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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2009 Heluva! Good Sour Cream Dips at the Glen

Editor’s Note: Matt McLaughlin is on vacation through the race at Michigan. For the next two weeks, Managing Editor Tom Bowles fills in.

The Key Moment: Tony Stewart got the jump on Kyle Busch on a double-file restart with 23 laps to go. After that, it was his race to lose unless the No. 14 spun or ran out of fuel – neither of which came close to happening.

In A Nutshell: If you like road course racing, well, this one had a little bit of everything that started to peter out towards the end of the day. If you don’t like road-course racing, well… then you aren’t going to be convinced this race was good even if I told you Dale Earnhardt Jr. won it while spinning out Kyle Busch in the last turn before the checkered flag, then smooched surprise new girlfriend Jessica Simpson while she endured a “wardrobe malfunction” in victory lane.

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

It wouldn’t be fair to talk about Monday’s race without mentioning the one that should have happened on Sunday. Yes, I understand that NASCAR often finds itself between a rock and a hard place with rainouts. If they call it too soon, fans scream they should have waited, and if they call it too late, fans ask why the hell they waited so long. But this weekend, any person with both a third-grade education and a radar screen could have told you we’d get rained on for about two and a half hours sometime in the middle afternoon hours. That’s exactly what happened, with the thunderstorms happening between 2:30 p.m. and 4:45 p.m…. so then why did NASCAR wait so long to call it? With the weather forecast holding firm, they had three options: dry the track for a 6:45 p.m. start (getting a little over half the race in before sunset); call the race at 2:00 p.m., saying thunderstorms were in the area and were forecast not to let up; or run the race starting at 1:30 p.m., getting as much racing in as possible before the rain before bringing the cars out to finish around 6:45 p.m.

I don’t necessarily have a problem with NASCAR choosing to postpone the race. What I have a problem with is the amount of time it takes them to make a decision. This is the type of sport where fans devote three, four, five hours in front of the TV on a Sunday afternoon when there’s plenty of other entertainment out there. You’ve also got a lot of people who paid a lot of dough to sit in those seats, patiently getting brutalized by Mother Nature while awaiting a final decision. For their safety (and their sanity) it would be nice to know whether to head back to their cars before getting seriously soaked. Yet too many times these last few years, the sport has gone hours upon hours agonizing over making a weather-related call when millions of fans, weather forecasters, and heck, even my grandmother’s cat could correctly point out the direction they should go. What would I have done if I were in their shoes? Considering the forecast, I’d have moved up the race as much as possible (remember the old “hurry up” schedules that ESPN employed in the mid-to-late 1990s?) to ensure the green flag dropped at exactly 2 p.m. You get a handful of laps in (15?, 20?) before the rain comes around 2:30 p.m., then wait out the storm, dry the track and attempt to get to as close to lap 90 as possible when you restart the cars a few hours later. That’s giving due diligence to both the tens of thousands of fans who paid hard-earned cash to get to the speedway, combined with the millions more who are stuck trying to evade their boss to get any sort of update from their desk the next day. By the way, ESPN said they ran an online poll where fans said they’d rather watch the race the next day in its entirety instead of a shortened version during a rain delay at the track. But how many of those fans A) have actually gone to a racetrack only to fly back Monday without seeing the race or B) have to go into work on Monday and miss it? That result still absolutely baffles me.

Stewart continues to pose the biggest challenge to Jimmie Johnson’s bid for four straight titles. But if Stewart is within striking distance heading to Homestead this November, will he really be put in position to bite the hand that feeds him? And by hand, I mean the big, giant hand of Hendrick which is expanding its chassis and equipment business to more than just SHR in 2010 (so much for the “four team” rule). With that said, I hope Stewart-Haas scoops up all the regular season success they can… the postseason’s going to be a prime example of why sharing equipment in this series like one big, happy family instead of having 15, 20, 25 different owners can only go so far.

Don’t you get the feeling Jeff Burton and Juan Pablo Montoya should be switching paint schemes? Montoya’s been bulldozing through his competition as of late, while Burton’s become a giant bullseye every spinning car loves to hit. And while we’re on the subject of Montoya, how weird is it that the series’ most aggressive driver two years ago is now using words like “points racing” and changing his style just to make the Chase? Man, has this points system really started to suck.

