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

Editor’s Note: Because my columns on racing tend to be (or at least attempt to be) humorous in places and cynical in others, I sometimes feel that I should just delete them in the wake of a tragedy such as occurred Sunday at Las Vegas. I in no way want to come off as insensitive. The column below was submitted well before the IndyCar race. In fact, I hurried the final edit in hopes of getting in a motorcycle ride before watching the IndyCar finale. I am no expert in IndyCar racing, but I do enjoy catching the open-wheel events when the schedule allows. I do know that series officials, participants and fans will have a long debate over the advisability of having a race with 34 entrants at a track like Vegas given the mechanics of what they call “pack racing.” The network types will have to debate if replays of the incident were appropriate and if the race should have been canceled. But right now, that doesn’t matter.

What matters is a young man lost his life 12 laps into that race. Dan Wheldon was a man of notable achievements, most notably two Indy 500 wins, an IndyCar championship and a Daytona 24-Hour victory. He is described by people who knew him best as the eternal optimist, always smiling and always ready for the next race in whatever discipline of the sport it might have been, be it an IndyCar or a go kart. He even briefly explored the idea of going NASCAR racing and we’d have been blessed to have him. Most importantly, he was a husband and father to two young children, the younger of them born just in March of this year. The highlight of this IndyCar season was surely Wheldon’s emotional and improbable Indy 500 win, captured on the last turn of the final lap; but the low point of this season was his tragic death today.

Despite Wheldon’s death, the Frontstretch Staff and I have decided to run my NASCAR column with a quick edit. I mean no disrespect to the memory of Wheldon by doing what I do. I am just following his example… though at a far lesser degree of skill.

The Key Moment – With 25 laps to go Matt Kenseth, who’d been trying to pass Kyle Busch on the outside, snookered him by diving low to take the lead. Once Busch and Carl Edwards got to scrapping over second, the deal was sealed for the No. 17.

In a Nutshell – Blame it on yet another mile-and-a-half track. Blame it on tires that were too consistent. Blame it on the parity between the cars. No matter what the cause, nobody could blame anybody who saw that race for feeling like they’d wasted four hours of their lives.

Dramatic Moment – We’ve got a mighty thin field of candidates in this category so let’s give it to that brief battle between Kenseth and Kyle Busch after the final restart.

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

Thank God for the SAFER barriers and the HANS device. Jimmie Johnson’s wreck looked horribly similar to a certain last lap wreck in the 2001 Daytona 500.

In the aftermath of Johnson’s wreck, a large percentage of the crowd on hand erupted into cheers. I’ve never really been comfortable with folks cheering any driver’s misfortune, particularly a wreck that involved that hard a hit. At least wait to see if that driver has been hurt before applauding.

To what degree has Kyle Busch’s ego swollen? He noted over the radio during the Nationwide race that NASCAR ought to be able to see his Toyota was at a horsepower disadvantage because he wasn’t leading and Charlotte is his best track. Busch then repeated the contention during his terse post-race comments. So, let’s see… Busch has won eight of the 20 Nationwide Series races he’s entered this season. It’s kind of hard to argue he’s at too bad a disadvantage.

Speaking of Kyle, you think he’ll be having nightmares this week of seeing a Roush Ford closing in on his rear-view mirror late in a race? I guess his Cup engines are at a disadvantage, too?

I think maybe Kenseth’s appeal to his main sponsor Crown Royal to reconsider leaving the team at the end of the season in Victory Lane sounded a little desperate. But I suppose it’s just another sign of how tough finding funding is right now.

If Kenseth became the inadvertent father of the Chase with his single-win 2003 championship, what’s NASCAR going to do if points leader Edwards holds on to take this year’s crown with just one victory? Will they dump the Chase? We can only hope.

Is Jeff Gordon out of this year’s Chase? He has two good tracks coming up (Talladega, six wins, Martinsville, seven wins) but after that there’s three tracks left on the schedule that haven’t been so kind to Gordon. At Texas, Phoenix, and Homestead Gordon has made a combined 58 starts with just three wins.

Rumors began circulating this weekend Steve Addington would be leaving Kurt Busch’s No. 22 team at the end of the season. While team spokespeople were quick to deny any such move was afoot, listening to Busch and Addington over the radio during the race it’s pretty clear the thrill is gone. By the way, it’s a little tough to rub your lucky charms when you’re wearing an anti-submarining safety harness.

The promoters at Charlotte don’t miss a trick. They apparently added something to the yellow paint on the outside track walls that throws up a huge amount of sparks when a car brushes those walls. There’s some sparks on impact at all tracks, but at Charlotte casual contact produced fireworks worthy of an Alice Cooper concert finale.

Isn’t it odd just as Brad Keselowski was about to go a lap down NASCAR had to throw a debris caution? The caution was for debris and the debris was a can of Miller beer, the same brewery that sponsors Keselowski’s car. Was it an overly zealous (and stupid) fan of Bad Brad, or does the driver keep a six-pack aboard during races just in case?

In a classic bit of understatement even ABC/ESPN’s Alan Bestwick was forced to admit, “On a night when it’s proven hard to pass….”

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

Saturday night’s big loser was Johnson, who’d run mid-pack much of the race but as is typical emerged inside the top 10 late. That forward progress, of course was rudely halted with a one-way trip to the wall that ended his day (34th). Oddly enough, Charlotte used to be Johnson’s best track; he once won four straight points races here. This year, the No. 48 team has suffered but two DNFs… both at Charlotte.

