The Frontstretch: Matt McLaughlin's Thinkin' Out Loud: Michigan (2) Race Recap by Thomas Bowles -- Monday August 17, 2009

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Matt McLaughlin's Thinkin' Out Loud: Michigan (2) Race Recap

Thomas Bowles · Monday August 17, 2009


Editor’s Note: Matt McLaughlin is on vacation through Michigan. While he’s off, Managing Editor Tom Bowles will fill in for his Sprint Cup race recaps.

The Key Moment: Jimmie Johnson’s car sputtered to a stop with two laps to go, handing Brian Vickers his first win in almost three years on fuel mileage. I’m crossing my fingers and hoping the audience sputtered awake in time to see it.

In A Nutshell: I like using my calculator to balance my checkbook. I don’t like using my calculator to keep from snoring while cars run around in a circle for three hours single-file hoping to “save fuel.”

Dramatic Moment: The double-file restarts at a track like Michigan are a thing of beauty for the racing – even if they only keep everyone together for a lap or two.

Junior’s sudden arrival to the 2009 Sprint Cup season – about six months too late – also raised a few eyebrows over the final 100 miles. Ditto for Mark Martin’s last-lap fall from grace as he and teammate Johnson saw their gas tanks run dry.

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

OK, I understand races at Michigan are often decided through fuel mileage. But the lengths to which the entire field was conserving wasn’t exactly the way to keep fans awake. Especially over the second half of the race, drivers were so busy listening to the crew chiefs and the calculators they really didn’t bother much with side-by-side racing. After all, why keep the fans awake when you can go at 77 percent capacity to extend your tank 2.99 more laps per stop and score an average of 6.77 more points to stay on the Chase bubble? Well, here’s another one to throw in the calculator … 99.99999 percent of the fans may have had a better chance staying awake watching people study at the local library.

Now before you start jumping down my neck, I don’t necessarily dislike all fuel mileage races. A little variety is always good for the sport, and sometimes racing luck throws the caution at just the right time for gas to become your greatest priority. But my problem for this particular race is that people had fuel on the brain from the drop of the green flag on Lap 1. Instead of focusing on the side-by-side action fans crave, drivers were busy trying to figure out ways to save – and that’s no way to add some hype into a series struggling to inject some life into the competition. Saving some gas over the final 100 miles? Acceptable every once in awhile… but 400 is a whole other story altogether.

Looks can be deceiving sometimes. While six-wide racing at Michigan could be found in the seconds following a double-file restart, it would only take a lap or two for the cars to sort out single-file … and stay there.

Speaking of boredom, Mike Helton apparently has taken it up as his new personal hobby. For despite mounting cries for change both inside and outside the garage, NASCAR’s President insists there will be no changes to the Car of Tomorrow in 2010. Helton claims, in so many words, why add additional costs to make adjustments to these cars when the racing is already safer and better than it’s already been. Um… as someone who’s in the garage on a weekly basis and who’s followed this sport since he was a wide-eyed eight-year-old in 1989, I can tell you I’ve seen plenty of years where the racing was better. Let’s start with 2008 … 2007 … 2006… 2005 … you get the idea.

Turns out even an Earnhardt’s word isn’t good enough to get the sport listening anymore. NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver lashed out with a list of critical comments on the state of the sport this week, angry with their stance on keeping the Car of Tomorrow status quo. But the crown jewel of all his quotes came when he talked about the racing as a whole before the advent of double-file restarts in June (in case you’ve been under a rug the last few days, Jay Busbee’s got a good summary over at Yahoo!)

