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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

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

The Key Moment: Jeff Burton and Jimmie Johnson waged a spirited battle for a few laps after the final restart before points leader Johnson apparently decided discretion was the better part of valor.

In a Nutshell: Wasn’t this new car supposed to end the era of cars up front with clean air on the nose running away from the field, with previously fast cars mired in traffic unable to pass anything but the time? Newsflash: It didn’t work. Film at 11.

Dramatic Moment: There was some good racing back in the pack and after every restart, with track position so key and passing so difficult. The short-lived Burton/Johnson battle probably takes top honors.

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

Maybe they ought to add some reverse light decals to the rear of the No. 48 car, because Johnson seems to want to back his way into this championship.

If Carl Edwards wasn’t on the lead lap when caution froze the field on lap 54, it seems certain he was the first car a lap down. I don’t get that call. In the end, though, it didn’t much matter, did it? Could this have been a “silent” penalty for Thursday’s garage area confrontation?

Why on earth is there any wall at a racetrack still not protected by the SAFER barrier? Travis Kvapil took a savage hit nose first into unyielding concrete on the frontstretch Saturday. Apparently, Marcus Smith has his first challenge to fix.

Some folks like big burnouts and donuts by the winning driver after a race, but I prefer Burton’s more modest display reacting like you expected to win.

Wasn’t the rap against the “old” points system that with several races left to run, it was usually down to a two or possibly three man battle for the title? Gee, it’s a lot more exciting under the Chase system, isn’t it?

I cannot understand why some people get so excited when a couple of drivers like Kevin Harvick and Edwards have a pushing and hollering match while discussing “issues”. Back in the day, drivers often settled matters with their fists, tire irons, and even an occasional drawn gun. Many still feel it was the spirited fistfight between Bobby Allison and Cale Yarborough at Daytona in 1979 that put this sport on the national map. Somehow, the equivalent of an elementary school playground shoving match just doesn’t raise my blood pressure anymore.

It did seem curious to me with dozens of photos taken of the Harvick-Edwards hissy fit some behind the scene machinations kept most of those photos from reaching the Internet and thus the media for close to 72 hours. In the brave new world of the electronic media, photos of celebrities behaving badly are usually online in minutes. I’m still searching for a photo of Harvick tossing an Ozark into Edwards’s koi pond.

Well, some scribes and fans still think NASCAR made the right call at Talladega, stripping Regan Smith of his apparent win, but I find it interesting that I haven’t heard a single driver other than Michael Waltrip who felt that Smith hadn’t won the race fair and square. All agreed that Tony Stewart forced Smith below the line, even Stewart his bad old self. So, NASCAR needs to clarify the real rule so that every driver understands it. It seems impossible to argue that Smith wasn’t forced out of bounds when paint from Stewart’s car was found on his front fender. In plain English, “On the final lap of a plate race at Talladega or Daytona, the driver with less popularity and a lower-dollar sponsor shall yield position to his more famous rival.” I’ve had a week to think about and review the tapes of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s win at the 2003 Aaron’s 499, and my conclusions remain the same. Smith got robbed. We report. You decide.

I think it’s time to study how NASCAR sets the field when weather cancels qualifying, as was the case for the eighth time this season at Charlotte on Thursday. Rain is a random event that nobody can control and that no “meteorologist on TV” seems to be able to predict accurately even 10% of the time. Giving the points leaders the top positions based on an unpredictable event gives them an unfair advantage to start with, so I say take the top 43 in drivers’ (italics added for emphasis) points and have a random drawing out of a hat to determine starting position and pit stall selection. (I’m sure SPEED will televise the drawing. There’s only so many times they can show old episodes of Pinks.) Others have suggested that to make things more exciting, maybe NASCAR should use the points standings but invert the starting order. Excitement? I like excitement. Sign me up.

Aluminum panels were shedding off Paul Menard’s car. Brian Vickers slapped the wall hard and was limping around the top side of the track. But NASCAR didn’t throw a caution. Was that because Jeff Gordon had just pitted out of sequence and it would have trapped him a lap down? Certainly, we’ve seen a ton of caution flags for less severe contact with the wall and smaller bits of debris. It’s just one of those things that make you go hmmm…

There’s talk in the trades that struggling automakers General Motors and Chrysler have reached such desperate straits they are considering a merger. (Earlier this week, GM staved off talks they were considering filing for bankruptcy, which seems to make much more sense than the merger idea.) These are strange times we live in. One can only consider the possible implications to teams’ NASCAR support after such a merger. NASCAR needs to seriously start re-thinking its exit strategy for the third major pullout of the U.S. carmakers from the sport following the debacles of 1957 and 1971. The sport survived the early ’70s withdrawal of support from the Big Three (well, I guess it was the Big Four back then, though AMC hung out a while) thanks to the divine intervention of the R.J. Reynolds Winston brand. Here’s a hint: I don’t think the next life raft is going to be tossed by a cell phone provider or cigarette company.

I don’t know if this was the first time they used them at a night race or if I just never noticed them, but those lights mounted to the underside of tire changers’ crash helmet visors were a pretty neat idea.

“Through the perilous flight? “Proof to the night?” Had Ms. Simpson ever even heard the National Anthem before prior to mangling it? Maybe she should stick to playing second banana to a puppet in pizza commercials.

The term seems to be entering the NASCAR lexicon, and I gag every time I hear it. The word “Sporty” is a noun used to affectionately describe Harley Davidson’s smallest displacement lightweight models, not an adjective.

A note to Dale Jarrett: As a male, I can say there is very little effort needed to raise “Breast Awareness” amongst my gender. Now, raising “Breast Cancer Awareness” is a very noble cause because the deadly disease has cost us too many of the women we love. I’m glad to see teams and drivers support it, even if I can’t really warm up to pink racecars.

