Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin’s Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2008 Talladega Fall Race Recap

The Key Moment: The race at Talladega was decided in NASCAR’s control room almost a minute after the event itself ended.

In a Nutshell: Yogi Berra once said, “It ain’t over until it’s over.” Apparently, sometimes it’s not over even when it is over.

Dramatic Moment: With 15 laps to go, Carl Edwards got Greg Biffle’s car sideways and set off a field-decimating wreck that may have doomed a lot of contender’s chances at a championship.

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

Yes, there’s a rule that states a driver may not advance his position at the plate tracks by passing under the yellow line. There’s also a rule that states a driver may not force another driver “out of bounds.” But more than once, NASCAR has stated a de facto “anything goes” policy on the last lap of the plate races. Should Tony Stewart have been penalized? Should Regan Smith have been given the win? If Smith had lifted out of the gas to let Stewart back by and drifted back up the track, it might have set off another huge wreck and we’d have likely seen only one car finish the race (the No. 20).

After the Daytona Truck Series race last February, a NASCAR spokesperson defended Johnny Benson’s “below the line” pass to take second by saying, “if you can see the checkered flag on the last lap, anything goes.” Anything but passing the driver of the “Official Home Improvement Center of NASCAR,” it would seem.

Jimmie Johnson himself stated that the drivers were told at their pre-race meeting on Sunday that with the checkers in sight, “anything goes.” I can’t help but feel Smith got robbed. Being demoted to the last driver to finish on the lead lap (at least, that’s how the results read as this is being written) just rubs salt in that wound.

After messes like Sunday’s race, I’ll get a ton of emails asking me why NASCAR’s rulebook isn’t available to fans so they can figure out whether what happened was fair or not. The reason seems to be that Brian France is only half done coloring the rulebook in. His favorite color, to paraphrase my old pal Jerry, is a Touch of Gray. Whistle through your teeth and spit, but it’s all right.

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2008 Amp Energy 500 at Talladega Gives Us Everything Right, Wrong with NASCAR Today

All right, so you needed any more evidence of the contrived stupidity of plate racing and the validity of the Chase? Sunday provided it. Johnson sounded like he’d browned his shorts avoiding the big wreck. With his two primary championship contenders sidelined, Johnson made it clear he wasn’t interested in mixing it up any more going for the win, and would be content to ride safely to the best finish he could manage instead. That’s not what race fans pay their hard-earned dollars to see.

With DEI having been placed on the most studied “death list” since General Francisco Franco, the finish at Talladega had to convince some the doors there will still be open next year.

Read my lips: “No More Plate Races!” Stop the madness before someone else gets killed.

Did it seem like an awful lot of teams were actually working on their cars during the final red flag period?

I’m not sure what was up with the tires this weekend. Given Goodyear’s unenviable record this season (Remember Indy… or better yet, don’t.) It would be easy to toss them under the bus, but the fact remains that the Hoosier tires used in Saturday’s ARCA race were blowing out as well. You’ve got to feel it must have something to do with the new track surface at Talladega.

Wow! All season, the top-10 finishers have tended to be a “Who’s Who” of the racing elite driving for the four power teams. Sunday’s finishing order was a “Who’s That?” result.

You’ve got to guess the folks at the Home Depot had to be delighted watching Stewart finally win a race running the Subway colors.

There’s never been any love lost between Matt Kenseth and teammate Edwards, but my guess is Edwards officially fell off Kenseth’s Christmas card list on Sunday.

What the devil happened to Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s right-rear tire during the second practice session? That thing exploded so violently it looked like Al-Qaeda had been involved. Stunned by the video evidence before them, two of Goodyear’s chief cheerleaders, Larry McReynolds and Jeff Hammond, actually took several moments to announce Junior had to have run over something because there’s no way Goodyear could manufacture a defective tire that failed with less than 15 laps on it. Hey, guys, remember Indy?

Is this “temporary” restrictor-plate rule implemented two decades ago in the aftermath of Bobby Allison’s horrific crash into the catchfence about over yet? NASCAR did indeed say the measure was “temporary” until they could find a way to slow the cars down. Oh, right. We were told the Car of Sorrow was going to eliminate the need for the plates. Whoops. Just another failure for the new car. As it stands written in the Book of Bruce, “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse.” (Or for you more traditional types, as it stands written in the Book of Ecclesiastes: “It’s all madness, toil, and chasing the wind.”)

