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

The Key Moment – With 20 laps to go, Denny Hamlin restarted 14th with fresh tires. With 10 to go, he drove past Clint Bowyer to take the lead and was never headed.

In a Nutshell – Better late than never. In this case very late, but very much better than the last few Pocono races.

Dramatic Moment – The final 20 laps of the race were among the best of this season’s Cup races.

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

Wow, talk about the perfect visualization of an exercise in futility. I was laughing my guts out watching those poor track officials trying to dry a 2.5-mile racetrack with leaf blowers on Sunday. (Yes, I know they had jet driers out there too… but it was still hilarious.)

Umm… Drs. Mattioli, might it not be time to fix those bumps down low in turn 1?

Do you think Kyle Busch is beginning to realize his chances at making the Chase are heading down the hopper? He drove himself into the wall overdriving his car and wound up 16th. I wouldn’t want to be ahead of Busch next week at the Glen. Heck, I wouldn’t even want to be on the same track, because I think the Mother of All Hissy Fits is about to go nuclear.

Why on earth did NASCAR throw a caution flag when David Ragan just barely kissed the wall and continued on at full speed?

Crowd estimates for Monday’s race at Pocono were about 80,000. Yeah, there were lots of empty seats, but that’s still more fans than some tracks have been able to attract for their regularly scheduled Sunday afternoon or Saturday night dates lately.

A note to Robby Gordon: It’s usually best not to announce your intentions to wreck another car over the radio. As for wrecking out the No. 12 car, how’d that work out for you? I guess there’s a reason the No. 7 was sporting black quarterpanels at Pocono.

Related to the above… Gordon had announced his intentions to wreck David Stremme. A few laps later, he rapped on the No. 12 car’s rear bumper a few times. Stremme pulled over, let Gordon get alongside him, then wrecked him. Yet ESPN didn’t have a camera on the duo after the caution flew to document what Gordon did to earn him a five-lap penalty? How the hell could they have missed that?

On a brighter note, the ESPN’s rain delay coverage was more entertaining than some races this year. The broadcast crew finally got around to admitting maybe this year’s Brickyard 400 was less than entertaining, that maybe these new cars are at fault, and NASCAR ought to let the teams tweak on them a bit to make for better racing. Some of the stories of the early days of ESPN and racing were also entertaining (or alternatively terrifying) as well. The footage of old Junior Johnson taking out a NASCAR official at the knees with the jack was hilarious.

Kyle Busch tied a pretty incredible record after this weekend’s Nationwide race. He matched a mark set by legendary Grand National driver Jack Ingram, finishing first or second in nine consecutive races after a runner-up finish at Iowa. As one has come to expect, though, Busch was petulant after having finished second for the seventh time in those nine races, throwing a girlish hissy fit in his post-race comments. That act is getting old, to the point that even ESPN’s Randy LaJoie noted that it was likely the crowd didn’t cheer Brad Keselowski’s win as much as they did Busch’s loss. An old saw in racing states to finish first, first you have to finish. Another states, “Second place is the first loser.” To extrapolate, to be first loser seven times, first you have to be a loser. Let’s just call this streak of bad luck Busch is enduring Sam Bass’s Curse…

Speaking of Iowa, the new facility managed to pack in a capacity crowd for what turned out to be a fine race on a multi-groove track that had the crowd stamping their feet and cheering most of the afternoon. I have to agree this track deserves a Cup date a lot more than some of the other tracks currently on the schedule with two of them.

The start-and park situation in both the Nationwide and Truck series is seriously out of hand. You have to wonder if the plethora of start and parkers is going to turn fans at home into sit and surfers looking for some more palatable fare. You also have to wonder if MSRP’s No. 90 and No. 91 team cars would qualify for Cash for Clunkers. After all, they can’t seem to run for more than eight miles without brake or overheating problems. Maybe Fiat is actually already funding NASCAR teams after all?