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

Edwards had more pit-road problems; but in the end, it just didn’t matter. Some fluke failure of both the primary and secondary ignition boxes left him sitting in the pits for 16 laps while repairs were made. If there’s anything more frustrating for a driver than having to cruise around in a badly-damaged car making laps for points, it’s got to be running a car fast enough to challenge the leaders to a 33rd-place finish. Yes, Edwards could still win the title. And I could still win the Powerball and arrive at the Homestead season finale towing a Harley Crossbones behind my new Challenger en route to congratulate him… but I’m not programming the Garmin quite yet.

Earnhardt had a competitive car until he blew a tire and slapped the wall hard on lap 103, a lap before the team planned to pit. It seems this year Earnhardt has blown more tires than Britney Spears has blown… well, let’s not go there.

Vickers had another strong run and led a lot of laps, but his evening ended with a hard shot to the wall.

Robby Gordon was having a better than average run when an airgun broke during his pit stop. NASCAR rules won’t allow the teams to use a third gun, so the team elected to change right-side tires only. But Gordon had locked up his left-front tire entering the pits, flat-spotting it, and that tire gave out before he could return to the pits for left-side replacements.

Matt Kenseth got caught up in a wreck not of his own making for the second straight weekend. As far as his title hopes, put out the fire and call in the dogs…

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

Burton’s team wasn’t sure they’d gotten enough gas into the car on the final pit stop to complete the race. With the rash of right-front tire failures, the decision to go with no new tires on the final stop was a high stakes gamble.

Kasey Kahne’s car went backwards from the drop of the green flag and he eventually lost a lap to the leaders, but recovered to finish a strong second.

Jeff Gordon hit the wall twice in the first five laps and he was forced to pit for repairs, losing a lap to the field. But Gordon managed to rally back to actually lead a lot of laps en route to an eighth-place finish.

Typically, a late-race pit-road speeding penalty dooms a driver’s chances at a decent finish. However, Kyle Busch was able to fight back to fourth.

Kurt Busch survived an ill-tempered little bumping match with Juan Pablo Montoya well enough to finish third, ending plans by Dodge to have his photo placed on milk cartons as a missing person.

Worth Noting

  • Jeff Gordon has now gone one full year without a Cup victory. Who’da thunk?
  • Burton has now won multiple races in a Cup season for the first time since 2001. He’s currently second in the points standings, the highest he’s been at this point in the season since 2006. Burton’s season best points finish is third in 2000.
  • Burton continues to do his best to keep Johnson honest, with a string of top-10 finishes that dates back to Richmond in September.
  • Kahne (second) managed his first top-five finish since the first Michigan race.
  • Kurt Busch (third) earned his first top-five finish since the Coke Zero 400.
  • Kyle Busch (fourth) enjoyed his best finish of the Chase; the previous high water mark was 15th last weekend at Talladega. My, how the mighty have fallen.
  • Jamie McMurray’s fifth-place finish was his best of the 2008 Cup campaign.
  • Johnson is averaging about a fifth-place finish in five Chase races this season. That ought to do the trick if he can keep it up.
  • Jeff Gordon (eighth) has top-10 finishes in three of the last four races.
  • Mark Martin (ninth) has earned top-10 finishes in five of his last six Cup starts.
  • David Ragan (10th) has strung together three consecutive top-10 finishes for the first time in his Cup career. You’ve got to learn to walk before you run.
  • Clint Bowyer has finished 12th in four of the last six Cup races.
  • Harvick (13th) hasn’t managed a top-five finish since Labor Day weekend at Fontana.
  • Reed Sorenson’s 15th-place finish was his best since the first Loudon Cup race.
  • Since announcing he was leaving Penske Racing August 13th, Ryan Newman and the No. 12 team have managed just one top-10 finish and have led just 10 laps. I feel they embody the new NASCAR ethos, “I will not give up without a press conference!”
  • The top-10 finishers Saturday night at Charlotte drove four Chevys, three Fords, one Toyota and a pair of Dodges.
  • Sam Hornish Jr. in 22nd was the top-finishing Rookie of the Year candidate at Charlotte. I doubt even he cares at this point, as sorry a job as this year’s crop of ROTY candidates have done. The anticipated Open-Wheel Invasion into the Cup ranks has flown like the proverbial lead balloon.

What’s the Points?

Johnson retains the points lead, and is now 69 ahead of Burton, who moved up two spots to second. Greg Biffle remains in third, now 86 points behind Johnson.

Edwards dropped two spots to fourth. Edwards and the rest of the drivers in the Chase are now more than a full race worth of points behind Johnson with five races remaining in this farce.

The only other movement within the top 12 was Kyle Busch moving up two spots to ninth, a sobering 326 points out of the lead. From here on out, JGR’s strategy at winning the title is for Johnson to be kidnapped by space aliens before Martinsville. Kenseth fell two spots to 11th.

Just outside the Chase, Ragan maintains 13th spot and is now 86 points ahead of 14th-place Kahne. 15th-place Newman is no longer a factor in the “Best of the Rest” class. Ragan and Kahne continue to battle for that coveted 13th-place spot, which includes such valuable incentives as discounted go-kart rides at a local amusement park in Charlotte.

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 three cans of lukewarm Dixie beer. It was pretty much your typical modern day McRace. It had its moments, but dragged on relentlessly in other portions.

Next Up: Set the way back machine for 1950-something as the tour returns to the quaint magic of Martinsville. When NASCAR’s top series first visited Martinsville in 1949, the Dow Jones Industrial Average hovered around 675 points. We might be below that before next weekend.