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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin’s Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2012 Darlington Parade Recap

The Key Moment – During the green-white-checkered restart, Tony Stewart lost fuel pressure, allowing Jimmie Johnson to drive on unmolested to score HMS’s 200th Cup win.

In a Nutshell – The last 100 miles of the race weren’t bad, but as awful as the first 400 miles were, was anyone left watching? If points racing can make a Darlington race this bland we’re in for a very, very long summer.

Dramatic Moment – All the ingredients were there: a green-white-checkered finish at Darlington, questions about who had the gas to go the extra laps, some drivers who had gambled on fresh rubber late in the top 10, and a notoriously slick racetrack, but the finish was a bit of an anticlimax.

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

It drives me nuts that they insist on calling this race the Southern 500. Yes, it’s held in a southern state and yes, it’s 500 miles long but it’s not the Southern 500. The Southern 500 is run in the afternoon during Labor Day weekend and once represented perhaps the most cherished trophy in the sport.

Well, I suppose we all knew it was coming… the latest episode of a Busch brother going ballistic. In this instance, Kurt Busch had been enjoying a strong run, spending much of the race inside the top 10. Eventually though, the No. 51 car got out from underneath him and Busch slapped the wall hard enough to cut down a tire. Ryan Newman was hit from behind and also spun trying to avoid Busch. After the incident, Busch went into full meltdown mode on his radio as he coasted to the pits. Following the stop, he did a burnout worthy of John Force leaving his stall and drove through Newman’s pit box, sending members of the No. 39 crew diving for cover. After the race one of those crew members, Andy Rueger, who is gasman for the team, strode down pit road to confront Busch. Busch, in his typical charming manner, then drove into the back of Newman’s car on pit road. (Busch claims he was removing his helmet and couldn’t see in front of him, an explanation Newman labeled, “a lie.”) Out of their cars, both drivers exchanged a few words but the situation seemed defused until the arrival of Rueger and other members of the No. 39 and No. 51 teams. In the ensuing tussle, a NASCAR official wound up sprawled across the hood of the No. 39 car though it did not appear he was shoved. Well, on a brighter note for Busch, at least this time there won’t be any awkward phone calls from sponsors to discuss this latest incident… now or possibly ever again.

NASCAR said if any penalties are warranted for the pit road brouhaha they’ll be announced later this week. I can’t imagine any possible penalty will be too severe though considering the sanctioning body, the Darlington track promoters and the network that televised the race all used extensive footage and still images of last year’s post-race pit road confrontation between Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch to promote the event.

OK, apparently FOX has decided (perhaps at the bequest of NASCAR’s Robin Pemberton) that us “needy” fans don’t need to be shown the debris that is judged to be dangerous enough to warrant a caution flag. (It was rather odd that the cameras were tight-focused on the No. 24 car as it rolled around the track on a flat tire and it never appeared any debris was thrown from that car.) I wonder how fans of the NFL would react to a major penalty being called but not being able to see a replay of the acts that led to the flag?

Everyone in the broadcast booth seemed stunned when Matt Kenseth appeared as a contender late in the race. Maybe if they hadn’t been so fixated with the 31st-place car running six laps off the pace they’d have seen him creeping up during the second half of the race. DW gave Danica Patrick’s Darlington debut an A+. I wish I’d had him as my high school calculus teacher.

Maybe NASCAR is listening after all? A rules change was announced this week in an apparent attempt to leash the dreaded aero-push disadvantage to a driver trying to overtake another driver ahead of them. Starting next week at Charlotte, the sill skirts (those flat metal surfaces below the rocker panels) will be shorter. (And in my book, when it comes to skirts shorter is always better… but I digress). This adjustment might potentially reduce the aero grip of the cars and it addresses a new trend the teams are exploring, trying to streamline the undercarriages of their cars in an area where NASCAR currently doesn’t use templates. (Give ’em time… give ’em time.) We’ll see how well it works next week. I’ll give style points to NASCAR for first trying the idea in the All-Star race, which obviously doesn’t affect the team’s chances at a title. If unexpected problems arise, they can undo the change before the 600.

Newman said he was surprised that NASCAR didn’t fine Stewart for his snaky post-Talladega rant last week. (Newman himself was fined for a somewhat milder condemnation of plate track racing in 2010.) No, I don’t think the man wanted his team owner fined. I think he was applying for a refund of that penalty.

Yes, this column is supposed to be about stock car racing but longtime readers will know I’m a lifetime devotee of classic muscle cars. If I could have any two muscle cars sitting side by side in my garage, they’d be a ‘67 Shelby 427 Cobra and a black on black with a white roof ‘68 Shelby GT500KR convertible. As such, I must note with a great deal of grief the passing last week of one of my personal heroes, Carroll Shelby, the man behind the legend of the baddest-ass cars ever sold to the public. Shelby’s legacy includes a lifetime of charitable works, particularly for organ transplants. (Shelby himself was the longest surviving heart-transplant recipient. Those extra decades he survived allowed him to continue producing some of the most coveted muscle cars of the modern era.) In my case, I think it was my first glimpse of a green ‘66 GT350 with white stripes Mustang a neighbor owned in Huntington, N.Y. that ignited my lifetime passion for fast, loud cars even though I was seven at the time. If nothing else, if certainly made me a Mustang guy for life and I’ve owned over 20 of them in my time, though only one of them was actually a Shelby, a ‘67 GT350 I traded a Boss 303 for. If any good can come of Shelby’s tragic death, let it be an increased awareness of the need for donated organs to save peoples’ lives. Take a moment and consider becoming a donor; I hear you can even do it on that Facebook thing now. We all want to go to Heaven, but we don’t want to die. Well, consider for a moment that your organs can live on in another human being even after you leave this life for the next.

