NASCAR Race Weekend Central

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

The Key MomentClint Bowyer out drag-raced teammate Jeff Burton out of turn 4 to the flag, on the final lap to win what some pundits will allege to be a race.

In a Nutshell – Even Alice in Wonderland would be in line at the walk-in methadone clinic if she’d been forced to endure this bizarre approximation of a stock car event.

Dramatic Moment – Bowyer and Burton staged a classic last-lap duel for victory. That was racing. I’m not sure what that was going on behind them or for the first 187 laps Sunday.

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

For the second time in as many weeks, the motor racing community must come to grips with a fatal incident in a high-profile race. Sunday, Moto-GP rider Marco Simoncelli was killed during the second lap of the Malaysian GP. While Moto-GP has only a (devoted) cult following here in the states, in Europe and Asia GP riders are among the same pantheon of sports stars as Formula 1 drivers and soccer players. For whatever reason in auto racing, long periods of drivers and riders walking away from spectacular crashes tends to be followed by a brief period of multiple tragedies. It’s the nature of the sport but damn, do I hate it.

Well NASCAR’s plans to break up the tandem racing with a larger restrictor plate and lower pressure cooling systems didn’t work too well, did it? In fact drivers brought things to the next level, having preplanned what other driver they’d partner with prior to even arriving at the track. In fact, some teams had de facto team orders for which of the two paired drivers would win if it came down to the last lap with that tandem up front.

OK, so we’re stuck with this sort of racing. How do we slow the racers down, add some more sheet metal around them for safety reasons, and make the race more fun to watch? Let’s steal a page from some local bullring promoters and have the tandem teams compete in school buses with the trailing driver’s bus chained to the rear bumper of the towing bus. It would have to be more interesting than what we have now, plus imagine the hilarity in the pits and all that extra space on the side of the buses for advertising decals. Oh, and apparently we only need to schedule the race for 10 laps in length since the drivers only really get after it in those final laps.

Eventually a force more powerful than NASCAR or even the win is going to mean the end of tandem racing. Recall it’s the sponsors’ millions that keep the teams running. Sponsors base their decision on the effectiveness of their funds spent on Joyce Julius minutes, the amount of time their logos are shown clearly on the TV screen during an event. In the case of tandem racing, the trailing cars logos and decals are all but invisible which has got to tick some marketing types off.

You think maybe Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle and Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. decided to lay back in the pack just a smidgen too long there at the end?

If there’s anyone else left out there foolish enough to doubt the SAFER barrier’s effectiveness, watch a slow motion replay of Regan Smith’s impact into the outside wall and how much the SAFER barrier deflected to absorb the hit, possibly sparing us a third tragedy this week.

Nobody won the championship Sunday, but a lot of drivers made major strides in losing it. Such is the nature of the Talladega beast, I suppose. Under the old “pack racing” scenario, we’d wipe out dozens of cars in an instant. Now, with tandem racing we wipe cars out incrementally many times during the race and still end up with the same amount of carnage when you total it up at the end of the day.

I can’t help but feel the results of this race would have been quite different if NASCAR threw the red flag to halt the field while repairs were made to the SAFER barrier and the track cleaned up after Smith’s wreck. Only two laps of racing remained when the green flag flew. But if there had, in fact been four laps left to run Sunday on the final restart I wonder if anyone would have finished.

What was with the long delay in throwing a caution flag after Joey Logano spun and shredded a tire and fender all over the racing groove trying to get back to the pits?

When Jack Roush and Ford racing brass formulated their “One Ford” strategy this week I don’t suppose they intended it to mean Not One Ford will finish in the top 10.

They’re at it again? Recall in the team’s Cup debut Michael Waltrip’s car was caught cheating in the infamous “jet fuel” incident and they’ve been nailed numerous times for rules infractions. So this week, the windshields of the two full-time MWR racing entries and that of their satellite team, JTG, were found out of compliance. Oddly enough, the windshield of the DW tribute car Waltrip entered was apparently fine. That’s if it was even checked. Recall A) Nobody really thought he was going to qualify B) NASCAR owes both those Waltrips a debt of gratitude for cheerleading.

There’s limited time to act to protect you and your family. The neighbors are going to have to fend for themselves in this annual act of electronic terrorism. You must act before Saturday afternoon at 3:30 ET. Every member of your family needs to be given a blindfold and good-fitting ear plugs. By 3:20, you’ll want to trip the main breaker to your house’s electrical supply and move the family into an interior room with no windows. It might be wise to ask the cable company to disconnect your service until Monday. Yes, next Monday is Halloween and doubtless the cast of the pre-race show for the Truck Series are going to be dressing up in costume again in a little loved attempt to prove they have a sense of humor… it’s just lost on everyone else. If you’ve never seen it, you can’t imagine how bad this annual rite is. If you have, doubtless you are already on the horn with the cable folks. The last two years have involved Batman and Gilligan’s Island, so look for another campy ’60s sitcom theme this year. You’ve been warned.

The tech savvy sorts call it convergence. Basically, they want to watch NASCAR racing on their cell phones and internet-enabled tablets. I don’t really have a dog in the fight since I don’t have a cell phone or a tablet, but the concept has me scratching my head. By this point, most of us have spent a ton of money on the biggest honking plasma high-def flat screen TV we could afford, but these folks want to watch the race on a cell phone screen the size of a White Tower hamburger? Would you even be able to see the undersized NASCAR Non-Stop screen on a cell phone?

