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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin’s Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2009 Homestead Race Recap

The Key Moment: Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin made quick work of Kurt Busch on the final restart, and Hamlin prevailed in the battle of the JGR teammates to drive to an uncontested win.

In a Nutshell: With a whimper, not a bang, the 2009 Cup season finished, imploding upon itself with a very unpleasant sneezing and wheezing as the calliope collapsed to the ground.

Dramatic Moment: Unfortunately, most of them occurred at the midpoint of Saturday’s Nationwide race, but watching Juan Pablo Montoya run down Tony Stewart to deliver a little retribution off his front bumper wasn’t bad.

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

Has any other driver in NASCAR history ever won four consecutive titles? I don’t think ESPN ever brought that point up. Seriously, ESPN tends to decide on storylines prior to the race, then spend the next three hours beating fans over the head with them.

Some folks really dislike Rick Hendrick and I have my own doubts about how good one team’s domination is for the sport (while holding him to a certain degree of affection for letting Tim Richmond reach his potential) but it surely does seem that Mr. Hendrick has had to face more personal tragedy than any mortal since Job. Thoughts and prayers go out to his niece and the Hendrick family as they are forced to face yet another challenge.

Starting a stock car race on the east coast after 3:30 with weather threatening? Isn’t that like the NFL holding the Super Bowl at 4:45 a.m. on a Tuesday? Nope, they’re not going to do that. It would be stupid, simply stupid.

Some highlights from ABC’s pre-race Jimmie Johnson love fest. “My attorney is wearing his lucky shoes.” “Drink the Kool-Aid.” “Chad makes sure the crew has their shirts tucked in and they’re polite….” Was anyone else feeling a little nauseous thinking about how much the sport has changed since Cale Yarborough won his three straight titles?

The final TV ratings for last week’s Phoenix race came in at 3.3 in the Nielsen Ratings. Wow, ouch, Medic! It seems the Chase format isn’t igniting fan fervor to quite the degree Brian France hoped. For the record, the Phoenix spring race drew a 3.6 rating. In 2007 this same race drew a 3.8. In 2005 it posted a solid 5.0. It’s the economy, right? Balderdash. The race was on network TV. Even fans who couldn’t travel to the track or who have canceled their cable TV contracts could have watched it for free.

It didn’t matter if you love Denny Hamlin or you loathe him, if you pull for Bad Brad Kesolowski or you’d like to see him eaten by a pack of Albino Snow Weasels, it was just flat out cool to see Hamlin make good on last week’s promise to rattle Kesolwski’s cage hard in Saturday’s Nationwide race by sending him spinning off his front bumper on lap 35. No innocent drivers were collected, and Hamlin accepted his one-lap penalty for rough driving with a wink and a grin but no apology. Genuine human emotion and a dose of rivalry in NASCAR racing? Scotty, beam me up. I’ve found myself back in the 1980s.

There’s the downside of branding a race weekend. During the Ford Championship weekend we watched two races and two titles claimed by Chevy drivers and the other race and title awarded to a Toyota pilot.

I’m not sure Johnson was thinking clearly when he decided to continue his burnout down a crowded pit road. What a tragedy it would have been had the car gotten out from under him and he’d driven into that crowd. It would have completely overshadowed a very notable accomplishment.

Among those drivers who finished 2009 with a big goose egg in the win column, you find Carl Edwards (who won nine races last year) Greg Biffle, Jeff Burton, Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

If this season doesn’t make NASCAR brass rethink this whole Chase mess, what will? C’mon, guys, it’s time to ship the Chase off to the Island of Unwanted Toys.

Much will be made of the fact that Johnson broke Yarborough’s record for consecutive championships. But there will always be that footnote in blinking red neon letters that Johnson’s four titles were under the Chase and Cale had to battle all year for his three championships. And let me ask you this: If you were in a house-clearing barroom brawl, who would you want to have your back, Johnson or Yarborough?

Brian France held a press conference on Friday and used a whole lot of words to say a whole lot of nothing. Apparently, he’s well satisfied with everything and says all the challenges the sport is facing can be dealt with without offering any specifics on to how he plans to deal with those challenges, be it flagging attendance at races, declining TV ratings, or the general malaise that is gripping the sport. To quote that Yoda-like bastion of wisdom, “2010 doesn’t look to be an awfully lot better.” Not what I wanted to hear. “All is well,” said the captain of the Titanic. “Keep on dancing on the foredeck. We’re only stopping by this iceberg to grab up some more ice cubes to keep the party rolling.”

Did it seem like the engines Stewart and Ryan Newman were getting from Hendrick Motorsports once the Chase began lacked the oats of the mills under the hood of the Nos. 48, 24 and 5 cars?

I hate racism. I hate it like I hate cancer. Cancer has claimed too many of my family members and friends, some as young as 17. Eventually it will claim me. I know how I’m going to die, just not when. But I hate reverse racism as well. Montoya is a talented racecar driver who has excelled in many disciplines in the sport ranging from Formula 1 to NASCAR. I welcome his talent and his blunt personality with open arms. But all week, NASCAR has been trying to promote Montoya as the Second Coming to Hispanic (well I think the official line is “Latino“) race fans. Well, is it OK for white or black race fans to pull for the feisty, outspoken driver too? Is it OK for “Latino” fans to pull for Jeff Gordon, Edwards or Johnson? I’m an American-Irish Catholic. Does that mean I have to root for a driver with the same heritage or am I free to root for whatever driver lights my fire? Given this week’s promotion, NASCAR wants to go back to the Wendell Scott days when he had to sit out a race because the “colored” ambulance wasn’t at the track.

