Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin’s Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2012 Talladega Spring Race Recap

The Key Moment: Matt Kenseth got such a jump on the final restart he lost his pusher Greg Biffle. Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch were able to bypass the No. 17 and settle things amongst themselves.

In a Nutshell: Just another silly, contrived and violent plate race … racing that appeals to the least common denominators amongst us.

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Dramatic Moment: Anytime you have a green-white-checkered finish at a plate track everyone is going to be holding their collective breaths. The reason Sunday’s finish (May 6) was more sedate than most is half of the field had already been wrecked out of the race or were just trying to nurse badly wounded mounts to the checkers.

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

NASCAR has insisted on countless changes to the cars since the advent of plate racing. Each new change just seems to increase the level of carnage on the track. (Is that what they want?) Maybe it’s time to really fix the problem. Lower the banking in the corners, get rid of the plates and let these boys actually race.

The latest plate-track rules change involved the smaller grille opening to limit the amount of time drivers could run in two-car tandems. Unfortunately on a hot day in Alabama the opening was so restrictive the cars were overheating in the pack and even while running in clean air.

I don’t know how many times I read this week that “pack racing” was back at Talladega. Maybe so, but clearly it was a tale of two tandems there at the end of the race. The Nos. 17 and 16 failed to pair up correctly, thus letting the Nos. 2 and 18 take the top spots.

I couldn’t have been the only person thinking this in the wake of Eric McClure’s horrific crash late in the NNS race Saturday. As I watched them cut the driver out of his car and fasten him to a backboard, I just wanted to know if these “fans” who supposedly do in fact want to see more wrecks were finally satisfied.

Have you ever wondered how the young lady who had her jaw broken by debris when the No. 99 car got into the fence feels about watching incessant replays of the incident? That “finish” was shown at least 10 times during the FOX pre-race show, with commentary. If Edwards’s car had actually made it into the grandstands would they still be using that footage?

In reacting to the “mystery debris flag” controversy in wake of last week’s race at Richmond, NASCAR’s Robin Pemberton went as far as to say that fans (and some elements of the media) are “needy” in insisting that we be able to see the “debris” that brought out the caution.

“Needy?” No, really? I guess a proper race fan will just take NASCAR’s word the caution was legitimate because we’ve never been burned by questionable officiating calls before. Right. The scarecrow might not have had a brain in his head yet, but when Dorothy insisted on having a peek behind the curtain she found “the all great and powerful Oz” was just a basically flawed man that had screwed up.

Listen, Pemberton, I’ve tried clicking the heels of my ruby red cowboy boots together and it’s not getting me back home to the sort of stock car racing I remember. Stop insulting your core audience.

The six Nationwide teams caught with illegal front snouts last week at Bristol got off this week with minor fines and the crew chiefs got probation. For those new to the sport, that’s NASCAR’s equivalent of pelting an individual with cotton balls while muttering unkind things about them under their breaths.

Of course, at Daytona Jimmie Johnson had the book thrown at him for an illegal C-pillar, so I’m confused. Does NASCAR even have a rulebook anymore? I dunno. Has anyone sent them a 64-pack of Crayolas lately?

So why didn’t NASCAR call Danica Patrick and Sam Hornish Jr. to the trailer after Saturday’s NNS race? My guess is because at the time, the level of concern about McClure’s condition overshadowed the incident. (If you missed it, Patrick felt Hornish had put her into the wall on the last lap. In retaliation, she put his Dodge into the wall on the cool-down lap.

What had actually happened on the last lap is Hornish had a tire going flat and had been unable to steer his car, leading to the contact.) But after officials initially overlooked the controversy, Ms. Patrick has been asked to pay a courtesy visit to the NASCAR trailer after all, next weekend at Darlington to discuss what happened. I wonder if she’ll wear her boulevard beads?

My take on the above mentioned situation. I might not be a big fan of Patrick, but I applaud her for showing a little spunk. She felt someone had done her dirty on the last lap and she was out to prove she wasn’t going to stand for it. I wrote last Thursday I wanted to see some more emotion and bumper-banging back in racing and I’m not going to apply a double-standard here.

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Patrick hinted she flashed her boobs to get those beads she was wearing. She showed some balls after the race. (Yeah, disturbing hermaphrodite image. Let’s move on.)

But Matt, I can hear some of you hollering already, like Rona who was recently appointed Vice President of my non-fan club by a certain President T. Swift, you’re already using a double standard. Last fall, you lambasted Kyle Busch for wrecking Ron Hornaday in the truck race. How is Saturday’s incident different? Let me count the ways.