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

If it wasn’t bad enough for Smith to have to endure a savage hit during the race, what were the odds his team’s transporter would also be set ablaze afterwards?

Jeff Gordon got hosed by Trevor Bayne, who dumped his “partner” on the final restart after agreeing to work with the No. 24 on the radio. Gordon fell from a legitimate contender for the win to a 27th-place finish. (For the record, Bayne contends he was ordered to leave the No. 24 to work with the No. 17 and he wasn’t happy about it.)

Ironically, the driver Bayne dumped Gordon to hook up with was Matt Kenseth, who’d run up front most of the day. But the move didn’t work for either. Kenseth wound up 18th, while Bayne dropped to a 15th-place finish by the checkered.

Talladega has become one of Kevin Harvick’s better tracks, one of many that have kept him near the top of the standings all season with a remarkable string of top-10 finishes. But Sunday, his luck ran out when he got a major piece of the wreck triggered by AJ Allmendinger’s sideways Ford. A broken oil cooler forced the No. 29 team to the garage for lengthy repairs.

Kyle Busch also got a piece of Allmendinger’s wreck and it skewed the rear end housing of the car to the left. He also was forced to the garage area for extensive repairs and ended the day 33rd.

Kurt Busch was playing the role of pusher in a tandem and was thus unable to see Bobby Labonte’s car sideways across the track until it was too late to brake. The DNF left him 36th.

Robby Gordon and Bayne were one of the surprising duos at the front of the pack until the rear TV panel on Gordon’s car came loose and impeded their ability to draft together. After the race, the No. 7 team came to an agreement in the future they won’t install bodywork with scotch tape and library paste.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

Bowyer is leaving Richard Childress Racing at the end of the year, but at least he gave the team and his guys one last victory to remember him by.

Burton was agonizingly close to a long overdue win but as badly as that outfit has been running this season, second place was a respectable result.

Dave Blaney and Brad Keselowski didn’t make a lot of noise during the race but they were the duo that in the end best timed their charge forward for the final two laps: Blaney wound up third and Keselowski finished fourth. By the way, Blaney was in a Chevy and Keselowski was in a Dodge. Can’t we all just get along?

It seems likely that the entire Red Bull team will be shutting down at the end of the year but Brian Vickers and Kasey Kahne paired up for a fifth/sixth-place result.

Denny Hamlin started the race without a drafting partner and soon lost a lap. Then, once back on the lead lap he had to dodge at least two major wrecks, often times hanging on as a “third wheel” behind another twosome to climb up to an eighth-place finish.

Worth Noting

  • Just three drivers in the Chase (Keselowski in fourth, Tony Stewart in seventh and Hamlin in eighth) were amongst the top-10 finishers at Talladega.
  • The top-10 finishers Sunday drove four Chevys, five Toyotas, and a Dodge. Edwards in 11th was the top-finishing Ford.
  • Yes, that was Richard Childress Racing’s 100th win in the Cup series.
  • Bowyer’s win was his first since this event last year and his third top-three result of 2011. He finished second at Talladega and Texas this spring.
  • Burton’s second-place finish was his best this season, easily eclipsing his previous best, a ninth-place result at the Glen.
  • Blaney’s third-place finish was the best of his Cup career. He’s done it two other times: at Darlington in 2003 and this track four years ago.
  • Keselowski’s fourth-place finish was his fourth top-five result in this year’s six Chase races.
  • Vickers’ fifth-place finish equals his best result of the season. He also finished fifth in the first Dover race and at New Hampshire last month.
  • Kahne (sixth) has now strung together four straight top-10 finishes. And having finished my fourth can of Red Bull this afternoon, I am now hanging from my ceiling by my nails like a cat being forced to listen to a Britney Spears concert.
  • Hamlin’s eighth-place finish was his best of the Chase.
  • Waltrip (ninth) scored his first top-10 finish since Talladega in the fall of 2009.
  • Martin Truex Jr.’s 10th-place finish was his best since the Bristol night race.
  • Edwards’ 11th-place finish was actually his worst result since Michigan in August.
  • Kyle Busch’s 33rd-place finish was his worst since Loudon in July.

What’s the Points?

Edwards maintains his points lead and is now 14 points ahead of his teammate Kenseth, who moved up a spot to second. Brad Keselowski moved up three positions in the standings to third and is 18 points out of the lead. Fourth-place Stewart is one point behind Keselowski.

Harvick’s misfortune dropped him three spots to fifth in the standings, a not inconsiderable 26 points out of the lead. So I guess despite the Karmic wisdom of Moe, Larry and Curly, oil is not well that ends well.

Kyle Busch fell two spots to sixth in the standings, a nearly insurmountable 40 points behind Edwards with four races left to run in this year’s title hunt. Behind him, the good news for Johnson is he’s up a spot to seventh in the standings. The bad news is he is now 50 points out of the lead.

Kurt Busch fell a spot to eighth, while Earnhardt Jr. sits ninth. It’s a little too late to revive their title hopes now, but Gordon and Hamlin each moved up a spot to 10th and 11th. Ryan Newman fell two spots to 12th.

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 two cans, laying on their side, lined up a paper’s width apart.

Next Up – From NASCAR’s largest track we move on to the sport’s smallest, the quaint little half-miler at Martinsville where time has seemingly stood still since back when Leave it to Beaver hit puberty.

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