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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin’s Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2012 Richmond Fall Race Recap

The Key Moment – On lap 313, Clint Bowyer managed to pass Ryan Newman and he never yielded that position the rest of the night.

The true turning point of the race, though, occurred at lap 277 when a caution flag flew for a light rain shower. Most of the leaders, including the dominant cars of Denny Hamlin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. decided not to pit figuring given the late hour and dismal weather radar screens the race would not resume. When it became clear the green flag was going to fly again, both the Nos. 11 and 88 ducked into the pits and out of contention.

In a Nutshell – After a whole lot more waiting than racing, the Richmond event finally was bought to a satisfactory conclusion. But how many fans were still left awake to see it?

Dramatic Moment – Waiting to see if Bowyer would run out of gas in the waning laps.

Jeff Gordon’s headlong charge towards the front in a quixotic attempt to make the Chase showed flashes of the former four-time champion’s style we all thought he’d lost. Gordon’s second-place finish, combined with an unintended assist from the No. 18 pits allowed him to bypass Kyle Busch for the final wild card slot.

Truth be told, the drama in the Saturday night/Sunday morning’s race was more mathematical than due to on-track antics. The competitors’ attitude wasn’t “Let’s win one for the Gipper!” but rather, “Let’s get this thing over with so we don’t have to come back tomorrow” as they drove in the high groove, logging laps.

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

What most folks will be talking about is football, my friends. They’ll be talking about NFL football; they’ll be talking about college football. In some culturally deprived areas of these United States, most notably Texas, they’ll even be talking about high school football in almost religious terms. If “The Chase” was supposed to help stem the football juggernaut, it has to be considered a miserable failure. (As a side note, it rather frightens me that I have friends and family members who have devoted a lot more time, study, and debate about drafting their NFL fantasy leagues than they are coming to some sort of decision on who to vote for in the upcoming presidential election.)

NASCAR and ESPN were desperate to get the Richmond race in Saturday night rather than launch into a head-to-head battle with the NFL on Sunday afternoon as the footballers kick off their regular season. Now we’ll just have to wait and see and which gets worse ratings: a Cup race scheduled head to head against the NFL or a Cup race that winds down at almost 1:45 a.m. ET. (You know, you can’t stop racing till quarter till 2, what’s a NASCAR racing fan to do?, folks at home were happier than those who were there, snoozing away in their recliner chairs, people were posting on Twitter they were mad, longest evening they ever had, watching the finish they finally got between Bowyer and Jeffy G.)

Cue up the theme music from Jaws. With the Chase set to start next week, NASCAR also issued a new technical bulletin “reaffirming” the rules that govern the front bushing of the truck arm (sometimes called a “track” arm) under Cup cars. So what is a truck arm? Well, the term originally derives from the fact the design was pirated from a mid ’60s Chevy truck, the first full size truck to have coil springs in the rear rather than leaf springs. The truck arms are the main component that locates the rear differential within a race car. (Poke a head under the back of a ’60s or ’70s Chevelle or GTO and you’ll get the idea.) By using softer durometer rubber in the front left bushing (and a harder bushing on the opposite side) where the truck arms pivot some teams have learned that since the angle of those pivots is only measured pre-race. That means they can design those bushings to wear and take a set with the rear end slightly skewed which gives a huge speed advantage in the corners.

