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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

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

The Key MomentJeff Gordon’s team elected to go with four tires during the fourth caution period while Juan Pablo Montoya’s team took two. Shortly after the restart Gordon was able to dispatch Montoya and drove off into the distance.

In a Nutshell – Yeah, oh well; but at least it didn’t rain and nobody ran out of gas on the last lap.

Dramatic MomentKyle Busch and Kevin Harvick provided some amusing if tense moments early in the race running each other hard. Apparently this whole Busch/RCR rivalry really isn’t over despite what the PR people make those involved say.

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

What can they do to get back some of the excitement of the Pocono races of yore? I’ll discuss that with you later this week. Yeah, it’s my home track but I won’t try to call Sunday’s race a classic. Watching first Denny Hamlin, then Montoya, then Kurt Busch and finally Gordon dominate wasn’t even as exciting as checking the weather scan to see when heavy weather was going to move in.

You have to wonder how many drivers and teams will still decide to shift in Pocono’s August race after a rash of failed transmissions, clutch issues and reports of markedly decreased fuel mileage for those drivers who shifted aggressively.

I’ve known this day was coming but now it has finally arrived. Some media types will write that Gordon is now tied with Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison for third in overall wins in NASCAR’s top division. Gordon is now, indeed tied with DW, but in my opinion (and several others) he needs one more win to match Allison’s career mark. NASCAR record books are simply wrong on this issue and despite decades of folks trying to show them the facts they simply refuse to correct their error. Turns out Allison won a race at Winston-Salem on August 6th, 1971 but because of a shortage of cars in the wake of the factory pullout that year, both the Grand National cars and Grand American (pony cars) were allowed to compete. Allison, in a Ford Mustang, beat Richard Petty in a Plymouth Road Runner but the stats don’t give him credit for the win despite the fact other drivers got wins added to their total for similar victories. Nor did Petty get credit for the win in official records. That night at Winston-Salem, apparently nobody won the race…

Why do so many NASCAR drivers insist on wearing sunglasses in the rain? Do they think nobody will know who they are?

For such a soft-spoken guy who rarely exhibits any real temper meltdowns in public (as compared to his boss) Ryan Newman sure does seem to have become a burr under NASCAR’s saddle. Reportedly, Newman received another $50,000 “secret” fine for his actions in the sanctioning body’s hauler while discussing his now infamous on-track actions with Montoya. Personally, I don’t believe in any “secret” fines. A secret fine is like one of those old unmarked Mustangs the Pa. State Police used to use for speed enforcement. The driver who got nailed gets the message and slows down. But if you park a fully marked patrol unit beside the highway… most everybody slows down, right? Even more troubling are rumors that NASCAR felt compelled to issue the fine because Montoya brought a lawyer with him to the meeting. There are not too many ways to further screw up NASCAR officiating, but allowing trial lawyers to enter the process? That would be one of them.

There’s more evidence that Danica Patrick is moving full-time to Cup next year, as GoDaddy.com is leaving the No. 5 team whose car is currently driven by Mark Martin. Farmer’s Insurance is slated to sponsor the No. 5 team next year when Kasey Kahne takes over, a little weird given his longtime association with Allstate and those three creepy chicks. Farmers will also apparently be an associate sponsor with Martin for the rest of this season, while as for Danica? The latest rumors this website is hearing surround a two-year deal: one for Nationwide in 2012 and then Cup the following year (Nationwide would be with JR Motorsports, of course).

Pocono has probably grasped the concept of being environmentally green and sustainable more so not only than any other racetrack but any sporting venue. The only problem is, you’ll have lots of time to consider the wonders of that 25-acre solar field while sitting in gridlocked traffic trying to exit the track — breathing in all those auto emissions. (Editor’s Note: Chuck Givler, the esteemed local reporter for the Express Times suggested Saturday that Pocono needs to build a direct exit off I-80 into the racetrack… currently, the exit leaves you about three miles outside of it on a one-lane road, each direction).

On the plus side, give Pocono track management some style points for having a sense of humor. Traditionally, the track has been considered to have three corners though some media types who can’t get their minds around the concept have labeled the exit of turn 3 “turn 4.” All the corners are numbered in black letters against the white wall at Pocono for drivers with Adult Attention Deficit Disorder, I suppose. So this year, through some creative use of blue tape the exit of turn three is now marked: “What Turn 4?”

How did the Canadian Grand Prix and Pocono end up on the same weekend? It’s not a big deal for those of us here in the U.S., but if you’ve ever been to Pocono, you know there’s a ton of Canadian fans who attend the race. (There’s even a Canadian flag flying at the track to welcome them.)

