“Give me fuel, give me fire, give me that which I desire,” may very well have been the lyrics Jimmie Johnson was banging his head to as his dominant No. 48 Chevy sputtered to the finish of Sunday’s LifeLock 400. The three-time champ absolutely dominated at Michigan, only surrendering the lead after the final pit sequence to Greg Biffle. Ironically enough, though, both Johnson and Biffle were a little too conservative on how much fuel they conserved at the end of the race, using too much gas racing each other in the closing laps and each falling short of fuel at the finish. Biffle managed to coast to fifth place, while Johnson ran out of fuel just past the pit road entrance. That meant he had to nurse his No. 48 for almost a full lap under power, relegating him to a 22nd-place result.
Despite the long, boring green-flag runs Sunday, seeing some teams that needed good finishes actually had them injecting a bit of excitement into what was otherwise a yawner of a race. Here are some of those programs that are HOT, WARM and COLD as the Cup Series motors away from Motor City.
HOT: Mark Martin – The race may have been handed to him at Michigan, but the fact still stands that Martin has three more wins this season than he did in the previous three and sits eighth in points. However, keep in mind those victories do not make him a “lock” for the playoffs by any means just yet; despite gaining five spots in the standings and re-entering the Chase bracket, the veteran sits only 61 points ahead of 13th-place David Reutimann. Martin’s success on the No. 5 Chevy is one of the better stories of 2009, but here is one question people are forgetting to ask about next season: who is going to sponsor the entry if the team fails to re-up with Kellogg’s? This season’s success should make finding funding for the entry not extremely hard… you would think.
HOT: Carl Edwards – All of a sudden, Edwards and the No. 99 team are heating up with the weather. A fourth place at Michigan gives the team four straight top 10s, as Roush Fenway Racing managed to place four of its five teams in the top 15 at its home track. Next week’s stop at Infineon Raceway may not be too damaging for Edwards, as he has two top 10s in four starts there. With the race to the Chase as tight as it is, though, Edwards’s 17.8 average finish out west may mean he loses some of the lead he holds over 13th place in points.
HOT: Biffle – Biffle was poised to win at Michigan after breaking Johnson’s dominant block of laps led and beating him off pit road late in the event. However, Johnson managed to chase him down before both ran out of fuel. Biffle’s fifth-place finish was still impressive, though, and he and the No. 16 team sit seventh in points. After a tumultuous start to 2009, Biffle has finished in the top 20 in every race after Martinsville, with six of those nine finishes inside the top 10. Barring any bad luck, the No. 16 team seems poised to run strong enough to stay in the Chase. By the way, Biffle has the most points in the last five races run at Infineon.
WARM: Juan Pablo Montoya – Big Mo may be on the third-year driver’s side as the Cup Series heads to the road course at Infineon next week. Montoya ran in the top five for much of the race at Michigan, settling for sixth at the end of the race for his first top-20 finish at the speedway. Without question, 2009 has been his best season so date in stock cars, as the No. 42 has maintained an acceptable level of consistency and remains in the Chase hunt. Montoya has six top-20 finishes in the last seven races, and four of those have been top 10s. Plus, the Colombian’s lone Cup win came at Infineon two years ago and, being 14th in points, Montoya may be able to capitalize on 13th-place Reutimann’s lack of road-racing skills and leapfrog over him in the points standings.
WARM: David Ragan – Oh, what the heck… let’s throw Ragan in the warm pile. Sure, the driver of the No. 6 has not finished in the top 10 since Daytona, but the addition of Chris Andrews to his crew to help improve communication between the young driver and the Roush engineers showed immediate improvements at Michigan. Ragan, who finished third in the race a year ago, ran in the top 15 for much of the day and ended up 15th at the race’s end. Ragan also moved up three spots in the points standings to 28th, a solid improvement after falling outside the top 30 at times this season. The string of decent runs may end at one, though, because Ragan and the No. 6 UPS team have not proven their talent on road courses.
WARM: Bill Elliott – Trimming their schedule to part-time was an excellent move by the Wood Brothers, as their small team can now focus its efforts on running well in a few races (a la Furniture Row Racing) instead of spreading themselves thin and struggling through the whole schedule. Elliott qualified for the LifeLock 400 in 15th position, stayed inside the top 20 the entire race and finished 16th, ahead of 3/4 of Richard Childress Racing, 3/4 of Richard Petty Motorsports, all of Michael Waltrip Racing and 2/3 of Penske Racing. What an effort for a team and driver that struggled to finish top 30 or even make races last season!
COLD: Paul Menard – His first season at Yates Racing has been dismal, as the No. 98 Menards Ford has struggled almost every race weekend. His three laps down, 34th-place finish at Michigan was the lowest among drivers that did not have some sort of mechanical problem or that started and parked. Menard also sits 34th in points, the lowest standing out of drivers that have run every race. Having daddy’s money backing the ride is the only saving grace for a driver who has done very little since becoming a full-time Cup driver in 2007.
COLD: Max Papis – Expectations could not have been astronomical for Germain Racing when they decided to start a part-time Cup team and put a rookie driver behind the wheel. Nevertheless, Papis’s season to date has been disappointing. Scheduled to run half the races, Papis has attempted eight, made six, and only finished in the top 30 once (18th at Talladega). Papis’s arguable premature involvement in the Cup Series was evidenced in the Talladega drivers’ meeting, where Papis was seen getting advice from several different drivers and heard on the radio during the race complaining constantly about the rough bump-drafting. Germain Racing obviously had a decision to make last year, after Nationwide disallowed GEICO’s involvement in the Nationwide Series, and chose Papis as the driver of the No. 13 to keep the sponsor involved. Hopefully, Papis can turn things around and get the team running well; but right now, their progress seems to be falling backwards. Papis is not the only open-wheel convert struggling in his transition to the Cup Series, however….
