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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

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

The Key MomentJimmie Johnson edged ahead of Mark Martin on the final restart to take the lead for good.

A valid argument could be made that the entire complexion of the race changed when Juan Pablo Montoya, who flat out dominated the race, was penalized for speeding on pit road during the last round of pit stops.

In a Nutshell – OK, I’ve seen worse races. I don’t remember enjoying them much either.

Dramatic Moment – During the final 10 laps, Martin’s determined attempt to run down Johnson woke fans from the siesta Montoya had lulled them into.

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

Before the usual tidal wave of cynical observations, limited insights, and strained attempts at humor, I need to send out sincere get well wishes to TMS’s General Manager Eddie Gossage, who is currently battling cancer. Gossage has decided not to speak publicly about his disease or his prognosis… and that is his right. But though we’ve crossed swords a few times, once with threats of legal action against me heavy in the air, Gossage is one of the good guys in this sport willing to at least listen to dissenting opinion – and he’s always a champion of the fans who patronized his beloved Texas Motor Speedway. While respecting his right to privacy, I’ll still be praying for a quick and successful recovery from this dreaded disease for Mr. Gossage. As soon as you’re up to it, Eddie, let me know and we’ll celebrate with a beer on your front porch. I’ll buy and bring it in my cooler.

Did you think the fallout from last year’s Goodyear-fueled debacle at the Brickyard was over? It was hard not to notice all of those empty seats at Sunday’s race. Given the enormity of Indy, there was still a massive crowd on hand, but it’s notable that a whole lot of folks that attended last year simply voted not to come back.

Was Montoya actually speeding, or was he penalized for stinking up the show? He seemed pretty adamant swearing on his wife and his children’s life he hadn’t been speeding.

Maybe when NASCAR visits Indy, they should put a “No Passing Zone” sign on the Gasoline Alley entrance.

What’s wrong with the new cars? Even with the way Montoya dominated the race, once he got back in traffic he couldn’t make any headway. Wasn’t this new car supposed to solve the “dreaded aero push” problem?

My first week with the NASCAR Internet Citizens Journalists Corps has been remarkably uneventful. No packages arrived on the front porch suspicious enough to warrant calling the bomb squad. There were no uniform patches, no secret handshakes and dammit, no secret decoder rings or Daisy Red Rider BB guns with compasses in the stock. (Just as well… I’d probably put my eye out with that thing.) I did have dinner with my boss, though, in the booming metropolis of Eagle, Pa. at the eponymous tavern just down the street from Smaltz’s Harley Davidson. Over our meal, we discussed the origins of the term “Silly Season.” Mike Joy coined the term in racing first in the open-wheel series and later in NASCAR. It has been defined as the long stretch of the summer season where there’s little real news to talk about other than rumors of which drivers might be leaving which teams and where they might end up. Of course, Jayski has made the term Silly Season a household word.

But the term has its roots in English politics. During the summer, with the Parliament on holiday for the most part there was little hard news for the papers to cover… so reporters were forced to produce and comment on rumors entirely of their own making on a variety of topics that seemed “silly” compared to real hard news reporting. All they could hope for was some member of the royal family would enter an ill-advised dalliance that would get the readers all up in a lather. So, if any NASCAR driver out there is engaged in an ill-advised dalliance please write me. I need something to write about Thursday. But fear not, campers, having nothing to say rarely keeps me from saying it. Miss Hathaway, call the Ocean City Chamber of Commerce: it’s time for me to book my summer vacation.

Saturday night’s Nationwide Series race at IRP was arguably the best race of the season and featured yet another dramatic side-by-side battle between series points leaders Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch. Edwards prevailed this time, and in an odd twist of events, Busch stuck around to comment to the press after the race. Busch this week vowed to be more mature and positive in his post-race comments, realizing he’s become a PR nightmare for his sponsors and the sport. He came so close… dammit you were almost pulling for the guy to handle defeat graciously like a man, and he made it right up until the last two sentences. That’s when he added that sometimes you win a race in the pits and sometimes you lose because of on-track contact, Busch noted, adopting that beady-eyed extended front teeth look of a rat with its tail caught in a trap by implicating Edwards for somehow doing him wrong. Meanwhile, Edwards once again nailed it, noting what a great driver Busch is and what fun it is to race him side-by-side for a win. Busch ought to walking on sunshine with the Nationwide title now firmly in his grasp absent a nuclear meltdown this late in the season, but his default emotion seems to be childish petulance. There’s a lot of folks who have won championships… but there’s a decidedly smaller subset of those so blessed who learned to act like a champion.

