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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

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

The Key Moment – After the two of them were running nose-to-tail, then side-by-side for a dozen laps, Denny Hamlin finally passed Kevin Harvick for the lead on lap 471.

In a Nutshell – There’s nothing so wrong with the new NASCAR an old racetrack can’t fix it.

Dramatic Moment – There were about 500 laps worth.

The crowd really seemed to eat it up when Dale Earnhardt Jr. took the lead on lap 285 and led the race for the next 90 circuits.

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

Some newer fans who read my columns note an occasional touch of negativity in them. More than once they (and you know who you are) have asked me, “What exactly is it you want out of a race?” Well, kiddies, review your tapes of Sunday’s 500-lapper. That there will do quite nicely, thanks.

You know the action is approaching the boiling point when even teammates in the Chase are threatening to park one another for the day. Did Harvick really expect Jeff Burton not to try to pass him because it “wasn’t good for RCR?” And a quick note to Kurt Busch: you didn’t “accidentally” get into Jeff Gordon. You stuffed him into the wall. Cowboy up and admit it.

You could tell the race was reaching the limits of its time slot on TV there at the end. Cars spewed oil and grease all over the racing groove, blew right fronts and all but came to a stop out on the track, yet no caution flags were thrown. Compare that to other races this season, when a hot dog wrapper blowing across the apron could draw a 10-lap long yellow flag on command.

For the record, I still think that grandfather clock Martinsville awards race winners is easily the coolest trophy in the sport. Fans who agree might want to drive by Jimmie Johnson or Hamlin’s house next time they’re holding a garage sale to see if either driver is getting rid of one of their excess clocks.

No offense to Richard Childress, who used to win Cup titles pretty regularly with the No. 3 team, but on my scorecard I’ve officially eliminated Harvick as a title contender for 2010. Why? This week, it was announced there will be a pit crew swap between Harvick’s No. 29 team and Clint Bowyer’s No. 33. To me, that smacks of desperation. Yes, Harvick is constantly critical of his pit crew in all three series in which he drives. He berates them caustically for slow stops he feels cost him race wins, because the man is, after all, Harvick; he never makes an on-track mistake that costs him a spot. But the No. 29 pit crew is the one that brought this boy to the party, and they should be the ones who stay to the end. During the regular season, remember, this team scored more points than any other despite its “lousy” pit crew. Now those same guys are pitting Bowyer and likely still smarting from the reprimand, creating internal tension that didn’t need to be there. Meanwhile Bowyer’s crew, who has been staging a Quixotic battle with their boy all season for credibility with their underrated driver, particularly after the NHMS penalty and the drawn out appeals process that followed, is now paired with a former rival – one they know will tan their asses over the radio if they can’t perfect five-second, four-tire pit stops. They’re not used to that. According to several sources I have in the garage area, if you’re going to work on pit road Bowyer is one of the top three drivers you want to work for. Harvick is at the bottom of the same list.

I seem to recall back in 1990, heading into the season finale with a chance to beat Dale Earnhardt (the Johnson of his day), Mark Martin and Jack Roush panicked. In testing leading up to the event, with Ford desperate to win the driver’s title, the No. 6 team tested their own cars as well as ones prepared by Bill Elliott’s team and Robert Yates Racing. Martin was slightly faster in the Elliott-prepared car, so that’s the Ford they entered in the race that Sunday. The car was bad fast, alright, but it didn’t drive the way Martin wanted it to and he hadn’t left the dance with the ones who brought him. The team had no idea how to adjust on the unfamiliar car, and Martin lost that title by 26 points to Earnhardt and RCR. You’d have thought Childress would have learned something that weekend… perhaps not? Here’s the skinny; if your team was good enough all season long, on and off pit road, to put you in position to win a title, you stick with them and either win as a team or lose as one.

My take on Kasey Kahne’s release from RPM this week? Well, Kahne ought to be glad this is the kinder, gentler era of stock car racing. If he’d been driving for Junior Johnson and had quit on the team last Saturday night because of an upset tummy he’d have left the team alright… spitting a mouthful of bloody Chiclets that used to be his front teeth out as he ran. In all honesty, there’s no room in this sport for a lame duck driver. If a team’s driver decides the grass is greener on the other side of the fence, they ought to be helped across that fence immediately with a good swift boot to the ass. Such combinations just don’t work.

