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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

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

The Key MomentClint Bowyer was leading, but with 87 laps left tangled with Brian Vickers while trying to lap him. The No. 33 got this S

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and though Bowyer saved it, by that point Matt Kenseth was back in front to stay.

In a Nutshell – A Roush romp at one of the team’s favorite stomping grounds.

Dramatic Moment – There were damn few of them as Kenseth took the rest of the field to school most of the race.

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

Why in this day and age are there still concrete walls surrounding racetracks not protected by SAFER barriers? You’d have thought Elliott Sadler’s wreck last year at Pocono would have been the final straw.

OK, if Texas is going to be a night race how about shortening it to 400 miles?

Jimmie Johnson apologized this week for accusing NASCAR of wrongly penalizing him for speeding in the pits last weekend at Martinsville. It makes me wonder if NASCAR has just issued another one of their “secret” $50,000 fines for questioning the Daytona politburo’s wisdom. Of course, keep in mind Johnson’s contention originally is that he was just “managing” the timing lines a bit aggressively. I tried the same logic with a State Trooper one time, when I got pulled over for speeding in a Stage One Buick on the way to Carlisle, Pa. I pointed out due to a construction delay, I had been on the Turnpike two hours and had traveled just over 90 miles, so I was averaging well under the then-55 mph speed limit. The trooper congratulated me for a novel excuse and excellent math skills… then awarded me with a big buck speeding ticket anyway.

How can a team leave the same position tire loose more than once? Easily. When a wheel is left loose, it tends to bugger up the bottom threads of the wheel stud where it protrudes through the rotor. On subsequent stops, the tire changer tries running the lug on with the gun but when it gets to the damaged threads, while it feels tight it is, in fact still loose. Run that nut on too hard with the gun, and the next stop you risk breaking the stud which is going to cost the team several laps while repairs are made.

Kurt Busch was angry and frustrated during the race, complaining every week he has to drive his guts out just to keep up and wondering why. Well I’ve got a simple answer for ya, Kurt: because that’s your job, dude. You think the other drivers are feasting on KFC and trying to tune their radios to an easy-listening ’70s rock station during the race?

It’s now official: Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s winless drought is 100 races long. Hmmm. Doesn’t that roughly coincide with the time TV ratings went into the crapper for NASCAR?

I haven’t bitched about this one in awhile, but why is it Jeff Gordon got paid more at Texas to finish 23rd than Earnhardt did to finish ninth? Yes, I know how the purse system works. I just don’t understand why they haven’t fixed it.

Maybe it’s time for Joe Gibbs to swap the Nos. 11 and 18 teams’ pit crews and crew chiefs? They both seem pretty displeased with their current situations already, so why wait until the Chase? Do it now and beat the rush.

I loved listening to my former boss, spotter Mike Calinoff, going off on his young Nationwide driver, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Friday night. Stenhouse was complaining bitterly about his car most of the evening, which caused this Calinoff retort: “Don’t drive pissed off and wreck the car. Hold onto it and we‘ll work on it. You’re tight. We heard you the 30th time you said it.”

One of the weekend’s more bizarre incidents involved a lap 89 wreck in Friday night’s Nationwide Series race. Carl Edwards was leading Kyle Busch, who was in dogged pursuit of the top spot when they came up to lap Tim Schendel. As is expected and polite, Schendel went to the bottom of the track to give the leaders room to race without impeding their progress. But right then, he blew a right front tire and his car hooked a hard right towards the wall and into the leaders’ path. Schendel made only incidental conduct with the No. 99 car of Edwards, who survived to win the race but his rival… wasn’t so lucky. Busch, who must have thought that errant car had been dropped by a helicopter into his path, ran hard into the back of Schendel’s Chevy, leaving the No. 18 damaged heavily enough his night was over on the spot. It seems the sport has been enduring an awful lot of unexpected right front tire failures in all three series at most tracks this season, but rarely does the problem manifest itself so spectacularly. Goodyear needs to fix this one before somebody gets hurt. (Oh, and kudos to Schendel for going over to Edwards after the race to offer apologies for the near miss, though the tire problem clearly wasn’t his fault.)

