Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2011 GEICO 400 at Chicagoland

Editor’s Note: Matt McLaughlin is still suffering from health-related issues. As soon as we have a firm date on his return, you’ll be the first to know! In the meantime, please continue to send your “Get Well” messages to matt.mclaughlin@frontstretch.com; we know how much he appreciates your support as his recovery continues.

The Key Moment: Tony Stewart had the pit crew to give him track position on his final stop of the race, the speed to get past Matt Kenseth on the restart and a little extra Sunoco to survive when almost all his rivals ran out of gas.

In a Nutshell: About the best you’re going to get from a cookie-cutter track whose races often win the Emmy for Least Inspired Sprint Cup Performance. But if all these 1.5-mile tracks turn into fuel-mileage finishes, no one will be watching by the end of the show.

Dramatic Moment: Stewart, Kenseth, Martin Truex Jr. and Jimmie Johnson held a spirited battle for the lead for about 10 minutes. But then, all the crew chiefs screamed, “Save fuel!” and everyone ran like a cop was pointing a radar gun, threatening to stop them for speeding at any point over the race’s last 30 laps.

What They’ll Be Talking About The Water Cooler This Week

As I mentioned in my column Monday (Sept. 19), a Chase debut in the country’s No. 3 media market didn’t exactly turn Chicago NASCAR-obsessed. To build a new fan following, you must build a product fans are willing to follow; and on the cookie-cutter, 1.5-mile ovals the car and tire combination continues to cause struggles for this sport. Whenever a driver falls loses track position, has a top-five car but then can’t get it back you’ve got a long-range problem that needs to be addressed. It’s funny NASCAR wants to stick in these big-range markets, like Chicago and Los Angeles but they won’t spend the money to actually revamp their boring racetracks in the process.

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Bowles-Eye View: Short-Term Pain, Long-Term Gain Heading Into NASCAR's Playoffs

So on Saturday, NASCAR let the Nationwide Series run the final 130 laps caution free. Then, on Monday four of the race’s six caution flags were “competition yellows” or debris. So much for letting the race play out when the big money (and TV audience) is at stake. I did find it interesting through that in the final stretch of the race, where there was actual competition up front that’s when officials put the “mystery debris” caution flag away and let fuel, letting everyone ride around at half throttle decide it.

Kurt Busch claims the aluminum debris, perhaps the most legitimate of the race’s six debris cautions didn’t come from his car. Umm, has he looked at the video replay? Did the Metal Fairy randomly drop some random pieces out of the sky? That’s the only other explanation I could come up with, so why did the No. 22 team try to cover it up?

By the way, when it comes to Kurt Busch I’ve got a whiny radio transmission back. “Yes, Kurt. Unbelievable. Unbelievable. You know, this stuff gets old after a while, I have to tell you. It just gets old. If only you could be the worst you can be, setting a new standard for verbal abuse every week. Oh wait! You did … again. Just don’t start crying when Steve Addington quits in the middle of a race because he’s sick of taking your %^&*!”

Fuel-mileage criticism has been levied enough the past few months; so instead of rehashing the same old stuff, let’s just have Kenseth handle it. Sayeth the ’03 Cup Series champ: “I don’t know what to do about the fuel mileage. It is really frustrating to be a racecar driver and they drop the green on the last run of the day, when you are supposed to put on a show for the fans and you have to run half throttle and can’t floor it or you will run out of gas. It is pretty aggravating to do all the work and qualifying and pit stops and adjustments but none of it makes a difference.

“It is not a great definition of racing, but how are you going to fix it? There were so many races this year that have been like that already where the guy running half throttle, or pitted off sequence or whatever and has won. I wish they could figure out how to fix it because it is not a lot of fun.”

What in the world was JJ Yeley thinking? “In his comments after the race, the excuse for pushing Kenseth on the last lap, a NASCAR no-no, is he didn’t know the rule existed. At best, for someone who’s been a Cup driver for six years that’s a terrible excuse considering most casual fans learn that inside the first three weeks.

