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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

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

The Key Moment: Patrick Carpentier’s last-lap spin and the resultant caution sealed the win for Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the No. 88 bunch.

In a Nutshell: His fans might have preferred Junior barreling around the Nos. 18 and 48 on the outside – drag racing to the finish line with tires smoking and paint being swapped – but after 76 long races, Junior and his fans will take a win anyway they can get one.

Dramatic Moment: Waiting to see if the No. 88 car could complete that final lap, even under caution as it ran on fumes.

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

On a weekend that featured closed door machinations and serious bias allegations, can even a win by the sport’s most popular driver restore order to the universe?

What’s the typical penalty for passing the pace car under caution?

Mike Helton called a closed-door meeting Friday to tell drivers and team owners it was time to shut up and race. Their complaints about the new car and the quality of racing lately might be affecting ticket sales. Here’s what I find curious: most fans have already figured out that both the new car and the racing lately sucks based on what they’ve observed, not on what Earnhardt Jr. (or Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart or Kyle Busch or Carl Edwards) had to say on the matter. I mean, for any fan who watched the tedium at Dover a couple weeks back to its conclusion, it was fairly obvious it wasn’t a very good race. NASCAR’s contention seems to be that the new car is a work in progress, it is not fatally flawed, and eventually we’ll see some good racing again. I guess meanwhile they’ll start charging half price for tickets to races, seeing as how fans are watching a developmental series and not top-notch automobile racing. NASCAR is sick of the complaints? Hey, for $225 million, I’ll shut up and go away too. Until then, they’re fair game.

Yeah, it would be easy to point out the huge tracts of empty seats at Michigan, but given the obscene price of gas and the horrific condition of the Michigan economy, one is amazed anyone at all showed up. Here’s to the 90,000 some odd fans who made the trip.

In an ironic twist, on the same weekend they were called on the carpet and told to always look on the bright side of life, several drivers seemed to be damning the current state of affairs in Cup racing with faint praise. Gordon and Edwards pretty much admitted that while they enjoy winning races, winning is secondary to making sure that they are in the Chase come September. What that amounts to is an admission that none of the races this summer really matter to drivers who are currently in the top 12, and they’re willing to stroke to be sure that they don’t lose hold on one of those 12 spots by throwing caution to the wind and gunning for a race win. So to sum up, NASCAR faces two major hurdles in making races more exciting; the new car and the new points system, both of which can be classified as self-inflicted injuries with Brian France’s fingerprints all over them.

OK, it’s no longer bashing. What in heck is wrong with the No. 24 team and its driver?

Seriously, I was going to give NASCAR the benefit of the doubt on this whole sexual-racial discrimination lawsuit filed by a former Nationwide Series race official. Anytime somebody drags lawyers into a situation and starts asking for hundreds of millions of dollars, it raises red flags in my mind. But then I watched Brian France’s news conference and I changed my mind. Grant is telling the truth. Write her a big check and make this go away. What she alleges happened happened. It seems Brian France can’t open his mouth without lying, and unfortunately for him, he’s the worst liar since Richard Nixon. That “deer in the headlights of an oncoming semi” look on his face when he knows he’s lying has got to be the most awkward thing I’ve watched since Mary Tyler Moore’s performance at Chuckle the Clown’s funeral. As a side note, France says his email address is readily available to all of his employees and they can contact him at any time. I’d sure like him to publish that email address, because I know a lot of fans would like a chance to pass along their thoughts to Brian these days.

Add Kevin Harvick and Ron Hornaday to the rapidly expanding Kyle Busch non-fan club. Hornaday hinted he was so upset with the younger Busch brother, he might throw away a chance at a championship to teach Busch a lesson. As my niece might say, “Dude, that’s just harsh.”

KEITH: NATIONWIDE SERIES BREAKDOWN AFTER KENTUCKY

Saturday racing phenom Joey Logano won the Nationwide series race from the pole, proving all the accolades claiming that he’s the next big thing might just be true. By winning the race, Logano became the youngest winner ever in NASCAR’s AAA series. But on a cautionary note, the previous youngest winner in the Saturday series was Casey Atwood, who was once “the next big thing” himself. The fact a lot of you are asking yourselves “Casey Who?” should serve as a warning to Logano and other young developmental drivers. Play the cards you’re dealt carefully, or risk going from shooting star to asterisk. Cue up the Bad Company. (Yeah, yeah, kids, ‘Who?’”)

