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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin’s Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2010 Homestead Race Recap

The Key Moment – The Race: When Martin Truex Jr. fell off the pace with an equalized tire, Carl Edwards lost the only competition that could keep him honest all day and drove on to an easy win.

The Chase: On the 24th lap, Denny Hamlin hit Greg Biffle and went spinning. The team never got back up on their heels afterwards, with their indecision on whether to pit during the ninth caution driving the final nail into their coffin.

In a Nutshell – The Race: Edwards put on a dominating performance for a second straight week… but anyone who saw the race on ESPN can be forgiven for not knowing who won.

The Chase: After 10 Outback Steakhouses worth of sizzle, the championship battle served up Clara Peller amounts of beef.

Dramatic Moment – There haven’t been a whole hell of a lot of them this year, have there?

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

Did Jimmie Johnson win this year’s title or did Hamlin lose it?

Is the No. 48 team’s fifth title going to draw fans to the sport to watch the new dynasty roll on, or drive away fans tired of seeing the same fellow win the title over and over?

Was de facto HMS team member Tony Stewart blocking for the No. 48 bunch throughout the race?

With three-time championship crew chief Ray Evernham at least semi-officially released from his obligations to RPM, rumors are rampant his former boss and friend, Rick Hendrick, would like to sign Evernham as the crew chief for the struggling No. 88 bunch next year. Honestly, I think that’s the one chance Earnhardt, Jr. has to get his career back on track though it will be an effort equivalent to raising the Titanic. But somewhere in those negotiations, he has to be told, “This is it. This is your last chance to make it here at HMS. If it doesn’t work, we’re done getting rid of crew chiefs and we’re going to find a new driver.”

Kasey Kahne has announced he’ll be having surgery on both knees just after the season ends. Kahne’s explanation is he tore up both knees playing basketball. (When will these young whippersnappers stop with this high-risk game of roundball and do something safe with their off time, like race motocross or skydive?) My guess is that Kahne saw how splendidly Hamlin did in the sport after his ACL surgery and figures if one knee is good, two has got to be better.

Isn’t the silence from Brian Vickers‘ peeps about his status for next season awfully concerning? Whispers say Vickers might not be ready for next year’s Daytona Speedweeks and could possibly have run his last race.

You can always count on Brian France for a dearth of information combined with a compendium of awkward quotes when he opens his mouth at a press conference. At Homestead, France admitted that changes to the Chase are still under consideration. He added, “What’s really clear to me is when you put drivers in a position where there’s a lot on the line, they just can’t have a good position and they actually have got to go out and win, lead laps, or compete high, they do it.” “Competing high?” Isn’t that what landed Jeremy Mayfield in all that trouble?

France also acted incredulous when told there were fans who don’t like the Chase. Can any human being actually be that stupid and not have drowned in the shower? When asked about fans who don’t want to see the Chase changed but would prefer it be eliminated, his response to the question was, “You met somebody who is telling you that?” Well, hell yeah, I hear from a couple hundred of those ex-fans a week. In the words of our Delta friend Bluto, the time has come for someone to do something pointless and meaningless. Remember back in the early days of the war in Iraq when France (the country) refused to back our policy? Some fringe elements of society decided the best way to punish France was not to buy French fries. (Which would have impacted Idaho a lot more than France, but the seeds were planted for the Tea Party… well-intended but ultimately retarded actions.) So let’s all join together and be as truly and unapologetically stupid as Brian France! I am calling on all like-minded individuals to teach Brian France a lesson by not buying French fries this Thursday! (Isn’t there something else going on that day?) When Brian sees the decrease in French fry sales over last November 25th, I am confident he will abdicate his throne and go back to being the spastic Village Idiot of Daytona Beach, Fla. In place of French fries, I’d suggest you all chow down on turkey, gravy, cranberry sauce, dinner rolls, stuffing, pumpkin pie, and strawberry wine.

Volkswagen is apparently interested in getting involved in NASCAR racing. What I’d really like to know is which of the Detroit Big Three is apparently interested in getting out of the sport?

