Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin’s Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2009 Atlanta Spring Race Recap

The Key Moment: Kurt Busch dominated the race at Atlanta, but a late caution and a two-tire stop put Carl Edwards at the head of the pack. Busch was able to easily retake the lead when the green flag flew with two laps left.

In a Nutshell: It looks like this new Dodge engine is going to work out all right.

Dramatic Moment: Busch pretty much had his way all afternoon, but that final caution flag gave the rest of the top five cars a final shot at him.

A crew member of Marcos Ambrose’s team made an ill-advised stroll onto the quad-oval grass to retrieve a wayward tire, trapping many competitive cars a lap down during a cycle of green flag pit stops.

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

OK, it seems political correctness has gone out the window once and for all – and NASCAR better wake up and smell the coffee. Prior to the race, Junior his Very Own Exalted Self weighed in on the tire wear issue at Atlanta. “This is a hell of an excuse for a racecar,” he said. “It is hard to drive. It makes everybody’s job harder, even Goodyear’s.” One hell of an excuse for a racecar? That’s less than a ringing endorsement from a fellow who actually has to pilot one of Brian France’s multi-make clown cars. Maybe we ought to see if Brian could drive one of these rolling abortions home from Happy Hour without hitting another palm tree.

See also
Bowles-Eye View: Even Hendrick Not a Magical Fix for Mark Martin, Dale Earnhardt Jr.

How good was it to see a race winner drinking a beer rather than a soft drink in victory lane again?

Apparently, attendance is an issue that stretches beyond the seats in Chicken Bone Alley at Atlanta. A good friend with inside information tells me only half the corporate suites at the track were full on Sunday.

You’ve got to love it anytime the circuit arrives at any track owned by Bruton Smith, because you just know the Big Guy is going to have something quotable to say. Smith feels that it’s time for the season finale to move from Homestead back to Atlanta, where the circuit held its finale for so many years. Of course, O. Bruton put it a bit more colorfully than most, noting; “Why have the last race of the season at some Godforsaken area just north of Cuba?” Speak on, Preacher. The congregation hears you.

I’ve had a few people ask me via email this week whether I actually read the comments that are attached to my articles. Naturally, I do. I appreciate the positive comments and I respect the opinions of folks who feel differently than I do. (Though I remain confused by folks who tell me if I don’t like the current state of Cup racing, I shouldn’t watch. Doesn’t that beg the question, if they don’t like what I do, why read it?)

This week certain individual posters, one in particular, took my negative opinion of the Fontana race to task. Again, I respect those dissenting opinions. If they choose to buy tickets to Fontana, I’m good with that, as long as they aren’t taking the hard-earned money out of my wallet to buy them. This week, the loyal opposition (and I use that term affectionately, not cynically) put forth the proposition that the flat, multi-use tracks like Fontana provide better racing because the action is more cerebral than visceral.

If I am interpreting their comments correctly, certain folks enjoy these races because to succeed at tracks like Fontana, the team has to bring their “A” game to the track aerodynamically and horsepower-wise. Drivers have to be mentally prepared for a 500-mile gauntlet, and crew chiefs must change strategy on the fly when cautions fall in a certain manner that alters fuel mileage and tire strategies.

In saying so, proponents of these races and tracks are correct, and I respect that opinion – just as I realize some people would rather watch a chess match than an outdoor motocross event. In my opinion (and that’s in fact what these columns are… opinions, not oracles) the racing at Michigan (the original multi-use track) was better back in the day when the draft played a large part in determining the outcome of the races – though strategy was always a big part of the game, too.

And therein lays my complaint with today’s races like Fontana. The Car of Tomorrow won’t draft anywhere but the plate tracks. In fact, due to its aerodynamic deficiencies, the overtaking car is at a decided disadvantage to the car ahead of it due to aero push… an issue I think the new design was meant to address but has not. So, when NASCAR finally admits the Car of Sorrow is a like a Chihuahua – a high strung, unpredictable mutt that just won’t hunt – it behooves their design of the Car of Next Month to have the boxcar aerodynamics of the Glory Days cars of the late ’80s (your mileage may vary). OK, Bobb?

I saw this one coming like a train wreck, but I hesitate to comment on it in these PC times. I get a ton of those annoying FW emails each day from friends, strangers and fellow countrymen, and this week I got one with the title “Digger and the White House.” I’m a glutton for punishment, so I clicked on the link (since thankfully removed) that played a two-minute parody of David Hill’s Little Digger cartoon character as a blatantly offensive and racist parody of President Barack Obama. I’ll let your imagination fill in the blanks, because it was just that hateful and obscene whether you support the current administration or dislike it.

Another hot-button issue I am hearing about from fans is the new Truck Series pit-road rules that only allow teams to change tires or add fuel during a single pit stop. While the majority I have heard from disapprove of the rule, I like it. I understand that it’s been enacted to help the truck teams save money, and that can only be a good thing given the troubled state of the series and the dearth of full-time teams right now. Yes, it will take a while for crew chiefs to adapt the rules to their best advantage; but once they do, it ought to make the racing more interesting.

See also
Tracking the Trucks: 2009 American Commercial Lines 200 at Atlanta

Another sign of the times – or a sign their time is gone? Todd Bodine has finished first, second and third in the first three Truck Series races this season; but unless a sponsor steps up to the plate before Martinsville in three weeks’ time, his team won’t be making the haul to the race. Can somebody please step up to the plate and back the No. 30 team? And you don’t think that the Truck Series is falling out of favor just because Toyotas have won all three races this season and claimed 12 of 15 possible top-five finishing positions, do you?

