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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

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

The Key MomentDenny Hamlin muscled his way past Jeff Burton on the final restart and held off a hard-charging Jimmie Johnson to claim his second win in the last three races. NASCAR officials must have had their flights booked, because they didn’t even bother to throw a debris caution on the final two laps to let Johnson win.

In a Nutshell – You know, if you only watch the final 20 minutes of these things the racing isn’t too bad this year.

Dramatic Moment – On a restart with 17 laps to go, some cars had four fresh tires and others had two. Some major scrambling ensued; Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart got to arguing over real estate, and Carl Edwards weighed in for the same acreage when Stewart got sideways. The resulting wreck decimated some very competitive cars.

It seems maybe Gordon is getting sick of getting beat by Johnson. They had a few extracurricular moments out on the track Monday that would have had Ms. Manners’ sphincter slam shut like a steel rose.

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

After making contact with the No. 48, over his radio Gordon opined that Johnson was just sore because he’s used to being treated differently than everyone else. Wow. I seem to recall another young multi-time champion who drove for Rick Hendrick that had the same attitude a decade ago. Mr. Dog, meet Mr. Fire Hydrant. Who’s pissing on who?

You figure with the way Hamlin is running, some drivers struggling to get traction this year are going to schedule unnecessary knee surgery to see if it makes them faster, too?

It’s been a while since I’ve seen Gordon race that aggressively, but then again, it’s been a while since he had a car that dominant. Even the Vegas car wasn’t as good as his Texas mount. Is Gordon getting frustrated because of the quality of rides some weeks, or something else? Whatever the case, it’s now been a year since the winningest active driver won a Cup race. What’s Johnson going to do to piss Gordon off next… start dating Brooke?

The TV commentators and even some of the drivers said there was no appreciable difference at Texas despite the change from the rear wing to the rear blade spoiler. But in watching several instances of cars getting close together side-by-side, it seemed the new aero package was causing the inside car to get bad loose, particularly if the outside car was a few inches ahead. My guess is NASCAR needs to re-balance the cars to put more weight on the front tires. A spate of blown right rears seems to bear that out.

Guess what the weather forecast is for Talladega next weekend? A 60% chance of thunderstorms on Saturday and Sunday. Oh, joy!

The official party line is that Hendrick Motorsports and Stewart-Haas Racing are two separate entities. It has to be, since all team owners are limited by the rules to four cars, and any insinuation that’s not the case by the media causes all sort of ill tempers to flow. There’s just one problem with this whole arrangement: someone better tell Stewart. For two years now, he’s constantly referred to Johnson, Gordon, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. as teammates.

For the record: one hour and 45 minutes. That’s how long it took me to watch the race on the DVR while fast forwarding through commercials, the Hollywood Hotel inane chatter, and watching the pace car lead the field around in circles. It’s like a video game: When Darrell Waltrip starts talking, you have to be fast on that FF button (and once he does, he’s usually at it awhile.) Note to self: pick up a fresh set of Duracell AAs tomorrow.

So Kasey Kahne is going to be driving the No. 5 car in 2012, but hasn’t announced his plans for 2011 beyond the fact he won’t be back with RPM. Nobody’s discussing it quite yet, but if I was Earnhardt Jr. I’d shave, let someone else count the nightly receipts at the Whiskey River saloons, and start winning some damn races.

Isn’t it interesting that Kahne is already addressing his boss to be as “Mr. Hendrick” even though he calls his current titular boss “Richard.”

One possible home for Kahne being bandied about is a third seat at Stewart-Haas Racing, the de facto fifth and sixth Hendrick teams. Naturally, such a move would be contingent on Bud following Kahne to his new home (and Bud was involved with Rick Hendrick for many years) or a new sponsor signing on with the outfit. I can’t help but recall last year Richard Childress Racing struggled with four teams, and it seemed that they turned things around about the time they decided to cut back to three. Sometimes, too much is just enough, and sometimes, too much is just too much.

One final thought on Kahne prior to Thursday’s column (and for the record, it’s already written. I’m going to Carlisle this week for the semi-annual Pilgrimage to Mecca for Gearheads). Longtime readers know I am a huge fan of Jayski’s Silly Season page, and to a large extent my so-called career is owed to Jay’s choice to add links to other sites’ columns. It used to be that in the ’90s, Silly Season started in the early fall, as drivers decided where they’d compete the following year. Now, we have a high profile driver announcing his plans not for 2011, but for a year hence seven races into the current season. Silly Season is now officially 365 days long, if not 730 days long. Of course, from an outsider’s view it’ll be interesting to see if GM is even still involved with our sport by 2012. I hear they lost a few bucks last year, and there’s no telling if the upcoming and highly touted Volt might not be a rolling barbecue pit when it is finally released. Remember the Vega? Or the Citation? Or the Aztek?

