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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin’s Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2009 Atlanta Fall Race Recap

The Key MomentKevin Harvick seemed poised to run away with an upset win until a late caution (caused ironically enough by Harvick’s teammate, Clint Bowyer) reshuffled the deck and handed Kasey Kahne the winning hand.

In a Nutshell – On Labor Day weekend within a sport where fans have labored to believe that we’d ever see a good race again, just for one day we all enjoyed a moderately exciting old school race.

Dramatic Moment – When the field took the green flag with 11 laps to go, there were at least a half-dozen drivers who could have won the race; and oddly enough, it wasn’t the usual suspects.

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

How great was it seeing drivers have to manhandle loose racecars and actually drive them again? Kudos to the much-maligned Goodyear rubber company for finally bringing a safe and competitive tire to the track.

Remember that little kiddies’ game where someone hid an object and others searched for it, the player would give hints by saying “you’re getting colder” or “you’re getting hotter” to direct the searchers? Well, NASCAR is getting at least warmer rescheduling the Labor Day weekend race to Atlanta in the Southeast and away from California, where it was an annual disaster and embarrassment. But they still haven’t found the hidden thimble. Always and forever, the Labor Day race weekend deserves to be at Darlington as it had been for over five decades. It deserves to be at Darlington the way Christmas deserves to be observed on December 25th annually rather than moved to the last weekend in May to ensure Snowbelt shoppers better weather and a chance to cash their tax rebate checks to spur shopping. Frasier Crane, once a bit character on the wildly popular Cheers TV program held on to TV superstardom for another decade with his tagline “Hello, Seattle, I’m listening.” The embattled current management team at NASCAR corporate headquarters could send no clearer message they are finally willing to listen to race fans than to move the Southern 500 back to the Sunday afternoon in Darlington where it belongs. This concludes my annual diatribe about the Southern 500, and we now return you to your regularly scheduled programming.

Fans planning to watch next weekend’s Richmond race on TV might consider wearing crash helmets on the couch because ESPN is apparently going to try to beat ya’ll senseless with the “Race to the Chase” sledgehammer. Better yet, head out to the race live. It promises to be a real good race and a real bad broadcast.

A quick note to Kurt Busch: the term “bummer” left the lexicon about the time the dope smoke cleared at Woodstock.

The careers of Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are permanently entwined after their battles for Busch Series titles and Cup Rookie of the Year honors. But there’s a big difference between the No. 17 team and the No. 88 outfit (and Earnhardt’s former No. 8 team.) The No. 17 team can start a race with a car that’s junk and adjust it to become competitive at the end of the race. The No. 88 bunch has a habit of taking a competitive car and adjusting it into an also ran. A big part of that is how the two drivers communicate what they need over the radio.

Looks like Doug Yates harvesters are having a little trouble sorting the wheat from the Darnell.

Denny Hamlin‘s personal car, a Lexus LS, was stolen from his Lake Norman garage earlier this week. Man, times have changed. I remember a day when a rich, successful, single, young man wouldn’t be caught dead in a four-door car that looked like he’d borrowed it from his aging chiropractor.

Race car drivers tend to live on the edge of the envelope. Otherwise, they’re just taking up space or driving the No. 55 car. (Which might sound a bit redundant.) Occasionally, they might engage in such high risk behaviors as playing Frisbee, which is what Carl Edwards was doing when he busted his foot this week. Tongue in cheek, Edwards even noted what a dangerous sport Frisbee can be and added that his car owner, Jack Roush, told him, “You just can’t go a day without showing everybody how dumb you are, can you?” (I guess it beats Kyle Busch breaking his foot and blaming the manufacturer of Frisbees for his injury.) I’m going to write this one off to karma. Edwards noted he rode a “motorcycle” to the playground where his injury occurred. Usually when one notes that they rode a “motorcycle” that means the two wheeler in question was not a Harley Davidson. After all you have “bikes” and you have “Harley Davidsons.” The latter are produced to stir a good man’s soul to near ecstasy on a perfect late summer’s afternoon while the former are produced to put young people into pine boxes at an early age.

Somebody send Bobby Labonte a can of sterno: I hear it gets cold in the evenings on the scrapheap of history. Anyone else recall that old hippie ballad about staying too long at the fair? Yeah, I’d love to see B-Lab win a race in the No. 71 car. I’d also like to buy a winning Powerball ticket, I’m just not planning my retirement on either event. (For the record Labonte finished 18th and Erik “Who?” Darnell finished 30th in Labonte’s former Yates ride. David Gilliland who vacated the seat in the No. 71 car to make room for Labonte finished 19th.)

It would appear that IRL racer Danica Patrick’s “people” are finally talking seriously about their girl dabbling in stock car racing, but the conditions seem to include that she’d only run some events in the Nationwide, Truck and possibly ARCA series prior to and after the IRL schedule and she‘d be incredibly well compensated for her hobbyist approach to NASCAR racing. Note to Ms. Patrick. That’s not going to work. This isn’t a little pond like the IRL. This is a great big lake. You can’t dip your toes in here. You either dive in head first and learn to swim or you stay on the porch. Or the Porsche as the case might be.