While the man is dead and gone, a victim of plate racing, some track promoters surely aren’t shy about using the image of Dale Earnhardt to sell race tickets to upcoming events. Here’s a hint: Earnhardt won’t be there. Bill France killed him.

I know some drivers have bizarre pre-race rituals, but someone please explain to me why Edwards was dumping a bottle of cold water into his lap prior to the start of the race. My only theory is he’s trying to camouflage any embarrassing lapses of personal hygiene during the race.

Oh, good! ABC/ESPN analyst Brad Daugherty announced this week that his fledgling NASCAR team has signed a deal with Michael Waltrip Racing for next year. That’s just what the fans need, another supposedly unbiased journalist with strong ties to a manufacturer, a team, and sponsor out there on the track it’s in his best interest to promote. Michael Waltrip already has his brother Darrell in his corner during race broadcasts, and it seems half the broadcast teams for both networks owe some level of allegiance to Toyota.

Well here in the real world, journalists are supposed to avoid conflict of interest in the arenas they cover, and any implication that they are beholden to a dog in the fight is enough to end a career. But this isn’t the real world – this is NASCAR.

It looks like former Formula 1 driver Scott Speed all but has the ARCA title wrapped up, going into the season finale with an 85-point lead over Roush’s Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Speed had a chance to wrap up the title at Talladega after Stenhouse wrecked heavily, but then Speed wrecked as well.

On a related ARCA note, when the smoke and carnage cleared after the Talladega ARCA event it was Justin Allgaier in a family team car who took the win. Allgaier’s now won at a dirt track, a speedway, and a superspeedway this season en route to third in the championship standings. If those in the know would stop writing love sonnets to Joey Logano as the “Next Big Thing,” they might want to have a look at Allgaier as a potential NASCAR star. This kid can flat-out drive, and Roger Penske has recently signed Justin to run in some Nationwide Series races next year. Keep an eye on him.

Seven years ago Saturday, Blaise Alexander died in a tragic last-lap crash at Charlotte while battling with Kerry Earnhardt for the win. Like Earnhardt, Alexander died after his brain stem was torn from his brain, the same cause of death that claimed Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin and Tony Roper. It seemed that Alexander’s death was the tipping point that finally forced NASCAR to mandate head and neck restraints. The sanctioning body also finally sucked it up and decided maybe those SAFER barriers weren’t such a pipe dream after all.

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That's History: 5 Years to 1 Blaise... and Gone

Though Alexander died in an ARCA race, in death he has probably spared many NASCAR stars their lives. Please don’t tell me Earnhardt’s death spurred NASCAR into action. Alexander died almost eight months after the tragedy at Daytona. The HANS device was already on the market, available and being used in other series prior to that dark day in February, 2001. On a side note, nobody is really sure who won that ARCA race. I believe official records show Kerry Earnhardt took the win; but he refused the trophy, saying Alexander had won and shipping it to his family.

I’m a huge fan of Helio Castroneves, but his biggest battle now isn’t in the IRL, it’s with the IRS. Look for him to debut soon in Dancing Behind Bars. In today’s world with the hugely unpopular Wall Street bailout, the case of a multi-millionaire who might have tried to dodge paying his fair share of taxes is going to be a slam-dunk conviction. A note to Castroneves – climbing the fence for practice at a federal prison is going to draw gunfire.

You need any more proof green racecars are bad luck?

The Hindenburg Award for Foul Fortune

Let me put it simply: Smith got robbed.

Denny Hamlin was far from the only driver to wreck hard at Talladega, but he was the only one carted to the hospital in a meat wagon after his wreck. That was the sort of hit that often leaves a driver groggy for several weeks after the fact. On a brighter note, in the era before the HANS device and SAFER barriers, that was the sort of wreck that often saw drivers arrive home in a hearse.

Jeff Gordon suffered the twin indignities of getting caught up in a crash that wasn’t his fault and having an engine meltdown. Sometimes, it just isn’t your day.

