NASCAR Race Weekend Central

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

The Key MomentBrad Keselowski milked 57 laps out of a tank of fuel to win the Kansas race on fuel mileage.

In a Nutshell – Just an ordinary race. That happens sometimes.

Dramatic Moment – Once again waiting to see who was going to run out of gas on the final lap. Remember when this sport was about mph, not MPG?

With passing at a premium, the first few laps after the restarts tended to be a bit tense.

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

Hmmm. Roger Penske returns to the track after his May adventures at Indy and one of his drivers wins the race while the other dominates it. Go figure.

The size of the crowd at Sunday’s race was down an estimated 20%. Doesn’t that always seem to happen when a venue that traditionally had one date gets a second one added? Call it the “Fontana Principle.”

Well imagine that. The calendar flips over to June, the weather gets hot and Tony Stewart, who has been MIA most of this season, is running up front again. The summer stretch has traditionally been Stewart’s best part of the season.

Since when has an empty water bottle on the apron been sufficient cause for a caution?

Details are still emerging but it’s apparent that Richard Childress and Kyle Busch got into a little dustup after Saturday’s truck race. Childress is an old school type and perhaps some drivers, including RCR front-runner Kevin Harvick, can learn something from Childress’s technique. First, wait until your intended victim has removed his helmet. Secondly, give it a half hour so the TV cameras that might record the incident have packed up and left. Third, leave your mark above the neck where the other fellow is going to have to look at it every morning when he shaves as a reminder of the point you wished to make. At 65, RC might not seem like much of a threat, but he raced back in the day before yielding his seat to Dale Earnhardt. Childress in fact almost died after he was stabbed in the gut during a wild party back in the ’70s.

Anyone with a theory as to what’s wrong with Jeff Burton and the No. 31 team is asked to forward them directly to Richard Childress. He’ll likely have a couple weekends off to study them.

Do you need any more evidence that the Nationwide Series is in serious trouble as I predicted before the season began? This week Joe Gibbs Racing announced they were withdrawing the No. 20 team from competition at Joliet citing a lack of sponsorship backing. They strongly hinted the sister team, the No. 18 bunch, might be missing bunches of races starting soon. Between them those two teams have won six of this year’s Nationwide races, albeit at greatly reduced profit given this year’s cutback on Nationwide purses. (I think this year the winning team gets a box of Cracker Jack and a pat on the back.) If JGR, which has full-time employees beating the bushes for sponsorship, can’t survive in the current economic reality how much longer are the smaller teams going to be able to hang on? Even Jack Roush’s Nationwide teams seem to be scraping by with a hodgepodge of sponsorship or blank quarter panels. NASCAR’s AAA series has lost its identity and become a playground for the few Cup stars still willing (or able) to run in the series despite Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s recent win at Iowa. If the purses are smaller, the cost to race the series must become so as well. I’d like to see a return to a series focused on the southeast of the USA competing mainly on the short tracks (not as companion races to the Cup series) as a stepping stone for younger drivers looking to rise to the Cup ranks.

How out of whack is the Nationwide purse? Stenhouse won about $74,000 for that Iowa victory. In the World 600, Mike Skinner drove all of six laps before parking the car with “vibration” issues. He earned $84,000.

NASCAR announced this week there will be a new set of qualifying rules starting at Pocono next week. Basically, lacking weather issues, the cars slowest in practice will qualify first. Yawn. Since NASCAR decided that the Top 35 teams in owner points will automatically make the race, qualifying sessions have become a completely boring and irrelevant part of the weekend attended by 10s of fans so bored in the camping lot for the weekend they had nothing better to do. Brian France says he wants things simple so that the fans can understand things? The 43 fastest cars qualify and everybody else, no matter where they are ranked in the points and what they did a few years ago goes home. Corporate welfare sucks.

Want some good news? The FOX portion of the season is finally over. You know since they started this grand experiment with NASCAR in ‘01 (and left the track without mentioning the minor storyline that Dale Earnhardt had been killed) every year I think, “Well it can’t get any worse next year.” And every year I am proven sorely wrong. This year was doubtlessly the worst ever. Racing itself was put on the back burner so viewers at home could enjoy the Darrell Waltrip Variety Show and Comedy hour. Frustrated cameramen would focus on what was going on out there on the track and old DW would continue prattling on about what a great racer he was back in his day, how great his brother’s Toyotas were running and how much he loved “June bug” and “Five-Time.” He’d find a way to predict victory for 20 different drivers during a broadcast and then crow about how astute he was in picking the winner afterwards. “Have you ever…” Mike Joy (the only decent part of the team) soft-balled DW after the surprise Charlotte finish. “No, I’ve never,” Waltrip responded. “No, I’ve never shut up,” I think he meant. With rumors of dissension, back-stabbing, and a general lack of interest in the sport by top FOX execs, maybe this whole mess will implode on itself before next year. But I wouldn’t count on it. Let’s face it, Waltrip has gone a bit soft in the head after all those miles on his odometer and the blows to the brain he took in wrecks. He can’t help repeating and even contradicting himself while mixing up which driver is passing the other. He’s got a whole lot more unsold “Boogity, Boogity, Boogity” t-shirts he needs to move before he heads to the home to gum Jello the rest of his days.