Yeah, summertime sure has come and gone, my oh, my. This weekend, the jolly fat man in a red suit with a beard made an appearance at Atlanta. Oh, wait a second, that was points leader Tony Stewart promoting artery-clogging Whoppers. Santa doesn’t wear sunglasses.

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

Jimmie Johnson typically hits his stride in the last couple events leading into the Chase but problems with an axle and his differential proved to be a pain in the rear end for the No. 48 team Sunday night.

One set of tires clearly didn’t agree with the No. 18 car and its driver later in the event. It didn’t help any that Busch did the usual when confronted with a challenge and became his typical whiny, boy-bitch self on the radio. As hard as his pit crew worked all night they deserved a bit more gumption from their man-child driver. This is Radio Nowhere. Is there anybody alive out there?

First he breaks his foot during the week. Then debris punches a hole through his engine oil cooler. This just wasn’t Edwards‘s week.

Harvick aside, it was another frustrating night for the other three RCR teams.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

Early in the event, it didn’t look like Kenseth could keep his evil-handling car confined to a 50-acre briar patch. Contact with the wall tore part of the bumper of the No. 17 car clean off. But the team and driver kept battling and adjusting until they got Kenseth back up into the top 10 though he ultimately backslid to 12th. At this point he’s still in a points position that will allow him to battle for the title though in an underdog role.

Stewart seemed en-route to another lackluster finish after a dropped lugnut in the pits sent him to the rear of the field. He battled back to a respectable 11th-place finish.

It was a pretty fair weekend for Harvick, with his Nationwide win and a competitive second-place finish in the Cup race, especially since the team seemed to indicate that his car was overheating and might not finish Sunday’s race.

Brian Vickers‘s chances at making the Chase seemed doomed when he broke an axle exiting pit road. Somehow his team was able to replace the axle without losing a lap and Vickers went on to finish seventh keeping his fleeting title aspirations afloat for one more week.

Worth Noting

  • Kahne’s win was his second the season but his first on an oval since Pocono last June.
  • Two of Harvick’s (second) three top-five Cup finishes this season were scored at Atlanta.
  • Juan Pablo Montoya (third) scored a top-10 finish after missing that mark the last three times out.
  • David Reutimann (fourth) scored his first top-five result since New Hampshire.
  • Since winning at Pocono, Hamlin (seventh) has managed to string together five straight top-10 finishes.
  • Jeff Gordon (eighth) led multiple laps in an event for the first time Loudon. You’ve gotta wonder if he hurt his back playing Frisbee.
  • Ryan Newman (ninth) hasn’t enjoyed a top-five finish since Pocono in June.
  • Greg Biffle (10th) has top-10 results in four of the last six Cup races.
  • Nobody on the No. 14 team is panicking, but Stewart has finished outside the top 10 in the last three races.
  • Kenseth (12th) has finished somewhere between 10th and 14th in his last six Cup races. That’ll probably get him into the Chase but like the bulldog that finally catches the dump truck, now what?
  • Robby Gordon’s 16th-place finish was his best since Charlotte in May.
  • Labonte’s 18th-place finish with the new team was actually his best Cup result since Charlotte.
  • Johnson’s 36th-place finish matches his worst result of 2009. Johnson also finished 36th at Richmond this spring.
  • Edwards’s 37th-place finish was his worst of the season. Kurt Busch (38th) also endured his worst 2009 Cup finish and crashed out of a race for the second time in three events. I don’t know if momentum going into the Chase actually means anything but I’d rather be surfing a wave like Hamlin right now rather than treading water like Edwards or Busch.
  • Joey Logano’s 22nd-place finish was the best by a rookie.
  • The top-10 finishers at Atlanta drove five Chevys, three Toyotas and a single Dodge and Ford.
  • Ford has managed just two Cup victories this season, both of them scored by Kenseth and both of those victories were in the first two races of the season.

What’s the Points?

Stewart remains the points leader heading into the regular season finale. Johnson’s driveline woes allowed Gordon to bypass him to take over second in the standings.

Further back, the win propelled Kahne forward five spots to sixth in the standings and barring an early-lap meltdown of Chernobyl proportions by the No. 9 team next week, safely into the Chase.

Biffle tumbled three spots in the standings down to 11th, 68 points ahead of the cutoff mark. Newman fell two spots to ninth in the standings.

Montoya bought himself a little more breathing room, moving up a spot to eighth.

Kenseth continues to be the Chase Cellar Dweller. Call him the Atlantic City Gambling Commission, because he’s hanging on by the skin of his teeth. He’s got a 20-point lead over Vickers, who advanced a spot to 13th in the standings and a 37-point lead over Kyle Busch, who fell a spot to 14th.

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 five cans of union-produced Peachtree Lager. The last few laps were a bit of an anti-climax but this was arguably the most entertaining Cup race of the summer stretch.

Next Up – The Cup Series heads off to Richmond for what used to be one of the finest races on the schedule on what is arguably NASCAR’s best track, the perfect combination of a short track and speedway with three lanes to pass. My fear is that we’ll be listening to the reverse lights of some of the sport’s brightest stars trying to back their way into playoff contention rather than racing for a win and that the blatant corporate bleating on ESPN about the All Singing, All Dancing Chase might ruin an otherwise fine race for the folks at home next Saturday night.