NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin’s Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2009 Darlington Race Recap

The Key Moment: Mark Martin was able to gap Jimmie Johnson on the final restart with an old-school approach of braking early and accelerating hard out of the corners… a lesson I’d guess Johnson isn’t going to forget anytime soon.

In a Nutshell: New car, new tires, new track surface… same old Darlington.

Dramatic Moment: This is Darlington. The dramatic moments start in the first corner of the first lap and keep piling up throughout the race.

The final restart offered up some great racing until Johnson basically hollered over the radio “No Mas” and threw the fight. Not a big surprise, however, as the No. 48 team is too concerned with making the Chase and not concerned enough about winning races these days. What are you doing down there, Jimmie? Points racing, guys… points racing.

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

Martin is turning NASCAR into a sequel of Ron Howard’s film Cocoon. Cocoon meets American Graffiti, anyone? Call my people, we’ll do lunch.

How could NASCAR justify not throwing the caution flag when Sam Hornish Jr. spun out the length of a straightaway in heavy traffic? For that matter, why did Carl Edwards‘s trip into the wall draw a caution flag when a very similar incident involving Kyle Busch a few laps before didn’t earn a yellow? My guess is NASCAR officials were panicking the race was running long for TV and being overly judicious in calling for a caution as a result.

I don’t know if the Roush drivers have to attend the Monday meetings to break down the race weekend; but if they do, I’d suggest that Greg Biffle and Edwards be kept on opposite sides of the table.

When it comes to the All-Star Race next weekend or whatever in blazes they’re calling it this year (I still consider it The Winston), dozens of rule packages, formats and eligibility requirements have been experimented with over the years – each one lamer than the one that preceded it. This year, things have been changed yet again… but they are changes no one needs. I’m old school when it comes to this thing, and I’d like to see them go back to the original format. Take the drivers who won a race the previous season, line them up, and let them race for 70 laps. I can live without field inversions, giant pachinko machines, made for TV timeouts and drum corps.

It didn’t look like Darlington sold out Saturday night, but given the awkward race date and the economy in the Carolinas, track management seemed to have done a good job selling tickets. Next to aged Labrador Retrievers, you won’t find any loyalty that runs deeper than stock car racing fans in the Southeast.

Sometimes, it’s the little things that add up. The retro red and white paint scheme on Darlington’s walls not only looked cool… it heightened the sensation of speed for fans watching the race from the grandstands or even at home on TV.

Are you waiting for FOX to get the message from the fans and make some changes? Don’t bank on it. Told some fans really dislike this whole Digger business, FOX Sports head honcho David Hill replied, “Tough.” In brighter news, FOX has only two more race broadcasts to hawk t-shirts left in 2009.

It’s common knowledge that corporations that buy commercial minutes during the race broadcasts get their cars featured more often during the race itself. But it’s more than a little over the top when FOX returns from commercial and shows the UPS crew repairing the No. 6 car in the garage while there was green flag racing going on.

It’s been a tough week for the family, friends, and fans of Kevin Grubb, a once promising rookie in the Busch Series who died by his own hand earlier this week. Grubb had been suspended by NASCAR for violations of the drug policy even back when NASCAR barely had a defined drug policy. Now, I write about stock car racing… I don’t preach. I had my own misspent youth, losing friends to substance abuse while watching others destroy their lives. But there is a lesson here. The same week Grubb died far too young, Martin on the far side of 50 won a 500-mile race on a brutally hot night thanks in large part to the tremendous physical condition he keeps himself in. As a young man, Martin battled and eventually conquered alcoholism; if he didn’t, maybe he’d have wound up dead in a hotel room as well. So if you’re battling demons… don’t give up hope. The fight can be won.

On Mother’s Day, a big thank you to Mother Nature for no rain delays during Saturday night’s race. These races ending at midnight are too tough to take these days – even at the Track Too Tough to Tame.

Well, my guess is that’s that. Owner/driver Jeremy Mayfield was suspended this week for failing a drug test. Mayfield claims that he failed because of a combination of a prescribed medication and over the counter drugs (some allergy medications can indeed trigger a false positive test, and this is a record year for pollen in many parts of the country.) Having watched NASCAR lynch Tim Richmond, though, I am viewing this entire situation with some skepticism. It’s also worth noting that while NASCAR’s Jim Hunter would not identify the substance Mayfield is said to have abused, he did note it was not an alcohol-related issue. Mayfield is one of the last truly blue-collar drivers left on the circuit, and it might just be that his beer consumption celebrating an occasional good run by his fledgling team made some of the straight-laced super-team owner BAC (Born Again Christian, not Blood Alcohol Content) types like Joe Gibbs and Rick Hendrick uncomfortable.

Did anyone else realize that the song that plays in the background of the “NASCAR Day/Victory Junction Camp ad about old cars in the backyard” was written and performed by former Hollywood star Kevin Costner? While I doubt he has as many old cars in his backyard as I do (and all of mine run, at least for a fashion), if it came down to starting a singing career or making a sequel to Waterworld Costner made the right call.

Anyone else remember when Pole Day at Indy would have been THE top sports story of the day? To be frank, I’d completely forgotten it was this weekend. Sunday morning, I went to foxnews.com and found two racing-related stories on the front page. One noted that Mayfield had been suspended for a failed drug test, while the other said a contractor had been killed by an out-of-control racecar in Seattle. Otherwise, there was no mention of Martin’s win or Helio Castroneves’s pole at Indianapolis. And this is from a news site related to the network that broadcast the awkwardly titled Southern 500! It seems that the separation of church and state works a lot better between FOX’s news and sports outfits than it does between the sports and advertising entities during race broadcasts.

