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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

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

The Key Moment: Kyle Busch outgutted Jeff Gordon on the final restart to take the lead from the outside lane. Having dominated the first half of the race, it felt somewhat appropriate for Busch to fight back and take the win at the end.

In a Nutshell: Sedate night’s all right for napping, get a little sleeping in….

Dramatic Moment: On lap 230, Jeff Burton passed Kyle Busch, indicating to the rest of the field this event had turned from a merry-go-round ride into a race. Busch led 221 of the first 229 laps.

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

Some drivers drove well and others poorly. Kyle Busch won the race. But the true hero this weekend was Heath Calhoun, an Iraqi vet who lost both legs to a roadside bomb yet refuses to let misfortune slow him down. He is emblematic of so many badly injured war veterans who have served nobly to protect our freedoms, then refused to let their injuries keep them from enjoying the freedom they protected in the greatest nation in the history of the earth. NASCAR drivers are brave, but Mr. Calhoun, you are a hero in the fullest sense of the term. Thank you for your service, and Godspeed to you.

Whatever sealer the Sawyer family used to use at Richmond to ensure side-by-side racing in two lanes before selling the track to the ISC needs to be pulled out of storage and slathered all over the track again.

It’s been a busy week off-track for NASCAR personalities. Kyle Busch turned 25 on Sunday. (By the way, is Gordon really going to be 39 this year? He’ll be as old as Brett Favre; draw your own conclusions with Ella Sophia’s Crayolas). Jeremy Mayfield turned 41 on April 27th. He wanted to play a spirited game of “Pin the Tail on the Jackass” at his birthday party, but Brian France refused to stand still. And finally, Dale Earnhardt would have turned 59 on the 29th. I still miss the Hell out of him. The one race I’ll never get to attend, that would be the last race I’d ever have to attend, would have been the one when he ran his last NASCAR event and retired on his own terms.

There are also reports that DuPont might not be back with Gordon and the No. 24 team next year as primary sponsors, though they will still remain with the team to some degree. That would end the longest-lasting Team/Driver/Sponsor relationship in the sport currently, as the trio have been together since Gordon’s Cup debut in Atlanta in November 1992. Early indications are that Pepsi might take over the sponsorship for the team, a move that’s deliciously ironic. Pepsi is used to finishing second to Coke just as Gordon is getting used to finishing second to Johnson.

Hmm. Talladega Nationwide Series race winner Brad Keselowski got caught with a soft left-front spring and shock after the event and only lost 50 points? At a track where springs and shocks offer such a competitive advantage, I can’t help but remember another race winner losing a similar chunk of points (25) for uttering a cuss word in victory circle. I guess when NASCAR decreed “Boys, have at it” earlier this season to engage combat-sanitized racing, they also forgot to add, “The rulebook is in the dumpster.”

A recent poll showed that sports fans who label themselves hardcore fans of NASCAR racing dropped 19% since 2008. Color me surprised. I’d have thought the number was closer to 50% given my email recently.

Does anyone else think that Richard Childress Racing’s decision to cut back from four teams last year to three outfits this season has greatly increased the fortunes of the three remaining teams? Tony Stewart, take note.

Imagine fans in the Philadelphia TV market tuning in to see the race Saturday night, only to find that their fine friends at FOX decided to pre-empt the first hour of the race to show the Pennsylvania Senatorial debate between Joe Sestak and Arlen Specter. While Philly remains loyally blue Democratic, most of the outlying suburbs the station serves remain bastions of bright red Republicanism, and most voters there have already decided they’ll vote for whatever candidate opposes Sestak (or especially alleged turncoat) Specter in November. Do you think FOX Philly would have pulled the same preemption during the opening hour of a Phillies, Flyers or Eagles game? Not unless they wanted rioting in the streets, and Philadelphia lately only needs Facebook to trigger unruly rioting in public areas. Even presidential, much less senatorial debates historically draw rating numbers that make infomercials look like American Idol, so I can’t imagine what station management was thinking. It was probably the same as the rest of us… the only 20 minutes that are going to draw viewers to a NASCAR race are the last 50 laps. But thanks to FOX Philly for granting a low-rated home to such mainstream media outcasts like John “Storm of the Century” Bolaris (it never snowed despite the panic he created) and Sally Ann “Blinky” Mosey.

Now hold on thar just a second, Bubba-Louie! The IRL open-wheel race at Kansas became the B-Main on Saturday, while the trucks got the prime Sunday date with the Cup Series off? How the Hell did that happen?

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

Gordon has finished second eight times since his last win. Once again, he seemed to have victory in hand in the waning laps only to be denied Saturday night at Richmond. Give Gordon some style points for being positively gracious in his post-race comments, though – a seemingly tactical admission he’s been a bit of a bitch after the last couple of races.

As crappy finishes go, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s flat tire during an extended green-flag run seemed relatively benign. Usually it’s the driver, crew chief or pit crew that’s at fault for him falling from outside the top 10 to finishes like the 32nd he grabbed Saturday night.

