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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Big 6: 2009 Amp Energy 500 at Talladega

Who… gets my shoutout of the race?

If I gave this award to the race winner, Jamie McMurray would have been the hands-down winner – a lame-duck driver who is probably running R&D stuff in the Chase and has no ride for 2010 winning the race is a great story. But since the official shoutout goes to a non-winner, how about Michael Waltrip, who avoided trouble and finished seventh. Waltrip, who will retire as a full-time driver at the end of this season, has a good knowledge of the draft and used that to his advantage on Sunday, pulling off his second top-10 finish of the season.

What… was THAT?

NASCAR needs to be proactive about safety – nobody would argue this, but the sanctioning body took things one step too far this week, disallowing any bump drafting in the corners rather than simply penalizing drivers who used the bump draft too aggressively. This came after the spring race, when Carl Edwards went airborne and slammed into the catchfence, injuring several fans, as well as an incident where several laps of overaggressive bumping ended when NASCAR parked Waltrip for 30 minutes of practice after he nearly wrecked Jimmie Johnson. Where it gets silly is that Edwards’s wreck was caused by a boneheaded attempt to block, and NASCAR handled Friday’s incident exactly right – by penalizing an offender who went too far instead of making the whole field afraid to race for most of the event on Sunday.

Where… did the polesitter wind up?

Unharmed – and on this day, at this point in the Chase, that was all that Johnson wanted. Johnson hung around the back of the field for much of the day but began to power forward late – avoiding both late-race crashes while his points competition wasn’t so lucky. Johnson finished sixth and in one piece. The only higher finishing Chase contenders were Kasey Kahne and Greg Biffle, who are both more than 300 points behind Johnson in the standings.

When… will I be loved?

It would be easy to blame Marcos Ambrose for getting into Ryan Newman or Brad Keselowski for getting into Kurt Busch, but the fact is that all the blame should be placed squarely where Newman laid it after a scary late crash in which Newman’s car got turned around and stood up on its nose before tumbling over backwards onto Kevin Harvick’s hood – on the shoulders of the sanctioning body, whose myriad of changes and restrictions has made this kind of crash a near-certainty at Talladega. Newman was relatively unhurt, but was angry and frustrated on the radio while waiting to be extricated. Still one piece of credit where it is due – even in this car with its higher roofline, the roll cage was bent until it was dangerously close to Newman’s head. The outcome might have been far different in the old car for Newman, whose chief complaint as he waited to be cut from the car was needing a restroom badly. After seeing the replay, I bet Harvick didn’t share that complaint… anymore.

Why… is this racetrack in the Chase?

Mark Martin said before Sunday’s race that Talladega is nothing more than “a game of chance.” The problem is that, while sometimes it is better to be lucky than good, racing is supposed to be a game of skill. Yet at Talladega, where setup of the car is rarely a factor and everyone makes the same horsepower, it becomes a roll of the dice – anyone can win. It’s a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Gone are the days where a few cars could lap the field and where cars were spread out all around the track – eliminating to a large degree the Big One that plagues today’s races at that track. Perhaps it’s time for NASCAR to either find another way to slow the cars down so they can lose the restrictor plates (or at least open them up a great degree) or to find another track to fill two weeks on the schedule. As it races right now, this track has no business having such an impact on the championship.

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

Johnson’s sixth-place run must have felt like a small victory to the defending champ, who boasts an average finish of just 25th in this race and avoided both late crashes by the skin of his teeth. It looked all day as though Johnson’s closest pursuers, teammates Martin and Gordon, would gain a bunch of points on Johnson, but both were caught in the last melee of the day and lost ground to the points leader, who now holds a 184-point lead over Martin and an advantage of 192 over Gordon. Fourth-place Juan Pablo Montoya is 239 behind Johnson and probably the last driver with any kind of hope. 12th-place Brian Vickers was mathematically eliminated from contention this week, and that list is sure to be added to next week as well. Johnson will leave Texas with the points lead no matter what happens during the race, and if he is able to maintain this advantage through Phoenix, he will only have to start at Homestead to claim his fourth consecutive title. A gain of just 11 points over the next two races would mean that Johnson will clinch the title outright at Phoenix. It’s not over, but it’s down to four men now.