NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin’s Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2011 Las Vegas Race Recap

The Key Moment – On the final pit stop, Carl Edwards was able to take two tires and the lead heading into the homestretch. Tony Stewart, who took two on his previous stop to make up track position lost after a penalty in the pits, was forced to take four and could never make up the gap.

In a Nutshell – It’s back! (Let’s hope it’s for a limited time only.) We’ve got McRacing, at a mile-and-a-half McTrack courtesy the “dreaded” aero push…

Dramatic Moment – When Kurt Busch went spinning on lap 102 near the front of the field, we could have seen a huge wreck that would have made Phoenix’s Big One look like a Smurf’s picnic.

If you ignored the No. 99 car Juan Pablo Montoya, Stewart, and Marcos Ambrose did have a fairly engaging little scrap right after the final stop for second place.

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

Daytona is a plate track. Phoenix was a mile track. But a huge percentage of races this season will be run on mile-and-a-half ovals. Uh-oh. The problem on these tracks is a driver in a faster car can run down the driver ahead of him, but once he gets four or five car lengths behind that other car, he loses air off the nose and his car stops handling. Apparently, the new noses on Cup cars won’t address this issue though they are, in fact a whole lot better looking than last year’s cowcatchers.

We’ve traveled this road together before, but here’s this year’s first Matt’s “real passes” report. You will read this week there were fourteen passes for the lead between seven different drivers. But I discount passes made for the lead on pit road, along with passes made as the leader peels off the track to pit during the normal green flag sequence of stops. What I call a “pass for the lead” is one driver jockeying his way past the leader under green flag conditions. That’s what we all come to see. So how many passes for the lead were there at Vegas? As best I can count them, and even I can count this high, there was one. On lap 13, Stewart passed Jeff Gordon. Stewart had fresh tires while Gordon didn’t pit and was on worn rubber. If you blinked, you missed it…

As part of the promotion for this weekend’s Vegas Cup date, Edwards did a freefall, tether jumping for a distance of 800 feet not once but twice. To me, that doesn’t sound like an adventure. It sounds like the opening shot of a new episode of CSI. Catherine: Well, the lab boys are going to be using vacuums to clean up what used to be this guy’s internal organs. Brass: One of my guys says the victim was goaded into the jump by his friend… one Brad Keselowski. The two of them have had issues in the past, but the victim was sure the bad blood was over. Gil: Looks like he decided on the wrong time to make a leap of faith.

How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? I don’t know. But it sure is unseemly to watch eight broadcasters trying to dance around an obvious issue with right front tires without putting any blame on Goodyear.

Was Keselowski purposely trying to block Edwards for the last few laps as Stewart reeled in the No. 99 car?

Darrell Waltrip is just never going to admit that Bobby Allison had one more Cup victory than him, is he?

Mr. Stewart, as always I’m here to help. How did you lose that race? You had a real fast car in the clean air at the front of the pack most of the day. Then you left pit road with an airgun still attached to your left rear wheel, at which point you fell back in the pack after your “Drive-Thru” penalty. On the next stop, your crew chief made an enlightened gamble to go with two tires which put you back out front. Once again, with clean air on the nose you were untouchable even while you had only two new tires and the rest of the pack had four. But that two-tire call forced your hand on a long green-flag run, making four tires a necessity for your final stop. That dropped you to fourth, without the clean air your car craved meaning a surge back to second was a pretty fair accomplishment – certainly nothing to pout about. Anything else I can help you with?

Wow, Robby Gordon is really getting impatient. He couldn’t even wait to get out on the track before hitting something this weekend.

We’d been told the new FR9 Ford engine was going to help even the tables of parity this year, particularly because of its efficient cooling traits. When Sunday’s weather was a bit cooler than predicted, the No. 99 team was able to add more tape to the grille and gain their driver some speed and front downforce.

As the battle lines between the electronic (internet) media and the old school (“journalism majors”) media covering NASCAR heated up this week, my favorite quote by a local (Philly market) trained professional and in this case a journalism professor for three decades was… “I suspect many of those cheering and clapping for Bayne are dot.com reporters and bloggers who’ve had none or little training in journalism.” None? Really. I’d have gone with “little to no” but then I’m just a fan of the English language, Bill. Oh, and by the way I read the column on a website that has little to none name recognition. My second favorite moment was someone who works for FOX trying to teach us punks anything about a lack of bias.