As deeply involved with Mopar as his family was, you’d think Kyle Petty would realize that the Dodge equivalent of the Plymouth Superbird was the Daytona, not the Super Bee. (Actually, the Daytonas were 1969s and the Superbird was built in 1970. The Dodge Daytona was introduced at Talladega and the Ford Talladega was introduced at Daytona.)

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

Hamlin looked ready to dominate yet another Pocono race. A slow pit stop dropped him back some positions, but the merriment was just getting started; he led 76 of the first 101 laps of the race. However, another stop down the stretch left Hamlin exiting the pits with a flat tire, leaving the carcass of that tire wrapped around the rearend of the car and damaging a brake line. He eventually struggled home 19th.

Carl Edwards had his usual top-five run going when his Roush Fenway Ford dropped a valve. The failure dropped Edwards to a 37th-place finishing position and eroded his former forty-point lead in the standings down to just six.

In what’s becoming a recurring problem, Greg Biffle’s team failed to fill the fuel cell. In another recurring problem, a frustrated Biffle continuously slapped the wall trying to catch up and finally spun himself out. He wound up 27th.

Tony Stewart struggled early and fell back well outside the top 30, only to rally back and climb to as high as sixth by lap 120. For a moment, all was good in the No. 14 camp… and then, he blew out third gear. Stewart was notably unamused, “thanking” NASCAR for rules promoting shifting in a terse radio response en route to 21st.

Jeff Burton, having a nightmare of a season, ran out of gas while running 13th. And at Pocono, when you run out of gas you have a very long way to coast back to the pits; Burton fought hard simply to climb back to 20th by the finish.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

Kurt Busch wrecked in his primary car in practice but managed to stick his backup car on the pole. He went on to finish second in the race in that backup.

It was a pretty good day for Rick Hendrick with one of this drivers winning, another finishing fourth and another sixth. Only Martin (18th) ruined the mojo.

Jimmie Johnson had to overcome an overtime pit stop, his young guys struggling with a left-front tire to fight his way back up to a fourth-place finish.

Ryan Newman was able to nurse a failing transmission to a ninth-place performance.

For Harvick, earning a 34th-place starting spot was no way to begin the weekend. He then had his little run-ins with Busch and soon thereafter had a piece of metal pierce the grille of his car, a problem that could easily have punctured the radiator. Somehow, those lengthy repairs were avoided, leaving Harvick and team to trudge on to a fifth-place finish.

The spectators at Le Mans who were behind the guard rail when Allan McNish crashed his Audi early in the event (and almost cleared that guardrail) were among the luckiest people on this planet this weekend. The car disintegrated on impact at an estimated 180 mph and showered debris, including one tire/wheel assembly over the guardrail – but there were no major injuries. What’s the French term for “SAFER barriers?”

Worth Noting

  • Gordon’s fifth win at Pocono ties him with Bill Elliott for the most wins at the triangular track. Oddly, the last of Gordon’s wins here was in 2007 and the one previous to that was back in 1998, 13 years ago.
  • The top-10 finishers at Pocono drove six Chevys, two Toyotas, a Ford and a Dodge.
  • Kurt Busch’s second-place finish was his best of the 2011 Cup season.
  • Johnson’s fourth-place finish was his best since he won at Talladega.
  • Dale Earnhardt Jr. (sixth) has three consecutive top-10 finishes for the second time this season. He’s averaging a 10th place finish in this year’s 14 points-paying races.
  • Montoya’s seventh-place performance was his first top-10 result since Martinsville.
  • Edwards’ 37th-place finish was his worst since Texas in the fall of 2009.

What’s the Points?

As noted above, Edwards now leads Johnson by just six points. Earnhardt remains third, a further four points behind Johnson. Earlier this year, I wondered aloud if the new points system just made it more likely NASCAR would finally crown a titlist who hadn’t won a race that year and debated what it would do to interest in the sport. Well, if Junior is Cup champion even if he never wins a race, my guess is there’d be dancing in the streets.

The drivers fourth through seventh in the standings: Harvick, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth all held serve. They are all within one race’s worth of points of Edwards after the No. 99 team’s troubles Sunday.

Clint Bowyer and Stewart swapped the eighth and ninth spots with Bowyer now having the advantage. Newman rounds out the top 10.

In the “wild card” scenarios, Gordon advanced two spots to 11th in the standings and is just six points out of the top 10. If the No. 24 driver can make up one more position in the final 12 regular season races, all this talk about a second win having granted him a lock on one of the “wild card” spots will be out the window though it’s a nice ace to keep up your sleeve. Right now, Hamlin holds the final spot in 12th despite zero wins on his resume; Brad Keselowski, armed with his Kansas victory, remains 13 points outside the top 20.

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 it a single can of not-so-cold generic stuff.

Next Up – The series heads west to Michigan. Gas strategists for the teams may want to bring a spare set of batteries for their calculators.

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