Was anyone else bothered by DW’s suggestion it was time for a driver to throw a water bottle or some other debris out the window to draw a bogus caution they needed to get fuel?

Oops. Kyle Busch’s recent mishaps at Darlington, on public highways, and now this weekend in Kansas may have only drawn probation from NASCAR and various mutterings about possible repercussions from Joe Gibbs, but it could cost him a lot more. One of my regular readers was so incensed by Busch’s recent actions he sent an email to Busch’s sponsor Mars (makers of M&M’s, Kal Kan dog food and all sorts of other stuff) decrying their involvement with this volatile young driver. He forwarded to me an email Mars sent in reply saying their involvement with Busch might indeed be short term.

Looking for a little mid-week racing fix to get you through until next weekend at Pocono? Tony Stewart’s Prelude to the Dream runs Wednesday night chock full of Cup stars and proceeds benefit some worthy causes. If you can’t make it to Eldora you can order the broadcast up live on Pay-Per-View.

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

Stewart’s team failed to get the car full of fuel on the final stop. The extra stop he had to make may have cost him the race.

Carl Edwards‘ weekend wasn’t awful but it had its moments. He ran out of gas on the final lap of the Nationwide series race Saturday while leading. On the Cup side, for a second straight week the No. 99 looked unbeatable early in the race but faded later in the event.

It seemed important to Jamie McMurray to have a good run at Kansas near his storm decimated town of Joplin, Mo. He didn’t get it with a 29th-place finish, the last driver one lap down.

Juan Pablo Montoya ran up front early in the race and even led some laps, but he brushed the wall hard and had to settle for a 17th-place finish.

Kyle Busch also had a strong run and led laps. But the No. 18 car never seemed to recover after Busch ran up into the wall.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

Earnhardt recovered from an earlier spin (an unforced error no less) well enough to finish second.

During the first laps of the race, polesitter Kurt Busch loudly predicted he’d be back to 43rd before the first pit stop his car was so bad. For the record, the car was so bad it led the most laps during the race.

Jimmie Johnson had an uncharacteristically slow qualifying lap (he started 31st) but rallied back to a seventh-place finish.

Denny Hamlin had to survive a wild restart where he got punted by Keselowski coming to the flag and then had his rear wheels lifted off the ground by Stewart less than a lap later.

Justin Allgaier passed Edwards, who had run out of fuel on the final lap in Saturday’s Nationwide race, then coasted across the line for the win out of gas as well.

Worth Noting

  • For Keselowski, it was his first win since his controversial victory at Talladega in 2009.
  • Earnhardt’s second-place finish matches his best of the season. (Junior also finished second at Martinsville.) This is the fifth time Earnhardt has finished second since that last win of his at Michigan in ‘08.
  • Hamlin (third) finished within the top-10 for the fourth time in the last five races.
  • Gordon’s fourth-place finish was his best since Talladega five races ago.
  • Edwards’ fifth-place finish was his sixth top 10 in the last seven points paying races.
  • Johnson (seventh) has failed to lead a lap in four of the last five races.
  • The 20 laps Stewart (eighth) led Sunday are his most turns at the front since Las Vegas.
  • Kurt Busch (ninth) led 152 laps on Sunday, the most Busch has managed since he won at Charlotte last May.
  • The top 10 finishers at Kansas drove four Chevys, three Fords, two Dodges and a single Toyota.
  • Keselowski’s victory was the first for a Dodge pilot since Kurt Busch won at Charlotte a little over a year ago, Dodge’s sole win in 2010.

What’s the Points?

Edwards maintains his hold on the points lead. He’s now 40 points ahead of Johnson, who moves up a notch to retake second in the standings. Earnhardt also moved up a spot and is now third, a single point behind Johnson.

Harvick fell two spots to fourth in the standings. All drivers from Harvick on back are now more than a full race worth of points out of the lead.

Stewart and Clint Bowyer swapped eighth and ninth spots with Stewart now having the advantage.

Hamlin and Greg Biffle swapped the 11th and 12th spots… advantage to the No. 11.

In the contention for the Wild Card positions in the standings, Gordon would actually take the 12th position from Biffle based on having won a race. Keselowski’s goal is clear: he can take over the 12th and final Chase spot (at least currently) by making up seven points to enter the top 20 in points thanks to Sunday’s win.

The only other race winner who could have a dog in the Wild Card spot, Regan Smith, has a tougher row to hoe. He’s 29th in the standings, 49 points out of that 20th-place cutoff spot. Under this year’s points system that’s a lot of ground to make up. But remember that old adage on how you eat and elephant… one bite at a time.

Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans with one being a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic) Give it two lukewarm cans of the generic stuff. Then again, I wasn’t expecting much of a race at Kansas.

Next Up – The series heads northeast to the treacherous triangle at Pocono.

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