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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

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

The Key Moment: Tony Stewart’s guys got him out on the track first after the last caution flag pit stop on lap 159. Stewart then nursed an incredible 41 laps out of a tank of fuel to hold on to the victory.

In a Nutshell: I guess it’s a matter of semantics. An “exciting” finish is two drivers battling door-to-door for the win off turn 4. A tense finish is waiting to see who runs out of gas on the last lap.

Dramatic Moment: Over those last final laps, it appeared that most of the lead lap cars would run out of gas… but few did.

It was early in the race but Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson, and Greg Biffle waged a hell of a battle up front there for a while.

But the kicker was waiting to see if Jeff Gordon was going to get his fool head taken off by the rearview mirror of that Ford truck passing behind him in his post-race TV interview. You’d think a racecar driver would have a bit better situational awareness….

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

It’s important to give credit where credit is due. I’ve always said a writer is like a battery; he or she has to have positive and negative posts to be worth a damn. Well, I am impressed that NASCAR saw the positive reaction most fans had to the double-file restarts in the All-Star Race and quickly implemented the policy for points paying Cup races starting at Pocono. As with any sudden rules change, there’s going to be wrinkles that need to be ironed out, but I think it will make for better racing. And they haven’t even announced how they’re going to let Dale Earnhardt Jr. restart up front if (when) he goes a lap down yet! In all seriousness, it seems the sanctioning body is finally at the very least paying lip service to fan’s concerns – and that’s a very positive thing. We’ll see how it plays out down the road.

In even more positive news, NASCAR officials are apparently strongly considering some near-term changes to the Car of Sorrow in another attempt to improve the quality of racing. To me, this is like a man standing beside a pond with his crotch ablaze considering a near-term leap into the water. Denny Hamlin (who correctly predicted that double-file restarts would be implemented soon after the town hall meetings) says there’s a movement underway to reduce horsepower in the Cup cars. Well, that’s going to take some prudent and well-reasoned rules changes to happen correctly. Given the engineering brilliance of the Cup engine builders to produce horsepower, it’s going to take some similar brilliant thinking to reduce horsepower. I’ve always been of the opinion that given a month, some of these team engine builders could have my Yamaha QT50 moped outrunning a top-fuel dragster. (Yeah, I own a moped. What can I say, gas over $4 at the time, it cost me $20 and I was drunk.)

OK, this ends this week’s positive comments on recent NASCAR initiatives. We now return you to the usual tidal wave of negativity, cynicism, tortured analogies, character assassination and reminders of how much better things were in the good old days… meanwhile, Hamlin might want to start being a little more reserved in his comments about what went on at that town hall meeting before he becomes the next driver to fail a pee test or be found with an oversize engine.

Jeremy Mayfield’s Magical Mystery Tour hit high gear this week. First, NASCAR managed to move the court proceedings from North Carolina state courts to federal court. Then, NASCAR countersued Mayfield, claiming he was stealing prize money by running full races knowing he was in violation of NASCAR’s drug policy. They went on to note Mayfield wrecked in three of the five races he was running “under the influence” with the clear implication he was too intoxicated to drive safely. They also added a note that Mayfield was diagnosed with a third substance in his bloodstream in addition to the Claritin and prescribed medication Mayfield has admitted to in his own court filings. The name of that substance was redacted when the court documents were published due to the gag order the judge imposed, it is said. (My guess is purple Pop Rock candy mixed with a cola; but then again, it could have been meth.) This is going to get ugly. Meanwhile Mayfield’s team is said to be for sale.

It’s funny that Brian France is so up in arms over a driver wrecking while supposedly under the influence. If you remember, he had his own run in with a palm tree in Daytona Beach after a panicked woman called the police to say she was witnessing a driver, later identified as France, driving erratically at a high rate of speed and almost triggering several accidents. But the cops never tested Mr. France. Hell, I wish somebody had done a post-wreck teardown on his Lexus to see if the engine was oversized… or, the purchase price of the car was undersized as a beneficial gift from Brian’s buddies at Lexus’s parent company Toyota as they prepared to enter Cup racing.

I don’t know Carl Long. I’ve never talked to the man, even by email. But, Boy-howdy! this guy has apparently pissed daily in some NASCAR official’s bowl of Wheaties. Long is one of those owner-driver types that help fill the field in the current economy, but with one key difference: he’s been involved in NASCAR racing for a long time. In 14 starts since 2000, Long’s best finish was a 29th-place finish at Charlotte in 2001; but ever the gamer, he kept chasing the dream. That is, until post-race inspection at Charlotte leading up to the All-Star Race revealed that an engine Long had purchased from Ganassi Racing, built by Ernie Elliott (Bill’s brother), was oversized. How badly oversized was this engine, you ask? It was just .17 cubic inches over the legal limit of 358 cubic inches. How big is .17 cubic inches? It’s so small, it’s equivalent to a sugar cube in half. Well, that infraction earned Long’s crew chief a $200,000 fine and Long a 12-week suspension.

