Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin’s Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2010 Richmond Fall Race Recap

The Key Moment: Kyle Busch made a late-race surge after teammate Denny Hamlin, but licked all the red off his M&M’s candy (and burned all the good out of his Goodyears) in a determined charge at Richmond that ultimately fell short.

In a Nutshell: Not too much drama other than ESPN hopelessly beating a dead horse, claiming that Clint Bowyer was balanced on the edge of a razor trying to make the Chase when he’d all but secured his place in the title hunt by halfway. But there was some good old fashioned side-by-side racing and passes for the lead all the same.

Dramatic Moment: When leader Hamlin got caught up in lapped traffic in the final 25 laps of the race, Busch was able to get right up to his bumper and for several circuits could have knocked the No. 11 out of his way. Even a clearly concerned Joe Gibbs didn’t seem certain how that was going to play out.

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

Not too much of anything, I’m afraid, given the recent lack of notable news NASCAR-wise, which is especially troubling heading into this sport’s playoffs. Wondering whether Mattias Ekstrom was going to get the nod to drive the No. 83 Red Bull Toyota didn’t keep too many hardcore race fans awake late at night trembling with anticipation.

I guess the biggest news in NASCAR this week is what’s not happening. Wal-Mart will not be the primary sponsor for Jeff Gordon and the No. 24 team next season despite protracted negotiations that lasted most of the summer. Maybe Rick Hendrick refused to have his cars built in Red China to save money because it would put Americans out of work?

Truthfully, I never felt that Gordon and Wal-Mart were a good fit to begin with. My guess is he doesn’t run down to Wally World for charcoal, paper plates and Dixie cups when he’s having guests over for dinner. He probably has such affairs catered, living comfortably in a city (Manhattan) that doesn’t exactly have that type of store on the street corner.

The news, of course leaves a four-time championship team with no primary sponsor for the 2011 season. But I wouldn’t panic, they’ll find someone… just perhaps at fire-sale pricing compared to the salad days of the sport. Wishing to help as always, I am willing to pay the sum of $100, payable in U.S. cash, unmarked non-sequential bills on demand to have the No. 24 team run the “Save the Endangered Harley Riders… Get Off Your Damned Nextel and Drive!” logos I have designed for Daytona next year.

Was the roar of the crowd after the race a tribute to local boy Hamlin or his detractors expressing their glee Kyle Busch had lost again?

A fond farewell to our fairweather football fellow fans who only follow NASCAR racing until the NFL regular season kicks off. We’ll see ya’ll next year… maybe. I truly hope your season generates more excitement this year than ours has to date. And even for the rest of you, remember to check the batteries in those remotes because upcoming races are likely to have you channel surfing over to another network to see how the local team is doing.

It ought to be an interesting week in the comments section below and around the ‘net as we find out what some fans truly want as opposed to what they actually want. Yes, Richmond was a bit short on drivers throwing helmets, threatening to brawl and questioning one another’s ancestry. That’s WWE stuff. There was, in fact, a lot of side-by-side racing and passing for the lead, featuring a protracted battle between Hamlin and Bowyer who traded the top spot five times.

With only three cautions (one for rain) there weren’t a lot of restarts, and there was no late-race debris caution (I guess NASCAR is still stinging from Hamlin calling them out on that one) to add artificial drama. But I was satisfied. I saw a stock car race, albeit one that didn’t have me on the edge of my seat.

Other folks are going to say it was boring, the same folks who missed 25 caution periods during the Bristol night race. Some of you are going to say I’m letting Richmond off easy because I like the track. Hell, yeah, I like the track. What’s not to like? If they ran the season as a 30-race schedule with all events held at Richmond, I’d watch every one.

Apparently, all the drivers and owners in the Cup garage got the memo. This is going to be the closest, most exciting Chase ever, not a seventh repudiation of Brian France’s ill-considered unwieldy method of determining a title. If it’s so, it’s because the outcome is manipulated, sort of like the NFL deciding all games will have their points reset to 1-0 entering the fourth quarter with the team leading at that point getting the one bonus point.

