The Frontstretch: Thinkin' Out Loud: Michigan-1 Race Recap by Matt Stallknecht -- Monday June 17, 2013

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Thinkin' Out Loud: Michigan-1 Race Recap

Matt Stallknecht · Monday June 17, 2013


Key Moment – Greg Biffle outdueled Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, and others on a restart with 27 laps to go. Jimmie Johnson got stuck with bad strategy, bad traffic, and ultimately a bad tire. That allowed Biffle to gain his second straight victory at Michigan International Speedway, perhaps earning his spot in the Chase.

In a Nutshell – The Hendrick Motorsports cars were clearly the class of the field all weekend and all race long. But due to an incredible array of bad luck, poor strategy calls and mechanical maladies, all four fell by the wayside. That opened the door for a variety of teams to capitalize, and it was Biffle’s No. 16 squad who best took advantage of a track position race late in the going, allowing them to cruise to a relatively easy win.

Greg Biffle’s win was Jimmie Johnson’s loss, as the No. 48’s late stop for a cut tire all but giftwrapped the victory to the No. 16 team.

All told, Biffle’s victory was the 1,000th for Ford Motor Company in NASCAR, a huge deal considering that all of their most important executives were in attendance at the race.

Dramatic Moment – Midway through the event, Kasey Kahne was working a three-second+ lead and appeared to be the fastest man in Michigan. That all came to a crashing halt on Lap 104 when Kahne blew a tire in the middle of Turn 1, resulting in a fiery, single-car crash that undoubtedly ranked as one of the most vicious of the year. Kahne quickly got out of the car, unscathed, but you can bet your bottom dollar that he will be feeling that hit sometime tomorrow morning.

The restarts at Michigan, typically three and four-wide started to get that way late as the groove widened on the repaved racetrack. Slowly but surely, the asphalt is starting to wear in.

What They’ll be Talking About Around the Water Cooler

Turns out the second year’s the charm for Michigan’s new pavement job… sort of. Overall, it was a fairly entertaining race, a combination of raw horsepower, difficult handling, and tire question marks keeping fans guessing start to finish. After last week’s snoozefest in the Pocono Mountains, NASCAR desperately needed an interesting event to drum up some momentum, and it got one. The race featured 22 lead changes among 13 leaders, the latter stat being close to a race record. The entertainment and drama of the event stemmed from unpredictability, more than passing as a mix of attrition and pit strategy shook up the field at seemingly every turn.

Unfortunately, for all the drama, it must be noted the race was entertaining in spite of the Gen-6 cars — not because of them. Much like last week at Pocono, having clean air on the nose was way, way, way too important, and only two cars, the Nos. 5 and 48, handled well enough in dirty air to pass at will. Virtually anyone could walk away from the field on Sunday provided they had that all-important aero advantage. We saw it early in the race when Jamie McMurray, who was objectively a 10th-to-15th place car, got to the front via pit strategy and was able to drive off to a massive lead. Clean air was stronger in this race than it has been all season, and had it not been for all of the unpredictable attrition and restarts, which spiced things up, this race could have taken a snoozer of a turn.

Could Ford’s Fusions, who have struggled this season be on the verge of a sizzling summer?

After a slow start to the year, Ford seems to have figured something out. The Blue Oval Brigade had perhaps its best showing in Michigan, as three of their ace drivers (Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, and Joey Logano) ran in the top 5-7 for the duration of the race and delivered top-10 finishes. Biffle was especially impressive, as he seemed to have one of the only cars that could make decisive passes in dirty air other than the Hendrick stalwarts. With three months remaining until the Chase, leaving plenty of time for fine tuning Ford has to be feeling pretty good about themselves.

Speaking of teams who have turned it around, add Stewart-Haas Racing to the list of groups who have officially turned the corner. Much has been made the past three or four weeks about their “resurgence;” up until Sunday, I wasn’t completely buying it. I wanted to see at least three straight weeks of high performance out of this squad before I declared they were “back;” sure enough, their results at Michigan have made me a believer. Tony Stewart, in particular has really turned up the wick. His fourth-place finish in Michigan was his third straight top-5 result, vaulting him all the way from 20th to 10th in points in the matter of a month. Even Danica Patrick is showing improvement, as she delivered one of the best Sprint Cup performances of her young career with a 13th-place result. Whatever was changed at SHR has worked, and they are officially on the road to relevance once again.

