(Photo: Getty Images/NASCAR Media)

Beside the Rising Tide: Matt McLaughlin Thinks Out Loud After Darlington 2020, Round 1

In a Nutshell: For years I wrote on a Sunday night deadline (that sometimes stretched to the point my alarm clock was going off while I was still trying to clean up the punctuation) for at least a half-dozen websites in various forms and under various titles. At Frontstretch, that column continues on in an updated format, to this day ably penned by my cohort Bryan Davis Keith (no relation to the frazzled adoptive dad on Family Affair) under the Thinkin’ Out Loud title. 

Given my proclivity for using a great many words when far fewer would suffice, these random notes columns were an attempt to pare down my column lengths to something more manageable than War and Peace. The “In a Nutshell” section was intended to sum up the race in two or three sentences or less. Right towards the end of those random notes columns, I typically rated that weekend’s race on a scale of a single beer to a full six-pack for an instant classic, given my great love for great amounts of suds back then. Bryan still uses that same rating scale to this day. 

So how might I have rated NASCAR’s return to real racing late afternoon Sunday (sigh)? I’ll grade on a curve and give the race five icy cold cans of Colorado Kool-Ade. Yes, there were long stretches where Darlington became a “no-passing zone” (eventual winner Kevin Harvick led 81 laps mid-race and the final 78), which would normally earn the race only an “average” rating. But to channel Garrison Keillor, at Darlington, even an average race is above average. Such is the rich history of the track and the high rate of tire wear caused by its notoriously abrasive track surface that has some drivers hollering for four fresh Eagles before they’ve even made it off pit road after a stop. Debate if you will whether Sunday’s event was a really good race, but I think the vast majority of us will agree it was good to have “real” racing back again after an unplanned 10-week hiatus. 

Another section of those old columns (which despite what you might have heard were not submitted in crayon) was “The Hindenburg Award for Foul Fortune.” Ironically, it took me two to three years to start spelling “Hindenburg” correctly. And no editor caught the error.

KEITH: THINKIN’ OUT LOUD AFTER DARLINGTON

It’s hard to imagine any driver more deserving of that award than Ricky Stenhouse Jr. After being sidelined (along with the rest of the Traveling Circus) for 10 weeks, Stenhouse failed to complete even a single lap before thoroughly destroying his Chevy. Stenhouse already has a reputation of being a dart without feathers, and crashing out without completing a single lap will only hand his detractors a fresh load of ammunition. To his credit, Stenhouse took full blame for the incident. But then again, what was he going to say? “Hoo-ray for me?”

Perhaps, there was in fact one Cup star that had an even worse Sunday afternoon than the former arm candy to Danica Patrick. Imagine the feelings of Kyle Larson as he watched the field take the green flag without him – presuming he in fact watched the race. All because of one egregious and highly offensive word he used in the midst of what amounted to a video game. Stella, Stella! I could have been a contender! 

While he did manage to complete 89 laps, my guess is that Jimmie Johnson also won’t recall his Sunday afternoon drive this weekend fondly. The seven-time champion was leading the race when he ran into Chris Buescher in what by all appearances was an unforced error, perhaps aided and abetted by a deflating tire. Perhaps that’s why Johnson’s winless streak in Cup points races has reached a once-unthinkable 100 events in length. To finish first, first, you have to finish. Johnson’s trademark for much of his career had been to run competently for most of a race before hitting the afterburner switch late in the event. I think that’s one of the reasons some fans disliked Johnson with such a passion; just when it appeared you could write him off for the afternoon, the No. 48 Chevy blew past your favorite driver like he’d dropped anchor and given up. Instead, over this long winless streak, it has often appeared that Johnson has been determined to wrest defeat from the jaws of victory late in an event. So what’s the prescription to return Johnson to victory lane? Is there a Knaus in the house? 

One thing Johnson had going for him Sunday was that while most fans were barred from attending the race, Johnson was able to bring along two of his cheerleaders. Unfortunately for most, they were FOX booth-mates Jeff Gordon and Mike Joy. They weren’t five minutes into the broadcast of the first race broadcast in 10 weeks before both were singing Johnson love sonnets. When the lap 89 incident took place, both broadcasters quickly absolved Johnson of any culpability in the incident. 

