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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin’s Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2008 Richmond Fall Race Recap

The Key Moment: Tony Stewart ran down Jimmie Johnson with 10 laps to go, but Johnson found enough speed in the upper groove to prevail over the No. 20 car in a battle of the home improvement centers.

In a Nutshell: Against all odds, on a nearly perfect day at a nearly perfect racetrack, the Cup series put on a nearly perfect race.

Dramatic Moment: There were nearly 400 laps worth of them, with two- and even occasional three-wide racing for the lead to go along with side-by-side racing throughout the pack.

There’s no doubt that the most popular moment of the race for the fans on hand was watching Dale Earnhardt Jr. send Kyle Busch spinning. Junior clearly slammed on the brakes to stay off the No. 18 car but from the cheap(er) seats, it must have looked like a little payback for the Richmond spring race.

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

OK, so Johnson made his point Sunday. It’s no longer a two-man race for this year’s title. Carl Edwards and Busch are going to have to contend with Johnson as well.

Oh, I know someone will say it was contractual, but it’s hard to understand why ABC covered the IRL season finale, bumping the delayed NASCAR race over to the ESPN outlet. Yeah, there was a good title fight in the IRL, but ratings numbers suggest the Mother Ship should have gone with the bigger event. Still, combined with an exciting Formula 1 race Sunday morning and a thriller at Chicago with the IRL, this was a stellar – if long – day to be a race fan.

I can’t wait to watch the message boards light up in response to ESPN choosing to cut away to commercial twice just as Earnhardt Jr. made passes for the lead. On a more positive note, the pictures all race long and coverage of the racing back in the pack were a sunny reminder of ESPN’s glory days back in the ’80s. But if he ever decides to lose this TV gig of his, Dr. Jerry Punch clearly has a future in the new cabinet as Minister of Disinformation. Saying stuff like a driver is running ninth when the graphics clearly show he is 19th is just sloppy.

Talk about unintended irony; after the race, the producer showed a clearly frustrated Stewart tossing his steering wheel in anger after finishing second. Cut to that Samsung commercial with Stewart’s voice saying, “Let’s get out there and have some fun, guys.” Yeah, I’d say the marriage is over between Stewart and his soon to be ex-team. Stewart threw them under the bus, blaming them for losing the race in the pits, and was quickly told to lose his attitude and stop that crap. I’m not liking their chances in the Chase. Give some points to Stewart for a relatively calm interview after the race, though. It was as if he’d undergone an exorcism during a commercial break.

While we’re on the subject, I’m not digging the chemistry between Earnhardt Jr. and his team right now, either.

Wasn’t it rather interesting to have Johnson refer to Stewart as a “teammate” for 2009? So much for capping the number of teams any owner can run.

Did NASCAR make the right call postponing the races until Sunday on Friday, even as there was a slight chance of a weather window opening Saturday evening – allowing the race to be run as scheduled? I’ll rip into NASCAR when I feel they’ve screwed the pooch, but I’ll give them this one. With a weather forecast grimmer than the latest unemployment numbers, they spared fans the likelihood of sitting for hours in the miserable rain and potentially dangerous wind conditions on Saturday waiting for an event that almost certainly wasn’t going to happen anyway based on the information they had at the time. In addition, Virginia State Troopers and other law enforcement personnel were going to be needed to protect lives and property in the coastal areas that took a harder hit than the Richmond metro area when Hanna came calling, and wouldn’t have been available to handle traffic and security details at the race. With the potential danger, NASCAR made the right call. I remember fighting my way through clogged traffic caused by power outages after a hurricane had shut down the traffic lights around the track (and gas stations shut down without power as my rental car ran on fumes) in order to attend a Richmond race a decade ago. As you might imagine, it wasn’t any fun. This was an example of how the safety and well being of fans paying big bucks to attend a race must always be put before the needs of NASCAR’s network partners.

The now infamous Rolling Stone interview of Stewart is a dead issue in my mind. The fact Stewart is a talented racecar driver almost without equal has never been in doubt given his two championships in NASCAR and multiple other forms of racing. The fact he’s a lecherous, unkempt, out of shape, egotistical, self-centered legend-in-his-own-mind individual with Neanderthal views towards women is no surprise to anyone who’s had even a peek behind the curtain. It was in fact refreshing to see Stewart’s frank attempt at self-immolation in print before he actually does the same with his career next season. Stewart fans can take comfort in the fact he’s already earned enough money to keep himself in whores, booze, and fast cars for the rest of his lifetime, dragging his knuckles across the face of this fair earth.

