Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin’s Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2007 Atlanta Fall Race Recap

The Key Moment: Dale Earnhardt Jr. lost a left-rear wheel off the No. 8 car moments after a green-white-checkered restart at Atlanta, sealing the win for race leader Jimmie Johnson. Honestly, he did – Johnson had gotten such a good jump that it was doubtful Carl Edwards would have caught him.

In a Nutshell: Tepid processional racing for the first three quarters, with things heating up a bit towards the end. Welcome to the new brand of Cup racing.

Dramatic Moment: When Denny Hamlin ran out of gas on a restart while leading the race, most of the drivers behind him had a sphincter-tightening moment.

The last seven laps of the race were a mess, and it completely scrambled the finishing order of the race.

A green-white-checkered flag finish at Atlanta – a track well noted for last-lap passes – had the makings of a classic until Dale Jr. suffered his bizarre problem.

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

Hey, for once an engine in the No. 8 car lasted 500 miles… but then a wheel fell off the Bud car. Go figure.

What can be done to make the first three-quarters of the races more exciting? An excellent first step would be to drop the current points system… or eliminate the championship altogether and let the drivers’ income depend on finishing every race well.

With the way both major stock car races went this weekend, OSHA might start demanding NASCAR flagmen wear braces to prevent them from developing Carpal Tunnel Syndrome in their elbows.

You had to love the shocked expression on King Richard Petty’s face as the field thundered past the flagstand and his baseball cap was blown right off his head. Had he been wearing his traditional cowboy hat, the headgear would probably be orbiting the moon right about now.

Love him or hate him, you have to give Jeff Gordon style points for his self-deprecating sense of humor. Gordon gave the command to start engines this weekend in celebration of his first Cup start at Atlanta, which came nearly 15 years ago. When asked about the moment, Gordon told the press it would either be the first time every fan in the grandstands cheered for him – or the first time that the command to fire the engines was ever booed (there was a little of both).

And while we’re on the subject of pre-race ceremonies, the irony of having an actor best known for his portrayal of one of the Dukes of Hazzard singing the National Anthem was apparently lost on NASCAR. Schneider does have a decent voice, though.

News broke this week that Carl Edwards will be backed by Aflac for a select number of races next season. But considering Cousin Carl’s post-race antics last week, maybe he should be backed by Prozac instead.

See also
Voices from the Heartland: Time Will Tell if Cousin Carl Lets Me Down

Is anybody else ready just to hand Gordon the big check and call the rest of this season off?

What in Heaven’s name was going on at Memphis during Saturday’s Busch Series event? 25 cautions slowed the action, making the racing almost unwatchable. The longest green-flag segment was all of 20 laps long, and that’s at a short track. Let’s put it this way; I’ve seen better organized and less violent biker barroom brawls. It would seem the root of the problem is with the Buschwhackers dominating the series; when they decide to take a weekend off, there aren’t enough qualified young drivers with enough experience to fill the field.

Of course, some of these new faces didn’t do their resumes any favors driving like lethal weapons. That being said, isn’t it interesting that the George/Hulman family that owns the Brickyard seems to want Mary Hulman’s grandson to have a NASCAR career rather than try to have him make it in the IRL?

Race coverage of the final three races of the Cup season is slated to begin at 3:00 ET. That means here on the right coast, the cars might actually take the green around 4:15, and the races will probably end somewhere around eight – if we’re lucky. Hmm… my guess is that strategy isn’t going to help already sagging ratings any, especially if you’re ending races hours after sundown. For all their fumbling, though, ESPN/ABC can still pull off a moving segment, like the tribute to Alan Kulwicki during the pre-race show.

Brad Daugherty says he doesn’t want people to like him. Well, that explains that.

The Hindenburg Award for Foul Fortune

Three drivers dominated the race; Martin Truex Jr., Kurt Busch and Kyle Busch. But to their dismay, none of them dominated the final results sheet. Problems in the pits ruined Kurt’s day; brother Kyle also had a slow pit stop that cost him the lead, then spun the No. 5 out when Hamlin’s Chevy ran out of gas on the restart. As for Truex, he had the worst luck of the threesome; while the field fought to find a way around the limping No. 11 car, he drove right into the back of it, destroying the No. 1 DEI Chevy and failing to reel in the team’s bad luck.

Earnhardt Jr. seemed to have an outside shot at the race win until his left-rear wheel exited the No. 8 car as it gathered speed. He took one nasty hit when Jamie McMurray was unable to avoid him in turn 2.

Last year, Tony Stewart dominated this race. This year, an ill-handling car, mechanical gremlins and a frustrated driver conspired to leave the two-time Cup champ with a 30th-place finish.

Juan Pablo Montoya finished fifth at Atlanta in the spring, but problems with his Buenos-Anos Sunday ruined his fall.

Dale Jarrett started the race third, but finished 19th. No, no, no, DJ. You’re supposed to fall backwards next weekend!

