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Matt McLaughlin’s Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2010 Phoenix Spring Race Recap

The Key Moment: Jeff Gordon had the lead on the final restart but Ryan Newman had a little more “want-to,” stuffing his car down into the first corner WFO while Gordon spun his tires.

In a Nutshell: The race is not always to the swift or the battle to the strong. – Ecclesiastes 9:11

Dramatic Moment: When the field lined up for a green-white-checkered restart, with a mix of some drivers on four new tires and some with just new right-side tires, a race that had been merely tepid came to a slow simmer for about 10 seconds.

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

Yeah, OK so sometimes two tires actually is the right call. I just can’t believe no driver running back in the high teens dared to stay out and try to gut out a win.

Phoenix is one of those tracks that traditionally only had one race date a year, which it deserved for no reason other than at least it was a unique layout and not another cookie-cutter. But because the ISC purchased the speedway, Phoenix magically got a second date each year and attendance has been down ever since. Oh boy, we get to go back to Phoenix this fall! Not surprisingly, good tickets are still available for that event. No need to hurry to get yours… they’ll still be available the afternoon of the race. I’d compare Phoenix to Jack Daniel’s: A little is good, but too much will make you comatose. Anyone else up for a 200-mile Cup race in the Valley of the Sun?

You think the long winless droughts that several top-name drivers (like Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and others) are mired in doesn’t eat away at them? Newman had been stuck in a similar such drought with no victories since the ’08 Daytona 500 back when he was still with Penske. Despite a really good season with a startup team last year, there had to be late nights Newman lay awake wondering if he’d made the right career call and if Stewart knew what he was doing. You don’t think so? Newman looked happier to win Saturday night at Phoenix than he did after winning that Daytona 500, and by his own admission, this latest victory was “the most emotional” of his career. Yeah, not winning for protracted periods of time is gut-wrenching for all these guys.

He might have finished badly (28th) but you have to guess that FOX executives are going to take Scott Riggs, who brought out that final caution, to a nice dinner this week. Were it not for that final caution, the race would have redefined the word “insipid.”

Hopefully, some of you were able to stay up to see the end of Friday’s Nationwide Series race, which ESPN unwisely scheduled to end in the late night hours. There was no doubt that Kyle Busch in the No. 18 car was the fastest thing on the track, but it took a nifty bit of driving to seal the win. Three quarters of the way through the race on a restart Busch, as the race leader, pulled a Busch league move, brake checking the field on a restart which triggered a massive wreck. To young Mr. Busch’s considerable and vocal chagrin, NASCAR decided that Brad Keselowski (another fan favorite), who had clearly violated the rules by beating the leader to the line, was the new race leader when the field lined up for the green flag. Master Busch, taking exception to that notion, jumped the ensuing restart by such an intolerable degree (subtlety is not a color in Busch’s Crayola Toolbox) NASCAR served him a pass-through penalty. Busch resumed the race in 19th, the last car on the lead lap, and seemed to have an all-certain victory stripped away until one last caution gave him another chance. With eight laps to go, Busch restarted 10th, but when the smoke cleared he’d won the race at a track where passing is said to be at a premium. Yeah, it was exciting as Hell to watch even if the Boy-Bitch won, but it sure does make the Nationwide Toyota team’s argument they are at a horsepower disadvantage to the real (American) cars look a bit foolish. The No. 18 car seemed to handle OK in a straight line….

If the late start time was intended to make it easier for area fans to attend that Nationwide race, the experiment didn’t pay off. To say the size of the crowd at Friday night’s race was pitiful is to be charitable. Didn’t all the historic Southern tracks that used to dominate the schedule lose their races because they couldn’t put enough butts in the seats? Welcome to the Brian France era. He’d rather play to pitiful crowds in big TV markets than respectable crowds down South. I guess Brian was having trouble copping coke in Rockingham….

FOX commented on the second most annoying pest during the Phoenix race weekend, those damned fungus gnats, but not the most annoying: the residents of the Hollywood Hotel pre-race program.

