NASCAR Race Weekend Central

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

The Key Moment: Carl Edwards had the lead when Brad Keselowski got a fender inside of him off turn 4 on the final lap. Edwards moved to block the No. 09 a little too late, going for a terrifying ride into the catchfence off of Ryan Newman’s car while Keselowski drove to victory lane.

In a Nutshell: Bread and circuses, folks. Stop the madness before someone on either side of the catchfence dies needlessly.

Dramatic Moment: I hate to say it… but waiting to see if the No. 99 car would enter the grandstands.

A lap eight wreck eliminated several key contenders and destroyed a few million dollars’ worth of cars. Honestly, it just makes me sick to my stomach watching this sort of racing.

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

First and foremost, as I write this my thoughts are with any fans who were hurt at Talladega when Edwards’s stricken Ford crashed hard into the catchfence at the end of the race. As I write, there are no reports of any serious injuries, but seeing that line of nine orange and white ambulances lined up in the area after the race scared the hell out of me. It could have been a lot worse if that No. 99 car actually entered the stands – but it still shouldn’t have been allowed to happen. It frightens me and it infuriates me because NASCAR’s excuse for these deadly pileup plates is to keep the cars out of the grandstands. Obviously, the rule is now in place to sell tickets and boost ratings instead. We’ve seen Ernie Irvan’s hood fly into the crowd, Newman’s wheel go into the infield, Neil Bonnett’s Chevy almost go into the ‘Dega stands… and now Edwards almost vault over the catchfence a la Bobby Allison in 1987. It’s time to stop the madness and fix the frickin’ tracks….

Here’s the latest update as of Monday, 3:30 a.m.: As many as eight fans were injured in the grandstands at Talladega. Most were bumps and bruises caused by flying debris, but two fans were airlifted from the track to local hospitals. One was hurt after apparently being struck by parts of a PA speaker that had been mounted to the catchfence. Her injuries are not life-threatening, but owing to post-race traffic a helicopter was the most expedient method to get her to a hospital.

At this point, NASCAR appears to have smoked another bullet – but that doesn’t make playing Russian Roulette with fans’ lives an acceptable game.

You could see it coming like a freight train. Denny Hamlin had pushed several drivers to the front; but once he got Newman to the lead late in the race, Newman left him hung out to dry and the No. 11 dropped through the field like a rock. Not too long afterwards, it was Hamlin who was guilty of launching the sequel to the Big One. We all want to see a lot more emotions in our sport… but unbridled frustration turning to homicidal rage isn’t one of them.

Edwards’ broad grin and jubilant personality took the sting out of his words, but hopefully someone was taking notes: “We’ll race like this until we kill somebody, and then we’ll change it.” And that’s coming from a driver who competed for about 499 miles and 5,273 feet before the wreck – not from someone in the press box or NASCAR’s control booth. While Edwards running across the start/finish line to complete the race and his generous post-race comments were classy and popular, I’d have liked to have seen him run over to that ruined section of catchfence, too, to see if he’d inadvertently injured anyone.

Editor’s Note: Edwards did say following the race he “wouldn’t be able to live with himself” if someone had gotten killed in the grandstands.

When FOX’s Chris Myers said that Sunday’s event was the “best race” of the season, I guess he tipped his hand towards what sort of race FOX Sports likes. Yes, it was wild and unpredictable… but it was contrived to be that way. FOX just likes wrecks.

In another example of the Rule of Unintended Consequences, the yellow line rule at the inside of the track was something NASCAR added at Daytona and Talladega to improve safety. Last year, Regan Smith was forced out of bounds by Tony Stewart on the final lap, and stated he drove below the yellow line to avoid triggering a massive crash. But after officials determined he broke the rule, Smith was dropped to the final finishing position on the lead lap after crossing the start/finish line first. This year, Keselowski, well aware of last year’s penalty, held his ground and triggered a frightening wreck instead. You can argue whether Edwards got his just desserts for throwing a block or whether he did what any race driver with the lead would do with the finish line just feet away; but regardless, there was no reason why fans’ lives had to be endangered. Maybe it’s time to open up the real estate below the yellow line from the exit of turn 4 to the start/finish line on the final lap so we can see a side-by-side duel to the checkers rather than a wreck.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Casey Mears got off with a slap on the wrist for their post-race antics at Phoenix. Both drivers are on NASCAR’s toothless probation for the next six races while no fines, suspensions, or points penalties were handed down. If you’re surprised, you’re probably still wondering why the Easter Bunny skipped you again.