Although the above reaffirmation of the rule as it reads naturally applies to all the Cup teams, many see it as a shot across the bow of the Hendrick Motorsports bunch and, most notably, a certain five-time champion and his No. 48 team. After struggling mightily to post a single victory to reach that elusive 200th win for the organization earlier this year, the HMS wrecking crew went on a hot streak this summer gathering wins with seeming ease. Anyone watching the No. 48 car couldn’t help noticing that thing was dog-walking (others have used the terms turkey-trotting and crab-walking) to such a notable degree it seemed sideways going down the straights. Other teams analyzed what was going on with the No. 48 car and have attempted to duplicate it with varying degrees of success. But as in most forms of human technical endeavor, the innovators will always have an advantage over the imitators who work hard to catch up with where the innovators were last month even as the innovators move forward. In addition, garage area gossip has it that the skewed race cars are more difficult to drive. Some wheelmen (most notably perhaps Jimmie Johnson and Greg Biffle) have adjusted their driving style to suit the new crab cars while others (including Gordon, Tony Stewart, and Carl Edwards) haven’t been able to do so as quickly. Johnson and Knaus have both stated the recent announcement is no big deal and won’t slow them down a lick, but I’m guessing behind the closed doors at HMS the midnight oil is burning and sweat is falling like blood clots to the ground as they try to adjust to the new reality. And yes, I think the copy of the technical directive forwarded to the No. 48 team included a handwritten post-script that noted, “Remember that big dustup we had after Daytona that you ultimately prevailed in? Just so you know, we haven’t forgotten it either. We’ll likely see you in the tech center again soon.”

The worst kept secret in the garage area became official this week with the announcement that Matt Kenseth will indeed be driving the Joe Gibb’s No. 20 car next season. I’ll give Kenseth style points because though the cat has long been out of the bag on this move, and he’s consistently declined comment when he addressed the huddled scribes to make things official he started by saying, “Surprise!” Truthfully, though I’ve known it was in the works for months, the decision by Kenseth to move from Ford to Toyota (despite the fact he’s solidly in contention for a title this year) continues a trend of Ford letting their star drivers leave the fold.

For every action, there must be an equal and opposite reaction; in this case, Kenseth landing in the No. 20 car means Joey Logano had to land a new seat, absent a sponsor for a fourth team at JGR. The same day Kenseth made his “surprise” announcement it was confirmed Logano will be taking over the seat of the No. 22 car at Penske Racing, which is switching from Dodges to Fords next season. Logano has been blessed with top notch rides since he rose to the Cup ranks and the pressure will be on next year to prove he’s finally capable of running with the big dogs, week-in and week-out. Obviously, the seat in the No. 22 car has become a bit of a revolving door over the last few years and a lack of performance won’t be tolerated. What happens if Logano can’t produce? Well, what is Casey Atwood up to these days?

The odd man out in the Silly Season dance of musical chairs is Sam Hornish Jr., who won’t be back in the No. 22 car next year, despite having done a journeyman’s job in that ride since being unexpectedly thrust into that role when AJ Allmendinger fell afoul of NASCAR’s substance abuse testing. In addition to serving as an emergency fill-in pilot in the No. 22, Hornish is also solidly in contention for this year’s NW title, his day job. My guess is he’s wondering what else he has to do to secure a full-time Cup ride.

One driver who announced he won’t be swapping seats in 2013 is Newman, who signed a one-year deal to remain at SHR. Newman did note that since his car is currently unsponsored for next year, taking a pay cut was part of his new contract. Newman added he is hardly alone among the drivers in seeing his salary reduced. And you thought multimillionaires were exempt from the current economic turmoil? You start giving up $100,000 there and $100,000 here and all of a sudden you’re talking about real money! The “trickle down effect” will likely be seen as a result with exotic cars salespeople, Pilates instructors and souse chefs in the Charlotte area suddenly scrambling to make up lost income as well.

Another man who may be on the outside looking in is the talented but mercurial Kurt Busch. As things stand now, car owner James Finch says he will have to suspend operations at the end of the season. With no sponsorship dollars coming in, a fleet of wrecked racecars, and the need to build entirely new cars to meet the new 2013 rules, Finch says he’s finished. Of course, the only person in NASCAR who has announced his impending retirement more than Finch is Mark Martin. In trying to salvage his own career, the elder Busch brother has once again proven his own worst enemy. Though he’s backed it down a bit when it comes to his occasional lapse into bouts of boorish behavior (Oh, it’s you, Bob!) past history has kept sponsors shying away from the team as if Busch had leprosy. Or maybe worse. Leprosy can be cured… you can’t fix stupid.