Fans of other disciplines of motorsports can testify that when it comes to racing, Toyota’s motto is “I came, I saw, I conquered, I split,” usually leaving nothing but dust and ashes in their wake. If I were Brian France, I’d be sure to get my last free oil change on my Lexus prior to November.

Hey, maybe they are listening! If nothing else, FOX proved that when it comes to the pre-race show, less is more. Just thank goodness they were still able to work in the animated Digger segment. My life is Digger. Everything else is just waiting. Not.

It’s sad to say, but if the fans in Atlanta want to continue having two Cup races a year, they better start showing up at the turnstiles. Bruton Smith is probably going to have to move one of his races to get a second date at Vegas, and the difference in the crowds between last Sunday and this Sunday was notable.

I might be getting to the party late, but personal commitments Friday night meant I had to follow qualifying on the computer. I didn’t realize that SPEED was showing qualifying with tape delay until I talked to a friend who was watching the coverage live – and he was about five cars behind the live action.

Isn’t it sad that the only place race fans see Kyle Petty this year is during commercial breaks?

The Hindenburg Award for Foul Fortune

Joey Logano is going to be lucky to have a ceiling fan left if he doesn’t start running faster soon. Speaking of soon… it seems like he made the leap to the bigs a year too soon.

Mark Martin started on the pole, but was never a real factor in the race. A blown tire just added to his misery.

Atlanta’s favorite son Bill Elliott had a credible run going for the Wood Brothers until Sam Hornish Jr. finally got around to finishing off the wreck he’d been hinting at causing most of the race.

Jimmie Johnson had a car that appeared able to keep Busch honest, but a pit-road speeding penalty cost him a shot at the win.

Doug Yates watched two of his three cars succumb to engine problems during the race.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award for Fine Fortune

About the only thing that Busch wore out more than the rest of the field was his right-side sheetmetal. Yet despite visiting the wall more than Pink Floyd, Busch hung on to win the race. He also had to overcome refueling issues in the pits to take the checkered flag.

Clutch problems could easily have brought Jeff Gordon’s day to a premature end, but he soldiered on to a second-place finish.

If you think passing other cars is tough, try passing a kidney stone. Martin Truex Jr. did so on Saturday night, yet came back to post a top-10 finish on Sunday.

Edwards‘s team struggled in the pits all day, costing their driver numerous spots during the race; but Edwards managed to finish third, anyway.

Tony Stewart’s team nearly sunk their boy’s battleship when they only got three gallons of fuel into the Old Spice car during a botched stop, but a timely caution allowed Stewart to come away from Atlanta with a top-10 finish.

Worth Noting

  • On Friday, Martin posted his first pole since Richmond in the spring of 2001. Logano was 10 years old at the time. Martin noted that the pole-winning run was a sphincter tightening moment for him in not so many words. Keep on trucking, you crazy old man.
  • Busch won for the first time since Loudon last year, a race that ended early due to the weather. His last win prior to that was at Michigan in 2007.
  • Gordon finished second for the second time this season and for the third time since he last won a Cup event.
  • The top-10 finishers at Atlanta drove six Chevys, two Dodges, a Ford and a Toyota.
  • Logano’s 30th-place finish eclipsed his rookie rival, Scott Speed’s, 35th-place result for top-freshman honors.
  • Jeff Gordon, Busch, Clint Bowyer and Stewart have top-10 finishes in three of this year’s four points-paying races run to date.
  • Stewart and Kasey Kahne are the only two drivers in the top 10 in points who haven’t scored a top-five finish this year. I can’t be the only one who has noticed that Kahne’s sponsor’s Creepy Chicks ads haven’t been a part of this year’s plethora of commercials during race broadcasts. Editor’s Note: Allstate has yet to appear on the rear quarterpanels of the No. 9 car in 2009.
  • Of the drivers who finished in the top 10 in last year’s Atlanta spring race, five of them duplicated the feat this year. (Gordon, Harvick, Brian Vickers, Bowyer and Stewart.) Gordon is the only driver to post top-10 results in the last three Atlanta Cup races. Gordon hasn’t finished worse than 12th in the last eight Atlanta Cup races.
  • Vickers managed his first top-five finish since Michigan last spring.
  • Kahne scored his first top-10 result since last year’s Homestead season finale. Truex’s last top-10 result occurred in that same race.

What’s the Points?

Repeat after me… it’s way too early to start worrying about points.

That being said, Gordon continues to lead the standings with a 43-point margin over second-place Bowyer. Busch’s win propels him forward four spots to third, a mere three markers behind Bowyer. Edwards moves up five spots to fourth in the points, the highest he’s been so far this year.

Further back, Vickers moves up six spots to enter the top 12 in 11th. Johnson also moved up six positions in the standings; he now finds himself knocking on the door in 13th.

On the flip side, Michael Waltrip fell out of the top 12 in the standings, tumbling four spots to 16th. David Reutimann fell seven spots after engine problems left him 32nd – but he’s still clinging to the 12th and final Chase slot.

The only people who need to be sweating the points right now are those drivers trying to stay in the Top 35. After Bristol in two weeks’ time, only the Top-35 teams in this year’s standings are guaranteed a spot in the subsequent races. Among the notables flirting with that 35th-place mark are Martin (34th), Logano (33rd) and Ryan Newman (32nd).

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 beer. Yeah, Busch pretty much dominated, but Gordon and Vickers kept him honest at times. With two laps left to go, it was anyone’s race, but Busch was able to spring forward when it counted.

Next Up: Well, this is odd. Next weekend, the circuit takes a week off just four races deep into the season that includes damn few off weekends from now until Thanksgiving. Perhaps FOX can air a Digger Cartoon Marathon next Sunday to fill the air time.

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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