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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

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

The Key Moment: On lap 469, Carl Edwards used his bumper to nudge the No. 18 car aside and do something nobody else had done all night, pass Kyle Busch.

In a Nutshell: Kyle and Carl put on another clinic with Busch dominating, but the race is not always to the swift….

Dramatic Moment: Edwards’s “bump and run” on Busch was surgical but the two drivers saved the fireworks for the ironically named cool-down lap. It wasn’t until then the massive Bristol crowd finally really got into the game.

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

Was Edwards brushing Busch aside fair? Hey, if they ban that sort of move they might as well stop the sport of stock car racing. Compared to the revered Dale Earnhardt’s pass of Terry Labonte late in the 1999 race, that was a church square dance. Were Busch’s post-race antics understandable? Hell, yeah! You lead 415 laps and get brushed aside late in the race and its natural to be angry. Edwards had no choice but to retaliate to let Busch know he wasn’t going to be pushed around, especially with the duo heading into the Chase as the favorites. The altercation took place at slow speed and involved two drivers belted safely in their racecars, not on pit road with innocents at risk. If either driver is fined or penalized, I might just quit the sport. We need more of this, not less. In fact I wish the two drivers had continued knocking into each other until their cars wouldn’t move anymore and then gotten out and brawled to settle things. Even if the post-race antics were subdued by the standards of the ’79 Daytona 500, the best part is the “To Be Continued” comments expressed by both combatants post-race.

OK, let’s talk about that 600-pound gorilla sitting in the center of the living room telling dirty jokes to your granny. Even with the bump and run and post-race antics, Saturday night was hardly the sort of race that has made the Bristol night race a late-summer classic for many fans. There were less leaders than any Bristol race since 1978, and Busch led 415 laps seemingly at will. There was some racing back in the pack, but not the wholesale position changes and carnage that fans have come to expect. Reconfiguring the Bristol track has made for more side-by-side racing, but these new cars just can’t pull off the passes. It’s made for less carnage, and some fans miss that. As I see it, the new track promotes better racing, but it’s less fun to watch while the new cars once again the expose their Achilles’s heels. It’s like watching tugboats trying to race in high seas.

A great insight into racing at Bristol and life in general from Friday night’s Nationwide race; “The error for margin is very, very small.” I love live TV.

Did someone install a magnet beneath the throttle pedal of the No. 18 car during the final pit stop?

Some people might be surprised but I actually disagree with just one portion of the penalties handed down to Joe Gibbs Racing this week in the messy aftermath of Dyno-gate. Absent any evidence they knew of the plans to alter the car post-race, I don’t understand why the drivers of those cars were fined points. Some folks have asked me how long an “indefinite” suspension lasts. I figure it lasts until the uproar dies down. The last indefinite suspensions handed down were in the wake of the altered fuel controversy at Daytona concerning the No. 55 car, and we still don’t know what all happened there.

STAFF SIDE-BY-SIDE: WERE THE JGR PENALTIES TOO HARSH?

Jeff Burton was frustrated and angry after he was knocked out of the race and he had every right to be. That mess wasn’t of his making. But rather than throwing a tantrum, he instead used his post-race interview to pump his team back up and express confidence that they’d be able to overcome adversity. Compare that to Denny Hamlin’s post-race comments last week after Michigan. There’s a reason sometimes it’s better to have a seasoned driver rather than a kid a few years removed from local short tracks at the wheel during a championship drive.

Does it seem like Tony Stewart’s pit crew is phoning it in since he announced his plans to leave the No. 20 team? Stewart seems to be losing spots every time he pits.

The wreck wasn’t entirely or even mostly his fault, though Michael Waltrip is one of those drivers who refuses to extend courtesy to the leaders even when he’s laps down in a hopelessly bad car that can’t get out of its own way. But it’s rare to hear a driver like Clint Bowyer be as blunt as to say, “Michael Waltrip is the worst racecar driver in NASCAR. Period. I can’t believe NASA signed him on again.” Unfortunately, it was actually NAPA that re-signed Waltrip. He won’t be leaving this planet anytime soon.

So OK, even NASCAR and the ISC have finally had to admit this whole Labor Day weekend deal at Fontana just wasn’t working out. (If I can put the journalistic professionalism that is my hallmark aside for a moment; NEENER, NEENER, NEENER, I TOLD YOU SO!) They’ve now moved the Labor Day weekend race back to Atlanta and the South for the 2009 season. Well they’re getting warmer. They only need to move the race one state north to get the Southern 500 back where it belongs.

In other schedule news, the second Talladega race will now be held late in the Chase. Having a plate race that late in the playoffs is like adding land mines on the field to spice up the Super Bowl.

You can read my articles but you can’t read my mind. Once again some folks are certain that I only got enraged about this whole magnet mess because the offending teams compete in Toyotas, that despite the fact I said pretty clearly in the article that I’d be just as angry if the team competed in another make of car. One interesting note I read said my idea that the teams be suspended from Nationwide competition for the rest of the season was unfair because it put men and women who had no part in the incident out of work. Think about this. If a team, any team, breaks the rules to gain an unfair advantage it means the hard-working team members who compete within the rules don’t get race wins and competitive runs they are due. Long term, that can lead to hard working people being released, drivers’ careers ended, sponsors leaving teams and teams shutting down, putting honest people out of work.