“Before [the double-file restarts], I thought [the racing] was rather poor. I did. The races to me were very poor, and we almost depended on a late caution to save the day to make somebody race side-by-side for a couple of laps at least within 10 laps of the finish of the race. Somehow that saved the day. And then there was no argument the next week. It would go away. It was very frustrating because 95 percent of the race wasn’t worth the price of the ticket.’‘

15 years ago, those type of comments from Junior’s dad would have incited a private meeting from the powers that be. Instead, Helton’s response was to blame those comments on Earnhardt’s frustrating season. Huh? Now, I know nightmare isn’t even the right word to describe 2009 for Mr. Earnhardt. But to sit there and point the finger at a guy who A) works for a team that’s mastered the CoT better than anyone else and B) has no reason whatsoever to blame NASCAR for his own personal failures – and wasn’t even mentioning them in his critique – might be just a little off base. It was a surprising turn of events on all counts, both for the degree of the criticism and the sport’s lack of concern in addressing it with a man who, for better or for worse, brings millions to the race track each year – many of whom wholeheartedly support any word he says. Something tells me we’re not quite through with this confrontation just yet … and with the way the racing went on Sunday, right now it’s Junior 1, NASCAR 0 heading to Bristol.

Rain a third straight week in a Cup race … on a day where there was a 10% chance of rain? You wonder if the vote of confidence in the CoT has become the final straw for the man upstairs.

Somehow, someway, you knew the Mark Martin luck would come back to haunt him, right? For all the love that’s been shared between Alan Gustafson and his driver this year, it’s all the more cruel a Gustafson decision could very well haunt the team should they miss the Chase. In what was little more than a sick joke, you just knew the duo was going to run out of gas on the last lap … there was no other alternative.

Along those same lines, I was watching the race (not at the track this weekend) and ESPN cut to commercial around Lap 115, dying for content after 70+ laps of single-file green flag racing. I then said out loud to those watching with me, “This is way too boring for NASCAR. There’s going to be a debris caution.” Sure enough, we came back from commercial and – voila! – there it was. It’s gotten so predictable … anyone else have the same experience?

Is it just me, or does speedy dry often seem to cause more problems than it solves? Matt Kenseth looked like he was going to spin in front of the field driving through it after the David Ragan – Kurt Busch wreck.

For all those interested in conspiracy theories, why would NASCAR not penalize Jimmie Johnson for consistently driving in front of the leader on double-file restarts? For all the pit road policing they’ve done this season, the officiating booth seems to turn their back every time the green flag drops with this new rule.

Kyle Busch’s temper tantrums seem to be getting old in the garage. On Saturday, he engaged in a fresh war of words with Brian Vickers after the Nationwide Race after the two men’s aggressive battle for the lead left an opening for Brad Keselowski to not just catch, but pass them both in a stunning final-lap upset. Both men pulled their best 4th-grade impression afterwards, calling each other names during an awkward press conference that made them both look like two arguing 12-year-old kids. But for this beef, it’s Busch who should be holding down his head in shame. Yes, you want to win every time out … but it’s hard to pin the blame on someone that raced you clean. And just like any good divorce court knows, it takes two to tango – Busch takes every bit of the blame as Vickers for ignoring Keselowski’s green car in the rear-view mirror.

Before we move on, sincerest condolences to the friends and family of Tom Murphy, the Sprint Vice President of Corporate Brand Marketing who was killed in a freak auto accident this weekend. Apparently, a boulder hit Murphy’s car while taking the family home from a trip in Colorado. As the usual writer of this column would say (with far more grace than I could ever pen), life is a gift and enjoy every minute because you’re never sure when your time will come. Matt returns to this space next week having celebrated his 50th birthday; Murphy is dead at just 49.

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

Jimmie Johnson has to wonder what he needs to get an extra gallon of fuel at Michigan. Twice this season, he’s led the most laps in a set of dominating performances; and twice this season, he’s run out of gas while up front with less than 5 miles to go. Oh, well, they say the third time’s the charm … guess Chad Knaus will have to go back to cheating next June to win it.

Mark Martin’s day went from locking himself into the Chase to being on life support in the matter of one white flag lap.

David Ragan badly needs a top 10 finish in what’s been a miserable season. He finally had what the doctor ordered until the UPS Ford got rear-ended not once, but twice in separate incidents during the race’s second half.