Of all Darrell Waltrip’s loathsome defects as a race broadcaster, perhaps one of the most annoying is when he decides to pontificate about the importance of clean driving and sportsmanship in stock car racing. Oh, no, it would have been terrible if Dale Jr. had laid a bumper to Kevin Harvick to get back around him at Martinsville. Well since old DW’s selective memory is suffering from some degree of “Sometimers” syndrome, let me remind him of a race at Martinsville of all places held on September 20th, 1987. A caution there led to a restart with three laps left to go; Terry Labonte was leading, but Dale Earnhardt was coming after him hard and Waltrip was in third. Going into the first corner on the final lap, ol’ DW decided that 12 tires corner better than four and he divebombed the entry to force some contact. He hit Labonte, who then hit Earnhardt and Waltrip took the lead ahead of them both. Or, as a clearly unrepentant DW explained: “I shot into Terry, Terry shot into Dale and I shot into the lead.” An incensed Labonte saw it differently, of course, claiming, “I guess it’s one of those deals where you win any way you can.” Oddly enough, during that race Waltrip was trying to break a winless streak that started when he began driving for… who else? Rick Hendrick. What are the odds? Seriously, someday I’ll write a column about all the races Waltrip won in a car he knew was cheated up but there may not be enough time to complete it this season.

Maybe someone should explain to Edwards Pepto Bismol is a product of Proctor and Gamble, a rival company to the makers of Claritin. Whoops!

A rare (well, somewhat rare) off topic discussion. Motorcycle Awareness Month isn’t until May, but Saturday in these parts was seasonably warm – despite overcast skies – and the bikes were out in force. (Mine remained parked due to the job.) Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for tragedy to strike; two bikers were killed within 20 miles of here, one within three miles and I had the misfortune of driving by the post-accident cleanup. In both instances, the bikers had the right of way but a car turned left in front of them. So to all our friends in cages (cars)… we’re back. Keep an eye open for us. We’d appreciate it. And to all my biking buddies, if you assume everyone in a car is about to do something monumentally stupid directly in front of you… you’ll rarely be disappointed! Right of way doesn’t mean anything compared to Rites of Passage. Oh, and check your tire pressures. At the local filling station this week, I was gassing up and noted a bike on the other side of the pumps looked to have under-inflated tires. I talked to the rider and broke out my trusty tire gauge. She was 15 pounds low on the front tire which makes these things handle badly. When a bike sits all winter, it’s going to lose a lot of tire pressure. The excitement to get out there again on a nice spring afternoon is no excuse not to do a thorough safety check of the machine before saddling up. And either wear a helmet or sign an organ donor’s card: your choice.

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

It’s not often you’ll see Gordon running that badly in a car with no damage and no mechanical issues, but he looked downright terrible on Saturday night. Running out of gas on the last lap was just a final insult en route to 23rd, two laps off the pace.

Admittedly still sore from that savage Martinsville wreck, Martin Truex Jr. taking another hard hit at Texas was like tossing a man in the river who don’t need to be swimming. He wound up 35th with a second straight DNF.

Kyle Busch had to make two unscheduled stops to get loose left rear wheels tightened; that was enough to cost him a top-five finish (16th). Combined with the incident Friday night, it wasn’t a great weekend for him or JGR (no cars inside the top 10).

What didn’t happen to Tony Stewart Saturday night? He got involved in a pit row collision, got nailed for speeding entering the pits, and ran out of gas on the last lap while running third (he dropped nine spots to 12th by the checkered flag).

Joey Logano (24th) was another victim of a pit road collision. Remember when “No Fear” used to sponsor race cars? If there’s a boutique operation out there called “Diminished Expectations” there’s plenty of decal space left on the No. 20 car.