COLD: Scott Speed – After setting the racing world on fire in the ARCA and Truck Series, Team Red Bull thought Speed would be able to make quick work of the Cup Series and not take very long to adapt to that type of racing. Well so far, they have been wrong. Speed has failed to qualify for two races and still sits 35th in driver points. The No. 82 is also the first car outside the Top 35 in owner points, meaning that some of Speed’s practice time each weekend is eaten into by the importance to nail a good setup to qualify for the race. Three straight finishes outside the top 30 and only one top 10 all season have left a team that felt rejuvenated last year scratching their heads. The road course race at Infineon Sunday should give Speed a leg up on some of his competitors, but Team Red Bull’s No. 82 Toyota is not quite ready for the top 10 yet.
Here are some other HOT and NOT issues of the week in racing:
HOT: Dodge’s new CEO – A diamond found in the rough of bad news that has swirled the past few months regarding the American automakers is Dodge’s decision to appoint a new CEO. Mike Accavitti, former Dodge director of racing, has been promoted to the company’s top spot. This bodes as good news for the manufacturer and its teams, because signs have been pointing to a Chrysler exit from the sport. Accavitti has been a big supporter of NASCAR racing and hopefully can find a way to allot the money needed to continue to support its motorsports endeavors.
NOT: The Danica hoopla – Waves of reports have been lapping at the shore the past few weeks about Indy Racing League star Danica Patrick’s future. The open wheel mega star has not denied that NASCAR is on her radar and she is set to become a free agent after this year. Reports surfaced this weekend that NASCAR may be doing what it can to lure Patrick to the Cup Series – but this is a huge mistake.
Patrick makes Dale Earnhardt Jr. appear underrated. While Junior at least has a trophy case full of wins to show for his superstardom, Patrick has a lone victory and several years of disappointment to show for hers. While seeing a woman succeed in motorsports is great, the last thing that NASCAR needs (or probably that true racing fans want) is another media spectacle to enter the garage and distract attention away from real racing situations.
NASCAR has tried time and again to gain fans by implementing new rules, a new points format, and by entering and catering to bright, highly populated markets in the U.S. Hasn’t time shown that these pills have not been the cure for the decline in ratings… or worth their costs? If Patrick wants in on NASCAR, she needs to earn her way in without the crutch of the money-hungry governing body.
HOT: A Nationwide Series of its own – With the exception of Joe Gibbs Racing Cup regulars Kyle Busch and Joey Logano absolutely dominating (and Logano winning) the event, Saturday’s Nationwide Series race in Kentucky was exciting because of the large presence of actual Nationwide drivers. Getting a chance to see the likes of Stephen Leicht, Trevor Bayne, Kelly Bires, Brad Keselowski, Jason Leffler, Justin Allgaier and Erik Darnell battle for positions high in the running order was quite refreshing. This reminded me of the reason I was intrigued by Nationwide Series races several years ago. Getting a chance to learn the plight of other drivers, whose top prize is that specific race and not the next day’s event, is what the NASCAR Nationwide Series should be about.
The reason, of course, that much fewer Cup drivers ran the race is because the Cup Series was in Michigan and the Nationwide Series race ran in Kentucky. Geographical separations like Saturday’s should be the norm and not the exception, so the Nationwide Series can remain viable and colorful.
NOT: Marc Davis and Steve Wallace’s looming Cup races – Davis and his father announced last week that they are planning on attempting the Sprint Cup Series race at New Hampshire in a couple of weeks and may attempt others. Around the same time, Rusty Wallace re-ignited the possibility of his team running some Cup races, as he said that he may have son and driver Steve Wallace close to a deal where, pending sponsorship, he could run up to 10 Cup races next season. Give me a break!
Davis is barely old enough to race in NASCAR and has limited experience in any of NASCAR’s top-three series (as was evidenced in the Nationwide Series race in Nashville, where he made a driving mistake and took Wallace driver Brendan Gaughan out of contention). Yet Davis is planning to attempt the Cup race with his own team. Considering how hard making a Cup race is already, does Davis really want to expend this kind of effort toward likely failure, despite sponsorship? Apparently, he does. This endeavor is similar to young Michelle Wie’s pathetic attempts at playing on the PGA Tour. After the novelty wore off, people just thought that the gimmicks were annoying. If Davis does make the event, he will become only the second black driver since Willy T. Ribbs in 1986 to run a Cup race. Despite that significance, Davis needs to save his energy and learn to master the Nationwide and Truck series races first.
Steve Wallace is not ready to run Cup, either. In his third full season in the Nationwide Series, Wallace has yet to score a victory or really gain a long run of consistency. He may be among the wave of drivers that eventually will supplant today’s Cup regulars, but he is nowhere near ready to run Cup and has not shown the individual talent needed to adapt to the tough-driving CoTs. Like Davis, Wallace needs to stick to and master his current digs before seriously considering a big leap to the big time.
The twists and turns of the road course of Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif. now await the Cup Series. Turn here to see which teams leave wine country walking the straight and narrow and which ones’ title hopes get inebriated with bad luck.