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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2011 FedEx 400 at Dover

Editor’s Note: Matt is off this week, attending his niece’s graduation ceremonies. He’ll be back for the All-Star Race; for this edition, our Bryan Davis Keith fills in.

The Key MomentMatt Kenseth took two tires and Mark Martin stayed out while leaders Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards and Clint Bowyer all took four during pit stops under caution on lap 364 after Juan Pablo Montoya backed into the turn 4 wall. Hey, being on probation and unable to hit other drivers, he needed to hit something.

In a Nutshell – Mr. Five-Time and Concrete Carl traded the lead back and forth for much of the afternoon and were clearly the class of the field, but a late-race caution, everlasting tires and the importance of clean air won this race for those that opted to take two or no tires during the final cycle of pit stops.

Dramatic Moment – Nothing that could compare to the fireworks and near firefight that broke out at Darlington last weekend… though seeing apprentice Kenseth past grandmaster Martin for the eventual win had to be refreshing for those two fan bases.

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

The comparisons of Joey Logano to Casey Atwood are only going to continue to grow in frequency if weekends like this one continue to play out. It didn’t take but 20 laps before the No. 20 Toyota was spinning without assistance after Logano lost the back end exiting turn 2. Though the resulting damage to his machine was negligible, Logano was a non-factor the rest of the afternoon and was seldom seen again, sans for finding the wall, again of his own volition, during a later green flag run. His 27th place finish was his second consecutive outside the top 25, and more so was a dramatic step backward on a track that has been kind to him his whole career; Logano finished third and 10th in Cup on the track last season, won two poles in Nationwide competition, and officially became the K&N East Series champion with a runner-up finish on the Monster Mile back in 2007. Teammate Denny Hamlin‘s struggles made it clear early that Joe Gibbs Racing had regressed a bit with their Cup program this year, and one can’t help but wonder if that’s catching up to the youngster. Brought up through the NASCAR ranks driving for a Cup team in the East Series and running Nationwide Series entries that, as Clint Bowyer coined it, “monkeys could win in,” Logano’s driven nothing but the best his entire career. Now, with Zippy and the No. 20 team years removed from Tony Stewart and clearly needing to find something, having a 20-year-old behind the wheel is proving to be anything but “sliced bread.”

Robby Gordon Motorsports appeared to finally die a slow death this weekend in Delaware, with its namesake nowhere to be found. Completing only 77 laps before bowing out with “brakes” issues, Scott Wimmer completed his second start-and-park of the weekend, leaving RGM’s No. 7 car only six points from losing a locked in spot in the Top 35 (Andy Lally finished 33rd driving the No. 71 and picked up five owner points on the team). Though it may be a case of selective start-and-park as RGM employed last season simply to survive 36 races, all signs point to the No. 7, and the single-car team that could for so many years, being on their last leg. Earlier this season Gordon was reported as saying that the money he garnered from his Speed Energy Drink deal would only last through May, and its been no secret that his interest in off-road racing is starting to take precedence over running 30th in Cup every weekend. Besides, who can fault an owner for throwing his hands up to a sanctioning body that puts him on indefinite probation for a financial argument with Kevin Conway, while Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch wreck cars and throw punches and get only four races worth of the same punishment?

At Martinsville, drivers couldn’t stop moaning and groaning about Goodyear’s tires chunking instead of rubbering the paperclip in, despite the fact that a) there was no rash of tire failures that Sunday and b) the race still went 500 laps like any other one at the famed short-track. This weekend, it was the other way around, with drivers moaning and groaning all afternoon that the tires were rubbering in the race track too much, even after rain throughout the day Saturday and no epidemic of tire failures over 400 laps. Look, voicing concerns at Bristol when cords were showing after only 15 laps is one thing, but whining over the radio because (the horror) there’s rubber buildup on the race track? For crying out loud, they used to run 500-mile races on this oval! I’ve been a harsh critic of Goodyear and NASCAR for allowing Goodyear to be an exclusive tire provider ever since I started covering this sport, but this whining (and that’s exactly what it is, whining) about the tires not providing a perfect racing surface has got to stop. Rubber making the bottom groove slippery and difficult? Either get up on the wheel or find another groove. This is the highest level of stock car racing, it’s supposed to be hard. Otherwise, chances are most of us writing about it would tell this gig to shove off and go buy our own racecars.