Well on a brighter note, at least this year Kyle Busch won’t have to endure a brilliant multi-win start to the season only to piss away his championship chances in the Chase. This time out, he failed to make the cut and he’s only won one Cup race to date in 2012. Lookout, lookout, it’s the Candy-man, here he comes then he’s gone again…

This week’s wire did include one truly surprising announcement. Tony “Pops” Eury was released from the JR Motorsports NW team despite being the full-blooded Uncle of the owners. It would seem Eury is a victim of Danica Patrick’s not living up to the hype that surrounded her first full season in NASCAR. Lord have mercy; I don’t think Junior Johnson, Smokey Yunick, and Maurice Petty combined in their primes could have that young lady consistently posting top-five finishes.

In another troubling development, the principals at Richard Petty Motorsports have reportedly approached Richard Childress about potentially becoming a satellite team to RCR and campaigning Chevys next year with some technical support from the Bowtie Boys. It seems with Roger Penske et al joining the Ford ranks it’s pretty slim pickings for anyone but Roush and Penske in the Blue Oval camp. RPM had once been considered a strong choice to take over the Dodge program before the folks at Fiat decided to pack up their ball and glove and go home. RPM switching to Chevy next year would be far less surprising than the announcement back in 1978 the King was leaving Mopar and the ill-fated Dodge Magnum to campaign Chevys.

Listen, I can only write one of these columns every now and then. If you’re interested in reading my old history series, my friend Patty Kay is re-running them at a two installments a week pace over at Racersreunion.com.

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

Hamlin had the dominant car at Richmond and for much of the soggy evening, it seemed he was en route to his third straight Cup victory. That decision not to pit when rain once again pelted the track and the later need to pit with eight laps to go sent the No. 11 team packing with an eighteenth-place finish.

Although Junior was able to finish four places ahead of Hamlin, that 14th place result in no way reflects the strength the No. 88 showed much of the race.

Did Stewart hand the lead to his teammate Newman on lap 300 in hopes Newman would go on and win the race and thus clinch a playoff berth? Things are pretty desperate right now at SHR racing with both the primary teams struggling to put together funding packages for 2013. You know the sponsorship situation is bleak when the reigning Cup champion loses his primary financial backer. But on a brighter note, Stewart will have Danica in a third car next year… oh, wait a minute.

A year after losing the Chase on a tiebreaker, Edwards missed the big show all together in 2012. Last year, pundits and scribes said Edwards lost the title because he focused too much on running in the NW series on Saturdays. This year, they’re saying he missed the Chase because he gave up the chance to run those Saturday events. It’s tough to be him, but at least he gets bunches of free sandwiches.

It appears Logano’s career with JGR will end not with a bang but a whimper. Logano struggled to finish 30th, four laps off the pace in a hopelessly uncompetitive Toyota. With his two teammates in the Chase, Logano and No. 20 will likely be an afterthought at JGR for the rest of the season as Joey keeps Kenseth’s seat warm for him.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

How close did Bowyer and his team stretch it trying to win the race on fuel mileage? Although he won the race, Bowyer ran out of gas attempting to do post-race burnouts, forcing him to once again hoof it to Victory Lane absent his race car. Bowyer was in fact lucky to even finish the event after a skirmish with Juan Pablo Montoya on lap 236 deflated a tire on the No. 15 and sent him spinning. Bowyer would later credit that unplanned pit stop with helping him win and thanked JPM for the assist.

Because he’s not a Chase contender, Martin’s sprightly third-place finish (that occurred hours after his bed time) went largely unheralded.

Similarly and also of note, Jeff Burton’s sixth-place finish pretty much flew under the radar.

Gordon’s car was simply awful at the start of the race. Although his teammate Earnhardt kindly allowed the No. 24 to lead a lap to get (not earn) a bonus point, Gordon was soon slipping back through the field and eventually off the lead lap. During the first rain delay, the normally affable four-time champion appeared ready to strangle the life out of someone. But a radical call to disconnect the rear swaybar bought the No. 24 to life and allowed Gordon to finish second. That clinched him a playoff berth on a night Kyle Busch just couldn’t cut it.

After two near-misses, dominating the NW and Cup races at Atlanta only to fall short, Harvick got some measure of vindication winning the Friday night event at Richmond.

All four of Rick Hendrick’s Chevy teams will be in the Chase this year.

