The Frontstretch: Matt McLaughlin's Thinkin' Out Loud: Michigan-2 Race Recap by Vito Pugliese -- Monday August 22, 2011

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

Vito Pugliese · Monday August 22, 2011


Editor’s Note: Matt McLaughlin’s under the weather this week, so our Vito Pugliese filled in. Cross your fingers, send him a get well note and hopefully he’ll be happy, healthy and writing again by Thursday!

The Key MomentKyle Busch chose the outside lane on a green-white-checkered restart to keep Jimmie Johnson at bay. He cleared him within the first ten seconds under green and… that was it. The outside line is now the preferred line on speedways, just so long as the car in the right lane clears the inside one before he gets sucked around. Add in a little aero push for Johnson, some horsepower under the hood for Busch and the No. 18 cruised to Victory Lane.

In a Nutshell – Well, it was typical Michigan. Five lanes of racing, field spread out under green, and no real wrecks until the very end when Kurt Busch blew a tire and pile drove his Charger into the wall, rupturing his radiator and collecting Jamie McMurray in the process. When all was said and done, GM, Dodge, and Ford all had to suck it up as Toyota dealt them a blow to the solar plexus in their hometown. Ouch, quit it.

Dramatic Moment – The final restart looked to sizing up to be a four-car battle between the fastest four on the track the prior ten laps between Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski, and Mark Martin. That notion lasted until the exit of Turn Two, when Busch hooked and booked down the backstretch all the way to his fourth win of the season.

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

Chevrolet had to eat a big crap sandwich on Sunday, as Toyota won its 100th NASCAR race smack dab in the General’s backyard. Considering all of the hoopla surrounding Chevrolet’s centennial celebration in Detroit, that’s gotta hurt. By the way, that celebration coincided with the Woodward Dream Cruise, culminating with Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson physically waving the green flag in the back seat of a V-6 Camaro convertible (no SSs or 2012 ZL-1, guys? Really?) for Chevrolet’s participation in the event.

Also of note is the disturbing trend of the new front end of the Sprint Cup cars to collect garbage and overheat instantly, be it grass, trash, or anything else. It looked like Jeff Gordon would check out and win the race after halfway, leading a total of 50 laps, then Jimmie Johnson took his turn at the point for 18 circuits – though the No. 18 would be his undoing. Both the Nos. 24 and 48, however succumbed to the same fate: garbage on the grill. That loosened up their cars, causing water temps to soar past 260 degrees and helped Busch get a little extra edge under green. Trash all over the racetrack, all day; was this Michigan or Fontana?

It was an ugly ending to what should have been a banner day for Ford. The first half of the race looked to be a foregone Blue Oval conclusion, courtesy pole-sitter Greg Biffle leading 86 of the first 98 laps. The Pure Michigan Fusion looked to be performing a reasonable facsimile of Dale Jarrett’s 1999 Michigan win, where it literally was a green, white, checker finish – no cautions and five cars left on the lead lap. Biffle ended up fading to a rather unremarkable 20th-place finish, though in a run which sealed the coffin on any hopes of making the Chase through any way other than a “wild card” win. He wasn’t the only one disappointed; despite leading 107 of 203 laps, more than any other manufacturer, no Ford Fusion wound up higher than Matt Kenseth in tenth. The Biff chalked the fade of the No. 16 to what he deemed “a bum set of tires, and then we got off on our adjustments.”

But at least they got all the gas in it this time.

The bad ending was bit coincidental for Biffle; after all, he carried race sponsor Pure Michigan on the hood. That initiative was designed to help spark tourism in Michigan, since nothing is built here anymore, but it didn’t work – the race was attended by an estimated 81,000 fans, a 30% decrease from the June race. Saturday’s thunderstorms and Sunday’s early morning showers could have prevented some race day traffic from showing up, but that’s not a full explanation. Some ugly traffic routing Sunday morning surely didn’t help those who came, though; NASCAR has to do a better job of making sure fans get in and out smoothly from these rural facilities.

