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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2012 AAA 400 at Dover

Key Moment – The caution flag flew for Matt Kenseth breaking a track bar mount on lap 310. The lead lap cars pitted and Brad Keselowski never visited pit road again, making his tank of fuel last 89 laps en route to his fifth win of the season and second of the Chase.

In a NutshellDenny Hamlin led early, Kyle Busch led the most, Jimmie Johnson was poised to lead at the end, but Keselowski made his fuel go the furthest while going the fastest at the end of the race.

Dramatic Moment – Johnson was trying to make his fuel last to the end while Kyle Busch and Hamlin knew they couldn’t. Johnson slowed his pace and gave up the lead on lap 354 to Busch, who pitted on lap 389 for fuel while Hamlin came in a lap later. Keselowski pushed hard enough to get past Johnson but not hard enough to run out of gas so he inherited the lead, and the win, when Busch and Hamlin pitted.

Watching Jeff Gordon run down Keselowski at the end, for a few seconds made you think there could be a side-by-side duel to the finish. But Gordon, and third-place Mark Martin‘s bid to catch the No. 2 car fell short by about 10-15 laps.

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

There isn’t a race fan in the United States who hasn’t heard the dulcet tones of Chris Economaki. One of the four faces on the Mt. Rushmore of race announcers, Economaki passed away this week at 91 years of age. There are many different moments in racing history that come to mind when you hear voices but I will always remember Economaki referring to the nose of an Indy car in the early ’80s as “a bulbous, W.C. Fields nose.” Godspeed, Chris.

Fuel mileage bites the No. 48 again. Johnson said as much in his post-race interview. The No. 48 team never does well when it comes to fuel mileage races. While Hendrick may be on top of the heap when it comes to several things in this sport, stretching fuel is most certainly not one of them. The question now is how many times it will come back to bite them in this Chase…

Ford still stinks. The blue oval only has two cars in the Chase and they don’t have any in the top 10 in points. Greg Biffle and Kenseth both led the point standings during the “regular season” and right now neither one of them is eligible to travel to Vegas for the post season awards banquet. As “Tom Bowles”:https://frontstretch.com/tbowles/41671/ wrote this morning, they’re on pace for their worst performance in the championship battle since 1982, when Dale Earnhardt finished 12th driving for Bud Moore.

Radio meltdowns are becoming more common than Kurt Busch changing rides. At Richmond and Chicago, Clint Bowyer sounded like he was passing a kidney stone while yelling at his team on the radio. This week, Biffle had more bleeps during his radio rant than Kurt Busch finding out they put starch in his boxers at the cleaners. Sure, there is pressure and drivers can get frustrated, but does screaming and swearing really help anything?

We’re on pace for the fewest crashes in the history of the Chase. We’re heading into Talladega, so this point will probably be rendered moot, but through three Chase races we have had a grand total of three caution flags for “wrecks.” Casey Mears and Gordon brought out yellow rags at Chicago and Kenseth “wrecked” at Dover when he spun and nudged his nose against the wall. Point racing is supposed to be out the window for any of the drivers outside of the Chase, but it sure seems like there isn’t anyone living on the edge in the Cup Series these days.

Marty Smith got booted from the pit studio. God love him, Smith was back where he belongs, on pit road, during the race this weekend. He got rid of the professor specs and looked more in his element than hanging out behind the desk with Nicole and the boys.

How did Dale Earnhardt Jr. go a lap down? ESPN showed Dale Jr. slow down to pit and then drive on, past the pace car, when the caution flag came out in the middle of the infamous green flag pit stops that put most of the field a lap down. When they came back from commercial and told the audience about the cars on the lead lap, Earnhardt was not one of them. Although Dave Burns tried to elaborate a little bit, there was never a real explanation. It would have been nice to hear what really happened.

Carl Edwards scored a top-five finish. Unlike last year, top fives have been extremely hard to come by for the driver of the No. 99 for Roush Fenway. In fact, this is the third top five of the season for Cousin Carl and the first since California in March. Unfortunately for his fans, the broadcast team never even mentioned it after the end of the race or (while we’re at it) any of the other non-Chase drivers not named Kyle Busch who ran worth a darn all day.

The Hindenburg Award for Foul Fortune

Things just keep going downhill for Kenseth. He bemoaned at Chicago the fact that parts keep falling off of his car. Although he was running in the best position of any Ford driver at Dover, the track bar mount fell off of the left side of his Ford. He came to the pits, the team applied some duct tape or something and sent him back out, only to have him spin out and bump the inside wall before heading to the garage to have the thing properly fixed. He ended the race running, but 29 laps down in 35th.

It is hard to call it foul fortune, because it is part of racing, but for Kyle Busch, Hamlin, and Bowyer, the vagaries of fuel mileage strategy took quality runs with potential race-winning cars and turned them into lap down finishes.

JJ Yeley got to pilot the No. 36 this week for Tommy Baldwin Racing. He started the race in 40th but quickly climbed into the top 30. He was heading into the pits for some new skins when the right front tire exploded on the back straight, bringing out a debris caution and ruining the handling on his car for the rest of the day. Yeley was poised for a great afternoon; instead, his only real claim of success ended up being finishing ahead of Kenseth, along with the infamy of trapping over half the field a lap or more off the pace.

