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 two of the four-part series. For Part One, please click here to read. Enjoy!
Rainy weather pushed the planned Saturday evening race off to Sunday afternoon. Rain seemed to plague a lot of races this season; and while it sucks, the weather is like Brian France being stupid: there’s not much you can do about either. Brian’s stupid new cars were back at Richmond, too; can you guess which team won?
Unlike Richmond races with the old cars, there wasn’t a lot of side-by-side racing in this edition of the spring classic. On a late restart, Jimmie Johnson was able to muscle his way past teammate Kyle Busch to take the win. Hendrick Motorsports was now four for four in CoT races, and had won seven of the last eight events at this juncture in the year. Rating: D+
It pained me to see what the “New Car” did to racing at the most storied speedway on the circuit. Not that what NASCAR did to the track was any great shakes, either. I mean, everyone had to know when NASCAR moved Darlington’s only remaining race date to the night before Mother’s Day, eventually rain would force the race to be run on Mother’s Day itself – and that’s what happened this year.
Passing was at a premium at the egg-shaped oval; but in the end, a Hendrick car found itself leading late. It was Jeff Gordon taking control of the race; but this time, there was a twist. It was clear the mill under the hood of the No. 24 car was blowing up, and Gordon’s mount was spewing steam in those final few laps. Denny Hamlin tried his best to run down the ailing leader, but the race ran out of laps before Gordon ran out of water. Rating: C
Apparently, a lot of drivers didn’t get the memo this was a 600-mile race. There were a flurry of accidents early in the event that eliminated or hobbled a lot of the favorites, and because of the way cautions fell, the end of the race came down to fuel mileage. A lot of us were expecting NASCAR to throw a bogus debris caution to allow the favorites still running a chance at the win, but – perhaps stung by Tony Stewart‘s comments earlier in the year – they let the race finish under green.
With the best cars forced to pit, Casey Mears coasted across the line on fumes to claim his first Cup victory – and yet another trophy for Rick Hendrick. In addition to Mears, the top-five finishers included JJ Yeley, Kyle Petty, Reed Sorenson and Brian Vickers. Even Alice’s White Rabbit would have found that final running order confusing. Rating: B-
(It wasn’t pretty, but it was legitimate.)
Rain once again interfered with the running of a Cup race; the Dover race was pushed off until Monday by the sort of storms that are part and parcel of life here in the Northeast in June.
There was some ugliness during the race after Stewart and Kyle Busch once again wrecked one another. Busch was so angry he drove into the side of the No. 20 car on pit road, nearly running over a member of Stewart’s team. Busch was parked for the rest of the afternoon, but not suspended by NASCAR for the infraction.
Late in the race, Martin Truex Jr. emerged as the surprise leader with Ryan Newman and Johnson preparing to battle with him. Instead, Newman and Johnson got too intent on battling one another as Truex drove off into the sunset. Johnson cut down a tire late and fell to 15th in the final running order, marking the beginning of his annual summer slump a few weeks early. For Truex, it was his first-ever Cup victory, along with the first time any non-Hendrick driver had won a CoT race. Rating: C-
Once again, a Cup race started under threatening skies. Gordon and the No. 24 team decided not to come down pit road – betting on the rain arriving in time – while Newman and the No. 12 team decided that fresh rubber on their Dodge would allow him to overhaul the leaders before the downpour. The gamble by Newman’s team didn’t miss by much; he was reeling Gordon in lap after lap, and the No. 24 car was nearly out of gas. Of course, that’s when the rains arrived – ending the race shortly after the halfway point. Rating: D
The Michigan race itself was almost lost in the tidal wave of hype after that week’s announcement Dale Earnhardt Jr. would be moving on to Hendrick Motorsports for the 2008 season. Wanting to grab back some headlines, NASCAR had also managed to make themselves look like a bunch of bumbling bullies by announcing plans to sue AT&T for $100 million for contesting the sanctioning body’s right to tell them they couldn’t run their decals on the No. 31 car.
As for the race itself, it appeared the drivers decided amongst themselves to get it over with as quickly as possible, with nothing distracting like passing for the lead to keep fans in the stands from being able to continue debating the pros and cons of Earnhardt’s career decision – whether it was a good thing or a sign of the upcoming Apocalypse.
As the parade droned on, Carl Edwards won the race going away after Truex slapped the wall trying to bear down on him. Rating: D
Once again, the Cup scene returned to a road course for a display every bit as unseemly as trying to autocross trash trucks.
When Juan Pablo Montoya signed with the No. 42 team, you knew Chip Ganassi circled the dates of the two road-course races in red, knowing his driver would be a threat to win at each of them. The Colombian did not disappoint – he took the field to school in an almost humiliating manner, as about the only drama was waiting to see if Montoya would run out of gas in the waning laps. Radio traffic between he and his pit crew seemed to indicate that was imminent; but apparently, they knew other teams were scanning their frequency, and they were simply playing possum. Rating: D
Several drivers took their turns at the front of the field early at NHIS. Dave Blaney led 30 laps before Gordon took control. Then, Earnhardt Jr. dominated the middle stages of the race before fading. But as the race wound down, a late gamble by the No. 11 team to put two tires on the car when most teams took four allowed Hamlin to win his first event of the 2007 season. As many wins as this team cost their driver on pit road, eventually you figured they had to hand Hamlin one, too. Rating: C
I’ll be honest with you all – I missed this race. It was the first time I’ve missed a race in its entirety since February 18th, 1989. That day, my best friend was killed in a traffic accident; in the early morning hours before this year’s Pepsi 400, my Mom passed away after a lingering illness. My family needed me to be there on that sorrowful day. Of course, by race time we were gathered back at Mom’s house, and I thought briefly maybe I’d turn the race on in the background with the sound muted to see what was going on. Old habits die hard. But it was a tough day, and I decided, “Screw it,” for my sisters needed me more than I needed to know who won the race. Of course, I saw the highlights afterwards – Jamie McMurray edged out Kyle Busch by .005 seconds. It looked like a great race, but I have no regrets I missed it.
It’s a matter of priorities – a long overdue, painful, but necessary reminder that in the grand scheme of life, stock car racing doesn’t really mean all that much. I needed that.