Last week it was reported Brian France and his legal team were trying hard to keep details of a lawsuit Brian filed against his former wife private. Mr. France’s lawyer said if details of the case became public, it could do his client’s reputation irreparable harm. Then, this week it was revealed that Jeremy Mayfield’s lawyers are trying to depose the former Mrs. France. Am I seeing a relationship here? Then late yesterday afternoon I got an email from a person purporting to be in the employ of one of Mayfield’s lawyers. She refused to give me a number and an extension so I could speak to her and this is the internet so it could have been a bored truck driver sitting in his trailer home trying to toss an Ozark in the cesspool. But this person claims (and had the legal jargon down cold) they want to discuss Brian France’s own past or present substance abuse issues with his former wife. Throw some popcorn in the microwave and a six-pack in the cooler. Watching this one play out could be more entertaining to watch than the 2009 Cup season.

For fans who felt ESPN phoned in their portion of the 2009 Cup season, just remember the next time you watch a race FOX and most likely “Little Digger” will be back to annoy the crap out of you. Darrell Waltrip certainly will unless he goes out riding with his brother Michael during the off-season. That’s one of the best things about Christmas. FOX sports doesn’t cover Christmas.

A note to Kyle Busch’s girlfriend about protocol during the National Anthem… wrong hand, Hun.

Tom Petty is from Florida. And a long time ago he summed up my feelings towards my the 2009 Cup season and how I feel about all my loyal readers who have stayed with me and the sport this season despite the challenges. “And it’s all over before you know it, and the days go by so fast, the bad times seem to last forever, and the good times they never seem to last, but wherever you are tonight, I wish you the best of everything, and I hope you found, whatever you were looking for.” I want go way off the grid for a second and offer up something for my many readers from here in the Northeast Quadrant of the US of A, and fellow fans of the Boss. Trust me, this is so cool it makes up for watching a dozen boring NASCAR races. And if it doesn’t get you up and dancing, have a registered nurse stop by and check your pulse. Long live the Boss and the Spectrum.

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

Marcos Ambrose led the race early and clearly had a strong car. Not long afterwards he cut down a tire, then he spun out on lap 81 and again on 108.

Elliott Sadler wrecked his car in a bizarre pit road pileup during the fourth caution period.

Jack Roush’s Fords had won the last five Homestead Cup races. On Sunday none of the organization’s five drivers even led a lap.

Mark Martin knew going into the day the odds were stacked against him to win the title, but you have to believe he’d have liked a more competitive car with which to finish the season.

It was another trying afternoon for Earnhardt Jr., who finished 28th after hitting the wall umpteen times. Earnhardt finished 25th in the standings while his three teammates finished first, second and third.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

Hamlin had to overcome a 38th-place starting spot en route to his fourth victory of the season.

They closed out the season without a win, but Richard Childress Racing has been making major strides back towards respectability lately. Three drivers finishing in the top 15 was a pretty nice way to end the season.

Kurt Busch and Pat Tryson ended their relationship on an upbeat note with a fourth straight finish.

Bill Elliott ended his career with a solid 16th-place finish in the lightly regarded Wood Brothers Ford.

Worth Noting

  • Hamlin’s win was his fourth of the season and second of the Chase. In five of those 10 Chase races Hamlin finished first, second or third. His DNFs at Charlotte, Fontana and Talladega did in Hamlin’s title hopes or he’d have been in the mix.
  • Burton finished out the year with four straight top-10 finishes and two straight runner-up results. As it stands written in the Book of Bruce, “Man the dope is there’s still hope.”
  • Harvick (third) ended the season with top-five finishes in two of the last three races. Those finishes account for two of the five top-five finishes Harvick earned all season.
  • Kurt Busch (fourth) led nine of the 10 Chase races. Johnson only led in eight Chase races.
  • Johnson did score top-10 finishes in nine of the 10 Chase races.
  • Gordon (sixth) ends the season with 25 top-10 finishes in 36 races. A lot of seasons, that would have been good enough to win the title. Or it would have been before they invented Johnson.
  • Kyle Busch’s eighth-place finish was his best since Martinsville.
  • AJ Allmendinger (10th) has average an 11th-place finish in the three races he ran in Fords to end the season. I don’t know if his car was running the Ecoboost engine but it had to be an ego-boost for the former open wheel racer.
  • Elliott finished 16th for the third time in his 12-race 2009 Cup schedule.
  • The top-10 finishers at Homestead drove two Toyotas, five Chevys, a pair of Fords and a Dodge. The top-10 points finishers drove six Chevys, two Dodges, a Ford and a Toyota.
  • Joey Logano scored the top finish by a rookie at Homestead.

What’s the Points?

Here’s a surprise. Johnson won the title.

Under the traditional points system Johnson still would have won the title. He’d have beaten second-place Gordon by 66 points and Stewart by 71 points. Of course were he running for a title its doubtful he’d have engaged in that shoving match with Montoya.

Hamlin’s win propelled him forward five spots to fifth in the standings. That’s not bad for a driver with three DNFs in the 10-race Chase.

Thanks to their mid-race bamming and framming, Stewart fell a spot to sixth in the standings and Montoya fell two spots to eighth.

In the “Best of the Rest” category Kyle Busch finished 13th, 68 points ahead of Kenseth.

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, two for the race and one for the road. See ya on the breeze.

Next Up: A long winter’s nap. Racing, or the putrid approximation of racing NASCAR offers up as computation these days, resumes in February at Daytona. In the meantime, I wish you all a Happy Thanksgiving (and I am most thankful for my continuingly loyal readership) and blessed and joyful Christmas (or whatever winter holiday you celebrate even if it’s Festivus). My best wishes to friends and foes alike for the best of everything in the coming New Year. That’s the news and I am out of here.