Did you happen to catch the Nationwide race on Saturday? If so, you missed one hell of an event. The series staged arguably it’s best competition of the season, with Regan Smith taking home the checkers after withstanding a hard charge from Kyle Larson. The slower speeds of the Nationwide cars, coupled with the grip of the new Michigan surface led to some incredible draft battles and great side-by-side racing throughout. If this event wasn’t evidence that slower speeds lead to better racing, I don’t know what is. Take a hint, NASCAR.

While a neat idea, Denny Hamlin’s tribute car to Jason Leffler actually ran like the Fed Ex car did in 2005. The team even changed shocks, to no avail en route to a 30th-place finish.

Undoubtedly, the loss of Jason Leffler was evident throughout the weekend. The tragedy that is Mr. Leffler’s death hit the Cup garage hard, causing the drivers and teams to honor the fallen 37-year-old’s life in a variety of fitting ways. Chief among them was the “LEFturn” decal that adorned the roofs of a myriad of cars. Joe Gibbs Racing even re-wrapped Denny Hamlin’s No. 11, FedEx Toyota to the scheme driven by Leffler in 2005 during his short stint at JGR. It was a touching tribute, albeit one that ended unceremoniously as Hamlin struggled for most of the race. However, the most poignant example of the love held for Leffler in the Cup garage came during Kasey Kahne’s post-accident interview. Instead of dwelling on how good his car was, or the misfortune of his cut tire, Kahne quickly shifted the discussion towards Leffler and how much he missed his fallen friend. It was undeniably touching, and served to highlight just how close the NASCAR community is.

The Hindenburg Award for Foul Fortune

While a number of drivers suffered misfortune on Sunday, none perhaps suffered worse than those of Hendrick Motorsports. HMS driver Kasey Kahne had perhaps one of the best cars he’s had all season long, only to see it lost on lap 104 after careening into the wall at upwards of 200 mph. All told, the wreck left Kahne with a 38th-place finish and a four-position drop in the series standings. Ouch.

Jeff Gordon was yet another Hendrick pilot whose day was ruined by a hard crash. Bobby Labonte (who, ironically, was driving a Hendrick-powered car) spun directly in front of Gordon, sending both hard into the Turn 2 wall. The No. 24 team managed to get the car repaired, following a lengthy stint in the garage but a 39th-place finish was not what the doctor ordered.

With Kahne and Gordon mired deep in the 30s, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Jimmie Johnson were the last hopes for HMS. But Earnhardt Jr.’s day ended not long after Kahne’s, as the No. 88 car’s engine expired on lap 130 while Junior was in the lead. Johnson then appeared primed to battle for the win, despite a number of puzzling pit calls by crew chief Chad Knaus that left a fast No. 48 buried back in traffic. (Knaus actually apologized, on the radio to Johnson after the race as the team lost more than two dozen spots in the pits all day). Fighting hard just to get second, he was closing on Biffle until he, too cut a tire and wound up finishing 28th.

On the non-HMS front, the slumping continued for reigning champ Brad Keselowski. Michigan’s favorite son was running deep inside the top 10, late in the race, but due to a gamble made on an earlier caution, his No. 2 car ran out of gas roughly half-a-lap from the finish. That left Keselowski with a disappointing 12th-place result… and wondering what might have been.

Kurt Busch’s front row starting spot went to waste when he hit the wall early at Michigan.

Kurt Busch found another way to foul one up. His Furniture Row Chevrolet was one of the fastest cars all weekend, but any hope of victory for the small Denver-based outfit came undone when Busch backed the car into the wall, on his own early in the going. On a weekend in which he had an opportunity to score big points, Busch brought the car home to a heart-wrenching 35th-place finish.

The “Seven Come for Eleven” Award for Fine Fortune

Kevin Harvick captured yet another top 5 Sunday, and he did it in true Kevin Harvick fashion. Harvick quietly ran around the middle of the top 10 for most of the day, but due to some good pit calls and a quiet intensity on restarts, he found himself battling for the win with 20 laps to go. The W didn’t quite happen, but he delivered a solid second-place finish for a team that is slowly establishing itself as one of the most consistent in the garage area.