NASCAR has decided that Toyota has an unfair advantage in both the Nationwide and Truck Series with their engines, and throttled the Toyota teams back about 15 horsepower in the interest of parity. So, how long will it be before they do the same in the Cup Series? I fully understand the mindset that Toyota teams have worked within the rules to gain an advantage, just as Junior Johnson and Smokey Yunick once did, and as such penalizing them for their hard work and millions spent on research and development seems unfair and counterintuitive. But us gray-hairs recall that NASCAR did the same thing to Ford back in the mid-1980s, when Bill Elliott’s team was dominating the superspeedways. Indeed, NASCAR opened this Pandora’s box the second they raised the roof height on those Thunderbirds while allowing GM to run models that were front-wheel drive on the street as rear-wheel drive racecars instead – ones that bore little resemblance to the crap that sat unsold on Chevy, Pontiac, Buick and Oldsmobile lots in that era. The simple fact is there’s no “stock” left in stock car racing these days, and Toyota hasn’t built an OHV-powered model in over two decades. Parity or parody? You decide.

There are apparently folks in the garage area who want Jeff Gordon to take a defiant stand against NASCAR, using his high profile and fan allegiance to demand NASCAR modify the fatally flawed Car of Sorrow rules. Sorry, you might as well wait for Britney Spears to write a Nobel Prize-winning essay on macroeconomics. Undoubtedly one of the greatest drivers of his generation, my guess is Gordon has never suffered a spinal injury in any hard wreck because he lacks a backbone. Others say if Earnhardt Jr. would try to take his father’s place as a garage area soapbox firebrand that can’t be denied, NASCAR would do the right thing. Nope; even if all 43 drivers were to band together and condemn the new car in profane terms to every media outlet available to them 24 hours a day for a week, current NASCAR officialdom would tell them to “shut up and race.” The problems with the Car of Horror are clearly evident to even casual fans, but nobody at NASCAR has figured out the First Rule of Holes; when you find you’re caught in one, that first step is to stop digging.

It was announced this week that Dodge (or Cerrebrus Capital, if you prefer) will stop backing teams in the Whoever Is Going to Sponsor It Next Year Truck Series, basically throwing in the towel to the dominant Toyotas. Some of you may have seen a recent YouTube video of spectators watching as small chunks of a glacier began calving away when suddenly the whole thing began to collapse, swamping them on the rocks. Well, get thee to higher ground, because Dodge’s announcement this week is just the first few ice cubes hitting the water.

“Thanks, NASCAR, for broadcasting the National Anthem…” Well, yeah, um… about that. But seriously, the sport managed to conduct a stock car race without an hour-plus pre-show. Who knew such a thing was not only possible, but better? It’s simple; say the prayer, sing the song, fire the engines, and drop the green… preferably exactly at 1 p.m. ET.

I really dislike the disrespect some of these younger drivers show the legends. Here’s a note to David Ragan: the fact you can become a millionaire running a Ford in the Cup series is by and large a product of the Wood Brothers and Elliott. They were in the game back when Jack Roush was still in the NHRA.

Well, there is little controversy after Richmond, but big things are afoot over in Europe after the soggy conclusion of the Grand Prix of Belgium. Apparent winner Lewis Hamilton was stripped of his victory after being penalized 25 points for improper passing. It all started when Hamilton missed a chicane and passed race leader Kimi Raikkonen. As required, Hamilton allowed that guy with the last name I don’t want to try spelling again to repass him, but then immediately passed him back again – apparently too soon according to F1 rules. Hmm… I guess he was supposed to count to “five one thousand” before repassing that other guy whose name looks like an industrial accident at an alphabet soup canning plant? The Ferrari driver wrecked out anyway making the point moot, but this penalty has far-reaching title implications that are headed to court. The big teams in F1 spend the sort of bread that would make even Rick Hendrick’s head explode battling for those titles, and once again, it appears another one could potentially be decided in a courtroom rather than on a racetrack.

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

Joey Logano is supposed to be the greatest thing since the advent of pop-top beer cans in the Cup Series, but he never had a chance to show his stuff, with foul weather knocking off his chance to qualify for the field and make his much-anticipated debut.

Dodge is locked out of this year’s title Chase.

Ragan worked his way into the Anointed 12 briefly, but bad pit stops and a spin that collected his teammate Matt Kenseth (another award recipient) knocked him out. I’d like to think it’s a little karmic payback for his disrespect of Elliott and the Wood Brothers.