After many seasons of futility, MWR has not one but two teams ready to compete for this year’s title. Half of the organization’s four Cup victories have been scored this season.

Worth Noting

Bowyer has now won two races this season. The only other year he won twice was 2010 and he’s never won more than two Cup races in the same season.

Don’t look now, but Gordon has finished second or third his last three times out.

Part-timer Martin (third) enjoyed his best result since the first Pocono race.

Stewart (fourth) managed his first top-10 result in the last five races. Then again, Stewart entered last year’s Chase winless and questioning his own right to be part of the championship process and look how that played out.

Johnson ended the “regular season” with the most top-five finishes (12) and tied with teammate Earnhardt for the most top 10s (17).

The top 10 finishers at Richmond drove five Chevys, two Fords, two Toyotas, and a Dodge.

Kenseth’s fifth-place finish was his first top five since the Firecracker 400. Surprise!

Keselowski rides into the Chase with top 10 finishes in nine of the last 10 races. Still want to presumptively hand that sixth title to Johnson?

Newman’s eighth-place finish was a lovely parting gift for one of those drivers you won’t be seeing on ESPN again for the rest of the season. Newman hasn’t had a top-five outing since Daytona in July. Those 13 laps Newman led at Richmond Saturday were the first laps he’d led since Martinsville. No, seriously, look it up.

Harvick has top-10 results in both races since Gil Martin returned atop his pit box.

Hornish has finished 12th or better in five of his last six Cup starts.

Johnson (13th) has averaged a 19th-place finish in his last four runs.

Edwards still hasn’t managed a top 5 result since Las Vegas.

What’s the Points 

The fussing, calculating, alternate scenarios, and “if points were awarded now” graphics have been laid to rest. We now know who the 12 contenders for this year’s Cup title will be.

With his four Cup victories to date Hamlin, enters the Chase atop the standings. He leads Johnson, Stewart, and Keselowski (each of whom have won three races this year) by three points.

Biffle and Bowyer, with two wins apiece, are six points behind Hamlin in the fifth and sixth seeds, respectively. Earnhardt and Kenseth each have a single victory and are ranked seventh and eighth.

Harvick and Truex, though winless to date this season, are ranked ninth and 10th. Try explaining that to stick and ball sports fans.

With two wins Kahne takes the first Wild Card slot but doesn’t get bonus points for his victories. (I swear Alfred E. Neumann–no relation to Ryan–of Mad magazine must have dreamt up the championship format.)

If you haven’t heard Gordon supplanted Kyle Busch for the final playoff spot you just haven’t been paying attention.

Under the traditional points system at this juncture of the season, with 10 races left to run, we’d still have an exciting race to the title with Biffle 12 points ahead of Earnhardt and 17 points ahead of Kenseth. Johnson would be lurking within striking distance, 34 points out of the lead. But, sigh, that interesting run at the title is not to be because it’s highly unlikely Brian France (who was notably absent at Richmond early Sunday morning) is going to come to his senses after all these years.

If your favorite driver isn’t listed above, it’s time to pick a new favorite. For the rest of the season NASCAR and the TV folks aren’t going to mention or take note of anyone but the Chosen 12 unless some other driver manages to put themselves through the catch fence upside down and on fire. It frustrates the team owners, infuriates those teams’ sponsors and wears thin on the drivers but in the inestimable wisdom of Mr. Mike Helton, “At the end of the day, it is what is.” All in a dream, all in a dream, the loading had begun, flying Mother NASCAR’s silver 12 to their new home in the sun….”

Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans with one being a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic) — Well, it wasn’t the best race I’ve ever seen and it wasn’t the worst race I’ve ever seen but it certainly was the latest race I’ve ever seen, at least since Daytona many years ago. We’ll give it three 12-ounce cans of Red Bull because that’s what I needed to stay awake for the end.

Next Up – The circuit heads off to Joliet and I return to work. But remember, it’s a 106 miles from Chicago, we’ve got a full tank of gas, a half pack of smokes, it’s dark out and we’re wearing sunglasses. Hit it.