Again, it wasn’t as bad as Kentucky; but if attendance is down 30%, it might make sense for MIS to not block off the main access road and entrance to the speedway. Green Zone barricades set up to dissuade people from entering was puzzling considering the lack of people in the chairs. This is not a knock against Roger Curtis or his fantastic staff at the Speedway, but some rather aggressive traffic mapping and enforcement. And this is coming from a reserve Sheriff deputy…

When Denny Hamlin went behind the wall late in the going, many were nodding their heads and saying in unison, “The only thing missing from TRD engines Denny and Mike Ford is “U!” Not the case; Hamlin suffered suspension damage after plowing into the wall. Meanwhile, the Joe Gibbs Racing, Mark Cronquist-assembled engines was pull everything The Big Three could throw at it in the closing laps. Hiroshima isn’t hurting for horsepower on the big tracks, that’s for sure…

If Brad Keselowski continues this form, he just might be able to make up the 52 points to get into the top-10.

It seems that Dodge makes a resurgence in motorsports every 10 years or so: is 2011 the year they finally surge towards a Cup title? With Brad Keselowski suddenly the poster child for Pentastar power, it is fitting since his father Bob helped to usher in Mopar’s return to circle track competition in the early 1990s when Chrysler fielded the not-legal-for-NASCAR LeBaron (which is French for, “The Baron”) in ARCA, which set the stage for their NASCAR redux in the Truck Series for 1995. Keselowski is the Wild Card to watch right now with two wins and three Top 3 finishes in three weeks – though at his current pace, Keselowski will likely be inside the Top 10 by Richmond. At least Denny Hamlin and David Ragan hope so.

Another race weekend, another sub-Top 10 run by the No. 88 team as Dale Jr. struggled simply to finish 14th. The last race at Michigan saw Dale Earnhardt, Jr. enter the weekend third in points, while everybody was salivating and dusting off their old No. 8 Budweiser gear, heralding the Junior renaissance and the age of enlightenment. That race also marked the downward trend of the No. 88 the last few months, looking more and more like the team that preceded the midseason turnaround that awoke Junior Nation from their slumber. Take heart No. 88 fans; your man is still safely inside the Top-10. That is, until his former protégé Brad Keselowski in 12th mows him down…

If all of the teams and Big Three get so pumped about Michigan, then how come Toyota keeps handing them their head on a platter? ‘Yoda won four out of the last five, they have.

Considering how the last few oval track races have played out compared to the road course races at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, Watkins Glen, Road America, and Infineon, is there really any question as to whether or not we need switchbacks in The Chase – let alone a couple of more on the schedule? And spare me your North Wilkesboro e-mails; there are weeds growing out of it right now like a dilapidated Soviet air base.

The two F-16 Fighting Falcons performing the pre-race flyover must have gotten their timing off, since sporting events in Michigan include playing Canada’s National Anthem as well. First they taunt us with their exchange rates and duty free shops… now this?

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

If you missed the entertaining radio chatter from the No. 22 of Kurt Busch last weekend at Watkins Glen, you’ll probably get an earful from this weekend. Kurt’s car was decent for 15 laps then, as it has through most of the speedway races this year, got too tight and slowly faded backwards into obscurity. A brush with the wall early in the going set the stage for a proper wall-job with two laps to go courtesy of another blown tire. Considering the Penske car’s penchants for blowing tires this year – from Keselowski at Las Vegas while leading on the last lap, to New Hampshire in Cup, Kurt last week at the Glen and now Michigan, whatever makes them go fast must also be stretching those Goodyears to the limit.

Rough day at work for Carl Edwards. The hood went up on the No. 99 early in the going, then was seen backing down pit road to go to the garage area for what Edwards believes to be electrical related. While the Penske cars seem to have problems blowing tires, the No. 16 can’t get it full of gas, while the No. 99 has more than its fair share of ignition issues. Remember the debacle at Charlotte back in 2008? Edwards’ car would shut off for no apparent reason, and it ended up costing him the championship; today’s 36th-place finish would have done so again had it happened in September or October.

Marcos Ambrose set the stock car racing on its ear this week, winning two races in 6 days: his first Cup win at Watkins Glen and again in Montreal in the Nationwide Series yesterday. Then he comes to Michigan, gets wrecked on pit road, nerfs it into the wall and winds up 27th. Maybe Kevin Harvick can buy some Jimmy John’s to make up for it?