I guess it’s just an unintended consequence of the rule that locks the Top 35 in the field in each week’s Cup race, but “crowds” for qualifying on Fridays lately have not only been a bit sparse but downright pathetic. You have to wonder if it even paid for TMS management to hire folks to collect the tickets, provide security (to chase motorcyclists away at the most unfriendly track on the planet for two-wheel types) and pickup the trash afterwards on qualifying day. If I was a track owner, I think I’d just let whoever wanted to come to qualifying in free, in hopes of getting some first-time fans to find out where the track was located, experience what it looked and sounded like live and in person, then sell a few unwanted tickets for Sunday’s event. It wasn’t all that long ago, at least not in the grand scheme of things, that I used to pay $10 (equivalent to five gallons of gas or two six-packs back in the day) to watch qualifying at Pocono and spend an hour in traffic trying to the leave the track after the field was set.

Eddie Gossage, TMS track promoter, and I haven’t always seen eye-to-eye, particularly when it came to the issue of fans being able to bring their own coolers to the track. Eventually, that issue blew over with the end result being coolers are still welcome at Texas (even if they do still hate two-wheelers.) That being said, it was great to see Gossage back at the track, seemingly healthy and a little lighter, after his recent unspecified health scare. Been there, done that. Growing old sucks, but it beats the alternative.

Speaking of qualifying, what’s happened to Ryan Newman on Fridays? Recall from 2002 to 2007, Newman won at least five poles a season. In 2003, he qualified first 11 times. Newman’s last pole was scored at Martinsville last fall, and this year he’s averaging a 15th-place qualifying spot.

It sounded like a plan in the beginning. TMS announced because of the inconvenience caused by this weekend’s crappy weather, fans holding tickets to either the Nationwide Series race or the Cup race could enjoy both events on Monday at no extra charge as long as they could stick around. But the press release went on to note that fans who hadn’t been planning to attend either race but wanted to come by for the “doubleheader” on Monday could do so… with ticket prices starting “as low as” $91. Let’s face it: if you can go to the races on Monday, very likely you are either unemployed, underemployed or retired and likely living on a fixed income. $91 is a lot of money. I remember in the old days, Pocono and Dover used to admit fans for free on Monday if bad weather forced the races to be postponed.

Is there anything better than rain at the racetrack leading to extended pre-race coverage? I mean, other than your HMO deciding the hospital janitor is going to perform your next colonoscopy using a lightly buttered, ’70’s era Polaroid camera duct-taped to a broom handle?

It was interesting that one of the themes of Saturday’s extended rain delay coverage was the fact that these days, rookies only have a short period to prove themselves before being released. The host(ess) of the program was Nicole Briscoe, who might have outlived her rookie status as a broadcaster. Honestly, it was painful to watch her. It was almost as if you could see the shadow of the folks writing her intelligent questions occasionally, but when she had to ad lib it was as if we were watching the Miss Illinois contest again. Her constant repetitions that the track was “a little damp” during downpours made me think that she’d have to change into a cheerleader outfit during commercial break. It’s just another example of modern TV’s notion of how to fix sagging ratings: PIAB (Plug in another blonde.)

Has it really been that long? On April 19th, fully eight years ago, Jack Roush was critically injured and almost drowned during an experimental aircraft accident during the Talladega race weekend. Though I’m sure he’s enjoyed his return to private life, let’s give another shout out to retired Marine Sergeant Larry Hicks, who saved Roush’s life at considerable risk to his own.

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

Gordon clearly had the fastest car at Texas, but got caught up in that late-race wreck. You can blame him, Stewart or Edwards for that mess, but it’s just another sign that when in contention for wins, Gordon just isn’t sealing the deal anymore.

Burton overcame a pit-road penalty (commitment cone violation) and stormed back to the front to take the lead late in the race. As Burton might say, he “put himself in position” to take home the victory… but it didn’t last. Not only did he end up surrendering the lead to Hamlin, but the No. 31 car took an unplanned trip into the outside wall, leaving RCR’s veteran 12th in the final rundown.

David Reutimann had a solid top-10 and even top-five car before his engine expired in spectacular fiery fashion.

