NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin’s Thinkin’ Out Loud: Bristol-1 Race Recap

The Key Moment – Brad Keselowski, the race leader, never got up to speed on the final restart, allowing Kasey Kahne and Kyle Busch to pass him before the first corner. While Keselowski and Busch battled over second, Kahne drove off to a win.

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Kasey Kahne crossed one off the NASCAR bucket list Sunday with his first Sprint Cup win at one of the sport’s legendary tracks: Bristol.

In a Nutshell – New car, new track, same old Bristol racing.

Dramatic Moment – There’s many to choose from, including that final restart, but my nod goes to the incident where Jeff Gordon blew a tire while leading and took out second-place contender Matt Kenseth. It’s rare these days you see the entire complexion of the race change in the blink of an eye. (Or during commercial break, in this case… sigh.)

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

OK, a pretty good race. So was it the new Gen-6 car or the new Bristol track surface that returned some action to Thunder Valley? I’m going to guess that the track configuration deserves more of the credit considering both Saturday’s Nationwide race and Sunday’s Cup event were barn-burners, armed with two completely different sorts of cars on the track. Am I going to get fined 25 grand for saying that?

It was hard not to notice vast swathes of empty seats in the grandstands at a track that once sold out 55 consecutive Cup races. My guess, though is that Sunday did more to sell tickets for Bristol’s August night race than all the clever commercials and promotions Bruton Smith can dream up. The proof of the pudding is in the tasting, and Sunday’s race was just about spot on. Now if he could just get the local hospitality (hostility?) industry to offer hotel rooms for under 400 bucks a night, we might see the stands full again sometime soon.

When, exactly did the old restart rules go out the window? Before my time as a writer, as long as I’ve been a fan (and we’re talking almost five decades here) I’ve understood that the leader decides the pace of the restart. If the second-place driver is first to the line, they have two choices: either surrender the position or get black-flagged. (Ask Carl Edwards.) If the new rule is that once the second-place driver restarts inside the restart “box,” the race is on, I’m fine with that. It’d make for more exciting racing, but I hate to hand NASCAR officials another “judgment call” because they don’t have the best record of consistency in such matters. In other forms of auto racing, if the restart is questionable track officials will wave it off, line everyone back up and try it again. And I’m not talking little dirt track hobby stock races, either. I’ve seen it happen at the Indy 500.

It would appear that after a week of public furor, in the wake of Denny Hamlin’s $25,000 fine all parties would like to sweep this unsightly mess under the carpet. Hamlin’s penalty for his post-Phoenix comments that the Gen Six (sux?) car was a work in progress were clearly evident to anyone who’d managed to stay awake for the entire 500-kilometer event. Fans didn’t need Hamlin to tell them that the new car needed some tweaking; after all, there was almost zero side-by-side racing they’ve all so desperately wanted. It seems even some folks in the NASCAR hierarchy are admitting now, way off the record, Hamlin’s fine was an overreaction and an unnecessary distraction that cast more light on the issue than his actual comments warranted. Additionally, almost all sources say that the person behind the fine was Brian France. Color me surprised… but here’s the weird part. When’s the last time France was actually around at the conclusion of a race to listen to what anyone had to say?

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Denny Hamlin stood alone amongst his peers in earning a $25,000 fine for Gen-6 criticism. But did many of them intentionally leave him alone, twisting in the wind once it happened?

A couple things really bothered me about Hamlin’s fine and its resolution. Firstly, it didn’t seem like enough contemporaries in the garage area rallied to his support. Rather, most ducked like scared little rabbits into their warren to avoid the topic. Anyone else remember the movie The Stepford Wives? Secondly, Hamlin now says he’s on the “same page” as Brian France on the issue. Note to Mr. Hamlin: If you’re on the same page as Brian France, not only are you reading the wrong book, you’re in the wrong library. Hamlin did hint that one of the reasons he was so enraged by the fine is he feels other drivers have had more controversial comments and not been penalized. He feels after his eight years in the sport, along with his notable accomplishments during that period he should have earned the same respect from NASCAR given to the sport’s other top stars. He hinted broadly that it seemed the Hendrick Motorsports drivers can get away with almost anything, on or off the track. It’s interesting to note that when Kyle Busch won the first Gen-5 (aka Car of Tomorrow) race, he proclaimed in Victory Lane the car “sucked.” He was not fined for the remark, and – coincidentally – he was driving for HMS in that era.