Clint Bowyer slammed into the back of Trevor Bayne on the first lap of the race, then was subjected to running in the deep 20s as his team tried to reshape the front end of his car on pit stops. Ultimately, his team came through for him, and he clawed his way back to seventh with a car that needed about 50 Hours of Energy to look somewhat drivable.

Austin Dillon surprised many on Sunday with his sterling 11th-place performance, myself included. I personally called out Dillon in my Four Burning Questions column this past Friday to step up his results in the Cup Series, and he did just that. His team was able to get track position early in the going, and Dillon did an admirable job of hanging with the leaders for most of the day.

Much like Dillon, Trevor Bayne had one of the best days of his Cup career as well. Making a rare appearance for the Wood Brothers, Bayne averted disaster with that Bowyer stackup, settled in and methodically worked his way up to 15th.

Worth Noting

  • Greg Biffle’s win on Sunday was the 19th of his career and his fourth at Michigan International Speedway (the most for him at any Sprint Cup facility). With four victories in 21 starts, Biffle wins races at Michigan at a solid 19% clip.
  • Biffle’s win was the 1,000th NASCAR victory for Ford and the 45th Sprint Cup Series win for the company at Michigan.
  • Biffle posted an impressive 127.7 Driver Rating in his winning performance, which was the best of any driver in the race.
  • Hendrick Motorsports had all four cars finish outside the top 25 for the first time since the 2005 road course race at Sonoma. The best result for any of them was Jimmie Johnson in 28th.
  • Kyle Busch’s fourth-place result was his seventh top 5 and ninth top 10 finish of the season. He is now tied for the series lead in both categories.
  • Joey Logano (ninth) earned his seventh top-10 finish of the season Sunday. It was also his fourth straight.
  • Jeff Burton (10th) now has four straight finishes of 12th or better.
  • Danica Patrick (13th) was the Sunoco Rookie of the Race. She has won the award three times in 2013.
  • Kurt Busch (35th) has three top-2 starting spots in the last seven races and has led 144 laps. But he only has one top-5 finish, during that span to show for his efforts.
  • Carl Edwards won the pole for Sunday’s race. It was his first pole of 2013 and the 12th of his career.
  • Denny Hamlin 30th-place finish on Sunday essentially ended any shot he had at the Chase. He is now 85 points out of 20th place and a distant 118 out of 10th.

What’s the Points?

Jimmie Johnson is still your championship leader, but the 51-point advantage he enjoyed a week ago has shrunk to 31. Carl Edwards continues to plug along in second, ending Sunday’s race in eighth and it appears he and his team have finally shaken the demons haunting them since the 2011 Chase. Clint Bowyer is holding serve in third, 49 points out of the lead followed by Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth.

Sixth place in the standings belongs to a resurgent Kyle Busch, who has returned to a comfortable spot inside the top 10. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. fell to seventh, after his engine failure, and he is now only 32 points ahead of the 10th-place postseason cutoff. Greg Biffle, on the other hand improved his Chase chances Sunday with a victory and now sits eighth, 28 points ahead of 10th. Brad Keselowski and Tony Stewart (who is in the top 10 for the first time all season) round out the final two spots with 430 and 417 points apiece. As for the “wild cards,” Kasey Kahne (who is 12th in the standings) holds the first spot on the strength of his Bristol victory, while Paul Menard holds the second based on his 11th-place standing in points. Martin Truex, Jr., Joey Logano, and Aric Almirola are 13th, 14th, and 15th in the standings, and all are very much in the hunt.

Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans, with one being a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic) – The race was full of drama and had plenty of exciting moments on the various restarts, but the pervasiveness of the clean air advantage held this one back from being a thriller. We’ll give this one three cans of ice cold Mountain Dew (no beer for me) and hope that teams clear up the aero issues by the time the series returns to the track in August.

Next Up — After months and months of “cookie cutter” sameness, the series will take a much-needed trip to a road course next week for the Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway. The Cup boys have become adept road racers over the past decade and, as such, the events on these tracks have been utterly fantastic. Expect lots of beating, banging, and close competition throughout for an event that starts on TNT or your local MRN radio affiliate Sunday at 3 ET.