Gordon was also off song most of the evening, but pit strategy and a timely caution flag in the midst of a green flag session of pit stops moved him into the top 10 as magically as anything Scotty ever pulled off in the transporter room. I’m sure Gordon would have been thrilled to leave Charlotte with an eighth-place finish but the car got out from under him late in a three-wide situation and he spun out en route to 21st. Johnson and Gordon both losing it at Charlotte due to unforced errors? Until Saturday night, that was unthinkable.

What didn’t go wrong for Greg Biffle Saturday night? While leading the race, his team was penalized for missing a lug nut and the No. 16 fell off the lead lap. A free pass got him back in contention, though and Biffle once again drove determinedly towards the front. En route, he encountered Tony Stewart and felt Stewart had run him into the wall. (The tape seemed to indicate Stewart never hit Biffle.) Incensed, Biffle decided to show his displeasure by banging into Stewart. The move cut down the left front tire of the No. 16 and Biffle drove into the wall himself. Now that’s just stupid; he was lucky to hang onto 15th.

As if Dale Earnhardt Jr. can’t lose a championship all by himself, his team insists on helping him do so every week. The No. 88 car had a lackluster run most of the evening until a wheel left loose during a pit stop (for a second straight week) was the icing on the cake. Junior wound up 19th.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

Kyle Busch actually had a good weekend, finishing second in both the Nationwide and Cup races. Just don’t expect to see him satisfied Toyotas aren’t at a disadvantage until he wins every race and laps the entire field before the first round of pit stops.

Edwards freely admits that Charlotte hasn’t been one of his better tracks. I’m sure a third-place finish and his leaving still leading the points was satisfying for him.

Kevin Harvick had to take to the grass to avoid the Gordon/Kasey Kahne/David Ragan incident but still wound up sixth.

Considering his involvement in the above incident, Kahne had to be thrilled to finish fourth.

It was another good race for Richard Petty Motorsports. Once again, like at Dover two weeks prior they had both cars (Marcos Ambrose fifth, AJ Allmendinger seventh) finish inside the top 10.

Worth Noting

  • The win was Kenseth’s third of the season but his first since Dover in the spring. The finish was also his fourth consecutive top-10 result.
  • Kyle Busch’s second-place finish was his first top five of the Chase.
  • Edwards’ third-place performance was his eighth straight top-10 result. He’s the only driver to notch top-10 finishes in all five Chase races to date.
  • Kahne’s fourth-place finish was his third consecutive top-five result – easily a season high.
  • Ambrose (fifth) scored his third straight top-10 finish.
  • Harvick (sixth) has run 12th or better in the last seven races.
  • Denny Hamlin’s ninth-place finish was his first top 10 of the Chase.
  • Joey Logano’s 13th-place result was his best since the Bristol night race in August.
  • Gordon (21st) has missed a top-10 result the last three times out.
  • Johnson’s 34th-place finish was his worst of the season.
  • The top-10 finishers at Charlotte Sunday drove four Fords, three Toyotas and three Chevys.
  • The top Dodge finisher Sunday was Kurt Busch in 13th.

What’s the Points?

For the record, under this year’s Chase format fifth-place Stewart is 24 points out of the lead. Under the traditional Latford system that took into account season long performance, fifth-place Kenseth would be 32 points out of the lead.

Back to reality, I guess. Edwards maintains his lead in the standings and is now five points ahead of second-place Harvick. Matt Kenseth advances two spots to third, just seven markers out of the lead.

Kyle Busch advanced four positions to fourth in the standings, 18 points behind the top spot. Stewart moved up two positions to fifth, 24 points behind Edwards.

Keselowski’s Cinderella season took on a bit of a pumpkinesque tint at Charlotte with a noncompetitive run and a drop of two positions in the standings to sixth. Kurt Busch, in tandem fell two spots with his Penske Racing teammate to seventh.

Johnson took the hardest hit in the standings, falling five spots to eighth but more importantly 35 points out of the lead. While you can never count the No. 48 bunch out, they are now in the unenviable position of not only having to run well, but hoping that seven drivers ahead of them all suffer some manner of misfortune in the next five weeks.

Earnhardt Jr. sits ninth in points, while Ryan Newman rounds out the top 10. Jeff Gordon fell another spot to 11th in the standings, a seemingly insurmountable 66 points out of the lead. In fact, I’d say it’s fairly safe to say everyone from ninth-place Earnhardt on down is realistically out of title contention this year.

Things are actually getting interesting in the Best of the Rest category just outside the top 12. Clint Bowyer is currently 13th, just three points ahead of Allmendinger. 15th-place Kahne is eight points behind Allmendinger and one point ahead of 16th-place Biffle.

Further back, Mark Martin is 20th in the standings and Jeff Burton finds himself 24th in the rundown. Who’d have thunk?

Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans with one being a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic) — I don’t think I can even give this one a single beer. I have to save beers to hand out to trick-or-treaters at the end of the month.

Next Up – It’s on to Talladega for another restrictor plate event… racing for the least common denominator. It’ll be interesting to see if the newly resized plates and lowered cooling system pressures (not to mention a prohibition against slathering slippery stuff on the bumpers) will break up the “tandem racing” duos we’ve been seeing in this sort of event as of late.

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