NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Fanning the Flames: The King in Victory Lane & 1 Helluva Show Down South

For the record – and not that anyone asked – but count me in among the masses that thought Sunday night’s Atlanta race was a winner. Yeah, I know it wasn’t in Darlington as it should be, but those cars under the lights on a big ol’ track with 49 years of tradition, a worn surface, multiple grooves, plenty of speed, and on tires that wore evenly… well, it was as close as we’ve been to being totally content on Labor Day weekend since Terry Labonte pulled a victory lap in the Kellogg’s Chevy.

Q: Matt, not to take away the 15th-place finish Paul Menard got Sunday night, but what’s up with the TV coverage of this guy? His car consistently gets more camera time than everybody but the leader and Dale Earnhardt Jr., both pre-race and when he’s running his typical mid-20s to 30s. Is daddy paying for all this attention? – Jim

A: No, but daddy is paying for the day-glow yellow paint scheme, which makes him hard to miss.

Unfortunately, Joyce Julius doesn’t break this down on a per-race basis, so I can’t present any factual evidence that Menard is featured more prominently. I did look at its most recent study, done after the 10th race of the season (which doesn’t make it too recent) and he was nowhere near the top 10 most featured.

I watched the race again on Monday night (that’s what fans do when they’re bored) with your opinion in mind and still didn’t notice an overabundance of Paul Love or Johns Mansfield sightings. He got his first real bit of camera time on lap 187 while getting lapped, then again on lap 213, when they mentioned he’d worked his way back up 16th after having his hood up on pit road during the warmup laps. Shortly thereafter, Jimmie Johnson rolled his car behind the wall, and that was it for the Menard coverage for the night.

So sorry, man, I just didn’t see it. As for the pre-race show, I guess the camera loves mutton chops… and soul patches.

Q: What was it about 1997 when Geoff Bodine broke the track qualifying record at Atlanta that made him and the field so much faster? 197.478 mph was a lot faster than even when the “Car of Yesterday” was still being used in 2006 and 2007. Were there spec differences to the cars or just fresher pavement? Thanks! – Doug Wells, Birmingham, Ala.

A: There were spec differences, but that’s not the only reason. NASCAR implemented a five-inch taller spoiler and a five-inch air dam after that race. That slowed them down quite a bit, but the smaller spoilers and dams only did so much. A newly paved and reconfigured track (it was basically flipped, so the frontstretch was the backstretch and vise versa) shot speeds through the roof.

The race prior at AMS, Morgan Shepherd won the pole under the old configuration with a speed of 186.507 mph. That’s a difference of almost 11 mph!

That situation was akin to what we saw at Darlington when they repaved it prior to the 2008 season. Mucho grip equated into a new track qualifying record (which was broken again this season) – up from 164.987 mph in ’07 to 179.442 in ’08.

The same thing also happened at Talladega in 2006, when David Gilliland bested the previous event’s pole speed by over three mph.

Q: Be warned Matt, this is a rookie question! A pit reporter said Johnson’s team made an adjustment to the panhard bar at Atlanta early in the race when he was so loose. What is the panhard bar, and why would they not adjust the track bar like they normally do when they’re real loose? Thanks! – Laura Downs, N.J.

A: Truth is, they did adjust the track bar, Laura. “Panhard bar” is just another name for it.

The Panhard bar connects to the frame on one end and the rear end housing on the other. By raising or lowering the bar (or the “track,” as the announcers often say) the car rolls through the corner differently because the rear end housing has been moved one way or the other – right or left – under the car. Johnson’s crew simply lowered it to tighten the car.

And then he broke his axle.

Q: I don’t care if he doesn’t outright own the team anymore, it’s good to see The King in victory lane. Seeing him with a shot at a championship will be even better, whether the No. 9 wins it or not (and whether it’s a legit championship method or not). NASCAR is better with Richard Petty as a focal point. Congrats to the No. 9 team! – BudBoy09

A: I don’t think anyone reading this column disagrees with a word you said, buddy.

And lastly, take my hand as we venture back to last week when I wrote about the Nationwide Series event at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. I hand it over to Fanning the Flames’ resident voice of reason, SalB, for perspective:

Q: Matt, the length of the cautions at the Gilles Villeneuve race were ridiculous. What happened to the concept of local yellows? Most of the cautions didn’t involve blocking the track, yet NASCAR continually brought full-course cautions. By the time the pace car gathered up the field and pit stops were made, it dragged out the race pathetically.

While I agree the ineptitude of drivers or lack of preparation for the rain conditions made for a comedy of errors, the refusal of NASCAR to use local cautions was short-sighted, to say the least. – SalB

A: I’ve received a lot of feedback over my comments in that column. For all those that dropped me a line this week, thanks, but please go back and re-read the first paragraph of my answer that stated, “31 caution laps… in a 76-lap race? Four damn hours long? And not four hours of good ol’ fashioned stock car racing – no… four hours of rain, slop, turns that appeared coated with ice and NASCAR’s throwing cautions every time someone skidded off course (which basically seemed like every lap).”

My point was not that Montreal stages a poor product, but that the sanctioning body sometimes presents it as such. And thanks, Sal, for once again stepping up and providing a concise, well-written point of view.

And while we’re on the subject of last week’s column, you guys need to lighten up on our boy Kyle Busch. He gets knocked around like John Wes Townley would in the Saturday Night Special Legends Race at Bristol for showing disrespect (OK, understandable), yet persecuted for trying to right a wrong… and he did so while at the Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville while trying to support a track that’s fallen upon rough times and needs all the draws it can get.

Remember, NASCAR is always better with a villain – be it Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace or Busch. Kyle gives us that and has fun in the process.

Support the local track, guys.

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