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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Bowles Thinks Out Loud For Matt: 2011 Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol

Editor’s Note: Matt McLaughlin continues to be out with health-related issues, so our Managing Editor Tom Bowles filled in for him this week.

The Key Moment: Brad Keselowski beat Jeff Gordon off pit road during the race’s final caution, blew by two-tire Martin Truex Jr. on the final restart and made the rest of the Bristol field look like they were the ones driving drunkenly impaired on Miller Lite. Gordon tried to catch him, but alas, Bristol is the new half-mile Fontana: fresher tires made little difference while aero and track position took center stage – even at 15 seconds a lap.

In A Nutshell: Track position, track position and more track position, with a little bit of pit strategy mixed in. Where is the old Bristol, Bruton, and what the hell can you do to bring it back before people stop coming?

Dramatic Moment: Gordon and Truex Jr. had a pretty spirited battle for second down the stretch while Keselowski checked out. Mark Martin and Brian Vickers had it goin’ on, side-by-side for seemingly 100 laps during the race until Martin bobbled. And there was plenty of decent racing back in the pack, especially amongst a group of about a dozen cars from 12th – 24th that never quite seemed to break away from each other. It just happened on an oval that feels like “new Coke” with two grooves…

What They’ll Be Talking About The Water Cooler This Week:

I didn’t think it would be possible, ever, but they ran the first 298 laps at Bristol Saturday night and nobody spun. Halt, stop… we need to digest that for a minute. To put that in historical perspective, since 1984 – the earliest year I could independently verify – that’s the longest any Bristol race has started without someone pulling at least a 360 on the racetrack. People will read that and think I’m calling for carnage; I’m just looking for contact, rough and tumble of any kind which that Bristol race was utterly devoid of Saturday night. Good God, for most of the first 250 laps people were giving each other more room than when I calmly pass someone on the narrowest part of I-76 in Philadelphia. It was Bristol blasphemy on the highest scale, intermediate-style racing on the one track in America where fender-rubbing is supposed to be the hook that keeps everyone watching.

More than ever, in talking to fans that multi-groove, give-each-other-too-much-room style of racing is what irks people the most about Bristol. In the beginning, working the circuit every week in 2007 and listening to the hype I totally bought it: a repaved, smoother Bristol would lead to more side-by-side competition, fewer frayed tempers and better possibilities of a side-by-side finish that doesn’t leave a car in smithereens at the checkered. But what we all failed to realize then is variety is the spice of life; NASCAR thrives on tracks that have unique, easily recognizable personalities. For decades, Bristol sold itself as the one place on the circuit revenge can be a dish best served cold… as in slamming into the side of their rival, hard, with no repercussions while drivers try to push through traffic like a bunch of hyped-up 12-year-olds playing bumper cars.

Even in this year’s marketing commercials, Bristol was still trumpeting the crashes and smoking hot tempers of years past that gave it the nickname “Thunder Valley.” But that’s a lie now, especially with the current configuration: the truth is, Bristol’s what every good intermediate track should be, a whole lot of side-by-side racing where each car can run their own race if they find the right line. Because it’s shorter, the field can’t get spread out and that means there’s always good competition… but if people are looking for contact, well, they’re not going to get it. Considering we have too many 1.5-mile cookie cutters on the circuit to begin with, I feel like we probably didn’t need to turn a half-mile oval into one, right?

All that said, let’s give Bristol credit… attendance was clearly better, the number inching up to 156,000 for August compared to 155,000 in August 2010 (and the atrocious number that shall not be named from this spring). Still, wasn’t it a little weird to hear Brad Daugherty say, “The electricity at Bristol is catching” and the camera transition down to the one spot filled with empty seats in the process? Sigh…

Tell me, what track has Bruton Smith repaved over the last decade where the racing got better after he was done? I couldn’t think of any.

Bristol’s Music Driver Introductions are one of the coolest ideas any track has had on the NASCAR circuit. So why in the world aren’t they showing it on television?

Wonder why Tony Stewart’s been running so badly? During Saturday’s broadcast, ESPN mentioned Jimmie Johnson’s front tire changer was borrowed from Stewart’s team, but crew chief Chad Knaus liked him so much the No. 48 team decided to keep him. Call me crazy, but I think if you’re a “separate organization” from the team you get engines and chassis from you’re allowed to ask for crew members back. No wonder Tony’s had such a sourpuss look lately; hopefully, this off week with Junior all but in the Chase he can go beg Mr. Hendrick to give him just enough equipment to stick inside the top 10 before falling out.

