NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin’s Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2008 Chicagoland Race Recap

The Key Moment: Second-place Kyle Busch timed the final restart perfectly and ambushed leader Jimmie Johnson with two laps to go.

In a Nutshell: When watching the sunset is more spectacular than the first three hours of a stock car race, there’s a problem.

Dramatic Moment: Well, there’s not a lot of question here, is there? That winning pass Busch completed over the last two laps will be shown on highlight reels for a decade. Good stuff. Bad race.

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

Call me crazy, but becoming a co-owner and business partner with a team owner sentenced to prison for fraud might not be the wisest career move Tony Stewart could have made.

Once again, the fans didn’t seem too happy Kyle Busch won another race, but they seemed absolutely delighted that he managed to get the race-winning car stuck in the mud celebrating afterwards. On a more serious note, I was wincing watching his crew run out to free the No. 18 car from the mud. None of them were wearing helmets, and I was afraid one of them was going to get bonked by an errant tossed beer can. Fortunately, fans in (or at least not really all that far from) Chicago don’t seem to have the same throwing skills as the Cubs.

BOWLES: BUSCH BROTHERS’ CAREERS GOING IN OPPOSITE DIRECTIONS

Well, isn’t that just dandy? Mike Helton, the day-to-day head of NASCAR’s in-trench operations, participated in the celebration of Richard Petty’s 50-year anniversary as a driver by taking a ride with the King around Joliet – and the head of an organization that claims safety comes first chose to wear an open-face helmet and no HANS device for his ride. No, Petty wasn’t racing 42 other drivers at top speed on the “ride” but debris (and Helton should know debris can pop out of nowhere on a racetrack… nod, nod, wink, wink) could have cut down a tire and put the car into a wall. Way to set an example, Big Mike! Even the King – who is so old school we’re talking about the one-room wooden schoolhouse here – wore a full-face helmet for the ride.

SPEED’s “live coverage” of the Stewart announcement this week was such a disaster it made Custer’s day at Little Big Horn look like the invasion of Grenada. Maybe rather than running a show called “A Hundred Cars You Must Drive,” they need to work on a new one called “A Hundred Patch Cables You Must Check.” TNT’s audio problems during the Invocation and Anthem were just about as bad… I haven’t heard that much reverb during the Star-Spangled Banner since Jimi Hendrix (no relation to Rick) bought down the house at Woodstock.

If NASCAR’s core demographic is graying, the way statistics indicate we are, wouldn’t it behoove them to have all Saturday night races end by 10 p.m. on the east coast?

I’ve noticed an interesting new trend: races selling out but stands left empty by ticket purchasers; or at least, that’s what I’m hearing. I don’t get someone laying out more than a Benjamin for a race ticket and not showing up; given the blue-collar core of the constituency, that seems unlikely. But if in fact fans with tickets are staying home because of the price of gas (remember, many of these tickets were purchased last year or early this year) that’s a pretty telling barometer of the problems promoters will have selling seats next year.

Who is finally going to win a race first; Jeff Gordon or Stewart?

There were rumors earlier this week that Barack Obama’s campaign was considering sponsoring a Cup car at Pocono. Then, it was announced the campaign decided to pass on the idea. Well, it’s nice to see some passing again in NASCAR racing. Could this be fallout from the Mauricia Grant affair? Or, maybe Senator Obama and his camp finally got the memo that the No. 49 team campaigns Toyotas?

Fans couldn’t help but notice the photo of Bozo the Clown in the broadcast during the pre-race show. It sounded at times like Bozo was running the show Saturday night, especially when fans were subjected to Larry McReynolds’ really lame “magic” trick during green-flag racing.

Troubling quote from the booth:Matt Kenseth is trying to get inside of Dale Earnhardt Jr.” And here, I thought they were just good friends. Not that there’s anything wrong with that…

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

Denny Hamlin had a fast car, but electrical issues early in the race dropped him laps off the pace.