The official crowd estimate for Sunday’s FedEx 400 was reported at 82,000 on NASCAR’s results page (for those keeping score, that’s 61.6% capacity at a track that features a grandstand capacity of 133,000). That’s woeful enough on its own, but it still wasn’t truly reflective of just how sparse the crowd was once the frontstretch bleachers ended. To put it in perspective, even if the reported estimates for all three national touring races this weekend were combined (82,000, 28,000 and 28,000), it still wouldn’t be enough to fill the 140,000 seats the track boasted not five years ago, before selling thousands of seats to corporate sponsors for banner space. The discussion about how to stop the bleeding continues… though between the attendance struggles of Bristol, Nashville and now Dover… maybe it’s a concrete thing?

With Kenseth storming to victory in the closing laps, Darrell Waltrip could not shut up. Not about Kenseth posting his first win at Dover since 2006, or the pit strategy that got him and Martin up front for good, but about his ties to the No. 17, how many races he won in the No. 17, how he only paid attention to Kenseth when he came on the scene because he was driving the No. 17, etc. Last week it was Waltrip falsifying details about winning the race immediately after his eldest daughter’s birth to make a connection to Edwards’ near-victory (that must run in the family, seeing as how Michael Waltrip ignored Elliott Sadler‘s actual birth date to connect his win and draft partner in the Truck race at Daytona to Dale Earnhardt). This week, it’s about his ties to the winning number. Darrell, get this through your head: the only connection you still maintain to what’s going on out there on the track is that you’re being massively overpaid to fly the sport into the ground. Listening to his endless self-promotion week after weeks leaves this writer begging for impact to happen already.

Want to talk compare and contrast? Just look at the two attitudes, results and directions unfolding in the Richard Petty Motorsports camp. AJ Allmendinger has a fast practice lap turn into a top-tier starting position for his No. 43 team, spends the first half of the afternoon running up front with Johnson, Edwards, all the big names, and gets absolutely nothing out of it but a blown motor and a 37th-place finish. It’s amazing the emotional driver managed to keep himself as composed as he did in his post-race interview, though the frustration was still readily apparent; Dinger wants to win badly. And truthfully, the way’s he driving, he appears to have the talent to do so. Whether he has the team or car is another question. But while AJ may well be hoping for greener pastures, Marcos Ambrose is making the pundits that questioned his lateral move to RPM think twice. Though Ambrose is still a ways out of Chase contention at 20th in points, his third-place finish was just the latest example of the Australian road ace proving himself competitive on an oval in 2011. His move to the No. 9 team is paying off, and its hard to imagine him looking anywhere else for the near future.

After seeing firsthand how bad behavior on the race track can make pit road a very dangerous place, race fans and competitors were reminded of that fact in an entirely different way on Saturday. A last lap crash on the frontstretch during the Nationwide Series race saw Bowyer’s car come within a few feet of going airborne over the interior wall and onto pit road. Debris from that wreck caused injury; one of Bowyer’s crew men was hit in the leg with a spring and sent to the hospital as a result. Speaking to a first-time crew man on pit road prior to that same race this weekend, he couldn’t stop talking about how nervous he was, how he was about to throw up merely thinking about going over that fence as a tire carrier. There’s a reason it’s been said “if you’re not scared you’re crazy.” While seeing a race like Sunday’s decided on pit road may suck to watch, that’s no knock on the incredible and hazardous work NASCAR crews do week after week. It truly is a dangerous job, as has been seen for two weeks solid now.

The Hindenburg Award for Foul Fortune

How can anyone not feel for Allmendinger after seeing what was going to be a top 10 at worst go up in smoke after only 166 laps? Chance at a career-best finish and a first career win? Gone. Top 12 in points? Gone. And all because Ford’s greatest weapon for the 2011 season blew up. Every Ford team in the garage, from the powerhouses at Roush to the workhorses at Front Row Motorsports, have all cited the FR9 engine as the number one reason the blue oval has returned to prominence in Cup racing. And Dinger, a driver that for years has been frustrated by the limitations of his equipment, couldn’t even count on that this Sunday.

