NASCAR Race Weekend Central

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

The Key Moment: As Jimmie Johnson came off turn 4 on the final lap, he had enough of a lead he could have turned off the car and pushed it across the start finish line.

In a Nutshell: As regular unleaded approaches $4 a gallon, superior fuel economy earned Johnson a $250,000 paycheck.

Dramatic Moment: While there were several, my nod goes to the protracted battle between Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin, two of the sport’s most popular drivers. The racing was clean but spirited, and had the fans on their feet. Some more battles like that, and NASCAR might not need FM radio rock bands to tell folks racing used to be good. And it sure beat waiting to see if the leader ran out of gas.

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

OK, so we can take Hendrick Motorsports off death watch now? Johnson won the race, Earnhardt led a substantial number of laps and even Casey Mears finished 11th. It might have been troubling that Jeff Gordon‘s car appeared to be junk again early in the race, but this time the team was able to adjust it to a decent level of competitiveness late.

It’s becoming clearer with each passing week; on the tracks where the speeds are lower and mechanical grip is the key to a good handling racecar, the Boxcars can put on a decent show. On the high-speed tracks where downforce determines handling, they’re junk. NASCAR officials are adamant they aren’t going to tweak the Boxcars to address the problem. Trust me, they’ll do so eventually. Fans will just have to endure another dozen or so vapid races at rapid racetracks before NASCAR gets backed into a corner by angry track promoters struggling to sell tickets.

You’ve got to love FOX. They found a way to piss off both baseball fans and racing fans. I can imagine the outrage in sports bars in Boston and New York (and Dallas/Fort Worth, the southernmost precinct of New York) as FOX cut away from the ballgame with a batter facing a 3-2 count and two outs in the ninth inning. And they still missed the start of the race! Race fans can take comfort that the resumption of the ball game spared them a half-hour of FOX pre-race programming that would likely have curdled their brains into a room temperature puddle of mush had it kept raining in Boston. And while FOX didn’t see fit to interview the drivers of the second or third-place finishers, they still managed to work in their full quota of “Digger” t-shirt plugs and the annoying music video that starts all their programming featuring DW’s moronic BBB phrase.

Related to the above, it’s bad enough that Martin and Earnhardt Jr. are racing nose to tail for the lead and the fans in the stands are going nuts when the network goes to commercial. Then, when FOX returns from break, they need to work in the usual compliment of sponsor plugs before showing the pass for the lead fans at home missed during the commercial break.

Marketing guys have become enamored with “one-race” paint schemes on the racecars they sponsor, but the trend makes it tough for fans to quickly identify who is driving which car… particularly this early in the season. The Nos. 24, 11, 07, 42, 18, 20, 29 and 17 cars all ran paint schemes other than those that fans have learned to associate with the drivers of those cars this weekend.

For those that are wondering, it appears the official number of lead changes at Phoenix was 10. The Matt-0-Meter identifies five of them as legitimate racing passes.

Triad Racing Development would like you to remember that they built the chassis that helped Michael McDowell survive his horrific qualifying wreck at Texas last week. NASCAR would like you to forget that they cleared the track for qualifying to resume after an oil down shortly before the wreck occurred. Apparently, requiring the racing surface to be clear of petroleum-based products is still an “Idea of Tomorrow” or “IDIOT” for short.

Aaron Fike‘s recent admission that he raced in the CTS while under the influence of heroin seems to indicate that NASCAR’s random drug-testing policy designed to exclude Tim Richmond from racing at Daytona almost 20 years ago might need some tweaking. While we’re at it, the introduction of the Chase to determine the Cup champion indicates that NASCAR officials need to be subject to random drug testing as well particularly in the case of one legacy employee, who is rumored to have a taste for Peruvian Pink happy powder. Seriously, it’s not that tough. Throw the car numbers of entrants into a hat and draw three of them from each series out of a hat prior to qualifying each week and have them pee in a Cup. If you need to pass a drug test to get a job making minimum wage mounting tires at a chain store, you should have to do the same to race against 42 other guys at high speeds on a closed course.

MEYER: THINK TWICE BEFORE PLAYING POKER WITH AARON FIKE

Not surprisingly, NASCAR’s Mike Helton said NASCAR is pleased with how their random drug-testing policy works, and no changes are anticipated. There seems to be a trend over the last few years. A serious problem is identified: drivers, team owners and the media address the issue and propose solutions. Then NASCAR weighs in and says they are pleased with the current system and no changes are anticipated, so everybody should just shut up and live with the status quo. Brian France said earlier this year he wants drivers to show more personality and speak their minds. He might have added that when they spoke their minds, NASCAR wasn’t going to bother listening. If a situation like flagging ratings and attendance last year becomes critical, NASCAR does leap into action by developing a new marketing campaign. Well, you can spend all the money you want on marketing but you’re still not going to convince astute consumers a turd is a Baby Ruth bar. Repeat after me; “At the end of the day, it is what is, and we are not going to react for the sake of reacting.”

