NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin’s Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2010 Pocono Summer Race Recap

The Key Moment: Greg Biffle and the No. 16 team chose to go with two tires on their final stop, made with 30 laps to go under a yellow flag. Shortly after the restart, Biffle was able to get his car into the lead – and clean air – then drove off from the pack.

In a Nutshell: What’s worse than a tedious race? A tedious race delayed and interrupted by rain.

Dramatic Moment: With passing at a premium at Pocono and, in fact, in most Cup races, drivers tended to let their knuckles drag and threw couth out the window during the restarts, scrambling to make up whatever positions they could.

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

What I hope everyone is talking about and what needs to be discussed is safety at the racetrack. Elliott Sadler’s late-race wreck was about the worst-appearing incident since Geoff Bodine’s Truck Series crash in that series’ inaugural Daytona event. Track management at Pocono had already stated they intended to install SAFER barriers on the inside of the Long Pond straight after Kasey Kahne’s nasty wreck here in June. But the frightening and oddly laid out inside of that straightaway didn’t first come to light in June, either. Remember Steve Park and Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s first lap wreck a few years back? I recall people calling for the grassy areas at Pocono to be paved in the wake of Davey Allison’s frightening accident here in 1992 – one that almost took out a pair of corner workers. Safety is a moving target, and it’s easy for folks to get complacent after a long lull between deaths at the track.

My Thursday column will be devoted to the revelation NASCAR has been secretly fining drivers for talking trash about our sport and the folks who run it. Here’s a preview; I don’t like the notion. I’m sure that doesn’t surprise most of you. Here’s the deal. As of late, I expect very little of NASCAR, and week after week I accept they probably won’t even meet my diminished expectations. I have a pretty fertile imagination, but every couple months, despite my low expectations and general dislike of those in charge of the sport, NASCAR still manages to plumb to depths of depravity and abject stupidity even I could never have conceived of after all these years. One of these days, NASCAR, one of these, bang, pow, zoom, straight to the moon.

I guess what bothers me most about the above is if a driver were to have addressed the dangers of the back straight at Pocono on Saturday and chose to accuse NASCAR of not being properly concerned about safety, he’d probably have earned himself a $50,000 secret fine. (They’re a little touchy on that issue. Ask Ryan Newman.) There’s times you have to step up to the plate and talk real loud, and damn to Hell those who object.

I don’t even need a driver to tell me this is frightening. Want a barometer of where Cup racing is at? Tickets are available for purchase to the Bristol night race less than a month away. You used to have to inherit tickets to that race.

The latest piece of the Silly Season puzzle to fall into place is bittersweet. Bobby Labonte will be driving for the No. 47 team next season, a team that plans to actually race for wins, not start and park, as befits a driver of Labonte’s championship talent. But to make room for Labonte, JTG-Daugherty Racing had to terminate their relationship with Marcos Ambrose, one of the most personable journeyman drivers currently on the Cup roster. I’d like to think some other competitive team can find room to provide Ambrose with a seat for next season.

Saturday night’s crowd at the Iowa Nationwide Series event appeared to be sold out, a rarity in NASCAR racing these days. Unfortunately, Kyle Busch dominated the event and stunk up the show. Let’s see how many of those fans return next year. If they do, is it time to start discussing a Cup date in Iowa?

In the wake of last weekend’s disappointing crowd at the Brickyard 400, track management has decided to lower ticket prices for next year’s event and will promote the race more aggressively. In a related marketing note, Coca-Cola has declined to reintroduce New Coke.

Maybe it’s time to slip an Amtrak schedule in Jack Roush’s briefcase rather than having him fly destination to destination?

NASCAR has told Speedway Motorsports that they’ll allow them to move one of their race dates from a track currently on the schedule to Kentucky next year. Let the speculation begin. Which track will lose a date? New Hampshire? Atlanta? My pick would be Sonoma.

After contentedly cruising around, separated by four second gaps, the drivers finally got up on the wheel when it appeared likely that rain would bring the race to a premature end. Let me again suggest Pocono be split into two 250-mile races run the same day. Four hours is too much time for the average fan to spend waiting for a 10-minute payoff.

Great moments in race telecasts: During the rain delay, an ESPN broadcaster asked a black crew member if he could tap dance. Oddly enough, I can’t recall any white crew members being asked to do so.

Due to weather delays, some wags will doubtlessly tag Sunday’s race “The 24 Hours of Pocono.” But the real 24-hour endurance race at Pocono is staged by fans trying to get back to I-81 or the Northeast Extension.

