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(Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography)

Thinkin’ Out Loud: Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard

The Key Moment

Denny Hamlin took the lead from Clint Bowyer by pitting two laps earlier than the No. 14. He seemed to have the car to beat Bowyer when a pair of backmarkers, Landon Cassill and Jeffrey Earnhardt, wrecked with six laps to go and bought out a caution. Brad Keselowski was able to get by Hamlin in the closing laps on fresher tires after Hamlin elected to stay on track.

In a Nutshell

All of the sizzle with damn little steak.

Dramatic Moment

On that final restart, Keselowski and Hamlin took off the gloves and made hard contact more than once racing to the checkers.

What They’ll Be Talking About Around the Water Cooler

How about a new rule for the backmarkers?  With 10 laps to go, if you are five or more laps down and can’t advance your position anyway, you park for the day and let the lead lap cars battle it out? We’ve finally gotten rid of drivers in heavily damaged cars running around, shedding parts like a pup fresh out of the creek sheds fleas. Now, let’s get the backmarkers out of the way.

Also, why would NASCAR open pit road with a tow truck and a stricken car parked in two competitors’ stalls?

In just about every instance around every water cooler all over this great country, they’ll likely be talking about NFL football tomorrow. In some rare instances, they might be talking about college football instead. But few people will be discussing stock car racing after a rain-delayed regular-season finale the same weekend as NFL’s season openers. So much for the playoffs catapulting NASCAR to the top of the televised sports ranks.

The folks at NASCAR and Indy decided that moving the race from the sweltering heat of a midwest August to a date in early September would provide better weather and sell more tickets. How’d that work out for y’all? You can gamble on cards, gamble on the ponies or gamble on football but there’s no sense gambling on the weather.

Normally, the death of a largely ornamental songbird is barely noted in the vast ecosystem. But when it’s a canary in a coal mine, the death of that bird is an alarm that has to be heeded instantly. Last week, Barney Visser announced he will be shutting down his No. 78 team at the end of the season. 5-hour ENERGY decided not to renew its deal with the program and that left the outfit without a sponsor for 14 races next season. Despite being the reigning series championship team and having won 12 races between this year and last, Visser was unable to find a replacement sponsor for those 14 events.

Visser’s decision to shut his doors sent a clear message. In this era of falling attendance, TV ratings and ever-escalating costs to race in NASCAR’s top three touring divisions, something has gone very badly askew. Keep in mind Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 team still hasn’t gotten (or at least announced) a sponsor for next year. NASCAR’s deal with Monster Energy as title sponsor is up after next year as well. There’s a whole bunch of pigs trying to get fed out of an ever-dwindling trough and I expect to hear a whole lot of squealing going forward.

Kasey Kahne announced earlier this week that he’d be sitting out the Brickyard and turning his ride over to Regan Smith. Kahne apparently suffered from heat exhaustion after last week’s Southern 500 and he has had an ongoing issue with getting dehydrated during races despite making concerted efforts to hydrate himself in the days leading up to a race. Kahne held a brave but troubling news conference at Indy indicating that he might be sitting out more than just one race especially with the circuit headed off to the Nevada desert next week. He’s apparently not going to rush back to driving until the doctors solve the mystery of what’s going on with his health.

Having already announced he’s retiring from racing in the Cup Series this season, it’s an open question whether Kahne will or should be back at all. Based on what I’ve read, a body having difficulty regulating its temperature can be related to Repetitive Concussion Syndrome. Kahne has taken some hard hits during his career that clearly left him somewhat disoriented at times. After his lap 3 wreck at Pocono in 2015 Kahne was clearly clueless as to where he was and what had happened. By his own admission, he was having problems including lucidity and vision during the last 100 laps of the Southern 500 and shouldn’t have been in the car. Better to retire on his own terms than to risk further injury going for one more bite from the apple.

