Huston Ladner · Tuesday June 18, 2013
All of the major North American racing action took place in the Midwest this past weekend. NASCAR in Michigan, IndyCar at Milwaukee, and even the Grand-Am series made a visit to Mid-Ohio. Beautiful weather shone down on all the tracks, which is the whole reason for scheduling the races at this time of the year – because weather like that happens for only about a month in that part of the country. All kidding aside, let’s look at some things to think about.
ONE: The Midwest
The Midwest, with Michigan in particular, used to be home to the industrial backbone to the automotive industry. Even as companies have outsourced, moved away, or shut down, the region still exhibits a profound obsession for autos. That IndyCar and NASCAR both visited the region at the same time gives a chance to look at how that feeling continues – only maybe it doesn’t so as much anymore.
The Milwaukee Mile can hold about 45,000 fans. Michigan is a different story. As NASCAR grew in popularity, so too did the seating at Michigan, growing to a bloated 130-something thousand (numbers vary a bit between 129,000 to 136,000) during the 2000s. International Speedway Corp realized the ridiculousness of that number and has since reduced the capacity to 85,000, with added camping sites. Why bring up all the numbers?
Well, neither track was hitting the mark at capacity this past weekend. The race at Milwaukee looked about two-thirds full, maybe. And Michigan, with a strong crowd on the frontstretch, didn’t seem to have butts in the seats elsewhere. There are a few questions that come to mind. Does enthusiasm for the auto not translate to racing anymore? Is there area too saturated with racing during the one month of good weather? Is the screwed up economy still preventing fans from returning (with many realizing that they don’t really miss it)? Or are promoters just not offering deals that make it worth a person’s while? Something to ponder indeed.
Carl Edwards earned the pole and led laps. Greg Biffle won. Joey Logano held camp in the top ten the whole day. Ford is back! (That’s kind of a funny thing to write – it’s not like they left.) Michigan seemed to be what it should be for the blue oval, a track that the Roush cars have seemingly owned. Are the results are a harbinger of things to come?
It’s tough to say. The Hendrick Empire had a historic meltdown. In fact, you’d have to go back to Sonoma, in 2005, to find a race when a Hendrick car did not place in the top 25. That’s 8 freakin’ years! And Tony Stewart ran pretty well, and don’t laugh, Danica Patrick finished 13th, in Hendrick equipment. Oh yeah, and Jimmie Johnson had the best car and looked like he might end his Michigan drought. Add that the Childress cars all placed in the top 14, and it’s hard to say if Ford is back or just had a race go their way. And then there’s…
Well, no motor failures again for the Toyota engines, after TRD stated they would bring the horsepower back up a little bit this past weekend. It wasn’t enough. Though Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, and Clint Bowyer all finished in the top 10, none of them were a threat to win. In fact, none of them even challenged for the lead. Most would see the results as better than decent.
Toyota messing with their engines is going to be one of the key protracted storylines for the rest of the season. When they’re wound out, the cars of Gibbs and Waltrip are awesome. Take away some of that power and it seems like they lose their mojo. It’s an interesting balancing act. Toyota has a summer stretch to test different aspects and get things right for the Chase. With Denny Hamlin’s poor finish at Michigan and his likelihood of making the Chase all but gone, watch to see if he doesn’t become the test car.
FOUR: Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
He’s off to a strong start. He’s had bad luck. He’s fast. He’s missed the set up. The soap opera that is Earnhardt continued this past weekend with his blown motor while running up front. At this point, does anyone have a clue what is going on with the No. 88? While he really hasn’t been able to compete with Jimmie Johnson or Matt Kenseth, Earnhardt is still having a respectable season – but does respectable cut it?
With a new sponsor soon to be announced (please where is the leak giving any indication of the company – just startling that there’s no rumor), Junior needs to show he’s worth the investment. That most of the fans at Michigan stood when he took the lead shows that he’s still THE draw. But his results are a mish-mash of really good and way off. Maybe the pressure is getting to him. Maybe he’s just that kind of driver. Or maybe, taking care of this matter will clear his mind and he’ll get back to how he started the season.
It’s time to hit the road – road course that is. While many consider the trips to Sonoma and Watkins Glen to be boring, the racing at road courses has been rather good for the past few years. With 21 points separating 11th and 20th in the points, this race offers an outstanding chance to leap up in the points for drivers that excel at the track (read: Gordon, Jeff and Busch, Kurt). But there’s also the other aspect of visiting the California course.
Sonoma brings the supposed road course aces Jacques Villeneuve (No. 51), Ron Fellows (No. 33), Alex Kennedy (No. 36) to the track. The fact that a road course specialist has not won a race since the Nixon administration (stat dramatized), it’s doubtful that one will this weekend – though Kurt Busch nearly drove the No. 51 to the win last year. But might one of these drivers be the catalyst of something that ruins the day for a driver trying to make the Chase?
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