NASCAR Race Weekend Central

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

The Key Moment: Jimmie Johnson prevailed in a spirited side-by-side battle with teammate Jeff Gordon after the final restart.

In a Nutshell: This is getting rather formulaic. Three-and-a-half hours of mind-numbing tedium with the driver up front running away with the race, a flurry of late cautions, and 20 minutes of excitement.

Dramatic Moment: That final battle between Johnson and Gordon was the sort of stuff that makes the highlight reels.

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

If the drivers are only going to race wide open for the final 25 laps, why not condense all the races to 25-lap shootouts?

Johnson doesn’t have this title in the bag yet (Talladega might tell the tale) but it sure as Hell is his to lose. Meanwhile, Johnson might want to spend some of the big bucks he earned Saturday night to take his pit crew to dinner. Their lightning fast stop to get him off pit road ahead of Kasey Kahne by a few inches probably cemented the win.

Now that Lowe’s isn’t the title sponsor at Charlotte anymore, will they allow someone other than Johnson to win a race?

Want to help your first-grader learn to be a NASCAR writer down the road covering the Chase? Spend this week teaching them to spell “anticlimactic.” Then advise them to get a real job.

Denny Hamlin was the latest driver to give a less than glowing review of the Chase championship format. It seems only the drivers who are leading in the points seem to like it much. Go figure.

Was Chad Knaus really expressing frustration when the eighth caution flew while Johnson was leading, or had he joined a majority of fans and fallen asleep watching the race?

Since so many folks commented on the crowd at Fontana last week, it’s only fair to take note of the huge swaths of empty seats at Charlotte, some of them hidden beneath advertising banners. Temperatures in the 40s and a threat of rain didn’t help out with the walk-up ticket sales, but when a track in the very heart of stock car country can’t sell a decent amount of tickets something is bad wrong with the sport.

The first NASCAR Hall of Fame class didn’t include David Pearson and Cale Yarborough, but did include two members of the France family that owns the joint, as announced by another member of the France family. If it’s any consolation, by the time Brian France is voted into the Hall it will be cockroaches casting the votes. As far as I’m concerned, the initial class destroys the legitimacy of the Hall as a legitimate Hall of Fame and leaves it, with all due apologies to Tom Robbins, Just Another Roadside Attraction. I’ve crossed it off my travel plans until they have Hooters girls washing Harleys in the parking lot free.

How to tell you’re an aging NASCAR fan – You hear Martin Truex Jr. is running the “DJ Hero” car at Charlotte and think it’s a tribute to former champion Dale Jarrett. (Apparently, it’s actually a video game – the less said about that, the better.)

This whole Transformers promotion is over now, right? Every time they mentioned that whole deal I felt a little barf trying to exit my nose. I guess this whole Optimus Prime thing appeals to folks who still express their occupation as somethingth grade.

I doubt it’s an honor he’ll covet, but apparently Casey Mears is going to be the first driver ever to be let go by Chip Ganassi, Rick Hendrick and Richard Childress. Mears has driven for Target, Texaco, the National Guard, Carquest, Kellogg’s and Jack Daniel’s.

There was some talk a few years back when NASCAR and the tracks couldn’t keep up with ticket demand or the TV ratings about splitting the Cup series into two divisions, one running on the Left Coast and the other on the Right Coast. How about this? We have one division for the Rick Hendrick-owned and affiliated teams, and another for everyone else. That ought to restore some drama to at least one series title fight annually.

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

Juan Pablo Montoya had top-five finishes in the first five Chase races. Saturday night, he certainly did not. (He, in fact, finished 34th, his worst result of the 2009 Cup season.) Montoya had a strong car that might have contended for the win and almost certainly would have had a top-five result before he got caught up in a chain reaction crash with Mark Martin on a restart that shredded the right-rear quarterpanel. And for future reference, his team might want to reconsider their strategy of affixing a replacement quarterpanel to the car with library paste (it later fell off, causing another caution and a second set of repairs). Thankfully, he was sponsored by Lysol, because Montoya’s weekend at Charlotte stunk.

The contact with Montoya didn’t do Martin’s Chevy any favors, either. Martin’s outside pole-sitting competitive car had a hole punched into the grill area that had to be battle-field surgery repaired to a degree the barbarian bodymen at Earl Sheibs would have been embarrassed to sign off on.

A transmission failure ended a thoroughly frustrating night for Dale Earnhardt Jr., who must be considering running off to join a cloistered monastery after this season.

Hamlin had a competitive car before the engine went south. Combined with last weekend’s wreck while leading, Hamlin’s title chances are now officially off life support. Hopefully, Hamlin’s Consolation Prize Chase check will arrive by FedEx so he can spend the offseason on his front porch, chasing away car thieves determined to abscond with his new Lexus.