You sometimes can’t help but wonder if NASCAR and the tracks have issued their officials laser-sighted hand guns to shoot themselves in the foot. Prior to Friday’s Cup practice, the beleaguered group couldn’t even remember which gate to open to allow the drivers to exit the garage area and get onto pit road. Drivers who showed up at the typical (and proper gate) were directed to another, where they were again denied access. After a series of three-point turns worthy of a driver’s ed class, NASCAR finally decided practice might be more useful if they actually allowed the race cars onto the track. You can’t make this stuff up; and in the midst of the hilarity, Ryan Newman tore reverse gear out of his transmission trying to jockey his way onto the track and missed most of practice. I cannot recall a single more embarrassing incident for the sport since Gary Nelson blew the engine to Ernie Irvan’s RYR Ford on the wheeled dyno after his pole-winning run in 1996.

Their season is over and NASCAR still hasn’t told the Nationwide Series teams what the rules will be for next season. Rumors are rampant that there will be some sort of limits on how many Cup drivers can enter the Triple A races, and if they will be eligible for points, prize money, or a title. Given that degree of uncertainty, it’s understandable many teams don’t know if they’ll be back in 2011 and sponsors are loathe to get in the game.

My guess is Ford chose a new F-150 to pace the field in Friday night’s truck race simply because it’s the only way they were going to get a Ford to lead a lap. A grand total of four Fords were entered in that race and Jason White in 23rd was the top finishing driver in a facsimile of a Ford F-150. That’s four more entries than the Dodge (or Ram now) camp managed to post. By and large, it’s now a Chevy and Toyota series; so much for “win on Sunday, sell on Monday.” That’s especially true considering the Ford F-series is easily the top selling brand of pickup trucks. Toyota, which claimed this year’s driver’s, manufacturer’s and team trophies in the series, remains an asterisk on that same sales chart of full-size trucks here in the States. (Give Ford style points, though, for rolling out the soon-to-be-released Boss 302 Mustang as the pace car for Saturday’s event.)

Related to the above, NASCAR might just have some designs to eliminate the start-and-parkers in next year’s Cup Series for 2011. To date, they’ve remained mum on how they’d enforce such a ban over and above taking the first non-wreck related finisher’s car back to the R and D for a thorough check that makes airports’ full body screenings and patdowns look like a friendly handshake. PRISM Motorsports, the de facto originator of the trend, was rumored to be shutting down after this season, but one principal with the team loudly denies that.

Yeah, OK, Johnson’s title was the big story, but in addition to hearing he’d won his fifth championship it would have been nice to see who finished fifth as well. Audio problems during the trophy presentation were one final irritant for fans watching the race on ESPN in a terribly irritating season of race broadcasting.

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

There are a lot of ways to lose a title. Hamlin and the No. 11 team mined most of them in the past two weeks. Phoenix was ugly, although they still arrived at Homestead leading the points. But while an early race spin didn’t ring the bell, the die was cast in what would be the end of the line. Uneven pit stops, a blown call that caused them not to pit at all during the ninth caution, and getting caught a lap down by the 10th and final one iced the cake.

Kyle Busch had a top-five car most of the day until he ran afoul of a thoroughly irritated Kevin Harvick, who sent Busch into the inside wall. Right or wrong, having to hastily exit a car engulfed in flames wasn’t any way to end a season. (Kudos to Busch for a much more subdued and mature interview after that mess.)

Jeff Gordon’s season has been lackluster by his own lofty standards, but losing an engine in the final race was just one more disappointment and a bitter pill to swallow in his final race with DuPont as the majority primary sponsor. 37th, his season ended with a zero in the victory column for the second time in three years.

Truex Jr. clearly had a fast car and looked like he’d battle Edwards for the win, but an equalized tire ended his chances and dropped him to 11th.

Jeff Burton had to endure an early pit stop that could have been timed with a sundial, but managed to work his way back onto the lead lap. A hard trip into the wall ended his afternoon in 31st.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

Johnson had to overcome some slow pit stops (ironic in light of the crew swap at Texas with the No. 24 bunch) to claim a second-place finish and a fifth title.

After enduring a long winless drought and a disappointing season, Edwards finished 2010 in style with back-to-back dominating wins. Hopefully, he didn’t actually screw up his leg doing the backflip afterwards. Lately, NASCAR drivers get group discounts on two things at the hospital: knee surgery and childbirths.

Harvick had to overcome a pit road speeding penalty that sent him to 26th for the restart. He stormed back to third place like his car was equipped with afterburners.

Aric Almirola ended his temporary tenure with the beleaguered RPM Bud team in style with a fourth-place finish. And he doesn’t even have to get out of bed for Monday’s 8 a.m. meeting. He already knows he’s out a job.