Hornish and Patrick are both Nationwide series regulars. Neither of them is battling for a title. The race was over, so Patrick cost Hornish no finishing spot or points. Had Patrick done the same thing to Hornish during an early caution period in the race, I’d be all enraged again. But as a reminder, if you’re going to rough somebody else’s car up a little after a race to express displeasure, do it on the track and not pit road where non-combatants could easily be injured.

I guess someone is going to have to explain to me how a racecar goes into “vapor lock” when the current fuel injection system requires a minimum of 90 psi to operate. Yeah, vapor lock used to be an issue on our old carbed muscle cars, particularly if they had headers, but with a carb the fuel system was operating at under 10 pounds of pressure. Remember that a liquid’s boiling point increases as the pressure in the system goes up.

McClure’s savage Nationwide Series wreck Saturday could have been worse and potentially even fatal. McClure’s stricken car hit the SAFER barrier hard but just a dozen yards down the track was an opening in the inside wall and a long section without the protection of those SAFER barriers. That needs to be addressed.

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Come on, NASCAR; we’re talking Talladega. The porta-potties probably ought to be lined with SAFER barriers because the drivers will find someway to hit them. I’ve been watching races at this track long enough that I recall a driver flying up and over the fence into the parking lot.

No jet dryers were injured in the course of Sunday’s race.

The Hindenburg Award for Foul Fortune

I feel bad for all the drivers that they have to run these four stupid restrictor-plate races every season as what amounts to Crash Test Dummies.

Johnson was leading the race when his engine expired. He ended up 35th in the finishing order. Sponsor tie-ins are important, but Rick Hendrick’s engine room announced this week they will no longer be using Diet Mountain Dew in place of motor oil. Stupidest commercial EVER.

Ryan Newman was another victim of an HMS engine failure. I’m sure Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne had to be imagining all sorts of odd sounds in their cars after learning of their teammates’ power plant problems.

Gordon’s engine never expired, though he was dealing with water temperature and pressure problems from the midpoint of the race. Getting taken out in a wreck probably only brought his misery to a quicker conclusion. In a post-race interview, Gordon said that his run of bad luck this year has gotten to the point it’s “almost comical.” For financial reasons, it’s probably best that Gordon decided to drive race cars and not become a cartoonist.

Kevin Harvick fought hard to get back on the lead lap after running out of gas but had his charge towards the front thwarted when he got a big piece of the lap 184 wreck.

Denny Hamlin had also spent much of the day battling to get a lap back after a bad pit stop, but he tangled with AJ Allmendinger trying to work the middle on lap 184.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award for Fine Fortune

I’d have to say the luckiest guy at Talladega this weekend was Mike Affarano. While running in the ARCA series race Friday night, Affarano got hooked and turned into the outside wall, at which point his North Grand Auto Parts entry went into a dizzying series of almost seven rollovers. The accident was so severe the engine and transmission in that car almost came loose of the vehicle as it turned over.

After several terrifying minutes, Affarano was able to crawl out of the car relatively unscathed, though I have no doubt that was one sore young man Saturday morning. For all the Hell I give NASCAR from time to time, the implementation of the SAFER barriers and HANS devices were a huge milestone in safety and have saved numerous lives. After Friday night’s race, you can add another name to that list.

McClure was also a lucky young man to have survived that violent wreck Saturday. Things initially seemed grim with the Med-evac helicopter firing to life (the worst possible sound at a racetrack], the roof and rollcage being cut off the car, and an official frantically motioning for the safety crews to step it up.

ESPN initially wasn’t even showing replays of the wreck , normally a sign that something awful has happened. (And a double-edged sword, as McClure’s team was huddled around the video monitor on their pit box trying to catch a replay of what had happened to their driver.) As this column is being written Sunday evening, McClure is said to be awake and alert though in a great deal of discomfort at a Level One trauma center in Birmingham.

Kahne get’s this week’s “Emerson Lake and Palmer ‘Lucky Man’” award. He was directly in the midst of all three big wrecks Sunday and still finished fourth.

Kenseth was penalized for entering pit road too early after he lost power just as a caution flag flew. He recovered nicely and finished third. In addition to the penalty, the No. 17 had also been battling issues with a vibration all weekend. That issue apparently caused Kenseth’s car to start falling apart in some bizarre places during the race.

After the event Jack Roush announced that his teams will return to welding together bodies again even though using library paste makes the seams lighter.

