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Matt McLaughlin’s Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2010 Bristol Night Race Recap

The Key Moment: It’s rare a race is won entering pit road, but Kyle Busch aggressively pushed the limit, passing leader Jamie McMurray as the two entered the pits for the final sequence of stops. The No. 18 team got Busch out well ahead of the No. 1 car and from there Kyle was off to the house.

In a Nutshell: Busch completed the weekend sweep, winning all three major touring series races at Bristol.

Dramatic Moment: On the restart following the fourth caution, Busch forced Jimmie Johnson into a three-wide situation with David Reutimann on the outside. Johnson backed off rather than contest the issue and that led to his eventual downfall.

Given Friday night’s theatrics, Busch trying to lap new nemesis Brad Keselowski got a bit tense.

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

Ticket sales at Bristol are sort of like the canary in the coal mine that were once used to signal danger to the miners. A ticket to the Bristol night race was once said to be the hardest ticket in all of sports to get and there was a long waiting list of fans eager to get their hands on one, anywhere in the Coliseum of Speed. If they can’t sell out Bristol, no track can sell out. Given the attendance at Bristol for this once popular race the canary isn’t only dead, it’s been plucked, breaded, deep fried and served up with a side of bland onion rings and a bowl of limp pickles.

Given the above fact, it was kind of tough hearing the network types constantly harp on how large the crowd was. Tonight was one of two times that the Bristol night race didn’t sell out. It would seem that in addition to secretly fining drivers for damaging “the Brand,” NASCAR is also telling its network partners to keep things positive. That’s possibly a result of ESPN admitting on air that the crowd at Indy was less than stellar. That’s fine as long as the media types choose merely to accent the positive, not make things up to cover the truth.

Some fans still bemoan the loss of the “old” Bristol, a single groove race track where rooting and gouging and laying a bumper to the driver ahead was nearly the only way to make a pass. I’m a traditionalist, but admittedly I prefer the “new” Bristol with the graduated banking and two equally fast racing grooves. Passing still isn’t easy, tempers get frayed and bumpers get banged. Frankly, I like seeing fenders rubbing and tires smoking more than watching a constant stream of cautions with wrecked race cars getting towed to the pits. That’s why they call it “racing” and not “wrecking.” Friday night’s race was about as “old school” as they come and perhaps the only reason a similar scenario didn’t play out Saturday was Busch had a dominant car and his two chief rivals (Johnson and Tony Stewart) suffered mishaps earlier in the race.

Friday night’s Nationwide Series race had the fans on their feet, especially during the closing laps. Some folks were appalled, but I felt that Kyle Busch and Keselowski’s little back and forth argument over the lead was classic Bristol. This could be what the sport needs, a rivalry between two of the most hardheaded and disliked drivers — a Battle of the Buttheads. Fans won’t care who comes out on the losing end of the deal as long as one or the other doesn’t finish the race. If Busch and Keselowski take each other out and hand the win to Dale Earnhardt Jr., there will be dancing in the streets from Charlotte, N.C., to Birmingham, Ala., and all points between.

I’ve already heard from more than a few fans that they finally had to mute their TVs to avoid throwing a bottle at it if Marty Reid mentioned one more time that Busch was “chasing history” in trying to win the trifecta. The bleating was even more annoying than the constant barrage of references to Chip Ganassi being the first owner to win the Daytona 500, the Indy 500 and the Brickyard 400 in the same season. (How many teams have tried? Two, basically.) If any driver ever threatens Richard Petty’s streak of 10 consecutive race wins set back in 1967 I’ll make an allowance for an abundance of hype. I’ve seen history made. I saw the first man set foot on the moon. I watched a president of the United States tender his resignation. I saw the Twin Towers fall. Busch’s accomplishment this weekend, while impressive, isn’t history. It’s a statistical fluke.

I usually leave the TV coverage analysis to others but there were a lot of incidents that ESPN missed entirely as they occurred and could only offer distant shots of after the fact. In the final rundown, Bristol was a perfectly serviceable race spoiled by terribly inept coverage for the fans at home.

Despite having watched history being made, it was pretty obvious the majority of the fans at Bristol didn’t feel much affection towards this Kyle Busch lad. Wednesday and Saturday’s crowd expressed their dislike pretty clearly, but the Friday night fans were particularly rabid in expressing their dislike.