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David vs. Goliath: Yeley, Blaney Among Those Windswept at Chicagoland

At worst, some Ford or Roush Fenway official made a secret order, one that became a big mistake as someone, somewhere had a major brain fart. Yeley does bring up an interesting point, though, about every driver in restrictor-plate races getting “pushed” on the final lap with the new two-car tandems. That does mean NASCAR officials should clarify the rule, but it’s hard to side with Yeley on this one.

First Paul Menard’s Richmond spin, setting Kevin Harvick up for victory, then Yeley’s push of Kenseth across the finish line (remember, Front Row Motorsports gets engine and chassis help from Roush). How much worse will team orders get in a Chase that still appears wide open?

Looks like Clint Bowyer and 5-hour Energy have a career-saving marriage in the works. Rusty Wallace admitted this weekend the sponsor was all but gone, pairing with Bowyer for a reported 20 races as they’d rather use their money to run Cup. Rumor has it Michael Waltrip Racing is now the frontrunner, with the team exploring a reported expansion to three cars. But keep in mind there needs to be other money, from Toyota backing to additional sponsor funding in order for this deal to be complete.

If I’m David Reutimann right now? Coming off an ugly finish this weekend, a race where he was the defending champ, I’d be doing my resume tonight just in case.

There’s one name that popped up in the race for the No. 33 car sweepstakes that could pull a major upset. If Childress can get the sponsors to agree, how about sliding Mark Martin inside the No. 33 in a one-year deal to keep the team afloat for Austin Dillon? You’ve got a veteran driver, teaming with another leader in Jeff Burton that’s willing to take less money to stay involved. The Stewart-Haas Racing deal is not yet complete, so this one bears watching considering Burton and Martin have worked together in the past.

The Hindenburg Award for Foul Fortune

Just about everything that could go wrong, did go wrong for Kyle Busch. A decision to take two tires didn’t work, the pit crew lost him 20 spots, he ran over aluminum debris at the 300-mile mark and ran out of gas on the white flag lap. Winding up 22nd, Busch scored points by at least publicly restraining from throwing anyone under the bus – that’s exceptional under the circumstances. But for a guy whose challenge is overcoming adversity, that’s one explosive-laced playoff welcome package to hold heading to Loudon.

Denny Hamlin limped into the Chase so badly few thought last season’s runner-up had any chance to contend. Two flat tires and some on-track contact later, he did nothing to indicate this 10-race stint will be anything more than a test session. The No. 11 was 31st, dead last out of the 12 Chase finishers after starting the day seeded 12th.

Jeff Gordon entered the day a championship favorite; he ended it with major questions surrounding this program’s intermediate track setup. Never a contender, Gordon seemed frantic at times during the race, radioing the car was tight from the center off but also suffering from a lack of rear grip elsewhere. Tight, loose, tight loose, not even Alan Gustafson can Goldilocks two opposite problems into place. Running out of fuel on the last lap added insult to injury; he wound up an ugly 24th.

Chad Johnston is turning into the gambling addict of Sprint Cup crew chiefs: somebody better keep him off the craps table in Vegas. Leaving Truex out during the final caution, hoping another yellow would force a round of stops his strategy backfired when the race went green the rest of the way. Truex, who went from the lead to 18th, learned a hard lesson … or did he? Kudos to this group for stepping up, recognizing they had nothing to lose and going for the win.

Speaking of gas, a long list of drivers will look back on that white-flag lap with disgust. Among those hurt the most: Johnson (third to 10th); Kenseth (fourth to 21st, courtesy of that Yeley assist); Ryan Newman (fifth to eighth); and Menard (seventh to 20th).

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The “Seven Come Eleven” Award for Fine Fortune

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was horrible on new tires. He was horrible on old tires. By the race’s halfway point, it was all crew chief Steve Letarte could do to pull out a top-15 finish. But low and behold, after a three-month disappearance the ability for these two to put their heads together and make the right adjustments on the No. 88 car suddenly appeared out of nowhere. Charging into the top 10 during the final run of the race, fuel mileage played in their favor for once and left them sitting on the “podium” third.