OK, he came away with a top 10, but based on the way Gordon and the No. 24 team have been running lately, they’re a horse so dark in this Chase you’d need a flashlight at high noon to find them.

Earnhardt Jr. started the race in a car clearly fast enough to lead laps and contend for a win, but once again his crew chief managed to adjust it out of contention late in the race. My guess is if all races were half their length, Earnhardt would have won five races by now, but it’s not looking good for the No. 88 bunch going into the Chase.

Robby Gordon fell out of the Top 35 in owner points and will now have to race his way into the event at NHIS next week — and he’s getting sued. Sucks to be him, I guess.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

He clearly wasn’t happy with his “First Loser” finish, but Stewart was lucky to finish the race at all after just missing the spinning car of Busch.

Yes, he got turned into the wall while battling for the lead, but it was interesting to watch Busch and his team react to their misfortune. I half expected to see Busch run wide open under caution to catch and run into the No. 88 car, but Kyle kept calm, cool and collected instead. His team thrashed on the car to get it repaired, and Busch wound up driving his heart out to a 15th-place finish. Every team is going to have a few setbacks during the Chase, but the ability to divert disaster on your worst days and rally back will likely decide who gets the big check at the banquet.

David Reutimann had a career-defining day, leading a lot of laps and posting a top-10 finish in his No. 44 UPS Toyota.

Worth Noting

  • Johnson’s win was his fourth of the season and the 37th of his NASCAR career. If Johnson is able to win this year’s Chase, he will join Cale Yarborough as the only two drivers to score three consecutive titles.
  • Stewart has finished second in three of the last six Cup races. I don’t think he likes finishing second.
  • Denny Hamlin has finished third in the last three Cup races. Three is a good number in NASCAR…
  • Earnhardt Jr.’s fourth-place finish was his first top five since he won at Michigan back in June.
  • Mark Martin (fifth) has top-10 finishes in his last three Cup starts.
  • Jeff Burton (sixth) enjoyed his best finish since the first Pocono race.
  • Kevin Harvick (seventh) rides into the Chase with six consecutive top-10 finishes.
  • For the second straight week, Reutimann (ninth) posted his best-ever Cup finish. Oh, what a feeling.
  • Kurt Busch (10th) managed just his sixth top-10 finish this season.
  • Casey Mears (11th) managed his best finish since Loudon.
  • The top ROTY finisher at Richmond was Michael McDowell in 20th.
  • The top-10 finishers at Richmond drove six Chevys (presumably Rock and Rolling all the way), three Toyotas and one Dodge. Edwards in 12th posted the best finish for Ford.

What’s the Points?

Is everybody ready for the singing, dancing, and elephants swinging on the flying trapeze Chase Circus to start next week? Yeah, well, me neither, but it’s going to happen anyway. Not surprisingly, Busch is still the points leader, but his margin has been shaved down to 30 over second-place Edwards. Johnson remains in third, just 10 points behind him. You think maybe Edwards is missing those 10 bonus points he was penalized after his win at Vegas right about now?

The biggest winner in the new points system was Clint Bowyer, who moved up seven spots to fifth, just 70 points out of the lead after flirting with missing the Chase altogether at points during the Richmond race. Hamlin also gained a lot, moving up five spots to sixth because he too has won a race.

Five drivers – Stewart, Greg Biffle, Jeff Gordon, Harvick and Kenseth – occupy the bottom five spots in the Chase respectively because they have yet to win a single race this season. Why are they in playoff contention? Welcome to the fatal flaw in the Chase points system. Meanwhile Kasey Kahne with two Cup victories is looking in from the outside at 13th place. I’m sorry… I just don’t get it. Has there ever been an NFL team to reach postseason play without winning a single game?

Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans, with one being a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic): No question about it, this one earns six icy cold bottles of Corona served by a bartender who does stunt doubling for Heather Locklear. Truthfully, this is the first nice Sunday since the spring that I haven’t wished I’d gone out and ridden the Harley rather than watch a race.

Next Up: The majesty and the nationwide excitement of the Chase head off to New Hampshire for what will undoubtedly be… just another boring race with the Car of Horror. It’s sort of like having the teams entering the wild card portion of the NFL decide who wins with a spirited round of Tiddlywinks rather than an actual football game. Where have you gone, Dale Earnhardt; a nation turns its lonely eyes towards you…