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Matt McLaughlin’s Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2010 New Hampshire Fall Race Recap

The Key Moment: Tony Stewart ran out of gas coming to the white flag at New Hampshire, handing the race lead and win back to Clint Bowyer, who had dominated the first two-thirds of the event.

In a Nutshell: The race is not always to the swift, or the battle to the strong…

Dramatic Moment: With passing at a premium at NHMS during extended green-flag runs, action tended to get heated on the restarts. Such luminaries as Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards, the Brothers Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth, Chasers all, found themselves spinning or dodging wrecks on those restarts.

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

The quarterback controversy with the Eagles, the wild-card race in MLB, and what’s wrong with Tiger. In fact, they’ll be talking about just about anything but NASCAR racing because once again the sport’s New York, pre-Chase blitz barely earned a blip on the radar of popular culture. Now hold on thar, Bubba-Louie; NASCAR officials are said to be thinking about changes to the Chase… which is sort of like a fellow who has just taken off both hands in an industrial accident considering a trip to the ER. But not according to the legendary vernacular of Big Mike Helton: “We are not going to react just for the sake of reacting. At the end of the day, it is what it is.”

Remember when Bruton Smith first bought New Hampshire and had big plans for the joint? Rumors were rampant he was going to dig the place up and start over again with a one-mile version of Richmond. Then, the economy went like Patton and hit the tank, meaning we’re still stuck with the almost flat track better suited to the modified division than Cup cars. C’mon Mr. Smith, take the bulldozers to this place and fix it as you have at so many of your other tracks. Then, the folks up in those parts will figure out I don’t hate New England, I just hate this configuration of asphalt, snowmobile licensing requirements in New Hampshire, and the song “Time in New England” by Barry Manilow.

I’ve made this point before, but apparently those with the power to fix things were sniffing model glue that weekend. This whole Chase nonsense was supposed to give NASCAR some traction in the ratings war against the NFL, the most lopsided combat since the U.S. invaded Grenada. The NFL games and the race were both slated to start at 1:00 according to TV Guide. But while ESPN was re-running the same teaser that started the pre-race program, the Eagles and Lions (to cite a local market) were already on the field with two minutes elapsed in the game. The Steelers already had seven points on the board and the race had yet to start! The Eagles scored a touchdown while the pit reporters had their last round of pre-race predictions. In fact, the first quarter of most NFL games were nearly over before the green flag waved. (As helpfully noted by the ticker at the bottom of the race broadcast.) Here’s the deal: If the race is scheduled for 1:00, by a minute after the cars should be racing. If you spot the NFL seven minutes, you’re not even going to catch up to their dust-trails.

It did seem this week that ESPN was cognizant of some fans’ complaints that they only focus on the Chasers, not the other 31 cars on the track during the final 10 races. Of course, that’s a lot easier task for them when Dale Junior misses the Chase but has a top-five run.

The New Hampshire track prides itself on an early string of sellout, standing room only crowds, and pretty healthy ones at that even during the economic downturn. Yet when compared to those measures, Sunday’s attendance can only be termed disappointing. Yes, I realize the economy is in the toilet, and New Hampshire isn’t the only track to struggle to fill the oversized grandstands they built in the salad days to rake in the cash. But it’s time for New England race fans to stop bashing me, telling me they deserve their two race dates because they sell out every year. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. In fact, I’ll probably be muttering it on my deathbed clinging to my sled “Rosebud…” “We gave up North Wilkesboro for this mess?”

Maybe he is growing up as well as growing older. Remember when back during his rookie season Stewart ran out of gas leading at New Hampshire? It was the first time most NASCAR fans saw the truly petulant side of Stewart as he blamed everyone but himself for the problem. Today, he suffered the same fate, but assumed blame for his finish rather than throwing anyone under the bus.

