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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin’s Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2008 Las Vegas Race Recap

The Key Moment: On lap 237, Carl Edwards powered around Matt Kenseth to take the lead for the final time, eventually scoring his second consecutive win.

In a Nutshell: Oh well, at least it didn’t rain.

Dramatic Moment: When Jeff Gordon got into the rear quarterpanel of Kenseth’s car at the front of the pack with four to go, a field-decimating wreck was narrowly averted.

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

Edwards wins two in a row three races into the season? If nothing else, it proves the futility of pundits making preseason predictions.

During pre-race inspection, the cars of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson and Kenseth were found to have issues that the NASCAR inspectors didn’t like. The teams were told to fix the problem areas and get back into the inspection line. Yeah, there’s that option; or they could have fined them a hundred grand, deducted 100 points and suspended their crew chiefs for six weeks. Somehow, the officiating doesn’t seem very even-handed these days.

How long do we have to wait before every track has SAFER barriers around the entire track inside and out? Gordon described his hit Sunday as the hardest of his career.

STAFF: 10 POINTS TO PONDER AFTER LAS VEGAS

How weird did it have to feel for Earnhardt Jr. to be congratulating Mark Martin on Saturday in Victory Lane? Martin took the wheel of Junior’s old No. 8 car at DEI after Junior moved on. He drove Junior’s car to victory; but in doing so, wrecked out the JR Motorsports car of Brad Keselowski.

When did Gordon develop this speech impediment where he interjects “you know” two and three times a sentence?

Why is it only 300 miles separate Fontana and Las Vegas, yet Bruton Smith can sell more tickets for Saturday’s Busch race than the ISC can peddle for the Sunday Cup race? It’s called “promotion.” Please don’t blame the weather last week in L.A.; most race tickets are sold well in advance of the event.

Bruton Smith said this week a deal is in the works for Fontana and his Atlanta venue to swap race dates next year, with Atlanta receiving the Labor Day Weekend slot and Fontana receiving Atlanta’s traditional fall date. Like we used to say in that kid’s game, “You’re getting warmer.” The Labor Day date would only be one state away from where it belongs in Darlington, S.C. If the ISC would sell Bruton the Darlington track, maybe we could get the September holiday race back where it belongs.

In another hint of next year’s schedule, Smith also said he is reluctant to take a race date from the New Hampshire track he bought last year. He says he has big plans to reconfigure the track into an oversized Bristol and notes both race dates at NHIS are almost sold out. (As was Las Vegas this weekend.) Thus, he puts the onus on NASCAR to find a way to give Las Vegas a second date without penalizing fans in New England while promising to dramatically improve racing at the currently sedate track in New Hampshire through massive investment of funds. The ball is now in NASCAR’s court, but the solution seems obvious; give one of Fontana’s dates to Vegas.

Talk about getting cut off at the knees by your bosses! After last week’s debacle at Fontana, track president Gillian Zucker went on record saying that the ISC would spend whatever money necessary to fix the weeping track problem. Since the track was going to have to be dug up, anyway, she even threw her support behind Michael Waltrip‘s insane notion to increase the banking to 32 degrees and make Fontana a plate race. If necessary, she said, the track might even postpone or cancel events to allow for the massive reconstruction. The words were barely out of her mouth when her bosses denied that any such major makeover was in the cards. Their solution is apparently simpler; just hope it doesn’t rain again in September. That’s the cheapest option. Ms. Zucker might want to contact Bruton Smith to see if that job offer is still open.

Eddie Gossage, head honcho at Texas, said this week he will pay $15,000 to any driver who throws his helmet at a fellow racer in anger prior to the Texas spring race. The offer comes with one caveat; the tossed helmet will be added to Gossage’s collection. It’ll be interesting to see if anyone takes Gossage up on his offer and if the fine for tossing the helmet exceeds the payoff, what with NASCAR’s new “Show a Little Emotion” campaign. If Eddie gets his helmet, would somebody please throw a six-pack of brew and ice inside it to remind him of his one major misstep since taking the reins at Texas — a campaign to get the politicians to allow beer sales at the track that would have cost the fans their rights to bring coolers to the facility.

Robby Gordon said this week that if he loses his appeal and isn’t in contention for the Chase come May, he plans to run the double, participating in both the World 600 and the Indy 500 on the same day. With the later starting time for Indy, that’s going to be a logistical nightmare worthy of running the Dakar Rally. Note to Robby Gordon fans: Start booking those hotel reservations in Indy now.

Note to Self: Action item No. 1. Cancel Allstate insurance on cars in hopes loss of income will keep the company from making any more Kasey Kahne and the Kreepy Chicks” ads. I don’t want to see where the next one is going.