Stewart squandered an unexpected pole and a strong run when his car became the Blue Diamond Strike Anywhere match that ignited the big wreck. (As I saw it, Gordon got into the left rear of the No. 14 car, getting it squirrelly. Edwards tried to dive down a lane to avoid Stewart’s suddenly slowing car, but Stewart moved down as well trying to catch his Chevy and Edwards got into the back of him.)

They might have been only 90,000 strong, half the size of the anticipated crowd at Texas due to the rain delay, but it seemed each time the No. 88 car and Junior took the lead the cheering shook the very core of the earth. Yet somehow, the No. 88 outfit once again managed to tune excellence into mediocrity with an eighth-place fade heading to the checkers.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

I really thought that after Hamlin had his knee surgery, he’d run the car to the first caution and abandon ship a couple months. Now, he’s won two of the last three races. That’s sort of comforting, considering I may be awaiting ACL surgery as well.

It was a pretty fair Monday for Kyle Busch. He finished third in the Cup race despite having a car so bad at the start he wanted to take it to the garage area. Then, he completely dominated the Nationwide race to score his fifth victory in that series at Texas.

For the second straight week, Mark Martin grabbed a competitive finish at the end of a race after having been out to lunch most of the event. At one point Monday, he was actually a lap down.

Kahne also struggled to stay on the lead lap and inside the top 20 before that field-decimating wreck allowed him to escape Texas with a top five.

Johnson’s bout of bad temper, deciding to run into the side of the No. 24 car, eventually cost him a cut down tire. He hit the wall late in the race gunning for a win, but still managed to hold on to second place.

Kevin Harvick snaked his way through the big wreck en route to a seventh-place finish.

Newman did a nifty bit of driving to dive below the big wreck en route to an 11th-place result. In even better news, there are unconfirmed reports the mangled corpse of Little Digger was found stuck in the No. 39 car’s rear suspension after Newman took it to the grass.

Worth Noting

  • The top 10 consisted of four Chevys, three Toyotas, two Fords and a Dodge. A Camry may have won the race, but they needed to in order to save face: 305 of 334 laps were led by the Bowtie Brigade.
  • Hamlin has just two finishes inside the top 15 this season. Both are wins.
  • Kyle Busch (third) picked up his first top-five finish since Martinsville last October.
  • Who wants to ride the roller coaster? Kurt Busch (fourth) now has four finishes of sixth or better to go with four of 23rd or worse.
  • Earnhardt Jr. (eighth) now has five straight top-15 finishes. 46 laps led at Texas was also his highest one-race total since Phoenix last April.
  • Martin Truex Jr. (ninth) now has more top-10 finishes (three) than Michael Waltrip had in the NAPA car all of last season (two).
  • Brad Keselowski (14th) has four straight runs of 16th or better. And he’s ended every single one of those races right side up.
  • Jamie McMurray (30th) has now wrecked in four of eight races this season. Daytona 500 curse, anyone?
  • Gordon (31st) has now led more laps in 2010 than anyone other than Kurt Busch (451). He has zero wins to show for it.
  • Juan Pablo Montoya (34th) has wrecked in three of his last four Texas starts.
  • The highest-finishing (and only) rookie in the race was Kevin Conway in 27th. Somewhere, someone with Extenze is smiling… just not over Conway’s final spot in the running order.

What’s the Points?

Johnson’s runner-up finish didn’t add any drama atop the standings. Just eight races in, he’s already leading “rival” Matt Kenseth by 108 points. Greg Biffle, Harvick and Gordon round out the top five, with none of their positions changing from last week.

Behind them, there was plenty of movement. Kyle Busch made quite a jump in the standings, high-stepping it from 12th to sixth. The anointed one, Earnhardt Jr., climbed up three spots to seventh, while Burton dropped a spot to eighth. Kurt Busch followed his brother’s lead, bouncing back up to ninth from 14th while Martin moved back inside the Chase to 10th.

Hamlin made the biggest leap of anyone this week, leaping seven positions from 18th to 11th in the standings. Joey Logano and Stewart are tied for 12th, with Clint Bowyer just one point behind them in 14th. Edwards, Newman and Truex are also solidly in Chase contention; they’re 15th, 16th and 17th, respectively, while all within 25 points of Logano/Stewart.

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 and a half cans, even if there’s more storm water than beer in that extra half-can.

Next Up: It’s off to Talladega for the closest thing NASCAR has to human sacrifice at the altar of ratings. The Aztecs would be proud. (Here, we’re talking about the extinct Central American tribe, not the extinct, hideous Pontiac Crossover.)

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