NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips 400 Race Recap – Michigan International Speedway, June 19th, 2011

*The Key Moment* – The caution flag on Lap 192 for *Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s* “blowed out” right front tire brought the leaders to pit road, where *Denny Hamlin’s* No. 11 FedEx Ground team beat leader Carl Edwards out of the pits, as well as Edwards’ Roush Fenway teammate Matt Kenseth. Kenseth not taking off on the ensuing lap 196 restart didn’t help matters any for the No. 99 Aflac Ford driver – who had all but checked out leading up that.

*In A Nutshell* – Unless it’s raining, don’t expect a lot of cautions at Michigan International Speedway. The final yellow brought Junior Nation to its knees, and ultimately the Blue Oval in their own backyard.

*Dramatic Moment* – Friday morning, when all three Joe Gibbs Racing entries had their oil pans seized by NASCAR. The granite crankcase covers were the talk of the town all weekend, citing Toyota’s desperate attempt to find a way to match Ford’s FR9 firebrand on the big two-mile oval. It would prove to be irrelevant in the end, with Hamlin winning and teammate Kyle Busch finishing third.

*What They’ll Be Talking About Round the Water Cooler This Week* –

Has last year’s title bridesmaid and pre-season prognosticator pick Denny Hamlin and company finally come full circle? With the first win of the 2011 season at MIS, Hamlin and Crew Chief Mike Ford have served notice that they have picked up where things left off last season. A total turn-around has been realized from the team who a few months ago was rumored to be swapping pit boss Mike Ford with No. 20 Home Depot leader Greg Zipadelli.

As Hamlin told me on Friday, “You switch us and we’d run worse for a long time. So I feel like he’s the guy that can win me a championship – and multiple championships in the future – and I have that team with me right now. There’s no way it would even get past me. It would never happen.”

*Michigan International Speedway* is slated for a repaving following the August race later this summer. Pit road is the first to go, which will begin being unearthed by the time you are reading this. Yes, Michigan winters are cruel, unusual, and perform unspeakable acts of horror against asphalt, however this is one track that seems to be fine the way it is. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. on Friday, upon hearing the news, seemed taken aback by the prospect. “They oughta take all that extra asphalt and send it up to….Pocono!,” Earnhardt, Jr. said in response.

With all of the talk about aero tightness, difficulty in passing, and tires that lay down rubber and slime the track up, I am a little concerned how adding grip and an estimated 2mph faster lap times by track engineers will be of benefit. *Chicagoland* is bad enough – a second one-grove wide auto-Ambien is not what needs to be done to a track we go to twice a year, and one that drivers have universally praised.

As wide as MIS is, sometimes however drivers still find a way to run out of room. Such was the case with less than 30 laps remaining when Hendrick Motorsports Teammates *Mark Martin* and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. tangled on the exit of Turn 2, sending Dale Earnhardt, Jr. into the wall. The resulting damage led to a blown right front tire, and a terse reaction from Earnhardt, Jr. following the race.

On the TNT Broadcast, Junior said “I don’t like putting up with carelessness” and “that just really pissed me off what happened out there.”

As I made my way to Martin’s hauler, he was explaining that the car picked up a push off of the turn, and he made every effort to keep from washing up into his teammate.

“I had my front wheels cut and I let off the gas, and that’s all I could do at that point,” he said. “It was my mistake.”

Martin long respected as about the cleanest most fair driver in the series, reitterated it was in now way deliberate, intentional, or premeditated.

“I don’t have a history of having problems,” he said. “I think we’ll get it sorted out. I feel like I give everybody on the racetrack plenty of respect. I made a mistake.”

As he walked away from his car and stack of tires next to his trailer, Martin quickly darted over to the No. 88 hauler, crawling under the AMP Energy Chevrolet as it was barely four feet off the ground, being loaded into the top of the transporter to gain entry to clear up any misunderstandings with his teammate. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was leaning against a counter in the trailer as crew chief Steve Letarte looked on. Martin was explaining what happened in the indicent, and Junior was receptive; nodding and smiling while discussing the situation

The conversation lasted for little more than minute, with Martin exiting and leaving the track.

It was later reported on “SBNation.com”: http://www.sbnation.com/nascar/2011/6/19/2232160/dale-earnhardt-jr-mark-martin-nascar-michigan-speedway-results-hendrick-motorsports-2011 that Earnhardt, Jr., had accepted Martin’s apology.

“Absolutely, yeah,” he said. “Mark wouldn’t lie to me.”

“I was just pissed off at the end of the race – just mad,” he said. “Cause I want to finish where I’m supposed to finish, and that didn’t happen today, so I was real PO’d about it. But Mark came [and] gave me a good explanation. I believe it, and that’s the end of it.”

The on-track accident was just that – an accident. It was reminiscent to a similar incident at Daytona in July of 2009 when Martin collected former protege Matt Kenseth exiting Turn 2 when the car pushed and took off on him. A far cry from the Denny Hamlin/Kyle Busch dust up at the 2010 All-Star race with Kyle threatening to, “kill that mother******” after Hamlin squeezed him into the wall in the closing laps.