Sprint/Nextel stock prices have declined precipitously lately, leading to rumors on Wall Street that the company is ripe for a hostile takeover. Among the companies said to be interested in acquiring the floundering cell phone provider is AT&T. You know somewhere, Jeff Burton is laughing.

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

Tony Stewart‘s dream season hit a major road bump at Vegas this weekend. He crashed hard out of both the Saturday and Sunday events, and the lick he took on Sunday in the Cup event clearly left Stewart aching. Teammate Kyle Busch also suffered through an off-song weekend, wrecking hard in Saturday’s race and finishing outside the top 10 on Sunday – causing him to relinquish the points lead.

Jeff Gordon took a wicked hit late in the race after tangling with the No. 17 car while battling for second. It was Gordon’s second DNF in this season’s three points races.

Johnson arrived at Las Vegas a prohibitive favorite, having won the last three Cup races at the track. The car was clearly out to lunch from the moment it was unloaded Friday, and no changes the team threw at it seemed to make it any better.

Scott Riggs ran inside the top 10 most of the day before wrecking to bring out the sixth caution.

KEITH: NATIONWIDE SERIES BREAKDOWN AFTER LAS VEGAS

Keselowski seemed to have a legitimate shot at winning Saturday’s race until Martin got into the back of Edwards, eliminating both Edwards and Keselowski in the process.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

Edwards lost a lap after being penalized for a tire getting away from his crew on pit road. He fought his way back onto the lead lap, only to have another tire get away from his team. Fortunately for Edwards’s sake, NASCAR judged a photographer not connected to the team had interfered with the crewman trying to retrieve that tire, and Edwards was not penalized. After restarting the race third, he made quick work of all potential challengers.

Kahne had an eventful weekend, having to start the race in his backup car, battling the flu and going a lap down early. Still, he managed to rally back to a seventh-place finish.

Greg Biffle had to overcome an early pit-road speeding penalty to put himself back in contention for a win. He just barely avoided Jeff Gordon’s spinning car to finish third.

Denny Hamlin rallied from a lap down by tenaciously racing the leaders to stay on the tail end of the lead lap. A well-timed caution got him back the lap he needed, and Hamlin drove to a ninth-place finish.

If an eighth-place finish on a day when many of the big dogs faltered doesn’t help the No. 28 Yates team land a sponsor – nothing will.

Worth Noting

  • Edwards won back-to-back races for the second time in his career. Ironically, those four wins account for almost half of his nine race-victory total.
  • A Jack Roush-prepared Ford won for the sixth time in the 11 Vegas Cup races run to date.
  • Earnhardt Jr. scored his best finish since Pocono last year, when he was also second. Junior has finished second three times since his last win at Richmond in 2006.
  • Burton scored his first top five since Atlanta last fall.
  • David Ragan drove to his best finish since Richmond last fall.
  • Kahne is the only driver to score top-10 finishes in all three of this season’s races.
  • Travis Kvapil scored the best finish of his Cup career since Bristol in 2005.
  • The top-10 finishers at Vegas drove four Fords, four Chevys, one Dodge and one Toyota.
  • It was another tough weekend for the new guys, with Dario Franchitti‘s 33rd-place finish the best by any of the ROTY candidates.

What’s the Points?

It’s still too early in the season, and points standings are so volatile that there’s no sense in any driver celebrating or panicking yet.

Edwards assumed the points lead, and is the third different driver to lead the points this season.

Earnhardt Jr. moved up 11 spots to 10th in the standings. Ragan and Hamlin each moved up eight spots to 19th and 20th in the standings.

Stewart, Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon all fell eight spots in the standings. They are now ninth, 10th and 22nd in the standings, respectively. Johnson fell six spots to 14th.

The top-10 drivers in the points compete in five Chevys, two Fords, two Dodges and a lone Toyota.

Given the right circumstances and finishing order, any driver from 16th-place Bobby Labonte on up could leave Atlanta at least tied for the points lead.

While it’s too early to worry about being in the Chase, with two more races to go before this year’s Top 35 in owner points determine who gets a bye into races, some drivers just outside the Top 35 currently need to step it up. They include Franchitti, Robby Gordon and Sam Hornish Jr. In the unlikely occurrence NASCAR overturns Gordon’s penalty Wednesday, he would move up to 21st in the standings, safely above the cutoff. Dave Blaney, Casey Mears and Waltrip are one bad race away from falling outside the Top 35.

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 two cans of lukewarm generic stuff. Two weeks into the regular season, the new car has failed to live up to the hype.

Next Up: The stock car series returns to its spiritual home in the Southeast. Tune in for Atlanta and pray for better weather across the Rio Grande-o.