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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2009 Carfax 400 at Michigan

Who… gets my shoutout of the race?

Sometimes it’s not about being the fastest, having a brilliant pit strategy that nobody else can figure out or outsmarting another driver in the last turn. Sometimes it’s just about patience and knowing that you don’t have the car to win, but if you position yourself in the right place at the right time, you have a chance. That was exactly the way Jeff Gordon drove the race, and it paid off with a second-place run. Gordon qualified 22nd, the worst starting spot in the Hendrick Motorsports stable, but had the best finish among his HMS teammates. Between teammate Jimmie Johnson’s fuel gamble and Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s first top five in approximately 10 years, Gordon’s runner-up run was all but ignored by the race broadcast. His competitors would be wise not to do the same as the Chase looms.

What… was THAT?

This week it looked like Mother Nature was playing a joke on NASCAR. Despite a forecast of less than 10% chance for rain, the race was twice delayed by raindrops as small cells of moisture popped up right smack over the Michigan International Speedway. Some days you just have to have a sense of humor. As Johnson said, maybe a career in meteorology wouldn’t be a bad choice, because “You don’t have to get it right.”

Where… did the polesitter wind up?

Gambling… and winning. Brian Vickers leads all Sprint Cup Series drivers with six poles this year, and now the 25-year-old has a win to go with them. Vickers had one of the best cars all weekend, but still had to gamble on fuel mileage in the closing laps, a gamble that paid off. Vickers has finished no worse than 11th since Daytona and sits just 12 points out of the Chase with three races to go. His Red Bull team shows every sign of being one of those who go on a winning tear after getting over the initial hurdle. Hurdle cleared, and if Vickers has anything to say about it, game on.

When… will I be loved?

This week it’s a crew chief who needs to crank up the Everly Brothers and contemplate this question, arguably the most brilliant head wrench in the garage. Chad Knaus had what can only be described as a giant brain cramp, gambling on fuel and counting on a caution that never came at Michigan. For the second time this year, Knaus’s gamble ended a dominant run at MIS by driver Johnson, leaving the track on the short list of tracks where Johnson has not won. Had Knaus pitted Johnson with most of the field on the last caution flag, they would have had plenty of fuel and likely have finished at least third, instead of the 33rd place that Johnson and the team now have to swallow. After the first race they should have known better. Shame on Knaus for getting burned twice.

Why… no penalty talk for Kyle Busch?

How come there’s no talk of penalizing Busch for the pit-road incident after Saturday’s Carfax 250? Traditionally, running into another car in the pits after a race brings at least probation, and has brought point and money fines as well. Busch hit Vickers on pit road after Vickers had parked, hard enough to peel back the sheetmetal on the right-front quarter. Officials and crewmen were already over the wall, and could easily have been injured had Vickers’s car been moved by the impact. There is no call for that type of behavior, especially considering that Busch spent the final two laps of the race trying to get Vickers loose enough to wreck, while Vickers never touched Busch, merely racing him hard. And props to Vickers for his post-race comment, “Sorry, I didn’t know this was the Kyle Busch Show.” Busch has shown a compete lack of sportsmanship all year, but taking it out on pit road after a race is taking it one step too far, a step that warrants action by NASCAR.

How… many different winners have we seen in 2009?

Vickers was driver number 13 to visit victory lane this year. That’s already one more than in all of 2008. Vickers was also the fourth first-time winner this year, following Brad Keselowski, David Reutimann and Joey Logano. There were no first-timers last year. In a year when a test ban should, on paper, have hurt more teams than it helped, it appears that some teams have turned that around, taking advantage of the big teams’ inability to test and using that to catch up on the racetrack. It’s much more interesting each week when you can’t predict the winner before the green flag falls.

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