Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin’s Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2008 Pocono Spring Race Recap

The Key Moment: It took Kasey Kahne a few laps after the final restart to get around the Nos. 88 and 83 cars; but once he got back to the lead, there was no catching him.

In a Nutshell: Since passing was all but impossible on the track, crew chiefs had to engineer various strategies to get their boys to the front in the pits.

Dramatic Moment: The two fastest cars, those of Kahne and Denny Hamlin, did get to battle briefly for the lead.

With passing so difficult, Kahne’s run from 38th to the lead after a pit-road mishap was the highlight of the race.

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

What in blazes (pun intended) were the safety crew members thinking as they ambled over to the burning No. 42 car (with its driver still aboard) as if they were heading for a post-race clambake? Truthfully, the track crews at Pocono have rarely cloaked themselves in glory. Even back in the early ’80s, Tim Richmond had to pull Dale Earnhardt from his overturned racecar after a nasty wreck at the speedway.

OK, we were told that those two indifferent individuals were responsible for the driver – not the car – but the driver was still in the car as they stood there. What, exactly, does their job entail then? Giving the driver a hug and a kiss to make him feel better once he gets out of the car under his own power?

OK, I get it – and I’m sure most of you get it. With this new mutt of a car, the driver up front with clean air on his nose has the advantage. It’s difficult for a driver with a fast car to cleanly pass a slower car ahead of him, and it’s ruining racing. When is someone at NASCAR going to figure this out?

Did it look like the No. 9 car of Kahne and the two Red Bull cars were still dog-trotting a lot more than the rest of the cars? Didn’t NASCAR order the teams to limit this?

ESPN tried a brave new concept in race broadcasting Saturday night, as they joined the Texas IRL race already in progress. They had live audio of the race, which was on lap 49, while the video showed the pre-race program. Overall, it was about the stupidest thing I’ve ever witnessed. See you in seven weeks, ESPN.

It sure was nice to see some side-by-side racing even early in an event, with drivers using the draft to blow by their competitors while some excitement at a racetrack stirred up again. Unfortunately, this all happened Saturday night in the IRL race at Texas – not at Pocono in Sunday’s Cup race. With that type of competition rising, NASCAR’s corporate complacency ill behooves the organization. After all, a couple decades ago nobody ever thought stock cars would eclipse open wheel racing to become this country’s top-rated racing series.

Note to Kyle Busch: You might want to concentrate on your day job. The whole Triple Crown thing didn’t work out too well for Busch or Big Brown. While the two have a lot in common – particularly the horse’s hindquarters and Busch’s personality – there are also some key differences. Fans don’t boo Big Brown and while the horse suffered a hoof injury, Busch suffers from hoof in mouth disease.

Did it seem the former open-wheel racing stars at Pocono seemed to run into each other a lot on Sunday? Dario Franchitti, who is still healing from a fractured ankle, didn’t need to get beat around any more; that’s tossing a man into the river who don’t need to be swimming.

See also
Sprint Cup Rookie Report: Michael McDowell Magically Maneuvers to Top at Pocono

It’s kind of a sad commentary on the slow start that Tony Stewart has gotten off to this season when he has to host his own race to finally win an event. Seriously, though, the Prelude to a Dream raised over $1 million for the planned Victory Junction Camp in Kansas City, and any event that raises that sort of money for such a worthy cause should be applauded. But I couldn’t help but wonder about that big bowtie on the front of Stewart’s race-winning car. The folks at Toyota had to be delighted…

Twins separated at birth? Larry McReynolds and Charlie Brown. Maybe FOX tells McReynolds they want him to play the cornpone bit for all it’s worth, because Larry’s diction and demeanor seemed to move from the third-grade level to the middle school level in one week. And who would have guessed? The drivers knew to start racing on Sunday when the green flag dropped – even without somebody screaming “Boogity, boogity, boogity” at them.

The pre-race piece on Bobby Allison, respectful without becoming maudlin, was the highlight of the broadcast. But the first time somebody tries selling me a Race Buddy t-shirt, plush toy or drinking vessel, I’m leaving for the summer.

With the big three Detroit automakers shuttering truck factories and emphasizing cars rather than trucks, will any of them support the Truck Series next year? Only Toyota still seems to be pushing big trucks, though Tundra sales are tumbling too. With no title sponsor for the series, will the trucks even be back next year? In an era of $4 a gallon gas, trucks are suddenly not very PC.

Once again, I am forced to go out of character and ask a personal favor. Please extend your prayers or good thoughts to my nephew Shane, who was seriously injured in a single-vehicle late-night motorcycle accident on Saturday night. He faces a long uphill battle to recover. As most of you know, I am a devoted motorcyclist myself. His dad (who has ridden for decades) and I taught Shane to ride at a very young age on an old XR75 I found at Carlisle, but he had limited street riding experience.