Phoenix and Scottsdale are beautiful areas. My beloved sister Maryellen recently moved there, and I can’t wait to get enough scratch and time off this merry-go-round to go visit her new home. But the area has recently been plagued by Mexican drug cartel violence and gunpoint kidnapping for ransom in the Hispanic community, a disturbing trend that perhaps culminated in the recent shooting of a rancher just out surveying his property on an ATV. I’m a passionate advocate of the Second Amendment, but given the climate of violence in the area, I think FOX would do well to cut with all this “Duel In the Desert” and “shootout” crap.

Speaking of late nights, what was Phoenix track management thinking when they decided to extend the length of their race by 63 miles in what was the first west coast night race? Don’t they read NASCAR’s own demographic data that indicates the fanbase is graying at a pretty impressive pace? Old folks like me need our sleep. Yeah, I used to routinely stay up until three and four in the morning, but I used to drive an IROC, wear a Member’s Only Jacket, listen to Duran Duran and snort coke too.

Kenseth recently commented on his tangle with Gordon at Martinsville and the implications of the incident going forward at The International Bowling Hall of Fame in an effort to sell tickets for the upcoming Fort Worth race. Honest to God, I’m not making this up; I’m just reporting it with a bemused grin.

I will rarely slam fans, and in this instance I am talking about a tiny minority of those on hand at Phoenix. But how hard is the term “A Moment of Silence” to understand? After the terrible mine disaster in West Virginia this week, the worst such incident in decades, a moment of respectful prayer for the souls lost just trying to make a living was appropriate – not a bunch of drunken howling fools trying to get themselves heard on TV. Given the demographics, some of those lost miners were fans of this sport. You might have sat beside them at Bristol or Richmond (or at Phoenix, for that matter.) Prayers go out to the surviving family members of those lost, to their co-workers and friends, that devastated community, and to the rescuers whose efforts were good-hearted, determined, but ultimately unsuccessful.

If Kyle Busch really wanted to do something nice for his fans, he didn’t have to paint his car pink. He could have just picked both of them up in a Yaris and taken them to dinner.

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

Kasey Kahne got one hell of an unwelcome birthday gift when Kurt Busch slid up into him on lap 15, sending the No. 9 car into the wall. Kahne was forced to the garage area and lost over a hundred laps to the field, eventually winding up 39th.

For the second straight race, Gordon managed to grab defeat out of the jaws of victory in the final two laps.

Kyle Busch had victory in hand when Riggs, who by all rights should have parked in the first few laps, hit the wall. His team’s decision to go with four tires resulted in an eighth-place finish.

Jeff Burton had a top-10 car for most of the race, but he was never able to bounce back after a penalty for pitting outside the box, slumping to 25th.

While I’m sure Tony Stewart was thrilled to see his employee/friend Newman win the race, he probably wishes his car hadn’t been tantamount to a rolling chicane most of the evening. He wound up 23rd.

Denny Hamlin gutted out the entire race less than two weeks after surgery to repair a torn ACL, but he got caught up in the first wreck of the evening and had to endure electrical issues later in the race en route to 30th place. Talk about tossing a man in the river who don’t need to be swimming….

John Wes Townley (and does that sound like the perfect name for a Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young roadie or what?) might have wrecked his last RCR entry for awhile. Reports are his practice wreck cost JWT his ride. RCR sources deny that’s the case. Only this time, they can’t blame Jayski for the rumor and threaten legal action. It’s ESPN that broke the news. RCR and the Internet: It’s sort of like Mother Teresa and strip clubs.

Editor’s Note: On Sunday, Frontstretch learned Townley will not race the No. 21 car at Texas.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

After a dismal start to the season, Newman has now posted two top-five finishes in a row, scored his first race win since the 2008 Daytona 500, and moved forward six spots in the points to within striking distance of the top 12 (22nd to 16th). All in all, a pretty fair night’s work.