Worth Noting

  • Yes, Johnson won his fifth straight title, but overall it wasn’t a great year for Hendrick Motorsports. Last season, the four teams combined for 12 victories. In 2010, three of those four failed to win a race and Johnson won six events.
  • Johnson’s fifth title was the 10th for HMS, more than any other team in the sport’s history. (Petty Enterprises has nine).
  • Johnson ended the season with nine straight top-10 finishes, five of them inside the top three.
  • Harvick finished the season with eight straight top-10 results. He ran inside the top 10 in nine of the 10 Chase races, and actually had a higher average finish than Johnson during the Chase (5.8 to 6.2).
  • AJ Allmendinger’s fifth-place finish was his best on an oval since he came home third in the 2009 Daytona 500.
  • Kahne’s sixth-place finish was his best since joining Red Bull Racing.
  • Stewart’s eighth-place finish was his best since he won at Fontana in October.
  • Matt Kenseth (ninth) enjoyed three straight top-10 finishes to end the 2010 Cup season. He hadn’t managed back-to-back top 10s since starting the year with five straight such finishes.
  • Brad Keselowski (13th) ends the season without a single top-five finish in Cup.
  • Hamlin’s 14th-place finish was his worst since Atlanta.
  • Kyle Busch (32nd) endured four finishes of 25th or worse in the Chase.
  • The top-10 finishers at Fontana drove five Fords, four Chevys, and a Toyota. The top finishing driver in a Dodge was Keselowski in 13th.
  • For the 2010 season, Chevys won 18 Cup races, Toyotas 12, Fords four and Dodge two.

What’s the Points?

Johnson finally beat Hamlin by 39 points and Harvick by 41.

Edwards held on to the less-than-coveted fourth-place position in the standings, while Kenseth remained in fifth. Biffle jumped up to sixth, Stewart ended the season seventh, and Kyle Busch was eighth.

Gordon’s DNF cost him three spots in the standings. He’ll finish in ninth, the lowest position for the four-time champ since 2005. He’s won just once in the last 113 races; Johnson has 24 victories in the same stretch.

Were it not for his 150-point penalty after the New Hampshire win, Clint Bowyer would have finished fifth, not 10th in the standings. Kurt Busch and Jeff Burton round out this year’s Chasers, both of whom won’t be standing up on stage at the banquet in Las Vegas.

In case you’re wondering… back under the classic points system, Harvick would have beat Johnson by 285 points. And yeah, I’d have been cool with that.

Mark Martin finished the season with the “Best of the Rest” award, 13th in the standings by 39 over Jamie McMurray.

Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans, with one being a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic) — If you were actually watching the race, not where the Nos. 48, 11, and 29 cars were running, the event itself was pretty tepid. We’ll give this one two bottles of Corona, ’cause down here, you need a reason to move…

Next Up – For those of you who might not have gotten the memo in your inbox, the 2010 Cup season, or what I like to refer to as the Hundred Year Wars of stock car racing, has finally reached its inevitable but wholly welcome conclusion.

Racing, or some contrived and silly approximation thereof, returns at the newly repaved Daytona track on February 12th of 2011 with some sort of clash, shootout, cage match, All-Star race or some such nonsense.

Many of you have written to me asking if I’ll be back next year. Straight answer, I don’t know. Retirement sounds good right now, but then it always sounds good by this point of the season so I give myself the luxury of a couple months’ off to decide what I want to do. But like Die Hard movie sequels, I have that annoying tendency to keep coming back. I outlasted my old buddies over at the SpeedFX site (that domain name is now up for sale if you’re looking for an amusing stocking stuffer) and I’d like to think I can outlast Brian France as well before pursuing my next career goal of perpetual saddle tramp on the Harley.

Either way, this column is the last we’ll be dealing with each other this season. So to my most devoted fans who have followed me site to site, I appreciate your support more than words can tell. To my most venomous critics, you’ve helped make me a better writer by making sure my I’s are crossed and my T’s are dotted, as George W. might have said. To the rest of you, the majority of you who fall in between those two extremes, thanks for considering what I have to say and for coming along for the ride. What a long, strange trip it’s been. Best wishes to you all for a happy Thanksgiving, a joyous Christmas season with those you love, and better times for us all in 2011.

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