Fords have come to dominate racing at Michigan, with more wins there (31) than anyone else. But the Blue Ovals got shut out of Victory Lane Sunday, leaving them winless at MIS for both Cup and Nationwide in the same year for the first time in their history. Not exactly the type of boost they were looking for from their home turf…

The “Seven Come Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

It was no picnic for Brian Vickers heading toward the checkers, as he had to go a total of 102 miles on a little less than 18 gallons of gas. That’s not exactly the fuel efficiency Obama is looking for these days … but Team Red Bull was able to get the job done. Think Jay Frye might work on that contract extension now?

After a rough start which included an off-schedule stop for a vibration, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. got fresh tires and fuel while the leaders stayed out under the race’s final caution. No longer worried about making it to the checkers, simply running 100 percent was enough to lead him towards a surprising surge up the rankings to third.

Carl Edwards came within a whisker of getting collected in the David Ragan-Kurt Busch wreck. But after keeping his car under control while a spinning Busch made contact, the No. 99 was on fire from that point on as they completed a solid march up to 4th.

Sam Hornish, Jr. was a lap down and failed to get the Lucky Dog during a caution flag when he pitted the car one too many times for fuel. Yet after pit strategy worked back in his favor, the No. 77 not only got that lap back but worked their way up to 5th.

Worth Noting

  • Brian Vickers snagged his first win since Talladega in October of 2006 – a drought that lasted 100 races and 87 starts. It’s also the first victory for his team (Red Bull) in over two plus years of Cup competition.
  • So much for the Big Three in their own backyard, as Toyota won the race and had four cars inside the top 10. Four Chevys also made the list to go along with just a single Ford and Dodge.
  • Jeff Gordon (2nd) has a series-leading six runner-up finishes this year. Had just half of them turned out to be wins, he’d be all alone in third on the all-time win list with 85 (he’s currently sixth with 82).
  • Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (3rd) scored his first top 5 finish since Talladega in April.
  • Carl Edwards (4th) has back-to-back top 5 finishes for the first time since Pocono and Michigan in June.
  • Sam Hornish, Jr. (5th) has scored the only top 5s of his Cup career in two of the last three races.
  • Casey Mears (6th) scored his best finish since Infineon in June of 2008.
  • Joey Logano (7th) was the Raybestos Rookie of the Race by 27 positions over Scott Speed.
  • Matt Kenseth (14th) now has four straight top 15s as he fights to stay in the Chase.
  • Kyle Busch (23rd) failed to put together back-to-back top 5 finishes for the first time since California and Las Vegas in February/March.
  • Mark Martin (31st) is a statistical anomaly. He leads the series in wins (four), but has more finishes of 31st or worse (7) than top 5 finishes (6).

What’s The Points?

That’s right, folks; it’s time for us to put together that usual Chase math equation of Who’s In and Who’s Out? With a ho-hum 17th place finish, Tony Stewart did what he had to do in officially clinching a bid in the Chase. Unless there’s a Bristol catastrophe, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson will join him as long as they stay 390 points ahead of 13th-place Brian Vickers (which they are comfortably heading into this weekend’s event).

Behind that, it gets a little more tricky. Carl Edwards moved up two spots to fourth, but even he is 216 ahead of 13th and remains slightly vulnerable with two short tracks left on the pre-Chase schedule. Denny Hamlin held serve in fifth, while Kurt Busch dropped two spots to sixth following his Bristol wreck. However, at 178 points ahead of Vickers, there’s no way Busch can fall out of the Chase Saturday night even if he crashes out and finishes dead last.

Juan Pablo Montoya remains seventh, leading a charge of seven drivers separated by only 108 points. The rest of the top 10 remain unchanged, with Ryan Newman and Greg Biffle slipping back to the pack but holding on to their spots. However, the big shift comes in 11th and 12th, where Matt Kenseth and Mark Martin swap spots. After his fuel tank ran dry, Martin now finds himself just 12 points ahead of a hard-charging Vickers with three races left to the cutoff.

Behind them, Clint Bowyer remains 14th, well within Chase contention. However, Kyle Busch drops a spot to 15th and is 70 points out with just three races left to go. David Reutimann, in 16th, remains a longshot but mathematically eligible at 118 behind 12th place.

