Race Weekend Central

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

The Key Moment: When the stuff hit the fan Jamie McMurray was at the front of the pack, seemingly as surprised to be there as anyone was to see him take the checkers.

In a Nutshell: 183 laps of tedium followed by five laps of incomprehensible, stomach-churning insanity posing as some facsimile of a race. Terrible, simply terrible. Utterly so, without any redeeming social value.

Dramatic Moment: A long, long pause waiting to get word on Ryan Newman’s condition after his terrible tumble. At the plate tracks I usually sit and wait to watch to see if the rotors start turning on the Med-evac helicopter after an incident. If they don’t, everyone is OK. If they do, someone is not. If they start turning then stop, the worst possible outcome has occurred. Welcome to Talladega, future home of the “Worst Possible Outcome 500.” Your ticket to the race comes with a complimentary toe-tag.

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

Kudos to Newman for his comment on those rare ghoulish fans who enjoy seeing big wrecks. “If this is what you’re here to see, go home. You don’t belong here.”

Style points to Jeff Gordon as well for his abnormally dry and ironic comments, “At least we were able to run out of gas on time [so] we could get to the pits, get back out on the track and destroy our car.”

OK, let’s man up and look at this mess. There have been race formats at the plate tracks that have bored the fans to tears before. But best as I can recall, this is the first time I’ve ever heard drivers out there running in a huge single-file procession admitting they were bored. If nothing else, Sunday’s race affirmed something for me: Anytime you think NASCAR officials have screwed (and that’s not my first choice of verbs) up so badly they couldn’t get worse, they once again manage to prove me wrong. What a frickin’ (also not my first choice in modifiers) disaster.

See also
Talladega the Last Straw: The Madness Must End

It surely did seem like most of the drivers didn’t think much of Sunday’s race or the rules change announced late Sunday morning. As I see it, two hours after a race when they still can’t decide who the top-10 finishers were, it wasn’t a race, it was a travesty.

Given the number of empty “premium” seats in the upper grandstands, why not move all the fans up top and let them see the race in first class rather than down in coach where the Cup cars could land after wrecks?

It’s almost as if they just want to become a parody of their own bloated selves. How can NASCAR institute a major rules change (regarding bump drafting) less than two hours before the race? Did they forget that they’d be running the plates at Talladega until Sunday morning?

Someone was mentioning to me that tickets to Major League Baseball games were way down this year, way down as in almost in NASCAR territory for 2009. Interestingly enough, game two of the World Series drew 19 million viewers as opposed to about a quarter that many who tuned into Chase race number six last week at Martinsville. This is a World Series that passionately interests mostly fans who live within a 50-mile radius of exit 7S of the Jersey Turnpike (the mark of delineation between Yankee and Phillies fans).

Pass me a cigarette, I think there’s another one in the suitcase… counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike…. You know, if the Chase was supposed to increase interest in casual fans once the NFL season began and the Boys of Summer began their annual October drive to the Series, it may be the biggest single marketing disaster since New Coke.

Apparently they held another closed-door town hall meeting (how’s that for an oxymoron?) for the sport’s participants this week and announced that come 2011, they’ll tweak the lower half of the Car of Tomorrow to try to improve racing. Yawn. And they blew up the Chicken Man in Philly last night, and they blew up his house too…. I guess we’re just going to write off the 2010 Cup season too rather than make the necessary changes next year? Well everything dies, Baby, that’s a fact, but maybe everything that dies, someday comes back? Maybe someday?

Well Boy Howdy, that’s going to leave a bruise! Dover Downs Entertainment announced this week that they’re shuttering the Memphis Motorsports Park, which has been hosting Busch/Nationwide and Truck series races since 1998 and has in fact hosted some pretty good racing in the intervening years. Apparently in this economy, given the diminished level of interest in NASCAR racing, the business model where a small track can survive with a single Nationwide and Truck race a season is no longer operable, which means a lot of other tracks are also hanging on by the skin of their teeth.