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Today on the Frontstretch:
Championship Caliber? What Does That Even Mean?
Mirror Driving: Winning Vs. Points, Needing a Boost, and The Lady’s Last Dance?
Nuts for Nationwide: The Curious Case of Elliott Sadler
Happiness Is…Arrogance, Less, Next, and the Outdoors
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06/17/2013 07:09 AM

Empty seats anyone? Wow.

Happy for a Ford win.

REAL happy that the next race is Sonoma.

Carl D.
06/17/2013 08:28 AM

The restarts yesterday were the most exciting part of the race. There was some good racing behind the leader from time to time, but not too many battles for the lead. Still, for Michigan it was pretty entertaining.

When Bobby Labonte spun in the #51, I was so disappointed. Dead last. If I wasn’t fully convinced before, I’m pretty sure his career is done. So sad; I’ve been a Labonte fan since his first year in cup driving the #22 Maxwell House car for Bill Davis.

I loved Wally Dallenbach and Kyle Petty criticizing Rick Hendrick and Jack Roush for responsing to Keselowski’s claims of employee-snatching. They both agreed that it has been going on for as long as Nascar has been around, and Hendrick and Roush should have just let this one fly “under the radar”. I agree.

All-Star Danica Patrick got her third top-20 of the season. Her critics be damned; she truly is an all-star.

I did watch the Nationwide race and you’re right, it was a good one. And it was nice to see a battle for the win between two Nationwide regulars.

Carl D.
06/17/2013 08:32 AM

Thinking back, it was Hendrick and Joe Gibbs that responsed to BK’s accusations of employee-snatching, not Jack Roush, which of course makes a whole lot more sense. I stand self-corrected.

06/17/2013 09:08 AM

I’d call it an interesting race, rather than exciting. As you said, the fact that so many good cars had issues made it different than just the usual. However, the “clean air” aero deal for the Gen6 car is an issue. Until NASCAR can provide side by side racing and actual passing for the lead by someone other than the 48 or Matt Kenseth, I won’t be jumping up and down about the excitement about how great the racing is with the Gen6 car.

06/17/2013 10:00 AM

Should nascar give Hamlin his $25,000 back?…since Hamlin was right after all.

And both Jr. and Kyle B. have said the same thing since…

Bill B
06/17/2013 10:28 AM

Carl D,
We Gordon fans were pretty disappointed when Labonte spun too. LOL.

06/17/2013 11:00 AM

I have to disagree that the Gen6 is clean air
dependent. How, do you explain the #48’s ease
with passing cars in “Dirty Air” at any track week
after week. I think it’s a bigger mystery on how
Chad and the #48 has kept this secret so long and
it still remains a secret. Perhaps, Brad K can ask the NSA
to snoop on the #48 team and steal that secret.
During the TNT broadcast Kyle Petty alluded how JJ
passes cars running in the top 10 with the same ease
as he does passing lapped cars. This why the #48 stinks
up the show week after week and brings along the boredom.

06/17/2013 11:06 AM

Of course, Bill B, Gordon was never going to be much of a factor in the race anyway, because his car is 2-3 MPH slower than his other HMS teammates, just like last year. Remember that he didn’t start to get more competitive with his teammates until NASCAR passed a rule regarding the suspension in the cars, limiting what they could do, which played right into the #24 team’s hands, because they didn’t run those suspension setups, mainly because their crew chief believed them to be illegal.

I also think there’s a major rift between the #24 team and the other HMS teams, and I think it goes back to comments that Alan Gustafson, Gordon’s crew chief, made regarding the legality of some of the cars, which was a direct shot across the bow of Chad Knaus. I think ever sine then, Gordon’s had the worst cars at HMS because nobody at HMS is giving them any help, and that may be a directive of Knaus, and in fact, the other HMS teams may actually be working against the #24 team in retribution for those comments.

But Gordon never would have been a factor yesterday, even if he had not gotten caught up in that crash. What I would consider doing if I was Gustafson, is working closer with the Stewart-Haas guys, because I’m pretty sure I’m not going o get any help from the other HMS teams.

Bill B
06/17/2013 12:09 PM

Well Charles, I’m not sure where you are getting all your information but you seem to know more about it than anyone else. This is all news to me. Do you by chance work for the NSA?

