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Matt McLaughlin’s Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2010 Darlington Race Recap

The Key Moment: Denny Hamlin’s crew got him off pit road first while two of his chief competitors, Jeff Gordon (missed pit road trying to enter) and Jeff Burton (ran over an air line exiting his stall) basically took themselves out of contention on the last round of stops.

In a Nutshell: Buy her all the flowers, candies, and cards you want, but even on Mother’s Day weekend the Lady in Black is one mean mother.

Dramatic Moment: When Joey Logano spun exiting the pits early in the final set of pit stops, it triggered more chaos than a flash flood at the Alka-Seltzer factory.

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

OK, let’s get to it. When is “a” Southern 500 not “The” Southern 500? As I see it, “The” Southern 500 is run on Labor Day weekend, not Mother’s Day Eve. It’s like moving Christmas to June 25th and still trying to call it the same holiday. “The” Southern 500 is also run in the heat of the afternoon, not after dark. The sweltering South Carolina heat is one of the three challenges a Southern 500 winner must face, in addition to the notoriously tricky track and 42 other drivers. Oh, I understand the night races are a little more comfortable for the fans, especially on a sweltering hot weekend like this one. I’m all about them having the best time going to or watching races; but, I’ve sat through some hot Southern 500s in the grandstands, and it was part of the fun (liquid air conditioning was available in 12-ounce cans, if I recall.) Finally, if they want to go back to the original Southern 500, somebody needs to buy a compass. Somewhere along the way, they got the front straight and back straight mixed up, putting the start/finish line on the wrong one and getting everything all catawampus. Don’t get me wrong, though; they’re racing 500 miles at Darlington, and for that I give thanks despite the awkward date. So Saturday’s race might have been “A” Southern 500, but it’s not “The” Southern 500.

Yes, I have reviewed the videotape several times, and Gordon on pit road beat then-race leader Hamlin back to the start/finish line as the caution waved to stay on the lead lap. But I still don’t see how that’s possible. The No. 24 car slowed down to pit-road speed while behind the leader, who was still running 170 plus mph. Gordon then slowed a second time to enter the pits while Hamlin was still running WFO. The caution flew, but Gordon was still obligated to slow to pit-road speed since he hadn’t been forced onto pit road to avoid an incident. How did that work? I’d love to see the timing and scoring loops of Gordon’s speed on pit road during the pass-thru before he was waved around the pace car to remain on the lead lap. There seems to be some rift in the time-space continuum.

Related to the above, maybe Gordon has forgotten how to even win at Darlington, a track he once dominated? Fans doubtless got bored watching him lead a ton of laps, seemingly pulling away at will, but at the end of each long green-flag run other drivers who hadn’t been working their equipment so hard reeled Gordon back in and passed him. As our old friend Buddy Baker used to say, “I believe that boy done gone and licked all the red off his candy.”

Wow, rumors persist that workers are scrambling to get a lot of the interactive attractions up and running in time for this week’s opening of the NASCAR Haul of Cash… er, Hall of Fame. One report claims 70% of such attractions aren’t working properly as of last Friday. The story in the Charlotte Observer also says that the Hall hasn’t sold as many corporate sponsorships to companies or commemorative bricks to fans as projected. Dang, I thought those bricks were sold out; they never charged my credit card for the two I ordered. One of them was to read, “Bill France screwed over Tim Richmond.” The other? “Blood on Their Hands – February 18th, 2001,” the date of my personal Fort Sumter with NASCAR management.

Could Budweiser really be leaving the Cup Series after over three decades of being a primary sponsor for such notable drivers as Darrell Waltrip, Bill Elliott, Terry Labonte and Dale Earnhardt Jr.? The mega-deal Bud’s new owners made with the NFL might indicate plans to cut back on racing sponsorship. I’ve always felt beer company sponsorship was perfect for NASCAR racing (most fans I know drink a fair amount of it) but there is a downside. In this fickle consumer age, I think the three things the people remain loyal to are their brands of pickup trucks, smokes, and beer. Coors’s association with Elliott got me to try the stuff back when it was hard to find in the Northeast, but when Elliott went to Bud I didn’t switch brands. Of course, I still drink Folgers coffee because of their association with Richmond and because those plastic, re-sealable containers are about the handiest thing in the world for storing parts and hardware in the garage.