Carl Edwards was leading the race when an issue he believed to be a flat tire sent him to the pits. The problem was actually a broken brace that allowed the front splitter to drag on the track… and that was enough to drop Edwards right out of contention.

What didn’t happen to Jeff Burton Saturday night? He was nailed for speeding on pit road, penalized for entering before the pits were open, missed his pit and collided with Jamie McMurray on pit lane, then got a piece of Patrick Carpentier’s wreck on track en route to an 18th-place finish.

Gordon led the race and ran at the front of the pack for a portion of the event, but faded to an 11th-place finish at the end.

The No. 88 team just couldn’t seem to get a handle on their car all weekend, and Earnhardt Jr. floundered his way to a 16th-place finish in the final running order.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

Another two wins… a miracle on the white-flag lap. It’s Kyle Busch’s world. We just live here.

Kenseth was leading the race when he had a tire equalize. He lost a lap, but got it back with a free pass en route to a seventh-place finish.

The body men at the various race shops might actually get to enjoy a few days on the lake during the off week as other than a few tweaked right sides, a damaged splitter and a missing rear bumper, there was little physical carnage during the race.

Martin Truex Jr. needed a good night after the team was penalized 150 points earlier this week, and he got one with a ninth-place run. But he’s still 233 points out of the Chase – so put out the fires and call in the dogs, Dude. It’s over.

Worth Noting

  • The top-10 finishers at Joliet drove three Toyotas, three Chevys, three Fords, and a lone Dodge.
  • It was yet another tough night for the rookie class of 2008. Carpentier (30th) was the best finishing ROTY candidate at Joliet.
  • Kyle Busch has won three of the last four races. His brother Kurt Busch won the other one.
  • Johnson (second) scored his first top-five finish since he won at Phoenix 10 races ago.
  • Kevin Harvick (third) scored his first top-five finish since Bristol. Gas was still below $3 a gallon at the local Shell station back then.
  • Greg Biffle (fourth) earned his first top-10 finish since Dover.
  • Brian Vickers (sixth) hasn’t finished worse than 16th in the last seven races. Remember, this is a guy who failed to qualify almost half the time last year.
  • Kenseth (seventh) has top-10 finishes in eight of the last nine Cup points events.
  • Gordon (11th) has managed just two-top 10 finishes in the last six Cup events.
  • AJ Allmendinger (13th) scored the best Cup finish of his career.
  • David Reutimann (14th) enjoyed his best Cup finish of the season.
  • Impressive though it might be, Kyle Busch’s start to the 2008 season is not the best ever. Back in 1985, the Cup schedule was 28 races long, and in the first half of the season Bill Elliott won seven of those 14 events – fully half of them. In the first 18 races, Elliott increased that total to nine… he went on to win 11 races that season, but lost the championship to Darrell Waltrip.

What’s the Points?

Obviously, Kyle Busch is still leading the points. He’s now 262 ahead of Earnhardt Jr., who remained in second spot following his ho-hum finish at Chicagoland. In fact, the rest of the top six (Burton, Edwards, Johnson and Gordon) held serve on Saturday night.

Behind them, Clint Bowyer fell out of the top 12 and is now 25 points out of the Chase. An electrical problem caused Hamlin to drop a sobering five spots to 12th, while Kasey Kahne dropped three spots to 11th and is just 36 points ahead of Bowyer.

On the flip side, Biffle rebounded four spots to seventh, while Harvick also rose four spots to re-enter the top 12 – he finds himself ninth. Stewart advanced two spots to 10th with a 49-point cushion over Bowyer, while Kenseth rose a spot to eighth.

Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans, with one being a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic): Well, the ending was worth a cold six-pack of Corona, but my guess is a lot of fans had drifted off to sleep an hour before the race ended… so we’ll give it four cans of semi-chilled Bud.

Next Up: The Cup tour takes their last weekend off this year… and I’m headed for the beach. See ya’ll at Indy, unless I find a cheap bungalow and a cheaper little surfer girl while I’m down there.

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