Race Weekend Central

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

The Key Moment: Mark Martin was able to quickly dispatch Ryan Newman on the race’s final restart, and Tony Stewart never generated the steam to catch him.

In a Nutshell: Martin’s victory is a feel good story, but it doesn’t hide the fact Phoenix wasn’t much of a race.

Dramatic Moment: With passing so hard and track position so important, the first few laps after a restart are about all we have left in this sport that resembles real racing.

The pyrotechnics in the air weren’t the only fireworks after the race.

Truthfully, the only great racing I saw all night was off pit road after the final caution. Martin barely beat Stewart (and a soon to be penalized Kyle Busch) to hold his track position.

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

Martin might not be everyone’s favorite driver, but I’ve met few fans who don’t like him. If their guy can’t win, a Martin win makes most fans feel good anyway because of the class Martin has shown during his career and the grace with which he has faced the most crushing defeats. It was also nice to see Martin’s former team owner, Jack Roush, and former teammates Jeff Burton and Matt Kenseth rushing to congratulate him. Sometimes, friendships do survive competitive rivalries and business divorces.

See also
Bowles-Eye View: Mark Martin's Rise Leaves Dale Earnhardt Jr. Flat on His Face

In another show of class, Martin took a few moments during what was rightfully his own time in the spotlight to pay tribute to both Alan Kulwicki and Tim Richmond.

It was also sort of nice to see a driver not doing burnouts and donuts and in general carrying on like a lunatic hoodlum after winning a race. Martin acted like he wasn’t surprised he was going to victory lane – because he’d been there before. Hopefully, some other, younger drivers were taking notes. That might have been the classiest post-race celebration since Terry Labonte won the final Southern 500.

Give Newman some credit for class as well. He restarted the race in the lead with a handful of laps left to run. Even if he couldn’t have won the race, he surely could have messed with Martin enough to allow his team owner, Stewart, to take the victory. But when Newman saw he’d been bested, he allowed Martin to pass him cleanly.

Given the way the car in the lead with clean air on its nose is able to dominate (witness the previously hapless No. 88 car driving away from the field after the fifth caution and Kurt Busch’s dominant car dropping back during the same sequence) why can’t NASCAR admit the obvious – there’s an inherent problem with this new car? It’s killing the racing and that’s killing our sport.

But on a brighter note, the tepid action and late start time probably combined to allow many race fans a great night’s sleep on the couch. I am not ready to say that Saturday night’s Phoenix race was the worst Cup race ever – not by a long shot – but it certainly featured the absolute worst TV race coverage I have ever endured. I am reasonably sure that when TV ratings are released later this week, they’ll reflect the huge number of fans who got disgusted and hit the “Off” button on their remotes. Based on the emails I received after the race, a lot of those fans aren’t ever coming back.

Racing is a fickle business. Kenseth, a protégé of Martin’s, started out the season with two race wins but now is in danger of falling out of the top 12 in points. (Note to NASCAR: Award more points to race winners.) At the start of the season, it didn’t seem that Martin was even going to finish many races, but Saturday night, he won at Phoenix. As it stands written in the Book of Jerry: The wheel is turning and you can’t slow down, you can’t let go and you can’t hold on, you can’t go back and you can’t stand still, if the thunder don’t get you, then the lightning will.

OK, now NASCAR is in a pickle. After the race, a thoroughly frustrated Dale Earnhardt Jr. exacted a little revenge from Casey Mears with his front bumper, sending Mears spinning. NASCAR has said repeatedly they don’t like those sort of antics. But we are, after all, talking Earnhardt Jr. – so sitting him out a race isn’t even on the radar. My guess is Earnhardt will be treated like any other driver; a hefty fine that’s not going to even ding his bank account and probation until the end of the season, with a dire warning that if he acts up again, they’ll extend the probation… but not much else.

The problem is, NASCAR ought to fund Junior’s keg party this week instead. A rivalry between crown princes of two of America’s most successful racing families? That might add a bit of spice to the sport. Sadly, I’m relatively sure by next week Dale and Casey will be all but blubbering and hugging each other, saying how much they “hated” what happened and swearing there’s no hard feelings. It’s too bad, because the best thing that could happen to the sport right now is for Mears to let Earnhardt have one right in the kisser with the cameras rolling next week. The problem is, at Talladega a battalion of Marines couldn’t get Mears out of there alive if he did so.

Fans at home had endured nearly two hours and 10 minutes of monotonous racing when Stewart began running down Earnhardt Jr. for what was going to be the first green-flag pass for the lead in the entire race. And that’s when FOX chose to cutaway to commercial. I mean, come on, they had to see what was happening. Even the newest fans to the sport could see what was about to go down. Why go to commercial? Then, why add insult to injury by making fans sit through the Cheezy-It Minute before showing a replay of the pass?

Does it seem more and more tracks seeking to sell tickets via TV commercials are relying on classic race footage and drivers from decades past rather than more recent races and drivers? For a fan who was there back in the day, it’s a painful reminder of how good some races used to be. Of course, FOX isn’t using the same strategy to promote upcoming races — they’re still relying on wreck footage.