Like Kahne, Dale Earnhardt Jr. decided to retire before he had to with an eye toward his long-term health. That sort of decision was once unthinkable in a Cup Series where drivers had spent most of their lives trying to make it to the big leagues. In 1980, Richard Petty ran several races with a broken neck even knowing another hard hit would likely kill him or leave him paralyzed in a quixotic attempt to win an eighth title. Please note I am not extolling such a decision or calling today’s crop of drivers wimps. Earnhardt did the right thing and it looks like Kahne will as well. I’m just pointing out how very different things are today when it comes to drivers and concerns about their health and future.

Is there anything more dangerous than a TV network trying to broadcast a stock car race during a long weather delay? It’s like the inmates have taken over the asylum. Even with 25 years’ worth of Brickyard 400s to choose highlights from NBC’s three-minute attempt at a highlight reel showed mainly wrecks. Who knew that NBC stood for “Nothing But Crashes?”

If any of their four teams that are in the playoffs are going to have a legitimate shot at the title, the Stewart-Haas Racing camp is going to have to clean up their acts on pit road. Between crew member fumbles, questionable strategy, equipment failures and driver errors, far too often they’ve found a way to grab defeat out of the jaws of victory. These mistakes seem to be a perennial problem for this outfit.

Back at the end of the season, there was a lot of discussion about NASCAR’s new rule requiring race engines be used more than once during the year. I haven’t heard anything about that as of late. Are any of the playoff contenders in trouble as far as meeting those engine requirements?

Hindenburg Award for Foul Fortune

Kyle Busch’s day at Indy was anything but uneventful. He missed the pits trying to make his first stop. He then made a rare unforced error while warming up his tires for a restart and drove into the grass on the inside of the track. As wet and muddy as the ground was, that could easily have torn the splitter off his Toyota, but the No. 18 car survived with minimal damage. Busch drove his way back to the front, then wound up penalized for entering the pits when the pits were already closed. Apparently, Busch was about three feet short of crossing the pit entry line when the red light went on, closing the pits. He rallied back to finish eighth after all that.

It wasn’t a good week for Martin Truex Jr. who learned that his Furniture Row Racing team won’t be returning next year. On Monday, he was listed as not finishing the race due to brake problems, the first mechanical DNF for Truex since Sonoma last year. That’s the sort of issue the team likely would have found and diagnosed if they’d had even a handful of laps of practice prior to the race.

The same could be said for Bubba Wallace’s brake failure, I’d wager. That was the second time Wallace lost his brakes on a high-speed oval track and while the wreck wasn’t as awful looking as the one in Turn 1 at Pocono, it was still a nasty hit.

The “Seven Come ‘Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

Winner Keselowski’s day could easily have been over when he tangled with his teammate Ryan Blaney on pit road early in the race. But the No. 2 Ford team fought back and kept their composure.

While he wound up 12th after a jack failure on pit road, for the first time since he returned to NASCAR racing, Matt Kenseth led some laps and looked like he was going to be a player in the outcome of the race.

Worth Noting

Johnson finished Monday’s race 16th. That’s just a position better than his 17th-place finishing position overall this season. While Johnson has 10 more races to improve that average, right now he’s on track to post his worst career year-long average finishing spot. Last year, he averaged a 16.8. I’m going to want some very long odds to wager on the No. 48 winning the title this year.

A Ford pilot won for the fourth weekend in a row and the 13th time this season. Chevy drivers have amassed just two wins: Austin Dillon at Daytona and Chase Elliott at Watkins Glen. Toyotas have won the other 11 points races this season.

SHR has won nine races this year. JGR has won seven while their soon to be departed satellite team FRR won four. Team Penske has now won three.

Hamlin’s third-place finish matches his best of this season. Hamlin has now finished third four times in 2018.

Bowyer’s fifth-place finish was his best result since Chicago.

Don’t look now, but Kurt Busch now has scored eight consecutive top-10 finishes.

Elliott’s 15th-place finish ended a streak of six straight top-10 results. To channel our old buddy from RPM 2Night weekends, Rece Davis, Elliott remains popular.

The race was the third one postponed until Monday due to weather this season. The others were the spring races at Martinsville and Bristol. In addition, the first race at Michigan was cut short due to rain.

