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Matt McLaughlin’s Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2008 Watkins Glen Race Recap

The Key Moment: Dale Earnhardt Jr. pitted under caution on lap 66, handing the lead to Kyle Busch – who would never come close to relinquishing it.

In a Nutshell: Busch once again spanks the field handily, offering fans a chance for a nice late-summer nap.

Dramatic Moment: Unfortunately, the only high drama Sunday was as a result of Michael McDowell sending David Gilliland spinning out of turn 11, triggering one of the nastiest wrecks of the season.

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

Over the weekend, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson tried playing some head games with points leader Busch, downplaying his chances at a title given his recent “slump.” My guess is they’ll be a bit more circumspect on that topic this week. It would seem like his JGR teammate Tony Stewart, Busch tends to drive faster when he’s angry or annoyed. It’s easy to use the media to send a message to another driver in the garage area, but it’s a lot harder to make your statement out on the racetrack.

Gordon in particular ought to be more worried about his own chances in the Chase. At a track where he normally shines, Gordon struggled mightily on his way to a less than impressive 29th-place finish.

How many more weeks is it until the Bristol Night Race? When the Beach Boys penned the term “Endless Summer,” it was actually supposed to denote a good thing – but that’s not the case in the Cup Series this year. It just feels endless. At least we can always look forward to the Southern 500 at Darlington on Labor Day weekend… oh, yeah, right. Strike that.

You can’t help but wonder that if it weren’t for the Chase format, Stewart might have run a little harder trying to pass Busch in the closing laps. On the bubble of making the Chase, Stewart was probably advised a conservative second-place finish beat a risky move at taking a win. Right now, Busch can run as hard as he wants, but those drivers towards the bottom of the top 12 have to run more conservatively. Wasn’t the Chase supposed to make racing more exciting – not less?

McDowell’s Cup career highlight is his savage wreck at Texas. Maybe Michael Waltrip told him he wasn’t getting much TV time lately and the sponsors were upset, so he should go out and do something monumentally stupid during the Watkins Glen race to get back on the highlight reels?

What on earth was Tony Eury Jr. thinking leaving his driver Earnhardt Jr. out there so long? Almost inevitably, a caution-flag pit stop sent the No. 88 to the rear of the field and ended Earnhardt’s chances at a decent finish. If Eury was in charge of military strategy planning the invasion of Grenada, we would have lost the war.

No one can dispute Busch is having a career year like few drivers will ever enjoy. But how much of it is the driver and how much of it is the car? Maybe it’s time NASCAR rounds up a bunch of Cup engines and takes them back to the R&D center for dyno testing like they did in the Nationwide series after the Joliet race.

While Joe Nemechek finished 38th, one of his crew guys deserves an award for enthusiastic effort in the face of extreme adversity for his efforts in trying to repair the hood of the No. 78 car. That’s really throwing yourself into your work, young man!

I guess Stewart insisted changes be made to his shift lever after having one break at a road course previously. That bat of a shifter in the No. 20 car looked positively Neanderthal.

What’s wrong with the Cup series these days? For all the talk of Martinsville losing one or both race dates, nobody with the power to change things seems to ever discuss dropping Watkins Glen or Sonoma from the schedule.

Lest we forget, Monday, August 11th, will mark the 16th anniversary of the tragic passing of JD McDuffie at Watkins Glen. McDuffie’s death and serious injuries suffered by Tommy Kendall in the same corner caused the track to add that chicane at the end of the back straight. R.I.P., JD.

While we’re recalling sad anniversaries, this Wednesday, August 13th, marks 19 years since the tragic death of NASCAR’s forgotten legend, Tim Richmond. Richmond won the first Cup race staged at Watkins Glen in the modern era. For all the talk of the road-course success of Stewart and Gordon, in this writer’s humble opinion, Richmond remains the greatest NASCAR driver ever to turn a wheel on a road course. Many newer fans never saw Tim race, and some perhaps have never even heard his name. Trust me, Richmond died in his prime – and were it not for his death, the record books would look substantially different. No less an authority than the late Dale Earnhardt once opined that if Richmond had lived, he (Earnhardt) would never have been able to claim those seven titles.

PUGLIESE: TIM RICHMOND HISTORICAL PROFILE

In the interest of historical accuracy, Ron Fellows‘s win in rainy Montreal last weekend was not the first time cars in one of NASCAR’s top divisions ran in the rain. On August 12th, 1956, Tim Flock wheeled a Bill Stroppe-prepared Mercury to victory at Road America in the rain. That race was part of the season’s Grand National schedule… the equivalent of today’s Cup series.

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

Bobby Labonte took a savage hit in the lap 83 wreck that sent him to the hospital through no fault of his own. Gilliland suffered a number of hard knocks as well. The other eight drivers involved in that travesty ought to be allowed to invite Mr. McDowell to a blanket party behind the transporters next week.

You win as a team and you lose as a team, but the number of times Earnhardt Jr. has seen his chances at a win in a competitive car evaporate due to strategy or pit stops is troubling.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

With his eighth win of the Cup season, a Cup Series road course sweep, and a second-place result in the Nationwide race, Kyle Busch had a pretty good weekend.

