NASCAR Race Weekend Central

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

The Key Moment: Denny Hamlin’s crew consistently got him off pit road first, giving their boy a huge boost towards a second career short-track victory.

In a Nutshell: If any racetrack has ever owed any driver a win, it could be argued that Richmond owed hometown hero Hamlin the checkers. Hamlin, who has led the most laps in three of the last four Richmond Cup races, finally sealed the deal Saturday night.

Dramatic Moment: During the middle stages of the race, Hamlin and Jeff Gordon swapped the lead back and forth almost lap by lap.

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

The topic comes up every time they race here. In this age of cookie-cutter tracks, why hasn’t anyone cloned Richmond yet – almost certainly the ideal stock car racing facility? The Staten Island and Washington state tracks that had been proposed were, in fact, intended to mimic the 3/4-mile oval… but both deals fell through. In this economy, it seems that all of a sudden nobody is talking about building new racetracks anymore. But as the circuit heads off to New Hampshire, the site of some seriously somnolent racing, one can only dream Bruton Smith will finally bite the bullet and build a concrete version of Richmond with graduated banking to replace the current 1-mile flat track.

I just don’t get it. This Chase thing is supposed to be a big deal. I still think it’s a boondoggle of epic proportions, but the drivers at least say that it’s a big deal to them. So with Kasey Kahne in the Chase, why would Richard Petty Motorsports announce this week they’re moving to Ford? Moving forward, what incentive does Dodge have to share any developments and improvements with Kahne’s team during the season? Even more importantly, most of the employees of RPM’s engine shop know that with the merger, next year they’ll be out of a job. (Yates will still provide Ford engines to all teams in 2010.) Under those circumstances, what incentive will they have to work hard? Might not one of them be bitter enough to “forget” to tighten down a few rod bolts when assembling an engine to torpedo Kahne’s chances?

Talk about an awkward arranged marriage. Back when Kahne left Ford to drive a Dodge for Ray Evernham, folks at Ford were incensed enough to launch a lawsuit against him. Neither side had much good to say about the other. Well, it seems expediency makes for strange bedfellows. I’m also recalling Richard Petty, his royal old self, once left Mopar because they refused to build him a Plymouth version of the Dodge Daytona. He wound up driving Fords for one less than stellar season back in 1969 before Plymouth launched the Superbird to lure the King back into the fold. To paraphrase Bob Seger, “You can come back, baby, stock car racing never forgets.”

It was also an odd time for Kurt Busch’s crew chief Pat Tryson to announce he was leaving Busch and Penske Racing at the end of the season. With Busch in possible championship contention, that’s an unwanted distraction for all parties involved. Normally, these sorts of splits are announced when a driver’s chances at a title are finished.

One driver won four races and missed the Chase. Four drivers failed to win a race but made the Chase. Symmetry or stupidity?

Miss Terry De’ Brie was again one of the stars of the show Saturday night.

I was sick to the stomach twice this week. The first time, it was my fault. I had a pair of Wawa snout dogs slathered in onions in place of dinner. The second time, it wasn’t my fault. Listening to drivers like Carl Edwards, Hamlin and Gordon admitting they’d throw a race under team orders to allow their teammates to make the Chase made me physically ill. There was no evidence of team orders playing a part in the outcome at Richmond… but the Chase is just getting started.

Look for a valuable public service announcement from Hamlin soon, reminding fans, “When you park your $50,000 car outside your mansion, don’t forget to lock the gate and pocket the keys.”

In this economy, there seems to be three career paths where there’s always room for more applicants: nursing, political heckler, and “Start and Park” drivers in the Nationwide Series.

It was odd to see Edwards win Friday night’s Nationwide race and not do a backflip afterwards. If he’s looking for a new “signature move,” maybe he could toss Frisbees into the crowd after a win….

As the awkward, smoking, ill-conceived, grotesque, cootie-filled, clanking monster that is the Chase begins to struggle to cut a rug well enough to earn at least a passing glance with the NFL season underway, all NASCAR writers are required to pick their favorite for the title. I do so with a great deal of reluctance, knowing I am never right. But I’m going out on a limb and picking Mark Martin as this year’s titlist. Why? Because he’s even older than me and I’ve developed a tolerance to having my hopes and dreams crushed, driven to the ground, pissed on, and set ablaze. (I call it the Meghan Dougherty effect.) If, in fact, I had a spare sawbuck in my pockets with all these old Chevys I’m trying to restore, I’d drive to Dover and wager it on Tony Stewart to make amends for having written him off prior to the season and in hopes of earning enough coin to get a primo console for the gold Chevelle.

