NASCAR Race Weekend Central

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

The Key Moment – With four laps left, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s car got just loose enough to allow Kevin Harvick to slip by for the win. Junior tried a classic crossover move to retake the lead but missed by a couple inches.

In a Nutshell – Lots of lead changes, lots of bent fenders and frayed tempers, huge clouds of tire smoke, bunches of passes for the lead amongst different drivers and an exciting finish. It just doesn’t get much better than that.

Dramatic Moment – If you weren’t on your feet for those final 10 laps, contact your doctor. You may be dead.

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

I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again: there’s nothing wrong with the new NASCAR an old racetrack can’t fix.

Harvick came up with a clever plan to beat Earnhardt Jr. for the win. Hopefully, his team comes up with an equally clever plan to get their boy safely out of town once the Earnhardt Army comes looking for him.

You think Kyle Busch is sick of losing the lead with a handful of laps left to go lately? But once again, the “new” Kyle Busch was on hand accepting defeat graciously on both Saturday and Sunday. My guess is when Busch finally does blow his stack again, which will happen, it’s going to be volcanic.

While I enjoyed Sunday’s race, there was something that did bother me afterwards. Too many drivers, when interviewed were saying they didn’t want to be “the bad guy” spinning out a competitor. Excuse me? Did they not get the memo they were at Martinsville? Earnhardt Jr. not only said he didn’t want to be a bad guy, but took it one step further, claiming he didn’t want to be obnoxious. Hmmmm. I remember a seven-time champion who didn’t give a damn about being a bad guy or obnoxious to win a race… and he won a bunch of them in a certain black Chevy with a big white 3 on the side.

Lance McGrew must have some sort of ultra-powerful magnet implanted in the nose of Mark Martin’s No. 5 car. Lately, Martin is running into the back of everything but the pace car.

Is there trouble in paradise over at Joe Gibbs Racing? Denny Hamlin was loudly and profanely upset over a few slow pit stops; next time he pitted, the front tire changer from the No. 20 team was manning the gun. Meanwhile, over at Roush Fenway Greg Biffle already has a new gasman this season and we’re only six races deep. It seems pit crew members and their careers are seen as expendable after that whole mess with the Nos. 24/48 and 33/29 teams last year.

I had to wonder why no caution flag flew when Brad Keselowski blew another front tire and hit the wall. (Hasn’t he been doing that a lot this year?) Perhaps the race was running a bit long after the red flag and network expediency took precedence over driver safety?

Fortunately, the tire debacle some people feared would mar this weekend never materialized, though the track didn’t rubber in until well past the halfway point. Yes, there was a suspicious amount of blown right fronts again, but you know the old NASCAR adage: “There are no bad tires. There are just bad race teams that do bad things to Goodyears.” Normally, when a new tire was going to be used at a track Goodyear would schedule a tire test prior to the event to see how the new rubber worked. Some have argued that gives the drivers who got to run that tire test an advantage, however, a likely reason why the company backed off in this case. So why doesn’t Goodyear hire their own tire test team of former Cup drivers, whose opinions the other competitors respect to go out and run for them before we have another disaster like Tire-gate at the Brickyard?

Well you know it’s been a slow news week in the sport when the impending arrival of 2007 Formula 1 champ Kimi Raikkonen (note to self, add that one to spellcheck) driving a Kyle Busch-owned truck at Charlotte next month is big news. Yeah, it’s a little weird that a former Ferrari Grand Prix racer and champion will be at the wheel of a pickup truck racing, but we’ll see how it goes. Unfortunately in northern Europe, the names of people and towns tend to look like the results of an industrial accident at an alphabet soup company. That means the Finnish driver might want to streamline the process and race here in the U.S. under the name Jimmy Rock… a much more masculine sounding title. And since there is always eager competition among NASCAR writers to come up with the worst puns, let me be the first to copyright the headline: “Raikkonen Drives To Best Finn-ish.”

Last week, we lost National Speed and Sport News. This week, we lost longtime automotive journalist David E. Davis, who edited Car and Driver all those years and founded Automobile magazine. I read my first issue of Car and Driver when I was six, and it was through the writings of guys like Davis, Yates, Shepherd, Berard, Smith and the rest of their incredibly talented staff that I learned even when you were writing outside the mainstream about stuff like cars and racing it was still important to write well, intelligently and colorfully enough to engage your readers. And yes, that’s even if back in the day every issue of Car and Driver sent me scrambling for the family dictionary to learn what all the big words meant.