While I’m sure Ally appreciates all the camera time their car gets despite its long absence from Victory Lane, a growing number of fans I hear from find the love-fest nauseating. 

The award for Fine Fortune on Sunday obviously goes to Harvick. Sunday’s victory was his 50th Cup points race win, which leaves Harvick tied with NASCAR legends Junior Johnson and Ned Jarrett in fifth on the all-time wins list. Perhaps it’s of note that all three of those drivers are perhaps best recalled for their success at the wheel of Fords. Harvick obviously took over the RCR Chevy ride after Dale Earnhardt’s untimely passing. Junior Johnson had a lot of success at the wheels of Chevys and Pontiacs before the GM racing ban of the early ’60s. Jarrett won the first of his two championships at the wheel of a B.G. Holloway Chevy back in 1961. But all three drivers are perhaps best recalled for their success in Fords. 

A nod for good fortune also has to go out to Matt Kenseth, who got a top-10 finish in his return to Cup racing after stepping away from the circus for a couple years. Maybe Neil Young was wrong. Rust does in fact sleep in Wisconsin. 

Ryan Newman finished 15th Sunday, but given the severity of his wreck at Daytona in February, the fact he survived and is able to race at all must count as fine fortune. Newman revealed last week his crash helmet was “shattered” during the Daytona wreck. I’ve gotta admit that’s a new one on me. The unexpected break in the season means Newman only missed three races, and if he can win a race (and crack the top 30 in points) he’s been granted a waiver to compete for this year’s Cup title. 

The Key Moment: The race was ultimately decided by a spirited and protracted side-by-side battle between Harvick and Alex Bowman on the final restart. Bowman seemed to have the faster car, but Harvick had a bit more “wanna” and refused to yield the top spot. 

While NASCAR’s first attempt at “real racing” has been by and large been judged a success, there’s some irony in that right as the broadcast touted everyone’s determination at maintaining social distancing (a term I hope will hit the scrap pile as quickly as “bell-bottoms,” “platform shoes” and “disco”), the video in the background showed team members doing exactly the opposite. Later in the race, some spotters seated in the upper-levels of the grandstands were asked to spread out a bit. 

Perhaps it was too much to expect perfect social distancing the first time out. I seem to recall that human beings are social by nature. Given the normal state of things, we tend to congregate together. I forget if “abnormal psychology” was a required course or my diagnosis when I was in college, but at my age now when I meet a new person I’m still extending a right hand to greet them. Old habits die hard. Recall that while NASCAR can control team members and drivers’ behavior rather easily through fines and suspensions, all bets are off once the fans are allowed to return to the grandstands. I’d be flat-out shocked if race fans are allowed to return to the grandstands before August, despite the simmering and in some cases, overheated feelings of a lot of people towards the “Stay at Home” rules many states are still recommending, if not enforcing. 

As such, while I understand the need to limit the number of people on hand and how long a race day’s activities last, even absent qualifying and practice, I feel NASCAR’s method of determining pit positions and the starting lineup needs to be reconsidered. While he drove a hell of a race, Harvick’s cause was greatly aided by a great pit stall.

That apple cart will be upset for Wednesday night’s race. The top-20 finishers from Sunday’s race will start inverted in positions 1 through 20. The bottom-20 finishing cars from Sunday’s race will start in the finishing order behind the top 20, with the 40th-place finisher Sunday (Stenhouse) starting 39th (editor’s note: Josh Bilicki and the No. 7 team will not contest Wednesday’s race) and the 21st-place finisher (Bubba Wallace) starting 21st. That, of course, is open to change, and I think a change should be made. Past performance is not an indicator of future success. Given the advantages of a good pit stall and forward track position, if there can be no qualifying or practice I think there should be a random draw to determine both. There’s just too much on the line to do otherwise. 

Certainly, the silence after the conclusion of a race that fans weren’t able to attend was outright weird compared to the brouhaha that typically erupts after the checkered flag waves, while everyone digs around at the bottom of their coolers looking for that last beer (Kudos to the flagman for applauding Harvick solo.) But in the end, I guess that’s the “new normal” for now. This too shall pass. 