You know fans wait for their favorite drivers to speak because of the inestimable bits of wisdom they impart on us mere mortals. After battling a stomachache this weekend, Dale Earnhardt Jr., his very own popular self, imparted this insightful bit of wisdom: “I’m not a very big fan of stomach viruses now.” You know, I was kind of on the fence when it came to viruses that cause fever, vomiting, diarrhea and general malaise but thanks to Dale’s insight, I’ve now decided I don’t like them either. On the other hand, most Junior fans have been feeling sick to the stomach watching their boy race most weekends this season.

Edwards similarly offered his fans insight into his 44th-fastest speed posted in qualifying. “That’s bad,” he noted with Zen-like wisdom.

Most fans and even most of the media were somewhat startled when RCR stalwart Kevin Harvick began publicly expressing his strong desire to leave the Childress organization at the end of the year. After all, Harvick had made such noises before a few years back threatening to leave RCR for the Toyota camp in an attempt to strongarm better contract terms. But this time, it seems that Harvick is seriously attempting a move to become the third driver in the Stewart-Haas stable, which is a satellite operation of the Hendrick Racing dynasty. Childress has said he has no intentions of letting Harvick or Shell/Pennzoil out of the last years of their contracts (2010) but it was barely a year ago that that Joe Gibbs was saying he had no intention of letting Tony Stewart break his contract and leave that team, either. When a driver wants out, he or she can make such a pest of themselves they become a corrosive acid to an organization and in the end, it’s best to just let them go. There is one key difference here to remember, though. The Home Depot stuck with Joe Gibbs Racing despite the defection of their longtime spokesmodel Stewart, while the Shell contract stipulates that the company’s contract with Childress is based on Harvick driving the car they sponsor. Keep your hands inside the car, campers, this is likely to be a dark ride that’s more weekday afternoon soap opera than Sunday afternoon racing.

Another surprise this week was the announcement that DeWalt Tools will be leaving driver Matt Kenseth and Jack Roush Racing after a long and successful association that saw the threesome celebrate the 2003 championship. Since 1999, when Kenseth ran a part-time Cup schedule, he’s been in the yellow DeWalt car most every weekend with the exception of some limited runs for associate sponsors. The paring is one of the longest in the sport this side of Jeff Gordon and DuPont. In this economy, the search for a sponsor to replace DeWalt even for a driver of Kenseth’s caliber and given the marketing expertise of Roush Racing is going to be a challenge.

Speaking of Roush, it seems we have a loser in the game of musical chairs to decide which of the five Roush drivers will be out a seat (and headed to satellite operation Yates Racing most likely) next year. It would seem that David Ragan, as the new kid on the block, would be the odd man out; but Ragan’s sponsor UPS, who bring a lot of money to the table with them, said the terms of their agreement with Roush are that Ragan is their driver and he campaigns under Roush Fenway Racing colors. Jamie McMurray now seems like he’s going to be outside looking in. If I were Elliott Sadler, I’d be polishing my resume and trying real hard to win a couple races soon. If I recall, the Mars/M&M’s folks were particularly fond of Sadler, and Kyle Busch’s immature acts this season might be bitter fruit for the sweet’s manufacturer to swallow. It’d be my guess that Mars’s association with Busch has been a marketing bonanza for candy store rival Reese’s Pieces. Being able to lure Mars back over to Yates Racing might secure Sadler a ride next year.

It’s a scientific breakthrough! At long last, someone has developed a cure for the fungal growth on the underside of Johnson’s face that his PR people tried to call a beard.

Kelly Ripa? To use terms familiar to my texting nieces and nephews: OMG!!! YGTBFK me!

Talk about an assist! An ESPN reporter managed to work in a sponsor plug and manufacturer mention for Brian Vickers, who forgot to do so in his post-race interview.

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

Montoya’s dream afternoon ended with that nightmarish speeding penalty on pit road.

Earnhardt Jr. was having his best run in recent memory when his engine expired in dramatic fashion late in the race.

