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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2009 CARFAX 400 at Michigan

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.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.’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% 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% 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 a while… but 400 is a whole other story altogether.

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 8-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.

“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% 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 racetrack 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 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-plus 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 RaganKurt Busch wreck.

For all those interested in conspiracy theories, why would NASCAR not penalize 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 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 fourth-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 rearview 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

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 five 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.

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

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 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, 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% 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 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 fourth.

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 fifth.

Worth Noting

  • 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 (second) 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).
  • Earnhardt Jr. (third) scored his first top-five finish since Talladega in April.
  • Edwards (fourth) has back-to-back top-five finishes for the first time since Pocono and Michigan in June.
  • Hornish Jr. (fifth) has scored the only top fives of his Cup career in two of the last three races.
  • Casey Mears (sixth) scored his best finish since Infineon in June of 2008.
  • Joey Logano (seventh) was the Raybestos Rookie of the Race by 27 positions over Scott Speed.
  • 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-five finishes for the first time since California and Las Vegas in February/March.
  • Martin (31st) is a statistical anomaly. He leads the series in wins (four), but has more finishes of 31st or worse (7) than top-five 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, Gordon and Johnson will join him as long as they stay 390 points ahead of 13th-place Vickers (which they are comfortably heading into this weekend’s event).

Behind that, it gets a little more tricky. 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 Kenseth and 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-pack 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, Tenn. 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.

Tom Bowles is now on Twitter! Click HERE to become a follower.

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