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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Big 6: 2009 Pepsi 500 at Fontana

Who… gets my shoutout of the race?

Most of the top finishers this week were predictable, to say the least. But there was one unexpected name in the top 10 – David Ragan, who tied his season-best finish of sixth and grabbed his first top 10 since the Daytona 500. Ragan has had a miserable year, and his finish this week has to be a bright spot on a season marred with disappointments.

What… was THAT?

The Top-35 rule is silly on a good week, but it’s even more ridiculous when it creates a loophole which allows an illegal car to race when legal cars go home. It’s even more ridiculous when you think of it this way – there are times when the 35th-place car is only a handful of points ahead of 36th in owner points. If the 36th-place car has their time disqualified, they go home, while the car five points ahead of them would get to stay. But regardless of points standing, any car that qualifies by using illegal means should never be allowed a place in the race over someone who qualified under the rules.

Where… did the polesitter wind up?

Probably not very happy. Denny Hamlin started the race on point for the first time in 2009 and looked like a contender early, but what even Hamlin called a “rookie mistake” ended any chance of a top finish. Hamlin got a great restart on the outside on lap 190, but instead of holding his line, he tried to block second-place Juan Pablo Montoya before he was clear, and spun off of Montoya’s nose. It could have been worse as the top three in points were second, third and fourth, but Hamlin got the brunt of his own mistake and had to settle for a 37th-place finish and the loss of three points positions.

When… will I be loved?

At least NASCAR didn’t have to worry about rookies taking out the Chasers this week – they did it all by themselves. While the final caution was caused by a bigger crash, the one that preceded it did more damage to the championship picture. When Kurt Busch ran into a slight talent shortage after a lap 138 restart, he scraped the wall and bounced right into the side of fellow Chaser Kasey Kahne, who in turn slammed into Greg Biffle. The resulting restart ended up with another melee that Kahne wound up in as well. Kahne was quite vocal about the incident, blaming NASCAR for the first incident as the restart came after a dubious debris caution. Still, Busch is the one singing a lonely tune this week as there isn’t much love for the competition in the Chase.

Why… didn’t NASCAR do this before?

Seriously, going to a standardized, earlier start time for races was a great move. Kudos to NASCAR for realizing that the afternoon races were blending into too many evenings. It will be great to see the Great American Race run in the afternoon where it belongs, and the uniform time eliminates fans wondering when the heck this week’s race is. Great move, NASCAR… but what took you so long?

How… far out of the points lead is too far with six races to go?

On one hand, with Talladega on the horizon instead of in the rearview, almost anyone could win it if five or six guys get taken out in the inevitable multi-car Big One three weeks from now. Realistically, though, there are now four drivers more than 200 points behind with just six races to make them up on new points leader Jimmie Johnson – Hamlin, Ryan Newman, Kahne and Brian Vickers – and they are probably done, barring major catastrophe for about six teams. Biffle and Carl Edwards are on the brink of falling out of legitimate contention as they stand 188 and 192 points out, respectively. Sixth-place Kurt Busch is 121 points behind Johnson and still has a decent shot at a title of Johnson makes mistakes; ditto for Jeff Gordon at 105 points back. Anyone else has a shot, especially with Johnson consistently losing spots in the pits on a weekly basis. If that bites Team 48, Mark Martin, Montoya or Tony Stewart could capitalize all the way to the head table in Las Vegas.

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