NASCAR Race Weekend Central

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

The Key Moment: Kyle Busch was able to hold off teammate Denny Hamlin in the final two-lap shootout that decided the race.

In a Nutshell: Geographically, it’s in the same place, but this joint just doesn’t seem like Bristol anymore, does it?

Dramatic Moment: Jamie McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya actually got annoyed with each other and did a little rooting and gouging. Relatively speaking, everybody else acted like choirboys on a field trip to a basilica.

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

You know, if you look at it dispassionately the racing at Bristol is actually way better as far as side-by-side racing and passing rather than a constant series of wrecks – but it’s just not as much fun, is it?

So, what’s really changed at Bristol? Is it the new track configuration, the new cars, the new tires or the new points system?

Did I miss it, or was there no Digger cartoon Sunday? Editor’s Note: There wasn’t. Maybe someone at FOX is finally getting the picture. Certainly, there were far less mentions of the annoying little rodent when he popped up on the screen, and the attempts to sell Digger merchandise seemed almost desperate at times. Given the state of the economy and the number of people laid off, we could do a lot worse than to find Digger on the dole.

Fame is fickle. Matt Kenseth was the hottest thing since nuclear fusion after he won two races to start off the season, but his terrible run at Bristol earned nary a comment from the broadcast crew other than a quick note (without visuals) stating he was in the pits with a broken splitter.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. says he wants to finish his career with Tony Eury Jr. as his crew chief. If his last name was something other than “Earnhardt” he likely already would have finished his career at least a couple of years ago. The No. 88 team just can’t seem to get it together. It seems like an eternity since Earnhardt pulled off a weekend sweep here back in 2004.

Is Chevy ever going to win a race again? (My gut tells me either Jimmie Johnson or Jeff Gordon will win next week.)

Apparently, Mark Martin would like to compete again full-time in 2010. Color me surprised. Cue up that old Lynyrd Skynyrd LP, because I’ll take the word of a liar… one more time. Don’t get me wrong; Martin is a class individual, and his name belongs on any top-five list of the greatest drivers never to win a title alongside Junior Johnson and Tim Richmond. But I feel he owes anyone who bought his “Salute to You” retirement gear what seems like a decade ago a refund.

Why would NASCAR open pit road with a safety vehicle (the yellow Ford Super Duty during the third caution period) parked sideways in front of the energy-absorbing barrels at the entrance of pit road? They didn’t put those barrels there because nobody ever hits there.

NASCAR’s three short tracks steal a page from Goldilocks. Bristol might be too much and Martinsville might be too little, but Richmond is just right.

Sadly, I must report the demise of the Yates Racing number 28 team. With no sponsorship now and none on the horizon, the operation will shut down for the foreseeable future after Sunday’s race. Those who recall Davey Allison’s charge at the 1992 title and Ernie Irvan’s dramatic Loudon win after nearly dying in that car can’t help but mourn the team’s passing. Back in the day, the No. 28 team came to play, each and every weekend.

BOWLES: TRAVIS KVAPIL WRONGED BY TODAY’S NASCAR

Well, that’s troubling. Jack Roush’s sponsorship guru Geoff Smith (who was trying to find backing for the No. 28 team mentioned above) also noted that Carl Edwards‘s primary sponsor Aflac is looking for “relief.” That doesn’t mean the Duck people want to bail on the team. They just want other sponsors to step up to the plate and pay to run the car at some select events to ease the financial burden on the insurer. If Edwards can’t find a full-time sponsor willing to pay the freight, that doesn’t speak well of the financial situation in today’s Cup garage.

Perhaps not unexpectedly, Sunday’s Bristol Cup race sold out, continuing the trend of a sold out race followed by one with lackluster attendance this season. Hmmm. It almost seems if NASCAR would cut down on the number of races on the schedule, they’d get better attendance and ratings for the remaining races. Nah. Too much of a good thing is never enough… though too much of a mediocre thing is just too much.

For all the hot air expended reminding people what a great driver Darrell Waltrip was at Bristol (and to be fair, he won a ton of races here) wouldn’t it have been nice for DW to put his money where his ever-ratcheting mouth is and run that Saturday night All-Star Race?

In the comments section of my column last week, someone took exception to my comments on Joey Logano, noting that nobody expected him to be racing in the Cup series this year – least of all Mr. Logano. Really? How’d that come to be?

(The morning of the 2009 Daytona 500)
Greg Zipadelli to Joe Gibbs: Joe, we have nobody to drive the No. 20 car today!
Gibbs: What? Where’s Tony?
Zippy: Well, it turns out Tony Stewart left to start his own team.
Gibbs: Why didn’t I get the memo! Now what? Who around here has a crash helmet?
Zippy: Well, there’s that Logano kid, but he wasn’t expecting to be running Cup this season.
Gibbs: Aw, Hell, let’s give him a shot. He’s got a helmet.
Logano: Put me in, Coach, I’m ready to play.

Yes, folks did expect Logano to race in the Cup Series this year. He just hasn’t so far; not to any meaningful degree, anyway.

