NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin’s Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2009 Las Vegas Race Recap

The Key Moment: On lap 269, Kyle Busch nudged aside Clint Bowyer to take the lead. Busch, who had won the pole for the race, was forced to start out back after blowing an engine in practice – so the accomplishment is much more impressive than it will appear in the record books.

In a Nutshell: NASCAR wraps up its early season visit to the Mild, Mild West with another less than compelling race.

Dramatic Moment: Saturday’s Nationwide race might have been the most unpredictable event in recent NASCAR history. Sunday’s race? Well, at least it wasn’t as bad as Fontana last week… and more people were on hand to catch the mediocrity.

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

With the two tracks located so nearby geographically, why can Las Vegas draw more people for the Nationwide race than Fontana could for the Cup race and the Nationwide-Truck races combined? We’ll chat about this later in the week, gentle readers.

It can’t just be a coincidence. One of the chief charms of stock car racing is the unpredictability of the sport. What Sunday’s Cup race lacked in drama, the Nationwide race served up in spades, with cars in the lead pack spinning out on their own, missing pit road, running into each other, getting penalized on pit road for speeding… and missing lugnuts and more simple twists of fate than a year’s worth of Bob Dylan concerts. Can it be a coincidence that the Nationwide Series cars still mimic the pre-CoT entries in the Cup series? I don’t think so. Given that the Nationwide cars can now run the energy-absorbing door foam and the anti-intrusion panels that were the two biggest safety innovations NASCAR tried to sell as the reason for the CoT in the bigs, I’m more confused than ever as to why the Winged Blunders are competing on Sundays….

A couple more notes from Saturday’s bizarre Nationwide event: (click here for full analysis)
A) Greg Biffle’s team ran him out of gas late in the race, and Biffle fell almost two laps off the pace before rallying to win the event. It was just that sort of day.
B) Late-race contact with the wall deprived him of a chance to contend for the win, but apparently we need to keep an eye on this Justin Allgaier kid. Roger Penske has found another diamond in the rough…
C) Want any more evidence that Sunday’s Cup winner spent the winter in extensive charm school training? Not only did he not tee off on Dale Earnhardt Jr. after the wreck at Daytona on Saturday, he accepted full responsibility for the wreck in the Nationwide race that sidelined him early in the event. That’s not the Busch that NASCAR fans love to loathe….

OK, color me confused. Why would a Cup race start with speedy-dry all over the track in the entrance to pit road? That’s just sloppy.

Las Vegas might not have entered the list of NASCAR’s most cherished tracks yet, but give them this much; it’s been a long time since any race has had a cooler pace car than this weekend’s events. I know most consumers are in an uproar about fuel mileage and emissions – which has Ford in trouble – so in the interests of helping out the home team, I hereby offer a week’s paycheck for either one of those Shelby Super Snake Mustang pace cars. This is, after all, the first time I can remember when the pace car had more horsepower than the cars it paced.

With each passing day, it seems more likely General Motors might be forced into some sort of controlled bankruptcy. Company officials are fighting the idea, claiming such a move would cost GM a huge amount of its reputation, prestige, and pride. Well, here’s a news flash: a company that once produced the Pontiac Aztek and hump-backed diesel-powered Caddy Sevilles of the ’80s doesn’t have a whole lot of reputation, pride and prestige left.

Last year, DuPont brought a total of 17,000 guests to hospitality events it hosted at every major Cup event all year long. This year, the company will host just 2,000 guests at six Cup events, a further sign of the belt-tightening in corporate America as the recession drags on. Do you figure the bloom is off the NASCAR rose? Gather ye rosebuds while you may, Old time is still a flyin’, And this same flower that smiles today, tomorrow will be dying…

I don’t want to be left out of the annual writers’ contest to see who can come up with the most tortured NASCAR gambling analogy when the circuit visits Las Vegas… so, here’s my take. With the Car of Horror and the Chase, Brian France stepped up to the roulette wheel to wager the entire France family fortune. He bet the bouncing ball would land on a purple number…

Has anyone else ever noticed that when Mike Bliss is upset, he talks and sounds like he’s reciting a Bob Dylan song? Listen to his interview after getting wrecked out of the Vegas Nationwide race. It’s positively eerie.

Count another American legend as a victim of this recession. Crane Cams, long a fixture and cherished provider to the hot rodding community, has apparently closed its doors, leaving 200 skilled employees out of work. I bought a Crane Cam for my first car, a ’70 Cobra Jet Mustang, and have bought about a dozen bump sticks from them over the years. The Crane Cams decal on my toolbox will always remain proudly in place.

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

The hype all this week concerned Matt Kenseth going for three straight wins to start the 2009 Cup season. But his race lasted two laps before the engine expired in the No. 17 car – leaving him dead last in the field.