The Hindenburg Award for Foul Fortune

Jeff Gordon once again seemingly had a race victory easily in hand when a decision to go with four tires on the final stop dropped him back in the pack. Once in dirty air, the No. 24 car was a shadow of its former self and could only salvage sixth.

Had it rained just a little bit harder and longer, Sam Hornish Jr. would have been a surprise winner at Pocono. As it was, he faded to 11th in the final laps.

Kurt Busch had the audacity to delay four-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson’s drive back to the front. That unwise decision earned Busch a doubleheader crash, first into the outside wall then even harder into the inside wall. Sadler was also caught up in the mess, hit by AJ Allmendinger as he attempted to check up and avoid Busch’s stricken Dodge.

Speaking of Johnson, he so thoroughly dominated the first half of the race that the deafening thunder of remote keys being used to switch channels or turn off the TV echoed coast-to-coast. In the end, though, the No. 48 team could only salvage a 10th-place finish after fading following a lap 122 caution for debris.

Pit strategy put Dale Earnhardt Jr. into the lead, and the crowd went wild. Not for long; minutes later, Earnhardt spun out in an unforced error and wound up 27th with engine trouble. It was another dreadful ending to what could have been a promising afternoon.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award for Fine Fortune

It’s hard to consider a driver who wrecked so hard, his engine was left laying on the backstretch fortunate, but it’s amazing after one of the worst hits I’ve ever seen Sadler was able to exit the car under his own power. Not only that, but after a short time spent regrouping and catching his breath, he walked away from the track.

Early in the race, Biffle was vocally very unhappy with his car, but all’s well that ends well.

Tony Stewart started from the pole, then faded quickly when the race began. But the No. 14 Chevrolet was a top-10 car from start to finish, and rallied by the end of the event to work back to second.

Mark Martin had to survive a few close calls on pit road en route a seventh-place finish.

Worth Noting

  • Biffle gave Ford their first win of the 2010 Cup season. Prior to Sunday, the last time a Ford entered victory lane after a Cup race was at Talladega last year.
  • Biffle’s win was also his first on the Cup circuit since Dover in the fall of 2008, 64 races ago.
  • Stewart finished second for the third time this season. (Stewart also finished second at Bristol and Loudon.) He’s got top-10 finishes in seven of the last eight Cup races.
  • Carl Edwards (third) managed his fourth consecutive top-10 finish. The result was the best of Edwards’ 2010 Cup campaign.
  • Kevin Harvick (fourth) has top-10 finishes in five of the last six races.
  • Denny Hamlin’s fifth-place finish was his best since winning at Michigan.
  • Gordon (sixth) has top-10 results in six of the last seven Cup races, with top-five results in five of those events.
  • Martin’s seventh-place finish was actually his best since Charlotte in May.
  • Jeff Burton (eighth) has strung together four consecutive top-10 finishes for the first time this season.
  • Martin Truex Jr. (ninth) enjoyed his first top-10 result since Richmond.
  • Johnson’s 10th-place finish was his best result since he won at Loudon.
  • Hornish’s two 11th-place finishes at Pocono this year are his best to date this season.
  • Kurt Busch endured his first DNF in a Cup car since Talladega last year.
  • The top 10 finishers at Pocono drove two Fords, six Chevys and a pair of Toyotas. Hornish in 11th was the top-finishing Dodge pilot.

What’s the Points?

Harvick remains atop the points standings, now 189 ahead of Gordon, who remains second. Hamlin and Johnson maintain third and fourth place, respectively.

Burton takes over fifth in the standings, displacing Kurt Busch, who drops down two spots to seventh. Stewart and Matt Kenseth swapped eighth and ninth spots, with Stewart now having the advantage.

Martin remains 13th, now 34 points behind 12th-place Clint Bowyer. Earnhardt Jr. remains 14th, but he’s a daunting 129 points out of the Chase. Sorry DEJ fans, it’s just not going to happen this year – so decide now if you want to blame Rick Hendrick or Lance McGrew.

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 of warm funky stuff, found behind the front seat of your brother-in-law’s pickup in the pockets of his hunting overalls. There were some good battles, but only occasionally, and the race gets an extra can solely because Sadler was able to walk away.

Next Up: It’s off to Watkins Glen for the second stop on NASCAR’s abbreviated Northern Tour that was once a staple of the summer season. Like Michael Nesmith once wrote; “And the hits just keep on coming…”

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