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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2009 Pepsi 500 at Fontana

Editor’s Note: Matt McLaughlin was off this week, so Managing Editor Tom Bowles filled in. Don’t worry, race fans, Matt just had a pre-planned vacation; he’ll be back in action for next Monday’s recap from Charlotte!

The Key Moment: Jimmie Johnson finally beat back a pesky Jeff Gordon after a series of frantic restarts over the final 15 laps of the race.

In a Nutshell: Hendrick Motorsports starts the day with a one-hour self-portrait documenting their success, and ends it with their cars 1-2-4. The perfect Hollywood script… one just wonders if even their fans themselves stayed awake to see the first 450 miles.

Of course, there is the small matter of that little prizefight to the finish. What does Matt call these? McRace? Well, with every McRace now comes that mysterious McDebris to bunch up the field and create an artificially contrived finish. I want to win McDonald’s Monopoly as much as the next person, but do we really have to bunch up the field and look for pieces with 15 laps left? Sounds unsportsmanlike to me.

Dramatic Moment: Every one of the last 15 laps, where it looked like a bomb exploded and lit a fire under the entire field.

Honorable Mention: Denny Hamlin taking the lead then subsequently wrecking himself on Juan Pablo Montoya’s front bumper.

Undramatic Moment: At one point, Johnson was so dominant no one but Montoya and Kevin Harvick were within 10 seconds of him. If it wasn’t for Jamie McMurray’s crash, all but the top-15 cars would have been lapped by about lap 100.

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

In need of additional sponsorship, NASCAR’s looking at renaming the Chase the “Hendrick Processional Parade: A 10-Week Success Story Narrated by a weeping Jack Roush.” OK, maybe I made that up. But it’s certainly not looking so good for everybody else. Not only did Hendrick cars have a 1-2-4 finish in the race, but Hendrick-supported cars took four of the top-five spots and are 1-2-4-5 in the points, respectively. Looking ahead to the next two weeks, Johnson calls Lowe’s “his house” due to his five career wins there, and Hendrick cars have won eight of the last 10 races at Martinsville. So unless Montoya wants to use his front bumper on anyone else not named Hamlin, it’s time to turn out the lights everywhere else: they might as well write “Rick Hendrick chassis and engines” on the trophy and call it a day.

In NASCAR’s defense, there actually was a “piece of rubber” on the backstretch with 15 laps to go. Too bad Kasey Kahne chose to speak out the one time the actual piece of mystery debris was shown on television; I’m sure he’ll have a nice little apology all ramped up for later in the week. But if NASCAR is calling these late-race cautions in the interests of safety, what would you choose – and more importantly, which one is more safe?

Door #1: Leaving this miniscule chunk of rubber on the backstretch in the off-chance someone runs over it and cuts down a tire when there’s only 30 miles to go.
Door #2: Bunching up the field due to one piece of rubber, causing two wrecks that wipe out one-third of the field. One of those launches a driver into the air and occurs at the end of the frontstretch, involving eight cars going over 200 mph.

Exciting? Yes; but the last time I checked, racing didn’t involve a roulette wheel.

Much has been made of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s sudden “surge” towards the front of the field as a sign crew chief Lance McGrew is finally turning things around. But even at his best, Junior was no better than the fifth-fastest Hendrick car all race, eventually caught up in a wreck not of his own making at the finish. Call it improvement, but I highly doubt Junior made the switch from DEI to run fifth or sixth on the Hendrick totem pole. Tell me they’ve improved when the No. 88 finally finishes what they started….

How much did John Skipper and ABC have to be banging their heads against the wall on Sunday? During a media conference call this week hocking consistent start times starting in 2010, a reporter asked Skipper, the Programming VP, what the network would do if a race would ever be pulled from the network if it infringed on the crucial 7:00 prime-time hour. As you might remember, the last time that happened at Phoenix NASCAR faced the ugly scenario of being moved to ESPN for America’s Funniest Home Videos. Skipper adamantly denied that would ever happen again, going on the record with a decision they backed up in Sunday’s race. But here’s the ugly truth for NASCAR: going off the air long after 7:00, they preempted a program in Videos that had a 4.5 rating, 8 share and 8 million viewers last Sunday. With no Chase race pulling more than a 3.2, it’s doubtful NASCAR came close to matching those numbers, meaning lost money and audience for the fledgling ABC network no matter how much we love our sport. The big money of the current TV contract gives Brian France some leverage in those situations right now; but the way these ratings are going, they can’t expect the same type of pull in 2013. It’s just not feasible.

