NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2010 Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips 400 at Michigan

Who… gets my shoutout of the race?

While Denny Hamlin may have ultimately won the Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips 400 at Michigan International Speedway on Sunday, the first half of the race was dominated by the one-man Dodge band of Kurt Busch and his No. 2 Miller Lite Charger. The Blue Deuce has been in the thick of things the last few weeks, having won the All-Star Race and Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, as well as finishing third at Darlington and rallying back to a sixth at Pocono after early troubles. With his Penske Dodge on the pole at Michigan International Speedway and on the verge of setting the pace on a weekly basis as Hamlin has the last couple of months, I asked Busch if being the lone Dodge team representing the Mopar Mothership was an obstacle to adding the missing piece to their program.

“Yeah it’s hard to know that answer. I feel that the relationship with Dodge that we have at Penske Racing is a genuine family oriented relationship, where we’re definitely in this together. All their eggs are in one basket with us at Penske Racing. I feel like sometimes, yeah, I am out on an island on my own, but in the end, we were very close to winning the race today; a banner race such as this at Michigan in Dodge’s backyard, we might be answering a few different other questions. But right now we’re in the mix, and if I could get my teammates up to speed and have a little bit more of pattern going through the whole program, then yeah, it would feel like a power team, and we wouldn’t need other Dodge teams out there. But yeah, we’re close – we’re very close – and I’m proud to carry the banner right now.”

What… was that powering Fords so fast in a straight line?

You can almost hear the groans of Chevrolet fans everywhere once somebody decides to start belting out a Ford-flavored Parody of The Beach Boys’s song 409 with, “She’s Real Fine My FR9…” During his post-race press conference, second-place finisher Kasey Kahne noted that with the previous iteration of Ford’s race engine ran last weekend he was unable to suck up in the draft on Pocono’s mammoth straightaways, but was clearly able to close the gap at Michigan, even late in the going while trying to reel in Hamlin. I asked Kasey what kind of improvement number-wise in the horsepower department was being realized with the new FR9 power plant. While he could not peg a specific number, he did speak to the difference he was experiencing this weekend.

“I don’t know numbers. I didn’t ask and they didn’t tell me. If you can feel it as a driver when you are talking 800-some horsepower on a 2-mile racetrack when you touch it and feel it all the way down the straightaways and through the top end as well, it has got to be a decent number. It could handle heat and it’s supposedly lower weight, which is good for these cars which are so big and top heavy. I think Ford has made a really nice improvement and I was happy to be the best Ford today. Hopefully we can keep after it and be solid the rest of the year.”

As for the rest of the Ford contingent, only one other Blue Oval managed to register a top-10 finish at a track they practically owned in years past. Greg Biffle‘s ninth-place run bookended the pair of top-10 runs by the two Ford drivers, with AJ Allmendinger coming home 11th and Carl Edwards in 12th. The final tally was a bit skewed by the final caution, with Edwards having surrendered what was a sixth-place run in the closing laps. All of the Ford drivers were united in their universal praise of the new engine’s notable power increase, which in Allmendinger’s case, exacerbated the power-on loose condition he was experiencing in his No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford.

Where… does Denny Hamlin need to step it up?

With five wins already before the halfway point of the 2010 Sprint Cup Season, Hamlin’s mantra of “All We Do Is Win” is proving to be more fact than clever t-shirt fodder hype. There does not appear to to be a weak link in the No. 11’s chain or a chink in their armor. It hasn’t been one particularly facet of their sudden emergence as the premier team in NASCAR’s top series, but a balanced contribution driver maturity, car preperation throughout the weekend, coupled with team chemistry and cohesion. That does not mean there aren’t areas that have already been identified for improvement.

Where we need to improve is those Chase racetracks. We feel like we’ve made great strides at Dover. We kinda used that as a test session from a non-competitive two-laps down race [fall 2009] to finishing in the top five [spring 2010], getting ready for the Chase race there. We’re making strides at all of our worst tracks.”

While Hamlin’s first ever win at the Cup Series level was at the Bud Shootout at Daytona in 2006, he still identifies the restrictor-plate races as an opportunity for him to make a contribution.

