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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin’s Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2012 Pocono Summer Race Recap

The Key MomentJimmie Johnson, who had dominated the race, had his car get out from under him on the final restart and collected second-place Matt Kenseth. From there, it was on.

In a Nutshell – Mother Nature turned the Pocono race into a high stakes, very loud and damp high-speed game of musical chairs.

Dramatic Moment – When the field lined up for the final restart, Biblical downpours had reached the edges of the track’s property and the rest of the field knew they had one last shot at Johnson’s dominant No. 48 car. That’s like throwing a prime rib to a pack of starving dogs.

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

Unfortunately, NASCAR didn’t call the race quite quickly enough. 10 fans were struck by lightning on track property after the race. Tragically, one has died, one is in critical condition, one in guarded condition, two with minor injuries, and five were treated and released. I don’t know the circumstances that wound up with these folks getting injured so I won’t cast stones, but if you’re at a racetrack (or the beach, on a golf course, or anywhere else) use common sense when an electrical storm approaches and seek shelter immediately. Even if the storm is 10 miles out, you can still get struck. In my area two sets of families of four were both injured by lightning strikes, one down the Jersey Shore and the other sitting in their front yard in the city.

I am writing this Sunday night. By Monday morning, there may be wholesale changes in the finishing order posted right now. Why? During a race, NASCAR uses the running order gathered from the last scoring loop to decide the running order when a caution comes out. At the end of a race they rely on videotape of the event to decide who finished where. Sunday, they didn’t realize that that third yellow flag was actually going to be the one that concluded the event, at least as far as green-flag racing. Several teams, most notably the Nos. 48 and 16, are protesting their finishing positions at press time.

It’s the new trend sweeping the nation! Defy the intent of the rules and set your car up to dog-track like a bloodhound with hip dysplasia. This week, the Roush Fords were as badly out of skew as the innovators of the trend, the HMS Chevys. But one mustn’t rest on their laurels especially when the competition is wise to your game. Ever the innovators the No. 48 team found a way to turn their car into a tail-dragger that rivals anything seen in the barrios of East LA. Getting that big blade spoiler down out of the air on Pocono’s long stretches adds a whole lot of speed. (The mph type of speed, not the stuff that gets you suspended.)

There’s going to be a lot of folks wondering what took NASCAR so long to clean up a four-car wreck. If they’d hustled a bit, might the fans have gotten to see the race end under green? And if so, would Gordon have held on to win? I know only one thing for certain: we’ll never know.

What’s next for AJ Allmendinger? After being released by Penske Racing earlier this week his racing career, at least in NASCAR, is in limbo. Could he return to open-wheel racing (though obviously not with Penske)? And when is he going to stop hiding under his covers and address the situation? Race fans are known for swarming attacks but they can also be capable of incredible empathy given the information they seek and genuine contrition. So can Allmendinger still salvage his career? Well Eagles QB Michael Vick is still making good coin despite a stint in prison for animal cruelty. But then again, that’s my home town of Philadelphia, not the real world.

So what happened to this next generation track dryer that Brian France claimed would be able to dry a wet race track in half the time? Apparently, it’s at the R and D center being fitted with a glass dashboard.

So which was longer, the rain delay or the race itself? Both lasted approximately an hour and 45 minutes.

It’s interesting that while there were 22 pit road speeding penalties issued during Pocono’s June event, there was only one during Sunday’s race. So did the crew chiefs study the new timing lines, did the drivers stop trying to fudge their speeds or did NASCAR finally figure out they’d screwed up royally during the June event?

OK, maybe this one explains everything. The size of the crowd at last weekend’s Brickyard 400 flirted with the term “pitiful.” But reports this week state that between the money ESPN paid the track to broadcast the event and what Crown Royal paid for naming rights, Indy had already made enough to payoff the sanctioning fee that NASCAR charges a facility to host a race. Thus revenue from ticket sales (albeit weak ticket sales) concessions and parking earned the track somewhere around $9 million. And that’s just for Sunday’s event! So why don’t tracks improve the racing surface to make for better racing and draw bigger crowds? They don’t have to. These events are already profitable enough. Suddenly, I’m beginning to understand why Fontana is still on the schedule.

Fans in the Midwest wishing to attend a NASCAR race certainly have had a wealth of opportunities over the last month or so. In addition to the Brickyard 400, the NW series ran in Joliet, Indy and Iowa for three consecutive races and the trucks ran at Iowa and Chicago. I’m not sure that’s the sort of schedule that’s going to help sell seats. Most of us aren’t wealthy enough to attend all those races in five weeks time, so I’d guess the fans have to pick and choose which they prefer to see.

At only 125 miles, Saturday’s truck race was perfect for those battling ADD.

My guess is Todd Bodine got sent home from Pocono without the “plays nicely with others” box checked on his report card.

Denny Hamlin announced this weekend he and long time girlfriend Jordan Fish are expecting their first child this January. Though excited about the impending arrival, the couple shared they were not looking to rush into marriage. Oddly enough, no fast food chain CEOs weighed in on the couple’s very personal decision. (Sort of like whether to have mashed potatoes and gravy or mac and cheese.)

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

Dale Earnhardt Jr. fought his way to the front to the delight of his highly partisan fans but was felled by a transmission failure at the only oval track on the circuit where drivers routinely shift during the race. Earnhardt was so eager to get back out there he leapt from his car in the garage area and began jacking it up so repairs could be made before the rest of the crew even got there.

It’s not often you’ll see Johnson throw away a race. particularly when he has a dominant car, but he let the No. 48 get out from underneath him in the first corner following the final restart and dropped back to 14th.

Kenseth was running second on the final restart but was the victim of Johnson’s rare unforced error. He hit the wall, then slid down the track getting drilled directly in the driver’s side numbers by the No. 11 car in the process. He was shown as having finished 23rd.