Earnhardt Jr. looked to have a race-contending car, but found himself caught up in the big wreck – leaving a mass of humanity headed for the Talladega exits with their heads hung low.

At the plate tracks, other drivers’ bad decisions are going to cost the PIVs (poor innocent victims) around them a good a finish and a bad wreck. But for Kenseth and Biffle to be eliminated by a teammate has to sting that much more.

Ryan Newman didn’t even have to get caught up in a boneheaded wreck to finish dead last with terminal engine problems.

Juan Pablo Montoya’s strongest run in recent memory was all for naught after he got swept up in the Big One.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award for Fine Fortune

Johnson dodged both big wrecks and a tire carcass slamming the front of his car to go on and finish the race… however chicken-heartedly. Talladega didn’t hand the title to Johnson; but going forward, it’s his to lose.

Jeff Burton has never been a fan of plate racing, but his fourth-place finish at Talladega renews his title hopes for 2008.

For fans of the embattled Petty organization and Bobby Labonte, a sixth-place finish had to be a shot in the arm.

As badly as his day went, his 15th-place finish (first survivor) was actually Kyle Busch’s best result in the Chase.

Mark Martin was lucky enough to have the common sense not to compete in this farce of a race.

Worth Noting

  • Stewart “won” for the first time since Watkins Glen last year. Prior to Sunday’s “win,” he had finished second at Talladega six times. And to the eye of reason, he did so again on Sunday.
  • Paul Menard (second) posted his best career Cup finish and the first top-five result of his career.
  • David Ragan’s third-place finish matches his previous Cup career best. (Ragan also finished third at Michigan earlier this year and at Richmond last year.)
  • Burton (fourth) has now managed five straight top-10 finishes.
  • Clint Bowyer (fifth) managed his first top-five finish since Sonoma.
  • Labonte (sixth) earned his best finish since Martinsville in the fall of 2006.
  • Scott Riggs (seventh) matched his best career finish since the Homestead season finale in 2006.
  • “Rut-roh” Joe Nemechek’s 11th-place finish was easily his best of the season and his best Cup result since last year’s Daytona 500. He’s got to get a Scooby Snack for that.
  • Kenny Wallace’s 12th-place finish was his best Cup result since Bristol in 2003. Thank goodness for TV work to keep the lights on at Casa Kenny, huh?
  • Aric Almirola’s 13th-place finish was the second best of his Cup career. Vanna, I’d like to buy a vowel and change my name to “Eric.”
  • Jiminy Cricket! Newman suffered his fourth engine meltdown of 2008.
  • The top-10 finishers at Talladega drove a Toyota, a Ford, five Chevys and three Dodges. Toyotas won three of this year’s four plate races.
  • Smith is credited with an 18th-place finish, the best by any Rookie of the Year contender at Talladega. Yeah, that’s some small compensation, isn’t it?
  • Robby Gordon finished 11th or better in all four Cup plate races this season.

What’s the Points?

Johnson remains in the points lead and is now a formidable 72 ahead of Edwards and 77 ahead of third-place Biffle. Burton is fourth, a more manageable 99 points out of the lead.

Bowyer moves up two spots in the standings to fifth. Race winner Stewart leap-frogged four places into seventh, a sobering 207 points behind Johnson. Busch moved up a spot to 11th in the standings.

Hamlin takes over the “cellar-dweller” position in the Chase. Earnhardt Jr. fell two spots to 10th and Simon and Garfunkel are ready to write a reprise to “Mrs. Robinson” about him. Kevin Harvick fell one spot to sixth in the standings and hates that even more than gunky engine buildup.

Ragan, who would like to remind you all he’s not Smith, now looks to have a lock on the 13th-place position just outside the Chase. He’s now 117 points ahead of 14th-place Kasey Kahne.

Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans, with one being a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic): I feel guilty for watching this stupidity. It’s sort of like a former girlfriend dropping by on Saturday night and catching you watching Cops in sweatpants. I guess I’ll give it three cans, mainly because nobody got seriously hurt and we’ll all be talking about this one a while.

Next Up: It’s back off to Charlotte for next week’s Saturday night event… if anyone can find the gas to get there. Ain’t it funny how the night moves, with autumn moving in?

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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