Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin’s Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2009 Martinsville Fall Race Recap

The Key Moment: Denny Hamlin held off repeated charges by Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Juan Pablo Montoya during a flurry of late race restarts to claim another win in front of his partisan home-state fans.

In a Nutshell: There’s no problem so big with this sport that a great little short track can’t fix it… at least for a week.

Dramatic Moment: The first 350 laps were about as close to vintage stock car racing as newer fans are likely ever to see.

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

I noticed this doing my pre-race prep this week prior to Martinsville. Under the current points system, Johnson led second-place Mark Martin by 90 points and third-place Gordon by 135. But under that tired old classic points system we used to use until it provided too many runaway champions, Tony Stewart would have been leading Johnson by 117 points (27 more than the new system’s gap between first and second) and third-place by 139 points. (Just four more than the current gap between first and third in the standings.)

See also
Bowles-Eye View: Chase Overload Cuts NASCAR Storylines to Pieces

So tell me again how the Chase spices up the title hunt? If a faltering Stewart was losing points to a resurgent Johnson down the stretch, there might actually be some interest in the series. Yeah, yeah, I’m beating a dead horse. The Chase is here to stay. But a dream lives on forever. Maybe, just maybe, we can adopt a more reasonable points system down the road and maybe, just maybe, someday Michael Waltrip and Brian France will be sharing an 8×10 residence, blasting out “Statesboro Blues” on their harmonicas while they serve DWI sentences. Wake up, mama.

Oh, and for the record, after Martinsville the gap between Stewart and Johnson under the old points system would be 85.

What is it cynics like me want from a stock car race to stop our incessant whining and negative hyperbole? Side-by-side racing for the lead, with tires smoking, fenders banging and tempers fraying. We want to see the best drivers making seemingly impossible catches as their cars get out from under them or get shoved aside by a competitor. We want to see a handful of cars racing hard for the win in the fading sun of an autumn afternoon at a track so rich with history, it makes the White House look like a Taco Bell. Sunday’s race is what we want. Please, sir, could I have some more?

We, the fans, hold this truth to be self-evident: a bunch more short-track races and a bunch less cookie-cutter parades would greatly improve our sport and perhaps even arrest the declines in TV ratings and attendance.

It sure did sound like Hamlin shares the opinion Kasey Kahne offered up two weeks ago that NASCAR is throwing bogus debris cautions late to add some excitement to the finishes of the Cup races.

Will the last person to care about the 2009 Cup season kindly shut off the TV and the lights when you leave?

Once again, there was a stricken car parked sideways across the start/finish line on the final lap of the race. (This time, it was John Andretti.) Once again, NASCAR didn’t throw a caution, though in other events they’ve waved the yellow hanky for debris the size of a gnat’s ‘nads in similar circumstances. It comes down to credibility and NASCAR’s account is overdrawn, in receivership and subject to foreclosure with all due prejudice.

A tempest in a teapot beats the doldrums, I suppose. Some folks are ready to form a lynching party for ESPN football analyst Bob Griese after an allegedly racist remark made during a promo for Sunday’s NASCAR race. The promo featured the top-five guys in the points and someone asked, “Where’s Juan Pablo Montoya?” (Apparently unaware Montoya fell out of the top five after last week’s race.) “Probably out getting a taco,” Griese said in response.

Insensitive? Yep. Uncalled for? Absolutely. Racist? Would everyone be in a huff if Griese had said Jamie McMurray (who might be Irish) was out grabbing a brew? If nothing else, it will be interesting to see if they can form a Politically Correct Lynching Party quickly enough to cost Griese his job for an ill-considered remark that reflected insensitivity but not hatred. Sometimes I hate the times we live in.

It’s bad enough Michael Waltrip can’t seem to finish a single race without running into an innocent bystander, but he’s once again taken his show on the road.

Earlier this week, Waltrip made an illegal U-turn and turned into the path of a rider on a Harley Davidson. The Harley struck Waltrip’s luxury Lexus SUV in the driver’s side door. (What is so wrong with Toyota’s lineup of cars and trucks that all its drivers opt for a Lexus rather than the base model when selecting a program car? The LX570 Waltrip was operating while impaired stickers out at $95,000. I drove one last week. It’s a big, stupid truck. A nice one, but a big, stupid truck.)

In a bit of a surprise, unlike the last time he rolled a Lexus SUV late at night, this time Waltrip remained at the scene. He was able to pass roadside sobriety tests, but a breathalyzer scored his BAC at .06. In North Carolina, like almost every other state of the Union, .08 BAC is the standard for Driving While Intoxicated, a felony. But police investigators concluded that alcohol played a major role in the incident and thus Waltrip was cited with the lesser charge of DUI, or driving under the influence.

At police discretion, a driver can be issued such a ticket even at a BAC as low as .01 if the officers determine that alcohol was a contributing factor to an accident. My guess is the folks at NAPA are burying their heads in their hands, but consoling one another knowing they’ve only got five races left with this lunkhead.

I’ve never liked Waltrip. I like him even less now. I ride a motorcycle too, by chance a Harley. It’s bad enough trying to avoid collisions with distracted drivers without factoring in those who have been drinking and thinking that the size and price of their vehicles allows them to violate traffic laws the rest of us have to follow. When I’m on my bike, I’m not out there to show off, piss you off and take off: I’m just riding my scoot.

