NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin’s Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2009 Firecracker 400 Race Recap

The Key Moment: Kyle Busch tried blocking Tony Stewart once too often on the final lap. Stewart took the win, while Busch took a savage ride into the wall and through the pack.

In a Nutshell: Contrived excitement but very real danger, and a tragedy narrowly averted.

Dramatic Moment: Certainly, the carnage coming to the checkers is what everyone’s going to be talking about this week.

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

One more time… before it’s too late. End plate racing now. Yes, the new car design probably saved Busch’s life Saturday night, but plate racing caused a wreck that didn’t have to happen. Sooner or later, our luck is going to run out; and to be frank, watching that last-lap incident I was certain it already had Saturday night.

Anyone else want to see the “no racing below the yellow line” rule rescinded on the last lap after the latest finishes at Talladega and Daytona? If you don’t, I figure you’re either a ghoul or a mortician.

Some folks are already debating what would have happened in victory lane if NASCAR officials hadn’t headed off Busch’s apparently determined efforts to go congratulate Stewart. For what it’s worth, my money is on Stewart. He’d have knocked Busch’s block off… so to speak.

I love the fact the official finishing order lists the No. 18 car as “running” at the end of the race. About the only thing “running” on the No. 18 car after the race was its driver; and for that, I’m grateful to God.

After an ugly finish, their contributions might be overlooked, but Stewart’s pit crew was absolutely flawless all night, getting their boy out first during every sequence of stops.

I’ve seen NASCAR throw a lot of competition cautions early in a race, but never one with 15 laps left to go at a plate track. Oh, sure, there was debris on the track, right? Well, there was fixing to be a lot more debris on the track after that. It’s not like NASCAR didn’t expect and perhaps even welcome the last lap carnage.

If NASCAR is genuinely interested in arresting the declining TV ratings we’ve seen this season, they need to ensure that TNT’s Wide Open broadcast style that allowed fans to keep following the race during commercials is used for all races. It wasn’t perfect, but it sure beat what fans at home normally have to endure. Thanks to all the sponsors who participated. (Though you’d think Coors sells enough beer that they could come up with more than one ad.)

I’m not sure what Ramsey Poston’s official title is, but it ought to be “Official NASCAR corporate spokes-bully.” It seems lately when NASCAR wants to present its arrogant, churlish side to the world it will be Poston’s mouth moving. This week, Poston sneered at Jeremy Mayfield’s victory in a lawsuit urging a judge to lift his suspension, citing the urgency that he be allowed to return to the track when Mayfield failed to present a car for inspection for this weekend’s race. OK, let’s see. Mayfield has laid off 10 workers from his tiny team and lost his sponsor as a result of the allegations NASCAR made against him. After the court ruling, he had less than 24 hours to prepare and transport a car to the track… and for a plate race, at that. And, he might have been a few bucks short of the $5,000-plus entry fee thanks to the torpedo strike below the waterline NASCAR inflicted on his career. Once again old Ramsey has proven himself a dirt bag. (I originally used a stronger term, but I’ve been told some parents let their kids read my columns. What are you, out of your minds?)

To be frank, I’m sick of this whole mess and I don’t want to see it drag through court for years. It’s cards on the table time for both parties. Mayfield should, at NASCAR’s bequest or on his own initiative, submit hair samples from his person to be tested by two independent labs under the tightest security and highest level of scientific expertise – with those tests witnessed by interested parties from both camps and the media. Yes, the hair on Mayfield’s head is pretty short, but there are other hairs on his body that grow more slowly and will reflect year’s worth of information. If the independent tests reveal Mayfield is a meth user, he’s gone with no possible reinstatement. If it’s proven he doesn’t use illicit drugs, NASCAR apologizes and writes him a big old check for setting off this whole dog and pony show with their incompetence. One way or another, the matter is settled once and for all, with both parties agreeing not to appeal the results.

I’m not a meteorologist and I don’t play one on TV. (I lack the boobs, blonde hair and vacuous nature to pull it off.) But I do know this about weather in Florida during the summer: it’s hot, humid and unpleasant as hell by late afternoon. That tends to set off wild thunderstorms late in the afternoon into the early hours of the night. It’s why the Firecracker 400 (and that’s the real name, soda companies be damned to Hell) used to start at 11 a.m., before the heat got too oppressive and so it would end in time for folks to head to the beach for a little relief from the worst of the late-day heat. Moving the Firecracker 400 to a nighttime starting spot greatly increases the risk of rain delays or cancellations.

