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Matt McLaughlin’s Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2012 Bristol Spring Race Recap

The Key MomentBrad Keselowski prevailed on the final restart to keep Matt Kenseth behind him. Kenseth drove for all he was worth as the duo battled through lapped traffic, to no avail; he lost the race by 0.7 seconds.

In a Nutshell – A classic battle of skill, stealth and strategy.

Dramatic Moment – Keselowski and Kenseth had what appeared to be equally fast cars for the second half of the race, so it came down to which driver wanted it most and dealt with lapped traffic better. It was a whale of a show for the fans.

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

College basketball… more and more and more frickin’ basketball. Seriously, if I hear one more damned word about March Madness, I’m going off the grid until after Easter. Anyone know where to download an application to join the Amish church? I can’t find their website.

Kenseth, running second to Keselowski, clearly beat the leader to the line once and possibly twice. Why did the NASCAR referees swallow their whistles and not call a foul? The evidence was irrefutable. Call it the luck of the Irish, I suppose.

After Sunday’s race, the debate is going to rage on which is better, the old Bristol track configuration or the new one? I know I’m going to be in the minority on this issue but I prefer the new graduated banking. The top lane is faster but the bottom lane is the shorter away around the track. To make a pass, a driver needs to stalk his prey, set him up and then keep his car fast down low for a few laps to prevail. One slight slip-up? You’re forced to begin the whole process all over again. Thus a good run at Bristol now requires patience, planning and strategy as opposed to the old layout that rewarded brute force. I mean come on, did you really prefer those old Bristol wreckfests, with 18 cautions in a 250-mile event and the pace car leading the most laps just because it occasionally involved drivers throwing crap at each other? You want to watch grown men behaving badly? Watch the next Republican debate.

The thing about punching race cars is it tends to hurt you a lot more than the car, as Kyle Busch will probably attest. In punching the roof of his No. 18, Busch also dented the one body part on that car that hadn’t already been damaged.

Is it really safe for the drivers of cars patched together as badly as the Nos. 5, 99, and 18 to even return to the track after battlefield surgery? I was particularly concerned about the No. 5 Chevy, which was absent its driver side door panel amongst other vital bits and pieces.

This Tuesday (tomorrow when this column is published) will mark the final appeal of Hendrick Motorsports for the penalties assessed for the C-post violations with the car prior to the Daytona 500, a long, long, time ago in a universe far away. While doubtless there will be another media circus worthy of the Lindsay Loathsome trial(s), what’s the likelihood the penalties will be reduced or even overturned? Normally, I’d say slim to none but then the final referee, John Middlebrook, is a frequent dinner companion of team owner Rick Hendrick. Maybe NASCAR should be allowed a court of final resort in case their decision is overturned as well, presenting evidence to Judge Joe Brown? Just in case, whoever is feeding the media this week might want to add some of Alice’s magic mushrooms to the menu?

Well apparently “Saint Patrick” is an Italian fellow who converted Ireland to Catholicism, not the driver of the No. 7 car in the Nationwide Series as ESPN would have you believe. Saturday Danica Patrick started the Nationwide race 27th and fell a lap down on lap 58 of a rare, extended green flag period at Bristol. She’d finish the race two laps behind, a distant 19th and has yet to finish a race this season inside the top 10. Maybe they should repaint her car a different color? Older fans might recall a green race car was considered bad luck in the days of yore.

It’s probably no more than a pipe dream speedway, but I’m still intrigued by the idea. Bruton Smith has announced he’d like to build a replica of Germany’s infamous Nurburgring in Nevada. He plans a track that is an exact duplicate of the famous 13-mile plus road course, right down to the angle and banking of the corners and each elevation change. Why out West? Simple: there’s plenty of space available, for cheap; the government of Nevada owns 84% of the land in the state. For those who don’t know, the Nurburgring has become the hot spot for wringing out concept cars and production vehicles for car makers to prove the roadworthiness of their product. In addition, anyone with a valid driver’s license in Germany can pay to hot lap around the track in their personal car or motorcycle with no fear of a traffic ticket. That’s what I’d like to see at a track that size in Nevada. But of course, we live in a litigious society which would probably eliminate a chance for such fun. Too bad… not to mention there’s probably some Great Horned Southwestern Spitting Toad, one that the environmentalists would holler might get run over at such a track or at least might be annoyed by the noise.

Let’s set a couple things straight. “The Blue Deuce” hasn’t won all those races for Penske at Bristol. Rusty Wallace’s car was black and yellow (but still sponsored by Miller) in many of those events. And the Bristol night race is run in the summer, not the fall, unless they use metric seasons in Tennessee.

Tickets to even the Bristol winter race used to be all but impossible to get but like Jerry might sing, “From that Cup, no more.” A generously estimated 102,000 fans attended this year’s event, down significantly from the 120,000 ticket buyers last year. The size of the crowd at California next weekend might be even more telling. Whatever late season momentum NASCAR gained with a stirring championship battle that went down to the wire appears to have been squandered. Of course, $4 a gallon gas (and it’s over $5 in some spots in California) isn’t helping any.

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

Jeff Gordon had a car that appeared to be as stout as the Nos. 2 and 17, but incidental contact with his teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. as they scrapped over a top-five spot cut down a tire on his Chevy and put him into the wall. Gordon limped home 35th.