Mark Martin’s car was so out to lunch early in the race he could barely stay on the lead lap. But late race adjustments and that final round of pit stops left Martin with a fourth-place finish.

Robby Gordon’s 14th-place finish moved the No. 7 car into the Top 35 in owner points, meaning Gordon will run at Texas next week no matter what happens in qualifying. After the race, Robby ran to thank his crew chief, but couldn’t remember who the hell it was this week.

For the second weekend in a row, Marcos Ambrose finished 11th. And for the first weekend in a row, Ambrose didn’t wreck half the field to accomplish the feat. If he and his car owner go out this week to have a drink to celebrate the accomplishment, I’d suggest motorcyclists in the Charlotte area keep their mounts parked until after Texas.

Worth Noting

  • The top-five finishers at Phoenix all drove Chevys. The rest of the top 10 consisted of another Chevy, two Fords and two Toyotas, which presumably had been shorn of their floormats. The top finishing Dodge pilot was Keselowski in 16th.
  • Jimmie Johnson (third) hasn’t finished outside the top 12 since Daytona.
  • Martin (fourth) posted his first top-10 finish since Vegas.
  • Carl Edwards (seventh) now has three consecutive top-10 finishes. More importantly, he hasn’t put anyone on their roofs in three consecutive races. Happy furry, monsters feeling happy….
  • Kyle Busch’s eighth-place result was his best of the 2010 Cup campaign.
  • Joey Logano (10th on Saturday) has combined to lead a total of three laps this season.
  • Robby Gordon’s 14th-place finish was his best since he ran third at Charlotte last May.
  • With a combined 19 races having been run in NASCAR’s top three touring series in 2010, a Ford has yet to visit victory lane. I don’t think the Ford “Swap Your Ride” campaign is going to get a lot of traction in the garage area. Where are those FR9 engines?
  • Greg Biffle struggled all night and missed finishing in the top-10 for the first time in this season’s seven points races. Biffle and Kenseth now each have six top-10 finishes in those seven races, more than even Johnson, who has five. Clint Bowyer also has five top-10 results this season.
  • Kevin Conway in 33rd was the top-finishing rookie of the race. Get your Conway diecast and t-shirts now!
  • How times have changed. In the first seven races of the season, just one Southern driver, Hamlin, has won a race.

What’s the Points?

Do we really need to discuss points already? Spring has just sprung. I’m watching a groundhog merrily chewing the daffodils in the garden as I write this column, wondering where my .22 is to fix the problem. You realize by the time points really matter, we’ll be raking leaves and old Mr. Groundhog with the sweet tooth will have been dispatched to his eternal reward.

OK, I guess we’ll quickly go over it. Johnson still leads the points by 36 over Kenseth, who supplants teammate Biffle in the second position. Biffle is 92 points out of first.

Harvick held his ground behind them in fourth. Bowyer moved up three spots to sixth, and is one position behind Gordon, who advanced a spot to fifth.

Further back, Burton fell two spots to seventh. Edwards was the big winner in Saturday night’s point lotto: he sprang forward six positions and into the top 12 in eighth. Stewart fell a spot to ninth, while his highness Earnhardt Jr. rounds out your top 10.

Logano jumped forward two spots to 11th, while Kyle Busch moved forward four spots in the points and into the top 12. Martin’s late race rally propelled him forward four spots to 13th, just 11 points behind Busch for a Chase spot. That’s workable.

On the down side, Kurt Busch’s early race wreck cost him big in the points. He fell outside the top 12, down eight spots from sixth to 14th. Early-season Cinderella Paul Menard also fell sharply, down four spots from 11th to 15th.

Here’s an interesting statistic about the drivers ranked second through 12th in the standings right now: None of them have won a race this season.

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 two-and-a-half cans, with the extra half can added for the finish. Just another McRace at another McTrack. You want fries with that?

Next Up: Get ready for all sorts of lousy cowboy analogies and Jeff Hammond dressed like an extra from Brokeback Mountain, because it’s off to Fort Worth for another cookie-cutter 500-miler.

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