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

For Matt Kenseth, the season could hardly have started better with wins at the sport’s Super Bowl, the Daytona 500 and the Stupid Bowl, the season’s second race at Fontana. But Saturday night, the team gave Kenseth a car so ill-mannered he struggled to stay on the lead lap, and ultimately he lost his tenuous hold on a top-12 points position to miss the Chase.

Kyle Busch won’t have to worry about a massive meltdown in the first four races of the Chase to lose the championship this year. Despite winning four Cup races this season, Busch missed the cut for the playoffs by a total of just eight points.

A blown tire at one of his best tracks was just another indicator of how bad this season has been for Jeff Burton and the entire RCR operation.

I don’t know how much momentum really counts heading into the Chase, but a poor finish for the fourth straight week is probably going to keep Stewart and his team burning the midnight oil over the next few weeks. After a Cinderella start to the season and three wins, the No. 14 car is looking decidedly Pumpkin-esque right row.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

Two years ago, Brian Vickers failed to qualify for 13 of 36 races. Last year, he finished 19th in the points. This year, he made the Chase and as of late, he’s on a roll.

Martin went from having to sweat making the Chase to ruling the roost atop the points heading into NHIS.

Fans have complained since the playoffs started that the networks ignore drivers who aren’t in the 12-car field. This year, this means that Kyle Busch and his irritatingly childish antics ought to be pushed to the back burner. But I’m thinking young Master Busch is well and truly pissed off right now given his sense of entitlement, and as a result he’s about to go on a tear of race wins to keep his puss plastered on the nation’s TV screens. And if Busch winds up with a bushel of victories as a non-title contender, that can only add more fuel to the fire of the debate whether the Chase is a legitimate system to decide a series champion. Even his detractors will have to appreciate that….

Worth Noting

  • Heading into the Chase, Hamlin now has six straight top-10 finishes.
  • Kurt Busch (second) enjoyed his best finish since his win at Atlanta in March.
  • Gordon (third) posted his 12th top-five finish of the season.
  • Martin (fourth) has three straight top-five finishes.
  • Vickers (seventh) has finished 12th or better in the last nine Cup races.
  • Sam Hornish Jr. (eighth) just gets it done at Richmond. He posted top-10 finishes here in both Cup events this season.
  • Kevin Harvick (ninth) has back-to-back top-10 finishes for the first time this season.
  • Ryan Newman (10th) has three straight top-10 finishes.
  • Jimmie Johnson hasn’t managed a top-five finish since his win at Indianapolis.
  • Edwards is averaging a 23rd-place finish over the last three Cup races.
  • The top-10 finishers at Richmond drove five Chevys, two Dodges and three Toyotas. Greg Biffle in 12th was the top-finishing Ford pilot.
  • Joey Logano in 14th was the top-finishing rookie.
  • Saturday night’s Richmond race lasted three hours and six minutes. That’s just about the perfect length of time.

What’s the Points?

Under the legitimate (traditional) points system, Stewart would now be leading Gordon by 179 points. With Stewart fading as Gordon ascends, we’d have us an interesting little title fight between now and Thanksgiving.

But here in the real world, with four wins Martin takes over the Chase lead by 10 points over Stewart and Johnson, each of whom have won three races. For those keeping score at home, that means Hendrick drivers or drivers affiliated with Hendrick Motorsports now claim the top three points positions.

Hamlin and Kasey Kahne have won two races apiece, so they are tied for fourth in the standings, 20 behind Martin’s pace. Next with one race victory each, Gordon, Vickers and Kurt Busch are 30 markers back and tied for sixth.

Call it high-speed corporate welfare or what have you, but Edwards, Newman, Juan Pablo Montoya, and Biffle are all in championship contention without having won a single race. Is there any other sport where you can make the playoffs without winning a single event? They’ll each start the playoffs 40 points behind the leader.

Nine of this year’s 26 points-paying races have been won by drivers who failed to make the Chase. Kyle Busch (four wins) and Kenseth (two) are the only multiple race winners to miss the playoffs, but even the simple expediency of a further 25-point bonus for winning a race would have landed them both solidly inside the top 12. That would have at least added some legitimacy to this farce worthy of Stagger Lee’s non-arrest on Christmas Eve in the Billy DeLions homicide.

Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans, with one being a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic): For Richmond, this one was curiously sedate. Blame it on the new cars or the new points system, but the night reached a simmer without ever actually boiling over. The race itself earns three lukewarm cans of Colorado Kool-Aid….

Next Up: The all-singing, all-dancing, Chase kicks off with a Sunday afternoon race in New Hampshire. Starting off the Chase at NHIS is sort of like staging the Super Bowl in Des Moines on Arbor Day, leading me to believe the folks in charge really are as stupid as they come across.

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