If it’s not, and my guess is we’re in for another rout, will it finally be enough to abort this insane idea that should have been stillborn? What we really need is for FOX to cover the Chase races. That way, fans could despise DW more than Brian France.

It’s only fitting on the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy a pre-race tribute was paid to the innocent victims of those attacks, as well as the first responders who continue to put rescuing others ahead of their own safety. But it makes me gnash my teeth to see NASCAR try to wrap themselves in the mantle of that tragic day.

See also
Driven to the Past: 9 Years Later, NASCAR’s 9/11 Moment Still Resonates

Here’s my recollections of NASCAR after 9/11. Like every other American and most citizens of the world I was saddened, shocked and angered by the attacks of that tragic Tuesday. I’d been glued to the TV for the 24 hours after a friend woke me up that morning to tell me something was bad wrong in New York. I literally got sick to my stomach watching the second plane hit and again when the towers collapsed.

Because I was based outside of Philadelphia, I had planned to drive to NHIS to cover the event anyway – the grounding of the airlines had no effect on my plans. But I was certain that NASCAR was going to cancel the race, just as the NFL and MLB had already canceled their events for that weekend; I believed that partially out of respect and partially because such a large gathering of people might be a tempting target to any terrorists still operating on our soil.

I kept waiting for the announcement the race was postponed, but when it got to be 10 a.m. Thursday, it was time to fish or cut bait. I called NASCAR headquarters in Daytona Beach and asked if the race was going to be postponed. I was told firmly the race would go on as scheduled “no matter what.” So I was well on my way, driving the Pennsy Turnpike when word came down that the NHIS race was indeed postponed.

I almost turned around and went home… but my buddy and brother-in-law Ken as well as my sister Jeanne lived in Vermont. I was headed that way anyhow and I didn’t feel like spending the weekend alone as a single guy. I kept heading north. As I drew closer to New York, almost every highway overpass was draped in American flags. The truckers were saluting those flags with their air horns.

I got as close as roadway closings would allow and parked my truck for a quick review of the forever altered New York City skyline I’d become so familiar with, as seen through eyes burning with tears looking at the still smoking ruins.

Kenny had a nice piece of property but it was fairly remote, 10 exits beyond “the sticks” and a quarter mile from the edge of the earth. It seemed like the safest place on earth that weekend, but Kenny was worried about an attack on the nuclear plant downwind. We discussed what we’d seen of the attack on TV: the people leaping out of buildings, the towers collapse, the toxic dust clouds and the sheer insanity of it all sitting on a post fence drinking our Buds as the dirt bikes cooled off in the field.

As we sat there discussing whether we felt the attack would be an isolated incident or the start of an all-out war on American soil, I looked up at the sky. Even in rural Vermont, it was odd not to see at least an occasional jetliner pass by… odd and troubling, but all of the U.S. was a no-fly zone that day. Above us flew two bald eagles instead, gliding in lazy circles over the field looking for lunch.

That evening, I recalled my mom telling me about her family learning of the attack on Pearl Harbor over the radio and how fearful, upset and confused they all were that Sunday. The world was at war, freedom hung in the balance and there were no guarantees. The next day, four of my uncles went to recruiting stations to sign up. Only one of them came home after the war. Despite the terrible price, that one still worked out all right; sometimes, you just have to decide if you want to be the eagle or the rabbit.

The Indy Racing League and the ISC (International Speedway Corporation… the track-owning facet of NASCAR though they remain two separate entities – nod, nod, wink, wink) have parted ways. That means there will be no IRL races at the Glen, Chicago, Kansas and Northern Cuba… I mean, Miami next year. Bruton Smith’s SMI will welcome the open-wheelers at Sonoma, New Hampshire (where I think eight people attended the last IRL race), Las Vegas and Texas.

