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

The Key Moment: Jimmie Johnson’s crew got their driver off pit road first on the final set of pit stops. Once the No. 48 car had clean air on its snout, it was unstoppable.

In a Nutshell: Johnson drove another nail in his competition’s coffin with a dominating drive.

Dramatic Moment: There weren’t many in a race that started out with some enthusiasm but quickly petered out altogether.

Johnson and Kurt Busch actually waged a somewhat stirring battle early in the event.

The side-by-side restarts at the narrow Phoenix track made for some physical racing and a pair of big wrecks.

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

Cup Racing At Phoenix. Name that acronym!

Denny Hamlin suggested this week that there be a board of drivers to advise NASCAR on key issues, that they should treat input from all the various drivers equally, and that the sanctioning body should listen to the fans as well. He then laid aside his bong, ate a dozen doughnuts and listened to American Beauty on his eight-track player.

You want some clear evidence of how bad the sponsorship market is in the Cup series right now? Mark Martin is one of the most respected, successful, and talented drivers the circuit has ever known. He’s going to finish second in the standings, and has won five races this year. Yet Kellogg’s won’t be returning to the team next year and CARQUEST will only be back for eight races. GoDaddy will sponsor the team for 20 races, while Delphi will be primary sponsor of the No. 5 car for two events. That still leaves six points paying events that Martin isn’t sponsored for at this point. It’s scary to think about, especially for the smaller, less successful team owners….

It was a study in contrasts when Johnson and Busch were battling for the lead. Johnson and Knaus are one of the more enduring driver-crew chief combinations in the garage area, while Busch’s crew chief is a lame duck with one race left to run with Penske South.

It was far from a perfect race, but the 312-mile distance at a one mile track which cars routinely lap at under 30 seconds seemed pretty close to the ideal length for a Cup event. Maybe all the 500-milers next year should be 500 kilometers instead?

The National Enquirer ran an article earlier this week claiming Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s drinking is out of control, he’s approaching a nervous breakdown, and he shows up race mornings morose and resigned instead of eager and enthused. This information was attributed to “a source close to the situation” that could be any one of numerous hangers on who Earnhardt has shed from his orbit over the years. So maybe that’s the solution – hire the Bat-Faced Boy as Junior’s new crew chief.

Give Carl Edwards some style points for not taking himself too seriously. Everyone wondered what he’d do if he won a race and couldn’t do his traditional backflip celebration owing to his still-healing foot. So after winning Saturday’s Nationwide race, Edwards got out of the car and did an awkward somersault on the track.

Phoenix had a decent crowd on Sunday, even if it was far from a sellout. But Saturday’s Nationwide attendance was downright embarrassing.

Yeah, it’s a tough real estate market. Having thrown in the towel on developing their Staten Island track, the ISC has agreed in principle to sell the 676-acre tract to another entity for $80 million. That’s about $30 million less than the ISC paid for it. Ouch. You know what they say. A million dollars here, a million dollars there, and all of a sudden you’re talking about real money.

A lot of folks are quick to point out what the new ESPN coverage is lacking, and I don’t disagree with much of the criticism, but sometimes credit must be given when it’s due. The pre-race tribute to Martin was excellent. It was rather curious, though, that no mention was made that Martin lost a title to Dale Earnhardt in 1990 because of a 46-point penalty NASCAR hit him with at Rockingham, the second race of the season. The infraction NASCAR objected to was a carb spacer that was bolted to the manifold rather than welded as the rule stipulated. Even Earnhardt’s car owner Richard Childress admitted bolting the spacer to the manifold rather than welding it offered no performance advantage, but NASCAR stuck by their call. The penalty didn’t finish off Martin’s championship hopes, though. Roush and Martin shot themselves in the foot during the Atlanta season finale by running a Yates-prepared car rather than the mounts they were used to. (For an excellent article on that topic, read Tom Higgins’s account.) One thing about the historic footage that was part of ESPN’s pre-race coverage is that it was hard not to notice how much better and more “stock” cars of that era looked.

After watching him take out Hamlin in Saturday’s Nationwide race, I’m beginning to see why some wags refer to the driver of the No. 88 car as “Brad Cause-a-wreck-ski.” Hamlin’s post-race quote was perfect. When asked if NASCAR should do something about Brad Keselowski, Hamlin flashed a nasty grin and replied, “No, that’s OK. I’ll take care of it.” To be continued? Somewhere, the Intimidator is smiling.

What did the No. 19 team call that unfortunate shade of green their car was slathered in Sunday? Back in high school, when the same shade was popular on Chevys we called it ‘Snot Pretty.

It appears with the declining ratings for Cup races ABC is having increasing problems filling its commercial load. Where the problem is particularly evident is during the local affiliates’ scheduled breaks, which are increasingly low rent. I mean, these are the sort of ads normally consigned to late night reruns of the Dukes of Hazzard. Will those affiliates dip to the “1-900-Call Me” level in time for Homestead?