The kid decided with gas at $4 a gallon and a teenager’s salary he couldn’t afford to drive his truck anymore, so he got a bike. That’s not a unique story lately. I urge any of you who decide to start motorcycling or return to the saddle after a long layoff to take an AMA-approved Rider Safety course, and to select a mount that reflects your experience level to start out on.

Unfortunately, Shane was on one of those laydown Japanese rockets that dealers and individuals are all too happy to sell to a kid with a permit. He’s a good kid who made some bad decisions; and ultimately, responsibility is his. But to whichever salesperson sold the kid that bike, if you want what’s left you can have it cheap – but first you and I are going to have a very unpleasant talk that might wind up with you in intensive care as well.

The Hindenburg Award for Foul Fortune

Cracked mirrors are supposed to be seven years bad luck, and his missing right-side mirror sent Busch to a last-place finish. A second spinout late in the race just put icing on the cake, as did a practice crash that sent Busch to the rear of the field at the start.

Greg Biffle and Stewart both saw decent finishes go out the window when they got caught speeding on pit road late in the event.

Carl Edwards clearly had a strong car, but had to pit again under caution with an equalized tire. He recovered to finish ninth, but never had a chance to gun for the win.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award for Fine Fortune

A botched last-second call on pit road forced Kahne back to the pits and dropped him to 38th place… but he still rallied back to win.

Jeff Burton had to overcome a pit-road incident with David Ragan (and his own ill-considered if rare retaliation afterwards) along with a late-race shoving match with Earnhardt to post a top-five finish.

Hamlin knocked in his left-front fender in the pits (see: Michael McDowell) and the required repairs dropped him well back into the pack; but he recovered well, coming back to finish third by race’s end.

Kurt Busch decided to damage his car the old-fashioned way, out on the track instead of on pit lane. After the No. 2 car went bounding through the grass like a wounded gazelle, the front splitter was all but torn off; but his crew managed to MacGyver a hasty fix that let Busch roar back to seventh.

Worth Noting

  • The top-10 drivers at Pocono piloted a pair of Dodges, two Toyotas, two Fords and four Chevys.
  • The top finishing ROTY candidate at Pocono was McDowell in 27th.
  • Kahne has won two of the last four Cup points races, but finished outside the top 20 in the other two.
  • Brian Vickers (second) scored his second top-five result of 2008 and his best career finish since he won the fall race at Talladega in 2006.
  • Hamlin (third) scored his first top-five finish since Talladega.
  • Earnhardt Jr. (fourth) has top-five finishes in three of the last four races and top-10 results in 10 of this year’s 14 Cup points events. And the crowd goes wild!
  • Burton (fifth) hasn’t finished worse than 12th since the Daytona 500.
  • Johnson (sixth) had his best finish since he won at Phoenix.
  • Honest to God, Kurt Busch (eighth) had his first top-10 finish since the Daytona 500.
  • Edwards (ninth) managed his fifth consecutive top-10 finish.
  • Bobby Labonte (11th) matched his best finish of the 2008 season. Labonte also finished 11th at Charlotte and Daytona.
  • Gordon’s 14th-place finish snapped a string of four consecutive top 10s, though a few of those were mulligans.
  • AJ Allmendinger’s 12th-place finish was the best of his emergent Cup career to date.
  • Stewart (35th) has just two top-10 finishes in the last seven Cup races; in his last three starts, he’s averaging a sobering 23rd-place result.
  • Kyle Busch finished dead last for the first time in his career since Michigan in 2005.

What’s the Points?

Second-place Burton took a huge bite out of points leader Kyle Busch’s advantage on Sunday, closing to within 21 points of the Irritator. Earnhardt Jr. remains third in the standings and is now a more reasonable 145 points behind Busch, who he doubtless hopes will keep trying to rack up Frequent Flyer miles. Edwards remains fourth in the standings, but is a more distant 228 points out of the top spot.

Hamlin had the best day in the points, advancing four spots from ninth to fifth. Behind him, winning races still proved to have some nice perks for a driver; Kahne advanced three spots from 12th to ninth in the standings. Jimmie Johnson also moved up a spot to sixth.

An unforced error dropped Clint Bowyer three spots to 11th in the standings. Biffle and Gordon each dropped two spots and are now seventh and eighth, respectively. And after his second straight poor finish, Stewart fell a spot to 12th; more importantly, he’s now only seven points ahead of 13th-place Ragan and 10 points ahead of 14th-place Ryan Newman. Yes, typically Stewart gets stronger in the summer, but one has to wonder if the distractions about his future are dooming his chances at making the Chase this year – just as they did for Earnhardt last year.

Outside the top 12, Matt Kenseth moved up a spot to 15th, bypassing Martin Truex Jr. in the process.

Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans, with one being a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic): While it was more a chess match than a race, at least this week’s race wasn’t as bad as Dover last week. We’ll give it two cold bottles of the Sly Fox’s Helles Golden Lager microbrew.

Next Up: It’s off to Michigan on Father’s Day for what will probably be one boring mother of a race. If you prefer pit strategy to side-by-side racing on the track, it looks like this summer might be the time of your life.

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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