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

Matt Kenseth saw his chances at a win evaporate when a portly NASCAR official got in the way of the No. 17 car as it tried to exit the pits. You know, maybe it’s not just the drivers who need a more regimented fitness routine?

Robby Gordon took the hardest hit of the day off the bumper of David Ragan’s Ford.

Ryan Newman’s blown engine left him 42nd in the final rundown.

Jeff Gordon’s penalty for speeding on pit road just put the icing on the cake of a disastrous afternoon.

Greg Biffle watched his pit crew throw another good finish away.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

Earnhardt had just enough fuel to coast over the start finish line.

He won’t generate the headlines that Busch or the Junior get, but Brian Vickers posted his second consecutive top-five finish. Last year, he struggled just to qualify for two consecutive races.

Jimmie Johnson thought he had a gearbox blowing up, but it held together well enough to power the No. 48 car to a sixth-place finish.

Worth Noting

  • The top-10 finishers at Michigan drove two Chevys, four Fords, two Dodges and a pair of Toyotas. It was the third time this season all four brands had a car finish in the top four. (The other events were Texas and Charlotte)
  • Sam Hornish Jr. in 22nd was the top-finishing rookie of the race, just one position ahead of fellow ROTY candidate Carpentier.
  • The “glass half empty” types will note this win was the first points paying victory for Earnhardt in over two years. The “glass half full” types will note Earnhardt has top-10 finishes in 11 of 16 races this year and is averaging better than an 11th-place finish in those 16 races.
  • Kasey Kahne (second) has put together back-to-back top-five finishes for the first time this season. The last time Kahne scored back-to-back top fives was at Talladega and Charlotte in the fall of 2006.
  • Kenseth (third) posted his best finish of 2008 and his fifth consecutive top-10 finish.
  • Vickers (fourth) scored back-to-back top-five finishes for the first time in his Cup career.
  • Stewart (fifth) managed his first top-five finish since Richmond.
  • Johnson (sixth) scored his third consecutive top-10 finish.
  • Edwards (seventh) posted his sixth consecutive top-10 finish. I don’t know, must have been the koises.
  • Elliott Sadler (ninth) scored his first top-10 finish since Charlotte and just his second since the Daytona 500.
  • Paul Menard (11th) earned his best finish since Atlanta in the spring of 2006.
  • Ready to play Jeopardy? Harvick for $100. Who hasn’t managed a top-10 finish in the last five races, Alex?
  • Jeff Burton (15th) endured his worst finish of the 2008 Cup season.

What’s the Points?

Busch remains atop the points table and opened his lead over second-place Burton to 32 points. Earnhardt Jr. remains third, but closed the gap to Busch down to 84 points. Edwards remains fourth in the standings.

Kahne continued his climb up the ladder, advancing two more spots to seventh. He’s the only Dodge pilot currently in the top 12. Johnson advanced a spot to fifth, while Stewart also moved up one position to 11th.

Denny Hamlin, Jeff Gordon and Biffle all lost a spot in the standings Sunday. They are currently sixth, eighth and ninth, respectively. Clint Bowyer also fell a spot to 12th in points, just 10 ahead of Ragan in 13th and 14 points ahead of Kenseth in 14th.

The fortunes of Penske Racing were mixed. Newman fell three spots to 17th in the standings, a daunting 173 points out of 12th; but Kurt Busch continues his Quixotic quest to make the chase, rising two spots in the standings to 19th.

Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans, with one being a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic): Truth be told, it wasn’t a very good race, but the result ensures it will be a very popular one. We’ll give it two cold cans of Bud, then step back and allow the Green Nation to celebrate all week long.

Next Up: The Cup series heads off to Granola-ville, California, the land of fruits, flakes and nuts. Enjoy it, loyal readers. My distaste for taxi cab racing on road courses has risen to such a level that I’ve decided to take the weekend off to do two local car shows debuting the Bandit car. See you in two weeks for… New Hampshire? Color me thrilled… with a big damned gold screaming chicken on the hood. (Oh, and my nephew Shane is going to be fine. Thanks for your prayers and well wishes).