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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin’s Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2009 Fontana Spring Race Recap

The Key Moment: Matt Kenseth’s crew was flawless all night, getting him off pit road first on the final sequence of pit stops. Despite Kenseth’s initial Charlie Brown-like resignation over the radio, he was able to hold off the No. 24 car.

In a Nutshell: With all due apologies to Albert Hammond, “It never rains in southern California, but boy don’t they warn you, that it bores, that it bores…”

Dramatic Moment: For the last 20 laps, Jeff Gordon kept Kenseth honest, but he apparently licked all the red off his candy too early in the run.

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

People complain about Pocono all the time, but if there’s any race that needs to be shortened from 500 miles to 300 miles, especially given the starting time, this is it.

Yes, I’m going to beat the same old dead horse one more time. It’s tough to take that we gave up Rockingham for this sorry excuse of a racetrack. What’s really galling is NASCAR officials said Rockingham had to lose its date due to poor attendance. Did anyone else note just a few gaps in the grandstand seating at Fontana?

Remember last year, when Las Vegas track owner Bruton Smith offered Fontana track GM Gillian Zucker a new job and a nice pay increase? She declined the offer. If I was Ms. Zucker, I’d spend this week at the Las Vegas airport, resume in hand waiting to greet Smith when he arrived in town.

It’s hard to say which was more embarrassing Saturday afternoon: the Truck race itself, or the size of the audience in the grandstands there to watch it? Kyle Busch just spanked the field en route to victory, with more than a nine-second gap back to second-place Todd Bodine. As for the “crowd,” I’ve seen more people at a middle school lacrosse game in the rain. Qualifying ticket sales were even more embarrassing… but that’s understandable. NASCAR’s Top-35 rule has taken all the drama out of qualifying to the point they might as well just draw numbers out of the hat to set the field. It’s not like winning a pole even gains a driver entry into next year’s Bud Shootout, after all.

The Haas Automation decals on Ryan Newman’s car seem to indicate the entry was competing without a sponsor. Gene Haas owns half the team.

Give the folks at FOX points for trying hard to put a positive spin on things. They feel that the ratings for last week’s Daytona 500 “reaffirmed its status as one of America’s premier annual sports events.” They go on to say that their audience of 16 million viewers beat last year’s Beijing Olympics, a somewhat questionable statistic given 211 million Americans watched that multi-day event.

Here’s the hard numbers, fans: Last year’s 500 garnered a 10.2 Nielsen rating while this year’s race drew a 9.2. That’s a drop of nearly 10%. FOX says that’s because it rained. Of course, the last time a Daytona 500 was truncated by rain, the race still drew a 9.8 Nielsen rating. It is safe to say that this year’s event was the highest-rated Daytona 500 since a rodent was introduced as part of the broadcast team… Darrell Waltrip notwithstanding.

Hey, maybe I’m too old-fashioned as someone who reads the Bible more than I do the Wall Street Journal, but I’m seeing a dichotomy here. If FOX is going to give us the unamusing and unnecessary Digger segments during their race broadcasts to attract kids, should they also be accepting the softcore porn ads from GoDaddy.com? And if Ms. Danica Patrick ever wishes to raise the issue with the media again as to why she isn’t treated as a serious and talented racecar driver but rather just another pretty face, she need only look at the endorsement deals she’s done and let them speak for themselves. Let’s just say I haven’t seen that many big boobs together in one place since Brian France and NASCAR officials delivered their usual “State of the Sport” address during the preseason Media Tour.

I guess there’s a reason I’m a writer, not a network executive. For the life of me, I don’t understand how it’s going to help TV ratings for a race to constantly remind viewers that the Oscars would be airing on a competing network later in the evening. Hey, anyone who’s bored of this column, you might want to go see what Monte Dutton had to say about this weekend’s race! He’s a very talented and funny writer.

