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

The Key MomentTony Stewart drove by Jimmie Johnson on the outside with less than three laps to go to claim his third victory in seven Chase races this season.

In a Nutshell – Motorized mechanical mayhem at Martinsville. Easily the best race of the year.

Dramatic Moment – If you’re into bending fenders, smoking tires, and frayed tempers like I am, the first quarter of this race was tough to beat.

The race dragged a little in the middle, but the last 50 laps were exciting as well with countless improbable turns of tide. Johnson got passed on the outside at Martinsville? You’ve got to be kidding.

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

All these new race tracks have CAD/CAM designs, billions of dollars invested and committees studying everything right down to the coloration of the grandstand seats. So how come they can’t build a better track than Martinsville, which hosted its first NASCAR race 62 years ago?

Boy Howdy! As if we didn’t have enough to talk about after Talladega, yet another big story related to the event broke mid-week. By now, most of you have heard the live audio of crew chief Chad Knaus telling Johnson prior to the race if he won, he either needed Johnson to smack the back end of his car into the wall doing his victory doughnuts or have someone run into the back of him. This shocker isn’t a conspiracy theory. If you haven’t heard it, listen to this; clearly, there’s no ambiguity here. Johnson, who sounds surprised, is told to cheat. He doesn’t refuse. That calls into legitimacy not only his two wins this season but his five straight championships. You want to talk about a smoking gun and a black eye for the sport? NASCAR’s reaction to date has been pretty mild, other than telling the No. 48 team their cars are going back to the R and D center for a post-race look over after the rest of this season’s four races. Sorry, the appropriate punishment would be to suspend Knaus for the rest of this season and all of 2012 in hopes it would embarrass Lowe’s into leaving the team which has been caught cheating numerous times before. Yeah, yeah, yeah, the No. 48 survived pre-race practice, pre-qualifying and pre-race inspections… but so did Clint Bowyer’s car prior to last year’s Chase kickoff race at New Hampshire, and it was found to be illegal after the race with a heavy points and monetary fine invoked to punish the infraction. This controversy is the series’ equivalent to the 1919 Black Sox scandal in baseball, and unless it is addressed with the seriousness it deserves, NASCAR will be stripped of whatever wavering amounts of credibility they have as a legitimate sport. If having heard or just listened to that video doesn’t burn your buns, get out of the kitchen before this whole MF sport burns down.

Johnson certainly didn’t do his reputation any good with the above mess last week. He was roundly booed at Martinsville all weekend. I’ve already got an email from one conspiracy theorist who said Johnson let Stewart win to avoid post-race inspection. Dude, the No. 48 was already slated for a trip to the R and D center for a post-race going over, one that will likely have it returned to Rick Hendrick in about 50 milk crates.

Listening to Kurt Busch’s comments over the radio, it’s clear that drivers tend to run poorly at tracks they hate. There’s definitely a causal relationship there, but do drivers hate tracks because they run poorly there… or do they run poorly there because they arrive at the event hating the track?

Miss Manners would be appalled by all the drivers getting in touch with their inner-barbarian at Martinsville, but keep this in mind: This series has been racing since mid-February. A lot of these guys are getting frustrated and just wish the overly long season would end. They either missed the Chase or they fared poorly enough in the championship run they know they’re out of it. They’ve been banged up, bruised and spent too many days away from their homes and the families they love. In some cases – cough, Brian Vickers, cough – they crossed the line enough times during the race they should have been given breathalyzer tests on pit road before being allowed to return to the track. However, the main culprit here is the grueling season and having to worry about a ride for next year after a substandard 2011. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the NASCAR season should start after Easter and end by Labor Day.

It was a brief period, but for old timers like yer humble correspondent it sure was good to see the Petty blue No. 43 car leading laps at Martinsville.

This season, NASCAR tried to limit the amount of Cup drivers entering Truck and Nationwide Series races by ruling a driver could only earn points in one of the top three touring divisions. Thus, Denny Hamlin was awarded no points for his truck win at Martinsville. But the Cup interlopers are still affecting title outcomes. Ron Hornaday is in a relatively tight title hunt with Austin Dillon, among others. On Saturday, he finished second to Hamlin while Dillon finished third. Had Hamlin not entered the race, presumably Hornaday would have won; that win would have carried an extra three-point bonus, one which would have helped him make up more ground in the standings. Instead, he gained only a single point over Dillon.

Sean Irvan, who serves as jackman for the No. 38 team of Travis Kvapil was hit by Mark Martin in the pits and knocked briefly unconscious. He was later diagnosed with a concussion and knee and neck injuries but nothing life-threatening at a local hospital. Editor’s Note: We didn’t hear of this injury being mentioned by anyone at all during the race – certainly not on ESPN. Big miss if true.

Speaking of the Truck Series, the purse Hamlin won on Saturday was just over $32,000. That’s about half what the start and parkers in the Cup series earned racing at Martinsville in the spring. No wonder Todd Bodine is so pissed off. After Saturday’s race, the term “cool-down lap” was an unintended irony. What I saw instead was more like a “meltdown lap.”

Junior decided Sunday that after this spring’s humiliating loss at Martinsville, he was going to let his knuckles drag, play rough and get a little aggressive. Lo and behold, he had a decent finish (seventh). Maybe this hearkens back to the old ’50s TV show Father Knows Best?

ESPN offered up one of those insightful nuggets you can only find in their pre-race programming. To quote Ms. Briscoe: “Qualifying was rained out by rain earlier this weekend.” Yes, qualifying is so rarely rained out by high humidity, or sunshine, or… honeybadgers. What the hell is with Kyle Petty and honeybadgers?