MMP was constructed in the era where building a racetrack seemed a license to steal money and unwary investors could be drawn in with a nod, a whisper and wink that someday the facility would host a Cup event and then the real money would be trucked in on tri-axles. Only getting a Cup date added to a track has proven to be a real tough job for any organization other than the ISC, the International Speedway Corporation, the same fine folks who once fired my ass. Homestead-Miami was having no luck getting a Cup date until the ISC bought the joint at fire-sale prices and all of a sudden the track got the season finale Cup date.

California and Phoenix were struggling to get by with their one Cup date a season until the ISC bought both tracks and, what are the odds? NASCAR decided to award both tracks a second date. The ISC, which of course has no relation to NASCAR which awards race dates other than the fact they are headquartered in the same building, have the same folks answering the phones and are run (ineptly) by the same family, just seems to be real lucky when it comes to buying racetracks that are about to be awarded Cup dates.

That leaves me scratching my head wondering who the heck is going to buy a racetrack facility that has no major-league sanctioned race dates attached to it? Apparently Memphis is available at fire-sale prices below $10 million, certainly a fraction of what was spent to build it. I doubt a driving school could carry the note. It might be a nice place to host a classic car flea market like Carlisle with all that parking down there, but that only consumes a few weekends a year.

If a true car guy were to hit the Powerball lottery for $200 million he might enclose the garage stalls to house his collection of muscle and exotic car and run them around the oval and up and down the drag strip, but I don’t know of any car guys who have won the Powerball lately. Short of Elvis returning from the dead and booking a month-long series of concerts at MMP I have no idea how the place can be saved.

OK, so Steve Addington has taken Kyle Busch from a rough around the edges occasional contender to a threat to win any week his mercurial driver doesn’t meltdown and as his reward he’s given a pink slip? I guess among crew chiefs they all vie to sit atop the box of one of the sport’s big names. That earns you the big bucks, gets your mug on TV and earns you rock-star treatment. But on the other hand, you have to know if things stop working out it’s not going to be the driver that gets the ax.

See also
Full Throttle: Sometimes You Have to Make Changes Sooner Rather Than Later

Good luck to this Dave Rogers fellow, Kyle Busch’s new crew chief. He’ll know he’s doing his job well when the majority of fans are booing and tossing stuff onto the track after a race. He’ll know he’s not doing such a great job when he gets fired. Yeah, I’m sort of glad I do what I do. At least the people who hate it do so quietly in the comments section. If you’re going to toss a beer can at me, make sure it’s full and cold and in the strike zone.

Is Talladega the last track still to have the pre-race flyover in the “missing man” formation in honor of Dale Earnhardt, or did a F-15 pilot just get lost on the way to the track?

Is this supposed to be automobile racing or a real noisy game of Simon Says? When the caution flag flies and four cars are right at the “green light/red light” device at the entrance to pit road still carrying a legal 55 mph, how are they all supposed to swerve back on to the track in an instant? At very least let them continue down pit road without stopping without drawing a penalty.

Why was AJ Allmendinger given a breathalyzer test prior to practice at Talladega on Friday? It would seem being willing to race at Talladega is presumptive proof that a driver is under the influence of something clouding his judgment.

Miccosukee.” There, I did it without cheating. One less mountain left to climb.

There have been some badly ill-considered moments in NASCAR broadcasting history. Few of them were as badly conceived, darkly disturbing, or clearly hallucinogenic-ally inspired as the Batman-themed pre-race show prior to Saturday’s truck series race. If only that sort of effort, talent and pre-production had been devoted to something useful, SPEED might really have been onto something other than ensuring Krista Voda can never show her face in public without shame again. Two words Ms. Voda, “Thigh-master.”

The Hindenburg Award for Foul Fortune

Mark Martin said he was going to run Talladega this weekend like there was no possible way he could be in a wreck. He ran like that too for 187 laps, but unfortunately the race was 188 laps long. Once again Martin watches his dreams of a Cup title go up in smoke, this time from the unique angle of an upside down racecar. I think maybe Martin needed a little more thorough examination in the infield care center. He surely did sound like he had a bad concussion in his post-race comments.

Gordon ran out of gas and returned to the track just in time to find himself in the big wreck. He also watched his last gasps at a title this season riding off into the sunset.

Joe Nemechek wasn’t even able to park his car fast enough to avoid the first wreck.

At least Denny Hamlin blew (another) engine and he was able to hit the exits early in the Great Alabama Getaway.

