NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2012 Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol

Editor’s Note: For the rest of the season, a rotating cast of characters will be sharing responsibility for Matt McLaughlin’s Thinkin’ Out Loud column, including today’s columnist, Bryan Davis Keith. Let us know what you think in the comments section below as we search for a full-time replacement!

Key Moment – On lap 461, Denny Hamlin finally got underneath Carl Edwards’ No. 99 (who was on older tires) and held off a crossover attempt by Edwards that same lap to ride off into the Bristol sunset, scoring his third win of 2012.

In a Nutshell – The latest “new” Bristol is still not the Bristol of old. But between the buzz, the wrecks and a decent crowd, the August night race resembled its former self for the first time since the pre-Chase era.

Dramatic MomentMatt Kenseth aggressively drove underneath Tony Stewart battling for position on lap 333, leading the two to both crowd each other exiting the corner and ending with both drivers ending up slamming the inside wall with wrecked race cars. Kenseth was able to drive away, but his damage wasn’t complete; one lap later, an angry Stewart threw his helmet at Kenseth’s No. 17 exiting pit road, nailing the Fusion decal on the front hood of the vehicle. Stewart went after Kenseth in post-race remarks, noting “I’m going to run over him every chance I get” when asked how he’d race a likely-to-be Chase competitor going forward.

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

No, Bruton Smith’s latest alteration to the Bristol Motor Speedway did not return the track to its old self, as the never-ending parade of cars running the top line of the track in the final 200 laps clearly demonstrated. But having said that, the smoothing job done on the top groove did narrow down the racing room on the Bristol track, and in doing so produced close quarters racing that triggered a significant number of incidents. Kurt Busch and Regan Smith hit just about everything on track over the course of 500 laps. Stewart and Kenseth did Bruton Smith a favor and multi-tasked, filming the 2013 Bristol ticket promo while competing. Even little Danica Patrick even tried to get in with the big, bad stock car racers, pointing her finger at Smith after a late-race wreck. If the measure of whether or not the Bristol night race is “back” is measured in terms of banged up sheet metal and anger, the 2012 event was the best seen since the Edwards/Kyle Busch dustup of 2008… and arguably, the most contentious since the 20-caution melee of 2003. Having said that, was it a better race? Fortunately, even with the three grooves gone, there were still two present, making passing without running over someone possible… and meaning this Bristol configuration is still an improvement over the old.

Let’s get the Stewart/Kenseth talk out of the way, since every sportswriter within 3,000 miles of Bristol, Tenn. is going to weigh in with their take on NASCAR’s most marketable highlight reel this season. Will Stewart, in fact live up to his promise of wrecking Kenseth every chance he gets? It’s a unique situation the driver of the No. 17 finds himself in now. When he won the championship in 2003, Kenseth didn’t have a rivalry brewing on the racetrack; he’s not exactly Mr. Controversial. So now, in the case of Stewart, it’s doubly troubling. For one, Smoke is firmly capable of holding a grudge, meaning when he says he intends to wreck the No. 17 every chance he gets, they’re words to be taken seriously. Compounding the situation too is that times are not great for Stewart-Haas Racing. Ryan Newman is teetering on missing the Chase for the second time in three years, with sponsorship for 2013 to be determined, while Stewart is about to fall from a top-10 spot to a wild-card Chase slot courtesy of an ugly summer stretch. The No. 14 team is cold at just the wrong time, failing when their driver is historically at his best. That leaves Stewart pretty angry and, at fault or not, Kenseth is now in a bulls-eye he’s going to have to take very seriously.

During the broadcast Saturday night, Michael Waltrip Racing’s current upswing that placed three cars in the top 11 at Bristol was attributed to one Mark Martin, even if “the Kid” was on the sidelines in favor of Brian Vickers (who scored another top-five result after leading 125 laps and finishing fifth at the track in the spring). Martin or not though, the level of improvement this team has exhibited in 2012 has been nothing short of remarkable. Martin Truex Jr. is having a career year, even without a victory to show for it, Clint Bowyer has quieted all naysayers who doubted his move from Richard Childress Racing, and the No. 55 car has proven the most stout Cup ride with rotating drivers in recent memory. Now, only two events from the Chase, the question around this operation is whether or not it can go from feel-good story to contender in the same year. Because while Martin has done an admirable job getting MWR’s Toyotas up to speed, contesting the Chase is not something Martin has a ton of expertise in. The question is now whether Truex or Bowyer can find their way, together during the postseason after the heels of their success 24 races in.