If this week’s column seems shorter than normal, I have my reasons. I had a left rear molar go abscess on me Saturday night and I am fighting with all my might to get this column done and hang on until Monday to see a dentist rather than going bankrupt heading to the ER tonight. I’ll probably have another root canal procedure, but frankly I’m looking forward to that more than next spring’s New Hampshire race.

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

Stewart ran out of gas with a lap and a few yards left to run while leading the race. He coasted home 24th.

Johnson’s title defense got off to a less than auspicious start with a 25th-place finish after Kyle Busch got into him trying to avoid his brother’s spinning car and a wheel left loose on a pit stop. So that’s it for Johnson’s title hopes, right? Anyone else remember back in 2006 when Johnson finished 39th at Loudon and dourly reported his Chase chances as over? That was the year he drove to the first of his four consecutive Cup titles.

Apparently, it wouldn’t really have mattered if Mark Martin made the Chase. His car was off song all day and an equalized tire put the final nail in the coffin late in the race. He wound up 29th, two laps down.

Kenseth became the latest victim of Brad Keselowski’s “Legend in his Own Mind” driving style en route to 23rd.

Kurt Busch’s Dodge became “the Twilight” zone for anyone running in close quarters with him. Many entered but few escaped as Busch struggled to contain his ill-handling Dodge, winding up 13th.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

It looked like Bowyer was going to have to settle for second after dominating the race and putting more people to sleep than a carnival hypnotist. But when the No. 14 car ran out of gas late, Bowyer retook the lead and was able to complete the final lap without fuel issues of his own.

Jamie McMurray was penalized for a tire that got away from the team during a pit stop, but rebounded to a third-place finish.

Hamlin was spent spinning by Edwards, but drove back to a second-place finish.

Worth Noting

  • His victory Sunday at Loudon was Bowyer’s first in 88 Cup starts (Richmond, May 2008).
  • After enduring his worst result of the season last week at Richmond, Dale Earnhardt Jr. rebounded with a fourth-place finish Sunday. Next to Daytona, NHMS has been Junior’s best track of 2010. Four of his seven top-10 finishes to date this year were scored at those two facilities.
  • Kevin Harvick’s fifth-place finish was his best since he won at Michigan.
  • Gordon’s sixth-place finish matches his best since Pocono in July. It’s now been eight races since Gordon enjoyed a top-five.
  • Kyle Busch (ninth) has a string of four straight top-10 finishes after New Hampshire.
  • Sam Hornish Jr.’s 10th-place finish was his best of the season and the first for any Penske driver not named Kurt Busch.
  • The top 10 drivers at Loudon drove six Chevys, three Toyotas, and a Dodge. Edwards just missed putting points on the board for Ford with an 11th-place finish.

What’s the Points?

Due to the contrived nature of the Chase, there was a whole lot of shaking going on in the standings. Hamlin, however, remains atop the heap with a 35-point lead over Bowyer. Bowyer moved up 10 spots to second in the standings with his win, while behind him Harvick and Kyle Busch remained third and fourth, respectively.

Gordon advanced three spots to fifth in the standings, while Kurt Busch dropped to sixth. Johnson tumbled five spots to seventh in points, 92 behind Hamlin, while Edwards moved up a spot to eighth.

Greg Biffle fell two spots to ninth, while Jeff Burton held onto the 10th position after also running out of gas on the final lap. Stewart fell five spots to 11th, 124 behind after his fuel issues, while Kenseth fell a spot to 12th, as low as any Chaser can fall this season.

Just outside the top 12, McMurray in 14th trails Ryan Newman by just one point.

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 cans of Natty-Bo, the worst beer ever brewed. The ending offered an unexpected surprise, but the Sixth Sense it wasn’t.

Next Up: It’s off to the White Cliffs of Dover, and not a moment too soon. The entire Northeast is enduring a drought (great for motorcyclists, not so good for farmers and those with allergies.) There’s no surer way to ensure rain than to schedule a Cup race in these parts.

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