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

Jimmie Johnson (finally) got nailed for speeding on pit road late in the race, thwarting his chances at a win. He mouthed off afterwards on Twitter, claiming NASCAR should open up all pit road speeds to the public after his Martinsville streak of 16 straight top-10 finishes ended with an 11th-place result.

Hamlin short pitted there at the end, then got caught out by Regan Smith spinning to bring out the 11th and final caution. The winner of three straight Martinsville events was then resigned to 12th position.

Kasey Kahne was just in the wrong place at the wrong time when Martin Truex Jr.’s throttle stuck wide open. Both drivers were lucky to walk away from the resultant savage crash but it ended both of their days. Some folks are saying it was the worst wreck ever at Martinsville. I guess they weren’t there on October 24th, 1985. (Editor’s Note: For those who weren’t around then… throw that date and Martinsville into Google to get your answer. You’ll learn something!)

Outside polesitter Ryan Newman had a strong run going up front until his engine began self-destructing. He then nearly self-destructed Harvick‘s day, exchanging contact before fading to 20th, two laps off the pace.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

Harvick has now won two consecutive races but in those two events led a total of seven laps.

No, he didn’t win, but a couple races from now when the media is discussing how it feels for Earnhardt to go 100 races without a win he can at least point out how close he came this weekend at Martinsvile.

Matt Kenseth caught a lane change penalty early in the event and fell nearly two laps down. Somehow, he still drove on to a sixth-place finish.

Jamie McMurray had to overcome a penalty for a loose lug nut that forced him to make a second pit stop. He still managed to finish seventh.

Clint Bowyer barely avoided Dave Blaney’s stricken car spinning across the track to finish ninth.

Worth Noting

  • Harvick (first) snagged his first Cup victory in 20 career starts at Martinsville. In fact, it was only his second ever top-five finish in Cup at the track.
  • Earnhardt (second) enjoyed his best finish since last year’s Daytona 500.
  • Kyle Busch (third) leads all drivers with five top-10 results in this season’s first six races. He’s finished in the top three in four of the last five events.
  • So far this season, Juan Pablo Montoya (fourth) is averaging an 11th-place finish through six races.
  • Jeff Gordon (fifth) scored his first top-five result since his win at Phoenix.
  • Don’t look now but Kenseth (sixth) has three consecutive top-10 performances. Oddly enough, he’s failed to lead a single lap in those three races.
  • McMurray’s seventh-place finish was his best since he won at Charlotte last fall.
  • David Ragan’s eighth-place finish was his best of the 2011 Cup season.
  • Martin’s 10th-place finish was his first top-10 run since Daytona, where he also finished 10th.
  • Joey Logano (13th) drove to his best Cup result in 2011.
  • Tony Stewart’s 35th-place disaster was his worst since Talladega in the fall of 2009.
  • The top 10 finishers at Martinsville drove seven Chevys, two Fords and a Toyota.

What’s the Points?

Kyle Busch rises three spots to take over the lead in the standings, displacing Carl Edwards who fell a spot to second, five points behind Busch.

Johnson is now third, 14 points off the pace. Fourth-place Kurt Busch is two points behind Johnson while fifth-place Harvick is one behind Busch.

It was a tough points day for the Stewart-Haas drivers. Newman dropped down four positions to sixth while Stewart, curiously a non-factor all day, fell five rungs down the ladder to 11th.

It was a better day for Hendrick teammates Earnhardt, Martin and Gordon. Earnhardt rose four spots to eighth in the standings while Martin rose four spots to 10th and Gordon four spots to 12th.

Everyone from Gordon on back in the standings is already more than a full race’s worth of points out of the lead.

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 a full-on, cold six-pack of the good stuff, delivered by Heather Locklear in your brand new Dodge Challenger RT towing a bass boat.

Next Up – The series heads off to Texas next Saturday night. Those with a weak tolerance for tortured cowboy analogies might want to skip FOX’s pre-race show, typically the worst of the year… and that’s saying something.

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