Newman seemed to be saving his stuff for the end of the race when he suddenly found his stuff scattered the length of the straightaway and upside down at that.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award for Fine Fortune

Apparently Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus really have this Talladega mess figured out at last. They cruised around at the rear of the field most of the afternoon, charged up front just slowly enough to avoid the Big One and then were ahead of the “Even Bigger One” there at the end. And they didn’t run out of gas.

McMurray? No, seriously, how many of you even realized McMurray was still in a Cup car?

A penalty for a tire violation in the pits seemed to doom Greg Biffle’s chances at a solid finish but a late race rally saw the No. 16 car drive to a fourth-place finish.

Worth Noting

  • OK, let’s get it out there in the open. I have a deadline to meet. Because of the last-lap carnage there’s no certain way to say who finished where yet. The finishing order seems to be changing each time I refresh my computer because of the last-lap chaos. Let’s put it this way: NASCAR is so unsure who finished where that they ain’t even writing the finishing order in pencil, they’re using an Etch-a-Sketch. But eventually I just have to walk out there on the high wire and do what I do, cause if I get home before daylight, I just might get some sleep tonight.
  • McMurray won a Cup race for the first time since 7-7-07. A Ford won a Cup race for the first time since Fontana, the second event of the 2009 Cup season.
  • Joey Logano’s third-place finish was the second best of his Cup career.
  • Kasey Kahne’s second-place finish was his best since he won at Atlanta.
  • Biffle’s fourth-place finish returned him to the top 10 for the first time in four races.
  • Jeff Burton (fifth) enjoyed his first top-10 result since the first Pocono race and his first top five since Las Vegas.
  • Michael Waltrip’s sixth-place finish was the best of his 2009 Cup campaign. And he managed to do so without running over any motorcyclists this week!
  • Elliott Sadler’s seventh-place finish was his best since the Daytona 500. Have you driven a Ford, lately?
  • Johnson (eighth) missed the top five in a Chase race for just the second time this season. Boom-boom-boom-boom… out go the lights.
  • Brad Kesolowski (ninth) scored his fourth top-10 finish in 12 Cup starts this season. And nobody had to be hospitalized as a result this weekend. Is this a great country or what?
  • Dale Earnhardt Jr. (10th) scored his best result since Bristol.
  • Robert Richardson Jr. finished 18th. Wait a second, who?
  • Gordon’s 22nd-place finish was his worst since Bristol.
  • The top-10 finishers at Talladega drove four Chevys, three Fords, two Toyotas and a Dodge. The narrator of “American Pie” drove a Chevy to the levy, but the levy was dry. Also this week Chevy announced they are dumping the Impala SS model. Draw your own conclusions.

What’s the Points?

Ut-oh. Under the old points system, given the current results of the race (Johnson eighth and Stewart 35th), Johnson would have taken over the points lead from Tony and would now be leading the standings by four points with three races left to go. That would have created the sort of excitement the artificially contrived Chase points system was supposed to provide but without the smoke (no pun intended) and mirrors.

As it is, put out the fires, call in the dogs, and finish up those roadies while they’re cold. It’s over. Johnson is the 2009 Cup champion. For the record Johnson is now over 180 points ahead of second-place Martin. Gordon remains third in the standings a further 14 points behind Martin.

Juan Pablo Montoya wrested the fourth points position from Stewart.

Biffle took over the seventh points position, relegating Newman back to eighth. Fortunately the number eight looks the same whether you’re on your feet or on your head.

Kahne was Sunday’s big points winner advancing two spots to ninth in the standings. Hamlin fell two spots to 11th.

Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans with one being a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic): Imagine you order a cold $3 draft beer. But the bartender returns with 12 ounces of warm pus, mule piss and the cancerous drippings from some sort of testicular tumor then announces the price is actually $6, your car is on fire in the parking lot and your girlfriend has left you for Michael Bolton. That’s Talladega.

Next Up: The Cup Series, eyes blackened, lips bleeding, knuckles dragging the ground in sheer exhaustion, horror and shame, heads off to the antepenultimate race at Texas next weekend. If you give a crap please post a message below so we can get the doctors to up your dosage.

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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