While it’s true that Kenseth’s crew has always been the best in the business and Drew Blickensderfer is two for two atop the pit box… don’t forget that this season Kenseth is reunited with his spotter from his championship year, Mike Calinoff. Fortunately for Calinoff, there seems to be plenty of room left on his meaty calves for additional race victory tattoos.

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

Kevin Harvick blew an engine, enduring his first DNF in 81 races to bring out the night’s only caution not related to rain.

Biffle might have had a car fast enough to compete with Kenseth and Gordon, but he overshot his pit board and ran over the air hose on the final pit stop.

The one thing worse than having a car not fast enough to get up front is having a car not fast enough to compete that blows up early. Such was the fate of Dale Earnhardt Jr. I guess that’s the last time the No. 88 team lets Brian Vickers set the valve lash prior to the race.

Mark Martin also suffered a rare blown engine out of the Hendrick shop.

Gordon had to feel like Tantalus, with his first victory in 42 points races so close… but so far away in those final laps.

Joey Logano looked like he was channeling Casey Atwood out there on the track this weekend.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

Kenseth’s engine temperature rose to an alarming degree at one point due to debris on his grill, but a timely caution allowed him to pull up to the pace car and remove that hot dog wrapper on his way to a second straight win.

Third place might not have been what he envisioned, but given two dominating victories in Saturday’s truck and Nationwide races, Busch had a pretty fair weekend at Fontana.

After Daytona, Vickers has got to be pleased to leave Fontana with a top-10 finish and no reason for Earnhardt Nation to channel their ire at him.

Given this sport’s history of aircraft tragedies, the MWR members aboard the team plane forced to make an emergency landing in Vegas for engine problems have to feel blessed. The situation was so tense that even though Michael Waltrip wasn’t aboard the plane, he took off his shoes and tried to run home when advised the FAA was en route to investigate.

Wow, Busch and his Nationwide team really seemed to benefit from the return of Jason Ratcliffe back to the pit box after his long suspension for trying to doctor the dyno results after last year’s Michigan race. It must be Jason’s magnetic personality…

Worth Noting

  • A Roush Racing entrant won the February Fontana Neo-classic for the fifth time in as many years.
  • Kenseth has won the first two races of the season, the first time that feat has been accomplished since Gordon did so in 1997.
  • The top-10 finishers at Fontana drove three Fords, three Chevys, three Toyotas and Kurt Busch’s lone Dodge.
  • Logano was the top-finishing rookie of the race with his 26th-place finish. Sweet.
  • Kenseth, Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart are the only three drivers to score top-10 finishes in both of this season’s points races.
  • All five drivers who posted top-five finishes in this year’s February Fontana race also finished in the top 10 in last year’s same event. Officially in 2008, 70,000 fans attended that race. This year, many of them did not come back.

What’s the Points?

It is still WAY too early to worry about points to any meaningful degree.

Not surprisingly, considering he’s won the first two points-paying events of the season, Kenseth leads the Cup standings. He has a 81-point lead over Gordon, who is second in the regular season points tally. Kurt Busch and Stewart are tied for third, a further 10 markers behind Gordon. If the season were to end right now… many of us longtime fans would be vastly relieved.

Among the surprises in the top 10 in points right now are: Waltrip (seventh), David Ragan (eighth) and Juan Pablo Montoya (10th).

Notable drivers who need to dig themselves out of an early season (real early) points hole include Jimmie Johnson (19th), Martin (27th), Jamie McMurray (28th), Jeff Burton (31st, ironically enough) and Earnhardt Jr. (35th). Again, recall we’re just two races deep into the 26-race regular season. Next weekend’s race at Las Vegas could really shuffle the deck, so to speak.

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 generic stuff. Air traffic controllers allow passenger aircraft to fly closer together than most of the field ran on Sunday night.

Next Up: The series heads off to Las Vegas to give the folks at FOX a chance to trot out their usual toxic and tortured Elvis routines. Oh, and the race starts about 4:45 ET. What the…

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