It’s a little off my normal beat but there were some frightening moments in the garage area (I think they call it a paddock) after Sunday’s Spanish Grand Prix. A fire broke out in the garage stall assigned to the Williams team which had ironically just scored their first race win since 2004. Thick clouds of toxic black smoke quickly filled the area, as initial speculation is that the fire was caused by an explosion in the KERS unit’s battery which is located beneath the fuel tank. (KERS systems store electricity generated while the car is braking or coasting, a very higher-tech version of the regenerative brakes found in most street hybrid cars.) Normally after a race, that battery is grounded to dissipate the electricity stored in the unit, but for whatever reason it appears it wasn’t. I’m told the race-winning car was still in Formula 1’s equivalent of our Victory Lane so it wasn’t damaged; at press time, the report is 16 hurt, one seriously, from the fire, but thankfully no one died.

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

Jeff Gordon cut down not one but three left-rear tires and even after he went to the garage area to have the car looked over, the team wasn’t able to determine why. A 35th-place finish was just the icing on the cake for Gordon’s start to the season which you’d have to be kind to label merely “horrific.”

Martin Truex Jr.’s team made an extremely questionable call to pit their driver under the fifth caution period, handing the lead to Johnson. After that, Truex was unable to get back into the same zip code as the rear bumper of the No. 48 car and was clearly irritated. Barking at his crew, he then apparently decided to take out additional frustration on Darlington’s outside wall. The wall won, just as it always has over decades of racing at Lady In Black while capping his comeback at fifth place.

Elliott Sadler looked poised to win another Nationwide Series race Friday night until Joey Logano got into the back of him on a late restart and sent Sadler into the wall. While he gave a classy post-wreck interview, it was clear Sadler was clearly worried about the points implications of his disappointing finish.

Greg Biffle had the car to beat early but as the track cooled, the No. 16 team seemed unable to adapt to the changing conditions. At one point, they called their driver to the pits so suddenly he nearly wrecked trying to make his entrance. A 12th-place finish isn’t bad considering the circumstances, but it had to leave everyone in the organization wondering what could have been.

Again, not asking for any sympathy. I signed up for this gig. But writing something interesting about an uninteresting race is the worst part of the job. And besides T… oh, never mind.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

In a race where most of the passing was in the pits, Johnson overcame a botched stop to win in the end.

Stewart appeared to have issues with his clutch during a late pit stop and spent an agonizingly long time in his pit box before being pushed by his team to return to the track. The mechanical problem didn’t seem to be an issue for Smoke on subsequent restarts on his way to a third-place finish.

It was a pretty fair weekend for Denny Hamlin, with second-place finishes in both Darlington races.

Worth Noting

  • The win was the first by Johnson since Kansas last fall. As you might have heard casual mention of it, that also marked the 200th Cup victory for HMS.
  • Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. now lead all drivers with eight top-10 results in this season’s 11 points races. Kenseth and Biffle lead all drivers with six top-five finishes in those 11 races.
  • The top-10 finishers at Darlington drove three Chevys, three Fords and four Toyotas. The top finishing Dodge was Brad Keselowski in 15th.
  • Kyle Busch (fourth) earned his fourth straight top-10 finish.
  • Kenseth hasn’t finished lower than 11th in his last six Cup starts.
  • Kasey Kahne now has five consecutive top-10 results.
  • Marcos Ambrose’s ninth-place finish was his best of the season to date.
  • Logano (10th) drove to his first top-10 result since Phoenix.
  • Harvick hasn’t had a top-10 finish in the last three races. Paul Menard hasn’t been able to score a top 10 since Bristol. Jeff Burton has just one top-five all year and that was at Daytona. Yes, it appears RCR is in a bit of disarray right now, at least on the Cup side of the shop.
  • Earnhardt’s 17th-place result was his worst of the season.
  • Gordon has been listed outside the top 20 in the last four races. He’s failed to lead a lap in all four of those events. The last time Gordon went four consecutive races outside the top 20 was in the summer of 2004, a drought that stretched from Watkins Glen to Bristol that season.

What’s the Points?

Biffle still maintains his points lead but he’s now just two ahead of his teammate Kenseth. Earnhardt and Hamlin remain third and fourth in the standings, now 14 and 17 points out of the lead, respectively.

His win propels Johnson forward three spots to fifth in the standings. Truex, Stewart, Harvick (-3), Kyle Busch, and Carl Edwards (+1) round out the top 10 in that order.

Clint Bowyer is currently shown 11th in points, but the two drivers directly behind him, Keselowski and Newman, have each won races this season, so they’d supplant him if the Chase were to start now. Others on the outside looking in include Menard (13th) and Logano (15th). Further back, Kahne keeps chipping away at a potential playoff berth after a terrible start to the season. This week, he’s up three spots to 16th.

It doesn’t look good for either Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing driver to make it into the Chase. Juan Pablo Montoya is down two spots this week to 19th in the standings, and Jamie McMurray is down four spots to 20th.

Gordon slipped another spot to 24th (subtly ironic?) in the standings. He’s a point behind Mark Martin, who has only run eight of this season’s 11 races. Maybe they should change the decals on the car to read “The Drive to End Futility?”

Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans, with one being a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic) — The first two-thirds of the race were as bad as it gets and it pains me to say that about Darlington, my favorite track. The end of the race was a bit more intriguing but still not up to the standards I expect of the Track Too Tough To Tame. As such, Saturday night earns just three cans, possibly the lowest rating I’ve ever given a race at Darlington.

Next Up – The series heads off to Charlotte for the annual All-Star shenanigans. Hopefully, with no points towards the Chase on the line we’ll see some actual racing on a 1.5-mile track… what a concept.