06/17/2013 12:49 PM

Just to play devil’s advocate to the 48 conspiracy theories: if NASCAR is constantly favoring the 48, why didn’t they throw the caution right after he hit the wall? If they do, he probably stays on the lead lap and makes up some spots on the ensuing GWC—plus we get the excitement of a GWC finish. (Honestly, conspiracy theories aside, I was surprised that NASCAR didn’t throw the caution there.)

JER, I’m thinking that NASCAR should ask the 48 to divulge whatever it is they do that makes the car so much better in traffic than everyone else, and then apply that across the board to the Gen 6 cars. Yesterday was a good race even though it was tough to pass with the groove being so narrow. The Gen 6 has taken well to the 2-milers, and Michigan should only get better as it weathers and the groove widens; shame those tracks only hold 3 races.

06/17/2013 01:09 PM

didn’t watch much, once i saw 48 was at front or near front, turned of. turned back on just as 48 hit the wall (yeah)….was surprised we didn’t have a special ruling to stop the race so repairs could be made.

wonder how many of the people that were in the stands left after the 88 blew up? it was sparsely attended to start with.

06/17/2013 01:55 PM

Interesting thoughts, Charles. Zetona, NASCAR ask the 48 team what it is they do to make the car good in dirty air? Ha, pigs will fly if they would get an honest answer.

I understand innovation & dominance, but I, too, am bored with the 48 being able to squash the field all the time.

06/17/2013 03:09 PM

Doesn’t matter whether its Gen-6 or 26. The engineers optimize the aero package to run in “clean” air. So whoever gets in front has a huge advantage. After the final stop yesterday the #48, wasn’t going to catch the 16. Seems to me the races now are about who can get in front, via strategy and pits stops at the end. How many green flag passes for the lead have there been this year, other than team mates letting each other by?

06/17/2013 03:48 PM

Bill B, there was word last year about a rift between the 5 and 24 teams, so it wouldn’t be anything new, though all parties denied it. But if you watch the races, you would notice that Gordon is significantly off the pace of his teammates, especially at the high-speed tracks.

But as for the comments that Alan Gustafson made regarding the legality of his cars, especially in comparison to those of the #48 team, he made those comments on national TV last year, which would tell me that there’s another rift between the 24 and 48 teams, and we also know that Kenny Francis, Kasey Kahne’s crew chief, has never really shared information with the other teams anywhere else he’s worked, which was one reason for the downfall of the teams at Evernham Motorsports, which later became Richard Petty Motorsports, so I believe there may be a rift between the 5 and 24 teams.

It is for those reasons why I actually think the 24 team may actually get more information from Stewart-Haas than they will the other Hendrick teams. But there’s no doubt in my mind that Gordon would never have been a serious factor if he hadn’t crashed, because his car is 2-3 MPH slower than that of his teammates on that kind of track, which is no different than last year. It was also that way at Pocono. The other Hendrick cars contended (or would have contended, in the case of Kasey Kahne), but Gordon’s car there was also 2-3 MPH slower than his teammates there.

Wayne V
06/17/2013 04:38 PM

After the Waltrip foolishness, I’m just so happy to get TNT back. I actually watched the pre race show and enjoyed it, stopped watching FOX pre race a long time ago. I always muted the FOX audio and listened to MRN. Now I can listen to the TNT audio. Wally, to me is by far the best analyst. The right amount of humor, insight, etc, enjoy listening to the TNT guys. No over hype, DW trying to tell me it’s dramatic when I know better. I’m 63 years old and have been around racing longer than he has, I do have a clue. I guess that I’m so glad those Waldrip brothers are gone, I’m just enjoying the races.

06/17/2013 05:42 PM

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06/17/2013 07:14 PM

Actually, Jason Leffler finished 20th in his run at Michigan which is 10 spots better than Denny’s finish!

06/17/2013 07:35 PM

NA$CAR knows why the 48 is faster than everyone else and they don’t want to make Hendrick angry.

06/17/2013 08:36 PM

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06/18/2013 01:24 PM

Anytime the Hendrick (NASCAR)cars have problems is a 6 pack race

06/18/2013 02:49 PM

Did Mike get so disgusted with Danica finishing 13th that he couldn’t do the article this week?

I’m still asking myself what the difference is between this Gen 6 car and the old one. The Gen 6 was supposed to solve the aero and clean air issue. So what happened? Typical Nascar. All hype and no substance.