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

The Key Moment: Leader Denny Hamlin spun his tires on the penultimate restart, allowing Carl Edwards to power by him on the outside exiting turn 2.

In a Nutshell: The new car and an old racetrack… a combination that goes together like peanut butter and spinach.

Dramatic Moment: Watching Jimmie Johnson roar from 11th to second in the final three laps, taking advantage of fresh tires.

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

What are people going to be talking about around the water cooler this week? The presidential race, the economy, Wall Street, the World Series, the NFL, and just about anything but the Chase, an ill thought-out gimmick that hasn’t raised the pulse of the general population one iota.

Perhaps it’s fitting with Halloween coming up at the end of the week. Atlanta was notable as a B-grade horror film… Return of the Crab Cars! I thought NASCAR had limited the amount the teams could skew the bodies on the chassis, but some of the front cars were really dog-tracking at Atlanta.

Wow! While most tracks have struggled to sell tickets this season, the amount of empty seats at Atlanta was flat out embarrassing.

Drivers weren’t as eager to toss Goodyear under the bus as they were after the first Atlanta race this season, but they were quite subdued in their enthusiasm for the “new and improved tire.” When 10-lap fresher tires allow a driver like Johnson to advance all those spots, it’s a clear indication the folks from Akron still have some work to do.

Qualifying was rained out for the third weekend in a row, the fourth time in the Chase and the 10th time this Cup season. Is this a sign of a benevolent and loving but thoroughly irritated God weighing in the Chase? Seriously, after many qualifying washouts the weather was fine the next day and the track sat vacant for hours. Can’t NASCAR at least try to get qualifying in if a window presents itself? The advantage the points leader gets in starting out front and the first pick of pit stalls is a huge bonus in an era where passing has become so difficult.

Next year, this race and the Fontana Labor Day travesty swap dates, so the Cup tour will spend three straight weekends out West prior to the season finale in the Republic of Florida.

The drumbeat is growing louder that automakers GM and Chrysler will merge, possibly even before the presidential election. Nobody knows what that could do to the two automakers’ NASCAR and other racing involvement. Personally, I’m reminded of the three-legged races at the old county fair wherein two participants roped together stumbled along at a speed greatly reduced from what they could have run on their own. But if GM is intent on shuttering Chrysler, just let me know if there’s any leftover black Challenger SRTs taking up space. I’d be happy to store one in my driveway for them…

Edwards seemed blissfully unaware that Johnson had finished second while he was in victory lane. In response to a TV commentator’s question in that regard, Edwards took a quick look at the scoring pylon – and the look of shock on his face was priceless.

Some want to treat it as a joking matter or pure head games, but when a fellow competitor accuses a driver of being “juiced” (on steroids), it’s time for the first real test of NASCAR’s supposed new drug testing policy to set the record straight in order to exonerate the accused and ensure fans of the purity of the sport. The accused, and the names have been deleted to protect the presumed innocent, surely has shown some of the erratic behavior symptomatic of “‘Roid Rage” over the past two seasons.

Is it just me and my eternal optimism, or does it seem there’s actually a battle in the Nationwide and Truck Series for the title under the old style points system while this year’s Cup championship seems a foregone conclusion under the Chase?

Who’d have thunk it? Toyota is poised to claim the manufacturers’ title in all three of NASCAR’s top-three touring series this year. The old saw that there’s no substitute for cubic inches in racing is about to be disproved. There’s no substitute for cubic dollars…

A MWR press release this week assures me that Michael Waltrip started his 1,000th race in NASCAR’s top touring series this weekend when considering his combined Cup, Nationwide/Busch, and Truck starts. In that period, Waltrip has won 14 races for a lifetime batting average of .014. Let’s compare that to Johnson’s 15.54% record of wins to starts in the Cup series. No wonder the TV media gives Waltrip so much face time; they’re practically running neck and neck. On the other hand, when it comes to running home in his stocking feet after rolling his SUV to avoid a possible DUI arrest, Waltrip is currently batting 1.000. Yes, there are Waltrip fans out there. God bless ’em. After all, Charlie Brown remained a Joe Shlabotnik fan even after Joe was released after one game as manager of the Waffletown Syrups.

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

Dale Earnhardt Jr. got hit on both sides of his Chevy trying to exit the pits, and that eliminated his chances at a top-five finish.