While we’re on the topic of wrecking, David Stremme said during Sunday’s rain delay he feels “solid in the company” when referring to his future at Penske Racing. Really? I could have sworn he meant “shaky.” That word could also be used to describe his driving performance the last two weeks; after all, Pocono’s feud with Robby Gordon was followed up by his guest appearance as a pinball at Watkins Glen. Among those he hit for bonus points included Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon and Casey Mears – all of whom had their days ruined as a result. You know, if I were Brad Keselowski, I’d pull a visit by the Penske hauler this weekend just to see how Roger’s been doing these days….

I know Kyle Busch says some pretty crazy things, so Monday’s post-race interview was G-rated by comparison. But claiming you were tired after that race? I don’t mean to insult these drivers, because they give 110% and accomplish things the average man can only dare to dream. However, the racing at Watkins Glen is one of the shortest all season long, with just 220.5 miles making up a race that lasts less than three hours. If he’s worn out after this one, man, you wonder if he’s going to collapse by lap 250 at Bristol. Perhaps the weeks of double duty (and undue stress about finishing second each week in AAA) are finally taking their toll? Either that, or Kyle just needed something to keep his whiny level at an 11 out of 10.

Let me get this straight: medical personnel had to take special precautions over Gordon’s back? As it is, the last thing an injured driver needs (especially one keeping its extent tightly under wraps) is to slam head-on into a violently spinning car at speeds approaching over 100 mph. But walking out of the infield care center afterwards, the once-formidable champ was talking like a man who needed a relief driver if the series went to Bristol instead of Michigan next week. Other media might have stopped asking questions for a few months, but the No. 24’s on-track results speak volumes as to how its driver behind the wheel is currently feeling. Right now, the team is surviving, not thriving, heading into a Chase it looked like it had a chance to win back in April… and privately, it seems the driver may have to weigh the idea of offseason surgery if he’d like to race competitively beyond the next year or two.

Speaking of that crash, don’t be surprised to see major changes to turn 9 before the Watkins Glen race in 2010. The track has a great history of reacting to safety concerns, and there were plenty after Jason Leffler’s scary practice crash in the Nationwide Series was followed up by Monday’s multi-car wreck in the same place.

I’ll talk more about this in Did You Notice? tomorrow, but it’s sure nice to see some feuds coming back into vogue in NASCAR. And at the rate Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch are going, it looks like that’s the next duo who’ll reach a boiling point soon enough.

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

Seriously, what else could go wrong this season for Earnhardt Jr.? The No. 88 was one of the race’s biggest movers until a brake failure on his Chevrolet had him shooting through the gravel trap and pummeling the wall by turn 10. Afterwards, he looked like a guy who was ready to wave the white flag of surrender and simply get this season over with; and considering it’s been three-and-a-half months since his last top-10 finish, who can blame him?

Sam Hornish Jr. was already involved in a little skirmish early in the race that left the No. 77 with significant damage. But considering what happened after a little visit with the turn 9 wall, I think he’d much rather have had that earlier wreck end his day. One of the worst road racing wrecks in recent history also sidelined Gordon and Burton (mentioned above), caused damage to Joey Logano, and ended a solid debut by road-racing veteran turned TaxSlayer Andy Lally. Lolly, lolly, lolly, get your tow truck here….

Boris Said had himself a top-five car in the newly-minted RCM Racing Ford before mechanical failure brought him down with just a handful of laps to go. Fellow road course ringer Ron Fellows also spent time behind the wall, never becoming a serious factor in a race he’d finished second in both 1999 and 2004.

Mark Martin had a dreadful weekend, never finding speed at a track he once dominated with three straight wins in the mid-1990s. A 23rd-place finish wasn’t exactly what the Chase doctor ordered to better his playoff potential.

The “Seven Come Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

Note to Marcos Ambrose’s pit crew: you probably shouldn’t plan your strategy by throwing darts at a piece of paper blindfolded (Phil Allaway explains why in his column today, as he was in the No. 47 pit when it all unfolded). Yet despite a series of stops that both hampered his track position at times, then left the No. 47 with older tires than his closest competition, Ambrose somehow came out of it all in second place.