Think the new Bristol layout doesn’t make for enough carnage? Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, and Kasey Kahne (among others) would probably beg to disagree. The early race wreck (lap 24) was particularly hard for Busch, a prohibitive favorite coming into the event. None of that trio wound up inside the top 30.

Remember the mentally refreshed, happy new Denny Hamlin whom the sports psychologist had helped rid of the funk he was in for all of 2011? I think the team left him in Phoenix. A pit crew member left a wheel loose on Sunday, dropping a clearly unhappy Hamlin (who hadn’t been all that mirthful all weekend) into a 20th-place finish, two laps off the pace.

Robby Gordon and his underfunded team hauled a Dodge to Bristol but were unable to get the engine started. That’s a new one on me. (So was it an electrical issue or a fuel injection problem?) The McLaren engineers might still be figuring it out; as it is, Gordon never made a Friday qualifying attempt and missed the race.

Earnhardt had a solid top-five run going when he got nailed for speeding on pit road late in the event. Losing track position isn’t the only thing the teams and drivers gamble on pitting when most of the top of the field stays out. By the checkered, the No. 88 was still stuck, running as the last car on the lead lap in 15th.

AJ Allmendinger started on the outside pole and even led 54 laps on Sunday. But some sort of handling issue dogged him the second half of the race and Allmendinger wound up 17th.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

The only other driver who left Bristol Sunday as happy as the winner was Brian Vickers. He led 132 laps and finished fifth in his return to Cup competition, the first of a limited schedule of events for Michael Waltrip Racing. Perhaps just as notably, he did so with no questionable judgment calls or controversy.

Keselowski was actually the third man into the lap 24 Regan Smith/Kahne incident but managed to snake his way through the carnage with only a bump to the nose of his Dodge.

Jimmie Johnson, who finished ninth, was right behind that big wreck but managed to barely squeeze through on the bottom. In fact, if “Five-Time” was running those widened C-pillars he’d probably have gotten hit on both sides.

Elliott Sadler is off to a solid start in his quest for a championship. His victory in Saturday’s Nationwide Series event was his second in four 2012 races in that series.

Worth Noting

  • The first four points-paying Cup races have been won by a Ford, a Toyota, a Chevy and a Dodge.
  • Sunday’s top-10 finishers drove a Dodge, a Ford, three Toyotas and five Chevys.
  • MWR had all three drivers finish in the top five, the first time that’s happened in the history of the organization. In fact, until recently it was a major accomplishment to have all three cars even finish a race.
  • Keselowski became the 14th driver to win back-to-back races at Bristol.
  • Only two drivers, Greg Biffle and Paul Menard, have managed top-10 finishes in three of this season’s four points races.
  • Martin Truex Jr.’s third-place finish was his best since he also finished third at last season’s Homestead finale.
  • Clint Bowyer’s fourth-place finish was his best since he won at Talladega last fall.
  • Vickers (fifth) scored his best Cup finish since he also finished fifth at Talladega last fall.
  • What a season it’s been for Jamie McMurray (seventh). He started the year with two DNFs and has since posted two top-10 results.
  • Juan Problem Montoya scored his first top 10 of the 2012 season. As an added bonus, no jet dryers exploded on Sunday.
  • Edwards (39th) suffered his worst Cup finish since Atlanta in the spring of 2010. (That’s the race NASCAR parked Edwards after he put Keselowski on his roof.)

What’s the Points?

Biffle maintains his championship lead and is now nine points ahead of Harvick. Kenseth’s runner-up finish advances him two spots to third in the standings. Truex Jr. moves up four spots to fourth, continuing his best-ever start for the NAPA Toyota. Hamlin and Earnhardt are now tied for the fifth position.

Tony Stewart, after his accident late slipped to seventh in the standings. Bowyer’s strong run Sunday trampolined him up six positions to eighth, tied with Joey Logano. Menard rounds out the top 10, trailed closely by Jeff Burton and Ryan Newman.

Keselowski’s win also advanced him eight positions to 13th in the standings; he’d now earn the first “wild card” to get him inside the Chase. Further back, despite the Daytona penalty, Johnson is now listed as 17th. If that 25-point deduction is overturned Tuesday, he’ll be 11th in the standings.

But even if the consequences stand, for Johnson it could be worse. His teammate Gordon, who hasn’t been penalized, finds himself an uncharacteristic 23rd in the points race, a whopping 72 behind Biffle after just four events. The fourth HMS driver, Kahne, finds himself in even more dire circumstances. After yet another wreck, he fell six spots to an abysmal 32nd. If Kahne’s No. 5 finds itself outside the Top 35 in owner points after next week’s California event, he’ll have to race his way into the field starting at Martinsville. I’m fairly certain Kahne has the equipment and talent to make every race on speed, but losing that Top 35 safety blanket has got to be worrisome for a driver.

Kurt Busch needs to post a few good finishes as well. He’s 27th in the standings, just 23 points ahead of that Top 35 cutoff. And if points were awarded now… we’d all have a lot of beautiful free weekends to go out and ride our motorcycles.

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 five icy cold bottles of Corona, dyed green in honor of Saint Paddy’s.

Next Up – Oh, boy! The circuit heads off to Fontana, historically one of the most tedious tracks on the circuit. Like an insurance agent will tell you, hope for the best but expect the worst. By the way, is it possible the reason Fontana has problems selling tickets is because three of the first five Cup races are all held in the same region? Whoops.

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