NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin’s Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2011 Homestead Race Recap

The Key Moment – With 33 laps left to go, Carl Edwards moved into second behind Tony Stewart. For those 33 laps, Edwards gave it his all but he came up a little over a second short.

In a Nutshell – Stewart won five of the 10 Chase races. You’re not going to beat that just by being consistent.

Dramatic Moment – Both championship contenders knew in those final 33 laps whoever won the race got the big prize. It was about as intense a race as I’ve seen in a decade.

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

Finally, two drivers battling not only for a race victory but also a championship in the closing laps of the final race of the season. When these days are someday the good old days, we’ll still be talking about this one.

To add to the drama, the rains returned only minutes after the race concluded. Had it arrived just that little bit earlier, neither Edwards or Stewart was likely to have had enough gas to run under an extended caution prior to a green-white-checkered finish. Honestly, the race and the title bout couldn’t have been scripted any better than this.

Speaking of red flags, I’m a little uncertain as to what NASCAR’s protocol is towards when to stop the race and when to allow the field to run under caution when it rains. Allowing the cars to run all those laps under caution allowed Edwards and probably Stewart to save enough gas to make it to the end. What if the race had been red-flagged for that time period?

Remember back at Talladega when Edwards ran around at the back of the pack, playing it safe before charging forward for the final two laps? Well if he’d finished 10th rather than 11th that afternoon, he’d have won the championship. Maybe there’s a lesson there?

I grind my teeth every time I hear comparisons made between Alan Kulwicki and Stewart both winning titles as owner/drivers. Kulwicki’s team was a tiny organization battling against the super teams of the era. Without denigrating Stewart’s notable accomplishment in winning this year’s title, unless you still wait up for Santa, you understand the No. 14 team is a satellite team of the all-conquering HMS dynasty.

The No. 48 team needs to be more aware TV cameras are everywhere. They were clearly working on their car during the early stages of the red flag period.

Kevin Harvick’s No. 29 crew won the AT&T fastest pit crew award this year. Oddly enough, rumors were rampant at Homestead Sunday morning the entire unit was told their services were no longer needed after today’s race. (Richard Childress later said that no final personnel decisions have been made yet.)

Even with an ultra-tight points battle to determine this year’s championship, what really seemed to make headlines this week was Brad Keselowski’s “secret” fine of $25,000 for disparaging comments he made on Twitter concerning fuel injection. So let’s see… Kyle Busch gets fined $50,000 for purposely destroying another competitor’s vehicle and title chances, putting that fellow’s life in danger and Keselowski gets fined half that amount for simply speaking his mind? That’s like a 25-year sentence for rolling a stop sign.

I’m not sure how naïve NASCAR officials are in believing they can issue those “secret” fines in this age of the social media where secrets seem to last nanoseconds. About their only hope to obscure the issue is to have Brian France issue another statement on the matter that leaves everyone scratching their heads wondering what the hell he just said. This week’s classic line from the blabbering imbecile was, “If I own a restaurant and I say, you know what, the food in my restaurant is not very good, we’re not going to accept it. It’s as simple as that.” Huh? Does Keselowski now own NASCAR? It’s hard to say he’s even a shareholder in a sport where traditionally team owners and drivers are seen as independent contractors. Now if France were indeed to own a restaurant and he said the food wasn’t very good would he fine himself… secretly… and would that fix the problem? It would seem if the food at the restaurant wasn’t very good, it would behoove the owner to take concrete steps towards improving the quality of the fare. Having tried spoon-feeding increasingly disinterested fans some loathsome swill iced in Porta-potty chocolate frosting that reads “Best Racing Ever,” maybe it’s time France accept the blame himself and not penalize drivers for “denigrating” the sport. See, it really is that simple.

With so much on the line and with it being the final event of the Truck season anyway, I wonder if NASCAR called an end to the Truck race Friday night a little prematurely. Yes, it would have taken some time to dry the track but the rains had already left the area by the time they did the Victory Lane interview. Johnny Sauter had been doing everything he had to do, leading the race and leading the most laps to score an upset win in a championship bout with Austin Dillon. (Though to be fair, Denny Hamlin was mounting a strong challenge on Sauter for the lead. But that might have been because Hamlin, knowing it was already raining on the track, went kamikaze knowing the rain might end the race.) Dillon had worked his way back up to tenth place but his truck was blowing ominous smoke signals out the exhaust. His engine might not have lasted the final 17 laps of the race. Either way, we’ll never know. I just find it curious I can recall many races, particularly at Charlotte, NASCAR let run well past midnight despite there not being a championship on the line.

All week, ESPN was bragging they were using an unprecedented 72 cameras to cover Sunday’s championship-deciding Cup race. They specifically spoke about using two iso (isolation) cameras glued to the No. 99 and 14 cars so no matter what happened fans at home would see it. So how, exactly, did they miss getting any footage of something “twice the size of a man’s fist” punching out the front grille of Stewart’s car?

To give credit where it’s due, ESPN did stun a lot of fans showing the last quarter of the race virtually commercial free despite having the “Non-Stop” coverage technology in their toolbox.

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

There was little else Edwards could have done. He was fastest in the final practice session and won the pole, earning himself the best stall on pit lane. He led the most laps during the race, securing one more bonus point in a title bout that ended as a tie. But in the end, he fell one position short of the championship. After 10 months and 14,000 plus miles of racing, Edwards lost a title by about a second and 20 yards.

Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 car slowed mysteriously on the track, leading the team to think the engine had expired. It took them five laps to figure out it was actually the carb that had gone bad; that cost them en route to a 32nd-place finish. Fortunately for Johnson, this race was the last one where the teams will use carburetion rather than fuel injection. We’ll just have to wait and see what sort of gremlins pop up with the fuel-injected cars as the new (to NASCAR, at least) technology is rolled out.

Kurt Busch’s transmission lasted all of three laps before expiring in dramatic fashion; after many laps behind the wall for repairs, he wound up 34th. A little going away present from Steve Addington for the hell Busch has been giving him over the radio all season?

David Ragan, who is still awaiting word on whether he has a job for next season, blew an engine in a major fashion and ran 38th. It was also an unhappy exit for UPS, a longtime primary sponsor in the sport which is dramatically cutting back on their involvement with NASCAR next season. (Well, they’ll still be the Official Delivery Company of NASCAR in yet another example of the sport’s top brass stealing sponsorship dollars from the teams.)

Greg Biffle usually runs well at Homestead, but a blown engine left him an unheralded 35th in the final rundown.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

If you’re looking for Johnson’s missing golden horseshoe, you might want to check the No. 14 team’s hauler. Early in the race, Stewart ran over a piece of Kurt Busch’s transmission, punching a hole through the grille that could easily have taken out his radiator. Repairing the damage caused Stewart to drop to the rear of the field not once but twice. Trying to charge his way back forward, Stewart barely squeaked between the Fords of Trevor Bayne and Biffle after Bayne made contact with the wall and bounced across the track. During a pit stop later in the event, a hung lug dropped Stewart back into the pack yet again and at that point I was certain he’d lost any chance at the title. Stewart actually ran out of fuel heading into the pits for his final stop, then had to make several more crazy passes to blow by traffic and get back out front. As a final bonus from Lady Luck, the rains held off until just after the race went its scheduled distance. I’m not saying luck handed Stewart a title – those banzai charges on the restarts had a lot to do with it – but after a regular season filled with foul fortune for the No. 14 team, good luck gave him a smile and a wink on Sunday. In 400 miles, Stewart endured more perils than Penelope Pit Stop.

Matt Kenseth had a strong car but banged the wall hard, knocking his steering geometry all askew. Somehow, he still soldiered on to a fourth-place finish.

Kasey Kahne had a rough start to the race and was listed as running 22nd at the red flag delay. The second half of the race worked out a bit better; he drove to a seventh-place finish in his final start for the Red Bull team.

Clint Bowyer drove to a sixth-place finish in his final start for Richard Childress Racing. Ironically, he was the top-finishing driver for the team Sunday.

After a miserable start to the first two-thirds of the season, Jeff Burton racked up yet another top-10 finish (10th) to conclude his year.

Worth Noting

  • Stewart is the first champion to also win the final race of the season since Jeff Gordon did so in 1998. Prior to that, the last driver to earn both honors was Richard Petty in 1971.
  • Edwards scored his 26th top-10 finish in this year’s 36 points-paying Cups races and his average finish for the entire season was 9.6. Most years, that would have been enough.
  • Martin Truex Jr.’s third-place finish was his best since the Bristol night race in August.
  • Kenseth finished fourth for the second time in the last three races. He also finished fourth in the standings, but recalling Martinsville might make him want to drink a fifth of J.D. (Not this new hippie honey J.D. crap, either.)
  • Gordon (fifth) ended his season with top 10s in three of the last four races.
  • Bowyer (sixth) ended his career at RCR with three straight top-10 results.
  • Kahne (seventh) produced his seventh top-10 performance in the ten Chase races on Sunday.
  • Hamlin (ninth) had just three top 10 finishes and one top-five in the Chase.
  • Burton (10th) had top-10 results in four of this season’s last five races.
  • The top-10 finishers at Homestead drove five Chevys, three Toyotas and two Fords. Keselowski in 24th was the top running Dodge driver.
  • The top-10 finishers in this year’s points drove six Chevys, two Fords, a Dodge and a Toyota. That’s the news and I am out of here…

What’s the Points?

The final points standings reflect a tie between Stewart and Edwards. The first tie-breaker is the number of wins and Stewart easily eclipsed his rival in that regard, with five wins to Edwards’ single victory at Las Vegas early in the year. It is the first time that a tie-breaker has ever had to be used to determine a champion in NASCAR history.

Harvick held onto third in the final standings, while Kenseth moved up two positions to fourth on the ladder. Keselowski rounds out the top five in the points.

Johnson finished sixth in the point totals, the lowest he’s finished a season since his rookie year. Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished seventh in the standings, just 14 points behind Johnson. Who’d have thunk? But he still hasn’t won a race since Moses was in Pharaoh’s high school.

Gordon moved up three spots in the standings on Sunday to finish eighth. Behind him… talk about a squeaker. Hamlin and Ryan Newman both finished 119 points out of the lead. Both of them won one race. Hamlin’s next-best finish was second at Richmond in the spring, while Newman’s was fourth at Kentucky giving Hamlin the nod for ninth on the tie-breaker.

Kurt and Kyle Busch finished 11th and 12th in the standings, meaning they won’t be seated at the Las Vegas championship banquet the first weekend in December. Ironically, the Busch brothers hail from Las Vegas, where they’ll doubtlessly be feasting on a Ritalin-laced turkey this Thursday.

Bowyer edged Kahne by six points to take the less-than-coveted 13th finishing position in the standings.

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 the full six-pack. I’m going to have to admit I followed every lap of the race, often standing and pacing around. It’s been a long time since a race has grabbed my total attention start to finish.

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