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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

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

The Key Moment: Coming up on two laps left to race, Jimmie Johnson powered around the outside of Tony Stewart to retake the lead.

In a Nutshell: Ever hear of a cow-patty sandwich on whole wheat bread? The top and the bottom of the race weren’t bad… but everything in the middle was pretty tough to swallow.

Dramatic Moment: Those final 10 laps watching Johnson storm back to the front were about as good as it gets.

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

The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong (Ecclesiastes)… but sometimes it is. Just don’t tell Kyle Busch that.

Cynics might guess that Rick Hendrick decided to fix Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s problems by repainting Jeff Gordon’s cars in AMP Energy green and giving Gordon the mutts of the litter at Dover.

You have to wonder if NASCAR hadn’t been so liberal throwing those debris cautions, Johnson might not have lapped the field.

Doesn’t it seem that all of NASCAR’s severest penalties lately (drug use (Jeremy Mayfield), oversized engine (Carl Long), and toed-out rear end (Robby Gordon)) all seem to be aimed at the small teams – not the major players with big-dollar sponsors? I’m sure the top drivers and teams are all running squeaky clean programs this year. And I’m sure that Santa is going to bring me a Dodge Challenger RT and an Ultra-Glide for Christmas….

The implications and ramifications of Rick Hendrick’s decision to sack Tony Eury Jr. as Earnhardt Jr.’s crew chief this week continue to be the big story. On a personal level, I feel the decision was long overdue and probably should have been made back in the DEI days. The relationship between a driver and crew chief is akin to marriage, and marriage isn’t an institution cousins should enter into unless you want the result to be six-fingered offspring or Brian France. I will say that I don’t admire the position that Brian Whitesell or Lance McGrew find themselves thrust into. It’s like being the first lieutenant off the landing craft in a beachfront invasion… your life expectancy is under a minute. Let’s face it; NASCAR and the networks need Junior to be winning races on a regular basis to restore the sport’s waning popularity. If it doesn’t work out with the new crew chief, it’s never going to be Earnhardt’s fault despite his forthright admissions this week that he’s part of the problem. You can replace crew chiefs dozens of times, nay dozens upon dozens of times, and it will never be Junior’s fault even if they find him passed out at the entrance of his Whiskey River eatery an hour before the race. The bottom line is that those crew chiefs can be replaced… but the sport’s Most Popular Driver can’t be. I continue to think that Rick Hendrick needs to find a way to beg, cajole, or buy Ray Evernham’s acceptance of a spot atop the No. 88 team’s pit box in order to make this experiment work.

Throughout my so-called writing career, I’ve made a conscious decision not to refer to individual races by their sponsored name. It’s the World 600, not the Coca-Cola 600; or the Phoenix spring race, not the Subway 500 kilometers. I even had to go to the mat with the editors here at Frontstretch to keep that tradition alive. Well, this weekend’s official race title, “The Autism Speaks 400 Presented by Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips and Cheese,” should make it obvious why I do that. Now that’s just silly. Can they even fit a title that long on the trophy?

There’s apparently a move in the works to adopt the system of double-file restarts (wherein the second place driver starts alongside the leader rather than behind him) in the next few weeks. I am excited by the idea, and think it will provide for better racing in the interim period between now and when NASCAR finally fixes or eliminates the New Car. But I’d add a codicil to the rule which I believe is already on the books, at least at the start of the race. The leader should have the choice to start on either the inside or the outside lane on any restart. At a lot of tracks, a driver on the inside line has a decided advantage over a driver on the outside lane where that leader traditionally restarts.

OK, game on. Mayfield has filed a lawsuit against NASCAR specifically naming Brian France and Doctor Black and alleging grievous career harm. The suit in fact alleges “malicious” conduct on the part of both defendants in wishing to make an example of Mayfield to further the goals of NASCAR’s drug-testing policy. (Which I find personally laudable.) In reading over the lawsuit’s statement of fact, I see a lot of merit in the case, especially when it comes to the method in which the test was conducted and the handling of the “backup B sample.” There’s also a lot of serious questions about how Mayfield was informed of the “failed” results and in comments made by NASCAR employees in the aftermath of this debacle. Once again, I see a lot of the typical NASCAR arrogance in their statements that amount to “it is as we say it is, because we say it is.” There’s a lot more evidence that Brian Zachary France shouldn’t be allowed to run a driveway lemonade stand much less a major race sanctioning body because nepotism isn’t a legitimate business model for succession. Well, friends and neighbors, this one is out of our hands now. The merits of the lawsuit won’t be decided in this column or on an internet message board; it will be decided in a court of law. Keep your hands inside the car, gentle readers – this is going to be a dark ride.

