NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin’s Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2011 Dover Fall Race Recap

The Key MomentKurt Busch got enough of a jump on the final restart, with 35 laps remaining that he was easily able to hold off Jimmie Johnson for the win.

In a Nutshell – Wow, what a race! Two leaders battling wheel-to-wheel, side-by-side for over 20 laps at the end. A five-car pack still in contention for the win with five laps to go and 10 cars within a second of the leader. Oops! Sorry, I just described the IndyCar race at Kentucky. Oh, well; at least the Cup “show” wasn’t decided on fuel mileage.

Dramatic Moment – You know there was a good race wanting to happen between Busch, Carl Edwards and Johnson in the final laps but the aero-push phenomenon kept it from gelling.

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

Did the Chase just ruin the finish of another race? I’m left wondering if Johnson gave it all he had on that final restart or decided to preserve a top-three finish to help himself in the points. It’s not like he and Kurt Busch haven’t already had their run-ins this season (as recently as last week) so caution might have been the better part of valor in some folks’ eyes.

Speaking of Johnson, his detractors had been celebrating all week as they wrote off his title chances. Even a lot of folks in the media wasted a lot of verbiage talking about the near-impossible task Johnson had ahead of him trying for that sixth title. Note to you all: he’s back. Be afraid. Be very afraid. Now, I’m not rooting for Johnson here. Frankly, I think it would be better for the sport to have a new champion this season, but I’m not going to write off the No. 48 bunch until they are mathematically eliminated.

Another black eye for NASCAR officiating. In Saturday’s Nationwide race, Reed Sorenson’s car sputtered and ran out of fuel just as a caution flag flew. Thus, he was forced to enter the pits before pit lane opened, drawing the standard penalty for that infraction: restarting the race at the end of the longest line. Most casual fans know that by heart; heck, even Sorenson’s crew chief admitted he knew that consequence should have been coming. But in this case, the penalty was never assessed. Why? NASCAR “forgot” to tell the team they were penalized before the race resumed. After the event, officials contended that after the restart, there was nothing they could do to correct their own glaring error. Bull-feathers! They’ve thrown another caution and rearranged the field to correct errors countless times. I recall distinctly after Dale Earnhardt was incorrectly penalized for having his team fail to install a lug nut, NASCAR threw a caution and allowed Earnhardt to move back up to his rightful position. How much did it help? We’ll never know, exactly, but considering Sorenson is third in the standings… he just got an unfair points advantage. If this “break” allows him to defeat either of the drivers up ahead for the title, somebody is going to be raising Hell and I’m going to be right behind them with a pitchfork and torch.

How close was NASCAR to another rainout? Here in Chester County, about 60 miles north of the track as the crow flies, it started raining early this morning and never stopped. Of course, the only equipment we have to dry Little Washington Road is my landlord’s kid Jack dragging a tire up and down it aboard an old Wheelhorse garden tractor with a cast iron, 10-horsepower engine. It doesn’t do crap, but it keeps him out of trouble…

Who are these other 31 drivers out on the track with the 12 Chasers? Don’t bother asking anyone at ESPN. That network’s pre-race show ought to be re-titled “The Jimmie, Junior, Carl, Jeff, Kyle and the Other Seven Chase Dwarves Show.”

Wow, there sure are a lot of crying, whining babies in the garage area lately. And many of them seem to have infant children. (Note to Mrs. Johnson – Annie Hall called. She wants her wardrobe back.)

Isn’t it amazing how much more competitive and entertaining the Truck Series races are when guys like Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick stay home? Now, if we could just get the Cup guys to forgo Nationwide events we might see some decent racing in that series as well.

OK, who is in charge of scheduling? Fans (Phans?) here in the Philadelphia market have a glut of options this weekend. On Sunday, the Phillies had a playoff game and the Iggles played game four of the NFL season at home. For car guys, this weekend was the much anticipated fall Carlisle swap meet outside of Harrisburg. (Hershey is next week.) The NHRA is in Reading for a national event. And they decided this weekend was the one to schedule a Cup race at Dover?

Robby Gordon said recently he’s begun start-and-parking his car because he’ll get the same amount of TV exposure whether he runs a few laps or the whole race. Gordon says his car is only shown during his qualifying run. But I’ve got a solution. If only the guy returned to his form of a few years ago, wrecking out drivers in the Chase, his TV exposure would rise dramatically…

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

Edwards appeared to have the fastest car on Sunday but a speeding penalty on pit road ended his chances at a win. Edwards rebounded to a third-place finish but was clearly miffed with himself over the lost opportunity at the victory.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a decent if unspectacular day going (after recovering from early suspension issues) until his team left the right-front wheel loose on a pit stop. That forced Junior back to get it fixed under green, late enough in the race that no amount of magical “debris” cautions or Lucky Dogs could help him recover: Earnhardt finished 24th, two laps off the pace and seemingly out of title contention at this point. Please note: there’s no truth to the rumor that the No. 88 team’s front tire changer had to be smuggled out of Dover in the trunk of a car to protect him against rabid Earnhardt fans. He was actually in the back seat under a blanket…

Tony Stewart admitted he was worried about Dover and as it turns out, he had good reason to be concerned. Stewart’s car wasn’t just bad, it was horrendous on Sunday; lapped early on, he missed a chance at getting the wavearound, never recovered and wound up two laps down in 25th.