When Robby Gordon said he was “looking forward to a new driver in the No. 55 car next year,” was that wishful thinking or does he have some inside information? Given his own reputation, this might have been a classic case of a fire hydrant pissing on the dog.

As someone staring down the barrels of 50 years of age myself, Martin’s win was pretty inspiring. Life doesn’t end at 50. All I need to do is stop smoking, quit drinking beer, start exercising, improve my notoriously bad diet and I’ll be in great shape, too. Nah. That don’t sound like much fun. But I might buy a No. 5 team ball cap.

My take on Jim France stepping down from his position as CEO of the International Speedway Corporation (deed holders to tracks like Daytona, Darlington, Talladega, et al) in deference to his niece Lesa? In the immortal words of Roger Daltry and Pete Townsend, “Meet the new boss, the same as the old boss…” No, we won’t get fooled again.

Someone has to point it out. In the first eight Cup races of 2009, three of four Rick Hendrick-owned teams have won. One team, the No. 88, has not… and hasn’t even been particularly close to winning. By the way, is Hendrick’s health OK? It seems he’s skipping a lot of races lately.

What in blazes was wrong with Kevin Harvick‘s car Saturday night? I mean, we’re talking about a driver who has won races in all three of NASCAR’s top divisions at Phoenix. Maybe it was a special promotion by the event’s sponsor, because Harvick really was out to lunch all night.

Some things just blend together naturally like peanut butter and jelly. Other things, like a Christmastime duet between Bing Crosby and David Bowie, seemed forced. The pairing of this year’s Darlington Cup race with GoDaddy.com seems even more bizarre to the point of being infuriating.

Darlington is the circuit’s most historic and storied track, even if they are racing there on the eve of Mother’s Day. It’s located in the buckle of the Bible Belt. GoDaddy is advertising’s leading purveyor of softcore porn disguised as 30-second advertisements. The pairing just doesn’t seem natural, and hopefully it is short-lived and as successful as Danica Patrick has been in her attempts to win an IRL title.

Yes, I’m from the right coast. As it turns out, when you study the demographics of those who still watch Cup races, (a dwindling number this year) so are the majority of fans in the markets that reliably provide NASCAR their best numbers. Thus, it makes no sense to me that NASCAR and its network overlords would decide to start a race after 8:30 ET knowing it would be unlikely to wind up ending much before midnight.

Late-race starts like this weekend’s also leave the networks little wiggle room if a weather delay or even extended caution flags cause the race to run long. Even a brief rain shower could push the end of the race into the 2 a.m. to 3 a.m. time slot only populated by infomercials and Insomniac Theater. The late end to the race also pretty much guarantees that there will be little to no post-race coverage in the Sunday edition of east coast newspapers, a rather risky strategy given the dwindling number of print organs that still devote any attention to stock car racing, anyway.

It doesn’t matter that much to me personally; I’ve always been a night owl. But Phoenix needs to be a night race the way Britney Spears needs another 55-gallon drum of stupid juice.

Note to self: You don’t want to hire Helio Castroneves’s accountant, but if you’re ever audited, you really need to hire his legal team. Somewhere in a Nevada jail cell, OJ is smirking.

I’ve never heard a Cup race pole winner claim idiocy was the cause of his achievement until Martin did so after taking the top starting spot on Friday at Phoenix.

Eight races into the season and these Digger segments are already in re-runs? It’s not like these worthless little skits aren’t annoying enough the first time. And while I hate to pile on FOX, the conflict between church and state (the alleged separation of the bean counters wishing to thank those who pay the bills and the actual broadcast team) was severely challenged by the amount of coverage Carl Edwards, driving the low-cal hoagie car of the race’s title sponsor, got based on his actual relevance to the race; it was all out of skew.

That was just another example of race fans getting a $5 footlong right up the wazoo. $5? Even the hookers in Philly get more than that for allowing such an act.

The Hindenburg Award for Foul Fortune

Earnhardt Jr. led a bunch of laps, but his efforts were hampered by a slow pit stop and a car that got adjusted into left field. Who’d have thunk? (Yeah, OK, we’ve seen this loony tune before.) Mears finally finished off Junior’s bad evening by buying him a one-way ticket into the concrete. To top it all off, Junior done went and got hisself into all sorts of trouble by wrecking Mears after the race.

Jeff Gordon’s original Rainbow Warriors were the pit crew all modern teams patterned themselves after. But a dropped lug nut on pit road dropped Gordon out of contention despite a racy mount. Let’s see, 47 races from now is….

See also
Thompson in Turn 5: Jeff Gordon a Legend Amongst Us

Busch thought he was in the lead after the final pit stop but was penalized by NASCAR officials for speeding on pit road. (Though he seemed to be fender-to-fender with Stewart the entire way. Obviously, a Martin win was going to be a lot more popular than another win by Kyle Busch; conspiracy theorists, start your engines!) Oddly, FOX didn’t do a post-race interview with Busch. If you want to listen to that sort of foul-mouthed tirade, you’ll have to tune into Rescue Me on FX this week.