Related to the above, at least the issues are suddenly becoming clearer. The text of NASCAR’s vaunted drug testing policy is now readily available, and it is clearly ambiguous when it comes to over-the-counter and prescribed medications. It recognizes the legitimate use of prescribed drugs while noting that some of them (codeine in cough medicine is cited) can render a driver unfit to compete. I have no argument there. Again, reading between the lines it seems to be that the substance that triggered the positive result in Mayfield’s urine test is a maintenance drug that he takes for Adult Attention Deficit Disorder, a recognized and even somewhat prevalent medical condition. Drugs used to combat AADD contain tiny amounts of amphetamine, more colloquially known as speed. It seems counterintuitive that doctors would give a person who is already hyper speed to calm them down, but due to a history of the childhood version of this disease in my nephews I know this to be the case. The therapy works, and none of my nephews have excelled in track and field or Little League due to their medications. Oddly enough, I do recall AADD drugs being advertised during NASCAR broadcasts as well….

Jeff Burton emerged from last week’s “Town Hall” meetings with NASCAR on how to better the sport, saying that he feels the racing is better than ever and in fact better than the racing in what fans and scribes like to call ‘the good old days.'” I’m reminded of a quote by the inestimable Curtis Turner regarding drag racing. He compared drag racing to masturbation (not the term he used) saying it’s a lot of fun to do but not much fun to watch.

In these troubled times, it’s sometimes a struggle to see the positive side of life. Even the worst pessimists have to give thanks that this year’s aural assault that is the FOX portion of the NASCAR season is finally over. They say this is their ninth season in the sport, though sometimes it feels like this stupidity makes the 100 Year Wars seem like a food fight at a frat house. With FOX’s final signoff, hopefully Digger can finally retire and be inducted into the Animation Hall of Fame as the least loved drawn character ever, DW can continue his perpetual campaign for the position of Village Idiot of Franklin, Tenn., and Jeff Hammond can finally find his calling as the morning DJ of WKRP out of Helena, Mont. Unfortunately, like the swine flu FOX’s season might have left us sickened – but it’s going to be back worse than ever next winter.

By the time you read this, it will be June 1st and sometime today General Motors will file for bankruptcy. What implications that will have for Chevy’s continued involvement in NASCAR racing will have to play out in the next few months. But while June 21st is officially the longest day of the year, I recall another date, June 6th, often referred to as the “Longest Day.” That was the date Allied forces stormed ashore at Normandy Beach in a desperate and dangerous landing to preserve democracy for the free world. I have a personal stake in that invasion, having lost three relatives I never met to the slaughter. So what does any of this have to do with racing? We live in troubled economic times. Things are pretty bleak right now, but nothing nearly as bad as what Americans were dealing with one Sunday morning after the attack on Pearl Harbor and the massive damage that attack inflicted on our Pacific fleet. America was thrust into a World War on two fronts, and the bad guys had a decided advantage. Almost overnight GM, Ford, Chrysler and a host of other automakers no longer in business went from peacetime production to a wartime scenario wherein they built the Jeeps, trucks, planes, ships and bombs that won World War II in support of the citizen soldiers that marched across Europe and went island to island in the Pacific to restore democracy to the free world in the face of tyrants. We as a nation have a debt that needs to be repaid right now. Either that, or the next time the crap hits the fan we’ll have to count on the Koreans and Japan to gear up and produce the materials to win the next World War. Frankly, that prospect makes me sick to the stomach….

When he’s winning, Kyle Busch can be a pretty loquacious guy; and when it comes to getting his digs in on Earnhardt Jr. who supplanted him at Hendrick Motorsports, the Vile One has a lot to say. But when he finishes a race poorly, suddenly Mr. Busch is in his golf cart and gone without a word spoken. Time to grow up and face the fact that sometimes you win and sometimes you lose, Mr. Busch. To stretch my allotted rock and roll analogies for the week, in the words of the incalculable Mr. Dylan: “Once upon a time you dressed so fine, did the bump and grind in your time, dinchu? People called hey, beware, you thought that they were all kiddinchu… how does it feel?”

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

Fourth generation driver Jeffrey Earnhardt failed to qualify for this weekend’s Nationwide race in a DEI entry. It couldn’t be his fault. Teresa Earnhardt is at fault! Fire his crew chief! Maybe Tony Eury Jr. is looking for a new full-time gig? In case you’re wondering, Jeff is Kerry Earnhardt’s son. Kerry was the product of Dale Senior’s first marriage which ended in divorce. His mom later remarried, and his stepdad adopted Kerry. For most of his life, Kerry went by his stepdad’s last name up until the point that he decided to give racing a go. That Earnhardt last name opened a bunch of doors….

Kyle Busch dominated in Saturday’s races, but cut down tires allowed him to once more snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

It was bad enough a caution flag shortly after he pitted left Gordon a lap down, but losing another lap under green couldn’t have improved his mood much. Add in the qualifying wreck, and it was a pretty long weekend for Gordon and his fans. That pain in his back had apparently migrated south a few inches.