Can we talk common sense here? Yes, I am a hot rodder and am aware of the old adage that there’s no replacement for displacement when it comes to building power. But let’s do the math. If a current 358-cubic inch engine set to stun makes 800 horsepower, the engine being oversized offered Long about a .4 horsepower advantage. To be found .17 cubic inches oversized, an eight cylinder engine would be .02125 inches too large in each cylinder, easily within the tolerances of an engine that had been overheated to the point of blowing up. When you look at it that way, the fine amounts to a charge of $340,000 per cubic inch. But let’s take this a step further. Given the commonly accepted cubic inch displacement of 410 cubic inches found after that infamous Petty cheating scandal at Charlotte in the ’70s, Petty’s fine would have been $17,680,000 under this system. Given the ratio between Long and Petty’s oversize engines, Petty would have also been suspended for the next 3,670 races or about 100 years. Yet Petty kept his win that day and raced on for decades.

The three cardinal sins in the Cup garage have been oversized engines, doctored tires and altered fuel. Yet when Michael Waltrip’s team was caught with that jet fuel in the car in their debut with Toyota, Waltrip professed ignorance (an art he has down a science) and didn’t sit out a single race. So, NASCAR better be careful. With all the start and parkers they are suspending and fining lately, they’re going to have a hard time filling fields soon.

Speaking of which, only 33 trucks started the Texas race, and nine of them basically threw up the white flag and headed for the pits with “vibration,” “overheating,” “handling” and even “too slow” issues. This whole start-and-park issue is out of control.

Congratulations to Robby Gordon for his Baja 500 win. Yeah, I’m being serious. That’s a pretty impressive feat.

Ratings of FOX’s portion of the Cup season, which included the Daytona 500, wound up down around 11% for the year. Given the argument that NASCAR fans can’t afford to buy tickets to attend races live in this economy, it seems counterintuitive that TV ratings were down if there was a stable and not diminishing fan base. What that tells me is that some fans are voting with their remotes that they don’t care for FOX’s coverage. To sum up, it would seem that one in 10 race fans decided not to watch FOX rather than enduring the farcical fare FOX tried to force feed fans. My final grade: F. We need that gopher to go-pher ever.

With that in mind, it’ll be interesting to see how TV ratings fare for the rest of the season. ESPN/ABC and TNT can’t be happy about the weak lead-in FOX left them to face. I’m particularly concerned about this next stretch of races, as suburban fans might be surprised to learn not everyone gets TNT – a cable channel. I live in East Bumblefug. Out here, a lot of folks still aren’t ready for the digital TV switch (the Amish apparently never got the memo) and even some friends with basic cable plans don’t get TNT. To get TNT, I had to agree to a larcenous agreement with my cable provider (who I won’t name because it would piss Comcast off) that costs me a fortune but gives me like 800 channels, 750 of which are playing syndicated Seinfeld episodes at any given time. I even seem to recall stumbling across the French Language Aboriginal Cooking channel, though I must add I strongly oppose cooking Aborigines. I’ll withhold my comments on TNT’s coverage until they get a second race under their belts, other to say for the most part I was impressed by Sunday’s coverage.

Isn’t it odd that Johnson, who often referred to Stewart as his Rick Hendrick teammate, is now suddenly backpedaling and saying he thought Stewart was crazy to try to start “his own” team? Having all those Hendrick and erstwhile Hendrick-backed cars make the Chase is going to make things difficult if NASCAR decides to go ahead and make Jack Roush lose his fifth team after this season.

I’ve gotten some questions from readers about my take on NASCAR’s latest decision to offer select Internet journalists and bloggers press credentials. I’m saving that topic for Tuesday’s column while I gather up some information and talk to folks. But I will say this, the whole title, “NASCAR Citizen Journalists Media Corps” sounds so Orwellian that I’ve taken to sleeping with the lights on and hollow point loaded heat under my pillow.

Supposedly there was a tribute to Tim Richmond, whose birthday would have been this past week, at Pocono this weekend. I never heard anything about it, but all day I was thinking about Tim’s Hollywood win here in ’87 when he returned to the series after sitting out the first half of the season due to his illness. For other Richmond fans, for fans of Dale Earnhardt Sr. and for fans of old-time racing I present this YouTube nugget. Godspeed, Tim. One thing is for sure – there was never a boring Cup race when Tim was running near the front.

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

It’s hard to win a 500-mile race when your car won’t even run all the way to the first turn. But that’s what happened to Hamlin, who won two races at Pocono as a rookie.