Brian France and his lawyers are apparently shelling out big bucks to keep a legal dispute involving his divorce from his wife of four years from being made public. The court notes that it’s an unusual request, as such court documents are normally available to the public and such hearings are usually fair game for the media. France’s lawyer pointed out the presence of a Charlotte Observer reporter at the hearing to keep the records sealed by noting “the big bad wolf is blowing at the door.” (France really doesn’t like the media, does he? That’s cool. In this journalist’s case, I really don’t like him either.) France’s lawyer went on to argue that since France is rich and has spent all this money, he ought to be able to keep the records sealed because revealing their content would do him irreparable harm. Now, I’m not a lawyer and I don’t play one on TV, but my guess is now that the weasel’s halfway out of the bag it’s better to just let the story out. In this tabloid crazed society that made a princess of Paris Hilton – who is most famous just for being famous – absent hard evidence on France folks are going to assume the worst. My guess is readers of the National Enquirer (see above) are going to guess he was caught by his wife beating a homosexual prostitute in their marital bed while in the midst of a psychotic episode fueled by meth and strawberry wine. Or, worse yet, he went on a date with Paris Hilton, and there’s video evidence of the evening….

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

Kurt Busch seemed to have a car that could compete with the No. 48, at least in clean air, but a slow pit stop dropped him out of contention.

Tony Stewart struggled with an ill-handling car all afternoon. The contact he endured in the wreck Junior triggered just added insult to injury.

Keselowski felt what it was like to be on the receiving end of another driver’s front bumper. Apparently, he didn’t like it.

Kevin Harvick’s win in Friday’s truck race and second-place finish in Saturday’s Nationwide race didn’t translate to success on Sunday. His car was so out to lunch I half expected to see his crew hand him a picnic basket and fishing pole during the final pit stop.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

At times, it looked like Johnson was on cruise control much of the event, but Johnson barely escaped potentially race-ending contact with Robby Gordon and Jamie McMurray while lapping them.

The way this season has gone for Jeff Burton, a second-place finish has to feel like a win. Burton had the car sideways for the final 20 laps in a Quixotic attempt to catch Johnson.

Jeff Gordon’s tangle with Kyle Busch and the post-contact confrontation could easily have cost him that top-10 finish.

Martin Truex Jr. enjoyed his best finish of the 2009 season.

Six members of Earnhardt Jr.’s pit crew were lucky to escape serious injury when the van they were riding in to the track was hit broadside. Hey, guys, leave the wrecking to your driver!

Worth Noting

  • Johnson’s victory was his seventh of the season and his third consecutive win in the Phoenix fall race.
  • Burton’s second-place finish was his best since he won at Charlotte last fall. He now has three consecutive top-10 finishes.
  • Hamlin (third) has finished in the top three in three of the last four races.
  • Martin finished fourth for the second straight week.
  • Truex’s fifth-place finish was his first top-five result since Watkins Glen in August 2008.
  • Clint Bowyer finished seventh for the second straight week.
  • Gordon (ninth) enjoyed a top-10 finish for the first time since Martinsville. But he still put a .44 slug in his rental car’s radio when it started playing the Eagle’s “New Kid In Town” over the weekend.
  • David Reutimann (10th) drove to his first top-10 finish since Kansas.
  • Marcos Ambrose’s 11th-place finish was his best since Bristol. But he’s still the only driver in the series who gets the summer off when he returns home after next week’s race.
  • These Fords seem to be agreeing with AJ Allmendinger, who has driven to 10th and 13th-place finishes since making the switch.
  • Edwards hasn’t managed a top-five finish since Michigan in August.
  • Ron Hornaday at 51 years of age has become the most senior champion ever in one of NASCAR’s top-three touring series. I gotta admit, I thought one of Hornaday’s sponsors, Indian Motorcycles, had gone out of business years ago. They haven’t. Really wealthy people with a taste for vintage-styled motorcycles can check them out here. Tasty, but a bit rich for my budget.
  • The top-10 finishers at Phoenix drove seven Chevys, two Toyotas and a lone Dodge. Allmendinger in 13th was the top-finishing Ford pilot.
  • Joey Logano’s 21st-place finish was the best by a rookie. It’s been a while since we’ve heard that “Sliced Bread” nickname, huh?

What’s the Points?

And then, there were two. Only Martin can upset Johnson’s apple cart at Homestead. Presuming the visitors from V don’t kidnap Johnson and use him as a pre-Thanksgiving snack, Gordon will be eliminated when Johnson takes the green flag at Homestead.

Right now, the gap between Johnson and Martin stands at 108. But under the traditional and legitimate pre-Chase points system, Johnson would have moved from third to first in the standings after Phoenix. He’d be leading Stewart by 13 points and Gordon by 56 heading into next weekend’s season finale, and we’d have the sort of barnburner on our hands the Chase was supposed to produce. Sigh.

Well, this is going to be short and sweet. All 12 of the drivers in the Chase left Phoenix in the same points position they entered the race in. (Yeah, yeah, yeah. Don’t end a sentence with a preposition. This is something up with which I’m not going to put.) In fact, the top-22 drivers held position after Phoenix. Tell me again how great this Chase points system is.

Kyle Busch now leads Matt Kenseth by 45 points in their battle for “Best of the Rest” in 13th.

And last but not least, just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse Earnhardt fell another spot to 24th in the standings. In comparison, McMurray is currently 22nd in the standings and he’s not only getting the ax, he’s still looking for a ride for 2009.

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 one three cans, with that extra can added for some decent racing back in the pack and an event that ended by 6:30 ET.

Next Up: It’s off to Homestead to finally end a season that should have been dragged behind the woodshed and had a bullet put between its eyes about three months ago. Somewhere, over the rainbow….

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