It also rather bothered me that Hamlin said the matter wasn’t worth pursuing because the amount in dispute was “only” $25,000 dollars. Driver No. 11 needs to recall his fine is more than some of his fans clear, post-taxes in a year. If $25,000 is nothing, I could use it anyway, Denny.

Listen, I am Irish. And old. I’ve been celebrating St. Patty’s Day since it meant sneaking a Schlitz out of my dad’s case in the garage. I can say with authority Saint Patrick’s Day was not named after Danica, despite the FOX TV network’s attempt to canonize her as the Patron Saint of Failing TV Ratings. The only thing Saint Patty and Danica have in common is they both wear green a lot.

Rain fell in Bristol Sunday morning and threatened all day. So where was NASCAR’s new “suck truck” that Brian France is so proud of? Still sitting at Daytona. Apparently, they haven’t figured out a way to transport that vehicle from track to track yet. Or maybe it’s still being fitted with its “glass dashboard.”

Penske Racing’s defection to Ford is fortuitous for the Blue Oval Boys. With Brad Keselowski posting four top-5 finishes, in four races they’ve pretty much been carrying their flag this year.

Saturday was a cold, rainy and at times even snowy day with slate gray clouds seemingly at treetop level here in South Central PA. I think Admiral Byrd would have refused an expedition to my mailbox. To pass the time on such days, I routinely root through my collection of old car magazines, particularly Car and Driver, and re-read road tests from an era when Hemi Cudas, Daytonas (both of the 365 and Charger form) Cobra Jets and LS6 powered Chevelles roamed the earth, fighting for street supremacy. Why bring this up? It seems while NASCAR is facing several more lawsuits, from fans injured in Daytona’s Nationwide race their defense seems to be “nobody could have seen this coming.” Really? Legendary auto writer Brock Yates wrote, back in the day, “Racing experts are in almost total agreement that fans in the lower seats at Daytona are in great danger, both from a car bounding into the stands and from flying debris. They must be better protected from both hazards.” That, my friends was written in the May 1968 issue of Car and Driver in a recount of a race that ran in February that same year. (Page 91 if you have access to a copy.)

OK, I give up. What was a guy dressed as a banana doing backstage at drivers intros?

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

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Tony Stewart’s rolling his eyes at a bad-luck start to 2013. It’s one that’s left all three of his Stewart-Haas Racing teams outside the top 20 in owner points.

Last week’s winner, Matt Kenseth was challenging Jeff Gordon for the top spot and probably would have had him within a lap. That’s when Gordon blew a tire and collected the No. 20 car, causing his second trip to the garage in four races (35th). It’s a cruel sport, this NASCAR; you’re in the penthouse one week and the outhouse the next.

The race was only nine laps down when Tony Stewart lost a tire and tore his car to shreds. Where there’s Smoke, there’s suffering as of late; 31st is his third finish outside the top 10 in four races.

Jeff Burton suffered an unusual problem when his foot got stuck between the throttle pedal and the firewall as he attempted to lift for a wreck. He wound up 32nd.

Joey Logano was running second when he and Denny Hamlin had a little dispute over who should have the spot. The ill will then spilled over after the race in a brief but heated conversation in the garage area. That’s the second time (add in: Daytona 500) these former teammates have now tangled in 2013. Do we have the makings of a rivalry here?