I’m not sure what Greg Biffle needs to do to score a decent finish. He ran up front all day at Dover only to get hit with a pit road speeding penalty that left him down a lap. The No. 16 team took the wavearound, worked half the day to get back in contention as Biffle charged back into the top 10… only to wreck himself out late.

Brad Keselowski actually spent most of the day ahead of his winning teammate, but a thrown power steering belt cost him a couple laps. Eventually, he got back on the lead lap but the damage was done: Keselowski sat 20th when they wrote out the race-ending checks.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

AJ Allmendinger was sent for a lurid slide just five laps into the race but kept the car off the wall, a rare save at Dover. He went on to finish seventh. All in all, it was a pretty good day for Richard Petty Motorsports with Allmendinger’s teammate Marcos Ambrose running ninth.

Kasey Kahne got into the back of Johnson, who was slow on the final restart with 35 laps to go. It could have spelled disaster for them both, but Kahne – a future Hendrick teammate – lifted and gave Johnson room to gather up his car. Johnson went on to finish second while Kahne wound up fourth, the best ever finish of his career at the Monster Mile in 16 starts.

Worth Noting

  • The win was Busch’s second of the season. His previous victory was on the road course at Sonoma.
  • While he has just one win, Johnson finished second for the fourth time this season.
  • Edwards has now strung together six consecutive top-10 finishes.
  • Kahne finished fourth for the third time this season. Weirdly enough, all those fourth-place finishes were scored at tracks that begin with the fourth letter of the alphabet. (Daytona, Darlington and Dover… see, this is the sort of vital information you only get here.)
  • Matt Kenseth’s fifth-place finish was his best since the Brickyard.
  • Kyle Busch (sixth) is averaging a 13th-place finish in the Chase. From the penthouse to…
  • Allmendinger’s seventh-place finish was his best since Charlotte.
  • Ambrose’s ninth-place finish was his best since that win at the Glen. He finished with a top 10 at both Dover races this season.
  • Jeff Burton’s 11th-place finish matches his best result on an oval track this season. Burton also finished 11th in the other Dover race and at Texas this spring.
  • Stewart’s 25th-place performance was his worst since Bristol.
  • Earnhardt’s 24th-place finish was his worst since Kentucky. In that long stretch of races, he’s scored just one top-five result.
  • The top-10 finishers at Dover drove four Fords, three Chevys, two Toyotas and the winning Dodge. Fords, Chevys and Dodges led at least 92 laps of the 400 run, with only Toyota lagging behind on this day. Apparently, we’ve about achieved parity in racing. Too bad it’s made a parody out of the racing.

What’s the Points?

Harvick advanced a spot to take over the lead in the standings. He’s actually tied with Edwards in the points but Harvick has more wins than the No. 99 bunch. Stewart fell two spots to third in the standings. As badly as he ran, it’s a wonder the damage was that limited. The win advanced Kurt Busch up five positions to fourth.

A second-place finish propelled Johnson up five spots to fifth. He’s thirteen points out of the lead. Still think his chances are toast? That blown power steering belt dropped Keselowski three spots to sixth, while Kenseth holds serve down in seventh. Kyle Busch fell two spots to eighth in the standings, while Jeff Gordon fell four spots to ninth. Each of those drivers are separated by no more than 19 points heading to Kansas.

Further back, Junior dropped two spots to 10th and is now a distant 34 markers back. Someone buy the No. 88 team a jumbo size bottle of blue Loctite. Ryan Newman and Denny Hamlin continue to round out the top 12.

In the “Best of the Rest” category, Clint Bowyer is 13th in the standings, two points ahead of Allmendinger.

For those who are curious: under this year’s method of awarding points but the traditional (non-Chase) method of totaling season-long points, Edwards would currently be leading the standings by four over second-place Johnson and third-place Kyle Busch. It just goes to show ya…

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. Hey, the result didn’t come down to fuel mileage. It wasn’t the best race of the year, that’s for sure; but it was certainly the best race of the Chase.

Next Up – The circuit heads off to Kansas, the crowning engineering achievement of the International Speedway Corporation. But hey! I hear they have a casino…

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