Swept under the rug on a busy news weekend was a report ISC and SMI did try and buy Dover Downs back in 2007. A conflict between a small-time voting shareholder and Dover Motorsports Management made a letter public in which the two companies were hot on the trail of a potential sale before a deal fell through. Reading between the lines, though, you get the sense that the door isn’t fully closed, which if that happened would reduce the number of independent tracks to two (Pocono, Indianapolis) out of the nearly two dozen on the schedule. It’s one of the most incredible consolidations of power in the United States, let alone American sports, very similar to the type that’s going on in the Cup garage. 10 years ago, at least we had some version of rich and poor. Now, we’ve got rich and a handful of desperate, starving vagabonds looking to simply walk away with some crumbs.

Here’s a new one: in an attempt to continually win over the media, Gillian Zucker actually held press availability during the race to put a positive spin on Auto Club Speedway. See, I knew there was a reason I always took the fall race off! Anyways, from what I hear Ms. Zucker claimed the reason the stands looked half-full was there were thousands shopping underneath the stands and in the Fan Zone. Riiight… because people go to the race to not actually watch once the green flag drops. Even in L.A., where this happens all the time at sporting events, that’s a pretty hard sell. I’m not going to take a stab at an attendance number, but I can tell you based on accounts from the speedway and just looking at the camera shots 60-70% capacity would be a reach.

In Zucker’s defense, though, just when you thought California couldn’t hold an exciting race, they held a Nationwide Series free-for-all on Saturday. Between Joey Logano and Greg Biffle playing on-track bumper tag to the three-way battle between Hamlin, Biffle and Brad Keselowski that ended in wreckage, there was action all over the track from start to finish. Many will tell you the aggression came as a result of 10 cautions that bunched up the field throughout. But in a race where pride, not points, were on the line for all but a handful of drivers, you saw everyone giving their best shot right from the drop of the green. It was a refresher that top-level talent can hold a great race on any type of track under the right circumstances. Now, to bring that aggressive attitude back to Sprint Cup week in, week out….

One interesting tidbit from Saturday is the Logano – Biffle feud, which ended in Joey’s father Tom getting involved in an off-track confrontation with Biffle on pit road. Now, I understand that Joey’s 19 and any father will go to great lengths to protect his children. With Biffle all but admitting a move to smoosh Logano’s car on the backstretch was payback, any parent who loves their child would be upset in that situation. But there comes a time and a place where those same people need to recognize their children are adults, ready to fight their own battles. For most people, that’s college… and at 19, Logano would already be a sophomore. Considering he’s about to be Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year, I think a guy with a national fanbase might be responsible enough to take matters into his own hands at this point….

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

The government allowed Richard Petty Motorsports to declare a state of emergency Sunday after all four of their cars were destroyed in a late-race wreck. Hardest hit was their lone Chaser, Kahne, who also was the innocent victim of Kurt Busch’s bounce off the wall which sent him spinning through the infield with 10 laps left. No wonder he was so cranky and did things like accuse NASCAR of fixing races. On a related note, doesn’t it look like everyone at RPM is deathly afraid/confused of what’s going to happen next season? It’s like George Gillett announced a merger with the NC State Prison. Somebody smile already!

Hamlin went from hero to goat after a jump on the restart wasn’t enough for him to clear Montoya’s front bumper. To his credit, though, Hamlin manned up after the incident and took blame for making a mistake that took him from first place to out of the title Chase in a little less than 15 seconds.

David Gilliland’s career is in a do-or-die scenario as he prepares for a golden opportunity: three races behind the wheel of a fourth Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. So when Kyle Busch was too sick to finish the 500 miles, Gilliland got a head start by jumping from his start-and-park No. 71 right into the No. 18 car. But he was never able to make the adjustment as a super sub, finishing a disappointing 24th, two laps off the pace. In the process, he never expressed his disappointment in having to park the car he qualified in a TV interview, failing to say even the name of the team (TRG Motorsports) or mentioned their lack of funding in running over to greener pastures. I don’t know about you, but the whole concept of a guy starting-and-parking to go in the Big Boy ride just made me a little sick to my stomach… remember when we had 43 teams and that would never happen?

