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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin’s Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2010 Watkins Glen Race Recap

The Key Moment: Juan Pablo Montoya dominated at Watkins Glen, with Marcos Ambrose doing his best to keep the Colombian native honest. But on the restarts, Ambrose was nowhere near as fast or flawless as JPM, and that ultimately made the difference.

In a Nutshell: Yes, you can road race stock cars. You can also drag race trash trucks, but why bother?

Dramatic Moment: While Montoya dominated the race, various trials and tribulations cost several title contenders and the normal road course experts a ton on Sunday.

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

NASCAR’s approach to the whole “secret fine” brouhaha seems to be the same as it always is when they get caught with their hand in the cookie jar: “What you can’t deny, endure in silence.” At the end of the day, it is what it is, so the makeover of competitors into the Stepford Drivers continues. Ignore the men behind the curtain. The great and wonderful NASCAR must not be dissed.

Eventually, Cup Series officials are going to figure out the “localized caution” protocol on road courses. There was no need for the caution to fly for Bobby Labonte’s spin (which he drove away from) or the debris dropped when Clint Bowyer lost a driveshaft other than to break up the monotony.

I recognize some folks enjoy the NASCAR road course races as much as I endure them. There’s also that 10th dentist that doesn’t endorse Dentyne. Let me throw this out there: would you prefer another race at Darlington and a return to Rockingham, or the status quo with Sonoma and the Glen having race dates? You’ll note the Formula 1 Series doesn’t stage an annual “change of pace” race on an oval.

I will admit, Watkins Glen on Sunday offered up its share of surprises. You’d have expected that Tony Stewart (five wins), Jeff Gordon (four wins) and Mark Martin (three consecutive wins from the pole) would have been factors in the race, but the three of them struggled mightily for most of the event.

Holy Smokes! After hosting two Cup races a season since I was in cloth diapers secured with safety pins, Atlanta will lose a race next season, yielding its coveted Cup date to Bruton Smith’s track in Kentucky. I guess there’s a few lessons here. First and foremost, if folks get stuck in miserable, soul-grinding traffic before and after your events, they ain’t coming back even if you make every effort years too late to fix that mess. Pocono, are you listening? Secondly, folks seemed to like Atlanta a lot better in its first configuration, a true symmetrical oval. Then, track management decided to change the design to make it a clone of Charlotte and Texas, with a tri-oval set up on the frontstretch to accommodate adding a few more seats… seats that, by and large, went unsold annually anyway. Unique is cool. Clones are not.

In brighter news, reports indicate that Fontana might be losing a race date as well, with its fall event going to Kansas City. Kansas City? Has anyone contacted the folks at Keebler to see if they might be interested in sponsoring the Cookie Cutter 500? What about Darlington and Rockingham? Remember, it’s when we left those storied venues that race attendance in general and TV ratings went into a tailspin. But Kansas is going to have a casino. So what? If I wanted to gamble, which I don’t, Atlantic City is an hour away. Why should I drive across half the country to play blackjack? There was a time when Las Vegas was something special because it was the only legal place to gamble in the U.S. As of late, casinos seem to be popping up coast to coast, and if there isn’t a place to wager within an hour of your home you probably also get your mail by carrier pigeon. Even here in the Quaker State, where puritans still don’t allow beer sales before noon on Sunday, we’ve got table games and slot machines. As for Fontana itself, the track might have become a lightning rod of criticism not only because the racing there typically sucks hind-teat, but because its other date was once moved from the storied Darlington Labor Day weekend event in what Mike Helton, in one of his most ludicrous moments, called “the start of a new tradition.” Well, the new tradition was a miserable failure, and maybe NASCAR ought to be spending more time reviewing their own mistakes rather than reviewing drivers’ Twitter comments.

I got an interesting if somewhat pissy email this week in the wake of my column Thursday lambasting NASCAR for their secret fines on drivers who called into question the fundamental goodness and infallibility of the sanctioning body. The note was purportedly sent from someone at ISC, and the return address seemed to bear that out. The gist of it was “people like you” (meaning me) are a major part of NASCAR’s perception problem. Yeah, OK, but it’s also people like me that used to buy race tickets and dutifully watch every race every Sunday afternoon… but don’t anymore. So, deal with it, NASCAR. Fix it. And as we say here in the City of Brotherly Love, “Shuddupabouditwouldja?”

It’s hard to cipher how many fans attend a road course race. Many of them choose to populate the infield, where they can wander around the track and enjoy the race from various vantage points. Some reports from the track said attendance was sharp, with the official NASCAR report claiming a 5,000-person increase. But from my vantage point, it did appear the grandstand seats were particularly empty this year at the Glen. Which driver do we fine $50,000 for causing that this week?

Is there a cosmic rift in the universe? All of a sudden, FOX’s Darrell Waltrip suddenly doesn’t like the Chase points system, changing his tune after dressing in a tight sweater and short skirt, waving pom-poms championing the concept all these years. (Yes, it’s a frightening visual.) My guess is that his brother Michael is now shunning DW for daring to be negative about a NASCAR initiative. Ought to make for an interesting Thanksgiving dinner at Ma Waltrip’s table, right? One day, the NASCAR Hall of Fame will open a special wing for drivers who managed to garner the most TV time without any corresponding on-track success. The first five inductees will be Michael Waltrip, Michael Waltrip, Michael Waltrip, Michael Waltrip and Michael Waltrip.

I’m getting the feeling Jamie McMurray might eventually develop a knack for stock car racing after all.

I daydream about a kinder, simpler, more intelligent world when Allen Bestwick uses the term *“the tricky triangle”* for the final time.