Press releases indicate that Jeff Gordon’s daughter, Ella, had a hand in designing the paint scheme her daddy ran at Bristol, though NASCAR artist Sam Bass helped a bit with it too. If he doesn’t win a race again soon you have to wonder if Rick Hendrick isn’t going to offer Ella a chance to drive the No. 24 car. Some things get better with age; wine, big-block muscle cars, blue jeans and Harleys, but Gordon isn’t one of them.

It’s become almost obligatory to gush over how nice it is to have the MRN kid’s program participants sing the National Anthem at Bristol each year. I’ll say this, those young people surely beat whoever that clown was who turned the anthem into a dirge that seemed to last longer than the race last week. And it was nice that the children wore t-shirts offering good wishes to Bristol track general manager Jeff Byrd. Get well wishes also go out to Brian Vickers, who is recovering from recent heart surgery to repair a small hole between two ventricles.

NASCAR has announced that race purses for next year’s Nationwide Series races will be cut by 20%. Wow, that ought to help struggling Nationwide-only teams, especially as they adopt the “Car of Tomorrow” in that series. But hey, it’s not like the France family that runs NASCAR owns race tracks and will benefit from the purse cut. Oh, wait a second, yes they do. A lot of them. What I want to know is if NASCAR’s sanctioning fees to hold Nationwide races at a track are also being cut 20%.

Maybe Keselowski was knocked a bit woozy(ier) by his trip into the wall on Friday. He certainly coined a new phrase when he said after the race that because he was on probation he was “playing with a hand slapped behind my back.” I guess it beats driving at Atlanta with a roof under your head.

Most of the Ford teams decided to run the “old” engine at Bristol, not the new FR9. Most of the Ford teams weren’t particularly competitive at Bristol. Am I sensing a correlation here? The old “tried and true” stuff is great, but I’m not bringing a musket to a gun fight.

I’m still trying to explain to the stick and ball fans I know how, exactly, a driver and team in NASCAR will qualify for post-season play without winning a single event… and why the other 31 teams will still be out there. The powers-that-be are still talking about adding an elimination system to spice up the Chase. My vote would be to eliminate the Chase all together.

Ryan Newman sounded borderline psychotic in a pre-race interview. He proclaimed himself the biggest, baddest driver in the garage area and expressed a willingness to punch out anyone who wronged him. That leads to an interesting question of the “Boys, have at it” policy. To date, NASCAR has been pretty lenient with drivers hitting one another with their cars, but we haven’t had a test case involving a physical altercation after a race, especially one caught by the networks live.

The Hindenburg Award for Foul Fortune

Johnson’s late summer swoon continues. Johnson dominated the early stages of the race, leading 175 laps, but got tagged by Juan Pablo Montoya on lap 262 and sent to the garage area for extensive repairs. He finished last among the cars listed as running at Bristol.

Denny Hamlin broke a driveshaft (maybe as a result of running over that shock absorber) and also had to hit the garage for repairs.

Mark Martin’s chances at making the Chase took a torpedo beneath the waterline with a non-competitive 23rd-place finish. In fact, it was a tough weekend for the entire Hendrick camp, which was locked out of the top 10 for the second straight race despite all four teams showing some strength early.

Stewart clearly had a car fast enough to contend for a win but got rear-ended by Tony Raines while checking up for a yellow flag. Stewart later prolonged his agony by putting himself into the wall en route to a 27th-place finish.

Carl Edwards had to pit under green after his team left three lug nuts loose during a stop. While Edwards rallied back to a credible 12th-place finish, the miscue probably deprived him of a top five. Also of note, this was the first time a driver with the initials “CE” driving a Ford finished 12th in the Bristol night race after his team left three lugnuts loose during a pit stop. You saw history being made! History, as it turns out, is a lot like sausage: it’s easier to enjoy if you don’t see the ugly process that makes it.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award for Fine Fortune

I’ve seen incidents far less severe than the one where Kyle Busch bounced his right-front fender and wheel into the No. 26 car lead to cut down tires and wrecked racecars.

Reutimann overcame a bad bout of food poisoning this weekend to finish second? Were eggs on the menu Thursday?

Clint Bowyer had to overcome a 24th-place starting spot and a pit road speeding penalty to finish fourth. That finish all but cemented a place in the Chase for Bowyer, though that might lead to a lot of dead airtime in ESPN’s Atlanta pre-race program.