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s temporary brain-freeze at the green flag cost him a drive-through penalty that knocked him a lap off the pace and he was never able to get that lap back.

Jimmie Johnson got a piece of the lap 26 wreck and had to go to the garage area for repairs, ending his chances at a decent finish early. About the only cars Johnson was able to pass for the rest of the night were the ones being hauled back to the garage area on flatbeds.

Burton got run over from behind as he tried to slow for the Casey Mears-Waltrip wreck and was knocked out of the race.

It just seems every week lately Dave Blaney has a decent race going but gets run over out there on the track.

Kasey Kahne’s chances at making the Chase were all but eliminated by a wreck not of his own making.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

Edwards is dang lucky that the volatile Busch never got back to his rear bumper after he used his front bumper to take the lead. When Busch had to scrap with teammate Hamlin over second, Edwards was able to drive off to a comfortable win.

While Busch was clearly frustrated by his second-place finish, he was lucky to be able to finish the race after barely missing Blaney’s spinning car as the fourth caution flag flew.

Jeff Gordon desperately needed a good run and he got one even while the Nos. 48 and 88 teams suffered through another long night. Heavy contact with the Nos. 11 and 20 cars didn’t damage Gordon’s car enough to sideline his efforts though it clearly ticked him off.

It appeared the heavy contact Bowyer’s No. 07 car suffered in the Mears-Waltrip wreck might send him to the garage but even with the front-end geometry of his Chevy all askew, he was able to drive on to a seventh-place finish.

David Ragan had to start the race 43rd in a backup car after wrecking in qualifying, but was able to post a top-10 finish.

Dario Franchitti’s impressive drive and 11th-place finish in Friday’s Nationwide race might have taken his NASCAR career off life support, at least for a while. Oddly enough, he was the top finishing Scotsman with an Italian last name in the race.

Worth Noting

  • Nine of Edwards’s combined 29 victories in the Cup and Nationwide/Busch series have taken place on concrete tracks.
  • Busch has now led 1,580 laps in the Cup series this season, eclipsing the total number of laps he’s led in the previous four years of his career combined (1,571 laps).
  • The top-10 finishers at Bristol drove three Fords, three Toyotas, three Chevys and a lone Dodge.
  • Regan Smith in 14th was the top-finishing Rookie of the Year candidate at Bristol
  • Hamlin finished third for the fourth time this season..
  • Quietly building momentum, Kevin Harvick (fourth) now has four consecutive top-10 Cup finishes.
  • Gordon (fifth) enjoyed his best finish and led a lap in a Cup race for the first time since Indy. Ryan Newman (sixth) enjoyed his best finish since Richmond this spring.
  • Matt Kenseth (ninth) has finished 12th or better in the last four Cup races.
  • Jamie McMurray (12th) is averaging an 11th-place finish in the last five races.
  • Aric Almirola scored the second-best finish of his 13-race Cup career.
  • Smith’s 14th-place finish matches the best of his Cup career. Smith also finished 14th at Martinsville.
  • Kahne (40th) has now gone nine consecutive Cup races without a top-five finish.
  • Earnhardt Jr. (18th) is mired in a six-race slump without a top-10 result.

What’s the Points?

Busch remains the points leader. Edwards trimmed Busch’s lead just a hair and is now 212 points behind Busch. More importantly at this juncture, if neither driver wins one of the next two races, when the points are reset after Richmond Edwards would start the Chase just 20 points behind Busch.

Earnhardt Jr.’s lackluster 18th-place finish allowed him to reclaim third spot in the standings from teammate Johnson, who now trails the No. 88 bunch by two whole points. And the crowd went wild.

Kahne took the hardest hit in the points, dropping three positions out of the top 12 and down to 14th in the standings, 56 points out of the Chase. Maybe he can use that accident forgiveness plan to recoup his lost points?

Bowyer made applesauce out of bruised apples at Bristol to move up a spot to 12th in the standings, but he’s just 12 points ahead of Ragan, who moved up a spot to 13th. Newman moved up two spots to 15th, but he’s fully 181 points out of the Chase. His chances at making the Chase? You’d be better off wagering your life savings on two elderly Shriners in a two piece polka-dot horse Halloween costume carrying a blind albino midget as a jockey to win the Kentucky Derby.

Hamlin moved up a spot in the standings to 11th. The rest of the drivers in the Chase held serve.

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 race four icy cold Coronas served by a buxom blonde with a Harley tattoo. We’ll give the post-race antics a six-pack of Sly Fox microbrew Helles Golden Lager served out of doors so we can enjoy ’em with a smoke.

Next Up: Well it’s Labor Day weekend. That means the Cup boys ought to be running a 500-miler at Darlington under the blazing South Carolina sun competing for the Southern 500 trophy, a victory that defines a driver’s career. Instead I hear they’ll once again be holding a single-file parade around some McTrack in Southern California. I want no parts of that, so I’ll be out in the garage working on the ’72 454 Chevelle project that arrived this week. See you at Richmond. Fans are urged to buy a good-fitting bicycle helmet before Richmond to limit injuries caused by ESPN beating them over the head about the Chase.

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