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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

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

The Key Moment: Jimmie Johnson took the lead on lap 176 and was never headed.

In a Nutshell: Miles the Monster serves up a race with more than a modicum of mediocrity.

Dramatic Moment: Waiting to see if Joey Logano’s car stopped rolling before it got to Wilmington.

There was some decent racing back in the pack.

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

When was the last time a Cup car got up on its roof, much less rolled seven times at Dover?

You have to give Jeff Gordon’s crew chief, Steve Letarte, style points for rolling the dice with a four-tire stop late in the race. If Gordon had gone on to win, Letarte would have looked brilliant; but if the No. 24 got caught up in a restart wreck, he would have looked foolish. As it was, Gordon basically held serve (after a close encounter with Ryan Newman), but it was a gamble worth taking to try to steal a win.

Looks like Kyle Busch’s temper got the better of him yet again. The first rule of holes is when you find yourself in one, stop digging.

There were long stretches of the Dover race where drivers in the top 10 were spaced several seconds apart and nobody was passing anything but the time. What’s the solution? Shorter races? Wider tires? Readopting bias ply tires? Darned if I know, but the status quo isn’t acceptable.

Hold the phone. Maybe this Juan Pablo Montoya guy is for real, after all.

For all the talk about Danica Patrick making the jump to NASCAR racing in 2010, it was announced this week that Ms. Patrick has signed a three-year extension with Andretti Green Racing to remain in the IRL. As usual, she was just using the NASCAR chip to play her hand for the best deal she could get in the IRL. For anyone who was surprised by this week’s developments, I’ve got some really bad news about the Easter Bunny….

A 2.5 overnight TV rating and a 3.2 final rating? That’s actually pretty good… for the Special Olympics Tiddlywinks Tournament on Versus. I’m thinking that starting the Cup races before the NFL games ought to help, especially among the demographic of viewers whose batteries have gone dead in their remotes and are too dang fat and lazy to get up and change the channel. Repeat after me: if they ain’t racing by one, the ratings aren’t going to be fun.

Remember all the uproar about whiskeymakers entering NASCAR as team sponsors? Folks were upset the booze makers were entering a “family sport” (that had its origins in running moonshine by the way) and circumventing the FCC ban on hard liquor advertising? Well, this week Jack Daniel’s and Jim Beam announced they won’t be returning to the sport next season. I guess the economy and the health care debate are better promotional aids for hard drinking than racing. As best I know, there’s been no rash of elementary students getting sent home for trying to sneak flight bottles of Gentleman Jack into school in their Jeff Gordon lunchboxes.

Dover drew a decent crowd despite some nasty weather overnight Saturday and a cloudy, cool, threatening start to Sunday. Still, it was hard not to notice vast swathes of empty seats everywhere but the frontstretch and the track’s latest bit of subterfuge, using giant sponsor logos to cover even more empty seats. It was also hard not to notice the crowd began thinning noticeably before the halfway point of the race. Was that because Dale Earnhardt Jr. was having (another) lackluster run, or just folks trying to beat Dover’s well documented post-race traffic nightmare?

Some folks are still debating whether it’s “Juan Pablo Montoya” or just “Juan Montoya.” Considering the huff he was in after losing to Mark Martin last week at NHIS, perhaps he should be called “Whine Pablo Montoya.”

Fans can debate forever whether the Dover Cup race is too long, but this late in the year it seems obvious the Cup schedule is at least six races too long.

Given another year to develop, maybe it’s actually Marcos Ambrose who will be the “Franchise” at MWR? Certainly it’s not going to be Ambrose’s big-mouthed, bone-headed boss who attempted to slam the Dover boilerplate across the Jersey State line on Sunday.

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

When the season ends, Logano’s place in the highlight reels won’t be his win at Loudon – it will be his savage Dover wreck. Logano is one lucky young man to walk away from that one under his own power.

At times, it seemed Kurt Busch had enough car to keep Johnson honest, but the No. 2 bunch once again did their patented late-race fade routine.

It was a tough weekend for Denny Hamlin, who got dumped late in Saturday’s Nationwide race by a thoroughly unrepentant Brad Keselowski, then struggled to a thoroughly uncompetitive 22nd-place finish in his ill-handling Toyota Sunday. The fact that the 22nd-place finish was actually Hamlin’s best in his last five outings at Dover makes one wonder why he doesn’t just stay the Hell home when the circuit visits the First State.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

When Tony Stewart got caught up in the big wreck and damaged the nose and tail of his car, it looked like it was going to be a long afternoon for the No. 14 bunch. But they were able to repair the car well enough that Stewart rallied back, and actually ran more competitively than his ninth-place finish indicates.

Gordon’s late-race contact with Newman had all the makings of a Monster mess, but he caught the car and drove on to a sixth-place finish.

After the season he’s had since the first two races of the year, a third-place finish had to feel like a win for Matt Kenseth.

Newman seemed to have a “Hit Me Hard” bumper sticker on the back of his Chevy, but he soldiered on to a 10th-place finish.

Worth Noting

  • Johnson’s fourth win of the season ties him with Kyle Busch as the second most prolific winner of the 2009 Cup season. They both trail Martin, who has won five points-paying Cup events.
  • His second-place finish was Martin’s fifth consecutive top five run.
  • Kenseth’s third-place finish was his best Cup result since he won at Fontana seven months ago.
  • Busch’s fifth-place finish was his third consecutive top-10 result.
  • AJ Allmendinger’s seventh-place finish was his best since Sonoma in June.
  • Stewart (ninth) returned to the top 10 for the first time since Watkins Glen.
  • Don’t look now, but Newman (10th) has strung together five straight top-10 finishes.
  • Carl Edwards (11th) missed the top 10 for the fifth straight time, well before his ill-considered flirtation with fate playing Frisbee broke his foot.
  • The top-10 finishers at Dover drove six Chevys, three Dodges and a Ford. The top-finishing Toyota driver was Ambrose in 14th.
  • Scott Speed (25th) was the top-finishing rookie at Dover. Of course the only other rookie in the field, Logano, failed to finish the race in somewhat spectacular fashion.

What’s the Points?

Martin maintains his points lead over teammate Johnson, who remains second in the standings. But Martin almost certainly feels the hoary breath of his younger stablemate and three-time consecutive titlist as the gap narrows to 10 markers.

Montoya, Kurt Busch and Stewart each advanced a spot in the standings; they are now up to third, fourth and fifth. Under the Laws of Conservation of Points Positions, three spots had to be yielded to allow them to advance. Hamlin was Dover’s chief points victim, tumbling those three spots to sixth after yet another poor result at Dover.

Gordon moved up two positions to eighth in the standings, while Brian Vickers fell two spots to 10th. Newman and Biffle maintained their places in seventh and ninth, respectively.

Edwards and Kasey Kahne remain the cellar dwellers in the Chase. Martin would have to stay home next week for Kahne to have a chance at taking over the points lead, as he’s already fallen 189 back in just two races.

Kenseth supplanted Kyle Busch (who planted his Toyota into the wall more than once Sunday) to take over the “Best of the Rest” honor of 13th in the standings.

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 three semi-cold cans of Ballentine. There’s been better racing at Dover, but then Goodyear has brought better tires here as well.

Next Up: The Cup series heads off for yet another tepid tryst at Kansas. It’s actually the perfect venue for contemporary NASCAR racing. The Wizards behind the curtain need the brains to see this Chase thing isn’t working out and the courage to change it before they finish tearing the heart out of this sport. And you know whenever you see their lips moving, the cowardly lion lies within them. There’s no place like Rocking-home….

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