This week, Ford unveiled a prototype of its new Mustang Nationwide Series Car of Tomorrow that will debut next year. Color me underwhelmed. I’m a Mustang guy; my first car was a ’70 Mustang Mach One 428 Cobra Jet, replete with slats, shakers, and spoilers. (For which I laid out $1,600 in 1975… sigh.) My first new car out of college was a 1982 Mustang GT, which gave way to a near-annual upgrade to a new Fox body Mustang through the ’80s. Along the way, I’ve had a bunch of other Mustangs, including two Boss 302s and even a Shelby back when such rides were affordable to mere mortals. I had high hopes for the new NASCAR Mustang… but the prototype looks like a Ford Fusion CoT with different decals for the headlights and driving lights. Chevy is also balking at marketing their new Camaro in the same series, saying the design engineers don’t feel the potential race car could look enough like its street counterpart to justify the marketing expense. I have my own doubts on why Chevy won’t campaign Camaros, though. In the infamous words of Eddie Murphy’s SNL character Velvet Jones, “The bitch ugly.” This new Camaro looks about as much like a 1969 model as your granny looks like Heather Locklear.

While the topic is fading in the rearview mirror, the issue of pit-road speeding penalties is still a hot topic after Juan Pablo Montoya’s disaster at Indy. Several team members and drivers said they would like to have the same data NASCAR gets in the booth to figure out if their driver (or most likely other teams’ drivers) were speeding. That seems a reasonable request. It would be nice for the media and especially the fans to have access to that data, too. I seem to recall during one pit sequence at Indy, Jeff Gordon was traveling down pit road, presumably at the required speed, and the No. 48 car came storming up from 10 car lengths back to get right on Gordon’s rear bumper. So, either Gordon was going too slow or Jimmie Johnson was going too fast… and I find it unlikely Gordon was going too slow. This ain’t his first rodeo, cowgirl.

Gordon pointed out that in other forms of auto racing like Formula 1 and the IRL, cars are outfitted with a button on the steering wheel a driver hits as he enters pit road that limits the car to the maximum speed allowed. Why can’t NASCAR implement the same technology? It makes sense to me. I don’t guess there’s many fans who want to see a race decided by pit-road speeding penalties like the Brickyard presumably was. The problem (for NASCAR, at least) is that such systems usually involve a wheel speed sensor, and if the sport were to allow such a device, teams could conceivably use that same sensor to provide data for some sort of traction control system on the track. But it seems to me with the relatively inexpensive GPS systems now available to us all, stuff that would have been science fiction a decade ago, a speed-limiting system using GPS ought to be fairly easy to develop. Lacking that, how about a GPS system that triggered wiggle-waggle lighting systems on the front and rear of a car that exceeds pit-road speed limits? When the car begins blinking like a Christmas tree Jeremy Mayfield watered, we’d all know that driver was speeding, and it would add some cool visuals to night races.

And finally, on the topic of speeding, I enjoy watching the YouTube videos veteran NASCAR beat writer Mike Mulhern posts on his Mikemulhern.net site to air his thoughts on race weekend live. Mulhern typically films his videos while driving to or from the track using an in-car camera while he’s at the wheel. Now, I know the Poconos pretty well; in addition to attending countless races there, I have friends who own vacation homes in the region, and we’re up there all the time riding dirt bikes, hunting, fishing, and hanging out. So every time I watched Mulhern (who was driving at a pretty good clip given the roads I also know well) take his eyes off the road to look into the camera, I wanted to scream “Eyes forward, look out for deer!” You see, white-tail deer have become so abundant in the Poconos we refer to them as rats with antlers. In some communities, they’ve become so domesticated you can hand-feed them doughnuts. Car/motorcycle collisions with deer are an everyday occurrence as a result… especially at dawn and dusk. In fact, I am convinced that our Creator never produced any mammal dumber than a white-tail deer outside the one that drives the No. 18 car. So if you’re going to the Poconos for a race or a vacation, you must learn to constantly scan the roadside for white-tail deer (or drunks wearing number No. 88 t-shirts on muddy old quads trying to cross the road unexpectedly).

I’m a curious sort, so I just had to check it out. David Gilliland’s car, which appeared briefly at Pocono as a start and parker, was sponsored by the National Leiomyosarcoma Foundation. So, what is Leiomyosarcoma? It’s rare sort of cancer Wikipedia describes as “a type of malignant sarcoma, which is a neoplasm of smooth muscle.” Cancer is no laughing matter, and I hope a cure is found for this disease. But how the hell did they find room to fit the name of the foundation on the car?

