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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin’s Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2008 Atlanta Spring Race Edition

The Key Moment: As Carl Edwards coasted to the pits with his car spewing smoke, Kyle Busch reasserted himself as the leader in a race he’d dominated. Greg Biffle gave it a shot, but there was no catching the No. 18 car on this day.

In a Nutshell: It’s kind of sad when folks are going to remember more about what the second-place finisher said after the race than the race itself.

Dramatic Moment: Edwards and Busch put on an intense – if brief – race on the restart after the seventh caution flag.

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

How will Toyota’s winning a Cup race have an effect on interest in the Cup Series, a-hem, going forward? My guess is that ratings will spike briefly, as we now have a legitimate fight between the good guys (The Big Three) and the Bad Guys (Toyota). But long-term, I think Toyota beginning to dominate an American stock car racing series is going to start eroding the fanbase. I never said a Toyota winning would be the end of the world – just the end of some folks’ interest in the sport.

Will there ever come a day when NASCAR officials think enough of the value of integrity in our sport that they’ll actually take away a win from a driver whose car is found illegal in post-race inspection? This whole song and dance about not wanting to surprise fans who thought they saw some driver win on Sunday is getting old. We’re all Big Boys and Girls; we’ve seen the results of Olympic events and bicycle races changed hours, days, and even months after the event. Whoever coined the term “Cheaters never win” apparently didn’t watch stock car racing.

Was Tony Stewart blocking for teammate Busch in the waning stages of the race to ensure a Toyota win? A Joe Gibbs win, perhaps… but not Toyota. As it is, I think Stewart is just riding out his contract with JGR; he sure doesn’t mention what sort of car he drives in many interviews.

BOWLES: KYLE BUSCH AND TOYOTA A MATCH MADE IN HEAVEN

What was the deal with Dale Jarrett blocking Busch there on the final lap of the race? Had Busch wrecked trying to get around Jarrett on that final lap, they’d have been falling on their swords in the boardroom back in Tokyo.

When Edwards suggested everybody head back to Vegas Monday to restage the race, do you think the exhausted rig drivers began planning a blanket party for him?

Four races into the season, it’s hard to justify talk of a “Hendrick Slump” but the fact remains that Ford, Dodge, and Toyota have all won points races this season, while Chevy has not. If this keeps up, they’ll have to change the new slogan to “Built to finish last, built to lose.”

What is the deal with all the empty seats at Atlanta? Atlanta seldom sells out, but Sunday’s crowd looked particularly sparse. Today’s race isn’t going to help sell many tickets to future events, either.

What is it with Dale Earnhardt Jr. on restarts? He looks like he’s dragging an anchor.

Does it seem that Ryan Newman and Juan Pablo Montoya have had more than their fair share of run-ins together on the track?

Is Goodyear ever going to bring a tire the drivers are happy with to the track again? Stewart surely doesn’t seem to think so. Given his physique as of late, you might call this feud “the Battle of the Blimps.”

Resolved: This whole Daylight Savings Time nonsense is a pain in the neck, but it sure is good to see a race start in the early afternoon again.

Resolved: In-car camera shots should be used to show the on-track action, not to show who wrote FOX the big sponsorship checks.

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

Edwards was leading and pulling away when his chances at the win went up in smoke, thus ending his shot at scoring a third consecutive win. The mechanical issue dropped Edwards to a 42nd-place finish.

Elliott Sadler hit everything but the lottery Sunday afternoon. His spins were responsible for three of the day’s caution flags, and Sadler sounded relieved when he finally managed to finish off his ill-handling Dodge during the third wreck.

Newman was running fifth when a fender rubbing a tire – caused by an old friend, Montoya – forced him to the pits and off the lead lap. He finished 14th.

The Wood Brothers and Bill Elliott failed to qualify for another race when Jarrett needed the past champion’s provisional. The No. 21 car has now failed to make three of four races this season.