It’s kind of hard for a fellow like Sadler to win a race when his car suffers a mechanical issue on the first of 160 laps.

Kyle Busch really struggles on the big, flat tracks. He blew a tire and hit the wall hard, leading to yet another lousy finish. The wreck dropped Busch out of the top 12 in points.

Denny Hamlin had a strong run going before drivetrain issues sent him to the garage.

Reigning Formula 1 champion Lewis Hamilton won his first race of 2009 at Hungary in a season that’s featured a hapless title defense. Unfortunately, during qualifying for the same event, Ferrari’s Felipe Massa suffered potentially life-threatening injuries when a spring from another car hit him in the helmet and passed through his visor. Massa underwent successful surgery for a cranial fracture, and is currently in a medically-induced coma listed in stable condition. Prayers go out to Massa, his family, his team, and his fans.

This running stock cars at Indy, a track totally unsuitable for them, really isn’t working out, is it? What’s next? Racing bulldozers at the Nurbergring?

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

Vickers was almost penalized for taking pit equipment out of his pit stall, but the gas can fell off quickly enough. He also had to overcome an equalizing tire in the final laps of the race to hold on for a fifth-place finish.

Ron Hornaday won his fourth consecutive Truck Series race on Friday. That’s not bad for an old guy who was a grade ahead of Martin in elementary school.

Harvick really needed a decent run and he got one with a sixth-place finish.

Greg Biffle nearly ran out of gas on the final lap but was able to coast to the checkers.

Bill Elliott qualified fourth driving for the part-time Wood Brothers team. The 53-year-old driver ran in the top 10 early in the race and in the top 15 for most of it before fading late.

Worth Noting

  • The top 10 finishers at Indy drove five Chevys, two Fords, two Toyotas, and a lone Dodge.
  • Joey Logano’s 12th place finish was the best by a rookie.
  • De facto Hendrick teammates Johnson, Gordon, Martin, Stewart, and Ryan Newman have won 11 of this season’s 20 points-paying Cup races, with Johnson and Martin alone combining to win seven of those events.
  • Johnson has missed the top 10 just once in the last eight races.
  • Stewart (third) hasn’t missed a top-10 result in the last seven races. Seven of those results were within the top five.
  • Biffle’s fourth-place finish was his best since Dover.
  • Vickers’ fifth-place finish matches his best result of 2009. It also represents his third straight top-10 finish.
  • Harvick’s sixth-place finish was his best Cup result since Atlanta late last winter.
  • Kasey Kahne (seventh) has top 10 results in four of the last five races.
  • Gordon (ninth) has top-10 finishes in six of the last seven Cup races.
  • Reed Sorenson’s 13th-place finish was his best since Phoenix.
  • Earnhardt Jr. (36th) endured his third DNF of the year. He hasn’t posted a top-10 result since Talladega.
  • Kyle Busch’s 38th-place finish was his worst of the season. He’s finished inside the top 10 just once in the last eight Cup races. Meanwhile, he’s finished either first or second in the last eight Nationwide races. Remember what I said about Busch concentrating on his day job? If Busch and the No. 18 team miss the chase, Kyle and Joe Gibbs will have some splainin’ to do to Mars, Lucy.

What’s the Points?

Stewart holds onto the points lead yet again. He’s now 192 points ahead of Johnson, who supplanted Gordon to take over second in the standings.

Edwards and Hamlin once again swapped fifth and sixth spots in the standings, with Edwards now having the advantage.

Martin’s strong run moved him up two spots to ninth in the standings.

Biffle’s fourth-place finished moved him up two spots into 11th in the standings and back into Chase contention if the season were to end right now. And after the last two races, I almost wish it would.

Kyle Busch fell four spots to 14th in the standings. Maybe he ought to start concentrating on his day job?

David Reutimann moved up a spot to 13th. He’s 68 points out of 12th.

Earnhardt Jr. fell yet another spot to 21st in the standings. In the infamous words of Bill Murray’s Tripper Harrison in Meatballs, “It just doesn’t matter.”

Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans, with one being a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic) – We’ll give this one three cans of bovine beer. It was pretty much what was expected absent last year’s tire fiasco.

Next Up – Pocono. Again? Weren’t we just there? In fact, I doubt the last of the June post-race traffic has made to I-81 yet.