Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin’s Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2007 Homestead Race Recap

The Key Moment: Matt Kenseth got enough of a jump on the final restart so that Kurt Busch could never get close enough to the No. 17 to offer a serious challenge.

In a Nutshell: Kenseth wins the race at Homestead, Jimmie Johnson clinches the championship, and the 2007 Cup season finally reaches its end.

Dramatic Moment: Truthfully, I’ve seen more drama in elementary school sack races.

Forced to choose, I’d guess the only real action I saw Sunday night was the final 10-lap sprint. Other than that, Kenseth pretty much had it on cruise control.

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

The Busch East series, the ARCA series and well-heeled collectors looking for a two-ton bit of garage jewelry can only absorb so many of the old-style Cup machines. Where are the rest of the teams’ inventories of the outdated cars going to wind up?

In ways, the Daytona 500 feels like it was run a few weeks ago, and in other ways, it feels like it took place 10 years ago. Is the NASCAR season too long, and if so, what can be done to shorten the season up?

Was this the worst season of Cup racing ever? As sorry as it was at times, I still must give that dubious honor to 1998 and the “5 and 5” disaster. But when it comes to truly lame Cup seasons, 2007 surely has a dog in the fight.

And in the end, Sunday’s race marked the last appearance of the “Car of Yesterday,” the tried and true workhorse of the NASCAR fleet that at least spiritually dates back to 1981 and the beginning of the Golden Era of NASCAR. The CoY’s ungainly successor will be the mount of necessity for all races next season, despite a troubling test at Atlanta that indicates the new car won’t race worth a damn at the banked intermediate tracks that pepper the schedule.

The drivers by and large prefer the old car, but others will say change is inevitable. We shall see because as NASCAR’s Mike Helton is fond of chiding us with quotes like, “At the end of the day, it is what is.”

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Johnson’s two consecutive championships is a pretty notable achievement; no driver has managed back-to-back titles since Jeff Gordon did so back in 1997 and 1998. But the task of winning three straight titles is even more daunting. No Cup driver has ever managed that feat other than Cale Yarborough back in 1976, 1977 and 1978.

It remains to be seen if Ricky Rudd will actually retire from the sport or enter the perpetual “about to retire mode” pioneered by Mark Martin and Bill Elliott. Because of how poorly he’s been running the last few years, many newer fans have no idea what a talented and competitive driver Rudd was in his day, one of the few racers who ever locked horns with the late Dale Earnhardt without being intimidated for a moment. When discussing the greatest driver never to win a title, Rudd’s name must be mentioned in the same breath as Fred Lorenzen, Junior Johnson, Curtis Turner, Davey Allison, Tim Richmond and Martin.

Think not? Find a tape of the Sept. 27, 1998 Cup race at Martinsville. Rudd, the owner/driver of the Tide Chevrolet, was leading the race but was being barbecued alive in his ride due to a failed cooling system. Despite heat that blistered his backside, Rudd remained at the wheel even after his well-meaning pit crew tried to help him out during a pit stop by putting a garden hose down Rudd’s back during a stop.

The only problem with that? The hose had been lying in the unforgiving Virginia sun all afternoon, and rather than cooling their driver off, the dousing scalded him. In victory lane, Rudd gave his winner’s interview flat on his back, being tended to by medical crews; however, he never skipped a beat. For the record that day, he beat some kid by the name of Gordon by a half second.

Yeah, drivers don’t come much tougher than the Rooster. Godspeed, Mr. Rudd… whichever way your pleasures turn.

Well, apparently old Kasey Kahne, put a security guard flat on his butt for denying Kahne and his brother admittance to the motor coach lot. The guard then requested medical assistance for suddenly elevated blood pressure (brought about, no doubt, by dreams of a sudden fortune earned in litigation.) No, it’s not right to lay hands on the hired help just trying to do their jobs (like keeping those three creepy chicks in the Dakota out of the coach lot) but this seems to me like much ado about nothing. The incident certainly isn’t going to serve as fodder for a new episode of Miami Vice.

