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Matt McLaughlin’s Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2011 Fontana Race Recap

The Key MomentKevin Harvick got up on Jimmie Johnson’s bumper entering turn 3 on the final lap to get the No. 48 loose. That opened the top lane and Harvick drove jauntily on by for the win.

In a Nutshell – 195 laps of terrible followed by five laps of terrific.

Dramatic Moment – A lot of fans at home must have been startled out of a nice nap by all the cheering there at the end.

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

Probably most of them will be talking about basketball. It’s all anyone around here is discussing and it drives me nuts every March. The official stats say there are many more stock car diehards than college hoops ones, but the problem with a couple million “stock car racing fans” is they don’t watch or attend the races.

If the drivers are only going to actually race for the final 10 to 20 laps anyway, maybe Fontana should try a 200-mile race distance next year?

What in blazes went wrong for Tony Stewart on the final restart? Listening to his radio, it seems he felt Landon Cassill was somehow at fault.

ESPN made a big deal Saturday about the bumps in the Fontana track surface. Oddly enough, the issue wasn’t even mentioned Sunday on FOX.

Harvick complimenting his pit crew over the radio. Kyle Busch gracious in defeat. Jeff Gordon running like a three-legged lamb at Fontana? Thanks for the tea, Alice, but I think I’d like to go back to my side of the rabbit hole.

Do you think Carl Edwards is sick of running second, especially to Kyle Busch?

Get well wishes go out to AJ Foyt, arguably the most successful and versatile driver in racing history, who had to have a heart stent inserted Friday to clear a 95% blockage in an artery.

The IRL was pretty clever in kicking off their 2011 broadcast schedule a couple hours before a West Coast Cup race began. Unfortunately, the start of the event was sloppier than most of my buddy’s son’s quartermidget races. But once again, despite the growing pains of double-file restarts I was left to wonder why open-wheel fans get “side-by-side” coverage during commercials (half the screen still displays race action during breaks) while the stock car side still has to endure constant, full-scale interruptions. You know that I like to stir things up. Who’s interested in a grassroots movement for the fans where they refuse to buy any product advertised during NASCAR commercial breaks? The deal would be if side-by-side coverage for stock car racing gets adopted, they’ll all try to buy at least one product advertised during those segments every week.

Speaking of the IndyCar season opener at Saint Pete’s, while Dario Franchitti won the race going away a very impressive female driver scored a strong fourth without setting a wheel wrong. And here’s the odd part: it wasn’t that young lady ESPN seems so infatuated with, Danica Patrick, but Simona De Silvestro driving for a team that lost a lead engineer just earlier this week. Folks talk about diversity and equality in racing; well, I’ll buy into that just as soon as results and not appearance define a successful female racer.

I was saddened but not surprised to learn this week that National Speed and Sport News is shutting down after having been published since 1934. (For the record, that’s 15 years before NASCAR staged their first season.) Shortly after I became able to read, a neighbor of my family was kind enough to pass along every issue after he was done poring over it; I’d also read the paper cover to cover. While not the founder, legendary motorsports journalist Chris Economaki was the guiding light that kept the paper fresh, informative and dynamic for all those decades. But in the end, the immediacy of the internet was too much to overcome for a print publication. NSSN will be sorely missed along with the old Winston Cup Scene paper.

Well if nothing else, the sparse crowd at Fontana had to make the folks at Bristol feel a little better. I think right now, you’d have better luck selling tickets to a wading pool at Fukushima than a Cup race at Fontana.

It was a daring experiment, but the white graphics on a white paint job for Clint Bowyer’s quarterpanels were absolutely impossible to read.

How can a TV show be a hit when the first episode hasn’t even aired yet? What FOX lacks in talent, it makes up for in hype.

