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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

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

The Key Moment: After a series of frantic restarts, Mark Martin on worn tires was able to hold off Jeff Gordon on fresher tires to hand Rick Hendrick an early 60th-birthday gift.

In a Nutshell: See Mark run. Run, Mark, run. Doze, fans, doze. Close, Chicagoland, close.

Dramatic Moment: A wild series of events on the restart following the sixth caution flag saw Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Martin and Brian Vickers battling for the lead during the only vaguely interesting portion of the race.

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

If NASCAR hadn’t thrown three straight unnecessary “debris” cautions, would Martin have lapped the field? True, in any sport there’s going to be occasions when one team completely dominates the others – but it’s still not much fun to watch. The Second City survived the Great Chicago fire. Will it be able to endure the Great Chicagoland Farce?

Thank goodness for the new double-file restarts. Without the new rule, Saturday night’s race might have been completely devoid of any interesting moments.

It’s hard to believe, but at this point last season Dale Earnhardt Jr. was second in the points.

Some allege that the first automobile race in America occurred in Chicago back in the 1800s. My guess is there were more spectators for that event than showed up in Joliet Saturday night.

Martin Truex Jr.’s (soon to be ex) team faces penalties this week after his car was found to be too high after the race. Of course, NASCAR said the same thing about Jeremy Mayfield….

I’ve been doing this a long time. I know some Midwesterners are going to take me to task this week pointing out there were some interesting moments in the final 25 laps and claiming that my harsh assessment of the race is due to regional bias. I’m sorry. The race was dreadful. If it took place in the field behind my house at about the halfway point, I’d have turned out the lights, handed Martin the trophy, and told everyone to go the hell home. But, some will argue, Matt, you said last week’s race at Daytona was too intense. Now you’re saying this week’s race was too boring. What exactly do you want? Recall the Goldilocks principle: there’s too hot, there’s too cold, and there’s just right. Unfortunately, there just wasn’t enough “just right” Saturday night….

This weekend, I think Michael Waltrip offered ample evidence why it’s best he cut back to a limited schedule next year. He couldn’t get out of his own way most of the night, but his car sure managed to get in the leader’s way when they came up to lap him.

It’s interesting. There’s no Cup race next week. And, for all intents and purposes, there was no race this weekend either. Then, the series heads to Indy for what is likely to be another boring race. NASCAR’s Endless Bummer of a Summer is just hitting its stride.

If you’re having the guys over for dinner this week, you might want to seat Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch at separate tables. But once again, Kurt offered his younger brother a primer on how it’s possible to express disappointment and frustration with the outcome of a race and another driver without sounding childish and petty.

Kyle Busch left the track without comment after his 33rd-place finish Saturday night. Color me surprised but relieved.

Can this whole Mayfield situation get any uglier? NASCAR officials piled on the embattled driver for failing to enter a car for the second straight week after an emergency injunction allowed him to return to the track. So, let’s see. NASCAR’s apparently botched drug test cost Mayfield his sponsor, destroyed his reputation and gutted him financially, forcing him to lay off 10 members of his fledgling team and making him a pariah in the garage area. The owner/driver is now attempting to sell off what’s left of his “inventory” to pay his day-to-day living expenses. Yet wasn’t it only a few months ago Brian France was citing Mayfield’s team making the Daytona 500 as evidence good things were coming out of these tough economic times, opening the doors to new team owners to replace the organizations forced to shut down due to sponsorship woes? At this point, it seems unlikely that Mayfield will ever run another Cup race, much less win another. Ultimately, his last victory might be in a court of law, when NASCAR has to write him a real big check for the hatchet job they did on the journeyman driver. In my opinion, his fellow drivers would still be safer racing against Mayfield than riding home from dinner with Brian France after Happy Hour in his Tyrannosaurus Lexus.