How is it that Jason Leffler can be a solid contender and a reliable top-10 driver for over half a decade in Nationwide Series competition but wash out of Kyle Busch’s Truck ride and a Joe Gibbs Racing Cup ride in less than a season? Whatever the scientific reason, Leffler ended up looking like his usual Cup self driving the No. 49, taking only nine laps before dumping Ken Schrader’s No. 32 machine hard into the interior retaining wall (the damage was so significant Schrader couldn’t drive away, the front wheels were not touching the ground). It’s amazing how plentiful second chances are for some drivers in a sport that has so few of them.

Marcos Ambrose came up four spots short of scoring a second win in 2012 and becoming a serious player for a Chase berth, but it’s abundantly clear that Richard Petty Motorsports put some real emphasis on this race. Marcos Ambrose scoring a top-five finish at Bristol was not a surprise… his aggression has always parlayed well to the high banks. But more notably, and tragically as well was how strong Aric Almirola ran in the early segments of the race. During the first runs of the event, Almirola was the only car short of eventual race winner Hamlin’s capable of making passes on the bottom of the track. That had the No. 43 car seemed poised to pick up where it left off at the last concrete race in Dover (finished sixth). Alas, this ending wasn’t to be, as contact with David Gilliland put the No. 43 into the wall en route to 35th. While plenty of Chase contenders juggled their running order Saturday night, the one Cinderella story in the bunch died a quiet death much the same way Almirola’s unheralded run did.

On the same thread, if one is looking for larger metaphors in this race for the Ford camp, Edwards’ Chase hopes are sunk. The No. 99 car unintentionally got off pit sequence after Edwards missed a call to pit road, and as a result had older tires and a dry fuel tank cost them the ability to hold off Hamlin for the win or even able to be running at the finish (limping is the more accurate term). Still 12th in points, it’s tough to see the speed out of this camp they’ll need to have in order to contend at Atlanta or Richmond.

If past history is any indication, Newman ought to be thanking his lucky stars that he got wrecked in the Bristol night race with a Chase slot narrowly hanging in the balance. Rewind back to 2005, where Newman got run over in a retaliatory move by Dale Jarrett that all but destroyed his No. 12 Dodge. Newman ended up squeaking into the Chase that year, even with lackluster 18th and 12th-place finishes in the two races that followed. But didn’t it seem just a bit hypocritical to have Jarrett refer to Juan Pablo Montoya’s wrecking of the No. 39 as uncalled for? After all, despite the acres of past history between Montoya and Newman, the video of Montoya’s hands didn’t suggest malice the way Jarrett’s 2005 job did.

It was decent for Phil Parsons and his No. 98 team to actually race a full distance after driver Michael McDowell delivered in the invocation for Saturday’s 500-lapper. Start-and-parking after being part of the opening ceremonies would be like saying “Hail Mary, Amen” for a prayer.

It’s no secret that Sam Hornish Jr. wants to be back in the Cup Series full-time. Considering the way Bristol went, one has to ask the question why? In a span of less than 10 laps leading up to the third yellow flag of the evening on lap 122, both Kurt Busch and David Ragan all but bowled over the No. 22 car. If one didn’t know better, both about Hornish, his current tenure in that car and the prestige of the Cup Series, it’d be hard to imagine anyone would want to leave a Nationwide Series ride for that kind of experience. Having said that, his fault or not, Bristol took some of the luster off Hornish’s strong past couple of weekends. Returning to Atlanta, the track he scored his first top-15 finish ever in NASCAR competition, has even more significance as a result.

Interesting observation… despite an announcement back in May that the BK Racing team would field a third, No. 73 car for David Reutimann in all races that he wasn’t driving the No. 10 for Tommy Baldwin Racing, Reutimann wasn’t on-track at Bristol, and hasn’t been for several other races. It’s hard to imagine it’s financial… the BK team has been showing up week after week with full tire allotments in the pits for both teams, indicating there’s at least some cash flow. What happened here?

It’s interesting that Bristol reported attendance went down from 156,000 to 145,000, seeing as how the stands looked better than they have in years. Maybe NASCAR’s estimating techniques get more realistic the better the attendance actually is?

The Hindenburg Award for Foul Fortune

Brad Keselowski started on the outside of the front row, but it was clear even on the first run that despite having the paint scheme of nine-time Bristol winner Rusty Wallace (gee Rusty, before this latest broadcast we never knew you did that) that the No. 2 was not in the same form it won two consecutive Cup races in. Keselowski fell back from the front row starting spot early; then, on lap 271 he got turned by Bobby Labonte into the interior wall in much the same way he wrecked in Friday’s Nationwide Series race. Keselowski finished 30th, snapping a seven race top-10 streak.

