NASCAR Race Weekend Central

5 Points to Ponder: 2009 Pepsi 500 at Fontana Edition

While most of Sunday’s race was a certified yawning contest, the late laps drama and some of the developing stories going into the Pepsi 500 left plenty for the masses to debate this week – and that is without any Chase discussion. While Mike Lovecchio takes a much-needed day off, five big thoughts creep into mind as the Sprint Cup Series leaves the Left Coast.

Gilliland Picked as Busch’s Replacement Before the Race

Sure, it all made sense. David Gilliland is scheduled to drive several races in a fourth JGR No. 02 Toyota, so he was a natural replacement for the ill Kyle Busch in the No. 18 Sunday. Gilliland would simply throw on his driver suit and helmet, wait patiently in the team’s pit until the first caution, and then assume the helm of easily the best hot rod of his NASCAR career. There was only one small problem with this whole scenario – Gilliland was scheduled to drive the TRG Motorsports No. 71 in the same race. But as we all know, that team parks its entry early if funding is not in place, so this ended up not being a problem.

But what if there was an early caution? There were two last week in Kansas. What if the No. 71 Chevy was still on the track by the first caution? Would crew chief Steve Addington radio the spotter to order the No. 71 to park and tell him to relay the message to the TRG representative on the spotter’s stand? Maybe they could send Joey Logano’s dad down pit road to rough up Slugger Labbe until he ordered the team’s Chevy to the garage. But as tantalizing and awkward as these scenarios seem, they never played out. Gilliland parked on lap 13 and made a beeline for the No. 18’s war wagon, and Busch came out of the car on the first caution on lap 61.

Dodge in Disarray

Word on the street is that AJ Allmendinger could be in a Ford by Saturday’s Lowe’s race and Elliott Sadler could be Ford-bound by Talladega. Team owner George Gillett is on the record as saying the team will certainly campaign Fords in 2010, regardless of if the Yates Racing merger actually goes forward. Earlier in the year, the Richard Petty Motorsports team was even rumored to be ditching Dodges and moving to Toyotas, and there was talk that Kasey Kahne could have been in a Toyota by the Chicagoland race. Richard Petty has mentioned that Dodge was either late or absent in making scheduled payments to the team, which surely is the reason for the organization’s rumored premature defection from the wounded automaker.

These developments raise further questions about the company’s future involvement in the sport, which is now only supporting the three-car Penske Racing team in 2010. Last week, Dodge’s president Mike Accavitti abruptly resigned. Accavitti, the former head of Dodge Motorsports, was only at the helm for a couple of months and was seen a ray of hope for Dodge’s future NASCAR involvement because of his previous position. Combine missed payments, team defections and no funding in the Camping World Truck and Nationwide series with a company still begging for government help after receiving billions in “loans” and you have a recipe for defection by the Mopar crowd.

RPM DNF

That’s not a license plate ID; it’s a description for how the race turned sour quickly for ROM. On lap 240, Kurt Busch bounced off the wall and sent Kahne and Greg Biffle through the infield grass. Kahne’s crew made repairs to the No. 9, only to see the Budweiser Dodge put out of its misery in an eight car crash six laps later, along with all three other cars in the company’s stable. The No. 44 of Allmendinger and the No. 43 of Reed Sorenson officially did not retire from the race, but all four cars for RPM (including the No. 19 of Sadler) were destroyed. Ironically, RPM had a running at the finish streak that lasted from last fall until the end of this summer. The engine room may be closing, but this big wreck may have saved some jobs in RPM’s fab shop….

RCR and RFR Regaining Strength

While Sunday’s Pepsi 500 was just one race, most of both Richard Childress Racing and Roush Fenway Racing finally showed some strength after a very disappointing 2009. All four RCR cars spent significant time in the top 15 and all finished there except for Jeff Burton, who got caught up in the multi-car melee in the closing laps. Some 2010 questions remain unanswered for the organizations, but some of the perplexing performance shortcomings have been solved.

Two of the five RFR teams made the Chase, but there has been little sunshine under the RFR umbrella in 2009. All five teams and the two affiliated Yates Racing cars have finished far below their 2008 results. Sunday’s race was not a dominant one for the team, but Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, David Ragan and Biffle showed life toward the end of the event (though Biffle sustained damage in a wreck with Kahne and finished 20th). Ragan scored his first top 10 since the Daytona 500, Edwards regained spots on the final restart to finish sixth and Kenseth’s No. 17 Ford became beastly in the final third of the race, though he faded to 13th at the checkered flag.

Both teams have made strides in the past few weeks, but, as Sunday’s race proved, they have many lengths to gain to outrun the Hendrick cars.

Hamlin In Over His Head

Denny Hamlin (my personal fantasy pick to win the Pepsi 500 due to his flat-track prowess) was one of the frontrunners in California before making a critical mistake on the lap 191 restart. Hamlin tried to move from the outside to the inside lane, but misjudged second-place Juan Pablo Montoya’s spot on the track and clipped the right front of the No. 42 Chevy, spinning through the grass and into the infield wall. Hamlin came within a few feet of missing the wall, but instead sustained enough damage to send him to the garage and thus, a 37th-place finish. The No. 11 team now sits ninth in points, 219 markers behind the leader, and effectively has little chance of winning the 2009 Chase. Hamlin’s admitted mistake is the latest in a recent line of bad decisions and close calls by the fiery driver.

On Saturday, Hamlin tried to block a charging Biffle in the outside lane late in the Nationwide Series race, only to make the same mistake and send both cars into the outside wall. Two weeks ago, Hamlin and Brad Keselowski were having a hard-fought Nationwide Series battle. Hamlin tried to stop Keselowski’s advance on the inside lane, BK refused to let up, and Hamlin’s No. 20 was sent packing yet again. In that case, as you may remember, the two disagreed slightly over whose fault the wreck was. The point remains, though, that if Hamlin had more patience, he likely would have ended up in better shape.

In an interview after the Keselowski confrontation, Hamlin stressed that Brad needed to learn give and take, or else he would suffer in the Cup Series. Considering these instances, Hamlin’s run-in with Kyle Petty a couple of years ago and his over-aggression on restrictor-plate tracks, he may have a few things to learn before he can consider hoisting the Sprint Cup.

The only night race of the Chase is just ahead at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, and Mike will be back in the saddle next week to give you five new meaty thoughts to chew on. Have a great week!

Listen to Doug fill-in for Captain Herb and host the Allan Vigil Ford Lincoln Mercury 120 Saturday from 6:30 until 8 p.m. on News/Talk 750 WSB in Atlanta and online at wsbradio.com. You can also hear Doug co-host The Lead Lap: North Georgia’s Racing Leader with David Chandler Saturdays from 10-11 a.m. on racefanradio.com and 1240 ESPN Radio in Gainesville, Ga.

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