Kasey Kahne had to overcome a deflated tire (and let’s remember he either ran over debris or melted a bead — Goodyear couldn’t possibly have had an issue with their right-front tires) and subsequent pit stop to finish fifth. It sure beat his “Ride on the Side” in a shower of sparks in Friday night’s Nationwide race.

Matt Kenseth also had to overcome a tire issue (possibly caused by moonlight reflecting off a female fans mirrored earring melting his valve stem, not a potentially defective Goodyear product) on his way to a 10th-place finish.

Given the weather forecast for Bristol Saturday night, it’s amazing the race was run to its full distance with no weather interruptions. I was braced for catching the race Sunday afternoon but wasn’t thrilled by the prospect. A Bristol night race run in daylight? To borrow a phrase, it’s like an ice cream truck on a deserted street, a drummer girl who can’t keep the beat….

Worth Noting

  • Joe Gibbs entries have won seven of the last eight NASCAR short-track events.
  • None of the four Hendrick-owned teams have posted a top-five finish since Gordon placed third at Chicago.
  • Kyle Busch’s win was his first Cup victory since Dover 12 races ago. It was also his first top-five Cup Series run since the first Pocono race.
  • Reutimann’s second-place finish was his first top-10 result since he won at Chicago.
  • McMurray (third) has top-10 finishes in three of the last five Cup events.
  • Bowyer finished fourth for the fourth time this season. Do I sense history being made?
  • Kahne’s fifth-place finish was his best since the Firecracker 400.
  • Newman’s sixth-place finish matched his best result since he won at Phoenix early this season. In a pre-race interview, Newman also expressed a willingness and desire to punch people out. Is there a correlation here?
  • Montoya (seventh) has strung together three straight top-10 finishes.
  • Greg Biffle (eighth) has top-10 finishes in four of the last five Cup events.
  • Gordon (11th) has now gone five straight races without a top-five finish for the first time this season.
  • Edwards’s 12th-place finish was actually his worst since Loudon.
  • Earnhardt Jr. (13th) has averaged about a 22nd-place finish in the last six races. If his name was Dale Snodgrass he’d be driving as a start and parker next year.
  • Despite all the ink he’s gotten for his hi-jinks, Keselowski has yet to score a top-10 result in the Cup Series this year.
  • Stewart’s 27th-place finish was his worst since Texas.
  • The top-10 finishers at Bristol Saturday night drove four Chevys, three Fords, two Toyotas, one Dodge and a partridge in a pear tree. (Well, OK, I made up the part about the partridge in a pear tree… though that would have been historic.)

What’s the Points?

Harvick remains the points leader but Gordon closed to within a still-considerable 279 points of the lead.

Kyle Busch’s win vaulted him up five positions to third in the standings. More importantly, as things stand now, when the points are reset he’d trail Hamlin and Johnson by 20 points, not 30.

Johnson’s wreck sent him tumbling four spots to ninth in the standings. As noted above though, in reality, with two races left before the Chase he is in fact tied with Hamlin as the points leader.

Edwards moved up two spots to fourth in the standings. Unless he wins one of the next two races, and his chances are pretty good at Atlanta, he will still start the Chase sixth, tied with five other championship “contenders” who have yet to win a race.

Kenseth moved up a spot to eighth in the standings.

Hamlin and Stewart each dropped two spots in the standings. They are now fifth and sixth, respectively.

What NASCAR and ESPN would like you to get all hot and bothered over is the battle for the “coveted” 12th-place position that puts a driver in the Chase with no realistic expectation of contending for a title based on their season to date. Bowyer clung to that 12th-place position after Bristol. McMurray actually took over the 13th spot outside looking in, but has a monumental 100-point gap to make up in two races. Barring an early race DNF for Bowyer, it’s just not going to happen. Martin dropped a position to 14th, one point behind McMurray.

Earnhardt Jr. dropped to 18th in the standings, so look for a surprise announcement from NASCAR that the top 20 drivers in points will make the Chase.

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 Bristol five bottles of Corona. It was a good extended week of racing with fenders bent, tempers left askew and the pretty white outside walls left in a psychedelic shade of hues.

Next Up: The last off-weekend of the 2010 Cup schedule, as it turns out. That means I am shore bound and down. Racing resumes at Atlanta on Labor Day weekend instead of at Darlington where the race belongs, so I’ll be sitting that one out.

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