The Hindenburg Award for Foul Fortune

Kevin Harvick would have finished far better than 11th had it not been for a deflating tire on the last lap.

Boris Said had his best shot ever at winning a Cup race prior to his irritating and crowding Stewart.

Jimmie Johnson just happened to be in the way when Kyle Busch and Jeff Burton got to arguing over the same real estate. Denny Hamlin ended up an innocent victim in that mess, as well.

Usually, the Hendrick organization does pretty well on road courses, a trend that dates back to the late and lamented Tim Richmond in the Folgers car. But this weekend, the team never really seemed to get up to speed. While Gordon soldiered on to a 10th-place finish, Martin ended up 23rd, Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished 26th, and Johnson finished 28th.

Whatever his faults, nobody can deny Robby Gordon is pretty handy on the road courses, where he used to ply his trade before well and truly pissing off the Ford Motor Company. But a broken transmission ended Gordon’s chances at a decent finish, while his team car, driven by PJ Jones, also fell out due to mechanical issues. They wound up 36th and 41st in the final running order, respectively.

One of the pre-race favorites, Greg Biffle ran up front most of the day, only to get shuffled out of the deck on a late restart. That dropped the No. 16 car from eighth to 25th, and Biffle managed to recover only one spot after that disaster.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award for Fine Fortune

A week after announcing his November departure from JTG-Daugherty Racing, Ambrose went out and won the Nationwide Watkins Glen event. Even if he faded at the end of Sunday’s race, that victory – combined with a third-place finish on Sunday – adds a little luster to his resume as he begins searching for a new seat in 2011.

Internal strife resulting from a driver beginning to question his crew chief’s strategy can tear a team asunder. But a win at the Glen will go a long way towards healing the rift between Montoya and Brian Pattie.

Kyle Busch’s day seemed doomed when he was forced to pit on the pace laps for a ballast that hadn’t been properly secured to the car. (It’s a rare mistake for an organization as professional as Joe Gibbs Racing.) Yet despite starting from the rear, then tweaking up the nose of his car in a charge to the front, Busch recovered well enough to finish eighth.

Chip Ganassi had a pretty good weekend, claiming victory in the Cup, IndyCar and Grand Am races. It’s a wonder ESPN wasn’t breathlessly reporting that EGR (and the “E” is silent in that acronym) was the first organization to win the Daytona 500, the Indy 500, the Brickyard and a NASCAR road race in the same season.

Worth Noting

  • Montoya’s win was his second Cup triumph in 131 Cup starts. Montoya (born in Colombia) and Earl Ross (Canada) remain the only two non-U.S. citizens to win Cup races in NASCAR’s top division. Mario Andretti was a naturalized U.S. citizen before his Cup win at Daytona in 1967.
  • The top-10 finishers at the Glen drove five Chevys, two Fords, two Toyotas and a lone Dodge.
  • Kurt Busch (second) returned to the top-five finisher ranks after a four-race absence.
  • Ambrose’s third-place finish matches his best Cup result since running second at Watkins Glen last year.
  • AJ Allmendinger’s fourth-place finish was the second-best of his Cup career. Allmendinger finished third in last year’s Daytona 500. (No, I’m serious; look it up.)
  • Carl Edwards (fifth) has strung together top-10 finishes in the last five Cup races.
  • Stewart (seventh) has top-10 finishes in the last four races, but has led just two laps in those four events. Kudos to Stewart for shaving, though; he looked a lot less like the Billy Goats Gruff’s nemesis Sunday.
  • Jeff Burton (ninth) has five consecutive top-10 finishes after this weekend. And Autumn is closing in… working and practicing…
  • Gordon (10th) has top-10 finishes in seven of the last eight Cup races. Slim, too short, could use a few pounds…
  • Ryan Newman (12th) hasn’t managed a top-five finish since his win at Phoenix eons and eons ago. Ought there in the fields where the woods get heavy, stuck behind the wheel of his ’39 Chevy…
  • Martin (19th) has just one top-10 finish in the last nine Cup races. Working on mysteries without any clues…
  • Earnhardt Jr. (26th) hasn’t managed a top-20 finish in the last four races. Ain’t it funny how the night moves, when you just don’t have no more to lose…
  • Since winning back-to-back races at Sonoma and Loudon, Johnson (28th) hasn’t managed a top-five finish.
  • Hamlin’s 37th-place finish was his worst of the 2010 Cup season and his first DNF since Talladega last fall. Maybe it’s time to crack him in the other knee with a tire iron?

What’s the Points?

Harvick continues to lead the standings. He’s now 185 points (nearly a full race’s worth) ahead of second-place Gordon. Behind them, Burton and Kurt Busch had great points days at the Glen. Burton advanced two spots to third, while Busch trampolined up three spots to fourth. Johnson fell to fifth, 328 behind Harvick but still holding four championship rings.

Hamlin took it on the chin points-wise at the Glen. He fell three spots to sixth, while teammate Kyle Busch fell to seventh. Like the Beatles once wrote, “Boy, you’re going to carry that weight a long time…” Stewart held on to eighth, while Edwards moved up a spot to ninth over Matt Kenseth. Did anyone else even notice Kenseth was there at the Glen this weekend?

Biffle held steady in 11th, while in their back and forth battle, Martin moved back into the top 12 Sunday over Bowyer. Bowyer’s now 13th, 10 points behind Martin and that final cutoff spot, with Newman and McMurray also closing to within 100 points of the playoffs.

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 the Glen two cans. It’s nice seeing new faces up front from time to time… it’s just not much fun to watch them stink up the show.

Next Up: Michigan! This again? Weren’t we just there?

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