Hamlin clearly had one of the fastest cars at Bristol, but lost the handle late (23rd). For the final seven laps, he crawled around using the wall like a bank on a pool table trying to keep the No. 11 in the pocket.

Jimmie Johnson, a picture of consistency this year to date, finally felt the fickle finger of fate when he blew a tire and slammed the wall. He ran 22nd.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

Kasey Kahne had his car all sorts of sideways several times in his charge to the front. You also have to think he was getting pretty nervous there, at the end having seen two of his teammates lose tires and clobber the wall.

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Pole winner Kyle Busch had his struggles, at times Sunday but fought back from penalties and handling problems to score a second-place result.

Kyle Busch looked to be going for a weekend sweep, winning both practice sessions, the Cup pole and Saturday’s N.W. race. He, in fact, dominated early on Sunday but once again drew a pit road speeding penalty and was sent to the back of the pack. Considering that obstacle, second was a nice recovery.

After a disastrous 2012 Cup season and a slow start to this one Jamie McMurray was finally enjoying a good run in third when he spun out. Slowly but surely, McMurray rallied back to a credible 10th-place finish, his best so far in 2013. These days, such results at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing are rarer than graduating virgins at Penn State.

Kurt Busch had a top-10 run going when he ducked into the pits under green with a flat tire. He fell off the lead lap, but bounced back, charging to fourth in a rarity for his underfunded Furniture Row Racing team.

We’ll finish up with two drivers who are consistently strong in Thunder Valley as of late. In his first Cup start, in 2013 Brian Vickers managed a credible eighth-place finish, on the lead lap in the No. 55 Toyota. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. also drove well, moving up from a 32nd-place starting spot to sixth.

Worth Noting

  • All three previous Cup race winners to date this season wrecked at Bristol.
  • The win was only Kahne’s second on a short track. His first career Cup win occurred at Richmond in 2005.
  • Kurt Busch (fourth) drove to his best finish since he was third last year at Sonoma. These two races represent the only two top-5 finishes he’s earned since his self-inflicted departure from Penske Racing.
  • The top-10 finishers at Bristol drove six Holdens, three Toyotas and a Ford.
  • Keselowski has top-5 finishes in all four of this season’s Cup points races. Earnhardt has top-10 results in all four.
  • Johnson failed to lead a lap in a points event for the first time this season.
  • Clint Bowyer’s fifth-place finish was his best of the year.
  • In one of those statistical quirks, Greg Biffle’s average starting position and finish in 2013 are both 12.8. (He was 11th Sunday).
  • McMurray’s 10th-place performance was his best since he finished seventh in this event last year.

What’s the Points?

Reigning champ Keselowski is back atop the point standings. Previous leader Johnson fell two spots to third, with Earnhardt sandwiched between them. Clint Bowyer and Greg Biffle round out the top 5.

It’s still way too early to fixate on the championship, but it is notable that every driver from ninth on back has already spotted more than a full race’s worth of points to Keselowski. Already, there’s a bit of a chasm keeping those drivers on the right side of the Chase.

Among those who need to turn their seasons around, four races in we find Kenseth (13th), Kevin Harvick (17th), Gordon (21st) and Stewart (24th).

Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans with one being a stinker and a six pack an instant classic) — We’ll give this one four icy cold bottles of Corona (dyed green, of course) with an oversize shot of Gentleman Jack as a chaser. The closing laps couldn’t rival Saturday’s race, but there was intense, side-by-side competition throughout the field all day.

Next Up – The series heads off west (for the third time this season) to compete in the annual snoozefest at Fontana. On a brighter note, fans still battling the ill effects of last weekend’s lost hour of sleep to Daylight Savings Time ought to get back on schedule with a long afternoon nap. Here’s a surprise: good seats are still available for Sunday. And trust me, they will be… right up until the wrecking balls consign them to a landfill so a new mall can be built on the former site of this failed track. Turns out, even in the best of times at Fontana there’s no such thing as a good seat for a bad race.

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