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

Into every life a little rain must fall, even into the most charmed of lives. Busch has been on a roll this season; but Friday night, he dominated in the Nationwide Series race until a flat tire in the final couple of laps cost him a win. Then, in the Cup race Busch just never found enough speed, eventually hitting the wall hard enough that he was forced to retire. The ever effervescent and philosophical Busch was notably short on comments afterwards – though the crowd at Darlington did seem to take a certain perverse pleasure at his twin misfortunes.

Clint Bowyer’s impressive streak of avoiding DNFs over the last three seasons (83 races) came to a hard end at Darlington. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men apparently weren’t able to piece the thoroughly trashed No. 33 car back together again after contact with AJ Allmendinger on the backstretch.

Michael Waltrip Racing suffered through a tough evening, with all three drivers winding up wrecked and Michael Waltrip himself hopping out of a thoroughly flambéed car after a catastrophic engine failure.

Jamie McMurray and the No. 26 team just can’t seem to buy a break. After another strong run, a wreck not of his own making left McMurray with a 22nd-place finish and a torn-up car.

Biffle seemed to have the strongest car for much of the race, but questionable pit strategy left him mired in the pack. Biffle’s charge to the front cost his teammate Edwards a decent finish and ultimately finished off Biffle’s chances at winning as well. The fabricators at Roush Fenway Racing have a lot on their plate in the upcoming week.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. suffered through another rough race both on track and in the pits. Given the domination of the Hendrick outfit at Darlington, that’s just more salt being rubbed into the wound.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

It might be easier to recount who didn’t hit the wall at Darlington than who did after Saturday night’s race. One of those who didn’t was Martin, whose No. 5 car was notably lacking the standard issue right side damage after the race. Remember that old line about old age and experience beating youth and enthusiasm every time? Rock on, you crazy old man.

It was a great night for Hendrick Motorsports, with four of their drivers claiming top-five finishing positions and two of their satellite teams also claiming the top-seven finishing spots.

Johnson and the No. 48 team suffered through some problems this weekend. To start with, Johnson wrecked in qualifying, giving him a starting spot in the back of the field with a poor pit selection. Perhaps as a result of that bad pit stall, Johnson wound up getting spun out on pit road during the race. A gamble on pit strategy also left Johnson a lap down to the leaders at one point – and the hits just kept on coming with a car that struggled to get a grip on the track at times. Ultimately, a second place finish has to be considered a miracle with everything that went on. It’s the way this team takes chickensh*t and turns it into chicken salad when they struggle that has helped them win three consecutive titles.

The Lady in Black is notoriously cruel to rookie drivers, but Joey Logano led some laps and eventually matched his best Cup career finish to date with a ninth-place run.

Jeff Gordon lost a lap after a green-flag pit stop caused by loose lugnuts, but he somehow rallied back to finish fifth – allowing him to retain the points lead.

As hard as Denny Hamlin wrecked early in the race, it seemed unlikely he’d even finish. Given that, a 13th-place recovery was a pretty fair result for him.

Worth Noting

  • Martin has multiple Cup wins for the first time in his career since 1999.
  • Tony Stewart (third) has top-10 finishes in five of the last six Cup races.
  • Ryan Newman (fourth) now has three consecutive top-five finishes after a tumultuous start to his season.
  • Discounting the plate tracks, Gordon (fifth) has just one finish outside the top 10 in this season’s other nine races.
  • Martin Truex Jr.’s sixth-place finish was his best Cup result of 2009.
  • Logano (ninth) led more than 10 laps in a Cup race for the first time in his career.
  • Biffle (11th) led more laps than he has in any single Cup event since Dover last spring.
  • Edwards (32nd) has finished outside the top 20 in the last three Cup races.
  • Busch (34th) has finished outside the top 10 in five of the six last Cup races. The sole exception was his win in Richmond last week.
  • The top-seven finishers at Darlington all drove Chevys. If the old saying “Win on Sunday, (or in this case, Saturday night) sell on Monday” still applied, GM would be lending the U.S. government money this week.
  • It was a pretty good weekend for the rookies, with Brad Keselowski and Logano posting top-10 finishes.

What’s the Points?

Gordon retains his points lead, which is now 29 over a fast closing Stewart, who moves up a spot to second. After a mid-race spin, Kurt Busch fell a spot to third in the standings, 55 behind.

It may be worth noting that three drivers who have combined to win seven of this season’s 11 Cup races (Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and Martin) are all outside the top five in points. Busch (three wins), Kenseth (two wins) and Martin (two wins) are now seventh, 10th and 11th in the standings, respectively. His Darlington win did move Martin up four spots into the top 12 for the first time this year, though.

Four drivers escaped the carnage at the Lady In Black to move up two spots in the standings: Johnson, Newman, Biffle and Kenseth. Those four drivers are now fourth, eighth, ninth and 10th in points.

On the flip side, Kyle Busch fell two spots to seventh in the standings while Edwards fell three positions, tumbling down from ninth to 12th. Bowyer actually had the worst night in the points, falling five spots and out of the top 12 to 13th – just seven points behind Edwards.

Among other notables with a big hole to dig themselves out of moving forward, we find Earnhardt Jr. 18th in the standings and Kevin Harvick 21st. For comparison’s sake, Juan Pablo Montoya is currently 14th in points despite hitting everything but the Powerball lottery this season.

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 five well dented cans of icy Coors Light. I’m no fan of wrecks, and 17 cautions broke up the momentum of the race, but it’s cool to see cars with the decals wiped off the right side finishing in the top 10. If this sort of racing keeps up, NASCAR might just have to move the Darlington date to Labor Day weekend the way God and Cale Yarborough intended it to be.

Next Up: It’s off to Charlotte for the all singing, all dancing, all too hyped up All-Star Race.

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