With so few short tracks left on the Cup schedule, does anyone else really miss ESPN’s old “Winter Heat” season? The series provided some quality racing for the fans as they eased through the withdrawal symptoms following the Cup season proper, and it gave us all a glance at the up-and-coming drivers forging their way towards the big leagues (most notably, Greg Biffle). Of course, these days if you want to see drivers en route to the Cup Series, you only have to watch the Indy 500.

This year, Chevrolet has dominated the Cup Series like no make has since Buick back in the early ’80s. To see such total dominance beyond that, one has to refer back to the boycott years of 1965 and 1966 when Ford and Mopar ran roughshod over their opponents. It doesn’t matter if this was the Car of Tomorrow or the old cars, Chevys just put a beat down on the other three manufacturers this season. Why? It could be argued that Chevy has the best teams.

But there’s a footnote there. The best teams get the best drivers. The best teams and the highest-profile drivers get the biggest checks from their sponsors. And at Helton’s proverbial “end of the day,” the team with the most bucks wins. Welcome to the brave new face of NASCAR. This sure isn’t Bud Moore’s NASCAR any more.

With all the Chase hoopla this week, a sponsorship announcement this week didn’t raise many eyebrows. Next year, longtime NASCAR stalwart sponsor Texaco Havoline will back the No. 42 car of one Juan Pablo Montoya for half the season while a chewing gum company will take primary sponsor honors for the other half.

So what, right? The split sponsorship arrangement is becoming more prevalent in the sport as the cost of backing a team continues to rise out of sight. But in this instance, when a big oil company isn’t able to pony up for the full year even in the era of $3.20 a gallon gas and record profits… that’s got to a be a warning sign.

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It would appear (the method of choosing a winner is too convoluted to go into here) that Montoya will be this year’s Cup Rookie of the Year. So that will be the first time a non-American native has won this honor, correct? Nope. Back in 1974, Canadian Earl Ross took the same award while then driving for legendary driver/owner Junior Johnson.

With Toyota locked out of Cup victory lane this season, the only foreign make to post a win in NASCAR’s top rank to date is Jaguar. Back in 1954, Al Keller drove a Jag to a convincing win on the road course in Linden, N.J. In fact that day four of the drivers who finished in the top-six drove Jags and another was at the wheel of a Hudson. Jaguar? Hudson? New Jersey? What a long strange trip it’s been!

I know a lot of you will now refocus your attention on the NFL and holiday preparations, skipping NASCAR coverage until next February. We’ll see you all then. But before you sign off I want to once again offer thanks to all of my readers for your friendship, your constructive criticism, and all the kind words. Obviously, this has been a difficult season for me with the loss of my Mom. I want to especially thank all those who took time to write those kind notes and to all of you who offered your prayers for my family, though we never met.

God bless you all, and I wish you the happiest possible Christmas season and all the best in the coming New Year.

The Hindenburg Award for Foul Fortune

Tony Stewart lost a top-10 finish when the crew made adjustments not to his liking on the final stop. Stewart backed the No. 20 car into the wall hard, and Stewart’s typical smart-ass sarcastic comments after the wreck showed his obvious displeasure.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. didn’t close out his career with DEI with a win, as he and the team had hoped. In fact, he spun out entering the pits to bring out a caution, then was wrecked from behind on the subsequent restart. Kyle Busch‘s last ride with Hendrick Motorsports was less than memorable, as well.

Some folks don’t like him, but you have to feel for Gordon. He averaged a fifth-place finish in the 10 Chase races, but still lost the title by a wide margin. That’s the sort of scenario that has to have a guy tearing his hair out wondering what in heck he has to do to take another title. (For the record, were it not for the Chase format, Gordon would be celebrating his sixth Cup championship tonight.)

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award for Fine Fortune

Kenseth had a failing battery and felt certain he had a tire going down prior to the final restart. The battery lasted long enough to finish the race, and the tire, in fact, wasn’t flat. Kenseth completely dominated beyond aside from that.

Kurt Busch lost a lap early in the race after his crew left a wheel loose on a stop. A timely caution allowed Busch to get his lap back, though, and some determined driving got him up to second place by the end of the race.

