NASCAR Race Weekend Central

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

The Key MomentCarl Edwards soft-pedaled 113.5 miles out of a tank of gas to cruise across the finish line first at half throttle.

In a Nutshell – Edwards day-long domination forced his competitors to use risky strategy in the pits late in the race, but Edwards and the No. 99 bunch trumped them all with the riskiest strategy of them all at the end.

Dramatic Moment – Waiting to see if the No. 99 was going to run out of gas on the final two laps. Or, waiting to see if Texas Rangers were going to arrest David Gilliland for attempted murder after he wrecked the No. 42 car.

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

Well, I sure hope they aren’t talking about stock car racing Monday and Tuesday. This year’s presidential election is a crossroads for the greatest nation in the history of the world. Few will disagree with the fact things are pretty grim right now for most working-class Americans, and our futures and the futures of our children are on the line. We have two compelling candidates with markedly different visions of how to straighten this mess out; and as is the case over the last couple of decades, we have a lot of negative disinformation spewed by both sides. It’s time for voters to sort through the wheat and the chaff and make an informed decision. 7% of voters still haven’t made up their minds, and the future of our country rides on the shoulders of those 7 percenters. Study the issues. Make an informed decision. Then get out there and vote Tuesday. Our country has seen grim times before. We survived the Great Depression, the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the tragedy of the morning of September 11th, 2001. And we’ll survive this mess as well, because this country’s greatest asset isn’t politicians; it’s the wisdom and resolve of the American people when the chips are on the table. If you don’t vote, don’t bitch. And as our friend Mr. Gump might add, “That’s all I’m going to say about that.”

What the devil was Gilliland thinking knocking a competitor into the wall at a track where entrants flirt with 200 mph all day? If they need to make room for Paul Menard at Robert Yates Racing next year, I have a suggestion.

You think the NASCAR officials are going to be having a real close look at the fuel cell in the No. 99 car after the race? There’s good gas mileage, there’s great fuel mileage, and then there’s Junior Johnson fuel mileage.

Racing is a fickle business. Because it worked out, Bob Osborne’s strategy for the No. 99 team looks brilliant in retrospect. Had Edwards run out of gas and fallen back into a 20-something-th finishing spot, though, he would have looked like the biggest dope ever to walk pit road for giving away a shot at the title.

BOWLES: CARL EDWARDS AND CO. WITH NOTHING TO LOSE

The surprise ending perked things up a bit, but there’s no denying that the first four-fifths of the Texas race was putrid and utterly lacking in any redeeming social value. That was about as bad as it gets.

Be it herein resolved – no stock car race should end after 7 p.m. ET unless it was planned as a night race. These late race day starts wear at even a patient man’s soul. Oh, and before the clocks are set back an hour and flocks of noisy Canada geese fly south over the multi-hued autumnal skies of the northeast, the stock car racing season should be over. We hold these truths to be self-evident.

Texas track promoter Eddie Gossage could probably sell a cup of water to a drowning man, but it was hard not to notice (once again) huge blocs of empty seats in the stands Sunday. Whether it’s the economy, the price of gas or the lack of exciting racing, I don’t know; but clearly, Houston (and Dallas/Fort Worth), we have a problem. If this keeps up, soon Edwards will be able to thank the fans who showed up at the race by name.

Even the once free-dealing, hog-wild, spend your way to success world of the NASCAR garage area isn’t immune from the current economic crisis. Unable to find adequate sponsorship for two teams next season and having lost $2 million in each of the last two years, JR Motorsports is cutting back to a single team in the Nationwide series for 2009 with a part-time second team running select races with various drivers. In a nutshell, that means massive layoffs at the shop. Let me ask you this: if Dale Earnhardt Jr. – the most visible and popular driver in the sport – can’t attract sponsorships for his team, how are the full-time Nationwide owners going to fare?

Speaking of Junior, he went on the record this week as saying the Cup season is too long, and that, combined with the later start times for this series of races, is diminishing fans’ interest in the sport. He also admitted the changes in the sport are motivated by greed and some folks wanting to milk every dollar they can out of NASCAR. Meanwhile, in Daytona Beach, Emperor Brian keeps right on playing his fiddle as Rome burns.

With two races left to run, Johnny Benson leads Ron Hornaday by six points in the championship standings in the Truck Series. Of course, the Truck Series uses the old points system. Under the Chase system, the Cup points race is… well, um, a little bit more spread out than that. As our buddies at FOX might say, “We report… you decide.”