Speaking of Earnhardt, looks likes there’s more trouble in paradise. Nationwide Insurance recently signed Junior as a spokesman, and he shot some commercials noting three generations of Earnhardts – Ralph, Dale Sr. and Dale Jr. – were all customers of the insurance firm. Originally, the ads featured images of Dale the Original… but they seem to have been hastily edited to remove his image. Apparently, Teresa Earnhardt is once again quickly and firmly defending her late husband’s image from exploitation unless she gets a piece of the action.

Wow, Phoenix drew a 3.6 final TV rating. Hard to get happy about that? So, why did so few people tune in? A) The late start time. B) The current inept state of FOX broadcast coverage. C) The current sorry state of Cup racing. Class, discuss. Me, I’m reminded of a dish a college roommate used to make towards the end of the week when we were all broke called “Leedle-o-This” stew. He took a “leedle” of this, a “leedle” of that, and whatever else was left in the refrigerator that hadn’t grown mold, or in the spice rack, to come up with a truly terrible dinner that could only be consumed by hungry teenagers who’d been drinking since getting out of class at noon. Aw, yes, chicken, onion and bacon stew, with chunks of stale orange, drowned in garlic served over a runny pancake. Kind of reminds me of the Phoenix race.

I was a little taken aback ABC would choose to show Matt Kenseth’s crying and very pregnant wife rushing towards the infield care center after his scary rollover wreck in Saturday’s Nationwide race. One might argue the shot put a human view on what the drivers’ families go through watching these plate wreckfests – but it just came off as low rent. It would have been nice to show Kenseth emerging from the car alive and unharmed before going to the crying wife replay.

You get the feeling that Keselowski forgot to thank his sponsor because nobody had taught him to pronounce the Indian casino’s name?

Newman and Earnhardt Jr. teamed up on the last laps of both the Nationwide and Cup races this weekend. Has there been such an unusual pairing since Alan Kulwicki and Rusty Wallace teamed up on a memorable series of antifreeze ads?

Michael Waltrip says he is undecided about retiring from the driver’s seat after this season because he still wants to win a Cup championship for NAPA. Hey, I want to win the Power Ball lottery, buy a new Challenger, and marry Heather Locklear – but I’m not buying a plane ticket just yet. Yes, sadly reality has to intrude in decision-making processes at some point. And no, I doubt you’ll see Clint Bowyer taking over the No. 55 car next season….

If Internet rumors are true (and when are they not?) the demise of the once proud Pontiac brand will be announced Monday as part of GM’s plan to keep themselves at the federal government’s sugar teat. As the proud owner of a ’76 455 Trans Am, a guy who occasionally wheeled a ’73 Grand Am 7.4-liter to high school, and a guy whose first attempts at rebuilding an engine was helping an older friend redo the Ram Air IV mill in his GTO Judge, I’ll be flying my flag at half-staff Monday. Once the staid choice of stenographers and accountants, John DeLorean (yeah, that John DeLorean of DMC and white line fever fame) dragged the division kicking and screaming into the youthful muscle car era with the corporate edict ducking GTO; then, it was off to the races as everyone else tried to catch up. The Trans Am flew the performance banner during the dark period of the mid-to-late ’70s, which produced such automotive horrors as the Mustang II King Cobra, the Shelby Charger, and the 305 cube Corvette, still proudly carrying a big block under the hood in most cases with the infamous “screaming chicken” stretching its wings around a shaker scoop. NASCAR racers including Fireball Roberts, Richard Petty, Wallace, Bobby Labonte and Stewart drove Pontiacs to wins and titles. Even the late Dale Earnhardt drove Pontiacs in 1981. Monday will be a sad day for fans of the American auto industry; but unfortunately, it will the latest of many more.

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

In this sport, it’s an express elevator from the penthouse to the outhouse. Mark Martin won at Phoenix last week, but got caught up in the Big One at Talladega and finished dead last. At least he didn’t finish dead.

Jeff Gordon is always a favorite at Talladega… but his chances ended early in the lap 8 wreck. By the way, isn’t a Challenger a Dodge?

Kyle Busch took an extended turn at the lead before attempting to block Jeff Burton one too many times. Live by the sword, die by the sword I suppose.