Speaking of FOX, my guess is there’s somebody who is supposed to be in charge of reviewing graphics to be used during the race broadcast just to be certain nothing can be misinterpreted. Yes, I know they were talking about speeding on pit road, but when I read one of the UPS Logistics to the Fontana race was “don’t get a ticket,” I blew two streams of coffee six inches out of my nose. I’m sure the track’s box office appreciated the lapse in judgment…

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

Denny Hamlin ran strongly for a brief time early in the race. But after yet another engine failure, you know they’re going to be burning the midnight oil in the Joe Gibbs Racing engine department this week. Joey Logano’s engine apparently also had a fatal flaw that was discovered prior to the race; for the No. 20, it was a penalty for passing on the restart that left that Toyota the last car on the lead lap in 25th.

Jeff Burton’s strongest run of the season was sidelined by a pit road speeding penalty. The 15th-place finish was still his best of 2011, though.

Stewart ran up front and looked capable of winning right up to that final restart. A 13th-place finish, no comment post-race interview ensued.

After finishing in the top 10 in the first four Cup races of the season, Kurt Busch couldn’t get out of his own way on Sunday. He ran 17th.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

Kyle Busch had a rough start to the weekend, wrecking his primary car in the first practice before leading 151 laps and finishing third. What I want to know is what a manhole cover is doing in the tri-oval grass? You’d have thought the people at Fontana would have learned something after Greg Moore’s fatal wreck there.

Brian Vickers enjoyed his best run since returning to the circuit after last year’s health problems. He finished eighth.

Harvick had slid back as far as 28th and seemed in danger of losing a lap, but he roared back to lead the only lap that counts, the last one.

A key decision to make a final stop under caution for two tires allowed Matt Kenseth to finish fourth after having been invisible much of the race.

Worth Noting

  • The win was the first for Harvick since Michigan last August. It was the first win for RCR since he was edged by teammate Bowyer at Talladega last fall.
  • Johnson has finished second or third in three of the last four Cup races. Kyle Busch has finished first, second, or third in three of those same four races. Anyone else see a battle brewing for supremacy?
  • After finishing outside the top 10 in the first three races of the season, Kenseth has finished fourth the last two times out.
  • Ryan Newman finished fifth for the third time this season.
  • Lest Johnson or Kyle Busch gets too complacent, Edwards (sixth) is averaging an eighth-place finish this season.
  • Bowyer (seventh) scored his first top-10 result of the 2011 Cup season.
  • Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s 12th-place finish was actually his worst since Daytona.
  • Hamlin’s 39th-place DNF was his worst performance since Atlanta last fall. He also lost an engine in that race.
  • The top-10 finishers at Fontana drove five Chevys, two Fords and three Toyotas.
  • Andy Lally and the No. 71 team will have to make the race on speed starting this weekend at Martinsville (where Hermie Sadler will sub in behind the wheel). TRG Motorsports is six points outside of a Top 35 spot in owner points, a perch that would have given them a mulligan in Martinsville qualifying.

What’s the Points?

Edwards now leads the championship by nine markers over Newman who advances two spots to second in the standings. Former points leader Kurt Busch has dropped to third; he’s 10 points behind Edwards. His brother Kyle is right behind him, 11 points out of the lead while Johnson rounds out the top five. He’s 14 back.

Stewart fell three positions to sixth in the standings, followed by Paul Menard, Juan Pablo Montoya, then a three-way tie for ninth among Harvick, Kasey Kahne and Kenseth. Among the drivers who might want to try harder to score a win as a backdoor way into the Chase: Greg Biffle (20th), Hamlin (21st), Burton (25th), and Jamie McMurray (28th). But I doubt any of the above drivers are panicked about points five races into the season, so why should we be? Remember, the leaves that have yet to grow on the trees here in the northeast will be ready for raking by the time the Chase begins.

Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans, with one being a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic) — The first 195 laps rate a gentleman’s zero, all the monotony in 80% of the distance. But those final five laps get a solid six-pack of the good stuff.

Next Up – Set the wayback machine to 1950-something as the circuit takes a delightful run back to historic Martinsville, Virginia.

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