NASCAR Race Weekend Central

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

The Key Moment: Jimmie Johnson held off a hungry Kurt Busch four times on restarts in the final 25 laps.

In a Nutshell: Johnson put on a clinic, showing the rest of the garage area who is going to be this year’s champion – and why.

Dramatic Moment: There was some good racing back in the pack. At the front? Not so much.

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

Johnny Benson leads Ron Hornaday by three points going into next week’s Truck Series finale, and Clint Bowyer leads Carl Edwards by 56 points going into next weekend’s Nationwide finale. Here’s what’s odd about that: both of those series use the “classic” points system. So, a suggestion for NASCAR’s senior brass: check Brian into rehab and announce the death of the Chase format at this year’s NYC banquet. Some would argue that the Chase is working just fine – it’s keeping everyone’s focus off of how the Car of Sorrow is ruining the racing in the Cup Series. You know what they say… a camel is a horse designed by committee.

Edwards, Johnson and Kyle Busch have each won eight times this season. Even if none of the three take the checkers next week at Homestead, that means three drivers will have combined to win two-thirds of this year’s Cup points races. Is that good for the sport?

SMITH: MORE EXCITEMENT? NOT WITH THE CHASE

It’s hard to call ABC/ESPN a “network partner” when they give precedence to America’s Funniest Home Videos over the conclusion of the penultimate championship race of NASCAR’s Chase. You think CBS will ever cutaway from an NFL playoff game to make sure Cold Case airs on time? After all, isn’t it the damn networks that have been forcing these late-afternoon race starts on the fans?

Is Jeff Gordon going to be able to pull a win out of his hat next week to keep his 14-year consecutive win streak alive? Is Gordon ever going to win a race again, for that matter?

When David Gilliland ended up with his car awkwardly parked atop another after a wreck Juan Pablo Montoya started, was that coincidence or karmic payback for last week’s outrage at Texas?

Brian France acknowledged one or more of the big three Detroit automakers might not be able to keep their commitments to NASCAR race teams next year. He said, however, NASCAR would be just fine because it’s transcendent. Sorry, Brian, but stock car racing could get along just fine without NASCAR as well. It’s the sport of stock car racing that is actually transcendent, even if its main showcase is being ruined by its founder’s descendant.

In a related note to the above, I am told that later this week at Homestead, at least one of the Big Three will announce they are leaving the sport. Let the bloodbath begin! Oh, and I’m also hearing a former employer of mine might not be back next year, either.

Well that explains a lot, I suppose. ESPN’s junior analyst Brad Daugherty admitted that he loves professional wrestling. No wonder he chose to get involved with the mechanized version of made for TV wrasslin’ that NASCAR has become over the past decade.

Based on the TV ratings, these late-afternoon racing start times aren’t working. Then again this year, based on TV ratings, nothing is working.

It’s late in the year and everyone is tired and frustrated (yours truly included), especially those drivers and teams who haven’t run well and face uncertain futures as a result. But it does seem this year the laps-down drivers are showing an exceptional amount of discourtesy to the lead lap drivers competing for the win. About halfway through the race, I decided Reed Sorenson in the No. 41 car was going to end up punted into the wall just as someone finally lost patience with him.

While it’s being denied, rumors were rampant at Phoenix that with DEI’s future in doubt, Martin Truex Jr. might take over the seat of the No. 20 car Tony Stewart is vacating, and Joey Logano might be given another season to mature in the Nationwide Series next year. Again, JD Gibbs denied that plan is even being discussed; but where’s there’s smoke, there’s fire. And if Logano isn’t the next Smoke, he could end up fired. Sweet.

Other weekend rumors indicate a potential merger between DEI and Chip Ganassi Racing is off the table after the principals were unable to decide which make of car to compete in. The apparent breakdown of the GM-Chrysler talks apparently caused the failure. Maybe they should announce ownership of DEI is the grand prize in next year’s edition of Donald Trump’s Apprentice program?

How bad are things at DEI? It appears that the No. 8 team’s crew chief, Tony Gibson, is leaving the team to become Ryan Newman’s crew chief at Stewart-Haas Racing next year, and will bring along the entire pit crew of that No. 8 team with him. It sort of sounds like people closest to the situation over at DEI are heading for the lifeboats, doesn’t it? Of course, the team Stewart now co-owns is brand new and heavily dependent on GM to keep it afloat, even as doubts surface indicating that GM is in dire financial trouble. When boarding a lifeboat, it behooves a cautious man to make sure the draincock is in place at the stern.

Someone needs to explain this one to me. Even the mighty Hendrick organization is not immune to the current economic crises, and after next weekend’s race about a dozen employees are going to be laid off. One of them is Stevie Reeves, the spotter who helped Johnson to last year’s championship and the same guy up on the roof helping Johnson try to claim this year’s title, as well. Ain’t that a fine, “How do you do?”