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

Marcos Ambrose seemed to be in position to finish in the top 10 until an ill-advised move by Hamlin took out David Reutimann, with Ambrose suffering collateral damage.

The No. 88 team once again found a way to adjust on a potential top-10 car and turn it into an also-ran.

You’ve got to feel for all those race fans who had (not inexpensive) race tickets to Sunday race but couldn’t come back on Monday. The weather in these parts Sunday was beyond atrocious. I’ve always wanted to live on a lakefront property; I just never expected my garage to be in the middle of it. After the race was called, I went kayaking… in my basement. Even a major interstate outside of Philly had to be shut down because the road flooded so deep it was up to cars’ windshields. Rain on a Pocono weekend is nothing new… but this was positively Biblical.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

It just didn’t look like it was going to be Johnson’s day. He began losing power, and believed his engine was about to blow. But the team changed a carb, plug wires, and plugs to get the car roaring back to life. Though at one point he was three laps down, Johnson rallied back to a 13th-place finish. That’s how you win titles.

Likewise, Tony Stewart’s weekend didn’t start off on a great note. He crashed a car in practice and had to drop from the pole starting position to the rear of the field. Early in the race, his car was so evil-handling that Stewart had to pit even before the lap 20 competition caution. The team didn’t give up on their car or driver, though, and Stewart rallied back to finish 10th.

It was another great weekend for Ron Hornaday, who won his fifth straight Truck Series event at the age of 51. In NASCAR’s top-three touring divisions, only Richard Petty (twice) and Bobby Allison have won five straight events previously.

Given the team’s recent performance, having two cars finish in the top 12 was a shot in the arm for the RCR organization.

Maybe Sam Hornish Jr. is getting the hang of driving these taxicabs after all?

Worth Noting

  • His race win Monday was Hamlin’s first in the last 50 races. Three of his five career Cup wins have occurred at Pocono.
  • Montoya’s second-place finish was by far his best finish of the 2009 season and his first top-five result since Watkins Glen just about exactly a year ago.
  • Bowyer’s third-place finish was his best since Las Vegas early this year.
  • Hornish’s fourth-place finish was the best of his Cup career.
  • Kasey Kahne (fifth) has top-10 results in five of the last six Cup races.
  • Brian Vickers (sixth) now has four straight top-10 Cup finishes.
  • Gordon (eighth) has top-10 finishes in seven of the last eight races.
  • The last time Stewart (10th) finished outside the top 10 in a Cup race was at Charlotte in May.
  • Johnson’s 13th-place finish was his worst since Michigan. It was fixin’ to be a whole lot worse than that earlier in the race.
  • The top-10 finishers drove five Chevys, three Dodges and two Toyotas. The top-finishing Ford pilot was Matt Kenseth in 11th.
  • Scott Speed’s 23rd-place finish was the best by a Rookie of the Year candidate at Pocono.

What’s the Points?

Despite a rough start to his day, Stewart managed to increase his points gap over second-place Johnson to 197 points. Third-place Gordon now trails Johnson by just two, while fourth-place Kurt Busch is a staggering 238 points behind Gordon (however, the top four have all but secured a spot in the top 12 at this point).

Hamlin and Carl Edwards swapped fifth and sixth spots yet again this week, with Hamlin now obviously holding the advantage. Montoya moved up two spots to eighth, while Ryan Newman fell two spots to ninth. Mark Martin fell a spot to round out the top 10.

Finishing off the current crop of Chasers, Kenseth took over 11th in the standings from Greg Biffle. Kyle Busch moved up a spot to 13th, but he’s 101 points out of the top 12 with five races until the Chase. Vickers trails Busch by three points, while 15th-place Bowyer is 14 points behind Kyle.

Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans, with one being a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic): I’ll give this one four bottles of Genny Cream Ale. It took awhile to heat things up to a simmer; but once they got cooking, it was a pretty savory dish.

Next Up – It’s onto Chicago… or Detroit… I dunno, they do so many of these shows in a row, and these towns all look the same. But my long overdue vacation’s going to start right here. I’ll be off the next couple weekends, but my recaps return for the Bristol night race. Till then, campers, keep ’em greasy side down and let me share with you the one thing of worth I have learned in 50 years upon this planet. When you’re lost in the funhouse, look down and follow the heaviest wear patterns in the carpet. That’ll get you outta there.

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