Penske Racing, down the stretch seemed headed for a miserable day. Between Brad Keselowski’s verbal meltdown, a poor pit strategy call by Paul Wolfe and handling issues that never died down, it was a miracle the No. 2 car even ended up on the lead lap. Right alongside him sat Kurt Busch, who led 64 laps early only to drop like a rock during the final 50 miles of the race. But when everyone ahead started running out of gas, Lady Luck smiled down and left them fifth and sixth, respectively at the checkered flag.

Kasey Kahne, an intermediate-track specialist hit the wall so hard early in the race it’s a wonder his Red Bull Toyota didn’t pull inside the garage. But his crew hung in there, kept adjusting and a Lucky Dog on the race’s final caution led to a second chance. Kahne made the most of it, charging to 12th while cultivating a setup that makes him a sleeper at Kansas and Charlotte.

For every driver that ran out of fuel, there’s one that blew past them at full song. Among the biggest gainers late: Earnhardt (sixth to third), Carl Edwards (eighth to fourth), Bowyer (12th to seventh), Martin (13th to ninth).

Worth Noting

  • Stewart with his victory has now won a race in 13 consecutive seasons. That’s the longest active streak for any Sprint Cup driver on the circuit.
  • Harvick (second) has a 1.5 average finish the past two races, his best since winning Fontana and Martinsville back-to-back this spring.
  • Earnhardt (third) had his first top-five result since Kansas in June – a span of 14 races. That, ironically was also a fuel-mileage finish.
  • Edwards (fourth) now has three consecutive top-five results.
  • Gordon (24th) had his worst on-track performance since Richmond in May.
  • Greg Biffle (26th) hasn’t finished in the top 10 in six races despite leading 92 laps and being a consistent top-five fixture early in events during that stretch.
  • Hamlin (31st) has gone without a top-five finish since Loudon in July.
  • The Bowtie Brigade knows how to save some gas. Seven of the top-10 cars were Chevrolets, with two Dodges and a single Ford rounding out the manufacturers. Toyotas, struggling with their fuel mileage could only muster a 12th with Kahne.
  • Trevor Bayne, while not running for the Rookie of the Year award, was the highest-finishing freshman at 23rd.

What’s the Points?

Harvick, by simply keeping his car filled with gas used that runner-up finish to open a seven-point lead in the championship over Stewart. Edwards is third, 10 points back with an edge over Kurt Busch by one. Earnhardt, in perhaps the biggest surprise of all jumps up to fifth in the standings; he’s now 13 markers back of the No. 29.

Newman sits tied for sixth, along with Keselowski as both are just 14 points off Harvick’s pace. Interesting note: if Keselowski earned the bonus for his three victories he, not Stewart would be sitting pretty at second in the standings. Johnson sits eighth, now 16 points out but easily within striking distance.

Really, this Chase is still a crapshoot as only four drivers have cause for concern after this event. Kyle Busch, at -19 drops from the top seed to ninth and needs to have his Joe Gibbs Racing team forget about Chicagoland quickly. Kenseth sits 10th, 24 off the pace but is heading to Loudon, a track where he hasn’t finished better than 17th in four seasons. Gordon, sitting 11th is now 25 off the pace and has four 1.5-mile track hurdles left to clear. And Hamlin, dead last is 41 behind Harvick and must be perfect the rest of the way to have a chance.

In the “Best of the Rest” category, Bowyer slipped in front of AJ Allmendinger; the margin is now eight points heading to a race where Bowyer is the defending champ.

Overall Rating (from one to six beer cans, with a one being a clunker and a six-pack being a perfect race): We’ll give this one three solid cans of generic stuff. At times, the racing was better than expected at this racetrack but that’s not saying a whole lot. And a fuel-mileage finish for the first Chase race? Not exactly the way you’d want it on paper.

Next Up: We head to a Chase market the series abandoned, number seven in the country (Boston) so they could run an average race in market number three. Go figure. Loudon, N.H. is your destination, a 1-mile oval where Stewart was part of a 1-2 finish with Newman this July.

Could Smoke be saving his summer surge for early fall? Either way, don’t hold your breath; last fall’s race here was decided on (gulp) fuel mileage. Here we go again.

About the author

The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.

You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.

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