see to it the race ended under caution. Of course, when it came to wrecking, Ragan was one of the kindest guys on the circuit this season.
The win moved Gordon past the late, great Dale Earnhardt for total victories on what would have been the Intimidator’s birthday. The race ended under caution to hand Gordon the win; but that didn’t sit well with the highly partisan Talladega crowd, who pelted the No. 24 was with a fusillade of beer cans. Rating: D