Tony Stewart should slowly revert back into Old, Temperamental Tony should be continue his stretch of mediocre runs and fall out of Chase contention. Today’s nondescript ninth just won’t cut it; and as Danica Patrick questions commence, with the impending announcement of her move to NASCAR full-time in Nationwide, expect the owner/driver to simply get more testy until the press conference considering SHR’s Cup connection to the deal. Teammate Ryan Newman is solidly in the Top 10 in points with three races to go, but it might take a bit of the former cranky, surly Stewart to do the same for the No. 14 the next few weeks. The Summer of Smoke has simply not come to fruition as so many had believed.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

Jimmie Johnson seems to have located that elusive horseshoe. After nearly missing his pit stall, Johnson was among the first to pit when the caution flew following his final stop. That left him on the lead lap, with a free pass to stay out and inheriting the track position he lost earlier in the race to run second.

Mark Martin posted his second best finish of the year with a strong fourth-place result, among the fastest cars on the track the last 30 laps. Martin dominated the Camping World Truck Series race Saturday, only to be collected while battling for the lead with Kevin Harvick and Parker Kligerman. A lot of people have been down on Martin this year, but it’s not as bad as it seems. He’s essentially driving the No. 88 car that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. drove last season yet is one position higher in the points than Junior at this same time a year ago.

Bobby Labonte brought out the second caution on lap 57, a single car spin between Turns 1 and 2. But Labonte rebounded to finish 15th, his third-best of the season. Labonte earned his third career win 16 years ago at this same race from the pole, driving the Interstate Batteries No. 18 JGR entry which, naturally, won today as well.

Worth Noting – Kyle Busch’s win was his 23rd Sprint Cup Series victory, tying him with his brother Kurt and Ricky Rudd. The win also clinches at last one of the two Wild Card spots in the Chase, and was the 93rd win for Joe Gibbs Racing.

- Brad Keselowski (third) recorded his first top-10 finish in five Cup races at his home track at Michigan International Speedway. It was also his third top-3 finish in a row.

- While Fords captured the front row and three of the first four positions, they only had one car in the top-10 at MIS Sunday (Matt Kenseth in 10th).

- Jimmie Johnson is still winless at MIS, but his second-place finish is now his career best at the track that continues to taunt and tease him.

- Jeff Gordon led 50 laps in Sunday’s race; he had led just one in the previous seven MIS races. Gordon ended the day in sixth.

What’s the Points?

Kyle Busch’s win, while locking him into the Chase gives him a 10-point lead over his closest competitors. As of now, Busch would also be the top seed for the second time in the past four years entering the postseason.

Jimmie Johnson sits second, ten points behind Busch but armed with just one win – that’ll hurt him for seeding purposes. Kevin Harvick’s 22nd-place effort left him third, 39 points behind Busch and tied with Carl Edwards for the spot. Matt Kenseth rounds out your top-5 in the standings, followed by Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch. All those drivers cannot fall out of the top-10 after Bristol and, with three races left are virtually guaranteed postseason spots of their own.

Brad Keselowski vaulted to 12th in the standings, 52 points out of 10th. Keselowski can make it in the Top-10, but will need some help from Tony Stewart or Dale Earnhardt, Jr. to get there; they’re the only points-eligible Chase drivers who appear vulnerable at this point. Further back, Denny Hamlin is currently ranked as the second Wild Card driver, needing to win a second race and eclipse Keselowski in the standings to move. Hamlin trails Keselowski by seven points while remaining just eighteen in front of the next one-win driver, Paul Menard.

Overall Rating (Using Matt McLaughlin’s scale of one to six beer cans, with one being justifiable suicide and a six pack ESPN Classic material) — I’ll give this one two cans. Being at the track, I couldn’t really fire my shirt off in the Media Center and Stone Cold a pair of PBRs, but it probably would have given me instant street cred and a heroic mention on Jayski.

Next Up – Bristol! Racin’ The Way It Oughta’ Be! Thunder Valley! Though after the reconstruction of the track in 2007, it’s kind of been muted more into Rumble Gorge. Either way, short track racing in a big concrete bowl in Tennessee at night in August… if you have a problem with that, then we’re not friends anymore. I’m de-friending you on Facebook, and I want my CDs back.

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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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08/22/2011 07:58 AM

And what was up with that pace car? Is that what passes for GM (Government Motors) horsepower these days?

08/22/2011 08:16 AM

Did not like the apperance of favoritism during last pit stop. Dave Blaney was slow down backstretch and turns 3 & 4 coming to pits, nascar could have had him stop in one of the early pit stalls of a start and parker (there were 7 of them) until pit stops were complete. But NO “5 TIME” Pits and then nascar throws caution. Just saying.