Normally, Richmond is one of Tony Stewart’s best tracks. But normally, his car doesn’t look like a garbage scow on rough seas, either. Stewart struggled home to a 23rd-place finish, his fifth straight outside the top 15. Smoke, Smoke, wherefore art thou, Smoke? (Probably in the drive-thru line at the local Burger King in his Ferrari, ordering a triple Whopper with double fixings in a continuing effort to make his butt larger than the state of Rhode Island.)

There was no late-race miracle finish for Mark Martin this week. Martin struggled home to 25th place, never a contender with a rare pit-road speeding penalty the icing on the cake of an ugly night.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

Juan Pablo Montoya was pretty vocal this week in stating he didn’t like the track at Richmond. Maybe after a sixth-place finish Saturday, he’ll like it a little more.

Kyle Busch had a pretty good weekend leading up to his 25th birthday, winning the Cup race and finishing fourth in Friday night’s Nationwide event. Now, if he’d just grow up instead of just growing older…. Hopefully, he’ll use part of that big payday to pay off some contractors who helped build his new race shop and allege they haven’t been paid. Some of those builders say that they’re barely able to stay in business with the unpaid debt on the books and they might have to lay off employees, throwing them a pink slip in these particularly harsh economic times. Busch said Saturday that he wasn’t in charge of paying those bills; but when your name is on the building, Kyle, the buck stops here.

Kevin Harvick had to overcome a slow pit stop (for which he loudly castigated his crew) en route to a third-place finish.

Marcos Ambrose has been a bit of a weapon as of late, and needed a good, clean top-10 finish to remind people he’s a talented driver. You just don’t want to be featured as the bad guy in the crash videos every week… so, mission accomplished with a solid (if almost invisible) ninth-place run.

Carl Edwards led his first laps of the season at Richmond en-route to a fifth-place finish. How is that possible? The Fords aren’t just off song this season, they’re not even in the choir. It’s time to start swinging for the fences rather than trying to bunt. Driving into Darlington County, my eyes seen the Glory of the Coming of the Lord, driving into Darlington County, I seen an FR9 engine stuffed under the hood of Edwards’s Ford! I’m not a fighting man by nature, but if a fellow has me on the ground and is pounding the crap out of me for nine weeks, eventually I’m going to swing back.

Worth Noting

  • The top 10 at Richmond drove six Chevys, three Toyotas and Edwards’s lone Ford. Keselowski in 14th was the top finishing Fiat… er, Dodge.
  • Kyle Busch has now posted four consecutive top-10 finishes. His victory was his first since last year’s Bristol night race.
  • Gordon has finished second or third four times in this season’s first 10 Cup races. Finishing second or third doesn’t get you a trophy, but it pays pretty good.
  • Burton (fourth) scored his first top-10 finish since Fontana.
  • Edwards’s fifth-place finish was his best of the season, and (obviously) his first top-five result of 2010.
  • Ambrose’s ninth-place finish was also his best of the year. But I’m sorry. I just can’t look at a car sponsored by Baked Beans and not think Blazing Saddles.
  • Matt Kenseth hasn’t enjoyed a top-five finish since Bristol. F-R-9!
  • Keselowski hasn’t earned a top-10 finish yet this season, though he’s running very well in the Nationwide Series. Draw your own conclusions here.
  • Stewart hasn’t finished inside the top 10 since he was runner-up at Bristol.
  • Kevin Conway was the top finishing rookie at Richmond (37th). Do you care?

What’s the Points?

Harvick wrested the points lead away from Jimmie Johnson on a night Johnson looked merely mortal. Johnson now trails Harvick by 10 points.

Kyle Busch’s win moved him up two spots to third in the standings, 109 out of the lead. He leads fourth-place Kenseth by 10, while Greg Biffle fell two spots to fifth.

Gordon rebounded four spots in the standings to take over sixth. Denny Hamlin moved up two spots to seventh, while Kurt Busch, yellow wheels and all, fell another spot to eighth. Burton made some nice forward progress, advancing three spots to ninth, while Martin fell four spots to 10th.

Rounding out the top 12, Edwards jumped two spots to 11th, while Clint Bowyer dropped a spot to 12th. Just like the gambling commission in Atlantic City, he’s hanging on by the skin of his teeth, just four points ahead of Earnhardt.

In other news, the flags are at half staff outside NASCAR headquarters, and key officials are gathering with their Prayer Circles. Earnhardt Jr. fell five spots and thus out of the Chase to 13th in the standings, about where he should be after a thoroughly mediocre start to the season. A Chase without Junior? Am I sniffing another end-of-the-year ratings disaster?

Joining Junior in the “Outside Looking In” club are Stewart, down a spot to 15th, and Joey Logano down one spot to 17th.

Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans with one being a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic): I’ll give it three cans of moderately cold domestic stuff. We didn’t see the fireworks we normally see at Richmond, and one driver dominated, but that happens sometimes in legitimate sporting events. (Though were it not for a few timely “debris” cautions, Kyle Busch might have lapped the field.) Things also heated up nicely at the end. It’s too bad the networks have to fill four hours of airtime with a race, because the final 10 minutes of a lot of races this year would go positively viral if they were presented as YouTube videos.

Next Up: The Cup circuit heads back to the Mothership of speedway racing, Darlington. And I bet even with the awkward Mothers’ Day Eve date, the track still sells more tickets than Fontana will for either of their races this year.

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