Brian Vickers has been the king of intermediate tracks all year, but he’s now been out to lunch for two straight weeks. That eight-car wreck late in the race took him out of his misery after running 30th for most of the second half with no right-rear shock.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

Johnson seemed to have the world stacked against him Sunday. His team lost him a total of a dozen spots on pit road, costing him the lead virtually every yellow flag stop. Then NASCAR threw a slew of debris cautions to bunch up the field and keep his dominant car from lapping everyone. Add in his Chevy’s one weakness – it took about 2-3 laps to get going – and Gordon just about stole a win at the end of the race. But Johnson had enough of a final restart to pull it out.

Tony Stewart lost a lap due to a pit-road speeding penalty, but used the wave around penalty to get it right back (which is becoming way too easy to do: see Did You Notice? Wednesday for more.) Once back on the lead lap, Stewart’s crew nearly blew it again by keeping their driver out on older tires about 10 laps later than the rest of the field. When the debris caution flew, the No. 14 was coming off pit road in 20th place; but a call for fresher tires during a slew of late-race cautions gave them speed to jump to fifth at the finish.

It’s been a horrific year for Richard Childress Racing, highlighted by Harvick’s interview this weekend in which he admitted things we all knew months ago: he wanted out at RCR this year except Childress balked, and he’ll be sitting in a new ride come February 2011. At least three cars in the top 11 gives them something to build on for an intermediate track program that’s been God awful all year.

Kurt Busch looked like dead meat after slamming the outside wall with 10 to go, taking out Kahne and fellow Chaser Biffle in the melee. The car was smoking so bad, it seemed all but certain NASCAR would have to throw the black flag, a tire would blow… or a combination of both in the final 10 miles. But shockingly enough, he held on, limping home eighth in a run that kept his faint title hopes alive.

Worth Noting

  • Johnson has now won 16 of 54 (30%) Chase races, the most of any driver. He and Mark Martin are now tied for the league lead this season in wins (5).
  • Gordon now has two straight runner-up finishes and a career-high eight this season (to go with only one win).
  • Montoya (third) is the only driver with top-five finishes in all four Chase races.
  • Carl Edwards (sixth) scored his best Chase finish since winning Homestead in 2008. Last year, he’d led 179 laps after four races. As for this one? He’s stuck at 3.
  • David Ragan (seventh) had his first top-10 finish since the Daytona 500.
  • Casey Mears (11th) has four straight top 20s for the first time all season.
  • Michael Waltrip (17th) had his best finish since Pocono in June.
  • John Andretti (19th) had just his third top-20 finish all season.
  • Reed Sorenson (31st) has wrecked in three straight races – ever since it went public he’s been racing for free. He may not be making $$$, but he’s certainly making things costly on the way out the door….
  • The top-10 drove seven Chevys, two Fords and a Dodge. Chevy swept the top-five positions in the race, while their closest rival (Toyota) could do no better than 14th with Logano.
  • Speaking of Logano, that finish gave him Rookie of the Race honors for the 21st time this season.

What’s the Points?

With Johnson taking the victory, he also jumped on top of the standings by 12 points over Martin. It’s the first time Martin’s lost the lead in the Chase, but he’s still 46 up on Montoya in third. Stewart held serve in fourth, while Gordon jumped two spots to round out the top five.

Kurt Busch dropped two spots to sixth. The Roushketeers now run seventh and eighth, with Biffle and Edwards gaining one and two spots, respectively. Hamlin’s DNF had him tumbling down to ninth, with Ryan Newman rounding out the top 10.

Kahne and Vickers remained 11th and 12th. It’s the battle for 13th behind them that’s gaining some intensity, with Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Clint Bowyer and David Reutimann separated by a total of 87 points.

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 two shots of really bad vodka, the last one mixed with a little bit of Red Bull. The first half seemed destined to put you to sleep; but when all seemed lost, the last 15 laps were so wild they couldn’t help but hold your attention.

Next Up: It’s the final primetime race of the season, as teams and drivers head home to Lowe’s in Charlotte for a Saturday night showdown under the lights.

Tom Bowles is now on Twitter! Click HERE to become a follower… even though he’s still learning how to use it (be patient on that one!)