Carl D.
08/22/2011 08:56 AM

Brad Keseloski gets win two weeks ago, finishes 2nd last week, and finishes third this week. If this troubling trend continues, he’ll be finishing outside the top 5 by the time the chase starts. Go Brad!

08/22/2011 10:44 AM

i wondered the same thing about the pace car. didn’t know gm made a car that looked like that.

Bill B
08/22/2011 11:11 AM

Was that pace car the new Volt? The car GM developed that no one demanded.

All but one of those cautions yesterday were questionable.

08/22/2011 12:34 PM

i too thought that was an odd choice for a pace car. another sign of the end times? Although those cautions were highly questionable they were just about the only thing that kept that “race” even remotely interesting. Good thing Harvick beat up the little league’rs in the truck race otherwise we might have heard an even worse tantrum. I also think those stands were indicative of people getting fed up with a p*ss poor product with particularly prohibitive prices. Sorta looked a lot like california without the palm trees.

Jeff W
08/22/2011 12:37 PM

I think the pace car, a Chevy Sonic, is Chevy’s answer to the Ford Fiesta. At least it’s built in the US, unlike the Fiesta.

It sucks that they would use such a thing for a pace car but with $4/gal. gasoline, ya gotta market what people want to buy.

08/22/2011 01:36 PM

The race ended nineteen minutes early. It’s surprising there weren’t more Pierre DeBris cautions. I guess JJ didn’t need any more help. Too much time for interviews. Had to use drivers other than the chosen few. Extra time for the fans to try to get out of the parking lots.

08/22/2011 01:53 PM

Vito, your CDs are in the mail. I find it sad to not be able to be pumped for Bristol. They trashed the track and now it’s just another ho hummer on the schedule. Proof? I could get tickets right now for what used to take your first born to get.

08/22/2011 02:24 PM

Matt, I hate to break your bubble, but Mark Martin has NOT driven one of Dale Jr’s old cars. He has had NEW ones every race or one he had driven once before this year. He got the very best selection of cars, yet hasn’t been able to do much better than Dale Jr did last year. Perhaps it’s the driver. Or the CC.

old farmer
08/22/2011 02:24 PM

Was anyone really surprised at the end of the race when NASCAR threw a caution to let the 48 catch up after the 18 had driven away, taking away the 18’s earned advantage?

Fortunately, the fairness gods prevailed on the g-w-c and the 18 drove away again.

It sure looked to me like NASCAR didn’t want the 18 to win.

Considering the wheelbarrow-sized pacecar, will the next race be paced by a golf cart?

One more thing—did anyone proofread this article before publishing it? The sentence structures are atrocious.

Bill B
08/22/2011 02:43 PM

Old farmer,
That last caution was the only legitimate caution of the day. There actually was a wrecked car out there. I was more upset when they threw the bogus caution for Blaney being slow on pit road which handed the lead to Johnson because he was the only one of the leaders that had pitted. It would have killed him at a mile track but at a two mile track it worked out for him.

Vito Pugliese - FS Staff
08/22/2011 03:08 PM

Pepper, It’s Vito, not Matt, but thanks for reading.

Mark did not get “his” cars until well into the season this year; I believe it was just before Charlotte. The focus for HMS has clearly been trying to get Jr. up to speed and get the 24 back to its former glory – with Martin and McGrew making way for Kahne and Francis in 2012 has to be taken into consideration as well.

Martin and Gustafson had the 5 back up front each week at the end of 2010 after getting off to a slow start with the spoiler/new tire combo. Martin has ran better than Jr. did in 2010 this season, he has just been caught up in more wrecks than since probably the early 1990s.

08/22/2011 03:30 PM

Vito…your comment about North Wilkesboro looking like a derelict Soviet air base is spot on. I drive past it several times a month and it’s just a sad sight.

Vito Pugliese - FS Staff
08/22/2011 08:43 PM

I know Jim…it’s downright shameful. Trust me, I take no pleasure in drawing that parallel. That track was about as Old School as you can get.

08/24/2011 04:40 PM

I still firmly beleive that the less exciting racing at Bristol is more a product of points racing and the Chase than it is about the new configuration. This race is too close to the Chase so everyone is playing nice and trying to get out of there with the best finish they can. Another reason to can the Chase and go back to a full season points system.

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