Maybe it’s time Michael Waltrip wakes up and smells the coffee? With his team cars running notably better with the exception of the No. 55 car, maybe he’d be doing himself and the team a favor concentrating on running the team and putting somebody else in the car? That’s not being cruel; a lot of good drivers who were a lot smarter than Waltrip found out that they couldn’t do both.

Yes, I know that it has absolutely nothing to do with racing, but I’m from Philly where we’ve endured a yearlong string of losses of our brave police officers in the line of duty. My heartfelt condolences go out to the families, friends and co-workers of the four Oakland, Calif. police officers murdered this weekend while doing their jobs. This crap has got to stop now, or convicted felons need to start shooting the judges who gave them lenient sentences rather than cops.

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

Kevin Harvick’s Cup car just wasn’t up to speed all weekend, and getting caught up in an early race caution not of his own making just made his afternoon that much longer.

Despite a pretty spirited run peppered with an occasional flash of brilliance (18th), Travis Kvapil finds himself without a ride next weekend.

Greg Biffle started the race with a rack of bruised up ribs (but no beat up old Buick and certainly not dressed like dynamite), then ended his day in 39th with a whole bunch of expensive engine bits reduced to rubble in his oil pan. On a brighter note, nobody called him “the Biff.”

It had to irk Jack Roush to see four of his five drivers finish outside the top 25.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

Marcos Ambrose scored his first top-10 finish on an oval track despite having dropped a cylinder while running in the top 10.

Kurt Busch’s day seemed over when he ran into the back of Harvick’s car after Waltrip ran into Todd Bodine. Busch soldiered on to finish 11th.

Gordon barely drove around the spinning car of McMurray en route to a fourth-place finish.

Ryan Newman finished seventh, which moved him all the way up to 27th in the standings. Sucks to be him, but it pays good.

The good news for Martin is his sixth-place finish, which buys him a little breathing room in the that Top-35 deal. The bad news is next week the circuit heads off to Martinsville, which oddly enough is Martin’s least favorite track. In fact, Martin once threatened to run naked through the grandstands if he won at Martinsville. I think we can all agree that that’s something (like the movie 12 Rounds) we don’t want to see.

Worth Noting

  • Kyle Busch has won at least one event every race weekend of this season. Nobody has won a Cup race this March other than the Busch brothers.
  • The top-10 finishers at Bristol piloted three Toyotas, six Chevys and a Dodge. Edwards in 15th was the top-finishing Ford driver.
  • Hamlin’s second-place finish was his best since he won at Martinsville a year ago next weekend.
  • Johnson (third) managed his first top-five finish of the 2009 Cup season.
  • Gordon (fourth) has strung together four straight top-10 finishes.
  • Kasey Kahne (fifth) drove to his first top-five finish since Charlotte last fall.
  • Martin’s sixth-place finish was his best since Dover last fall.
  • Montoya (ninth) managed his first top-10 finish on an oval since Talladega last spring.
  • Don’t look now, but David Reutimann has finished in the top 15 in four of this season’s five points-paying Cup races.
  • Stewart (17th) missed the top 10 for only the second time this season. Actually, it was only the second time he didn’t finish eighth this season.

What’s the Points?

You’re already worried about the points? How do you sleep at night worrying about a flaming chunk of space debris crashing through your bedroom window and beaning you in the noggin?

For the record, Gordon still leads the points. (And he still hasn’t won a race in well over a year. Maybe these Formula 1 folks are onto something? Tune in Thursday, when I’ll discuss just that.) Kurt Busch advanced a spot to take over second place in the standings, 76 behind Gordon, displacing Clint Bowyer who fell to third, four points behind Kurt.

Kyle Busch moved up three spots to jump to fourth in the standings. If he didn’t get wrecked out at Daytona, he’d be leaving the field in the dust.

Further back, Johnson moved up four spots to ninth in the standings. Kahne moved up three spots to sixth.

Kenseth, who won this year’s first two points-paying races, fell five spots to 10th in the standings. Under the new F1 system he’d be tied with Kyle Busch for the lead. We’ll talk about it Thursday, same Matt-time, same Matt-station…

Harvick tumbled four spots to 12th in the standings. Biffle really took it on the chin (and in the ribs) at Bristol, tumbling eight spots from 10th to 18th in the points.

Fellow rookies Logano and Scott Speed find themselves 34th and 35th in the standings, respectively. They’ve also got razor thin points margin gaps over that dreaded 36th spot, which means a driver actually has to qualify for races on speed (the way God and Dale Earnhardt intended) rather than counting on corporate largesse and welfare to make the races.

If the Chase were to start right now… a whole lot of wasted Sunday afternoons better spent drinking beer or riding motorcycles could be avoided. But it’s not going to be, so don’t worry about points… be happy.

Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans, with one being a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic): Yeah, there was some racing back in the pack and an occasional swap of the lead, but this one won’t go down on the Bristol highlight reel. We’ll give this one three cans because of unfulfilled expectations.

Next Up: Next week, the series takes a step back to yesterday with a trip to Martinsville, NASCAR’s at least partially preserved anachronism of racing the way it used to be back when Cale Yarborough wouldn’t have been caught dead wearing a “Honda” hat.

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