Kasey Kahne‘s got to be feeling the same pains, as issues under the hood robbed him of a top-10 finish less than 70 laps from the finish.

Regan Smith started 11th one week removed from his dramatic win in the “Southern” 500, and for the second consecutive weekend ran as a legitimate top-15 car for much of the race. But 65 laps short of the finish, the underdog darlings of last weekend were back to their usual role… in the garage dealing with a mechanical issue (broken track bar) that derailed a promising run they weren’t supposed to have. Scarcely a week after a dramatic triumph on one of the world’s toughest race tracks, Furniture Row Racing was back to qualifying well, running well early, and faltering late, be it their fault or not. Success is fleeting.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award for Fine Fortune

Jimmy Fennig rolled the dice with a two tire call even as the afternoon’s stoutest entries took four, and Kenseth reaped the rewards, blowing past Martin (who had not pitted and was on four old tires) to score his second win of the season, valuable insurance should he need to take a “wildcard” berth into the Chase (wildcard playoff berths, by God NASCAR really is ready to take the NFL’s place should the lockout continue).

As for Martin, being able to finish runner-up and hold off a hard-charging Ambrose was pretty fine fortune in it’s own regard… “the Kid” hadn’t scored a top-five finish since Texas… last November.

Brad Keselowski fully admitted his top-five finish last weekend was not with a top-five car. This weekend, he ran in the top 10 for a good long while, and finished 13th in a legitimate top-15 entry. Keselowski’s two best finishes of 2011 have now come in the last two weeks. Also of note, he’s outrun his “violent torpedo of truth” teammate Kurt Busch in both of those events as well.

Worth Noting

  • Brian Vickers finished fifth in the spring Dover race, which one year ago was the first event he missed fighting blood clots in a bout that ended his 2010 season. It was his best finish of 2011… and a career-best on the Monster Mile.
  • Martin Truex Jr. finished eighth at the site of his only career Cup win, his second consecutive top 10 since “firing” his pit crew over the radio at Richmond. That’s why Waltrip ran like junk in that car… he didn’t have the heart to yell at his men. How long before DW floats that theory out there?
  • Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Stewart and Ryan Newman both were all but absent from Sunday’s race, the first time the two cars have finished outside the top 20 in the same race since Talladega last fall. 21st-place is also Newman’s worst finish at Dover since 2007.
  • David Gilliland finished 22nd, his best finish on a non-plate track since Phoenix in a sorely needed race for Front Row Motorsports; both cars finished the race without incident (Travis Kvapil ended up 31st).
  • Mike Bliss ran 25th in his first start with FAS Lane Racing’s No. 32 team. It’s the first Cup race he’s run the distance in his last six starts in the series.
  • Paul Menard continued his descent to reality after suffering crash damage running into Montoya on lap 340 and finishing 24th, the only RCR entry not to score a top-15 finish.

What’s the Points?

Positions one through five held serve after Sunday’s race, with Edwards extending his lead over second place Johnson after the duo combined to lead 324 laps while finishing seventh and ninth, respectively. Race winner Kenseth moved from 10th to sixth in points. Newman fell a spot to seventh, Bowyer climbed to eighth, Kurt Busch fell to ninth and Stewart dropped three spots to round out the top 10.

Martin currently finds himself in wildcard slot number one, moving up three positions to 11th in points with his runner-up result. Jeff Gordon holds the other slot, 14th in points but with a win back in February at Phoenix.

Allmendinger proved the biggest loser, plummeting five spots from 11th to 16th with his DNF.

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 three and a half cans of your standard grocery store brew chilled in the fridge. It was just another Sunday in Dover; though Edwards and Johnson did prove two of the few drivers this season able to mix stuff up at the front, the ending of Kenseth driving away from a driver on older tires while the best cars in the field sat mired in traffic was certainly not an epic follow-up to Darlington.

Next Up – The Cup circus throws points to the wind this Saturday night for the annual All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Anyone taking bets that that race gets decided by clean air on the nose at race’s end?

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