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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin’s Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2009 Bristol Night Race Recap

The Key Moment: Kyle Busch prevailed in a spirited side-by-side duel over the final two laps.

In a Nutshell: While there’s side-by-side racing and technically better racing, fans just aren’t warming up to Bristol Lite. Fans don’t seem to like the new track, the new cars and less carnage. Maybe Bristol should modify Miller’s slogan, “Race great, less feuding.”

Dramatic Moment: Business really picked up in the final 100 laps after a thoroughly mundane start to the event.

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

Remember those old WWJD bracelets? Want to improve the quality of stock car racing? Start handing the drivers WWED (What would Earnhardt Do?) bracelets.

Want anymore proof the Chase is ruining racing? If Mark Martin didn’t have to worry about a last-lap wreck costing him a top-12 points position, might he have been more aggressive in the last couple laps? If Greg Biffle didn’t have the same concern, might he have stuck a nose in there and made it a three-horse battle? Of the top-four finishers, only Marcos Ambrose, long since eliminated from Chase contention, seemed to giving it all he had.

I’ll be the first to admit I love the spice that the double-file restarts in Cup racing have added to the seriously bland fare served up earlier this season. At most tracks the new rule is great. But I have my doubts about the rule at tracks like Bristol. The leader gets to pick the preferred line and he deserves to. He is after all leading the race and controls the restart. But the advantage given to the third-place driver over the second-place driver and so on through the field was hard to ignore. Late in the race it seemed Martin would have been wise to drop from second to third anytime a caution flag was imminent or leaving pit road.

Few things in racing irritate me more than watching a driver slow to allow a teammate to pass him for the lead so that teammate can get five points for leading a lap. With Jimmie Johnson locked solidly in the Chase and the points to be reset after two more races, Johnson didn’t even need those five points. And as it turned out he later passed Martin for the lead legitimately. Imagine this nightmarish scenario. At Richmond in two weeks Martin experiences early race problems. Owner Rick Hendrick orders Johnson and Jeff Gordon (who are locked in the Chase) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (who is locked out of it) to park their cars for the evening so Martin can return to the track and make up a few more positions and points in hope of making the Chase. It’s not that it ain’t happened, it just ain’t happened yet.

Count me among the vast majority who were incredibly relieved that at least we got to see the race end under the green flag rather than having the rain shower during the second red-flag period decide the outcome of the race.

Should Martin have put a bumper to Busch to win the race? Given the level of respect Martin has earned over all these years for racing other drivers clean, I don’t think so. I suppose if he’d just nudged the No. 18 car aside the way Gordon once did to pass Rusty Wallace for a Bristol win, that would have been fine, but not if he’d just rammed Busch into the wall the way it happened in the ’99 night race between Dale Earnhardt and Terry Labonte back in the day.

So Brad Kesolowski found himself a Cup ride for next year as the driver of the No. 12 car at Penske South. That’s the same team that nurtured the careers of David Stremme and Jeremy May-Fail, I mean Mayfield. I think this is one of those “be careful what you wish for because you just might get it” moments. This is a performance centered business and Roger Penske has little time for excuses. Go out and win or get out and wonder what might have been if you were a little more patient at Hendrick Motorsports. Meanwhile would somebody buy that boy a razor? Mennonites don’t race.

What are the odds? Somehow Kyle Busch and Brian Vickers, who traded some rather barbed comments after last weekend’s Michigan Nationwide race, ended up touring the track in the back of the same pickup during Bristol’s pre-race festivities. In this instance neither driver attempted to push the other out of the truck at speed though the driver must have had to use his defrosters as frosty as things were in the back of that truck.

NASCAR is said to be studying the notion of using fuel injection in some of the top touring divisions. In related news the Flat Earth Society is beginning to entertain the notion the earth might actually be round. What’s next? Brian France adopting a heliocentric notion towards the universe where the sun doesn’t revolve around Daytona Beach?

There’s always a danger in using analogies to compare NASCAR racing to other sports. A thoroughly irritated Vickers stated he wasn’t sure if Kyle Busch had one or two strikes against him in his relationship with Vickers but he was “out of strikes.” That had to have baseball fans scratching their pointy little heads.