Overall Rating (with a one being a stinker and a six being a classic): We’ll give this one two-and-a-half cans of watered down Schlitz. The fuel mileage drama was exciting over the final 100 miles, but really, what else was there to even talk about before then?

Next Up: Time to move from the race we won’t remember to the one that usually lives in our heads for generations. NASCAR heads to Thunder Valley in Bristol, TN for the annual beating and banging short track showdown of the year… although with the way that repaved track’s working out, you wonder how many fireworks there’ll be.

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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
Frontstretch Foto Funnies: It’s Not Gonna Fit…


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08/17/2009 08:23 AM

Many things this morning, nice recap of Michigan, BORING!

Congrats to Jr. for trying to shake the trees as regards the POS, err, CoT!

Not sure the e-mail addy for Mike helton (ever seen a bigger jerk?) but he only toes the company line of course, the line King Brian want’s him to spew!

But send your comments to “”!


And, 50% empty seats, (but Helton thinks this is good), in the backyard’s of THE BIG THREE!

And a TOYOTA beats them in fuel mileage!

And a TOYOTA wins in MICHIGAN!

Will even half of those that showed up yesterday even return for the next race! To watch a TOYOTA win?

A bleak scenario, one that NA$CRAP refuses to acknowledge!

AND! Yet another NA$CRAP “killer”, as I see it, for a while it was Hendrick/Hendrick/Hendrick/Hendrick in the top ten (10)!

Imagine how that would have played out if the TOYOTA didn’t beat them all in fuel economy!

Welcome to the new “MOBIL ECONOMY RUN”, oh, sorry, “THE SUNOCO FUEL ECONOMY RUN”, a race they apparently are losing!

Guess I won’t be putting Sunoco in my tank!

08/17/2009 08:28 AM

Good column, Tom, but I can’t agree with the “Phantom debris” caution theory.

I agree that over the last run, they were running at 75-90% of capacity…if Nascar wanted to throw a caution, why not throw it with 15-20 laps to go?

I was begging for a driver to pull a Robby Gordon and toss some rollbar padding out the window again!

Kevin from PA
08/17/2009 08:31 AM

Why should we be surprised that NASCAR is not listening to its most popular driver? They have already shown little interest in listening to the fans.

So NASCAR will not listen to the people spending their money on their product; and they will not listen to the drivers who get the public to watch. Why – because, of course, there is that universal truth: Brian knows best.

Pride comes before the fall, Mr. France. Please remember that when you are wondering where your audience is in a few years.

08/17/2009 08:48 AM

i was out and turned on tv and they were in rain delay. what rain, i thought, sun was shining and skies were blue. i think “the man upstairs” doesn’t like espn’s sunday coverage??!

for once jr and his team did something right by pitting for tires and fuel. i kind of think his tires were starting to give up the ghost when he couldn’t close on the top 2. he sure loves to rim ride. surprised he didn’t have his typical results by rim riding and kiss the wall. more is made of the 3rd place finish than the win.

sad day when toyota wins in the back yard of the american auto manufacturers. sure toyota is made here, but it’s still a foreign nameplate. it’s just what this country has become. wonder how many camrys will be sold today? maybe it’s a good thing matt is on vacation, i have a feeling the recap would have stung more for toyota.

off to re-worked bristol. have to see how the weather factors into this race, with storms brewing all around this week.

08/17/2009 09:53 AM

I hate to admit this, but I will, came in for some lunch, turned on the TV to check golf, racing, etc. they had a yellow flag at MIS for debris, just off the backstretch, on the track, lay what looked like a water bottle and a pop bottle, among other things, on the track! Kinda like someone threw what was left of their lunch out the window!

How funny!

But not so funny is the fact watching a guy hit a nine iron is more exciting than what went on at MIS!

Carl D.
08/17/2009 10:06 AM

I read Mike Helton’s response to Junior’s comments about improving the racing and it pretty much sums up what’s wrong with the sport. Forget changes to the COT, Helton said that what Nacsar needs to do is increase corporate excitement. Not on-track excitement… corporate excitement. The Nascar brass just don’t get it.

