NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin’s Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2008 Bristol Spring Race Recap

The Key Moment: Denny Hamlin‘s car sputtered on the final restart, allowing Jeff Burton to storm into the lead.

In a Nutshell: Let’s see what all the folks that said last year the new banking configuration ruined Bristol have to say now. Bristol is Bristol.

Dramatic Moment: Those final five laps had fans on their feet and featured more plot twists then a good mystery novel.

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

So maybe this new track configuration at Bristol is going to work out OK, after all?

I guess gas prices are finally hitting NASCAR fans hard in the wallet, too. At Bristol, it seemed that there were a lot less RVs on the grounds around the track than in years past. But at eight mpg for a class-A truck, it’s no wonder. Fans looking to economize with the current price of gas might want to wait until Charlotte in May to attend a race. Why? The track is offering an $89 ticket package that gets a fan into qualifying, the Nationwide race and the World 600. That one has Humpy Wheeler’s fingerprints all over it; $89 is still $89, but it’s a lot better than most ticket prices I’ve seen this year, and I just spent that much on a new carb for my new rat rod sand rail (which rewarded me by promptly setting itself on fire, which is why I won’t be at Charlotte this year).

What an unexpected treat for race fans! Darrell Waltrip had laryngitis, and surely, it was no coincidence the race broadcast was far less annoying than the normal FOX coverage.

On the other hand, obviously there were computer scoring problems at Bristol that had those announcers who were able to talk spewing a constant barrage of misinformation. I understand some of the mistakes, but some statements like Tony Stewart was leading when Harvick drove into the side of him were obviously wrong to fans watching the race even casually.

Seeing that old ’80s Mountain Dew car just made the new ones look that much worse, didn’t it?

Is NASCAR going to allow teams like Roush Fenway Racing and Petty Enterprises to swap points between drivers to get folks like Jamie McMurray and Kyle Petty a guaranteed slot in the next few races? If so, shame on them, but they opened Pandora’s Box when they allowed Roger Penske to do the same, swapping points between the No. 2 and No. 77 during the off season.

The Car of Tomorrow celebrated its first birthday this weekend. Big whoop; these rolling affronts to common sense deserved to be mechanically aborted before being brought to birth.

OK, maybe it is time to start wondering what’s wrong with the No. 48 team and Jimmie Johnson this year.

So, Goodyear now says that Stewart won’t be invited to any more tire tests? Given Stewart’s passionate dislike of any sort of testing, this might be the worst punishment since Monty Python’s Comfy Chair.

Bad weather at a racetrack is a pain in the butt, and rain once again made a mess of qualifying and the Nationwide race this weekend. But sometimes, you need to keep things in perspective. It was just a week ago we were at Atlanta, and this week a tornado struck downtown in that city. An unthinkable tragedy was narrowly averted when that twister damaged an arena where a basketball playoff game was underway; luckily, the problems were minimal enough to leave the structure standing. Unfortunately, for a lot of folks in Atlanta right now, the weather is more than just an inconvenience; thoughts and prayers go out to the injured and those who lost their homes.

Well, someone slipped one under the noses of the censors. Watch the Matchbox 20 NASCAR promo carefully the next time. When the screen goes into Hollywood Square boxes near the end of the commercial, look at the box that’s the second from the right on the bottom row. That, friends, is Tim Richmond, NASCAR’s forgotten legend; and, in a probably intentional bit of irony, the picture of Tim is replaced by one of the Bill Frances – Senior and Junior.

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

Hamlin still had a legitimate shot at the win when his car stumbled on the final restart due to a fuel pickup problem. That’s the same issue that cost Hamlin a shot at the win here last year, and caused him problems during the fall Atlanta race as well.

Stewart had a shot at the win and a top-five finish in the bag until Kevin Harvick drove into the side of him with three laps to go. I wonder if it was the crappy Goodyear tires on the No. 29 that forced Harvick’s Chevy to wash up the track?

Kyle Busch was leading the race when his power steering failed and Busch backed it into the wall. That same issue ended Hamlin’s day last week; all in all, it was a tough day for the Joe Gibbs teams.

Dale Jarrett didn’t exactly cloak himself in glory in his final Cup points race, riding a flat tire and an ill-handling car to a 37th-place finish. To newer fans, I promise you Jarrett was a great driver in his era; the death knell came when he signed on as first mate of Michael Waltrip’s sinking ship.

Ken Schrader was having a solid top-15 run and seemed headed to the top 10 when he got caught up in a wreck not of his making.

You have to imagine how pleased the folks at Sprint were to welcome the AT&T car to Victory Lane.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

Burton is lucky there are old-school team owners like Richard Childress still willing to put a 40-year-old driver in a competitive ride rather than some pretty kid or an ex-open wheel star. Burton was also lucky to drive away unscathed after hard contact from the No. 48 car; but he survived, allowing Childress drivers to finish 1-2-3 at Bristol in giving Chevy their first win of the 2008 season.

