Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off: Looking Back at 2 Atlantas & Everything in Between

In the grand scheme of things, the first Cup race at Atlanta wasn’t all that long ago. By coincidence, three races on the schedule preceded the first race at Atlanta and there are three left to run this season following last Sunday’s race there.

A lot has happened in the world in the eight months since that first Atlanta Cup event. Back in early March of this year, not too many people had any idea who this Barack Obama guy was and Hillary Clinton was the presumptive Democratic candidate in this year’s election. The Dow Jones Industrial average was hovering right around 11,750 when it closed that Friday afternoon. The Ford F-150 was still America’s best-selling vehicle but people were getting concerned about gas prices.

That weekend the nationwide average for a gallon of regular was around $3.16. Fortunately, it’s lower than that now, but not before a budget-busting bout of $4-a-gallon at the pump.

Perhaps the most notable post-race news after that March weekend in Atlanta was that Kyle Busch had scored Toyota’s historic (tragic?) first Cup victory. As a result, Busch left Atlanta as the Cup points leader with a 73-point lead over second-place Greg Biffle. Since then, Busch has gone on to score seven more Cup wins and nine Nationwide wins. At one point he had a 390-point lead in the Cup standings. Ironically Busch currently finds himself the cellar dweller of the Chase, a staggering 465 points out of the lead.

The current Cup points leader, and this year’s presumptive champion, left Atlanta with bruised ribs, broken rhythm and a 13th-place finish. At the time, that was a good finish for him. Jimmie Johnson’s season was off to a slow start despite a second-place finish at Fontana two weeks previously. The week prior to the Atlanta March race, Johnson and the No. 48 bunch had had a disastrous outing at Las Vegas. Though the car had suffered no crash damage and had no mechanical problems, Johnson had floundered all afternoon and nothing Chad Knaus did to that car seemed to make it any better.

Johnson finished 29th, two laps off the pace. He was clearly baffled, despondent and concerned. The defending Cup champion left Atlanta 13th in the points, already 198 markers behind Busch. Johnson’s season would remain erratic right up until the September Fontana race but he’s been unstoppable since.

Jeff Gordon left that first Atlanta race with a badly needed fifth-place result. His season was off to a disastrous start with Gordon having failed to finish two of the year’s four races and thusly he found himself mired 15th in the points. People were already wondering what the heck was wrong with Gordon and the No. 24 team. Most of us still are. Despite having not won a race, Gordon did make the Chase, but he’s mainly been a footnote down the stretch.

Biffle left Atlanta in March second in points. He’s third now, but he was only 73 points out of the lead back then and he trails Johnson by 185 points now.

Tony Stewart was eighth in the points after that March race and he arrived at Atlanta this weekend eighth in the points as well. That first Atlanta race is best remembered as one of the many events this year where tire problems screwed things up so badly that the event was more of a farce than a race.

Despite finishing second, Stewart blistered Goodyear’s corporate butt in his post-race comments, calling that days tires “pathetic” and the “worst tires he’d ever driven on in his entire career.” The ever effervescent Mr. Stewart then went on to say that he planned to go out to his garage and remove the Goodyears off of every one of his personal vehicles so equipped out of concerns for his safety.

That bombshell released after Atlanta has since been eclipsed by the news that Stewart is leaving the safe confines of Joe Gibbs Racing where he’s run during his entire Cup career to strike out on his own as part owner of Gene Haas’s team.

See also
Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off: Tony Stewart Boldly Goes Where No Sane Man Has Been Before

At Atlanta in March, nine of the top 10 finishers drove for one of the four super-teams; Joe Gibbs Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing and Richard Childress Racing. Those four teams have continued to dominate this season. Of the 23 points-paying Cup races run since, only three have been won by drivers not affiliated with those four teams. (Kasey Kahne has won twice and Kurt Busch won once to claim Dodge’s sole three victories of the year.)

After Atlanta, drivers from teams other than the Big Four still held down the top-12 points positions. Now all 12 drivers in the Chase compete for one of the Big Four. It can be debated whether the Big Four have outraced or outspent the others. Although it’s hardly an issue that began this season, the fact remains that this sort of domination isn’t in the best interest of the sport.

Of the 12 drivers at the top of the points standings after Atlanta in March, only four – Brian Vickers, Kurt Busch, Ryan Newman and Martin Truex Jr. – didn’t make the Chase. Their positions were taken over by Johnson, Gordon, Clint Bowyer and Carl Edwards. Things have gone so badly for Truex since then, rumors were rampant that he was looking to bail out on DEI. With apparent reluctance, he eventually signed a one-year deal to remain with the team.