For a second straight week, Jimmie Johnson and team appeared to have shown up poorly prepared for a race. It’s not often you’ll see Johnson getting lapped in an undamaged car; but the No. 48 needed the help of not one, but two Lucky Dogs before finishing as the last car on the lead lap in 13th.

Jacques Villenueve will have a buddy to help with yard work next weekend. AJ Allmendinger was “temporarily” relieved of his ride in the No. 84 this week; substitute Mike Skinner brought the car home 27th.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

Busch and the No. 18 team seemed to have thrown away a win when he didn’t stop during the sixth caution period. Cars on four fresh tires quickly dispatched Busch, but a quick caution allowed him to get fresh rubber and fix a possible mistake. Busch also survived a pit-road bumping incident with the No. 88 and numerous close calls to score his win. Combined with his Truck Series victory on Friday and a dominant performance in Saturday’s Nationwide race, it was a pretty decent weekend for the young man.

Matt Kenseth had to start out back after an unapproved transmission change prior to the race. He went a lap down early, but managed to get back on the lead lap and drive to a top-10 finish (eighth). Combined with his win Saturday, it was also a pretty good weekend for Kenseth.

Earnhardt Jr. had an eventful day on pit road. Stewart ran into the back of the No. 88, putting Earnhardt sideways into his pit. Then, Busch and Earnhardt rubbed fenders battling off pit road, and it’s amazing the No. 88’s front fender wasn’t knocked into the tire. At another point in the event, Junior was ready to pit thinking he had a flat tire, but was eventually saved by the yellow flag. Considering all that, a third-place finish was a pretty decent result.

A year ago, Brian Vickers was struggling to qualify for races. This year, he’s finished 12th or better in three of four Cup points races run to date.

It looks like the majority of the Cup teams’ bodymen have a light work week ahead of them, unusual after Atlanta. Those guys ought to be hard at work after Bristol, though…

Worth Noting

  • Six drivers: Busch, Biffle, Kevin Harvick, Kasey Kahne, Earnhardt Jr. and Stewart have three top-10 finishes in this year’s four races. Busch is the only driver with top-five finishes in three of those four races.
  • The top-10 finishers drove three Toyotas, five Chevys, and two Fords. Kurt Busch in 11th was the best finishing Dodge driver.
  • Sam Hornish Jr.‘s 25th-place finish was the best by a rookie.
  • Clint Bowyer scored his first top-10 finish since Atlanta last fall.
  • Vickers (ninth) drove to his best finish since Fontana last September.
  • Drivers still looking for their first top-five result in 2008 include Denny Hamlin, Mark Martin, Kahne, Martin Truex Jr., Bowyer, Bobby Labonte¬†and Sadler.

What’s the Points?

Kyle Busch retook the points lead from Edwards midweek when the No. 99 team’s penalties were announced. He opened that lead up to 73 points over Biffle, who moved up four spots to second in the standings.

Vickers and Kenseth both advanced four spots in the points to ninth and 12th, respectively. Earnhardt Jr. and Stewart each advanced three spots to eighth and ninth, while Harvick and Jeff Burton ahead of them moved up one spot to third and fifth.

On the down side, Edwards tumbled 10 spots to 17th after his mechanical problem. Kahne fell three spots to sixth, while Truex also fell three spots to 11th. Newman dropped a spot to fourth.

OK, I get it with the penalty and all, but how is it a driver who has won two of four races this season is 17th in the standings and Harvick, who is third in the points, has just one top-five result in those four events? In most racing series, a win counts for a lot more than it does in NASCAR.

If the Chase were to start next week (which I am reasonably certain it will not), among the big name drivers currently outside the top 12 in points are Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Bowyer and Edwards.

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 it two cans of rice beer. There was damn little passing, not much action and a runaway victory unlike the Atlanta of old. The CoT flunked its first test on the high-banked superspeedway.

Next Up: It’s off to Thunder Valley of Bristol, Tenn., for the first short-track race of the season.

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