Nyquil is really missing out on an opportunity to become title sponsor of the Joliet Nationwide Series race. Next to Nyquil, Friday night’s event had to be the most effective way to put large numbers of people into such a languorous, comatose sleep that they pissed themselves. I’m a night owl, but I’ll admit I was hanging on by the skin of my teeth just hoping a giant inflatable orange would come rolling down the track to add some merriment to the grim proceedings. Congratulations once again to Kyle Busch for his incredible display of class in the face of defeat. But hey, maybe Joe Gibbs really is giving Joey Logano all the good cars and sticking Kyle with the crap of the fleet. After all, Busch has finished first or second in the last six Nationwide races and has only had one chance to destroy a trophy since his win at Nashville. I’m sure the guys back at the shop working all that overtime appreciate Kyle’s insinuation they aren’t building him very good cars.

Once again, he returns to the scene of the crime. It’s impossible for NASCAR to return to the Chicago area without everyone recalling Jeff Gordon’s infamous mangling of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and his reference to the ballpark as “Wrigley Stadium” rather than “Wrigley Field.” Yeah, even today those YouTube videos of Gordon proving why he chose to be a racer rather than a singer are painful to watch, but it seems to be an odd Cubs tradition to invite celebrities who can’t sing to lead that song in the seventh inning stretch. Certainly, Gordon’s mangled attempt at getting the job done wasn’t any worse than Danica Patrick’s or Ozzy Osbrorne’s hysterically failed attempts at singing the same song. And none of those three could even approach the jaw-dropping disaster that was Mr. T’s rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” while nattily attired in a patriotic pair of Zubas. “Fo it one, two, three strikes, you out, at the old ballgame.” I pity the fool who tries to top that.

Well, Silly Season is certainly heating up as the annual summer news doldrums begin. Questions remain as to the future homes of David Stremme, Brad Keselowski, Paul Menard and even former champion Bobby Labonte for the 2010 season.

TNT wrapped up their six-race section of the season on Saturday night. While their coverage was hardly faultless, they put FOX’s efforts earlier in the season to shame. C’mon ESPN, it’s time to step up to the plate and send one out of the park. Just please, for the love of God, don’t start beating fans over the head with the “Race to Chase” story angle. Treat each individual event as a unique and important event unto itself, like you did back in your prime. As for TNT, this year’s media MVP award goes to Kyle Petty, who was informative, self-deprecating, amusing and brutally honest as he started his first year as a broadcaster with his racing career presumably behind him. Somewhere up there, Benny Parsons is flashing Kyle a big thumbs up.

A lot of folks have taken me to task for not including Big Bill France, the founder of NASCAR, in last week’s column picking my nominations for the first five inductees into NASCAR’s Hall of Fame. In my mind, inducting France would be like voting Jimmy Hoffa into the Teamsters’ Hall of Fame. Pile whatever platitudes you wish to on Big Bill as a visionary, but the fact is stock car racing existed before he “invented it” just as America existed before Columbus discovered it. France was an egotistical, arrogant bully, not above waving a handgun around to keep drivers supportive of Curtis Turner from entering tracks where his organization was sanctioning a race. He was the fellow that decided to deprive Wendell Scott, African-American pioneer, of celebrating his duly earned victory out of fear that a black driver in victory lane with a white beauty queen might touch off rioting at the track. Only after the fans departed was Scott awarded the win. The France family has been an embarrassment to this sport from Jump Street, and it wasn’t Big Bill who was putting his life on the line to draw the crowds in the horrendously dangerous era of the early ’60s (other than a few laps in a highly illegal Ford to show that his new Talladega track was safe despite overwhelming concerns from the drivers). He was just counting the money at the turnstiles and crowing like a just laid rooster. If you’re counting on PC historical revisionism to cover the ugly truth, brother, you’re shopping at the wrong five and dime.

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

These double-file restarts late in the race just aren’t working out for Jeff Burton, who has been collected in wrecks not of his own making four times since the rule was adopted.

It was a simply horrible night for Kyle Busch, which can only be seen as continuing Karmic payback for his destruction of that guitar at Nashville. He slapped the wall hard, dropped a cylinder, failed in an attempt to grenade an engine leaving the pits, and finally had it expire and cause him to wreck with seven laps left in the race. My guess is it will continue to a tough week for Busch, as the guys in the engine shop throw a blanket party for him to celebrate his John Force-style exit of the his pit stall with an already wounded engine.