But hey… If Mike Helton is right and we just need more corporate excitement, I have a few suggestions that might help:

More Commercials – Nothing excites the corporate world more than seeing their products being advertised on TV. I propose 10 minutes of commercials for every 5 minutes of race coverage.

Celebrity Drivers – Get rid of bland drivers like Joe Nemechek and Greg Biffle and replace them with celebrities like Carrot Top, Joan Rivers, Ashton Kucher, and Paula Abdul. I make this suggestion because science hasn’t yet figured out how to clone Dale Jr. 42 times.

Interactive Fan Participation – At certain intervals during the race, fans get to vote 1 driver currently running in the top ten out of the race. But if you drive for Hendrick, you get immunity.

Wake up, Mike. The product ain’t selling because the racing sucks.

08/17/2009 10:39 AM

I enjoy the usual rundown of the race on Monday morning. I usually agree but I cannot on this one. I was at the race and I was very pleased with about 75% of what I saw. There was a lot of great racing further back in the pack that kept me entertained. I listed to the #25 team until the 88 made his run in the final 30 laps. Didn’t watch tv replay but it’s a shame that it appears tv didn’t do the race justice. Anyway, good read. One last thing. I’m a lifelong, diehard NASCAR fan. Although the racing isn’t always great, I still believe it is more entertaining than our other choices of motorsports on tv. I just don’t understand why someone would even watch the race if they think they are so horible and are constantly bashing NASCAR. I guess my concerns are based mostly on what I read on other forums around the net. Frontstretch forums and columns don’t typically contain such a negative tone.

S.D. Grady
08/17/2009 10:41 AM

During the pre-pre-race show, I watched Junior’s comments and came up with one response…even if NASCAR decides to make changes to the boxy CoT, those changes won’t take effect until 2011. They spent years creating the monster, don’t think they’ll make any major adjustments to it without taking it to the lab.

08/17/2009 11:00 AM

I don’t understand why all the “Top” crew chiefs make their drivers slow down, lose spots and try to save fuel — only to run out. A first grader would know to come in and get enough fuel to make it to the end. Just like a road course, you pit when you’re in the window — no matter if it’s green flag or caution. Look at Jr. That’s his best finish in a loooonnnnggg time and it was simple math. Four tires, full of fuel, then up through the field passing a bunch of fuel-conserving granny-drivers.

08/17/2009 11:20 AM

Why is this article named “Matt McLaughlin’s Thinkin’ Out Loud”?
What a joke and pretty dubious…

scott b
08/17/2009 01:18 PM

Sam Hornish Jr getting a top 5 finish for the performance he put on Sunday is pretty pathetic. Can we please end the charity and make drivers actually earn their laps back?

Kevin in SoCal
08/17/2009 01:21 PM

Tom said “even if they only keep everyone together for a lap or two.

I for one, thought it was really strange that the first ten or so cars would get single file right away, while the rest of the field stayed double file for a few more laps, fighting for position.
And I too thought it was strange that the booth made such a big deal about Johnson being half a car in front of the leader on a restart and NASCAR did nothing. I’m not normally a conspiracy guy, but hrmmmm…..

08/17/2009 01:56 PM

First off, the 48 jumped just about every restart, but forgot the karma in his fuel cell… Hehehehehe!

Second, if you look at the back of Helton’s neck, you can see the opening for Brian’s hand.

Lastly, ESPN is starting to fall back into their Jeff and Jimmie fawning ways…just in time for STEELERS football!

08/17/2009 02:42 PM

As regards the attached survey, a FULL 85% said the race was “three (3) beers cans or worse”!

15% (four beers cans or better) thought the race was “decent” or better!

What a story!

So, who likes the current state of NA$CRAP?

Your in the minority, but soon to wake up me thinks! For your sakes, I hope so!