Martin Truex Jr. slapped the wall in his Chevy in Saturday’s practice and the team had to make hurried repairs. The rebuilt car was able to post a top-10 finish, and at times, Truex actually challenged the No. 17 car for the lead.

Jeff Burton‘s car was awful early in the race, and his day could easily have ended when he ran into the back of the No. 8 car on a restart. As such, a top-10 finish was a solid result.

Dave Blaney ran in the top 10 most of the race before fading to finish 12th late. It’s been a tough year for Toyota and its teams, but Blaney clearly earned “Best in Class” honors among the Camry drivers this year.

Truex and Denny Hamlin earned the big checks for making the Chase, but don’t have to rent tuxedos and make awkward speeches in New York like the drivers who finished above them in the top 10.

Worth Noting

  • Gordon set the modern era record for top-10 finishes in a season, with 30-such results on the year.
  • Johnson’s 6,733 points scored in the Chase is a new record for the four-year-old convoluted championship season. In fact, Gordon’s 2007 points total would have claimed the championship in the first three years of the Chase.
  • Kenseth ended the season on a strong note, with five top-five finishes in the last five races.
  • Ford won a race for the first time since Kansas. At season’s end, Ford pilots managed just seven victories (all in Roush Fenway-prepared entries). Dodge drivers claimed three points wins and Toyota drivers got blanked.
  • The top-10 finishers at Homestead drove six Chevys, three Fords and a Dodge.
  • David Ragan in 10th was the top-finishing rookie at Homestead.
  • Kurt Busch scored his first top-five finish since his win at Michigan in August.
  • Too little, too late, but Hamlin scored his best finish of the Chase at Homestead (third).
  • It was a breakout season for some young drivers. In addition to scoring his first win, Truex also enjoyed 14 top-10 finishes in 2007. Coming into this year, he’d only managed six top 10s. Clint Bowyer opened a lot of eyes with his win at NHIS, 17 top-10 finishes and a distant but honest third-place finish in the final points. Bowyer managed to make a lot of pundits, yer humble scribe included, look foolish after we predicted his making the Chase was a fluke and he was certain to finish 12th in the standings.
  • Martin earned top-10 finishes in 11 of his 24 Cup starts this season. His average finish of 14.8 was actually better than Kevin Harvick‘s season total.
  • David Stremme started the season and ended the season with 11th-place finishes.
  • Johnson won the title and the most races of any driver this season. This is the first time the driver who won the most races in a season also won the championship since the advent of the Chase. In fact, the last time a driver won the most races and the championship in the same season was Gordon in 2001.
  • The Daytona 500 is the next points race on the schedule. It is interesting to note that only two drivers, Gordon (1997) and Johnson (2006) have won the Daytona 500 and the championship in the same season in the last 10 years.

What’s the Points?

Let the final tally show that Johnson beat Gordon by 77 points in this year’s championship battle.

Kenseth’s win propelled him forward two positions to fourth in the final standings. Kurt Busch’s second-place finish moved him up three spots to seventh.

Harvick took the biggest hit in the points Sunday, tumbling three spots to 10th. Kyle Busch and Stewart each fell a spot to fifth and sixth, respectively.

Ryan Newman earned “Best of the Rest Honors,” securing 13th place in points, 52 ahead of Biffle who moved up a spot to 14th. Casey Mears advanced a spot to 15th, while Earnhardt Jr. fell two spots to end the season 16th.

In the owner points battle, Dave Blaney and the No. 22 outfit clung to 35th place in the standings. As such, they will automatically be awarded starting spots in the first five races next season.

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 it two cans of warm generic stuff with an added glass of champagne raised high to celebrate the long overdue conclusion of a less than engaging season.

Next Up: At long last, the NASCAR community settles in for a long winter’s nap after the perpetual train wreck that was the 2007 Cup season. At long last, we can all dream of saddle time on Sunday afternoons and glasses of beer. Of course, there’s the banquet, a three-hour commercial occasionally interrupted by commercials to “look forward to.” And preseason testing starts in just a few weeks.

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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