For all of the fear of a Ford weekend at MIS, it didn’t exactly come to pass. With all the talk of how Ford has the baddest piece in town, the Toyotas were not exactly hurting for power on Sunday either.

From my vantage point atop pit road, the Camrys were seamingly packing a little something extra this weekend. I routinely saw the No. 18, 4, 11, and even the 00 pull out and execute passes down the front straight that no other make/model/or driver was able to muster all day long. It wasn’t just drafting, side drafting or getting a run off of Turn 4. They were making some steam in a straight line.

Granted, Greg Biffle, and Carl Edwards combined to lead for a total of 115 laps, however as we have seen in many races this year, he who gets out front first, wins.

*The Hindenburg Award for Foul Fortune* –

Dale Earnhardt, Jr.? That would be an easy one. How about *David Ragan*? His car was damaged on pitstops on lap 29 by – wait for it – Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who seemed rather nonplussed about the crumpled fender of the UPS Ford. Many had picked David Ragan to break through this weekend and win his first Sprint Cup race, which may not prove to be needed for him to keep his seat in the No. 6 Roush Fenway Ford.

It could be worse – Michigan native *Brad Keselowski* had a rough go in front of the hometown faithful (well, an hour away…close enough), having multiple encounters with the walls of MIS, enroute to a 25th-place finish.

*Greg Biffle* and the No. 16 team once again found a way to take the fastest car in the field, lead the most laps, and still finish outside of the Top-10 with it. In baseball for relief pitchers, Blown Saves is a statistic field; if there was one for auto racing, Biffle and the No. 16 team would be the resident gas can of NASCAR. Which is cruelly coincidental, seeing as they also have had a propensity this year to not fully fill the fuel cell.

Another week, another mishap at the end of the race. *Jeff Burton* lost a gear on a restart on lap 164 – I actually heard it digest itself coming up to speed. Things got off ot a rough start on Friday as well in Happy Hour when Burton’s car slowed exiting Turn 4, and was tagged by David Ragan. Burton watched as his team scrambled to repair the lower quarter panels and rear facia with his hands on his hips, able only to shake his head in disbelief and seek refuge in his transporter.

*Kasey Kahne* had a Top-5 run in hand until his team calculated fuel a little too closely, and the car stalled on pit road. Starved of fuel, the team lost a lap in the process of trying to get it to refire. Whoever ends up in the No. 4 car next year has a stout piece to work with – that is a team and car that is capable of winning on any given weekend.

*The Seven Come Fore Eleven Award for Fine Fortune* –

The best run you probably never saw or will hear about – rookie *Landon Cassill’s* 12th-place effort in the No. 51 James Finch owned Chevrolet. Cassill finished where he started, running as high as tenth in the early going. Cassill’s previous best showings were a pair of 24th-place finishes this season at Auto Club Speedway and last weekend at Pocono.

*Carl Edwards* might feel like he had the ladder kicked off the side off the house as he was climbing onto the roof with the lead he had in the late going, but with Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s troubles today, coupled with Kevin Harvick brushing the wall with a handful of laps remaining, he extended his points lead to 20 over Harvick and 27 over Earnhardt, Jr. Granted, the points lead doesn’t mean a whole lot until the Chase starts, but it puts all others on notice as to who they will have to contend with for the title this fall.

Forget Halon Systems and kill switches; *Kyle Busch’s* No. 18 Snickers Toyota apparently needs a defibulator as well. Busch was complaining of chest pains and having shortness of breath during the race, and felt like he was running a marathon. Busch gutted it out, and drove through the field up to a third-place finish. His only lament was not being able to run those trick oil pans that were confiscated on Firday.

*So What’s My Points?*

With all the Wild Card talk that has sprung up anytime anybody wins a race, let’s take a look at the points to see who really has a chance at putting something together.

The gap from Carl Edwards to Kurt Busch in seventh is 41 points. I am of the opinion that the drivers in those poisitions in between are safe – *Kevin Harvick*, *Dale Earnhardt, Jr.*, *Kyle Busch*, *Jimmie Johnson*, and *Matt Kenseth*.

*Ryan Newman* in eighth trails by 76 points, with less than 40 points seperating him from *Mark Martin* in 14th. Things are wide open from seventh to 14th, with *Greg Biffle* and *Denny Hamlin* the most likely to make it based on pure performance potential. *Jeff Gordon* has two wins, but has been wildly inconsistent looking like the “Wonderboy” of the late 1990s one weekend, then mid-pack the next.

*Clint Bowyer* has shown flashes of brilliance but has also had some bum Burton-esque luck. *Tony Stewart* has been at best a seventh-place car, but usually follows that up a week later with a mid-pack result. *Mark Martin* has been snakebit with either good cars that, like a tornado to a trailer park, are sucked up into wrecks not of his doing, or pit strategy that seems him stuck in traffic at the end of an event and unable to advance.

This group of drivers from seventh to 14th is where the movement in the points is going to come from down the summer stretch – as it has been viritually every year we’ve had a Chase format, or whatever points systems is being ran up the flag pole at a given time. I still fail to see how the one-point-per-position system changes anything, other than appease those who can’t count by five.

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