Kyle Busch can be pretty contemptible at times, but we have to give credit where credit is due. On Saturday, when he tied Sam Ard’s record for wins in NASCAR’s AAA (Once Grand National, then Busch, and currently Nationwide) Series, Busch announced he was giving $100,000 of his winnings to Ard. Ard is currently battling Alzheimer’s disease and is in serious financial trouble. Newer fans might not have ever heard of Ard, but in his day Ard was an almost unstoppable force in the Saturday series. He won 22 races and two championships in just three brief years on the circuit before devastating injuries in a wreck at Rockingham ended his racing career. Prior to that debilitating wreck, Ard had posted top-five finishes in 24 of 27 races and had missed the top 10 just once. He’d won five of the last six races in the 1983 Busch season. At his best, Ard beat them all, including a fellow by the name of Dale Earnhardt on several occasions – most notably at Charlotte in 1983. As Ard’s health has begun to fail, several other drivers have contributed to helping his needs, most notably Kevin Harvick.

If you wish to contribute any amount, no matter how small, contributions can be sent to:

Sam Ard Care Fund
Account # 68212-03
Carolina Trust Federal Credit Union
P.O. Box 780004
Myrtle Beach, SC 29578

Think about it. You can donate to a big charity that will eventually filter down through layers of management to do some good, or you can write a small check that will help put food on a man’s table this week and help pay the slab fee for his double-wide this month.

With debacles like this year’s Brickyard 400 still fresh in our minds, there have been a lot of calls to adopt taller and wider tires that might hold up better under the strains of the Car of Sorrow. NASCAR official John Darby, who apparently didn’t get the memo about the urgency of the situation, went on record as saying any such changes are at least five years down the road. I have a one word response to that: “Unacceptable.” If we are indeed stuck with this pig in a poke of a racecar, we need to rapidly develop a tire that can live under the strain of those mulish pigs. Other people seem to get it. Bruton Smith, who has to sell a lot of tickets to keep his empire afloat, said simply, “We have to constantly make the sport better for the fans. If we do that, then it’s better for everybody. It’s better for me, it’s better for the sponsors and it’s better for NASCAR. That’s what we ought to do. Make the product better, and the fans will beat a path to your door.” Don’t you wish on Tuesday, race fans could also cast their ballot deciding if Smith or current NASCAR management would lead this sport into the future?

Bobby Hamilton Jr. finished 16th in Saturday’s Nationwide race at Texas. That might not sound remarkable, but what is notable is Hamilton wrote a $380,000 check out of his personal account to keep his struggling team competing in the final three Nationwide races of the season. In addition to keeping Hamilton in a ride, that keeps Team Rensi team members employed for the rest of the year. If I were a potential sponsor, I’d take a look at the fact a driver believed enough in his team to lay out his own money rather than just accepting a paycheck, and I’d think there’s a driver and a team I can count on to maximize my investment.

It was hard to miss the sarcasm in Kurt Busch’s thumbs up approval of the new Dodge power plant as his stricken car sat parked in the garage area. My guess is that Busch and Penske are going to agree by mutual consent to part ways soon.

Congratulations to Lewis Hamilton, this year’s Formula 1 champion. Hamilton is the youngest driver ever to claim that title, and the first black driver to win this coveted honor. How tight was the championship chase? Hamilton won the title on the final corner of the final lap of the final race of the season, and the margin was a single point. To paraphrase a line from When Harry Met Sally, can we have some of what they’re having?

I’ll touch on driver’s personal lives only carefully and playfully. Admittedly, though, when I heard Edwards is now engaged to a former classmate and a licensed physician, my first reaction was Days of Thunder – Part Deux. I’m seeing a potential situation comedy here, as a former substitute teacher and NASCAR star marries a pretty physician. They and their pet duck move to their dream home in the upscale suburbs of Charlotte, only to find there’s a fly in the ointment: their next door neighbor is Kyle Busch! OK, so it’s a lame idea for a sitcom, but it has to be better than Cavemen, right?

It was kind of hard not to notice that the ticker of one of the channels owned by “The Worldwide Leader in Sports” mistakenly noted Hamilton had won the Brazilian Grand Prix all afternoon with nobody catching the error. Hamilton won the title, but Felipe Massa of Ferrari won the race.

Yep, she’s a Gordon. 1-year-old Ella Gordon carefully pointed to key sponsor patches on her Daddy’s uniform during his pre-race interview. Just wait until this little charmer can talk!