Jimmie Johnson missed the first big wreck by inches; then, a timely caution flag allowed him to duck into the pits with a loose wheel. But in the end, Johnson got collected in the second big wreck. For a moment there, he almost sounded human in his post-race comments, noting “it sucks to race here” – but donning his sunglasses allowed him to return to the Batman mode.

Edwards did his best to stay at the back of the pack to try to stay out of trouble all day. He timed his charge to the front perfectly… but it all went wrong in the final few yards of the race. He learned his lesson the hard way; at Talladega, there’s only one way to stay out of the wrecks… stay home.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

Earnhardt Jr. had a front-row seat for the big Edwards/Newman wreck at the end of the race, but dove low and drove on to a second-place finish.

Burton drove from three laps down after electrical problems to a 10th-place finish.

Kurt Busch took a wild ride through the infield to bring out the fourth caution flag after being involved in a lap 8 wreck. Still, he soldiered on to a sixth-place finish despite not having a rear bumper on the back of his Dodge.

Worth Noting

  • The top-three finishing drivers rolled in three Chevys, and four of the top-10 finishers were wheeling Bowties. The rest of the top 10 were at the helm of four Toyotas, a Ford and a Dodge.
  • Scott Speed in fifth was the top finishing rookie of the race. Joey Logano in ninth scored a decent finish as well. It’s almost as if the rookies didn’t learn they were supposed to be in a huge crash to get their sponsors some air time yet.
  • Keselowski won a Cup event in just his fifth start. It was the first win for car owner James Finch in 16 years of competing in NASCAR’s top circuit and 105 starts.
  • Earnhardt Jr. (second) scored his first top-five result (and obviously best finish) of 2009. Earnhardt last finished second at Martinsville last fall.
  • Newman scored his best finish of the 2009 Cup season, and posted his first top five result with Stewart-Haas Racing. It was Newman’s first top-five result since Texas last spring.
  • Marcos Ambrose (fourth) scored his best result on an oval course of his fledgling Cup career. Good on ya, Mate.
  • Speed (fifth) scored his first top-10 result in the Cup series. His previous best result had been a 16th-place finish.
  • Greg Biffle (seventh) has strung together three straight top-10 results.
  • Brian Vickers (eighth) has now managed four top-10 results in this season’s nine Cup points events.
  • Logano’s ninth-place finish was his first top 10 of his Cup career.
  • Joe Nemechek’s 14th-place finish was his best Cup result since, oddly enough, Talladega last fall. Is this a case of Maui Wowie?
  • Max Papis’s 18th-place finish was his best in five career Cup starts.
  • Jeff Gordon’s 38th-place finish was his worst of the current Cup season. I’m sure that hard hit didn’t do his aching back a bit of good.
  • Martin finished dead last for the first time since Atlanta in the fall of 2007.

What’s the Points?

Kurt Busch takes over the points lead. Former points leader Gordon now finds himself second, five points behind Busch. Isn’t it ironic that in a week the future of the Chrysler Corporation is very much in doubt, a Dodge pilot leads the points?

Johnson slid back a spot to third in the standings, with Stewart and Hamlin holding steady to round out the top five.

Further back, Biffle made the biggest jump in the points, moving up four spots and into the top 12 in 10th. Just ahead of him, Burton moved up two spots to ninth in the standings while his RCR teammate Bowyer slid down two spots to eighth. David Reutimann also fell two spots to 11th, but still is clinging to a spot in the Chase. Speaking of which – Kenseth hangs on to that final transfer spot after a 17th-place finish at Talladega.

Just outside the top 12, things are heating up behind him. Newman rebounded four spots to take over 13th, 30 points out of the top 12. Kasey Kahne fell four spots and out of the top 12 to 14th, but is just three points behind Newman. Earnhardt Jr.’s first good finish of the season propels him forward four spots to 15th, a manageable 45 points out of the top 12, ensuring NASCAR officials will offer live goats in Holocaust to pagan gods this week for letting their franchise player at least have a shot at making the Chase. Meanwhile, Martin’s rough outing dropped him a full five positions to 18th in the standings. But if I had to bet my rent money on Junior or Martin making the Chase, I’d bet on the crazy old man.

Meanwhile, Kevin Harvick is in even worse shape: he now finds himself mired back in 20th after being involved in Talladega’s early wreck.

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 three bottles of Maalox. Yeah, it was exciting and unpredictable… but ultimately, it was almost fatal as well.

Next Up: The circuit heads off to what might be its most competitive track left on the schedule, Richmond. Good old track, bad new cars.

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