NASCAR Race Weekend Central

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

The Key Moment: Jimmie Johnson got an excellent jump on that final green-white-checkered restart and kept Dale Earnhardt Jr. off his rear bumper.

In a Nutshell: Stock cars running belly to the ground, bumper-to-bumper into the fading sunlight of an autumn afternoon. It just doesn’t get any better.

Dramatic Moment: Well, it’s not the Chase, is it?

Earnhardt seemed to have Johnson’s number late in the race, but a series of cautions ended his chances.

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

What has Johnson figured out about Martinsville nobody else can pick up on? For that matter, what has the entire Hendrick organization figured out about Martinsville?

When recalling the triumphs the Hendrick team has enjoyed at Martinsville, one also has to remember perhaps the darkest day in the organization’s history four years ago. A team plane crashed traveling to this race killing Hendrick’s son, brother, two nieces and the flight crew, among others.

Is Jeff Gordon ever going to win a race again?

Dale Earnhardt finally just came out and admitted it. Late in the race, NASCAR will find a way to throw an unnecessary caution to bunch up the field and make for a better finish. If this comes as a surprise to you, you want to avoid trying to climb out the window Pollyanna.

Why can’t NASCAR find a way to put more short track dates on the schedule?

Long term readers know I am a huge fan of this sport’s colorful history. Thus, it’s not often I hear a story from back in the day I haven’t heard before – but I missed this one. Just in case I did, I’ll pass this one along from Ed Hinton of ESPN. Back in 1969, Bill France decided to take a race date away from Martinsville to move it to his new track at Talladega. Martinsville founder and owner Clay Earles didn’t take too kindly to that idea. According to Hinton, Earles flew to Daytona Beach packing a .38 pistol. After barging into Big Bill’s office, Earles pointed the loaded weapon at France and told him if it was all the same with Bill he’d like Martinsville to keep two race dates. France apparently quickly agreed that was a fine idea and thus avoided grievous personal injury. I don’t know if Brian France ever heard that story. I hope he has now. Among the core values of this sport is the fact Martinsville will have two race dates a year, just as it has from the beginning. Failure to heed that tradition could be hazardous to your health.

Hmmm. First, ESPN tells us Jeff Burton grew up 53 miles from Martinsville. Then, they tell us Burton grew up “a half-hour” from Martinsville. I guess Burton grew up a half-hour away from Martinsville if you drive 106 mph on public roadways.

I’ve been getting a ton of email asking me about the future of some teams (most notably DEI and RYR) in this troubled economy. The obvious concern is that in this screwed up economy there won’t be enough sponsors to go around. Let me try to refocus the issue. I love stock car racing. This is what I do. This is what I’ve done for a long time. I love this sport.

But I love this country as well. Everyone needs to take a deep breath and look at the big picture right now, not how some team is going to fare. As America heads for its most crucial election in six decades, you need to focus on your precious and inalienable right to vote paid for over these centuries with the sacred blood of our soldiers. You need to put aside past party affiliations and study long and hard what the two candidates for the presidency and their running mates have to say, so you can make an informed choice in what is shaping up to be a tight election. You need to look beyond the candidates’ age, the color of their skin, and their gender to make an informed choice. And you need to get out there that Tuesday and cast your vote. If America prospers as a nation, NASCAR will prosper as a sport. End of sermon…

Related to the above: It was hard not to notice that the race winning truck of new series points leader Johnny Benson ran at Martinsville minus sponsorship decals on the bed. And as the season winds down, it’s also troubling that no new series sponsor has been announced to replace Sears’s Craftsman brand of hand tools, which has been with the Truck Series since its inception. Again, my concern is focused on the survival of American business from the big three automakers down to the corner hardware store I hang out at on Saturday mornings sipping Folgers with friends. But you might look at the Truck Series as the canary in the coal mine with future implications for the Cup Series. And that canary is looking a little punky right now…

A lot has been written (I know, I’ve written a lot of it) about how NASCAR is following down the same path as the Formula 1 series into mediocrity after its glory days. Both forms of the sport have seen the cost to compete rise exponentially, and both have seen the well-funded super teams dominate. Both forms of motorsport have also seen less side-by-side racing and passes for the lead. Fans of both forms of racing are growing impatient waiting for a return to better racing. But there is a key difference. Going into the season finale, the F1 folks actually have a decent points battle going, and the winner might be the first black world champion in history.

You think the folks at ESPN/ABC are getting a bit panicky wondering how they can introduce a little artificial excitement into the “Race for the Chase” coverage with Johnson’s next title all but a foregone conclusion with four to go? Once again, Brian France’s brainstorm of an idea on how to crown a champion is exposed as congenital idiocy at its finest.

Some might feel that the current points standings mean a boring end to the season. I feel otherwise. Typically in our sport the best racing late in the season comes about after the championship is all but a done deal and the other drivers are just out there racing for pride with no worries about the points. These guys do know how to drive. That’s how they got to this level, and that’s how they keep their jobs. Now, the battle is to claim a little of the spotlight by winning races, with no quarter given and none asked. He might have been snakebit for the last month, but keep your eye on Kyle Busch, who has more than a little pride and a habit of letting the rough side drag. I bet he ignites some fireworks.