Although the No. 22 is already slated for Joey Logano next season, Sam Hornish Jr. is still driving it for all he’s worth this year. He started the race in the fourth spot, dropped into the back half of the top 10 before he was caught by the caution flag on lap 70. He was still in the top 20 before another pit stop dropped him back into the low 20s. He battled his way all of the way back to 16th before the fuel mileage bug bit him and he ended the race in 25th place.

Most of the field was caught by the caution for Yeley’s exploding tire, one which left eight cars on the lead lap for the ensuing restart. With just five cautions in the event, and four of the five being at least 60 laps apart, the wave around never really came into play so the end of the race saw only six cars on the lead lap.

”The Seven Come For Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

Keselowski has been getting great fuel mileage all year but there was some doubt as to whether he would be able to make it to the finish when the race went back to green after the debris caution on lap 310. Three laps later, Kenseth went for a loop in turn four and the ensuing caution lasted four laps which, as it turned out, saved Keselowski enough fuel to not only win the race but do several burnouts during his victory celebration.

Although it might seem like a bad break, the fact that Kyle Busch, Hamlin, and Bowyer were able to stay on the lead lap early enabled them to finish in the top 10 late when they ran low on fuel because so few cars were on the lead lap.

When Kenseth slid off of the track and brought out the final caution of the race, Gordon dove onto pit road to top off his fuel tank. As the race unfolded and the leaders went into fuel conservation mode, Gordon started clipping off fast lap after fast lap. He looked poised to give Keselowski a run for his money but the handle went away as the final laps drew to a close. His second-place finish did move him out of last place in the Chase standings, but he still lost ground to the leader and is out of contention for a title this year.

Edwards was given the Lucky Dog pass on the second caution of the event. On the third and fourth yellow flag sessions, he was very close to going a lap down but managed to stay in front of the leader long enough for the caution to come out and let him catch back up to the field. Edwards didn’t pass many cars during the race but his timing was pretty impeccable all day and that luck was rewarded with a top-five finish.

You have to be a nuclear physicist to understand how the prize money is awarded for Cup series races, so I won’t try and explain this. In nothing short of Monkey Business, Landon Cassill crossed the finish line in the 36th position. He was awarded $97,280 for his effort. Logano scored a top-10 finish for the 11th time this year, 11 times more than Mr. Cassill, and scored the tidy sum of $95,535. Not sure how that math on that works out, but there is no way it can be anything but stupid.

Worth Noting

  • Keselowski won his fifth race of the season and second in the Chase. That ties him with Hamlin for the lead in victories in the series.
  • Keselowski has won nine races in his Cup career, eight of which have come in the last two years.
  • Keselowski is the point leader for the second time since the start of the Chase after he and Johnson have exchanged the top spot for each of the first three races.
  • Gordon’s runner-up finish was his eighth top-two and 15th top-five finish in 40 Dover starts.
  • Martin’s third-place finish was his 15th top-three result and 24th top five in his 53 career Dover starts.
  • Johnson did not lead the most laps for the first time in eight races at Dover.
  • Johnson’s fourth-place finish is his 11th top-five result in 22 Dover starts in his career.
  • The top-five finish for Edwards, while only his third for the season, was his eighth of his career at Dover in 17 starts.
  • In a surprise to no one, in the traditional point system, Johnson would have taken over the point lead by six over Junebug and seven over the Kes.
  • From the ‘If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’ files: The latest rumor in the Nationwide Series is that Elliott Sadler and Brian Vickers will both be driving for JGR next season in full-time rides.
  • In the race of the weekend, Nelson Piquet Jr. sailed it into turn one underneath Matt Crafton on the final lap in Vegas and came up the big winner in the Truck Series. After winning the race in Michigan earlier this year on fuel strategy, this one was all about racing for the win.

What’s the Points?

Keselowski stretched the fuel and stretched his points so that he is now your point leader by five over Johnson. Johnson and Keselowski have taken turns leading the points after each of the first three point races. Hamlin, who was on top of the heap after the points were monkeyed around for the start of the Chase, is now sitting in third, 16 points behind the leader. Although there is a ton of racing still to go, it is going to take some crazy misfortune for one of these three to not hoist the trophy when the checkers fly in Homestead.

Bowyer was on the lead lap when the caution flew the first time — and he stayed there the rest of the race. His splash and go at the end dropped him from the lead lap but he finished in ninth and is now fourth in the point standings. In an odd twist of fate, Kasey Kahne has been tied with someone every week of the Chase. This week he’s tied with Tony Stewart for fifth, 32 points out of the top spot. Although far from mathematically eliminated, the two of them are on life support.

From Earnhardt Jr. on down in the point standings, the party is over. 39 or more points out of the lead is simply too much to overcome in seven races. That many points can be made up on one person, but when you have to leapfrog six other drivers as well, it just isn’t going to happen. Enjoy your handsome parting gifts.

Overall Rating (from one to six beers, with one being a total snoozer and a six-pack an A+ effort): This one was well on the way to a debatable two to three can snoozer before the fuel strategy angle came into play over the last 90 laps. Although it only added enough intrigue to pull the rating up to a weak four-can affair, the way the end of the race played out was enough to salvage it from a third straight half or less of a six-pack effort. Four cans of Schlitz is hardly a big winner, but it at least kept those people watching from falling asleep during the final 50 laps.

Next Up: The one they all talk about: the crapshoot that is Talladega. With tandem racing no longer a viable alternative, at least until the last two laps, plus a rule package that frequently forces cars to back off or blow up, this very well may be just another bad hole card rather than a wild card. Here’s hoping that the excitement level at the biggest track on the circuit lives up to the hype.

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