Anyone else think it’s weird Ryan Newman won the pole while Stewart, the only other full-fledged “teammate” started 42nd on the same track? Oh, yeah, I forgot one other thing; Stewart has full-time primary sponsorship for 2012 while Newman is looking for more. Hmm…

At least Hendrick Motorsports was nice enough to give Stewart a consolation prize: Danica Patrick. Patrick, who officially announced her transition to full-time Nationwide racing this week, will run 8-10 Sprint Cup races for SHR in a third car, presumably before a transition to full-time Cup racing in 2013. The trendy pick to split the ride with her is Martin, at least from what I’ve been hearing; he works well with Danica and is already proven in a driver-coach role. But don’t rule out someone like Vickers, armed with previous Hendrick ties and young enough to satisfy GoDaddy’s marketing share (and attract additional sponsors) rather than a 52-year-old having one of the worst full-time seasons of his Sprint Cup career.

Speaking of, it pains me to say it… but time is catching up with Martin. The man has made more on-track mistakes, causing or contributing to more wrecks this season than any other that I can remember… it’s difficult to watch.

One other Hendrick musing before we go… Kelly Earnhardt explaining why Danica isn’t driving a Cup car under the JR Motorsports name just made me laugh. “We discussed whether or not that would make sense for everyone involved. And quite frankly, JR Motorsports isn’t ready to bite that bullet,” she told NASCAR.com this week. Bullet? What bullet when your AK-47 gun is filled with top-level Hendrick equipment, support and information at every turn if you make the move… plus, Danica’s just going across the street, driving the same said equipment while digesting similar information at SHR? Let me translate that quote for you: “Well, right now Mr. Hendrick’s accountant thinks it would make more financial sense for the team to go under the name ‘Stewart-Haas Racing.’ Plus, Junior doesn’t want to be stuck with that headache… so we just did what we were told.”

Bristol announced late Sunday they were adding more scoring loops on pit road. Thank goodness; if someone from the broadcast booth can see a driver speeding, yet there’s no proof to catch them you clearly have a problem with electronic radar. Still, kudos to Matt Kenseth and Keselowski for taking advantage of the gray areas they were offered this weekend; that’s what makes good drivers great.

On a serious note, thoughts and prayers go out to everyone affected by Hurricane Irene this weekend. Some might say the hurricane wasn’t as serious as feared; try saying that to my buddy, currently bailing two feet of water out of his basement in New Jersey while floodwaters sit mere steps from his front door. We were lucky in our Philadelphia neighborhood; power is on, there’s minimal damage and not more than a puddle or two. But as of this writing, 21,000 others in the city of Philadelphia are faced with the prospect of no electricity for days. Godspeed and a hearty “thank you” to those busy working overtime this week, cleaning up while restoring the gift of basic amenities we often take for granted – along with their service.

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

It’s been one of those “anything that could happen, will happen” kind of years for David Reutimann. An already so-so night turned ugly once David Stremme went from start-and-park to start-and-punt on the back of the No. 00 Toyota to cause one of just two serious wrecks all night. Reutimann wound up 70 laps down in 37th.

It’s been a rough month for the Busch brothers and the speeding police: first Kyle Busch in court, then Kurt Busch at Bristol who was busted for blowing the limit on pit road multiple times Saturday night. In other news, looks like the NASCAR “refs” who made the call were Stadler and Waldorf from the Muppets; according to Busch, “The officials are just puppets from up top.” He ran 17th.

Both Clint Bowyer and Stewart couldn’t get out of their own way, running like they both were on seven cylinders for much of the evening. Both off the lead lap by the race’s one-quarter mark, they ended their night a disgraceful 26th and 28th at a track both consider one of their best.

Gordon had the night’s most dominant car; unfortunately, crew chief Alan Gustafson had a less-than-dominant pit strategy. His call to pit for four tires late in the race, on a night where Goodyears from your personal car wouldn’t make much difference in speed cost Gordon the track position needed to win. He wound up third.

The ‘Seven Come Fore Eleven’ Award For Fine Fortune

It’s been an ugly season for Truex Jr., but the chemistry with new crew chief Chad Johnston is promising. The No. 56 ran inside the top 10 all night long, then used a two-tire call by the head wrench to earn track position late en route to a season-high second-place finish.

Denny Hamlin’s hard-luck season seemed destined for a potential nail in the coffin when he spun out behind Reutimann’s wreck. But the guy who hit him was none other than fellow “wild card” contender Paul Menard; and while the No. 27 team struggled to recover, Hamlin’s No. 11 Toyota rallied with the crumpled fenders and charged back to seventh at the finish.