On a more human level, the nighttime race really messes up a lot of fan’s plans for the holiday weekend. If they’re going to watch the race, they can’t take the kids to the fireworks. They’ll have to miss Ms. Sheryl Crow on the Parkway here in Philly. They’ll have to turn down invitations to barbecues extended by friends, family and neighbors not addicted to the sport at this magic time of year when fireflies provide nature’s fireworks and Tiger Lilies as big as dinner plates light up embankments. As a big fan of Sheryl Crow, fireworks, fireflies, Tiger lilies, barbecues and beer, as well as this great old nation we live in, I think it’s high time that the July race at Daytona return to its rightful title, the Firecracker 400, and its 11 a.m. start time. We, the people, hold these truths to be self-evident… give us a race everyone will still be talking about as we barbecue at dusk and wait for the fireworks, and NASCAR will have gone a long way to restoring the sport.

You want to know just how bad things have gotten for NASCAR in the media? Every local and national media outlet I visited late Friday evening had verbiage about Saturday’s Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating contest (an event so disgusting I can’t watch) but not a word about the Firecracker 400. If qualifying hadn’t been rained out, a big-name driver like Dale Earnhardt Jr. had won the pole and someone had been kind enough to crash to provide some chilling video, maybe the race would have gotten a little play. As it stands, apparently the mainstream media thinks people are more interested in watching gluttons vomit than stock car racing. Maybe what NASCAR needs is a vomitorium in the infield? To get the ball rolling, we can have Darrell Waltrip incite mass nausea with an impassioned “Boogity, boogity, boogity, let’s go retching boys!” I know that nonsense makes me sick to the stomach every time I hear it.

By all indications, it appears the Earnhardt Jr./Brad Keselowski relationship is winding down. Keselowski says he’s ready to compete full-time in the Cup Series, although there’s no room at HMS racing for him. Junior says it’s unlikely JR Motorsports would be able to make the shift from Nationwide racing to the Cup Series by next year. (In a scary statement, Earnhardt says that in this economy, finding sponsorship would be nigh on impossible. If the sport’s Most Popular Driver can’t lure a well-funded sponsor — who can?) I think Keselowski is going to find when a small satellite drifts out of the universe that is Earnhardt Jr., it’s lost in space forever.

It’s been 25 years since Richard Petty won his 200th race with President Reagan on hand to watch the triumph? Damn, that does make me feel old. As I recall that year, Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” classic album had finally deposed Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” atop the Billboard charts. Bruce is still doing OK. Jackson… not so well.

Maybe I’m too sensitive, but it bothered me that on the Fourth of July the only car company to advertise during the Firecracker 400 was Japanese.

I don’t know who Bill Weber pissed off with that loud profane argument at a hotel last week; but apparently they had some clout. Not only is Weber off the TNT team, they won’t even mention his name or discuss what happened.

Looks like there were a few empty seats there on the backstretch Saturday night, huh? But don’t you worry, baby, Brian France went on record again at the halfway point of the season saying things are just peachy. Editor’s Note: Daytona chooses not to sell the superstretch section for its annual night races in July.

Dagnabit, would somebody buy Dave Blaney’s Prism Motorsports team a new radiator? He keeps falling out of races after a couple laps with “overheating” issues. I’m sure they’re not just starting and parking to collect last place money. Similarly Tommy Baldwin’s driver, Patrick Carpentier, is officially listed as falling out at Daytona after 18 laps with “engine” issue. What, did they forget to put one in the car?

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

There’s just something about Mark Martin and Daytona. He’s never won a points race here, and his chances at finally winning one ended early with a rare unforced error Saturday night.

Jeff Gordon almost had the lap 77 wreck cleared. Unfortunately, he was racing… not playing horseshoes.

Jeff Burton was running well right up until the last lap when he got caught up in that smoking pig pile. RCR really could have used a good finish with the season they’ve had and Burton is trying to claw his way back into the Chase. I’d guess in an unguarded moment Burton might admit the notion of decals on the windshield wasn’t the only thing “idiotic” going on at Daytona Saturday night.

Kasey Kahne could see the checkered flag and the chance of a decent finish until the only thing he could see was the undercarriage of the No. 18 car – with its rear axle assembly about ready to come through his windshield.