Earnhardt Jr.’s pit-road follies continued Sunday with a pit-road speeding penalty. Earnhardt Nation is longing for the good old days when NASCAR would never dare penalize an Earnhardt for a rules infraction.

Pit road penalties and a late-race wreck left Jimmie Johnson, who once had a dominant car, mired mid-pack – but what other driver would have been allowed to return to the track with the rear bumper supports dragging on the asphalt?

Tony Stewart’s Cinderella 2009 season hit a pumpkin moment, with Stewart finishing 26th and Ryan Newman 25th. That’s not going to help them find full-time sponsorship for Newman’s car.

Carl Edwards was running in the top five when his engine started laying down in the final laps of the race. He wound up 17th in the final rundown.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

You have to figure that Busch was that pencil-necked geek in high school that was treated to regular scuba diving sessions in the toilet by bullies and turned down for more dates than the average guy – but he still won a race in his hometown despite that Ichabod Crane persona. It must be nice to tell every bully that ever victimized him and every girl that rejected his awkward advances, “Hey, I’m back and I’m a millionaire with a really hot girlfriend, even if she has the fashion sense of Charo. How do you like me now?” (With all due apologies to Toby Keith.)

Gordon locked up his brakes and blew a tire coming onto pit road late in the race (while apparently trying to avoid his teammate Johnson’s out of control car). The flat tire tore up the No. 24’s left-front fender, but Gordon soldiered on to a sixth-place finish that leaves him first in this year’s points standings.

Jeff Burton had to pit early, thinking he had a tire going flat… but he led a lot of the race en route to a third-place finish. For RCR, which has had to play Vernon Dent to the Three Stooges (Roush, Gibbs and Hendrick) this season, there has to be a sense of redemption – especially with Burton and Bowyer running so well at times during the race.

Yates Racing wasn’t sure they were going to meet the answering bell this season, and Bobby Labonte was without a ride as late as January. For the team and driver to post a solid top-five finish at Vegas after leading some laps is the sort of storyline usually reserved for Mickey Rooney movies. Sure, they have Roush-Yates engines in Labonte’s car; but that didn’t help Kenseth and David Ragan much, did it?

Worth Noting

  • No driver has managed to post top-10 finishes in all of this year’s three points-paying Cup events.
  • The top-10 finishers at Vegas drove four Chevys, three Fords and three Toyotas. The top-finishing Dodge pilot was Kasey Kahne in 11th.
  • Joey Logano’s 13th-place finish was the best by a rookie at Las Vegas. The finish easily eclipsed Logano’s previous best Cup result of 26th last week. Sweet.
  • David Reutimann’s fourth-place finish easily eclipsed his previous best Cup finishes of ninth at Fontana and Richmond last year.
  • It might seem Busch won everything but the Powerball lottery in 2008; but, in fact, Sunday’s victory was his first Cup triumph since Watkins Glen last August. On a brighter note, Busch has already won one race in each of this year’s top-three touring series just three weeks into the season.
  • Bowyer’s second-place finish was his best since he won at Richmond almost a year ago.
  • Labonte’s fifth-place finish was his best result since his fourth-place run at Martinsville in the fall of 2006.

What’s the Points?

Gordon leads the standings for the first time since the Atlanta fall race in 2007. Gordon is ahead of second place Bowyer by 18 points. Previous leader Kenseth endured his 43rd-place finish at Vegas to remain third overall, 40 points behind Gordon and tied statistically with Roush teammate Biffle.

Several drivers overcame early season misfortunes to enter the top 12 this week. Busch rode his race victory to gain 12 spots in the standings and is now bumped up to sixth. Labonte also gained 12 spots, and is now 10th in the points. Reutimann gained seven spots to take over the fifth rung of the ladder, while Harvick gained five spots to enter the top 12 in 11th position.

On the flip side, Kurt Busch and Stewart each lost four spots in the standings Sunday, and now find themselves seventh and eighth, respectively. Michael Waltrip clings to the 12th spot in the points, five positions down from last week and just eight points ahead of Kahne. Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, hey, hey, goodbye…

Three races into the season, if you’re sweating the points already, you must have been toilet trained in your first month of life. Repeat that classic bit of Bill Murray wisdom from Meatballs with me… “It just doesn’t matter!”

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 the generic stuff, served lukewarm by a bartender who looks like her face belongs on the 10 Most Wanted List at the Post Office.

Next Up: The circuit returns to its spiritual cradle, the Southeast, for a race in Atlanta. And here’s the novel part: the race will actually start in the earlier hours of a Sunday afternoon. What a concept! NASCAR and FOX might be on to something here.

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