It had been a pretty good week for David Reutimann, with his win in the rain-delayed World 600 and a pole at Dover on Friday. He had a decent run going during the race, too, before spinning out late to avoid David Stremme’s stricken Dodge. As it stands written in the Book of Bruce: “Well, they came so far, and waited so long, just to reach the part of the dream, where everything goes wrong…”

Denny Hamlin watched his chances at a win go up in a cloud of smoke when a Goodyear blew so badly the tire manufacturer tried blaming Al Qaeda.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

Johnson fought electrical problems all afternoon, but came away with the victory at Dover anyway.

A pit-road collision with Kyle Busch could easily have ended Carl Edwards‘s day, but he drove on to a seventh-place finish.

It was another good day for Stewart-Haas Racing, with Tony taking over the points lead by finishing second and Ryan Newman posting another top-10 finish.

After a trying weekend of wet weather at Charlotte and the truck race being rain-delayed on Friday, Mother Nature finally showed her benevolent side with spectacular weather on Saturday and Sunday. WPVI’s weather witch must have accidentally locked herself in the basement.

After the disaster at Charlotte, Dale Earnhardt Jr. must have been pretty well satisfied with a 12th-place finish on the lead lap. You have to learn to walk before you run…

Worth Noting

  • Johnson earned just his second top-10 finish in the last five Cup points races. But the winner’s check might finally allow him to purchase medication to combat the fungal growth that has afflicted his face and scalp as of late. Some guys – Jerry Garcia, ZZ Top and Bruce Springsteen come to mind – look good with a beard. Other guys… well, not so much.
  • Stewart (second) now has top-five finishes in six of the last eight Cup points races. Pass the horseradish; these crow sandwiches are getting pretty gamy.
  • Greg Biffle (third) enjoyed his best finish since he also finished third at Texas.
  • Matt Kenseth (fourth) has top-10 finishes in the last three Cup points races.
  • Kurt Busch (fifth) earned a top-10 finish for the first time since Talladega. No wonder his parents love Kyle more.
  • Newman (eighth) has now strung together five straight top-10 finishes. As the Boss might add, “man, the dope is there’s still hope.”
  • Casey Mears‘s ninth-place finish matches his best result of the 2009 Cup season and his tenure with Richard Childress Racing.
  • Mark Martin (10th) now has top-10 finishes in seven of the last nine points-paying Cup races. Shine on you, crazy diamond…
  • Earnhardt Jr. (12th) finished within the top 20 for the first time in four races. And Darrell Waltrip left Dover singing, “But I’ll still sing you love songs, written in the letters of your name, and brave the storms to come, ’cause it surely looks like rain…”
  • Gordon (26th) has managed just one top-five finish since his win at Texas in what seems like billions and billions of years ago.
  • Joey Logano in 15th was the top-finishing rookie of the race, but most importantly I’ve finally been able to recall why Logano looks so familiar. I defy anyone to watch a rerun of that ultimate camp Batman series of the 1960s, watch Caesar Romero’s classic Joker character and not think there’s a striking resemblance between the Joker and Logano.
  • The top-10 finishers at Dover drove five Chevys, three Fords and a pair of Dodges. The top-finishing Toyota pilot was the Joker… err, Logano.

What’s the Points?

Stewart assumes the points lead and has a 46-point gap on former top dog Gordon, who fell to second.

Johnson’s win helped him wrest third spot from Kurt Busch, who now finds himself fourth in the standings, a still manageable 91 points out of the lead.

Newman had a good points day, bobbing up two spots to fifth. Hamlin had a poor points day, submerging two spots to seventh. Kenseth and Biffle each rose a spot in the standings to find themselves eighth and ninth in that tally right now. They displaced Burton, who fell two spots to 10th. Edwards and Martin round out the final two spots in the Chase as of now, while 13th-place Reutimann is 31 points outside one of those vaunted top 12 points positions.

Halfway through this year’s regular season, the points standings continue to be dominated by the multi-car giants. Rick Hendrick and Jack Roush each have three drivers in the top 12 in points. Both Stewart-Haas drivers, a satellite team for Hendrick, are also in the top 12. Joe Gibbs also has two drivers in it, while the remaining spots belong to Roger Penske’s Kurt Busch and Richard Childress’s Burton.

Earnhardt Jr. is now 18th in the standings, a daunting 215 points out of the top 12. But as Kenny Mayne might remind us, he remains popular. Tony Eury Jr…. well, not so much.

Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans, with one being a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic):  The final laps of the race were worth a six-pack, but enduring the middle 300 laps of the race lowers the event’s overall average to three cans of Natty Bo… a curse Baltimore has foisted on beer drinkers since about the Bronze Age.

Next Up: Cue up the Rod Sterling prologue, because the circuit enters the Twilight Zone in the infamous Pennsylvania Triangle – where a lot of good cars enter but never come back.

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