Related to the above, let’s recall that Prozac is not a controlled substance that should exclude a driver from racing. The Home Depot has invested a fortune in marketing their driver. Speaking of marketing, if Subway sandwiches’ claim to fame is producing fast food that doesn’t make you fat, why does their corporate spokesperson look like Santa Claus after receiving a gift pack from Just For Men?

Nationwide Series ratings have been sagging this year. Something tells me starting a race at 10:00 p.m. on a Friday night isn’t going to help the matter any. Nor is positioning Cup qualifying against an original episode of CSI on Thursday night. And there ought to be a law against any automobile race ending after midnight ET.

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

It seems every race with the new Boxcar, one former champion of unquestionable talent suddenly looks like he spent the hours leading up to the race partying in Fike’s bus. At Las Vegas, it was Johnson. At Texas, it was Gordon. Saturday at Phoenix, Matt Kenseth‘s car was so flat out awful he ran into the wall early in the event, and spent the rest of it nursing a badly wounded Ford around the track. Getting involved in a second wreck was just icing on the cake.

Ryan Newman won the pole and led the first 30 laps of the race, but a blown power-steering hose connection ended his chances of winning.

Martin likely had enough gas to finish the race, but cowboyed up and pitted when he was told to. While clearly annoyed at losing a shot at the win, immediately after the race he gave a terse but politically correct interview to the TV folks a few minutes later.

Tony Stewart had a strong run, but ran out of gas and couldn’t refire the car on pit road. The resultant lengthy stop left Stewart with a 21st-place finish.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

Earnhardt Jr. was clearly subdued and upset with his seventh-place finish, but he was lucky to finish the race. Junior was leading under caution and swerving side-to-side to clean off his tires when he nearly collided with teammate Gordon, who was speeding past the pace car to get his lap back under the Lucky Dog rule. Now that would have ignited an epic firestorm in the grandstands!

Carl Edwards lost a lap pitting just before a caution and then got penalized to the end of the longest line when a crewman went over the wall early. But he somehow rallied back to a fourth-place finish.

Jeff Burton spun out in the fluid of Newman’s wounded racecar, but didn’t hit anything and drove on to a sixth-place finish.

Mears came away from Phoenix with a much-needed good finish just outside the top 10. Petty Enterprises desperately needed a decent finish as well, and Bobby Labonte pulled it off with a 12th-place result.

Worth Noting

  • Eight races into the season, Johnson won a Cup race. That’s deeper in the season than Johnson has gone without collecting a victory since 2003. The win was the second consecutive Phoenix Cup win for Johnson and his sixth consecutive top 10 at this track.
  • Clint Bowyer enjoyed his best finish since Charlotte last fall. His second-place finish was his third runner-up result since Bowyer’s breakthrough victory at Loudon last September.
  • Denny Hamlin (third) scored his fourth consecutive top-10 finish.
  • Martin (fifth) posted his best Cup finish since Dover last fall.
  • Burton managed his sixth consecutive top-10 finish. Earnhardt Jr. hasn’t finished worse than 12th in those same six races.
  • The top-10 finishers at Phoenix drove six Chevys, two Fords and a pair of Toyotas. Labonte’s 12th-place finish was the best by any driver in a Dodge.
  • Sam Hornish Jr.‘s 20th-place finish was the best of the rookies.

What’s the Points?

Burton holds onto the points lead for another week and is now 80 points ahead of Kyle Busch, who moved up a spot to second in the standings. Earnhardt Jr. moved up a spot to third in the standings, six points behind Busch. That’s the highest Earnhardt has ranked since after the Joliet race of 2006.

Inside the top 12, Bowyer had the best points day, vaulting forward three spots to eighth. Johnson moved up two spots to fourth in the standings. Hamlin moved up a spot to sixth while Kahne eased forward a position to 11th.

On the flip side, Harvick fell three spots in the standings to fifth. Three drivers inside the top 12 fell two positions: Stewart (now seventh), Greg Biffle (now 10th) and Newman (now 12th).

Gordon moved up a spot to 13th in the standings and now lurks just eight points out of the top 12. Martin Truex Jr. moved up two spots to 14th, 10 points behind Gordon. Kenseth’s miserable day dropped him two spots to 15th.

Despite a lackluster start to his season, Juan Pablo Montoya advanced three spots to 16th. Labonte rebounded three spots in the standings to 18th.

Drivers of note heading in the wrong direction include Kurt Busch (down two spots to 17th) and Elliott Sadler (down three spots to 23rd).

It’s been a tough year for the rookies so far in 2008. 33rd-ranked Hornish is the top ROTY candidate in the points.

Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans with one being a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic): Well, we finally saw some real racing, occasionally and briefly, but the outcome was based on fuel mileage and the race ended after midnight ET… so I’ll give it three cans of Red Bull…

Next Up: What in the blazes? The Cup Series takes a weekend off so a nation’s lonely eyes can focus on the Nationwide/Busch series annual foray down in Mexico. I don’t know about you, but I’m hoping it’s sunny in these parts next weekend so I can do some serious cruising on Sunday. What happens down in Mexico stays in Mexico.

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