He’s got a lot of respect in the garage area, but Matt Kenseth acted like a damned punk when he purposely wrecked AJ Allmendinger on the last lap, triggering an accident that tore up about 10 cars.

For anyone with $12 million laying around in their Paypal account, JJ Yeley is currently auctioning off sponsorship rights for his team on eBay. Desperate times call for desperate measures, I suppose.

It was bittersweet to see the Texaco/Havoline colors adorning a Cup car for the final time on Sunday after 20-plus years of sponsorship in NASCAR’s top league. It makes me consider all over again how different the sport and its record books might look if Davey Allison had decided to just jump in his pickup and drive to Talladega that fateful day in 1993. And in my jaundiced view, the original white and black Havoline Thunderbird with the gold and red stripes was the best looking racecar ever.

Did I miss something, or has Richard Petty been notably silent on the release of his son Kyle Petty from the team that shares both of their last names?

Was it just me, or did it seem that NASCAR official was notably unamused by Stewart’s “practical joke” pouring that bottle of water down his back?

Is it possible we’ll see team orders to have the No. 6 or 26 car from Jack Roush’s stable take out Johnson early at Homestead to give Edwards a shot at the title?

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

You can’t help but feel bad for race fans in the east without cable that missed the end of the race when coverage got punted over to ESPN2.

Gordon was running fourth when his engine began its long process of expiring. The blown motor accounted for Gordon’s sixth DNF of the season.

Newman was running fifth when a cut tire destroyed his day.

As if DEI needed any more problems, Truex cooked an engine and finished dead last.

Stewart didn’t have a dog in the fight when Allmendinger hit Kenseth or in Kenseth’s subsequent last-lap payback, but he got caught up in both wrecks. It would appear Stewart’s storied tenure with Joe Gibbs Racing is going to end with a whimper, not a bang.

Casey Mears ran solidly in the top-10 for most of the day, but got caught up in a late-race wreck not of his own making.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

During an early pit stop, Johnson’s No. 48 team discovered a deflating right-rear tire.

Edwards made a heads up move to avoid a pit-road collision early in the race which could have ended his day. He also won the Saturday Nationwide race to keep his title chances in that series at least viable.

Kevin Harvick was on a roll this weekend, with top-10 finishes in all three races and a win in the Craftsman Truck Series event on Friday. But then again, he’s looking for a sponsor to replace Camping World on rather short notice, too.

It was a pretty good weekend for Jamie McMurray, too, with a third-place finish coming on the heels of news he’s now engaged.

Anyone still trying to adjust to this Daylight Savings Time thing had a perfect opportunity for a nap late Sunday afternoon.

Worth Noting

  • Johnson has won the last three Phoenix races. His average finish in the nine Chase races run to date is about 4.5.
  • Kurt Busch’s second-place finish was his best since a win at Loudon earlier this year. He now has top-10 finishes in three of the last five Cup races.
  • McMurray (third) now has three straight top-10 finishes for the first time since Bristol, Martinsville, and Texas last spring.
  • It’s not like he’s not pedaling as fast as he can. Edwards (fourth) has top-five finishes in seven of this year’s nine Chase races.
  • Kyle Busch (eighth) now has three straight Cup top-10 finishes.
  • Jeff Burton (ninth) has top-10 finishes in the last three Cup races.
  • The top-10 finishers at Phoenix drove four Chevys, three Fords, two Toyotas and a Dodge.
  • Regan Smith in 23rd was the top finishing Rookie of the Year candidate.

What’s the Points?

Johnson increased his points lead to 141 over Edwards, meaning Johnson only needs to finish 36th or better to claim the title next week. Even if Johnson were to be a no show at Homestead, the other 10 drivers in the Chase could not win the championship.

The biggest mover this week was Denny Hamlin, who rose three spots in the standings to ninth. Harvick advanced two spots to fifth, while Dale Earnhardt Jr. moved up a single spot to 10th.

On the flip side, Stewart tumbled three spots to 12th in the standings, while Gordon fell two positions to seventh. There’s also just a 32-point gap between eighth-place Kenseth and 12th-place Stewart, as five drivers compete to decide who had the most futile Chase run this season.

Meanwhile, David Ragan has clinched the 13th spot in the standings to claim the less than coveted “Best of the Rest” honors.

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 stuff. Johnson handed it to the field and during long green-flag runs, the cars got spaced out – but there was some decent racing back in the pack.

Next Up: With bruised ribs and broken rhythm, still bereft of Buicks but dressed just like dynamite, the lumbering ungainly monster that is the 2008 Cup season staggers towards Homestead, listing badly to port with smoke and fire bellowing from every orifice for the season finale.

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