Aric Almirola scored his first top-10 finish in just his seventh career Cup start; even better, nobody forced him to get out of the car and turn over the wheel this time.

Harvick could easily have been eliminated when he tangled with the No. 20, but he was able to get the car straightened out well enough to drive to a second-place finish. It also appeared that maybe Stewart was considering wrecking Harvick under caution, but cooled off before he reached the No. 29 car.

Kasey Kahne lost a lap after a penalty for speeding on pit road, but drove back to a solid seventh-place finish.

Bowyer had a pretty fair weekend, winning the rain-shortened Nationwide Series race and finishing third on Sunday.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. thought his goose was cooked like a Solex one barrel when yet another miscommunication between him and his crew chief saw the No. 88 car remain on the track during the ninth caution period. But Junior hung on to finish fifth; and, as expected, after the race he got to continue being Earnhardt Jr. It’s tough to be any luckier than that.

Worth Noting

  • The top-10 finishers drove five Chevys, three Fords, one Dodge and a lone Toyota.
  • Regan Smith was the top-finishing driver officially announced as a Rookie of the Year candidate with a 26th-place result, though Almirola had a much better finish. If any of the official Rookie of the Year candidates win a race anywhere other than on a road course this season, I’ll eat my “I don’t care who wins as long as he doesn’t drive a Toyota” cap.
  • Burton won for the first time since Texas last spring.
  • Harvick (second) scored his fourth straight top-10 finish this year. Greg Biffle, Earnhardt Jr. and Kahne are the only other drivers with four top-10 results after five races heading into the Easter break.
  • Bowyer (third) enjoyed his best finish since Charlotte last fall.
  • Kyle Busch has led laps in all five Cup races this season, in four of the five Nationwide races and has won the last two CTS events. Other than that, he’s off to a slow start this season compared to, oh, I don’t know, Earnhardt Jr.
  • Biffle has top-five finishes in the last three races.
  • Earnhardt Jr. has top-10 finishes in the last three races, too. That might appear to be redundant information, but I’ve found that by mentioning Earnhardt Jr. as often as possible in a column, the volume of positive email I get outstrips the hogwash complaints from Toyota and Robby Gordon fans. Hey, if it works for TV, why not writers?
  • Earnhardt Jr. leads the Most Popular Driver voting.
  • Earnhardt Jr. (fourth) has top-10 finishes in the last four Bristol Cup races. (I don’t care what you heard on TV) Biffle and Bowyer have top-10 finishes in the last three Bristol Cup events.
  • Hamlin (sixth) has top-10 finishes in two of the last three races, but has finished behind Earnhardt Jr. in each of them. (Editor’s Note: All right, Matt, that’s enough of that.)
  • Matt Kenseth (10th) has top-10 finishes in three of the last four races. He was the only former Cup champion to post a top 10 at Bristol.
  • Johnson has averaged a 20th-place finish in the last three races. Jeff Gordon is averaging just a 19th-place finish this season. They are teammates with (Matt, what did I just get done telling you!)
  • Juan Pablo Montoya (15th) has top-20 finishes in the last four races. He was born in a different country than (MATT!)

What’s the Points?

The top-three drivers in the standings held serve after Bristol. However, Kyle Busch is now just 30 points ahead of Biffle, with Harvick three points behind Biffle in third.

Earnhardt Jr. advanced a spot to fifth in the standings, well ahead of his three teammates and only 96 points out of the lead. Let’s put it this way: NASCAR officials and TV network brass are busy doing cartwheels across their plush corporate office suites.

Burton, Kahne and Stewart each advanced a spot to fourth, sixth and seventh, respectively. And if their last name was Earnhardt, people might care…

Bowyer was the biggest mover; he skyrocketed seven positions to ninth, while Kenseth moved up a spot to 11th. Despite his fuel problems, Hamlin jumped up four spots to 15th.

On the flip side, Ryan Newman tumbled four spots to eighth, and suddenly, the Daytona 500 feels like a long time ago for the No. 12 team. After a tough day, Martin Truex Jr. fell one spot to 12th, while Brian Vickers had the worst drop of all; he fell eight spots to 17th.

Despite substandard starts to their seasons, Johnson and Jeff Gordon lurk just outside the top 12 in 13th and 14th, respectively.

In owner points, Sam Hornish Jr. and the No. 77 team advanced into the coveted 35th-place points position that guarantees them a spot in the race at Martinsville. That means that after finishing dead last at Bristol (43rd), McMurray’s team lurks four points out of the Top 35, and will have to make the race on speed.

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 four bottles of icy cold Corona. It wasn’t the best Bristol race ever, but it certainly was the best race of the young 2008 season.

Next Up: The series takes a week off to celebrate the solemnity and joy of Easter. Racing resumes in two weeks’ time at Martinsville, Va. Earnhardt Jr. will be there! (And you might not be, Matt…)

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