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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin’s Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2012 World 600 Race Recap

The Key Moment – On lap 332, Kasey Kahne passed Denny Hamlin and pretty much put it on cruise control for the final 100 miles of NASCAR’s longest event.

In a Nutshell – It wasn’t a particularly good race, but what it lacked in drama it made up for in length. Sort of. This year’s edition of the World 600 was actually the shortest ever at just three hours and 51 minutes.

Dramatic Moment – Around lap 317, Kahne and Greg Biffle staged a brief side-by-side battle up front. Kyle Busch had the best short run car, Biffle the best intermediate run car, and Kahne the best long run car. Rarely were they ever driving the same speed at the same time.

Those last 100 miles this year were completely superfluous and devoid of interest.

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

It’s Memorial Day weekend, so I’d like to start by offering my thanks to the brave men and women who defend our cherished freedoms. Thanks for your service and thanks to all who have served in the past, especially those who paid the ultimate price or come home with life-altering horrific injuries.

I’d guess the last lap of the Indy 500 will be the main topic of conversation at the office Tuesday morning. There is no question that Indy was the better race on Sunday.

In looking at the 600 versus the 500, I’ll also say Indy featured a better national anthem (Martina McBride flat out nailed it), the better flyover (particularly the two P-51 Mustangs) and, by a huge margin, a better pace car. (A 427 Corvette versus a frickin’ Camry? Really?)

I dunno for sure, but when the big story the weekend of the World 600 is Dale Earnhardt Jr. choosing a Batman paint scheme for Michigan, maybe the bloom is off the rose.

For all those weeks, everyone was asking is Hendrick Motorsports ever going to win again? Now, everyone is starting to wonder if they’re ever going to lose again. They closed the month of May with three straight victories, posted four cars in the top 11 Sunday night and Dover this weekend is one of Jimmie Johnson‘s best career tracks.

With all the debate about the lack of caution flags this season and what it is the fans really want to see, somebody pointed out to me that the ASA Series has a rule that if the race goes green for 75 laps, a competition caution is thrown. (I guess that’s easier than tossing a beer can on the track or claiming someone saw one.) Normally, I’d eschew such gimmickry, but the notion has its merits. Going into the event, every team and driver would know that the rule was in place and could adjust their strategies accordingly as the race progressed. It’s an idea anyway. Anything beats having to use pieces of toothpicks in the corners of your eyes to stay awake for an entire Cup race.

I can understand his frustration after having been spun in the pits, but Tony Stewart’s decision to spin his car around in a cloud of tire smoke to get back into his pit box could have caused a catastrophe. If there’s no rule against driving the wrong way on pit road during a race, it ought to warrant at least a one-lap penalty. If something like that happens, I feel a driver should return to the track and pit again the following lap.

Speaking of which, what’s going on with Stewart-Haas Racing? Neither Stewart nor Newman seemed up to speed all weekend. Newman hasn’t scored a top-10 finish since winning Martinsville. And Dani… moving on…

About a half-million fewer viewers tuned into last week’s All-Star Race. After this year’s farce, I’d guess at least another half-million folks are likely to skip the event next year. For comparison’s sake, the NFL Pro Bowl game had more than triple the viewership and the league is apparently ready to dump the event. Yeah, I’d say the handwriting is on the wall.

Well, apparently next Memorial Day weekend Danica Patrick would like to do the Indy/Charlotte double, now that the start of the 500 was moved back. Ms. Patrick’s agent noted that if she does so, “it would not be attempted simply for publicity.” Yeah, right.

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

As noted above, Stewart was really never up to speed all weekend. Getting turned on pit road, by Brad Keselowski just added the icing to his cake. Smoke struggled to a 25th-place finish, just five spots ahead of his Sparkle Pony teammate in the bright green car.

Mark Martin had just gotten back on the lead lap when his engine expired late in the race. That’s his second such motor problem in his last five starts; Martin wound up with a 34th-place result.

Johnson clearly had a car fast enough to contend for a win for much of the race at a track where he once dominated, but the sloppiest pit stop I’ve seen this season cost him a lap after a drive-thru penalty for removing equipment from the pit box. (As well as his gasman, who took a nasty tumble trying to dislodge the gas can from the No. 48 car.) Johnson went on to finish 11th.

