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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

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

The Key Moment: Kyle Busch battled his way past Jeff Gordon on the 14th restart. After a couple tense laps battling the No. 24 and lapped cars, he drove off from the field to score his 15th career win in the Cup Series.

In a Nutshell: Happy Birthday to Boos.

Dramatic Moment: There were about three-and-a-half hours worth of them. The racing after each restart late in the race was particularly intense.

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

See, it is possible to have an exciting race without huge packs of cars, putting a car into the catchfence, and sending fans to the hospital.

You gotta believe somewhere up in Heaven, neighbors were calling the cops asking them to quiet down David Poole’s hooting and hollering watching this one.

I don’t know if the Charlotte Observer is taking nominations for a beat writer to take David Poole’s place, but my pick would be Mike Mulhern.

If you liked the sort of racing you saw tonight, head out to your local short track soon. This is what it’s all about.

I’m sorry, if the race isn’t held in the afternoon heat during Labor Day weekend, it just ain’t the Southern 500.

It’s nice to see that the mere fact fans were injured won’t keep FOX from using footage of Carl Edwards’s wreck to promote upcoming races.

You get a feeling that one of the two Stewart-Haas cars is going to win a race soon. I’ll admit it: color me surprised.

Yeah, they all ran pretty strong most of the night… but did it seem that the Penske cars caused an inordinate amount of Saturday night’s caution flags? Maybe those boys are just pissed off about Chrysler having to file for bankruptcy earlier this week?

I won’t say it was perfect – not by a long shot – but credit has to be given where it is due. Saturday night, FOX did a lot better job showing the racing behind the leaders and some drivers who rarely get shown during race broadcasts. The network’s obsession with their Big Four – Busch, Gordon, Edwards and Dale Earnhardt Jr. – remains annoyingly obvious, though they did in fact miss Edwards’s march backwards through the pack at the end of the race.

It’s got to break Gordon’s heart to hear Darrell Waltrip reading love sonnets to Busch rather than him lately.

I’ll also give FOX credit for having a contingency plan in place in the event any of the ballgames that preceded the race ran long. (All three of them did, particularly the Atlanta game.) Fans were able to keep up with the action over on SPEED until their local games ended.

When the field was running single file at the start of the race under the green and yellow flags to help dry the track, it looked a whole lot like racing at Fontana, didn’t it?

How much longer can Rick Hendrick be patient with the No. 88 team before making changes? Junior’s chances at making the Chase are rapidly eroding from slim to none, and none’s getting ready to buy a ticket on that coast city bus.

I’ve asked before, but it seems so obvious to me… why hasn’t anyone built a Richmond clone yet? This is about the perfect track configuration for stock car racing, and as an added bonus, the fans watch the race in an intimate setting that allows them to see the whole track.

Something, anything? At long last, maybe the increasingly tepid stock car scene is developing a bit of a rivalry? Busch hasn’t been shy about saying that he prefers winning races to mass popularity and the t-shirt sales that come with it, an obvious aside to Earnhardt Jr.’s place in the sport. At a track where Junior and Busch scuffled in both races last year, Earnhardt admitted that it seems to him Busch has some ill feelings about having been bumped from his Rick Hendrick ride to make room for Junior. In fact, Earnhardt claims, radio transmissions (probably too profane for TV to even sample) indicate the younger Busch brother doesn’t care much for any of the four Hendrick entries and the men who drive them. Are we seeing the stirrings of a feud between the sport’s Most Popular Driver and one of its most successful if controversial pilots? Mind you, I’m not espousing a WWE-style rivalry with scripted threats of blood vengeance, but it could only be good for the sport if Busch and Earnhardt continue to get on each other’s nerves. A rivalry like those between Richard Petty and Bobby Allison or Darrell Waltrip and Cale Yarborough back in the day could only add some spice to otherwise bland fare.

Am I sensing a pattern here? While admitting the California race earlier this spring was less than stirring stuff, ISC officials immediately disavowed any notion the track’s layout might have to be altered to improve the quality of racing at Fontana. And after last week’s near disaster at Talladega, ISC and NASCAR officials noted some changes might need to be made to slow the speeds and separate the packs of cars, but said that reconfiguring the track wasn’t even on the radar screen. In other words, the costs of changing competition at those two tracks will continue to be paid by the team owners – not by NASCAR itself.

Three years ago, if anyone suggested that Chrysler might be forced into bankruptcy, they’d have been considered a lunatic. But this week, that sad eventuality came to pass only hours after the President of these United States said he felt and hoped Chrysler could avoid Chapter 11. Many people are debating what this development portends for Dodge’s continued participation in stock car racing. I haven’t a clue. First off, I’d like to say I’m more concerned with the well-being of Chrysler’s blue collars and their families during the impending and unanticipated 60-day layoffs. Then, I’d like to add I feel a great deal of anger at these hedge fund types who rejected the offers made to them that forced Chrysler into bankruptcy, the only players in the game with no real interest in seeing a viable U.S. auto industry continuing to employ Americans into the future. Even while union members, taxpayers and suppliers accepted painful concessions to keep Chrysler afloat, the speculators would not accept they’d have to share the pain. Here’s an idea: let those hedge fund managers wear sandwich board signs that read, “I voted to put more Americans out of work” at Darlington next weekend, have them try to run from the catchfence to the corporate suites, and give them an increased payout for each row of the grandstands they make it past before being beaten to their knees.