If any driver left Watkins Glen happier than Busch, it might have been Marcos Ambrose. He won his first Nationwide Series race on Saturday, and then – despite starting 41st in Sunday’s Cup event – he drove to a stellar third-place finish by the end of the untidy proceedings. Good on ya, mate.

You have to believe the Wood Brothers team was dancing in the streets after the race, having proven they can still field a competitive car in an era where their continued existence hangs in the balance.

Carl Edwards just missed Ryan Newman’s car – which was sitting stalled at the exit of a blind corner right in the racing line – en route to a ninth-place finish.

Johnson also just barely avoided the No. 12 car after Newman’s spin. Later, he cut down a tire and dropped to the rear of the field, but a timely caution put the No. 48 back up front, and Johnson was able to drive on to a seventh-place finish.

Yeah, it might seem odd to say a driver who spun and couldn’t re-fire his car enjoyed any sort of good luck. But for any driver sitting at the exit of a blind corner – driver side out in a stalled car – watching the rest of the field barrel right at him and miss is one of those moments that puckers up one’s nether-regions like a steel rosebud. Anytime you leave on your own two feet rather than in a helicopter after that sort of mess, you have to feel lucky.

With the forecast as grim as it was on Sunday morning, NASCAR officials must have burnt live animal holocausts to whatever demon Gods they worship to be able to get the race in.

Worth Noting

  • The top-10 finishers at Watkins Glen drove three Toyotas (all from JGR), three Chevys, two Fords and two Dodges. Busch’s Toyota victory was the first at the Glen for any non-GM make since Geoffrey Bodine won here in a Ford back in 1996.
  • Patrick Carpentier’s 20th-place finish was the best by any officially declared Rookie of the Year candidate; though of course, Ambrose could be considered a rookie as well.
  • Despite his supposed slump, Busch has won three of the last five Cup races.
  • Stewart finished second for the second consecutive week and for the third time in this Cup season.
  • Ambrose’s third-place finish was the first top five scored by the Wood Brothers team since Ricky Rudd finished fourth at Bristol in the summer of 2005. It was the 336th top-five result the storied team has posted.
  • Juan Pablo Montoya (fourth) drove to his second top-five finish of 2008.
  • Martin Truex Jr. (fifth) managed just his third top-five finish of the year. Any more questions as to whether contract negotiations are distractions to drivers and teams?
  • After a midseason slump, Kevin Harvick (sixth) has enjoyed top-10 finishes in three of the last four Cup events.
  • Denny Hamlin (eighth) has managed just two top-10 results in the last seven Cup races.
  • Kurt Busch (10th) posted his first top-10 result since Daytona four races ago.
  • AJ Allmendinger (11th) has posted his best two career finishes in the last three races. Those two good finishes have propelled the No. 84 team into 35th place in the standings; so at least for next week, they are guaranteed a spot in the race.
  • For all the talk of Gordon’s prowess at Watkins Glen, upon further review he’s managed just one top 10 and no top-five finishes there since he last won at the track in 2001.

What’s the Points?

Not unexpectedly, Kyle Busch is still leading the points. His lead is up to 242 over Edwards, who moved up a spot to take over second-place honors. Johnson also jumped up one spot to third, trailing Edwards by just two points.

On the heels of poor pit strategy, Earnhardt Jr. dropped two spots to fourth in the standings. As a result, Tony Eury Jr. should probably wear dark sunglasses and a low slung ballcap, and bring bodyguards if he’s shopping at the Kannapolis Piggly Wiggly this week.

In the Battle of the Basement, Matt Kenseth rose a spot to re-enter the Chase in 12th. Clint Bowyer fell a spot to 13th, and now trails Kenseth by 22 points with four “regular” season races remaining.

Stewart advanced two spots to seventh in the standings and is 138 points ahead of the cut for the Chase. Hamlin moved up a spot to ninth in the standings. Greg Biffle fell two spots to 10th, and objects in the rearview mirror may be bigger than they appear after a lackluster 21st-place finish. Kasey Kahne also dropped a spot to eighth.

Five drivers currently in Chase contention haven’t even won a race this year, leaving open the nightmarish scenario of NASCAR crowning a champion who didn’t win a single event – a possibility unheard of in any major sport. Maybe winning a points race should automatically qualify a driver for this Chase mess? If Newman did, in fact, win the sport’s “Super Bowl” back at Daytona in February, how can he not contend for a championship? This is the danger of mixing sport metaphors.

Meanwhile, Sam Hornish Jr. is 33rd in the points, but is this season’s top-ranked rookie in the standings to date. You know, I think this whole concept of importing open-wheel stars into stock car racing might need some rethinking.

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 two cups of Mogan-David 20-20 Mad Dog served in dirty Styrofoam cups. Most fans don’t expect much when it comes to road-course racing, and that’s what they got – not much.

Next Up: The Cup Series returns to the Irish Hills. Michigan? Not this again.

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