Several high-profile team owners are going to be writing big checks to cover overtime at the body and fab shops this week after Daytona. RCR, Hendrick and Gibbs transporters all hauled a whole lot of junk back to North Carolina Saturday night. Their Cars of Tomorrow are now Cars of Never Again. My guess is Gibbs would be lucky to salvage the lugnuts off what was left of the No. 18 car.

Joey Logano dodged a whole lot of wrecks throughout the race. He just didn’t dodge the last one.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

My guess is that Kyle Busch is well and truly pissed off after that last-lap wreck, but maybe he ought to review the tape. He made a bad mistake and survived it.

Kurt Busch had a strong car but had his efforts waylaid by tire issues and contact trying to get back to the front. He rallied back to finish fifth. I’ll admit I was a little bothered to hear him say when the carnage broke out in front of him, he kept his boot in it on the last lap. Maybe if he’d known which driver was in the car at the front of the melee he’d have backed off a bit?

Juan Pablo Montoya took a wild ride through the grass early in the race and survived some hard contact out on the track, then needed two free passes under caution but still managed an eighth-place finish.

Denny Hamlin advanced his position below the yellow line but NASCAR officials swallowed their whistles. He went on to finish third.

He might have preferred a long overdue win, but the last lap at Daytona Saturday night ended up being a lot better for Carl Edwards than the last lap at Talladega. A fourth-place finish was a decent result.

The way the first half of the race went for Brian Vickers, I’m still scratching my head wondering how he finished in the top 10.

Marcos Ambrose might have been treated like a leper in the draft, but he still came away with a finish somewhere in the top 10. My guess is NASCAR will be resorting the final finishing order at Daytona until next Saturday.

On a plate track one mistake in the pits can end a driver’s chance at a decent finish. Jimmie Johnson’s rare mental error that caused him to slide through his pit box might have ended his evening; but instead, he came away with a second-place finish.

A tire problem forced Matt Kenseth to make an unplanned pit stop and could have cost him a lap. Instead a caution flag flew as Kenseth exited the pits, and he wound up leading the race en route to a ninth-place finish.

Worth Noting

  • The top-10 finishers at Daytona either drove or were helpless inside badly damaged cars sliding across the finish line in three Chevys, three Toyotas, two Fords and two Dodges.
  • Logano in 19th was the top-finishing rookie.
  • Edwards’s fourth-place finish was the first top-10 result posted by a Ford driver since Michigan.
  • Stewart has now managed four straight top-10 finishes.
  • Johnson (second) has top-10 finishes in five of the last six races.
  • Hamlin (third) posted his first top-10 result of his career in a points paying Daytona Cup race.
  • Kurt Busch (fifth) has strung together back-to-back top five finishes for the first time this season. Fiat has got to be proud.
  • Ambrose (sixth) has top-10 finishes in three of the last five races.
  • Vickers’s seventh-place finish was his best since Charlotte.
  • It’s hard to believe, but Kenseth’s eighth-place finish was his first top-10 result since Dover. Would you believe, it started out five months ago, could you conceive, we’d lose it all….
  • Montoya (ninth) has top-10 results in four of the last five races.
  • Regan Smith’s 12th-place finish was officially the best of his career. Of course, I still think he won at Talladega last year. He just neglected to trigger a huge wreck like we’ve seen in the last two plate races to claim the win.
  • Stewart, Kenseth and Kurt Busch are the only three drivers to post top-10 finishes in both this year’s Daytona 500 and the Firecracker 400.

What’s the Points?

Obviously Stewart remains the points leader. His victory coupled with Gordon’s problems now leave Stewart 180 points ahead of second-place Gordon. Even if Stewart were to stay home next week he’d still be leading the points.

Despite all the carnage Saturday night, all drivers in the top 10 in points held serve in their respective positions.

Martin’s early race wreck dropped him out of the top 12, two spots down to 13th in the standings.

Montoya moved up a spot to 11th. Kahne re-entered the top 12, up a spot to 12th despite a windshield full of Toyota coming to the line.

If there was the slightest chance Earnhardt Jr. was going to make the Chase that chance involved a victory at Daytona, a track where Earnhardt has had some of his best runs. That didn’t happen and Junior fell another two spots to 21st in the standings.

Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans with one being a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic): Until the last lap the race was pretty sedate by the standards of plate racing. Sedate is good sometimes. Tragic sucks. We’ll give this one three cans of Colorado Kool-Aid served up by that blonde in the cowboy hat in the ad.

Next Up: It’s 48 miles from Chicago, we got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark out and we’re wearing sunglasses… hit it.

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