Please keep an eye out for me and my brothers in the wind, just as I give your learning teenage driver a little extra space when I’m in the pickup even if I’d win that battle. When you see a motorcycle in motion, don’t think of it as a machine: think of it as a human being. As for Waltrip, it’s time the idiot hires a chauffeur. He’s obviously no good at this driving crap.

You know one way you can always tell a stock car race is being held in the Southeast and not somewhere else across the country? When the preacher finishes the invocation, the crowd responds, “Amen” – not “Wooooo-hooo” or “Johnson sucks.”

Isn’t it getting a little ridiculous that in the AT&T pit crew of the year voting, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the No. 88 team remain atop the standings? They routinely cost Junior spots in the pits and Earnhardt himself is a trainwreck on pit road week after week. Do you think the fan vote portion of the balloting is keeping the No. 88 bunch at the top of the standings?

The Hindenburg Award for Foul Fortune

They could have shoveled what was left unbent or unbroken on Kahne’s No. 9 car into an empty pack of smokes with plenty enough room left over for his title aspirations. They tell me Elliott Sadler will be driving a Ford for RPM next week at Talladega. It’s no wonder, as the team has to be nearly out of Dodges thanks to attrition over the last three weeks.

See also
Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off: Curiouser & Curiouser - The Story of RPM & Yates

Earnhardt Jr. and the No. 88 team bought a brand-new car and a fresh attitude to Martinsville this week. But they left with the usual half-ass finish after a string of blown right-front tires.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award for Fine Fortune

Hard pit-road contact with the No. 88 car bent up the right front of Hamlin’s No. 11 car and could have easily ended his day early. The FedEx Toyota wasn’t going to win any car shows, but it went on to win the race.

Starting 41st at Martinsville is usually a harbinger of a grim day at Martinsville, but Kyle Busch drove from 41st to a fourth-place finish despite some problems in the pits.

A longish pit stop late in the race seemed to doom Johnson’s chances at winning, but he drove on to a hard-fought second-place finish.

It seemed Montoya and Gordon were more determined to take one another out than win the race at times, but they cooled off and drove on to a third and fifth-place finish, respectively.

Maybe it won’t be the same ratings bloodbath this week for NASCAR, with many NFL football contests that ran against the first three-quarters of the race decided by gaps of more than 28 points.

Worth Noting

  • Ford’s worst winless drought was 35 races in 1982-1983. This year, they’ve gone 30 races without a win. Buddy Baker broke the streak of futility for Ford at Daytona in July of 1983. Does anybody else out there recall which Ford driver won two of the next three Cup races to restore some hope to the Ford faithful?
  • Say it ain’t so, Auntie Em! Chevrolet drivers claimed seven of the top-10 finishing spots, with two Toyota drivers and a single Ford rounding out the order. The top-finishing Dodge was Kurt Busch in 17th.
  • Hamlin’s third Cup victory of the year makes this his most successful season.
  • Johnson is averaging a 2.3 finish in the first six Chase races. My guess is that’s going to be kind of hard to beat.
  • Kyle Busch and Gordon have swapped fourth and fifth several times in the unofficial finishing results since the Martinsville race ended. As of right now, Busch is shown as the fourth-place finisher. Either way, Kyle Busch scored his first top-five finish since NHIS.
  • Either way, Gordon scored his fourth straight top-five finish. And he’s losing ground to his teammate. That’s got to be depressing.
  • McMurray’s sixth-place finish was his best of the 2009 Cup season. This gun’s for hire, even if we’re just dancing in the dark.
  • Ryan Newman’s seventh-place finish matches his best of the Chase.
  • Kevin Harvick’s 10th-place finish is his second top 10 in the last six races. Harvick also finished ninth at Richmond this fall.
  • Earnhardt Jr. (28th) has now gone seven straight races without finishing better than 20th. But as our old bud Kenny Mayne might point out, he remains popular.
  • Joey Logano’s 12th-place finish was the best by a rookie at Martinsville Sunday.

What’s the Points?

Johnson continues to lead the points with Talladega next week, the final hurdle he must clear en route to a fourth straight title. He is now 118 points ahead of Martin, who remains second in the standings and 150 points ahead of Gordon, still in third. Stewart remains fourth in the standings, 192 points out of the lead, meaning that unless he won and led the most laps, he couldn’t take over the top spot even if Johnson decided to stay home next week. So it’s now officially a three-man battle for the title… and not much of one at that.

Further back, Montoya wrested fifth-place honors from Kurt Busch. Newman took over seventh-place honors from Greg Biffle.

Hamlin moves up two spots in the standings to ninth. Carl Edwards holds on to 10th in the standings while Kahne dropped down to 11th.

Brian Vickers remains the Chase’s cellar dweller in 12th.

Kyle Busch prevails in this week’s battle with Matt Kenseth in the “Best of the Rest” honors, regaining 13th spot in the standings.

Earnhardt Jr. lost a further two spots in the standings and is now 24th. The combined points position of his three Hendrick teammates is sixth. Medic!

Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans with one being a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic): I’ll catch some static, but given this season’s racing I’ll give Martinsville five ice cold bottles of Corona for a good, old-fashioned race. In fact, I might have given it six bottles, but Waltrip filched one as a roadie for his ride home.

Next Up: It’s off to Talladega for the Halloween weekend show. Plate tracks typically offer up a lot more tricks than treats and real horror is always just a shot away, just a shot away. With all the safety advances in our sport, flight and fire remain the drivers’ biggest two fears. Get ready for the Battle of Icarus next weekend.

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.

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter

A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.

Share via