After being the slowest car in first practice and starting in the back of the field, Patrick managed to ride out the storm for 434 laps in much the same way she finished ninth in Friday’s race. Lap 434, though, saw Smith tag her No. 10 and destroy it. Whoops! Having said that, seeing as how Danica-mania is all about marketing, there’s something to be said about just how much airplay that pathetic finger-pointing gesture at the No. 78 is going to get. It’ll be front and center, both this week and for however long she stays in NASCAR racing as an example of her ever-growing development as a stock car driver. Yes, that’s sarcasm…

Jeff Burton’s rare strong performance got derailed on lap 271 when the No. 31 proved unable to avoid Newman’s pulverized race car. Instead of a top 10, Burton finished 33rd; the result made five finishes outside the top 20 in the last six races for the Caterpillar team.

Kurt Busch’s hard driving ended up being driving over his head at Bristol on Saturday, a track he knows full well how to race on. Contact with cars on lap 80, the wall on lap 121 and with Smith on lap 321 went a long way to bang up the No. 51, which ended the night in 28th.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award for Fine Fortune

Casey Mears scored Germain Racing’s first Cup Series pole courtesy of a well-timed rainout on Friday and actually did well to lead the first 26 laps before starting his descent through the field. It was a watershed moment for the No. 13 team, even if it was obvious early that Mears was obstructing a lot of cars at the front of the pack. Despite losing positions early and an encounter with the wall on lap 413 that brought out the yellow flag, Mears finished in the 21st position on Saturday to break a stretch of four consecutive finishes outside the top 30 on ovals.

Vickers only led one lap after leading 125 in the spring race, but his fourth-place finish was his third top five in only six starts this season and equaled his season-best result. Of note, Vickers has scored as many top fives in those six starts with MWR as he did in 36 races with Red Bull Racing a year ago.

Red Bull Racing may be no more, but Travis Kvapil’s quietly throwing some quality results together with the team’s reincarnation as BK Racing. Finishing 18th on Saturday night, Kvapil has scored consecutive top-20 performances and four top 25s in a row driving the No. 93, the longest such streak for the team with any driver in 2012.

Worth Noting

  • The top-10 finishers on Sunday drove five Toyotas, four Chevys and a Ford. The highest-running Dodge was Keselowski in 30th place.
  • Hamlin (won) tied a Sprint Cup season high with his third victory of 2012. It was also his first top-10 finish in the month of August.
  • Jimmie Johnson (second) now has top-three finishes in three of the last five races. In the other two, he was leading within 10 laps from the finish of the event before catastrophe struck.
  • Jeff Gordon’s third-place performance snapped a streak of two results outside the top 20.
  • Ambrose (fifth) has three straight top-5 finishes for the first time in his Cup career (143 starts).
  • Joey Logano (eighth) led more Sprint Cup laps in this race (139) then the rest of this season – and all of 2011 – combined.
  • Truex Jr. (11th) has led back-to-back races for the first time since Texas and Kansas in April.
  • Smith, for all the contact on track, still managed to finish 16th in what was a solid rebound after an ugly Michigan weekend.
  • Paul Menard’s 10th-place result was his second straight top 10, the first time that’s happened for the No. 27 team since Vegas and Bristol in the spring.
  • Dale Earnhardt Jr. saw a top-10 result go out the window after pitting on lap 348 when pit road was still closed; the No. 88 team rebounded to finish 12th.
  • Edwards’ 22nd-place finish marked the third consecutive performance outside the top 20 for the driver known as “Concrete Carl.”
  • McDowell’s 23rd-place finish was his best Cup finish since Richmond in the fall of 2008… when he was still driving for Michael Waltrip Racing.

What’s the Points?

Despite finishing a quiet 19th, Greg Biffle managed to maintain the points lead over Johnson (who finished second and led 52 laps). Biffle leads the No. 48 team by 11 markers heading into Atlanta. Earnhardt Jr. remains third, while Kenseth’s scuffle dropped the No. 17 team to fourth. Truex Jr. and Bowyer both passed Keselowski after his wreck, with race winner Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and Stewart rounding out the top 10. Stewart leads Kasey Kahne by 16 markers for the last spot in the top 10.

The wild card leaders following the night race are Kahne with his two wins and Kyle Busch, whose sixth-place result has him ahead of both Gordon and Newman by 16 and 19 points, respectively.

Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans, with one being a stinker and a six-pack being an instant classic) — We’ll give this one four cans of cold domestic on a Saturday evening. The last weekend before football season really kicks off, this Bristol race was one of the better ones seen in recent years, with plenty of action and bent up sheet metal even for the wreck happy amongst the crowd. It still wasn’t the old Bristol and it was on ESPN, but overall this one was far from the worst 500 laps of the season.

Next Up – Atlanta, one of the few tracks on the circuit that hasn’t been repaved or reconfigured in recent memory. Think of it as a poor man’s Labor Day 500.

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