How sayeth you, KevinFromSoCal? There were bunches of empty seats on the back straight, but it looked like Darlington drew a pretty healthy crowd for a race held on the eve of Mother’s Day. (And a real nice crowd Friday night, as well.) Fontana track GM Gillian Zucker would probably Jell-O wrestle a leper to sell that many tickets.

There was some talk this week about “A New” Kyle Busch, a more mature driver. Well, anybody listening to Busch’s radio transmissions during Friday night’s Nationwide Series race heard the same old boy-bitch instead. He was furious at the start of the race, furious at the end of it, and an ugly combination of nasty/sarcastic every lap in between. His crew chief called him in under a late caution, but Kyle decided to stay out. Then, he complained not pitting had cost him the race. How does that work? Busch also whined that teammate Hamlin had “freaked him out” by staying on track under that caution. Is there a rule in NASCAR’s ghostly rulebook that freaking Busch out is conduct unbecoming to the sport? It’s too bad, in a way. Joe Gibbs has invested a lot of time and money with this brat, and I truly think Busch is one of the greatest talents in the sport’s history; but then again, NASCAR’s rich narrative is fraught with cautionary tales of talented drivers who never reached their potential. It’s too bad Junior Johnson will never be Busch’s crew chief, because he’d end the whining right quick. “Boy, shut the Hell up. I don’t need any of your lip. You ain’t laying down on me out there, are you?” As for Busch’s contention passing is impossible at Darlington, was he at home drinking 20/20, watching Judge Judy in yellowed BVDs the Monday his brother and Ricky Craven battled to the line for the win? It can be done, Kyle; you just have to want it badly enough.

Is it just me, or did the volume of cheering when Jimmie Johnson’s mangled Chevy was towed away (fortunately, after Johnson was able to safely walk away following a savage hit) approach that of the ABG folks circa 1998-2003 when Gordon used to suffer bad luck in the No. 24 car?

While he doesn’t seem ready to throw him under the bus quite yet, Earnhardt Jr.’s comments about his crew chief Lance McGrew prior to the race seemed like a hard shove in that direction. You know Rick Hendrick isn’t going to fire the driver of the No. 88 car… so could the Hendrick organization consider a crew chief swap between the Nos. 88 and 14 teams?

Silly Season continues to evolve early this year with word that Old Spice deodorant, co-primary sponsor of Stewart-Haas’s No. 14 car, won’t be back next year. That’s going to make any efforts to expand SHR to three cars (possibly to accommodate Kasey Kahne) that much more difficult. Is it time for another of Burger King’s occasional forays into primary sponsorship again?

OK, I’m not a Rhodes scholar but Darrell Waltrip’s post-race comment still has me scratching my head. Sayeth the inestimable DW (between plugs for his brother’s teams, sponsors, and drivers) “The hardest wins to take are the ones when you beat yourself.” Yeah, I’d say so. That’s right out of the Twilight Zone.

During a press interview Friday, Johnson noted that all the team members are trying to improve their performance by “massaging their packages.” Well, OK, if it makes you go faster and feel good, go on ahead; but do you want to discuss it in public?

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

To put it politely, Johnson had an eventful evening. At one point, even Chad Knaus told him if he was going to keep wrecking, to do it right next time so they could all go home. His night could have easily ended when he tangled with Martin Truex Jr. trying to avoid Greg Biffle’s spin, but the Coup De Grace came when AJ Allmendinger lost his brakes trying to slow for a caution flag. The No. 43 car flew down onto the apron, then backed up the track straight into the side of the No. 48. It was Johnson’s third DNF of the season (36th), which now offsets his three victories.

Kyle Busch fought his way up from last to first, putting himself in contention to win the race. But the final adjustments to the No. 18 car were not to his liking, and Busch faded to seventh after starting second on the final restart. Naturally, Busch had already told his crew chief he was to blame for costing them the race win.

Tony Stewart (23rd) just can’t seem to get out of his own way lately.

There’s going to be a whole lot of body and fab guys at the race teams’ shops missing dinner, their sons’ Little League games, and the David Letterman show patching back together the right sides of cars that practiced, qualified or raced at Darlington this weekend. Expect long lines at the Dunkin’ Donuts coffee shops in the wee hours of the morning over the next few weeks.

Gordon leads the most laps. Gordon loses the race. Haven’t we seen this Looney Tune a few times before this season?