Mike in Floyd Va
08/17/2009 05:20 PM

Dr France-enstein isn’t going to make any changes to the POS because that would mean that when he created his monster he was wrong. And he did say he knows what’s best for the sport. If you believe that, I’ve got some land near Key West I’ll sell you. Easy financing available, low interest rates. Sort of like the interest in the Michigan race judging from all the empty seats in the grandstands.

Unless or until they change the POS, return to the races being about racing and not marketing, and actually show the race action during the race broadcasts, I’m afraid we’re stuck with something that creates more suction that my shop vac.

08/17/2009 05:33 PM

MIS update: Monday afternoon.

I understand that the last spectator has finally awoke, been appraised by the track clean up crew that indeed, the race is over!

The response by the sound asleep spectator was “well, about time, who won”?

Real exciting stuff this MIS racing!

No wonder next years tickets are much cheaper than this years, which were cheaper than last years, and they still can’t get 50% of the seats filled!

Kevin in SoCal
08/17/2009 07:10 PM

Was the attendance really only 50%? From the grandstand shots I remember, it looked like 75% or more.

08/17/2009 07:34 PM

This is definitely “ no Country for Old Men”, right, Douglas? And you had to get in the JR bash didn’t you? I’m usually with you except on Jr and Busch ( the idiot younger one), but the race was actually pretty good, for the new car.

08/17/2009 07:46 PM

Jimmy Johnson and the Hendrick Stable need to have a talk with Smokey Yunick. I thought King Brian would have been on the phone to Hendrick asking him how many laps under caution he would need if a debris caution came out.

08/17/2009 08:28 PM

Hey Marc!

Please, please, read once again what I said, please? I stated: “Congrats to Jr. for trying to shake the trees as regards the POS, err, CoT!”

Note please: “Congrats, is short for CONGRATULATIONS!

So, I was congratulating Jr. for speaking up! And I give Jr. total credit for stepping out from under the NASCAR spell and threats, and going public about the CoT!

Again, I give credit, where credit is due, and this is the first “plus” I have heard emitted from a racetrack in two years!

AND! Since you brought the subject up, the subject being Kyle Busch, here are my candid thoughts, (what? me being candid? holy cow!)

Anyway, and there are times the KB show gets old, BUT, lets use this as a scenario:

KB shows up at the race track ready and willing to work, and to do the job he is paid for, each and every race! He is that “employee”, that says, oh! My job description says to WIN RACES! And he tries to do his job EACH AND EVERY WEEKEND! Better I might add, (trying to win) than any other driver on the circuit. All the other drivers, well, maybe a few exceptions, show up at the track, yawn, jump in the car, race for points, the hell with stressing yourself over, of all things, winning, signing suitable amount of autographs, smile as they get out of the race car, happy with 10th place, go play golf all week, then do it all over again the following week! Ho-hum!

Gee, imagine that, a driver, in this case KB, actually trying to do his absolute best week in, week out, and is diappointed when he does not place well!

What kind of employee would you like? The complacent, cut the corners, take a break employee? Or the one that actually tries to accomplish what you hired him for?

Coffee and doughnuts anyone?

Joe in Pittsburgh
08/18/2009 09:29 AM

I too went to the race (infield camping site since 1995) and I disagree with SteveO. This was the most boring race I have witnessed at Michigan in August and the stand were about 65-70% full with the end stands in turns 1 and 3 very empty. Also alot of the infield had bare spots and many of my longtime neighbors either did not show,or gave up their spots to new people. The fact that Michigan has announced ALL tickets reduced and also they are widening existing spots and grandstand seat tells me that they get it finally with the fans in mind. And this is an ISC track! Thats amazing to me.

don mei
08/18/2009 10:47 AM

There was a race Sunday??

08/18/2009 06:55 PM

But Douglas, when heaven forbid, someone else steps up and wins the race, which has been every race for quite a spell, he acts like a little kid who just got his candy taken away. At least congratulate the winner on a job well done, and say well get you next week.


Contact Tom Bowles

Recent articles from Tom Bowles:

Did You Notice? ... Breaking Down A Sprint Cup Season Eight Races In
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