Dave Blaney lost an engine early. That’s a blow for Bill Davis’s No. 22 team, as it allows the Wood Brothers to close within 83 points of that coveted 35th-place owner points position that guarantees a starting spot in the first five races of 2008.

Mark Martin took a savage hit after being unable to avoid the spinning car of David Gilliland.

See also
Running Their Mouth: 2007 Pep Boys Auto 500 at Atlanta

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award for Fine Fortune

Johnson looked poised to have a decent finish, but a win didn’t appear to be in the cards. However, a heads up two-tire call on pit road and a heads up move at the wheel to pass the No. 11 car on the outside proved the difference in getting him the lead and, ultimately, the win.

That same two-tire call on the final pit stop allowed Reed Sorenson to leave Atlanta with his best career finish: third.

Matt Kenseth had to start the race at the rear of the field after his team changed an engine on Saturday, but he drove his way up to a fourth-place finish, and might even have had a chance at the win if he had enough gas.

Clint Bowyer suffered body damage and drove at the back of the field for much of the race. However, pit strategy and luck late in the going allowed him to move his way back up to sixth.

Mechanical attrition, mental lapses, and crashes eliminated many of the frontrunners in the final laps of the race, allowing some unusual names and numbers to be posted well up on the scoring pylon. Brian Vickers finished 10th, Michael Waltrip wound up 11th, Kyle Petty was 13th and Elliott Sadler was 14th.

Finally, it’s been a terrible week for the victims of the California wildfires, many of whom lost everything but the clothes on their backs. Johnson’s $350,000 check for his win will be donated to the Red Cross to help those folks out; having grown up in the southwest California town of El Cajon, the fires hit close to home for him. But he’s not the only NASCAR personality lending a hand. Because of the generosity of Rick Hendrick, Bruton Smith, Lowe’s and the France family – all of whom will match the amount Johnson donates – almost $2 million will be sent to help those in need.

Even that huge amount of money is just a drop in the bucket, though; if your financial circumstances allow, I urge you to donate to the Red Cross as well.

Worth Noting

  • Johnson won both the 31st race of his career and his eighth of the season. That could prove significant if he and Gordon end up in a tie for the championship, because the first tiebreaker awards the trophy to the driver with the greatest number of wins. So, unless Gordon wins the next three races, Johnson will have the advantage in that scenario.
  • The four Hendrick Motorsports drivers have combined to win 16 of this season’s 33 races, dang near half of them.
  • Johnson has swept both races at Atlanta, Martinsville, and Richmond this year. Gordon is the only other driver to post a season sweep in ’07 (Talladega).
  • Sorenson’s third-place finish was the best of his Cup career.
  • Kenseth (fourth) has back-to-back top-five finishes for the first time since Fort Worth and Phoenix this spring.
  • Bowyer (sixth) hasn’t finished worse than 12th in the last eight races.
  • Gordon (seventh) hasn’t finished worse than 11th in any of the seven Chase races.
  • Vickers (10th) managed his best finish since Fontana.
  • Waltrip (11th) qualified for his sixth straight race.
  • Petty (13th) had his best finish since Charlotte in May.
  • Kevin Harvick (15th) hasn’t enjoyed a top-five finish since Joliet (Chicagoland).
  • AJ Allmendinger (16th) has cracked the top 20 in two of the last three races he’s competed in. He was also the top-finishing rookie at Atlanta, the second time this season he’s won the award.
  • The top-10 finishers at Atlanta drove four Chevys, three Dodges, two Fords and a Toyota.
  • The last 10 Cup races have been averaging 12.3 cautions per event, while the last four Busch races are averaging almost 15 cautions apiece. It’s getting just plain silly.

What’s the Points?

Gordon maintains the points lead while Johnson remains second, now only nine points behind Gordon. Bowyer remains third in the standings, but at 111 points behind Gordon with three races left to run, he is a horse of the darkest possible shade.

Behind the top three, Stewart fell a spot to fifth while his JGR teammate Hamlin fell two spots to 10th. And DEI’s new main squeeze, Truex, fell a spot to 12th; more importantly, he becomes the first driver mathematically eliminated from title contention (as long as Gordon and Johnson start the final three races, of course).

On the way up, Edwards moved one spot to fourth, while Kyle Busch also advanced a spot to fifth. Jeff Burton and Kurt Busch also moved up one position; they are now eighth and ninth, respectively.

Behind the Chasers, Earnhardt Jr. maintains his 13th “Best of the Rest” spot in the standings, but he’s now just 79 points ahead of Casey Mears, who moved up two spots to 14th. Greg Biffle holds onto 15th, while Ryan Newman‘s blown engine drops him two spots to 16th. Kasey Kahne advanced three spots to 17th.

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 three cans of lukewarm generic stuff. It’s getting discouraging devoting four hours of precious time each week to see perhaps 25 minutes of action.

Next Up: And then there were three, the circuit saddles up for a ride to Texas Motor Speedway.

About the author

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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