Menard had a solid top-10 finish spoiled by contact late in the race. And because the driver that hit him was Earnhardt Jr., you know in the minds of a lot of fans it was his fault.

Junior, his very own most popular self, seemed to have a solid top-10 run going until his team once again used the opportunity to adjust the car so far into left field the guardian angels of Richard Petty and Junior Johnson couldn’t have kept it in a 40-acre briar patch.

Greg Biffle’s luck was in the pits on Saturday night. He got nailed for speeding entering pit road and was later penalized for a catch can violation.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

For procrastinating fans who chose to attend the race late, apparently there were plenty of good seats left right up until the green flag dropped. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem there were a lot of procrastinating fans out there.

Gordon narrowly avoided the squabble between teammate Johnson and Kurt Busch late in the race en route to a second-place finish. Earlier in the event, Gordon and Carl Edwards got into a little real estate squabble that easily could have ended both their nights.

What didn’t go wrong for Tony Stewart this weekend? His qualifying result was terrible, he had to head back to the pits after his crew dropped a lug nut, and he cut down a tire exiting the pits. Stewart just missed the Earnhardt/Menard mess, too… but he still finished fourth.

Worth Noting

  • A Ford has never won a Cup race at Joliet.
  • Martin’s fourth win of the season is the most among any drivers this year. Oddly enough, Martin won at Michigan and Joliet but missed the top 10 in the three intervening races.
  • Gordon posted his third second-place finish in the last six races.
  • Kasey Kahne’s third-place finish was just his second top-five result in the last eight races, with the other being a win at Sonoma (Infineon).
  • Stewart (fourth) has now strung together seven consecutive top-10 finishes.
  • Hamlin (fifth) has scored top-five finishes in four of the last five races.
  • Ryan Newman (sixth) returns to the top 10 in the finishing order after a four-week absence.
  • Vickers scored his fifth pole of the season and his second straight seventh-place finish this weekend. Best wishes go out to his cousin Denis, who recently redeployed to Afghanistan.
  • Johnson’s eighth-place finish was his fourth straight top-10 result.
  • Juan Pablo Montoya (10th) hasn’t finished worse than 12th in the last six races.
  • Edwards (14th) has finished outside the top 10 in three of the last four races.
  • Earnhardt Jr. (15th) has finished outside the top 10 in the last 10 races.
  • Kyle Busch (33rd) has just one top-10 result in the last seven Cup races. Maybe his car needs the cop engine and a new cigarette lighter?
  • Burton posted a DNF for the first time this season. The way his luck is running, he might want to compete in a Cat D9 next week to get through the carnage.
  • The top-10 finishers at Joliet wheeled seven Chevys, a pair of Toyotas and a Dodge. Edwards’s 14th-place finish was the best of the Blue Oval Brigade.
  • Logano was the top-finishing ROTY back there in 18th.

What’s the Points?

Stewart remains atop the points standings, though second-place Gordon took a nibble out of Stewart’s lead and is now 175 points behind.

Johnson and Kurt Busch hold serve in third and fourth place, respectively, while Hamlin displaces Edwards to take over fifth place in the standings. Newman remains in seventh.

Kahne had an outstanding points night, rising four spots to eighth in the standings. On the flip side, Biffle had a terrible points night, plunging four spots and out of Chase contention to 13th spot.

Rounding out the Chasers, Montoya and Martin each gained two positions in the standings to rise to ninth and 11th. Conversely, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth each lost two spots, and they are now 10th and 12th, respectively. Despite winning the first two races of the season, Kenseth is now just 10 points ahead of the cutoff mark for the Chase.

Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans with one being a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic): Note from the Beer Nazi to Chicagoland: NO beer for you!

Next Up: The Cup regulars take a rare weekend off as NASCAR gears up for the All-Singing, All-Dancing Brickyard 400, the sport’s annual midsummer weenie roast that usually features a lot more sizzle than steak. The faithful might want to spend the next two weeks on their knees praying that last year’s Goodyear tire debacle doesn’t turn another Brickyard into a farce.