In one of the oddest sponsorship arrangements I can recall, the FCC sponsored David Gilliand at Martinsville. The FCC wants to remind folks that come February, TVs that only get over the air (rabbit ears) reception will go blank, and those fans who currently get over the air TV will need converter boxes to watch races… or even the evening news. In the current economy, I’m not sure that spending $350,000 of taxpayer money is wise. I guess what NASCAR and the FCC really need to do is convince folks maybe next year Cup racing will be worth watching. For the record, Yates Racing gave the FCC a $100,000 discount on the sponsorship. Considering most of us paid less than $100,000 in federal taxes in the last five years, color me relieved. That leaves more of my hard-earned and hard-taxed dollars to pay for luxury junkets for top bank CEOs.

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

Burton’s chances at a good finish (and probably any shot at the title) evaporated on pit road. Burton missed his pit stall and the team pitted the car outside of the box, earning Burton a one-lap penalty. But before anyone starts the latest conspiracy theory, no, I don’t think Gordon did it on purpose to help out teammate Johnson.

Jamie McMurray had a solid top-10 run going when he lost the rear gear in his Ford.

Kyle Busch’s floundering postseason kept right on coming. He blew numerous right-front tires and, to add insult to injury, he was penalized two laps for stopping on the track to draw a caution. Am I missing something? Three cars blew front tires all but simultaneously, so the caution was going to fly, anyway.

It was yet another long, trying day for the Roger Penske organization this weekend.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

Johnson‘s collision with the No. 21 car could easily have cut down his right front tire and dropped him laps off the pace.

Speaking of Bill Elliott and the Wood Brothers, did anyone else take note the lightly regarded outfit that the announcers all but wrote off before the race finished 16th? Making the run that much more astounding is that Elliott was always more of a threat on the big tracks than the bullrings, and the Woods used to skip the short-track events in their glory days of campaigning with David Pearson (with Martinsville being the noticeable exception).

David Ragan had to start the race at the tail end of the field after an engine change prior to the race. With just three laps left in regulation, he was then spun (by his teammate, no less) but clawed his way back to a 13th-place finish.

Matt Kenseth lost a lap early in the race and was forced to resort to risky pit strategy to get back towards the front. Despite an ill-handling car, though, he managed to hold onto a seventh-place finish.

Given Carl Edwards‘s record at Martinsville, a third-place finish was almost as good as a win.

Earnhardt Jr.‘s day took a blow early in the race when he was penalized for speeding on pit road, dropping the No. 88 to 41st place on the track. To come back and finish second was a good day’s work.

Worth Noting

  • Johnson’s win was the 17th for Hendrick Motorsports at Martinsville. The organization’s first Cup win was also at this track with Geoff(rey) Bodine at the wheel.
  • Johnson has won four of the last eight Cup races, and finished in the top 10 in all of them.
  • Earnhardt Jr.’s second-place finish was his best since his win at Michigan way back when.
  • Prior to Sunday’s race, Edwards’s average Cup finish at Martinsville was 19th. No wonder he was so pumped to finish third.
  • Gordon’s fourth-place finish was just his second top five result in the last eight Cup races.
  • Denny Hamlin (fifth) managed his first top-five finish of the Chase.
  • Casey Mears‘s sixth-place finish was his best since Sonoma and his second best of the season. It was also his first top-10 result since the first Loudon race.
  • Kenseth (eighth) finished a race for the first time in three weeks.
  • Martin Truex Jr. (10th) earned his first top-10 finish since Loudon.
  • Brian Vickers‘s 11th-place finish was his best result since Michigan in August.
  • The top-10 finishers at Martinsville Sunday drove seven Chevys, two Fords and a Toyota. Juan Pablo Montoya in 14th was the top-finishing Dodge pilot.
  • Sam Hornish Jr. in 34th has the best finish of any of this year’s hapless crop of Rookie of the Year Candidates.

What’s the Points?

Johnson retains the points lead. Greg Biffle took over second place in the standings (up from third) but he is now 149 points behind Johnson. In other words, Johnson could finish 38th in next week’s race and he’d still be leading the points.

Burton fell to third in the standings, 152 points behind Johnson. Edwards, Clint Bowyer and Kevin Harvick remain fourth, fifth and sixth respectively.

Gordon wrested seventh in the standings from Tony Stewart, who is now eighth. Earnhardt Jr., Kenseth and Hamlin each moved up a spot to ninth, 10th and 11th in the standings, respectively. After his right-front tire problems, Kyle Busch fell three spots into the cellar of the Chase. This is the guy who won eight races this year, right?

Ragan now leads Kasey Kahne by 146 points in the battle for the “Best of the Rest” category, 13th in the standings.

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 four cans of ice cold Colorado Kool-Aid. With the Chase all but decided, the best in the business can spend the rest of the season running for pride, which could make for some good racing.

Next Up: The series remains in the cradle of its birth, the Deep South, for a visit to Atlanta, the last track left in the Chase that dates back to the era of Richard Petty battling for titles. Atlanta has a long history of exciting races, including the 1992 season finale, the greatest race ever. Here’s hoping the Car of Sorrow doesn’t screw that up next Sunday.

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