Newman barely made the start of the race when the starter froze up on the No. 39 car when the command was given to fire the engines. He then had to endure radio problems all evening. Does the team even do a pre-race inspection of their cars? I guess it’s obvious which side of the shop all the remaining members of last year’s Gene Haas organization wound up on.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award for Fine Fortune

Jimmie Johnson had to overcome a rare pit-road foul-up by the No. 48 team en route to a fourth-place finish. That pit-road fire (yet another dramatic moment FOX only had on replay and after the conclusion of the race, at that) could also have seriously hampered Johnson’s efforts.

David Reutimann posted another solid top-10 finish and ran better than that most of the night. He surely had a better Saturday evening than his boss.

Kurt Busch had a strong car early in the race, but it was never the same after he tagged the wall trying to pass John Andretti, a death-defying feat the leaders had to perform several times all night. Is Andretti heading to Indy next month? Busch fought back to a third-place finish.

Denny Hamlin’s evening could easily have ended when he got into the No. 24 car and Gordon decided a little post-incident payback was in order. Let’s put it this way: it wasn’t the smartest thing I’ve ever seen Gordon do in a racecar. (And I’m sorry, while I support the fight against breast cancer as much as anyone, the color pink just doesn’t belong on racecars.)

With a third, fourth and second-place finish in the last three races, Stewart is ever so close to grabbing the brass ring as the circuit heads to Talladega – one of his best tracks.

Worth Noting

  • Martin’s win was his first Cup victory since Kansas in 2005, unless you want to count the Daytona 500 of 2007 when I still maintain that Martin was clearly ahead of Harvick when the caution should have been thrown on the last lap (and perhaps even still ahead when the yellow hanky made its long overdue appearance). Yeah, when it comes to beating dead horses, I’m Kentucky Derby material.
  • Stewart is averaging a third-place finish in the last three Cup races.
  • Kurt Busch (third) is averaging a 10th-place finish in the first eight Cup races of 2009. Last year, he posted an average 22nd-place finish for the season.
  • Johnson (fourth) has managed a top-10 finish in six of the last seven races.
  • Greg Biffle (fifth) has posted top-10 finishes in half of this season’s Cup races.
  • Hamlin (sixth) has finished 12th or better in the last four Cup races.
  • Martin Truex Jr.’s seventh-place finish was his best of 2009.
  • Reutimann’s eighth-place finish was his best since Las Vegas.
  • Hornish Jr. (ninth) managed his first top-10 finish in 44 career Cup starts.
  • Reed Sorenson’s 12th-place finish was his best since the Daytona 500.
  • Earnhardt Jr.’s averaging a 20th-place finish this season and is still looking for his first top-five result. Any more questions as to why he used Mears’s rear bumper as a chew toy after the race?
  • Logano’s 21st-place finish was the best by a Rookie of the Year contender. It was the first time Logano had finished better than 30th in five races.
  • The top-10 finishers at Phoenix drove four Chevys, two Dodges, two Fords and two Toyotas. We’re not going to have to start calling the Dodges “Fiats” anytime soon, right? (In a recent argument in a buddy’s garage, two friends told me Chrysler is going under and they deserve to because they can’t even give away cars right now. I’d be more than happy to prove them wrong if Chrysler wants to try to give me a Challenger SRT.)

What’s the Points?

Gordon continues to lead the points, but his gap over second-place Johnson eroded to just 85. Kurt Busch remained third in the standings, 13 points behind Johnson. Stewart and Hamlin advanced a spot each to fourth and fifth, close enough to Gordon to take the points lead if all hell breaks loose at Talladega.

A curiously off-song evening by Clint Bowyer dropped him two spots to sixth in the standings. Kyle Busch and Edwards held serve at seventh and eighth, while Reutimann advanced two spots to ninth in the points.

Despite winning the first two races of the season, Kenseth’s slump has dropped him all the way to 12th in the standings, down another three spots this week. On the flip side, Martin’s win vaulted him five spots in the standings up to 13th, just nine points out of the top 12. Biffle is three points behind Martin, while Juan Pablo Montoya is 20 points behind Biffle in 15th. The rest of the pack is losing the scent of the Chase.

Further back, Earnhardt Jr. dropped three spots to 19th in the standings, a sobering 399 points off the pace. And Robby Gordon dropped to 35th in owner points, leaving him in danger of having to qualify into races soon.

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 grind our teeth and give this one three cans of well-aged Schlitz. Two cans are for a popular race winner and one can is awarded for three hours of monotony posing as a race stretching way too far into Saturday night.

Next Up: Cup racing takes a week off, as NASCAR stages its own convoluted game of Roller Blade with the Cup cars at Talladega. In the immortal words of the late Dale Earnhardt, “I don’t care what they say. That ain’t real racing. Mr. Bill France would be turning over in his grave if he seen this mess.” Of course, Dale won’t be out there next week. Plate racing killed the man.

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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