Despite getting hit by an out of control Casey Mears on lap 175, Trevor Bayne soldiered home to a solid eighth-place finish.

Worth Noting

  • Keselowski’s win was his second of the season, tying him in that category with Stewart and Hamlin. The other four races this year were won by Roush teammates Biffle and Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Newman.
  • In team stats, the winners have come from four different teams; Stewart-Haas Racing (three) Joe Gibbs Racing (three), Jack Roush Racing (two) and Penske Racing (two). Curiously those four teams all campaign different makes of cars.
  • The top-10 finishers at Talladega drove four Fords, three Chevys, a pair of Toyotas and a Dodge.
  • Teammates Biffle and Kenseth lead all drivers with six top-five finishes in this year’s 10 points races. Earnhardt has the most top-10 results with eight. Johnson and Biffle each have seven such results.
  • Kenseth’s third-place finish brings his career total of top 10s in the Cup Series to 215, just under half of his 446 points race starts in NASCAR’s top rank.
  • Kahne’s fourth-place finish was his best of the season. He also led laps (11 of them) for the first time this year.
  • Biffle (fifth) enjoyed his third top-five finish in the last four races.
  • David Ragan’s seventh-place finish was easily his best since his departure from Roush Racing at the end of last season. His previous 2012 best was a 21st-place result at Las Vegas. That’s the one nice feature of plate racing. The amount of favorites who get wrecked or blow up allow some of the smaller teams to shine.
  • Bayne’s eighth-place finish was the second best of his brief Cup career though somewhat less notable than his victory in the 2011 Daytona 500 … clap, clap, clap.
  • Earnhardt’s ninth-place finish was his sixth consecutive top-10 result, the most consecutive top 10s of his entire career.
  • Jamie McMurray’s 11th-place performance was his best since Bristol.
  • David Gilliland’s 13th-place run was his best since he came home 12th at Sonoma last year.
  • Marcos Ambrose’s 14th-place finish was his best race result since he finished 13th in this year’s Daytona 500.
  • Martin Truex Jr.’s 28th-place, post-wreck disappointment was his worst of the season, eclipsing his 25th-place result last week at Richmond.
  • Gordon (33rd) has managed just two top-10 finishes in this year’s first 10 Cup races.
  • Edwards’s 31st-place finish was his lowest since Bristol. It was also his worst since last year’s Firecracker 400 at Daytona and the first time he’s been officially tagged with a DNF since Texas in the early stages of the 2010 season.
  • Joey Logano’s win in Saturday’s Nationwide race was the 200th by a driver in a Toyota in NASCAR’s top three touring divisions. Have you kissed a Camry lately? No, me either.
  • Johnson’s DNF was his first due to an engine issue since last year’s World 600 almost a year ago.

What’s the Points?

Biffle remains atop the points standings for yet another week. He’s now seven points ahead of teammate Kenseth, who moves up a spot to second in the standings.

Earnhardt drops a spot to third in the rankings, but just two points behind Kenseth. He’s got a comfortable gap over Hamlin (also down a spot to fourth) who trails the No. 88 by 18 points. Harvick rounds out the top five and is actually up two positions despite getting wrecked. Only at Talladega.

The top 10 is rounded out by Truex (-1), Stewart (+1), Johnson (-2), Kyle Busch (+2) and Clint Bowyer (+2).

Edwards is down two spots to 11th in the standings. His win moves Keselowski up a spot to 12th. With two wins in the bank as a backup, Keselowski is sitting plush with a royal flush, aces back to back.

Newman’s engine issues dropped him three spots and outside of the top 12 into 13th.

All right, it’s time for the No. 24 team to hit the panic button. He’s down six more spots to 23rd in the standings, a dizzying 146 points out of the lead. (That’s three full race wins’ worth!). Everybody’s been talking about what a horrible start Kahne’s season got off to but he’s now up four spots to 19th in the standings, 14 ahead of Gordon.

When a name driver gets into a bad slump, conventional wisdom these days is he needs to talk to a sports psychologist. Gordon needs to skip that step and find his local Voodoo doctor.

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 three cans of lukewarm Schlitz. It’d normally give two cans but a plate race always gets an extra can if nobody is badly injured during the event. Plate racing is like watching Cops on FOX. Most of us do it, but you sure hope your neighbors and friends don’t know you are.

Next Up: The series heads off to its most historic and storied track, Darlington, for the first in a series of Saturday night events culminating with the World 600.

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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