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

Kyle Busch led a lot of laps and clearly had a strong car. But he got tangled up with Kenseth late, then ran into the pits with an apparent flat tire. His team was so desperate to fix the damage and replace the tires without losing a lap (a virtual impossibility at Martinsville) that they neglected to reinstall four of the lug nuts before sending Busch back out onto the track. The fifth one was hand-tightened, and the wheel separated from the car before Busch made it above the blend line re-entering the half-mile oval. (He wound up 27th).

Brad Keselowski had a solid run going until he became the unwitting victim of a personality conflict between Earnhardt and Hamlin. Earnhardt had vowed on the radio there’d be “no mercy” when he got back to the No. 11 car, whose driver he felt had done him dirty and Keselowski was the collateral non-com damage. That dropped Kes to 17th in the final running order, costing him nearly a dozen points in the process.

Matt Kenseth seemed poised to take over the points lead most of the race, but then he got into a tangle with Vickers that appeared to be a rare mental meltdown by Kenseth. Contact with Kevin Harvick on pit road then seemed to bend the sheet metal onto the No. 17 car’s tire, putting Matt hard into the wall en route to a 31st-place finish. That disaster, for all intents and purposes ended his run at the title.

Vickers had a piece of the first five cautions of the race (and more later in the event) but had somehow moved back up into the top 10 before he ticked Kenseth off. That’s one Red Bull car that won’t be up for grabs at the end of season garage sale when the team shuts down. Vickers saw to that by exacting a little payback on the No. 17, finishing his ugly afternoon in 30th place.

Jamie McMurray was one of those drivers hit by Vickers (which didn’t put him in very exclusive company) but he looked rather foolish trying to exact some payback under caution and putting himself into the wall again. The car never reentered the race, leaving its battery on the track en route to a “powerless” 35th.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

Stewart fought with an ill-handling car throughout the first half of the race and battled tooth and nail to stay on the lead lap when a timely caution aided his cause. The driver/owner made the call to take an extended period of time on a stop to fix the car and the strategy played off splendidly in the end.

Carl Edwards couldn’t stay out of his own way for much of the race and went a lap down twice during the event. Two free passes got him back on the lead lap and a combination of attrition and a few passes (some of them less than surgical) allowed him to post yet another top-10 finish (ninth). It’s also rather rare for NASCAR to rescind a black flag for passing prior to the green, even when the preponderance of evidence suggests that’s the right call. Edwards didn’t win the title at Martinsville, but he damn near surrendered it earlier in the event.

It’s not often a driver will wreck on lap 7 at Martinsville and still bounce back to a third-place finish. Jeff Gordon also thought his car had overheating issues, indicative of a busted radiator after that shunt but contrary to the norm for mechanized devices the car chose to fix itself. Call it the “Christine Principle.”

Worth Noting

  • As noted above, Stewart has now won three of seven Chase races. But he’s still second in the standings. Have I ever mentioned I think there needs to be more of a bonus for winning races? Other than the first million times, I mean.
  • Johnson, the runner-up has finished first or second in three of those Chase races.
  • Gordon’s third-place finish ends a streak of four straight races outside of the top 10.
  • Harvick’s fourth-place finish was his best since Chicago.
  • Hamlin’s fifth-place finish was easily his best of the Chase and he recorded his third straight top-10 finish Sunday.
  • Jeff Burton (sixth) has strung together consecutive top-10 finishes for the first time since Pocono and Watkins Glen last summer.
  • Earnhardt’s seventh-place finish was his first top 10 since Joliet.
  • Martin Truex Jr.’s eighth-place finish was his best since he ran second at Bristol in the night race.
  • Edwards (ninth) has finished no worse than 11th in all seven Chase races. He sure looked like he was fixing to finish worse than that on Sunday.
  • Kenseth’s 31st-place finish was his worst since the Talladega spring race.
  • The top 10 at Martinsville drove seven Chevys (including the top four finishers), two Toyotas and a Ford. Kurt Busch in 14th was the top-finishing Dodge pilot.

What’s the Points?

Edwards improbably hung onto his points lead. He is now eight points ahead of Stewart, who moved up two positions into second. Harvick also moved up two spots to third, but he’s 21 points behind Edwards with three races left to run. If Edwards keeps finishing inside the top 10, that’s going to be a tough amount to make up so it appears we have a two-man battle for this year’s title.

His late-race wreck (not of his own making) dropped Keselowski a spot to fourth in the standings but more importantly 27 points out of the lead. Former second-place driver Kenseth tumbled three spots to fifth in the standings, now with a deficit of 36 to make up. Johnson moved up one, to sixth, but mathematically actually lost ground. After last week, Johnson needed to make up 12.5 points a race to beat Edwards. After Martinsville, he needs to make up 14-plus points an event to bypass him.

Kyle Busch fell a spot to seventh in the standings, a whopping 57 points out of the lead so you know which side of the “trick or treat” equation his day came down on. Kurt Busch, Earnhardt, Gordon, Hamlin and Ryan Newman held serve in the eighth through 12th spots, eliminated from serious title contention. But, on a brighter note they will win some lovely parting gifts at the end of the season… like more money than you or I will likely earn in our lifetimes.

Bowyer retains control of the “best of the rest” class (13th in the points) by 24 over 14th-place Greg Biffle.

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 a full six-pack of Corona served up by Deanna Carter with an “I ain’t driving home tonight” smile.

Next Up – The series heads to Texas, allowing weary writers too tired to ply their trade endless opportunities to phone one in with the usual trite cowboy analogies.

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