“I feel like I’ve gotten better at superspeedway races, but I don’t feel like I’m the best at it and I could be a little bit better. I think a few more [days] studying tapes and things like could make me better. It’s not just the team, it’ s me going home and studying tape.”

When pressed on how could their team raise they bar any higher than they already have, he wasted no time in confirming what will be the tell-tale sign that they are prepared to contend for the championship.

“We win at Dover and we’ll know we’re pretty damn strong.”

When… the going gets tough, the tough get winning?

It is often said that winners are judged by how they react to adversity. If there is one thing that is consistently proved and reinforced by Joey Logano, it is that he is a winner. Last year following his tumble down the white banks of Dover, he responded by winning in a late-race duel with teammate Kyle Busch a week later in the Nationwide race in Kansas. A week after uttering the now-famous firesuit jab at Kevin Harvick following a retaliatory spin out at Pocono, Logano was in a position of having to follow up his barbs with performance on the track. Harvick attempted to set the record straight on Friday, detailing the series of events that led up to his last-lap tap of Logano, which stretched way beyond the dump and run at Bristol in March, and much of the issue that the Richard Childress Racing driver seems to have with Logano is centered mainly around his father – though you aren’t supposed to involve family or make things personal.

With his father Tom Logano sidelined from attending events this weekend, Logano was in clear control of the Meijer 300 Presented by Ritz Nationwide race at Kentucky Speedway Saturday Night, leading 106 laps en route to his first victory of the season over Edwards and points leader Brad Keselowski. Logano refused to back down from his comments made last week, and capped off the weekend with a solid 10th-place finish Sunday at MIS in only his third start at the track. Go ahead and stamp, “Man’s Game” on that one.

Harvick finished 19th on Sunday, and was never much a factor the entire afternoon.

Where… was the debris for the final caution?

Debris Or Not Debris? That is The Question. While “Have At It Boys” and wrapping up races well before 6:00 p.m. ET has been the order of the day this year in NASCAR, it appears that there may be another throwback looming largely over the series – the Phantom Caution. With 16 laps remaining in Sunday’s Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips 400, a caution flag flew for debris on the backstretch. While the debris was never shown on TV, the dubious and duplicitous nature of the late-race caution elicited a few different reactions from certain drivers.

Kahne said he saw it on the backstretch and was quite large – while both Edwards and Hamlin dismissed the final yellow as an excuse to bunch up the field and try to make a show of what had admittedly become a traditional Michigan affair – a strung out field with little competition to speak of. Would Felix Sebates and his malicious preseason Michigan slander be proven correct after all?

How… is MIS being singled out as a problem racetrack?

Stand up and be counted, as the announced attendance figures for Sunday’s race at MIS were pegged at 95,000. Judging by the crowd noise and the stands that were filled to two-thirds to three-quarters capacity in turns 3 and 4, that number is either a tad conservative, or there were a lot of people who bought tickets and never showed up last year and in 2008. Some of this may be attributed to the wider seating arrangements offered by the track – after all, this is Michigan, and our six months of winter are an open invitation to go hog wild at the snack bin. I remember coming here back in 2005 and being wedged in like sardines in turn 1. The man to my left was approximately 6’5, 350 and had what appeared to be shag carpeting growing on his back and arms. On a 90-degree humid day, that did not exactly make for an enjoyable track experience – not that it would have on a warm and overcast day such as this past Sunday.

The fact that MIS is able to still draw nearly 100,000 fans twice a year for the Sprint Cup Series – not including those coming to watch the Truck Series, ARCA and Nationwide events, while sporting the worst economy in the country (Metro Detroit is estimated to have unemployment rate well in excess of 25%), is a testament to the track and the fans that continue to support it. When the Super Bowl was played at Detroit’s Ford Field, it generated over $300 million of revenue for the local economy. The two NASCAR race weekends hosted in the tiny burg of Brooklyn – in excess of $400 million.

That and it’s kind of near Detroit which, regardless of the funding that has been cut back recently, still supplies a great deal of monetary, technological and marketing support. Yeah, it might get a little strung out sometimes, but at least it’s closer to Charlotte than Fontana.

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