What have they done to Kyle Busch? After Chase Austin’s boneheaded move took Busch out of Friday night’s race, Busch emerged to comment (notable enough in and of itself) and sounded like they’d given him a month’s dose of Prozac intravenously. Our friend Kyle sounded reasonable and even forgiving of the rookie’s unforced error and even failed to label Austin an “idiot.” The new and improved Kyle Busch? Here’s hoping. My fear is Austin got a bye because he’s the only African-American currently competing in NASCAR’s top-three touring divisions. That doesn’t wash. Austin is a rookie. Rookies sometimes do some dumb things. It’s OK to say they did something dumb or regrettable no matter what color they are. Wrecking out the leader of the race and the points leader by taking a hard left in front of the race leaders is one of those “DOH!” moments that is hopefully indelibly printed in a rookie’s memory banks so they don’t do it again. I don’t care if you have a flat and a suspension failure, you steer it into the outside wall if you have to until there’s a hole to get down low. To blame Austin’s mistake on his race would not be acceptable. To say he made a terrible decision is just the unalterable truth.

Yeah, this one is going to be a long strange trip. NASCAR’s key witness who claims she saw Mayfield routinely snort meth, his stepmother, showed up at Mayfield’s home and began drunkenly banging on the front door demanding to speak to him. When told Mayfield wasn’t home by staff members on the estate she allegedly assaulted them leading to her arrest. There’s one lady who is going to need an extreme makeover and a crash course in manners to work her way up to Trailer Trash status.

Was that Phil Parsons at this week’s gala NASCAR White House event bending Barack Obama’s ear trying to convince the President to allow Parsons’s fleet of start-and-park cars to qualify for the Cash for Clunkers program?

An exciting new benefit to Citizen Corps members was revealed this week. We’re all eligible for used company cars at huge discounts. I looked at a used Lexus this week in NASCAR’s headquarters parking lot but decided not to buy it after the Carfax revealed it had only been wrapped around a palm tree once.

A note to a recent advertiser during NASCAR broadcasts that is really beginning to irritate a lot of fans I hear from with the frequency of their repeated same ads. $10 is still a lot of money to spend for what amounts to steak-flavored chewing gum. Problem! Head down to your local Cheeseburger in Paradise outlet instead if you want a good meal on the cheap. It’s now the official restaurant of the Citizen Journalist Corps thanks to a charming young lady by the name of Sarah who helped me ring in my 50th birthday in a tsunami of Corona and onion sticks.

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

At one point the race seemed to be Johnson’s to lose. A botched pit stop dropped him from the lead to 21st spot. While he raced his way back to an eighth-place finish it had to be frustrating to lose a race in the pits. In fairness the No. 48 crew has handed their driver a lot more wins than they have cost him.

Tony Stewart had what might have been the most miserable weekend of his short career as an owner/driver. Early radio issues, a bad-handling racecar and electrical issues late consigned the points leader to a 33rd-place finish.

Carl Edwards won the last two Bristol night races but Saturday night he went from Concrete Carl to Contrite Carl.

Juan Pablo Montoya seemed en route to a top five finish until an equalized tire (and there were a lot of tire failures Saturday night) ruined his evening. What’s confusing is why the team chose not to have the No. 42 car pit when Montoya reported he had a flat under caution. That’s the thing about flat tires. They don’t tend to fix themselves.

Anytime the series races at Bristol Gordon is always among the favorites. He ran well early in the race but contact with Denny Hamlin ruined Gordon’s evening, though to be fair it appeared he already seemed to be fading when the incident occurred.

Clint Bowyer got hit on more than a drunken cheerleader at a Holiday Inn lounge all night long. His chances of making the Chase went up in smoke as Bowyer tangled with the stricken car of Michael Waltrip late in the event. RCR’s nightmare season seemed to climax at Bristol.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

It was a pretty fair weekend for Kyle Busch, winning the truck and Cup races, completing the Bristol season sweep, and powering his way back into serious Chase contention.

Martin made some hard and protracted contact with Ryan Newman’s car on a late-race restart. A flat tire could have easily dropped Martin out of the race and out of title contention.

Hamlin spun in qualifying and thus started near the tail end of the field. When he cut a tire down early and lost a lap it looked like another lost weekend for the No. 11 team. But Hamlin soldiered his way back to a fifth-place finish.

I’m not sure which category to list Kurt Busch under. The elder Busch brother ran in the top five most of the night until he got spun to bring out the night’s eighth caution. Somehow Busch fought his way back to a seventh-place finish.