Juan Pablo Montoya ran in the top 10 most of the day, and was moving towards the front when a pit-road collision and subsequent repairs dropped him back into the “least common denominator” pack. A subsequent wreck ended his day.

Jeff Burton struggled all day, but wound up wrecking his car after Dave Blaney drifted down into him. Burton finished 18th and watched any far-flung title hopes evaporate away.

Waltrip had actually made his way into the top 10 when he popped a tire and slapped the wall. He probably should have parked the car at that point, as most of the subsequent cautions in the race were caused by Waltrip spinning on stuff falling off his car.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

Early in the event, Edwards had a bad karmic moment and insisted over the radio that his engine was self-destructing. Well, that old mill held together well enough to power him to a race win Sunday. Combined with his Nationwide victory on Saturday, it was a pretty fair weekend for Edwards.

Johnson had an eventful day. A slip up on the start of the race nearly put the No. 48 into the side of the No. 16 car, which could have triggered a field-decimating wreck and left Johnson dead last. Then, a pit-road penalty dropped Johnson off the lead lap and down to 30th position, but neither the driver nor the team panicked. Johnson got the free pass and began working his way back up towards the front of the field. A gamble to take fresh rubber during the final pit stop paid off in a big way, with Johnson able to power his way to a second-place finish. If the championship chase was over after Martinsville, it’s “overer” now…

It hasn’t been much of a season for Kurt Busch and it hasn’t been much of Chase for Kyle Busch, but the Busch brothers did OK by themselves at Atlanta, finishing fifth and sixth.

The way Greg Biffle floundered most of the day, I’m sure he was satisfied to leave Atlanta with a top-10 finish.

Worth Noting

  • Edwards’s win was his seventh of the season, one more than Johnson and one less than Kyle Busch. The three drivers have combined to win nearly two-thirds of this season’s points-paying Cup events.
  • Edwards has finished first, second, or third in five of the last seven Cup events. Were it not for his disasters at Talladega and Charlotte, we might actually have a points race on our hands. All together now, kids: “At the end of the day, it is what is.”
  • Johnson has top-10 finishes and four wins in the last nine Cup races. Those finishes include a pair of runner-up results.
  • Hamlin (third) managed his best finish since Richmond early last month.
  • David Ragan (eighth) hasn’t finished worse than 13th in his last five Cup races.
  • Jeff Gordon (ninth) has managed to post three straight top-10 finishes for the first time since Darlington, Charlotte and Dover this spring. Last season, he posted top-10 finishes in 30 of 36 races.
  • Tony Stewart (17th) hasn’t earned a top-10 finish since he won at Talladega.
  • The top-10 finishers at Atlanta drove five Fords, two Chevys, two Toyotas and a Dodge.
  • Sam Hornish Jr. in 24th was the top finishing Rookie of the Year candidate.
  • Atlanta and Charlotte are sister tracks since Atlanta was reconfigured – and you can tell. Seven of the 10 drivers who finished in the top 10 at Charlotte two weeks ago also posted top-10 results at Atlanta. For comparison’s sake, only four drivers who enjoyed top-10 results at Atlanta this spring repeated the feat Sunday.

What’s the Points?

Johnson maintains his points lead and is now 183 ahead of Edwards in second. If Johnson finishes ninth or better in the remaining three races, he’ll be champion even if Edwards wins all three events and leads the most laps in each. If Johnson leads even a single lap at Texas next week, he’ll only need to finish 10th or better in the final three races to claim the title.

Edwards moves up two spots in the standings to second, but he’s got a Quixotic challenge ahead of him catching Johnson. Biffle and Burton each slid down a spot and they are currently third and fourth, respectively. The last interesting points battle might be for runner-up honors this year. Edwards leads Biffle by two points and Burton by 35 with Texas, Phoenix and Homestead to go.

Kevin Harvick and Gordon each advanced a spot to fifth and sixth in the standings, respectively. Clint Bowyer backslid two spots to seventh. Further back, Matt Kenseth advanced a position, wresting ninth place in the standings from Earnhardt Jr.

Ragan now leads Kasey Kahne by 224 in their battle over the less than coveted 13th place in the points.

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 cans of lukewarm generic stuff. For the most part the field, circled the track at well-spaced intervals just waiting for the monotony to be over.

Next Up: The Cup Series spends the next two weeks in Texas and Arizona for their annual Mild Mild West tour.

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