While there was concern some teams might be attempting to push the limits of the rules given the condensed length of the race weekend (day) and the fact everyone was getting their sea-legs back, only the No. 18 Toyota of Kyle Busch failed to set through pre-race inspection twice. Busch was sent to the tail end of the field for the start of the race. It seems, starting late last season and through the abortive start to this one, the JGR Camrys are running afoul of the rules with some frequency. Busch went on to finish 26th after that bizarre Darlington Stripe he earned that sent an adhesive-backed advertising banner onto the racetrack (where it caused further havoc), though he had been running inside the top 10 in later portions of the race. He also finished second at Fontana and third at Phoenix earlier this year. But it would seem that the JGR dominance in Cup racing ended about the same time that the tech infractions started increasing. Perhaps that’s just a coincidence? 

Up Next: Are you ready for this? The next Cup race takes place Wednesday night at 7:30 on FS1 (our buddies on the FOX mothership will be broadcasting The Masked Singer and “pro-wrassling” instead of racing. I guess they don’t love us anymore.) What’s more, there’s a Xfinity Series race to be run between now and then. I’ve been calling for mid-week races to be added to the schedule in an attempt to limit the length of the season, so it’s time to lay down the cards. Either the event is a success or I’ll be eating some Kentucky Fried Crow. To state the obvious, “good seats still remain” because nobody can buy a ticket to any of the upcoming races. 

In Closing: The preliminary numbers are in, and the TV ratings from Sunday’s Darlington race earned a 3.7 Nielsen rating. Frankly, given the dearth of competition for viewers and the fact even media outlets that normally ignore any form of motorsports coverage were heralding the return of live sports on their front pages, I expected the ratings to be somewhat higher. Still a 3.7 is nothing to sneeze at. For comparison’s sake, this year’s second points-paying event at Vegas earned a 3.24 rating. Sunday’s race earned a Cup event its highest rating outside of the Daytona 500 since 2017. 

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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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7 comments

  1. Avatar
    Shayne Flaherty

    I watched the start of the race and the last 50 laps or so. Seems to be the norm for me over the past 15 years or so.

    4 NFL players were taken into custody on Saturday. Haven’t heard if any of them have been fired or whether or not any NFL sponsors/partners have demanded they be kicked to the curb.

    Kyle Larson should have played in the NFL.

  2. Avatar

    i know i live confused, but is this all Matt’s writing?

    the new normal confuses me at times.

  3. Avatar

    It will be hard to judge how successful a midweek race will be if one of the variables, fan attendance, isn’t able to be measured. So, it might be acceptable now when no fans are allowed, but once fans are allowed will they show up on a Wednesday night.

    The cheer leading for Johnson is another reason most fans will be glad to see him leaving. I doubt the cheer leading will change when the torch is passed to NBC later in the season.

    • Avatar

      nope cause of earnhardt and letart.

      burton will probably be happy about the return of kenseth.

  4. Avatar

    As I wrote on a different article comment section yesterday, Fox needs to get Gordon to stop being such a Johnson homer. Johnson caused his own wreck by needlessly being anywhere near the 17 car on that lap. The second place driver was not close so discretion was needed. Gordon squarely placing the blame on Buescher for getting “loose” was bush-league at best. Any driver would get loose when being hit in the left rear by another car.
    At least Johnson took the blame and apologized to his team. Hopefully Gordon apologized to Buescher as well.

    This is exactly why the reporters and commentators should be completely neutral parties and only beholden to their employers and NASCAR itself.

  5. Avatar

    Imagine. Ricky Stenhouse has a ride and Kyle Larson doe not.

  6. Avatar

    Matt, I will admit, I did like your thinking out loud ratings more than you esteemed colleague who does a fine job as your replacement.
    The JJ love fest in the booth did make want to puke. I mean I can understand it a little Gordon since I believe he still listed as the owner of that car, but come on’ Mike Joy, you better than this. He should balance Gordon’s feelings instead of going along.
    I have a feeling the starting order determination will be changed. There is nothing wrong with at least having a practice session an hour or two before the race, determining position on the fastest times. Use one set, no changes after practice to the cars. This is easily accomplished at Charlotte where travel is not a big concern.
    We will see how mid week goes. Wish they had it on the big network though. But right now I will take it!