Worth Noting

  • Not only was the Cup victory Kyle Busch’s first since Richmond, it was only his second top-five result in that 14-race stretch. No wonder he’s been acting like the poster child for PMS.
  • Martin’s second-place finish was his 23rd top 10 at Bristol in 42 Cup starts here. Over those 42 starts Martin is averaging about a 12th-place finish.
  • Ambrose’s third-place finish was his best ever on an oval.
  • Biffle (fourth) earned his third top-five finish in the last five races.
  • Hamlin (fifth) has strung together four straight top-10 finishes.
  • Newman’s sixth place finish was his first top-10 result since Joliet.
  • Kurt Busch (seventh) has top-10 finishes in three of the last four Cup races as the circuit returns to Atlanta where he won earlier this year.
  • Johnson’s eighth-place finish was his first top 10 since he won at the Brickyard last month.
  • Earnhardt Jr. (ninth) has posted back to back top-10 finishes for the first time this season.
  • Matt Kenseth (10th) hasn’t enjoyed a top-five result since Dover, seemingly eons ago.
  • Jamie McMurray (11th) flirted with his first top-10 result since Martinsville.
  • Vickers (12th) hasn’t finished outside the top 12 in seven races.
  • Scott Speed in 15th posted the best result by a rookie at Bristol.
  • Stewart’s 33rd-place finish was his worst of the season.
  • The top-10 finishers at Bristol drove four Chevys, three Toyotas, two Fords and Kurt Busch’s lone Fiat… er, Dodge.

What’s the Points?

Stewart maintains the points lead. He is now 220 points ahead of Johnson, who wrested runner-up status in the points from Gordon.

Haven’t we seen this Looney-Tune before? Hamlin and Edwards once again swapped fourth and fifth place in the standings with Hamlin now having the advantage.

Newman, Biffle and Martin all had good points nights. All advanced two spots in the standings and they are now seventh, eighth and 10th in the standings respectively. More importantly for Martin, he now has a 60-point advantage over 13th-place Kyle Busch.

That flat tire proved costly for Montoya, who dropped two spots to ninth in the standings.

Kasey Kahne’s issues dropped him three spots to 11th in the standings.

Kenseth’s 10th-place finish wasn’t good enough to keep him out of the basement in the Chase. Sitting 12th in the standings, he’s 34 points ahead of Kyle Busch in 13th and 39 points ahead of 14th-place Vickers. Whatever intrigue is left to this “Race to the Chase” nonsense now seems centered on which two of four drivers; Kenseth, Kahne, Busch and Vickers will make the cut and which won’t.

Therein lies the rub with this whole Chase points system which seems like it could have been conceived by Rube Goldberg and Dr. Seuss after a long night of washing down acid tabs with cheap tequila in a fleabag motel overrun with nickel hookers. There are currently four drivers who haven’t won a single race who are qualified for a title Chase. Meanwhile one of the two drivers who have won four events is on the outside looking in. Currently if Kyle Busch were to make the Chase he’d start the Chase tied for the lead with Martin. If he fails to do so he can finish no better than 13th in the standings. Three other drivers who have won points races are also going to miss the Chase. Kenseth, who won the race that NASCAR terms “Our Super Bowl,” is in danger of missing playoff contention. Whatever the outcome of this year’s title fight, the Chase is a dog that just won’t hunt. It needs to be taken behind the woodshed and have a bullet put in its head. A new points system that awards 100-point bonuses for winning races and drops a drivers worst three or four finishes needs to be adapted. I’d be happy to help my old buds at NASCAR out by designing a better points system as seems my duty as a member of the NASCAR Citizen Journalists Corps. It would take about 15 minutes, but they’re going to have to wait until riding season is over and pay for the six-pack.

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 four cans of Colorado Kool-Aid. It wasn’t a classic Bristol race by old-school standards but things heated up nicely there at the end.

Next Up: The Cup circuit takes a rare weekend off next week. Enjoy it, because this is the last one until Thanksgiving. Racing or some reasonable facsimile thereof returns at Atlanta on September 6th, the Sunday night of Labor Day weekend. (Summer’s done come and gone, my oh-my) While I guess we’re making progress with the Labor Day weekend race returning to the Southeast, always and forever that race belongs on the Sunday afternoon of the weekend at Darlington and should be run in the brutal unforgiving heat of the afternoon. It might be a 500-mile race down South but it ain’t the Southern 500 at Atlanta. Yes, I’m slightly more obsessed with returning the Labor Day date to Darlington than Tim Bayliss was with solving the Adeena Watson murder case, but like Todd Rundgren once wrote, “A dream goes on forever…”

About the author

Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.

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