Kyle Busch only made 19 laps before a brake rotor failed and cut down a rear tire. The No. 18 car went hard into the wall and Busch was forced to the garage area. He eventually finished 33rd.

It wasn’t a great day for the other branch of the Busch family tree, either. Kurt Busch blew a left front tire moments after emerging from the pits after a two-tire stop. The failure sent Busch hard into the wall and ended his day. He was listed 30th at the finish after that mess.

Hamlin took a hard enough hit during the big wreck he was taken to the infield care center after the incident to get looked over, complaining of abdominal pain. Fortunately, he was treated and released, but one of the fastest cars on the track all day was listed as 29th in the final running order.

Talk about a rough start for a driver attempting to make his Cup debut. John Wes Townley was scheduled to drive Frankie Stoddard’s No. 32 car this weekend. But on his very first lap of practice Townley smacked the wall and never even posted an official time. He later withdrew himself from the seat, ceding it to Jason White. Why he’d get the chance in the first place? The car was sponsored by Zaxby’s chicken restaurants, a chain owned by Townley’s father.

It was a pretty tough weekend for Joe Gibbs Racing. Joey Logano, who had won here in June, finished 13th. Kyle Busch and Hamlin both crashed out of the race.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

Cup wins are hard to come by. It’s not often you’ll have one fall, literally, out of the sky into your lap like Gordon did on Sunday.

Had the race been able to resume, no matter how briefly, Kasey Kahne would have been in a world of trouble. He’d been circulating the track under that final caution prior to the red flag with a flat rear tire.

The red flag couldn’t have flown too soon for Brad Keselowski’s liking, either. He was running on fumes in the tank when the race ended after snaking his way through the carnage.

Regan Smith (ninth) and Marcos Ambrose (10th) were probably both delighted to drive through the final lap mayhem to come away with a top-10 finish at Pocono.

Perhaps Elliott Sadler felt some measure of redemption after winning Saturday night’s NW race. A highly questionable black flag on a restart last week probably cost Sadler a win at Indy.

The IndyCar Series probably got a boost today as race fans enduring the rain delay at Pocono sought alternative programming. (Anyone else find it odd that ABC/ESPN chose to schedule the two races concurrently? Or got caught short-handed on race announcers to the point ABC decided to have NBC produce the race?)

Worth Noting

  • HMS has now won seven of the last 11 points-paying races.
  • Johnson leads all drivers with 10 top-five results to date this season. He and Earnhardt Jr. are tied for most top-10 finishes with 15 apiece.
  • Earnhardt failed to run the complete race distance for the first time this season.
  • Gordon’s win was his first triumph since Atlanta last September.
  • Kahne now has a pair of second-place finishes to complement his two victories this season. (He also ran second at Kentucky.)
  • Martin Truex Jr.’s third-place finish was his best since he ran second at Kansas.
  • The top-10 finishers at Pocono drove five Chevys, two Fords, two Toyotas and a Dodge.
  • Tony Stewart (fifth) has failed to lead a lap in the last three events.
  • Ryan Newman (sixth) now has four consecutive top-10 results but, like his illustrious leader is not gathering up many bonus points for leading laps. Newman hasn’t led a lap since Martinsville.
  • Carl Edwards‘ seventh-place finish was his best since Daytona, but he hasn’t managed a top-five result since Fontana.
  • His ninth-place finish was easily Smith’s best of the season. His previous best was a 14th-place drive at Darlington.
  • The last Pocono race was only about six weeks ago so the finishing order should have closely reflected the June race, right? Oddly enough, Stewart was the only driver to post a top-five in both events. Looking further back, Clint Bowyer was the only additional driver to have a top 10 in both races.
  • Johnson’s 14th-place finish was actually his worst on a non-plate track this year. (For newer fans, the “plate” tracks are Daytona and Talladega.)
  • After getting off to a stellar start to the season, Kenseth has missed the top 10 the last three times out. He’s averaged about a 24th-place finish in those three races. They don’t put your face on a gum card for those sort of statistics.
  • Earnhardt’s 32nd-place finish was easily his worst of the season. His previous worst finish was a 23rd at Sonoma.

What’s the Points?

Despite an awful day, Earnhardt Jr. holds onto the points lead. He’s now five ahead of Kenseth, six points ahead of Greg Biffle and eight points ahead of Johnson. It would seem that those four drivers will battle for the wholly symbolic title awarded to the driver who leads the points at the conclusion of the “regular season.” Fifth-place Truex is more than a full race’s worth of points out of the lead.

As a consolation prize, though MWR’s top driver moved up five positions to earn that spot. Stewart advanced two spots to sixth and Keselowski also moved up two spots to seventh. Hamlin and Kevin Harvick (who was nearly invisible all weekend) both fell three spots, to eighth and ninth. Bowyer owns the final spot inside the top 10.

Look out below, because Kyle Busch plummeted four spots to 15th in the standings. He’ll probably have to win one of the next five races to make the playoffs.

To round out the Chase, Kahne and Gordon currently hold the two “wild card” berths. Gordon is actually tied with Newman, who also has a single win this season, but Gordon gets the nod based on having more fifth-place finishes. (They are tied as far as second, third and fourth-place results.) I said a few weeks ago there was no way Gordon was going to make the Chase so I might have to eat my hat. But I ain’t slathering my cap with horsey sauce just yet.

Edwards is actually eight points ahead of Gordon, in 12th place but he’s still got the goose egg in the win column.

Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans with one being a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic) — The race was pretty sedate after a frustratingly long wait, but they’ll be talking about that last lap for awhile. Thus we’ll give it three bottles of Blue Moon… minus the orange slices, please.

Next Up – The circuit heads off to the long and winding road that is Watkins Glen.

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