Carl Edwards entered the Glen a little closer to the Chase bubble than he would have liked. But after a scintillating drive from 33rd to third, the AFLAC duck can safely punch his first playoff ticket – and a whole set of new commercials to go with it.

Greg Biffle had never finished better than 10th at the Glen in six career starts. That changed Monday, as with 13th-place Kyle Busch trying to close the gap between them Biffle put together a fine fifth-place run, finishing right behind his rival while jumping up two spots in the standings to boot.

Denny Hamlin had an early penalty for speeding on pit road drop him from the top five to back in 38th. It took a looong time to work his way back up through the field, but last week’s winner had a nice recovery in climbing back to 10th.

Worth Noting

  • Stewart’s win is a record fifth for a Cup driver at Watkins Glen. He now has seven victories overall, second to Jeff Gordon’s nine for the most all-time in the series.
  • All four manufacturers cracked the top 10 this week, with four Toyotas, three Chevys, two Fords and a Dodge on the list.
  • Ambrose (second) has had three of his four career top-five finishes in Cup come on road courses: he was third in Watkins Glen in 2008 and at Infineon earlier this year.
  • Edwards (third) had his best Cup finish on a road course in 10 career starts.
  • Kyle Busch (fourth) broke a string of four straight finishes outside the top 10.
  • Montoya (sixth) hasn’t finished lower than 12th since June 1st.
  • Max Papis (eighth) scored his best career Cup finish. He was also Rookie of the Race for the second time this season (with both of those coming on road courses).
  • Brian Vickers (11th) has now finished 11th or better in five straight races.
  • Ryan Newman (21st) has now gone without a top-five finish since Pocono back in June.
  • Gordon (37th), once considered the series’ best road racer, is without a top-five finish at the Glen since 2001 (a stat that baffled me so much I double checked it about 1,000 times to be sure). He’s also now gone more than three years without a road-course win, last taking the checkers at Infineon all the way back in 2006.
  • Burton (38th) has gone eight races without a top-15 finish.

What’s The Points?

As you might expect, Monday’s winner added another big chunk of points to his lead (not that it matters much with the Chase a month away). Stewart now finds himself a season-high 260 points ahead of Johnson with four races left in the regular season. Keep in mind, however, that entering the playoffs both drivers would be tied for second in the standings, 10 behind Mark Martin (both men have three wins apiece to Martin’s four).

As far as clinching playoff spots, Stewart’s is locked up the second he starts his engine at Michigan this weekend. Johnson needs to merely finish 30th or better over the last four races to get the job done (and that’s if Kyle Busch explodes to win the next four in a row… a rather unlikely scenario). Third-place Gordon, over 400 points ahead of Busch in 13th, and fourth-place Kurt Busch have also likely secured their bids, with fifth-place Hamlin and sixth-place Edwards right behind them.

That means the battle will seemingly come down to seventh through 15th, with just 195 points separating those nine drivers. Montoya was the big mover on Sunday, jumping up a spot to seventh. Kasey Kahne dropped a spot to eighth, while Newman held serve in ninth. Biffle’s top-five run bumped him up into the top 10, with Martin and Matt Kenseth dropping to 11th and 12th behind him, respectively.

After Kyle Busch’s top-five performance at the Glen, he’s cut the gap to just 58 between him and a slot in the Chase. 14th-place Vickers is 38 points behind that, with Clint Bowyer in 15th (99 behind Kenseth) the only other driver with a reasonable shot to break in.

Overall Rating (with a one being a stinker and a six-pack being a classic): For a road course race, there was plenty of side-by-side action, in-race drama, and pit strategy to go around. While the end of the race was a bit of a snoozer, I’ll give it four cans of Corona, although one can’s watered down with Sunday raindrops and the bitterness of being left out in the heat a little too long.

Next Up: This Sunday, we’re back to the Irish Hills of Michigan for the annual summer 400-miler (weather permitting). The CARFAX 400 will come your way this Sunday, August 16th, at 1:00 p.m. on ESPN… or your local MRN affiliate.

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