Overall Rating

Monday’s Brickyard 400 was a decidedly ordinary race right up until the end. That final restart and some aggressive driving earned it an extra can and perhaps a Rolling Rock Battle-pony, so I’ll give it 4.5 cans.

How many beers would you give Monday's race at Indianapolis?

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What’s the Points?

After the race, a clearly irritated third-place finisher, Hamlin, was asked about the playoffs that start next week. “I really don’t care about the playoffs,” Hamlin replied rather bluntly. Mr. Hamlin, on behalf of myself and most race fans I know, I couldn’t agree more.

OK, are we talking points, playoff points or magic fairy dust points? (They found a bag of them in Brian France’s car up on Long Island.)

For the record, Kyle Busch wound up as the Cup Regular Season points champion, which earned him 15 bonus playoff points. Busch officially beat Harvick in regular season points by 41 markers. But Busch and Kevin Harvick both wound up with 2,050 points headed into the playoffs next week. (Presuming everyone passes post-race inspection with no penalties.)

The biggest beneficiary of the playoff system is Austin Dillon. He finished 19th in regular season points but is listed as tied for ninth with Erik Jones entering the playoffs. Some will say that a driver who wins the Daytona 500 ought to be in the postseason that season anyway. But the same can be said for the driver who wins at New Hampshire under the current rules.

There wasn’t much drama as far as the points in the last regular season race. The 16 drivers who started the race holding a playoff berth ended the day that way as well. The last time a driver fell out of the top 16 (and thus necessarily another driver entered the top 16) was at the Michigan race in early June. That’s when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. dropped out of a playoff spot, allowing Alex Bowman to enter.

Next Up

Someone text Gil Grissom and Sarah Sidle because after a short workweek and a quick turnaround, the Cup Series heads for Las Vegas. In this case, we don’t have a “Whodunnit?” on our hands but likely a “Why’d they bother?”

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About Matt McLaughlin

Matt McLaughlin
Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.

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15 comments

  1. Matt, why should a driver cease to be popular because he finished 16th? Your hatred of the Elliott family reaches new heights every week. You are a bitter old man holding a 30-year grudge.

  2. Matt, why should a driver cease to be popular because he finishes 16th? Your hatred of the Elliott family reaches new heights every week. You are nothing but a bitter old man holding a 30-year grudge.

  3. A few exciting laps at the end of a race do not make for an exciting race…it makes an exciting finish. And that assumes you managed to stay awake through the boredom to even see the last few laps. Racing at Indy may pay big $, but it certainly lacks entertainment value.

  4. Nice to have you as a substitute writer for this page. Agree with what you said. But I gave it a point because it was better than almost all of the brickyards. Maybe we should run all Brickyards with no practice or qualifying.

  5. Never been a fan of JJ but Yeah it would be great if JJ would get #8. I could laugh at what ever spin NASCAR would put on that. I bet JJ and Mr. H would have no shame in accepting it.

  6. A tow truck on pit row and blaney gets penalized for a tire unattended. What a joke. For Nascar the self inflicted head wounds continue. They weren’t satisfied with shooting themselves in the foot. Stage racing is a joke. And yes, it’s killed the road courses. And the race was a typical charade parade. To the France family. Sell Nascar before it’s too late.

  7. i realized when i got home i missed the race. no big deal i thought.

    i see where kyle b needs his crying towel.

    so kyle b got a trophy for being “regular season” champion. more nonsence.

  8. I hope JJ gets #8 for the sake of showing how ridiculous nascar has become.

    • In a way it would almost be worth it to see J-Jo get #8 without winning a race. But that won’t happen due to the instructions in the driver’s meeting at Homestead. We all know the winner will be one of the lucky four.

  9. This year had the least drama ever as to who was going to make the chase after the final race.

    The stages and predictable cautions that come with them continue to allow teams to pre-plan their pit stops instead of having to react to the events of the race as they happen. Personally, I don’t like that and feel it has taken something away from the race.