Marcos Ambrose had a strong car and even led early only to have his left front hub seize up, dropping him out of contention. Ambrose ended the night 32nd.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

After the way his season started, Kahne had to be wondering if he’d still have a ride after the season, but he’s suddenly one of the hottest drivers on the circuit. A sixth straight top-10 finish has allowed him to rise from 31st to 15th in points.

Keselowski had a rough night in the pits. First, he got nailed for speeding. Then, he drove into the back of Stewart’s car exiting his pit, a move that could have easily have ended his evening. Instead, he managed a solid fifth-place finish.

While a seventh-place result might seem like kissing your sister, the way Jeff Gordon’s season has been going, the fact he left Charlotte without wrecking, rolling mechanical mayhem, or getting attacked by a plague of locusts probably had him dancing atop the bar with a bottle of champagne in each hand after the race.

I’m not sure which category to lump Biffle’s finish under. It had to be frustrating for him not to win after dominating much of the race. But considering he was overheating early in the event, yet never blew up in 600 miles, that had to be a sigh of relief for the point leader. He also made significant contact with the wall, but got away without any apparent damage to the No. 16 car, meaning all in all fourth place wasn’t such an awful night.

Carl Edwards had a terrible qualifying run and was well off the pace until the sun set. At that point, the No. 99 came alive and Edwards drove to a credible ninth-place finish despite an extra stop to tighten a lug nut left loose.

Edward’s RFR teammate Matt Kenseth also had his efforts thwarted by a lug nut left loose on a stop, but he also rallied to a top-10 finish (10th).

Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti was hit and spun out on pit road early in the event. He fell back to 28th at that point, but still managed to win the race, even with Takuma Sato spinning directly to his inside on the last lap.

Worth Noting

  • This race featured five caution flags. Four of them were for debris and just one was for a single-car incident.
  • The top-10 finishers at Charlotte drove four Chevys, three Fords, two Toyotas and a Dodge.
  • Kahne’s victory was his 13th win in 300 career Cup starts. Three of those victories have been scored in the World 600. Kahne’s top-10 finish streak, mentioned above has put him no worse than eighth in the final results since Texas in mid-April.
  • Biffle now leads all drivers with seven top-five finishes in this season’s first 12 races. Earnhardt leads in top-10 results with nine such finishes. Biffle, Kenseth, Johnson and Edwards all have eight top 10s.
  • Hamlin has finished second in the last two point races.
  • Kyle Busch has amassed five straight top-10 finishes in Sprint Cup.
  • While he’s off to a fast start this season, Biffle’s fourth-place result was actually his best since he won in Fort Worth.
  • Earnhardt Jr. now has top-10 finishes in seven of the last eight Cup races.
  • Gordon’s seventh-place finish was his best since a fourth at Texas in April.
  • Stewart’s 25th-place finish was his worst of this season but not by much. He finished 24th at Texas and Talladega.
  • Since winning at Martinsville, Ryan Newman has averaged about a 21st-place finish in the last six races. Stumbling from eighth to thirteenth in the standings, he’s now just seven points in front of Kahne for the final “wild card” slot in the Chase.

What’s the Points?

Biffle stays atop the standings for yet another week and opens his gap over second-place Kenseth to 10 points. Hamlin moves up a spot to third, bypassing Earnhardt, who is now fourth and the only winless driver inside the top five. While Johnson remains fifth in the standings, he is now 48 (what are the chances?) points out of the lead, a full race’s worth. The top 10 is rounded out by Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick (+1), Kyle Busch (+1), Stewart (-2), and Edwards.

Keselowski advances a spot to 11th but with his two wins already this season, I bet he’s sleeping better at night than Edwards. He holds the first “wild card” slot, while the aforementioned Newman sits 13th with the second.

For you frustrated Gordon fans, the good news is he’s up two spots to 22nd in the points. The bad news is he’s 174 points out of the lead and 93 out of the top 10.

Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans with one being a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic) — I’ll give this one two cans of somewhat chilled generic stuff. It wasn’t the best race of the year but it wasn’t the worst, either.

Next Up – The circuit heads north to the White Cliffs of Dover.

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