Things have gone so badly at DEI recently that there are now real questions how much longer the organization will even survive. Note to the boss lady; the decision to let the team’s franchise player go free agent might not have been such a good one.

After winning at Vegas the previous week, Edwards had a rough outing at Atlanta this March. He blew an engine and finished 42nd. That finish dropped him from fourth in the standings to 17th. Things looked dire for Edwards in March, but later in the season, he ignited to become the one driver who people felt could give Kyle Busch a legitimate challenge for the championship. A crash at Talladega and ignition issues at Charlotte have since conspired to remove Edwards from title contention.

Newman was still fourth in the standings in March and was still buoyant after his Daytona 500 victory. Things have gone so badly for Newman and the No. 12 bunch since that he too has decided to leave the only Cup team he’s ever driven for to throw in his lot with Stewart and pals next year. By most accounts, the split was acrimonious.

See also
It's Official: Ryan Newman and Penske Part Ways After 2008. Now What?

After watching his drivers finish one-two in the Daytona 500, Roger Penske and his teams have hit the skids. The Captain’s two drivers are now mired 16th and 17th in the standings. Somehow, I’m not sure that replacing Newman with David Stremme in the No. 12 car is going to turn things around, but, Hell, what do I know. I’m one of the morons who picked Kyle Busch to win this year’s title going away despite Brian France’s Magical Mystery Tour better known as the Chase. I have other names for it but they are not suited for a family oriented website.

One of the big stories going into the first Atlanta race was whether the Car of Sorrow would live up to its hype in its first full season of racing, especially on the intermediate tracks like Atlanta where it had been problematic. To sum up, it hasn’t. I’ve wasted enough words on the topic. NASCAR isn’t going to change the Ugly Duckling. It’s up to me to decide if I want to stay involved with the sport, a decision I’ve grappled with at this time of year every year since 2001. And every year since, I’ve come back. Call me a glutton for punishment but old habits die hard.

Off the track it’s been a pretty good eight months since March. In early March, I was dusting off the Harley and taking those first few tentative rides despite unseasonably cool temperatures. The Nighty and I have traveled many happy miles together since and I am thoroughly enjoying those last few rides through fall’s kaleidoscope of colors, knowing that all too soon it will be time to push the bike back into the living room and throw a cover over it.

The vintage Trans Am earned the wrath of some enviro-whackos one evening at a filling station but got a lot of nice comments on the local show circuit this summer. It’s nice to have nice toys. Since Atlanta, my buddy and I have added four project cars to the fleet for future resale and I spend more time on my back on a creeper in the garage than I do prone in bed. Once the Cup season reaches its long overdue conclusion and the temptation to take the scoot out for a long ride have gone, we’ll get ’em finished. Somehow, we always do.

Other Frontstretch staff members have had an eventful time of it since March as well. Senior editor Tom Bowles was lucky not to lose his home and all his good stuff when a conflagration swept through his apartment complex this summer. Other folks weren’t as lucky, but at least no lives were lost in what appears to have been a major miracle.

I’ll also note that the writer who started his career as “Kid Lightning” (yours truly) celebrated his 49th birthday this summer with the usual suspects – I got a bit dinged up that evening, but no worse for the wear. That means next year I’ll be… older than 49. Even Jimmy Buffett only dared face 40 head-on. But age is a relative thing… as in, unless I have a rich relative I don’t know about and with the hit my 401k has taken, I’ll be one of those 80-year-old guys everyone calls “Pops” mopping up at the local McDonald’s on overnight shift to keep paying the rent.

But maybe the economy and the market will get better, and maybe the racing will too in the future. I’ve got to admit, I haven’t been impressed with any of them in the eight months since March.

An interesting week lays ahead – we’ll have a new World Series champion, a new Formula 1 champion and a new president-elect. Some say it’s an Arab proverb, and others claim it’s Chinese (Joe Biden might be claiming it by now), but what seems a blessing is actually a curse; “May you live in interesting times.” Well looking back at eight months of NASCAR racing, there’s no doubting it’s been an interesting time.

I present as Smoking Gun Exhibit A the 1992 Atlanta season finale which was determined when Alan Kulwicki led one more lap than Bill Elliott. (And for those newer to the sport, Kulwicki often led Elliott by mere inches to lead some of those laps.) The old system was fine by me and an anomaly like Matt Kenseth’s 2003 title didn’t get me all worked up into a lather. Here’s hoping next year’s Cup season is a lot more exciting but a bit less interesting.

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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