Thankfully still sporting a pearly white set of choppers, my guess is Kahne probably feels like a fellow tossed off the side of a sinking ship. He got his final paycheck from an ex-employer and trust me, I know that can be a trial and sometimes never comes to pass. But if I were an employee of Red Bull Racing and knew Kahne was just phoning it in, waiting for a seat to open at Hendrick Motorsports in 2012, I doubt I’d be giving it my all next year, either. It’s sort of like someone asking you to the prom because your best friend turned her down; it’s hard to get excited when you know the whole plan is option B. Hopefully, the Red Bull team is professional enough to prepare cars up to Kahne’s lofty standards next year. To the best of my knowledge, he is about to become the first driver to wheel Chevys, Fords, Toyotas and Dodges in such a brief career (Robby Gordon has, too, but he’s also been driving nearly twice as long). Like Jerry Maguire might holler: “Show me the money!”

My take on the possible shutdown of Richard Petty Motorsports? Richard Petty has been a figurehead at the organization for years, not really running the show or even having much meaningful input into the team that bears his name. The championship-winning organization that started as Lee Petty Engineering is long since defunct, with absentee owner George Gillett the engineer in the cab of this train wreck. At this point, they might as well have gotten a cardboard cutout of the King to place in front of the shop with a hinged arm that waved in the breeze. Like Patti Loveless once sang, “And you don’t even know who I am, what do you care if I go?”

One final note on the whole Kahne/RPM debacle. Sayeth young master Kahne, (he of the intact smile) “I was sick to the stomach. It was time to call it a day.” As I recall it, Charlotte last week was a night race. But yeah, I’d guess he decided to throw in the towel during daylight hours.

For those of you who might not have heard, Daytona USA (I think they changed the name to the Daytona 500 Experience somewhere along the way) is being shut down. The once much-ballyhooed interactive stock car racing theme park that houses the winning car for a year after each Daytona 500 has apparently been operating at a loss for some time despite the exorbitant ticket prices those who did visit the attraction had to pay. Yet another canary in the coal mine warning for the powers that be… I wonder if Brian France will consider what’s gone wrong when he drives by the shuttered up attraction on the way to his office?

I’ll have to admit that in forty-some-odd plus years of following stock car racing, I’ve never heard of a team having an illegal “driveshaft cover” discovered in pre-race inspection, but I guess the No. 48 team has to live on pins and needles until Wednesday to find out if the R&D center imposes a penalty. But then again, this is the same network that said Jeff Gordon managed to switch to his “backup starter” last week at Charlotte. Knowing where a starter is located and how it’s mounted to a car, my guess is Gordon actually threw a switch to change over to his backup battery.

Still thinking team orders can’t affect the outcome of stock car races? Burton was clearly told to let Harvick pass him so he could lead a lap and gain five bonus points.

In the Battle of the Exes, Kahne prevailed with a 14th-place finish to Aric Almirola’s 21st-place result in the RPM No. 9 car.

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

How’d you like to work in a Cup team’s fab shop and see the mess the Martinsville car was reduced to rolling out of the truck Monday morning? Then, next week the Cup guys race at Talladega… where doubtless more carnage will ensue.

A slow pit stop for Gordon left him mired in the pack of least common denominators though he’d run in the top five most of the afternoon. Perhaps Gordon was a bit irritated as a result, but an ill-considered lapse of manners running with Kurt Busch sent the No. 24 car hard into the inside wall.

Still smarting from the post-NHMS penalty, this wasn’t a good week for Bowyer. First he lost his pit crew, then Sunday he lost the rear gears in his differential, leaving him 38th.

You have to think the marketing managers at Bud are delighted with this week’s move to remove Kahne from the 9 car. Look at the roster of past drivers of the Bud machine: Darrell Waltrip, Neil Bonnett, Bill Elliott, Terry Labonte, and Earnhardt Jr. Now, they have Almirola, and the man they focused their marketing efforts on the past few seasons is now driving for an energy drink.

Hey, this isn’t racing-related and I’m not asking for sympathy, just a little understanding. I returned home this weekend to find out that somehow or another a rather largish John Deere green lawn tractor had taken up residence atop the roof of the turnout shed where it’s clearly visible from most of the property – if you know where to look and what to look for. Imagine looking out the office window to enjoy the autumn foliage and the first thing you see is a rusty old lawn tractor 15 feet above the ground sucking out your will to live. I don’t know who put it there or how, but my guess is large amounts of suds and a purloined skid steer were involved. If you’re responsible for this miscreant action, please undo it shortly. Eyesore Acres looks hillbilly enough without lawn tractors on the roof.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

At the start of the race, polesitter Hamlin valiantly fought his way back through the starting field courtesy of an oddly matched set of tires. But when the pay window started creaking open, he fought back and reasserted himself to the lead.