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

Hamlin had a pretty fair weekend, winning both the Nationwide and Cup races for his first ever such sweep. He’s now won three of the last six Cup races, even while preparing for and recovering from knee surgery. (In a statistical oddity, two of those wins were scored on Mondays, one on a Saturday, and none on a Sunday.) As I prepare for my own knee surgery this week, I’ll just remember to buy my lottery tickets on Monday and Saturday.

Juan Pablo Montoya finished fifth despite numerous trips into the wall at full speed. How he kept going, I don’t know; the right side of the No. 42 car must have been built out of Kryptonite. Maybe our Colombian friend likes Darlington a little bit more now?

Jamie McMurray’s decision to start on the inside lane on restarts seemed odd at a track where the preferred groove is up high, but time after time he managed to muscle his way into the lead by the first turn. For a driver who late last season was considered a leading candidate for any number of start-and-park teams before Chip Ganassi took him back into the fold, a Daytona 500 win and two second-place finishes make for a pretty good start to the year.

Worth Noting

  • While it’s a notable achievement, Hamlin isn’t the first driver to sweep both the Nationwide/Busch race and the Cup race on the same weekend. Dale Earnhardt did it back in 1987, and Mark Martin accomplished the feat in 1993. Still, for Hamlin that’s a pretty impressive and compact club to join given Darlington’s storied six-decade history.
  • The top-10 finishers at Darlington drove six Chevys, three Toyotas and a Dodge. Matt Kenseth in 13th was the top-finishing Ford. Can Mike Rowe or Denis Leary drive a stock car? They seem to be having better luck selling Fords than the Roush boys have racing them.
  • McMurray (second) led more laps at Darlington (71) than he had in the season’s previous 10 races combined (39). I guess those classes Mac took at the Ron Hornaday School of Restarts are paying off.
  • Kurt Busch (third) has top-10 finishes in three of the last four races. He also has ugly yellow wheels on his racecar. One thing is better than the other.
  • Gordon (fourth) has top-five finishes in four of the last six Cup races.
  • Montoya (fifth) now has scored three consecutive top-10 finishes.
  • Kevin Harvick’s average finish in the last four races is 4.25. That’ll get the job done.
  • Kyle Busch (seventh) hasn’t missed the top 10 in a Cup race the last five times out.
  • Burton (eighth) has earned consecutive top-10 finishes for the first time this season.
  • Ryan Newman (ninth) has finished in the top 10 in five of his last six Darlington Cup outings.
  • David Reutimann’s 11th-place finish was his best since Daytona.
  • Brad Keselowski’s 12th-place finish matches his best Cup result of the season. He also finished 12th at Martinsville.
  • After starting the season with five consecutive top-10 finishes, Kenseth (13th) hasn’t managed a top-10 result since Phoenix.
  • Earnhardt Jr. is still looking for his second top-five result of 2010 (he was second at Daytona). His three official teammates have combined to put 14 such finishes up on the board.

What’s the Points?

Harvick retains the points lead with his sixth-place finish and Johnson’s misfortunes. Johnson remains second in the standings, but is now 110 points out of the lead. Kyle Busch remains third in points, just three behind the four-time champ. Hopefully, his close proximity to Johnson in the standings isn’t freaking Kyle out.

Gordon moved up two spots to fourth in the standings, but is just about a full race points-shift out of the lead. Kenseth dropped a spot to fifth, while Hamlin’s third win of the season moved him up a spot in the standings to sixth.

Biffle dropped two spots to seventh, with Kurt Busch, Burton, and Martin rounding out the top 10. Carl Edwards sits 11th, and then… release the bluebirds and cue up the Carpenters. All is sweetness and light at NASCAR headquarters, as chronic underachiever Earnhardt Jr. rebounds a spot to 12th and back into Chase contention. Why do birds, suddenly appear, every time, you come near…

For one driver to enter the top 12, one must yield position. Clint Bowyer fell three spots to 15th. Ahead of him, Martin Truex Jr. now stands poised to enter the top 12, 13th in the standings and 16 points back from the Promised Land. Newman in 14th and Bowyer are actually tied as far as points earned, but Newman gets the nod for 14th based on his race win.

Stewart fell another three positions to 18th in the standings. He was fifth in points just six races ago.

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 four cans of icy cold Colorado Kool-Aid. Even as driver after driver tried to run away with the race, the Lady in Black reasserted she was in charge.

Next Up: It’s off to the White Cliffs of Dover for another white-knuckle battle with the Monster Mile.

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