You have to wonder if Carl Edwards clutched his engine just to blow up the No. 99 car, as hapless as his efforts were Saturday night. He ran better when he was on crutches.

Greg Biffle got caught up in a late-race wreck not of his own making for the second weekend in a row. With the amount of time the No. 16 car has spent in the grass lately, maybe Jack Roush ought to try to renew the John Deere sponsorship deal.

It must be a tough year to be a Blue Oval fan. It’s now been 29 Cup races since a Ford posted a victory. I think the last time that happened, they were still starting the racecars with hand cranks in the radiator.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

Johnson won the pole, led both practices, led the most laps, won the race and obviously held onto the points lead. It’s hard to have a much better weekend than that without having Heather Locklear invite you to room with her for the Monterey Historics.

Kahne suffered an ignition failure exiting the pits, but had the presence of mind to switch to his backup ignition box instantly. He never even gave up the lead. Smooth. Last week, all four Richard Petty Motorsports cars were wiped out in a single wreck and failed to finish the race. This week, Kahne looked like he might win the race. That’s one nice thing about our sport: the elevator from the outhouse to the penthouse is express. Unfortunately, the ride back down can be just as quick.

Last week at Fontana, Kyle Busch had the flu. This weekend, he flew to a dominating win in Friday night’s Nationwide race. Some folks were worried that Busch had the swine flu. I figure that’s like a hen coming down with chicken pox. On Saturday, Busch spun his ill-handling car to bring out the fifth caution, but he rallied back to finish in eighth.

When Joey Logano overshot his pits, it looked like another long night for the sometimes hapless rookie. Somehow, he maintained his composure, missed all the wrecks, and went on to finish fifth.

With the kind of season RCR has been enduring, having two drivers in the top 10 (Bowyer in sixth and Mears in seventh) offered a rare glimpse of sunshine during a night race.

Worth Noting

  • The victory was Johnson’s third in just five Chase races and the sixth Charlotte Cup victory of his career. That ties him for most all-time wins at the track with Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip.
  • Matt Kenseth’s second-place finish was his best since the first Fontana race, eons and eons ago.
  • Kahne’s third-place finish was his best since he won at Atlanta.
  • Gordon (fourth) drove to his fourth consecutive top-10 finish. And he’s still watching Johnson drive away from him in the points at ludicrous speed. Do you think Gordon, who recommended Johnson to Rick Hendrick, ever feels like Victor Frankenstein?
  • Logano’s fifth-place finish was his first top-five result since he got away with Grand Theft Auto Race at New Hampshire in the rain.
  • Clint Bowyer (sixth) and his team are getting things back on track. They’ve managed top-10 results in four of the last six races. Gotta settle one old score, one small point of pride.
  • Mears’s seventh-place finish was his best since Michigan in August.
  • Kyle Busch hasn’t led a lap in a Chase race to date. And you know what? I love women, I’m a big fan of breasts, awareness is a key virtue and I hate cancer, but pink racecars just look ridiculous.
  • Truex (ninth) posted his first top-10 result since Darlington. He still hasn’t managed a top-five result this year.
  • Kurt Busch (10th) hasn’t finished worse than 11th in the last six races. A lot of years, that would put a driver in title contention. This year, it earns Busch an autographed copy of Darrell Waltrip’s book, Love Sonnets to Hendrick Drivers.
  • Edwards’s 39th-place finish was his worst of the season and his second DNF of the year.
  • The top-10 finishers at Charlotte drove five Chevys, two Dodges, two Toyotas and a Ford.
  • Logano was the top-finishing ROTY candidate at Charlotte.

What’s the Points?

Pretty obviously, Johnson is still leading the points. He’s now gapped second place Martin by 90 markers.

Gordon advanced two spots to third, but is now 135 points behind Johnson. Tony Stewart holds serve in fourth. Of note, perhaps, is the fact that currently the top-four teams in points are all either owned by Rick Hendrick or affiliated with his organization. And these are the last four drivers with any legitimate title aspirations this year.

Kurt Busch moved up a position in the points to fifth.

Montoya took the biggest hit at Charlotte, tumbling three spots to sixth in the standings. Biffle stays seventh, while Ryan Newman and Kahne each advanced two spots to eighth and ninth, respectively. Conversely, Edwards and Hamlin each fell two spots to find themselves 10th and 11th in the standings, with Brian Vickers bringing up the proverbial Chase rear in 12th.

Kenseth once again wrested away “Best of the Rest” honors from Kyle Busch and is now 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): This one gets a single can for the majority of the evening, and three hastily guzzled Coronas at closing time. Closing time, every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.

Next Up: NASCAR’s near future includes a blast from the past, the tiny Martinsville Speedway, short on asphalt but long on history. A valid argument could be made that Martinsville is the last real stock car race of the season.

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