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

Juan Pablo Montoya had a solid top-10 run going (again) when Gilliland’s punkish display of bad temper ended both their days. Montoya and his team have been running better lately, but he’s failed to finish four of the last six races.

Earnhardt Jr.’s team decided to gamble on fuel mileage as well, but the gamble came up short when Junior was forced to limp into the pits out of third place and out of gas. The No. 88 car wouldn’t refire at first, and that dropped Earnhardt to a 20th-place finish in the final rundown.

Right now, it appears the No. 20 team and Tony Stewart are just coasting out the waning weeks of their relationship.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

I simply can’t believe Edwards made it that distance on a single tank of gas, even if RVs leaving the infield early were passing him during the final laps of the race.

After winning the pole, Jeff Gordon sank back through the field and fell a lap off the pace. But superior fuel mileage allowed Gordon to coast home second, matching his best ever effort at this track scored way back in 2002.

Jamie McMurray finally managed to put one in the bank after several weeks of strong runs with a third-place finish.

David Reutimann ran even better than his eventual 10th-place finish indicates.

It was a pretty good weekend for Jack Roush, with all five of his Cup drivers finishing 11th or better at Texas.

Worth Noting

  • For the fourth year in a row, the winner at Atlanta in the fall went on to win the Texas Cup race the following weekend.
  • Edwards has matched Kyle Busch’s season high total of victories this year with eight. While it’s hard to imagine two more different drivers, they share this much in common – neither is going to win this year’s Cup title. Edwards has finished first, second, or third in six of this year’s eight Chase races.
  • Johnson’s 15th-place finish was his worst since Bristol in August.
  • Still winless, Gordon finished second for the second time this season.
  • McMurray’s third-place finish was his best of the season, and his best Cup result since he won at Daytona last July.
  • Clint Bowyer’s fourth-place finish was his best result in this year’s Chase.
  • Greg Biffle (fifth) managed his first top-five result in the last five races.
  • David Ragan (11th) hasn’t finished worse than 11th in the last six races. Boy Howdy! I remember last year when it would have been notable that Ragan finished six straight races without wrecking himself and half the field.
  • Marcos Ambrose’s 21st-place finish was his best Cup result on an oval track.
  • Brad Keselowski’s 19th-place finish easily eclipsed either run by “Sliced Bread” Joey Logano in the Cup Series to date. Yeah, yeah, I know: Keselowski isn’t 18. That’s my point.
  • The top-10 finishers at Texas drove four Fords, four Chevys and a pair of Toyotas. The best-finishing Dodge pilot was Sam Hornish Jr. in 23rd. Hornish was also the top-finishing Rookie of the Year candidate at Texas.

What’s the Points?

Mr. James Johnson currently leads the Cup standings by 103 over Edwards, and would request the honor of your presence at his coronation as a three-time Cup champion in New York the first Friday night of December, 2008. RSVP.

All drives from eighth-place Matt Kenseth on back are now mathematically excluded from this year’s title, presuming Johnson starts the next two Cup races. If Johnson finishes seventh or better in the next two Cup races, the title is his.

Biffle remains third in the standings, 140 points out of the lead. Jeff Burton remains fourth, 212 points behind, meaning that even if Johnson finishes last at Phoenix and Burton wins the race after having led the most laps, he could not leave next week’s race with the points lead.

Gordon moved up a spot in the standings to fifth. Bowyer moved up a spot to sixth. Kevin Harvick yielded two positions to the above drivers to find himself seventh in the standings. And in their ongoing see-saw battle, Kenseth now has the advantage over Stewart for eighth.

Fitting for Halloween weekend, “The Thing That Came from the Cellar” Kyle Busch advanced two spots to 10th. Earnhardt Jr. fell a spot to 11th, which is A Nightmare on Elm Street for promoters trying to sell tickets to the next two Cup races. Denny Hamlin rounds out the Chasers in 12th.

Further back, Ragan now has a 263-point lead over Kasey Kahne in the battle for the less-than-coveted 13th finishing position 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): I’ll give this one a single can of skunked Lone Star. Despite the bizarre finish, it’s hard to ignore the first two and a half hours of the race were a processional parade, with polite distances between the lead lap drivers circling the track just wishing the day was over if they weren’t in the seat of the No. 99 car.

Next Up – By the time I get to Phoenix, I’ll just be wishing this whole sorry excuse of a season was over; but we’ve got two more weeks before it draws to its long overdue conclusion.

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