It wasn’t the typical Bristol night for Kyle Busch; he only led four laps and was responsible for the race’s final caution. At the same time, turning that type of ugly result into a 14th-place recovery is what will help the No. 18 finally become a formidable foe of the No. 48 this fall.

Kudos also to two underdogs that deserve mention: Andy Lally, who steered the single-car, underfunded No. 71 to a 25th-place finish, just two laps off the pace. That’s the best finish for this rookie at an unrestricted oval track. Meanwhile, David Starr took a team running a limited schedule, the No. 95 of Leavine Family Racing and took their Advocare car to 27th, three laps behind but well ahead of big names like Stewart, Bowyer, and Menard. It’s the first race that car has ever finished…

Worth Noting

  • Keselowski’s win at Bristol was his third of 2011; he now trails only Kyle Busch for the Sprint Cup lead in that category. This month, since hurting his ankle Keselowski has had the following results: first, second, third, and first to surge from outside the top 20 to 11th in the standings. Let’s stop and think one more time: what would you have said June 1st if I told you Johnson’s biggest challenger for this year’s title would be three-time 2011 winner Keselowski? And what loony bin, out of the available choices in your area, would you have had me committed to?
  • Truex Jr. (second) had his best result since a runner-up finish at Michigan back in August, 2007. It’s his second top-five performance this month (he had zero for the 2011 season entering August).
  • Gordon (third) has led 317 laps the last six races and finished no lower than 13th during that same stretch.
  • Johnson (fourth) has three top-five finishes in the last four races. Someone knows when to peak at the right time…
  • Jamie McMurray (fifth) has two top-five finishes in the last five races. He had zero in the first 19.
  • Ryan Newman (eighth) has quietly accumulated two poles and an average finish of 7.3 the last seven races.
  • Earnhardt Jr. (16th) has one top-10 finish over the last 10 races. However… he has run 14th, 15th, or 16th five times over that same stretch. Looks like Steve Letarte has taught his pupil the right way to back into the postseason…
  • Kurt Busch (17th) has gone three straight races without a top-10 finish.
  • Kevin Harvick (22nd) has gone without a top-five result since Pocono in June.
  • Greg Biffle (31st) can beat that; he hasn’t had a top-five performance since Texas in April.
  • Bristol Motor Speedway had just six cautions during their 500-lap race; that’s the fewest number since the spring of 1996.
  • Talk about manufacturer parity at its finest: the top 10 consisted of four Chevrolets, three Fords, two Toyotas and a Dodge (which won the race).
  • The highest-finishing rookie, in case anyone actually still cares about that stuff was Lally in 25th.

What’s The Points?

Under the old system, we’d have a barnburner right now between Kyle Busch and Johnson: both are tied atop the standings with two races left in the regular season. Instead, each driver has his postseason spot secured, waiting for the Chase – although they’ll be going for wins from here on out to improve their seeding (a good thing)…

Kenseth and Edwards, the Roush Fenway Racing duo are third and fourth in the standings, respectively, and have also clinched postseason spots. For Gordon and Harvick, tied for fifth their victories assure them a position, too – although a run of 41st or better Sunday gets them in on points no matter what.

Newman, sitting seventh in the standings, has a healthy 73-point lead over 11th-place Keselowski; that should secure his Chase position after Atlanta along with eighth-place Kurt Busch (+60). Only Earnhardt Jr. and Stewart remain in real question within the top 10; Earnhardt is 39 points up on Keselowski, while Stewart sits at +21 over the surging Penske No. 2 team. Keselowski, in 11th, is solidly in the first wild card spot while Bowyer, winless in 12th must either win or make it in on points; he’s one behind Keselowski, 22 behind Stewart and 40 behind Earnhardt for a place in the top 10.

The second wild card spot, currently held by Hamlin (13th in points, one victory) remains up for grabs. Menard, David Ragan, and Marcos Ambrose could earn it with a second victory at Atlanta that catapults them inside the top 20… points-wise, Hamlin remains 41 in front of Menard for the tiebreaker.

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 two cans of chilled Miller Lite. Brad fans were happy, Gordon’s were at least entertained but I’m not so sure anyone else would give this race more than a C- if it was a term paper.

Next Up: The “it’s not quite Darlington, but as close as we’re going to get” new Labor Day Weekend tradition continues with a 500-mile race at Atlanta Sunday night. And if Keselowski, Menard, Ambrose, or Kyle Busch pull off the victory there will be an extra $3 million on the line…

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