The Texas event will be a groundbreaking event in that two full points-paying races will be held on the same weekend. Damn, I wish I’d been clever enough to suggest such a scenario months ago. Mr. Smith, can I get at least a free Mustang out of this one?

It’s time for me to quit smoking. Or at least try again. Chantix worked for Kenny and Jeanne, so that’s what I’m taking. One side effect of the medicine is vivid and occasionally terrifying dreams… but I’m good with that. After all, we used other substances for that purpose back in college. But my question to any other NASCAR fan using Chantix is do you frequently have nightmares about finding Tim Brewer in your garage? He’s just creepy.

The Hindenburg Award for Foul Fortune

Kasey Kahne not only missed the Chase, but offered some pretty convincing evidence why he wouldn’t have had a chance, anyway, slumping to a 29th-place performance – four laps off the pace.

Likewise, Mark Martin missed the Chase in pretty convincing fashion this year after making a run at the title in ’09. His 20th-place finish at Richmond was more a symptom than a cause for his missing the postseason.

If Martin and Kahne had bad nights, Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s was downright catastrophic. He struggled home 34th, six laps off the pace, with no accident damage or mechanical woes to excuse his sorry performance. If the man had any pride rather than just big-dollar sponsors and a famous last name, he’d stay home next week and test with the team until the point they can bring a competitive car to the track.

Saturday wasn’t a fine evening for the Brothers Labonte. Terry blew a tire and hit the wall a ton. Bobby watched as his car set itself ablaze during a pit stop. There comes a time when former champions need to head off into the sunset, keeping their dignity rather than drive for teams that couldn’t put together a cold bologna and mustard sandwich without screwing it up.

Jeff Burton gambled on the rain continuing when everyone else pitted, but I guess RCR needs a better weatherman. (They can have the Wicked Weather Witch of WPVI, Cecily Tynan… but she‘s not very accurate). Racing resumed and Burton was forced to the pits; he wound up 13th by the end of the race.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award for Fine Fortune

Hamlin blew an engine and finished 43rd last weekend at Atlanta but rebounded nicely with a win at Richmond. As such, he enters this Chase foolishness first in the standings as well, courtesy a nice little 391-point gift from Brian France compared to the “Classic“ (read: legitimate) points system. Remember when everyone decided Hamlin and the No. 11 team had written off this season after he elected to get knee surgery – originally planned for after the season – at the end of March?

See also
For Hamlin, the 2010 Season Ended on a High Note... This Week

Saturday was, in fact, a pretty nice evening for the entire Joe Gibbs organization, with all three drivers finishing within the top five, a first for the outfit since they expanded to three teams.

Greg Biffle only needed one car to fall out of the race to make the Chase, and it’s a good thing he did. The veteran suffered through a less-than-stellar, star-crossed run on Saturday en route to a 32nd-place finish. You know it’s going to be a long night when your helmet starts smoking on the parade laps.

Gordon struggled mightily early in the race, falling a lap off the pace at one point. All things considered, a 12th-place finish wasn’t all that bad, but there was an era when 12th for the No. 24 would have been considered a total disaster.