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

It was a miserable weekend for Las Vegas native Kyle Busch. On Saturday, he had a quick car but after a pit stop problem made an unwise move on a restart, diving from the top groove of the track to the apron with nary a glance in the rear-view mirror. Afterwards, Busch actually admitted he drove into the grass and wrecked himself. On Sunday, he suffered a cut down right front tire (hardly an exclusive club) and hit the wall. The car was able to continue, albeit at reduced speed before suffering terminal engine meltdown in spectacular fiery fashion shortly thereafter. En route to a DNF, landing 38th in the final running order it was hard not to notice the fans were cheering as Busch drove the No. 18 to the garage. I’d say it’s official; Busch has inherited the mantle of the black hat from Jeff Gordon, who was cheered wildly last week at Phoenix. Gordon had inherited it from Dale Earnhardt, who in turn was handed the hat by Waltrip back in the mid-1980s.

Speaking of Gordon, a right front tire failure of his own put him hard into the wall as the No. 24 team was enjoying a decent run. Last Sunday’s winner wound up 36th this time around.

Greg Biffle led 11 laps early, but then experienced some bizarre fueling issues on pit road due to the new refueling rig. Even with some lengthy stops, the team was failing to get the fuel cell full and the No. 16 Ford ran out of gas at one point. A normally taciturn Biffle was clearly boiling over, mouthing off at the crew on the radio en route to 28th, three laps down.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

Denny Hamlin had to start shotgun on the field after an engine change but drove his way to a respectable seventh-place finish.

Polesitter Matt Kenseth had the fastest car in every practice session as well as very early in the race. But then came another ugly Goodyear tire failure; he fell two laps off the pace, then had to wait nearly 170 circuits to get back on the lead lap. An 11th-place finish is OK, but dreams of what might have been are tough on a driver with the fastest car in the field. There’s a lot of that going around lately…

Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s car looked hopeless during most of the practice sessions, but his team found the magic for Sunday afternoon, allowing Junior to charge up to eighth.

Kurt Busch’s day took a decided turn for the worse when he spun out on lap 102 on cold tires. He rallied back to a ninth-place finish.

Race leader Edwards thought he heard something funny in the engine those last few laps, but it held on well enough to win the race.

Worth Noting

  • Dating back to Phoenix last fall, Fords have now won four of the last five races. That’s after winning four Cup events in all of 2010.
  • So who’s the top dog at Roush Fenway now? Edwards has 19 Cup wins, Kenseth 18 and Biffle 16.
  • Stewart’s second-place finish was his best since he won at Fontana last fall.
  • Montoya (third) earned his best finish on an oval since Pocono in July of 2009.
  • Ambrose (fourth) earned his best oval track finish since Bristol in August of 2009.
  • Ryan Newman finished fifth for the second straight week.
  • Martin Truex Jr. (sixth) enjoyed his first top-10 finish since Talladega last fall.
  • Hamlin (seventh) had his first top-10 finish of this season.
  • Earnhardt Jr.’s eighth-place performance was his best since Martinsville last year. He has combined to score back-to-back top-10 results for the first time since last summer at Loudon and Daytona.
  • Kurt Busch (ninth) is the only driver with a top-10 finish in each of this year’s three Cup races.
  • Brian Vickers (10th) scored his first top-10 result since he was forced out of the car by that health scare last spring. (Oddly enough, Vickers also finished tenth at Darlington, the last race he was able to run last year.)
  • Kyle Busch’s 38th-place dud was his worst since Daytona last July. It was also the first mechanical DNF for the No. 18 team since Fontana last fall.
  • The top 10 finishers at Las Vegas drove two Fords, four Chevys, three Toyotas and a Dodge.

What’s the Points?

Kurt Busch and Stewart are now tied atop the standings. Edwards and Montoya are tied for third, seven points behind the leader. Newman rounds out the top five, 10 markers back from first.

It’s still early yet, but here’s some notable names needing to make up some ground: Gordon (19th), Kevin Harvick (20th), Jamie McMurray (29th), Biffle (31st) and Jeff Burton (32nd). But if any of these are your favorite driver, do not panic. I repeat: do not panic. The season is three races old. Move along, people; nothing to see here in this section. Return to your homes and think warm, fuzzy thoughts. We’ll deal with the points maybe 12 races deep into 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 two and a half cans of adequately chilled generic stuff. The race gets an extra half can because I was fully expecting NASCAR to reach back into their bag of tricks and throw a debris caution with 10 laps to go to spice things up.

Next Up – For reasons inexplicable to me, three dates deep into the season the series takes a weekend off. Racing resumes at Bristol a week from Sunday.

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