Harvick (20th) never had the slightest chance to make it three wins a row. He was pinned in his pits twice and in one instance, also got a penalty for a tire issue while making his stop.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

It looked like winner Kenseth was in trouble when his team failed to get his tank full on a green flag stop. But as fast as the No. 17 was, as soon as he pitted most of the lead lap cars followed him in like the Pied Piper of Hamlin (no relation) even if it was eight laps early. Why? The other teams just couldn’t afford to give up the time Kenseth made up on fresh rubber. Earlier in the race, Kenseth also had trash clog the grille of his car and thought maybe he’d damaged the engine, causing overheating but it held together for 500 miles; in fact, no car lost a motor during this race.

Bowyer, Saturday night’s runner-up was lucky to finish at all after that contact with Vickers and his subsequent slide through the tri-oval.

Edwards rallied back from a stomach ailment during the race to run third. I’m not sure how blaming his mom’s cooking for a bout of food poisoning is going to work out, though. Next month on Mother’s Day, maybe he ought to order a pizza.

Worth Noting

  • Kenseth’s win snapped a 76-race winless drought that dated back to the second race of 2009. Oddly enough, Kenseth opened that season with two consecutive wins: the Daytona 500 and Fontana.
  • The top-10 finishers at Texas drove five Fords, four Chevys and a Dodge while the top finishing Toyota pilot was Denny Hamlin in 15th. Saturday night was probably the best showing for Ford at a NASCAR race since almost back to the era when they had brass radiator shells…
  • Saturday night was Roush Fenway’s third win in the last seven Sprint Cup races at Texas. Fords have now won 10 of 21 Cup races held there, far and away more than any other manufacturer.
  • After a horrid start to the season, Bowyer has scored three straight top-10 finishes.
  • Greg Biffle’s fourth-place finish was easily his best of the season. Although my guess is a trained monkey could drive a Roush Ford to a top 10 at Texas; after all, David Ragan came home seventh.
  • Paul Menard (fifth) equaled his best finish of 2011. He was also fifth at Bristol.
  • Dale Jr. (ninth) hasn’t finished worse than 12th in the last six races. He was neither obnoxious nor a bad guy at Texas, always a plus.
  • After a two-week absence from the top 10, Kurt Busch (10th) scored his fifth top-10 result in seven races this year. That had to make it easier for the team to mop up the tears in his driver’s side footwell after the race…
  • Jeff Burton (11th) drove to his best finish of the 2011 Cup season.
  • Stewart’s average finish this season matches his car number, 14.
  • It’s been four races since Hamlin (15th) managed a top-10 finish. Maybe it’s time to have surgery on the other knee?
  • Mark Martin’s 36th-place DNF was his worst result since the Firecracker 400 of 2009.

What’s the Points?

Edwards resumed the points lead. (I am a bit confused by the FOX folks claiming a different driver has led the points after every race this year. Edwards also led the points after Fontana and Daytona.) Former leader Kyle Busch fell a spot to second, nine points behind Edwards.

Saturday’s win propelled Kenseth up six spots to third in the standings, thirteen points behind his Roush Fenway teammate. Technically, he is tied with Johnson, but based on the win Kenseth gets the nod and the position. Kurt Busch rounds out the top five, 16 points in arrears of Edwards.

Earnhardt advanced two spots to sixth in the standings, followed by Ryan Newman and Juan Pablo Montoya. Harvick fell four spots to ninth in the standings so despite those back-to-back wins, he’s making a further mockery of the new points system. Stewart now holds the final Chase spot behind him, up by four points on Menard in 11th.

Further back, Bowyer’s second-place finish propelled him forward four spots to 12th. On the flip side, along with having the breath knocked out of him a wicked wreck knocked some wind out of the sails of Martin’s title chase. He fell five spots to 15th, joining Biffle (18th) and Hamlin (20th) among those drivers on the outside looking in.

However, seven races deep into 2011 it is still way too early to panic about points or even pay them much mind. As an example, Kenseth has advanced 28 spots in the standings since Daytona and any other driver could do the same over the next six weeks. Get back to me after the World 600 and we’ll start really crunching the numbers. After all, you know next weekend’s wreck-o-rama at Talladega is really going to shake things up…

Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans with one being a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic) — Another McRace at another McTrack. We’ll give it two cans. You want fries with those?

Next Up – It’s off to Talladega. Don’t forget to pack the body bags.

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