Worth Noting

  • Almost half (six of 14) of Hamlin’s career wins have occurred this season.
  • Kyle Busch (second) has three straight top-five finishes heading into the Chase.
  • Joey Logano (fourth) scored his first top-five finish since Martinsville, the sixth race of the season.
  • Jimmie Johnson (third) has back-to-back top-five finishes for the first time since he won at Sonoma and NHIS. Johnson has led laps in 10 of the last 11 races despite an off song summer.
  • Marcos Ambrose (fifth) scored his best Cup finish on an oval.
  • Bowyer (sixth) has three consecutive top-10 finishes coming into the Chase. Clint drives a Chevy. He’s in the Chase. One of the most famous lines from a Chevy Chase movie is “I don’t know why they call it Hamburger Helper, it tastes just fine by itself.” What are the odds?
  • Since winning at Watkins Glen, Juan Pablo Montoya (seventh) hasn’t finished outside the top 10 in the five ensuing races.
  • Carl Edwards (10th) hasn’t finished worse than 12th since the Firecracker 400.
  • It’s been seven races since Gordon managed a top-five finish.
  • Matt Kenseth (14th) has just one top-five finish in the last 13 races. He’s in the Chase, but it might be premature to start printing those championship t-shirts just yet. Then again, I hope Kenseth wins the title. It was Kenseth’s one-win championship year that convinced Brian France his organization needed to try a different way of crowning a champion back in 2003. Well, the “different way” has turned out to be a major league, yahoo, frickin’ disaster. Maybe a no-win champion would light a fire under France’s considerable butt, getting him to put down the booze and cocktail peanuts instead of preparing for an assault on palm trees on his ride home from Happy Hour to fix this mess. Or, he could step aside and let someone with a lick of sense fix it.
  • The top-10 finishers at Richmond drove four Toyotas, four Chevys and two Fords. The top Dodge driver was Brad Keselowski in 15th.

What’s the Points?

OK, which points are we talking here, real points or Sergeant France’s Lonely Grandstands Broken Parts Club Band’s Chase points?

Here in the real world, obviously Kevin Harvick would still be leading the points by 228 over Kyle Busch and 230 over Gordon. Anyone who thinks that’s an insurmountable lead with 10 races left to run doesn’t know who Alan Kulwicki was. In comparison, current points leader in La-La land points Hamlin would be 381 out of the lead and doubtless be preparing shelf space in his mansion for some lovely parting gifts after the 2010 season, in between frenzied trips to his driveway to make sure his Lexus was locked.

How does anyone endure this insanity, Alice? Either the Chase needs to go or NASCAR needs to start paying for Tums which I am currently swallowing by the fistful.

(For those of you for whom I have been too subtle, I don’t much like the Chase. Dr. Hunter Thompson once wrote that the ultimate way to die would be to have the radio fall into the bathtub where you were having a scrub, listening to Gracie Slick belt out the last few lines of White Rabbit… feed your head and whatnot. For me, the ultimate way to die would be to blow a valve hearing Brian France had his CD player tumble into the tub while he listened to Ms. Slick belt out those lines.)

Shake it off, Matt, shake it off. Hamlin now leads the points. (NO HE DOESN’T, NO HE DOESN’T, NO HE DOESN’T) by 10 points over Johnson. Harvick and Kyle Busch are a further 10 points back tied for third. (What are the odds after all these races? Pretty good if you understand how this underhanded chicanery works.) Five drivers who have failed to win a race: Burton, Kenseth, Gordon, Edwards and Bowyer go into the Championship Chase.

(I think I just felt a little vomit in my nostrils writing that. To casual fans and non-fans who know me, I am not going to explain how that works at the Wawa tomorrow morning. It’s insane. I admit it. I follow an illegitimate sport. Brian France has bastardized Cup racing to the point it‘s just the WWE without the boobs. And the boobs are probably coming soon. I‘m just wondering where the lions are.)

Ryan Newman was left out of the Chase in 13th, a mere 98 points behind 12th-place Biffle. Wow, what a squeaker! Can we re-tally the points from the swimsuit and talent portions of the competition just to be sure that we have a legitimate field of championship contenders? What’s that? Junior got an additional 270 points for his pedal steel banjo version of Led Zep’s “Dazed and Confused” and is now in the Chase? Seems fair to me.

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 four and a half bottles of icy cold Corona. After this summer’s drudgery, that race was a classic.

Next Up: The All-Singing, All-Dancing Chase commences in a week’s time at New Hampshire. Can you feel the almost palpable buzz of excitement as mainstream American pop culture embraces this playoff as an obsession? Nope, me either. NHIS is likely to provide racing almost as exciting as the World’s Quadriplegic Tiddlywinks championship.

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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