It seems that Brad Keselowski is the most recent graduate of Joey Logano’s University of Humility. He feels that his win at Talladega means he’s ready now to compete full-time on the Cup circuit, and it’s almost an outrage nobody offered him a top-notch Cup ride for Richmond. I guess it’s worth noting that the fickle nature of plate racing is that sometimes, it offers up a fluke win – as evidenced by five other drivers who won at Talladega but never scored another Cup victory.

Yeah, I’ll jump on the bandwagon. That Burger King ad is not only creepy, but completely inappropriate for advertising a product intended for children – really fat kids in this instance.

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

Once again, Denny Hamlin dominated at Richmond only to have problems end his chances at the win. This time, it started with a disastrous pit stop that caused Hamlin to lick all the red off his candy trying to get back to the front.

Jimmie Johnson might have won three of the previous five Richmond Cup races, but Saturday was an unending litany of disasters for him. First, he got nailed speeding on pit road; then, his brakes failed; and finally, he spun out in traffic. The No. 48 team was forced to take their mount to the garage and Johnson wound up 36th.

Kasey Kahne was so frustrated with his ill-handling Dodge, he threw about everything out the window except the steering wheel. If Edwards is sponsored by Claritin and Burton by Prilosec, maybe Kahne could run a Prozac-sponsored entry?

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

You’d have to say it was a pretty fine weekend for Busch, who won on Thursday night (in a Hamlin-sponsored charity late model event), in Friday night’s Nationwide race, and again on Saturday night. It was a pretty fair way to spend his 24th birthday, that’s for sure…

Jeff Burton took a ride up into the wall off the front bumper of the No. 88 car, but gathered himself back up well enough to finish third.

Mark Martin got spun out by Ryan Newman and slapped the wall before getting hit by the No. 1 car while running in the top 10. But Martin rallied back to finish fifth at the finish; ironically enough, that was one spot behind the No. 39 and Newman.

Given the forecast going into the weekend, it’s amazing that fans got to see both NASCAR events run without rain delays or interruptions.

Marcos Ambrose gave another good accounting of himself Saturday night, running towards the front most of the night. His chances at a decent finish seemed to evaporate when Sam Hornish Jr. put him into the wall, but Ambrose recovered well enough to finish 11th.

Jamie McMurray has really needed a good finish for a while now. It seemed he was in for another long night when he got collected with the No. 99 car off the front bumper of David Stremme’s entry – but McMurray used pit strategy and strong driving late in the race to soldier on to a seventh-place finish.

Worth Noting

  • Busch scored his third Cup victory this season (which leads all drivers).
  • Tony Stewart has finished second in two of the last three races.
  • Burton’s third-place finish matches his best Cup result of 2009. Burton also finished third at Las Vegas earlier this year.
  • Newman (fourth) has put together back-to-back top-five finishes for the first time since Texas and Phoenix late in the 2007 season.
  • Martin (fifth) has top-10 finishes in five of the last six Cup races.
  • Hornish’s only two top-10 career Cup finishes have been scored in the last three races. My guess is Kevin Harvick didn’t rush over to congratulate him on the feat.
  • McMurray finished seventh at Richmond, but still hasn’t led a lap in Cup competition this year.
  • Gordon (eighth) now has top-10 results in seven of this year’s 10 points-paying Cup events.
  • Casey Mears (ninth) scored his first top-10 result of 2009.
  • Kurt Busch (12th) missed the top 10 for the first time since Martinsville.
  • Matt Kenseth (13th) has just one top-10 result in the last seven Cup races.
  • Logano’s 18th-place finish was the best for the rookie crop of 2009.
  • The top-10 finishers at Richmond drove seven Chevys, a Toyota, a Ford and a Dodge.

What’s the Points?

Gordon displaced Kurt Busch to reassume the lead atop the standings. Busch trails Gordon by a mere 10 points 10 races into the Cup Series season.

Stewart moved up a spot to third, 39 points behind Gordon, while former teammates Hamlin and Kyle Busch each moved up a spot to fourth and fifth in the standings, respectively. Unlike Stewart, though, the JGR cars are losing sight of the leaders – Busch is 127 points out of first place despite having already won three races.

Further back, Johnson dropped a full three spots to sixth in the standings. I doubt there is any panic in the No. 48 camp, though, whose real goal is to keep their boy in the top 12 and prepare for that final 10-race run.

Newman had the best night in the points. He enters the top 12 in 10th spot, a full three places ahead of last week’s standings.

It was a rough night for the Roush entries. Edwards fell two spots to ninth in the standings, while Greg Biffle relinquished one spot and finds himself 11th. Kenseth continues clinging to 12th in points, his two wins that opened the season now fading in the rear-view mirror.

The Cinderella start to David Reutimann’s season has taken on a pumpkin-esque hue as he falls out of the top 12, down two spots to 13th. Behind him, Juan Pablo Montoya and Martin had good results that put them back in position to move into the Chase. Montoya is up two spots to 14th, while Martin is up three spots to 15th.

Finally, Kahne and Earnhardt Jr. took it on the chin at Richmond. They are now 16th and 17th in the standings and struggling to find traction as the pack pulls away.

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 five icy cold bottles of Corona. The first half of the race featured a lot of classic battles, with drivers running down the leader and passing him cleanly. The second half of the race was a bit messy and more chaotic, typical short-track racing. Only the final 20 laps cost the race a sixth can.

Next Up: The circuit heads off to its spiritual birthplace and the cradle of legends, Darlington, for a race at NASCAR’s best track scheduled on its worst race date of the year.

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