It looked like Martin’s day was over when he went spinning off of AJ Allmendinger’s front bumper and dropped two laps off the pace. But Martin frantically charged his way back onto the lead lap and all the way up to second in the end. Shine on brightly, you crazy old man.

At Martinsville, a poor qualifying effort and the resultant tricky pit stall for the race are usually the kiss of death for a driver’s chances. But Harvick defied the odds, qualifying 36th only to really up to third by the end of the day.

Johnson must have felt the other drivers were using his rear bumper as a chew toy for much of the race, but he hung onto the car well enough to finish fifth.

You won’t see it in the highlight reels, but Robby Gordon’s 22nd-place finish (despite a flat tire) combined with a 35th-place finish by Travis Kvapil in the No. 38 car helps solidify the No. 7 team’s hold on a top-35 position in owner’s points and their possible future next season with a guaranteed spot for the first five races. Of course, I tend to dwell on the ironic, and Gordon driving the Extenze car is perfect. I’ve always considered him the biggest d… oh, never mind.

Worth Noting

  • Hamlin’s win was his fifth top-10 result in the six Chase races run to date. The victory was also Hamlin’s third straight Martinsville triumph.
  • Martin’s second-place finish was his best of the season and best overall Cup result since he won at Loudon last fall.
  • Harvick (third) now has strung together four straight top-10 finishes.
  • Johnson’s fifth-place result was actually his worst in the last five races.
  • Earnhardt Jr. (seventh) led more laps Sunday than he combined for the 31 previous Cup races this year. And the crowd went wild…
  • Burton (ninth) led 140 laps at Martinsville this spring and 134 laps on Sunday. He’s led 527 laps all season.
  • Brad Keselowski’s 10th-place finish was his best of the season.
  • Ken Schrader’s 18th-place finish was his best since Kansas in 2006.
  • After starting the Chase with four straight top-10 finishes, Ryan Newman has finished 30th or worse in the last two events. And I think we all know how much he loves Talladega… $50,000 worth of love.
  • The top 10 finishers at Martinsville drove five Chevys, three Toyotas, a Dodge, and a Ford.

What’s the Points?

Johnson retains his points lead but is now just six markers ahead of Hamlin. Harvick remains third, 62 outside the top spot. Next week’s race at Talladega will truly tell the tale, as it’s the one track where through no fault of his own a driver can find himself climbing bruised and battered out of a race car so thoroughly trashed, all the King’s horses and all the King’s men can’t patch the SOB together again.

Keep in mind, in the highly unlikely (as in it has never happened) event Hamlin and Johnson were to finish tied in the spot, the driver of the No. 11 car would have the advantage. The first tiebreaker is number of wins this season, and Hamlin now has seven victories to Johnson’s six.

Kyle Busch takes over fourth in the standings from Jeff Gordon but is a formidable 172 points out of the lead. Barring a first lap incident that takes out Johnson, Hamlin, and Harvick at Talladega next week, Gordon, Busch and those trailing them in the points have been effectively eliminated.

In that “best of the rest” race, Gordon holds fifth while Carl Edwards wrested the sixth points position from Tony Stewart. Burton had the best points day advancing two spots to eighth in the standings. Greg Biffle had the worst points day falling three spots to eleventh, while Kurt Busch and Matt Kenseth sit right in the middle at ninth and tenth.

Much will be made this week of the Chase having come down to two drivers within six points of each other battling for the big prize. “Big prize” in French is “Grand Prix.” (Say what you want about the French, they make a damn good salad dressing.) In the Grand Prix series, where the points system rewards excellence, not consistency, the points race between five potential champions is even tighter heading into the last two races of the season.

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 five well-iced bottles of Corona served up by a fetching lass of questionable moral character who is off shift in a half-hour. A few less cautions at the midpoint of the race for the backmarkers doing stupid things would have earned this race a six.

Next Up – Talladega on Halloween? It’s likely the race will become a real life horror show. Keep your hands inside the car; this is a dark ride.