Anyone who was hoping for a quick fix of Dale Junior’s problems with the crew chief swap (and there’s a few million of you) had to be disappointed. To quote our old friend Bones to Captain Kirk, “Damn it, Jim, I’m a crew chief, not a magician.”

Kurt Busch ran up front for most of the day before a water pump seized on the No. 2 car. To be honest, I can’t even remember the last time that happened.

Despite his Nashville Nationwide win, it was a pretty tough weekend for Kyle Busch. He couldn’t break a guitar in victory lane Saturday night and he couldn’t break into the top 20 at Pocono. It’s only my personal opinion, but once again I think Busch acted like a jerk on Saturday night. A Gibson Les Paul is a sweetheart of a musical instrument and Sam Bass spent countless hours personalizing one of the coolest trophies in NASCAR racing. Busch says he’s going to cut the thing up so all his team members can have a piece. Hey, if you didn’t want it, why not have a charity auction and give your team members the sense of satisfaction of helping the less fortunate? Kyle, trust me, you’re no Pete Townshend. I’m all for the next NASCAR race winner trying to smash the Gibson – just so long as they are beating Kyle Busch over the head with it.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

Stewart had to start at the rear of the field after wrecking in Saturday’s practice, but still won the race after nursing 102.5 miles out of a tank of gas.

I don’t know whether to lump Johnson under fortune foul or fair (while crickets and cicadas sing…) after Sunday’s race. He did run out of gas on the last lap and surrendered a handful of positions. On the other hand, he had to restart the race out back after entering the pits just after a caution flag flew closing pit road. (And he’s right, they did need more visible markers to indicate pit road is closed. Whatever happened to that spaceship looking thing they once had at Pocono?) Once back in the pack, Johnson barely avoided David Stremme’s stricken car after Earnhardt Jr. knocked the fire out of the No. 12 car.

Edwards‘s chances of winning the race seemed over when a pit-road snafu left him with a half tank of gas. But a timely caution just after Edwards pitted left him not only on the lead lap but back in the lead. It’s hard to step in manure and walk away smelling like roses.

Here’s one for Ripley’s Believe it or Not. Ryan Newman’s car began slowing rapidly on the race track. The No. 39 car pitted six times under caution as the cap, rotor, and wires were changed; then, the team finally diagnosed a failed spark plug then changed it. Newman left Pocono with a fifth-place finish. Believe it or don’t!

Jeff Gordon’s car seemed off for much of the race. His team gambled on rain ending the race early, but the showers stopped. He was forced to pit late; and yet, that late stop helped him earn a fourth-place finish.

Marcos Ambrose, Juan Pablo Montoya and Sam Hornish Jr. all left Pocono with surprise top-10 finishes thanks to fuel strategies.

Worth Noting

  • The top 10 finishers at Pocono drove six Chevys, two Toyotas, a Ford and a Dodge.
  • While the win was his first this season, Stewart now has top-five finishes in seven of the last nine Cup points races, with three second-place finishes in that stretch.
  • Edwards’s second-place finish was his best of the ’09 Cup season. It was just his third top-five result in this year’s 14 Cup races.
  • Gordon posted a third-place finish after two results outside the top 10.
  • Newman (fifth) managed his sixth straight top-10 finish.
  • Ambrose’s sixth-place finish was his second best of the ’09 season.
  • Montoya has finished eighth in two of the last three Cup races.
  • Jeff Burton (ninth) returns to the top 10 after an absence of three races.
  • Waltrip’s 17th-place finish was his best Cup result since Martinsville.
  • Joey Logano in 23rd was the top-finishing rookie of the race.

What’s the Points?

Naturally, Stewart is still leading the points. He’s now 71 markers ahead of Gordon in second and 103 ahead of Johnson, who remains third in the standings. Newman and Kurt Busch swapped the fourth and fifth place spot in the standings with Newman now having the advantage.

Edwards had a great points day, moving up five spots to sixth. Hamlin had a terrible points day, dropping five spots to 12th. He’s now just one point above the cutoff point for the Chase.

Biffle and David Reutimann both advanced two spots in the standings, rising to seventh and 11th, respectively. Mark Martin fell one spot out of the top 12 to 13th, but as noted above, he is just one point away from making the Chase at this juncture.

Earnhardt Jr. fell two more spots to 20th in the standings. Time to fire his crew chief again?

Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans with one being a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic): Pocono was like that little girl who had a curl. When it was good it was very, very good; and when it was bad, it was awful. We’ll give this one three pony bottles of Genesee Cream Ale.

Next Up: It’s off to Michigan where fans will have not only a view of the race but of the collapse of GM and Chrysler and its effect on the local economy. Troubled times have come, to that hometown… see ya down South, Kate.

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