Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin’s Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2011 Phoenix Spring Race Recap

The Key Moment – Following the final restart it took Jeff Gordon 13 laps to reel in and pass Kyle Busch.

In a Nutshell – Gordon returns to victory lane after a 66 race slump, the longest of his Cup career.

Dramatic Moment – 13 cars, including many favorites, were gathered up in a lap 67 wreck that looked like something out of a hobby-stock race.

While the fireworks never ignited when Busch, looking to sweep the weekend, and Gordon, looking to end his drought, were nose to tail near the end of the race it looked like things were fixing to pick up.

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

Let me get this straight. In a field full of rookies the truck series drivers ran 59 laps of 150 with no cautions. On Saturday they managed to run more than half the Nationwide race with no cautions. But by lap 67 of the Cup race with the “best drivers in the world” 23 of 43 cars were torn up. 41 of the best drivers in the world plus Kyle Busch and Robby Gordon, I guess.

As cleanly as Carl Edwards raced Kyle Busch for the win in Saturday’s race, might not Busch have shown a bit more patience 59 laps into Sunday’s event? Busch once again got rattled early and the KGB (Kinder, Gentler, Busch) we saw last week lost his temper. Again. Excitable boy, they all said.

Andy Lally’s hard contact with the wall brought out the eighth caution of the day. The question is what was he still doing out there running 75 laps off the pace with 27 laps left? It seems a stunning indictment of NASCAR’s new points system that penalizes a driver and team more for a bad finish while rewarding them less for a great one.

Does anyone else get a feeling as long as fans get to text their favorite to win the race in the pizza company promotion, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is going to win every week no matter how badly he’s running?

It was hard not to notice a few things about Saturday’s Nationwide Series race over and above the fact Kyle Busch really stunk up the show leading every lap. Firstly only 40 cars tried to win one of 43 starting slots, a sign some of these smaller teams don’t have a full fleet of the “new” cars yet. Short fields may be a problem this year in that while the Cup regulars who dominate these races don’t earn points they still earn the big prize money, meaning less money for full time Nationwide teams to build new cars. There were also a whole lot of cars running at Phoenix sans sponsorship, an untenable business model. Has corporate America decided the costs of sponsoring a successful Nationwide team have crept too close to the cost of running an entry in Sunday’s big show? Two of Jack Roush’s Nationwide teams ran at Phoenix without a major backer including the car of Trevor Bayne who made a few waves last week at Daytona. The two un-sponsored Roush cars ran Ford and Roush-Fenway sponsorship, which is like taking your sister to the prom because you couldn’t get a date. Finally, a Toyota won. Toyota has of course not tried to enter a new style car like the Mustang or Challenger that more clearly resembles a production model. They can’t. They don’t build pony or muscle cars. They build UJAs. (Universal Japanese Appliances.) So why are they competing in a “stock car” series… and where are the Camaros?

I was curious this week when some folks wrote about how Bayne could still make the Chase, grabbing the 11th or 12th spot in the runoffs because he’s won a race. In order to grab one of those two spots I was told a driver also had to be in the top 20 in points. Since Bayne doesn’t earn any Cup points even when he runs the big events necessarily he won’t be in one of those top 20 spots so for the fourth straight year the Daytona 500 champion won’t make the Chase. Only in NASCAR.

I hear that this summer former Formula 1 champ Lewis Hamilton and former Cup champ Tony Stewart will host a media event at Watkins Glen where they will swap rides. That makes sense as they both have sponsorship from Mobil One. But I want to know how much axle grease they’ll have to slather on Stewart to wedge him into an F1 car. Might want to lighten up on those Whoppers awhile, TS. So is a future F1 race at the Glen in the offing?

Since when is a 1-mile race course a “short track”?

Budweiser sponsorship is said to be the most lucrative deal in the Cup garage. How much clout do they have even with the networks? Did you notice when the Bud logos were being shown after a break it was the only time that annoying gopher and his graphics didn’t show up?

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

Bayne’s week of wonder came to a crashing end at Phoenix after last week’s fairy tale Daytona 500 victory. Bayne wiped out the primary car in practice and his backup early in the race. A wreck in Saturday’s race while running seventh was the icing on Bayne’s cake. What’s the old expression, “from the penthouse to the outhouse”? (Worse yet, the car Bayne destroyed at Phoenix on Sunday was to be his primary car at Vegas next week.)

Edwards’ pole winning car clearly had the speed to be a race contender but he got the worst of the 18-99 combo shot into the corner.

Joey Logano’s engine began laying down early in the event leading to a long frustrating afternoon until it finally expired.

Jeff Burton’s season is off to a frustrating start with 26th and 36th place finishes in the first two events.

Burton’s teammate Clint Bowyer isn’t faring much better with 17th and 27th place results to start the season.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

Kyle Busch’s chance at a decent finish could easily have gone up in smoke when he triggered that lap 67 accident. A lot of other good drivers saw their days destroyed.

Gordon made hard contact into the outside wall after Matt Kenseth’s car body slammed his Chevy but he drove off with limited damage.

Jimmie Johnson qualified 28th and was slow most of the weekend but he finished a respectable third.

Kevin Harvick went from spinning out early in the race to a fourth-place finish.

Earnhardt Jr. had to overcome a loose wheel and a speeding penalty on pit road en route to a 10th-place finish.

Worth Noting

  • Kurt and Kyle Busch are the only two drivers to score top-10 finishes in both of this season’s Cup points races.
  • Johnson, Harvick, Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch are the only four drivers who finished in the top 10 at Phoenix (just two races ago) last year and did so again on Sunday.
  • After a disastrous Sunday at Daytona, all four of the Hendrick cars finished in the top 13 as did the two Stewart-Haas teams, the shadowy illegal fifth and sixth HMS teams.
  • The top 10 drivers at Phoenix competed in six Chevys, a pair of Toyotas and a lone Ford and Dodge.
  • Gordon’s 83rd win in NASCAR’s top series ties him with Cale Yarborough, and puts him in pretty elite company. Fourth place on the overall wins list is Darrell Waltrip. Third on the list is Bobby Allison with 85 wins. (If someone tries to tell you DW and the elder Allison are tied with 84 wins, tell them they’re an idiot. Allison won a Cup race at Winston-Salem on August 6th, 1971 in a Ford Mustang which was legal for that day’s race. For whatever reason, NASCAR records don’t include that win in Allison’s stats. Even more curiously two days later Allison finished second to Richard Petty in that same car in Ona, W.Va. and that top 5 result IS noted in his career top five total.) David Pearson’s 100 victories, second on the list, has probably slid from Gordon’s grasp and the King’s all-time record of 200 victories is unlikely to ever be broken.

What’s the Points?

Kyle Busch now leads brother Kurt by three points atop the standings.

Stewart and AJ Allmendinger are tied for third in the standings, 11 points out of the lead.

Gordon and Mark Martin are tied for fifth, 15 points behind the younger Busch.

Bobby Labonte, Juan Pablo Montoya and Newman are tied for seventh, a single point behind Gordon and Martin.

It is really, really, silly to be talking about points this early in the year. I’m done.

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 two and a half bottles of Corona from across that lazy river. The beginning of the race was sloppy and the middle portions too monotonous to carry the finish we ended up with. I can’t blame Gordon fans for rushing out to grab a six-pack though. The last time Gordon won a Cup race many of them weren’t old enough to drink.

Next Up – The Mild, Mild West show continues with a stop at Las Vegas next Sunday.

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