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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin’s Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2011 Michigan Spring Race Recap

The Key MomentDenny Hamlin emerged first from the pits on the final caution and held off a determined Matt Kenseth for the final five laps.

In a Nutshell – It was a long wait for a brief payoff there at the end.

Dramatic Moment – Those final five laps the drivers finally seemed to disengage cruise control and get up on the wheel.

What They’ll Be Talking About Around the Water Cooler This Week

First off, thanks to Dale Earnhardt Jr. for sparing us yet another fuel mileage finish.

What’s all the fuss about Ford having an unfair advantage this year? The last four races have been won by two Chevys, a Toyota and a Dodge. Yes, the Ford teams are more competitive this year after a few years of having their noses rubbed in it. Does that mean they have an advantage or the playing field is somewhat more level?

Don’t you hate it when the race leader allows his teammate by for a lap to earn a bonus point?

Yeah, Kenseth has some right to feel annoyed with his pit crew after some problems today, but they have a right to be feel disappointed with his buzzing the tires on the final restart with victory within their grasp. You win as a team, you lose as a team. (Someone forward this memo to Kurt Busch.)

It appears that Joe Gibbs Racing is interested in retaining Carl Edwards‘ services if he doesn’t re-sign with Roush Racing. I can see why J.D. Gibbs is interested; it would be nice to have a driver the team doesn’t have to make excuses for, send to a sports psychologist after a loss or flat out apologize for.

30-pound oil pans on the JGR cars? I don’t see a rule against that in the nebulous book someone sent me during the offseason. The trick to racing cars on ovals (and in general) has always been to get the weight down low on the car and use the weight savings to reduce heft higher on the car to lower the center of gravity.

How is a six-point penalty on Kyle Busch and the No. 18 car fair? (The M&M’s Toyota was found to be too low under the measuring sticks after last Sunday’s race.) That’s a reduction of six finishing positions. Last year, Clint Bowyer and the No. 33 team got hit by a 150-point penalty and the loss of their crew chief for four weeks just as the Chase started for a similar infraction. Yes, the points system was different last year, but the loss of 150 points dropped him not six finishing spots but down around to 40-something.

Obviously, Darrell Waltrip needs new eyeglasses. During Tuesday’s announcement of the five new inductees into the Hall of Fame, he accidentally kissed Brian France on the cheek rather than the ass as he’s been doing since he became a broadcaster. Of course, given the usual proximity of France’s head and his ass it was perhaps an easy mistake to make.

I was truly thrilled to see Richie Evans, nine-time NASCAR modified champion, make the cut to enter the Hall of Fame. I was blessed to see Evans race many times as a youngster growing up in the Northeast and there was never anyone finer at the wheel.

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

Jimmie Johnson spun (a rare unforced error) and fell two laps off the pace as the team repaired a sway bar mount. He never really recovered and finished 27th, handing back a big chunk of that points lead Edwards handed him last week.

Junior ran in the top 10 for the first half of the race but then began to fade. The final insult was having his teammate pinch him up into the wall en route to 21st.

Kasey Kahne not only ran out of gas, he had his starter lockup trying to refire the car. He slumped to 28th.

Regan Smith fought all day to get up to the top 10. only to cut down a tire with two and a half laps to go. That left him 33rd.

Greg Biffle dominated sections of the race, but had just pitted when a caution flag flew. While he was able to get his lap back, in dirty air the No. 16 car lost its magic, a common occurrence for the Roush Fords as Biffle could only battle back to 15th.

Cale Gale was running away with Friday’s ARCA race until he blew a right front tire and stuffed his car into the concrete. Between hitting the wall or running out of gas while dominating a race, there seems to be a lot of that going around lately.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

Edwards missed the weekend sweep but his finish could have been much worse. The No. 99 car had a tire going down just as a timely caution flag saved the day.

Landon Cassill enjoyed the best run of his fledgling Cup career, finishing 12th.

After a hot start to the season, Paul Menard faded from the spotlight. But a fourth-place finish at Michigan seems to indicate the team has the laces on their work boots pulled up tight again.

Kyle Busch finished third despite complaining of chest pain and shortness of breath early in the event, so much so the team had Scott Riggs on standby as a relief driver. That’s rather alarming in a man Busch’s age.

While his 16th-place finish won’t grab the headlines, it was nice to see Trevor Bayne back in a Cup car after an extended and mysterious leave of absence due to illness.

Worth Noting

  • For Hamlin, it was his first win since Texas last fall.
  • Kenseth (second) enjoyed his first top-five finish since winning at Dover.
  • Kyle Busch finished third for the second consecutive week and for the fourth time this season.
  • Menard’s fourth-place finish was his best of 2011.
  • Edwards (fifth) managed his 11th top-10 finish in this season’s 15 Cup races run to date.
  • Kurt Busch earned his third straight pole at Michigan, equaling the number he had during the 2007-10 seasons combined. The last time a driver scored three straight poles was Ryan Newman at Charlotte, Dover and Pocono in the spring of 2007.
  • Speaking of Newman, his sixth-place finish was his best since Darlington.
  • Mark Martin’s ninth-place finish was his best since Dover. It’s odd that Earnhardt didn’t rush over to congratulate him, huh?
  • Prior to Sunday’s 12th-place result, Cassill’s best Cup finish was 24th (twice).
  • The top-10 finishers at Michigan drove five Chevys, three Toyotas and a pair of Fords. Kurt Busch in 11th was the top finishing Dodge pilot.

What’s the Points?

Edwards remains atop the points standings by 20 over Kevin Harvick, who moved up two spots despite a pedestrian 14th-place finish. Dale Jr. holds on to third.

Meanwhile, Johnson tumbled three spots to fifth in the standings while Kyle Busch advanced a spot to fourth. Technically, he is tied with Johnson, 29 points out of the lead but Busch gets the nod with two wins to Johnson’s one.

Kenseth and Kurt Busch are now tied for sixth in points, while Newman moved up two spots to eighth. Hamlin’s win springboards him ahead three spots to ninth, now with a win as backup in case he falls outside the top 10.

Bowyer and Tony Stewart each fell two spots in the standings. They are now 10th and 11th, respectively. Jeff Gordon’s two wins now loom even larger, as he falls a spot to 12th in the standings, but a pair of wins probably makes him a lock for the Chase.

Biffle moves up a spot to 13th in points, 13 points behind Gordon. Martin and Juan Pablo Montoya round out the top 15.

One minor note: I’m a little curious as to why NASCAR stats have Bayne listed as 46th in the championship race. Bayne signed up to compete for points in the Nationwide Series, making him ineligible to earn Cup points the rest of the year.

Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans with one being a stinker and a six pack an instant classic) — Give it two cans with one earned in the final five laps for those who hadn’t drifted off for a summer’s afternoon nap by then.

Next Up – The series heads west to Sonoma for the road course race. Enjoy it ya’ll. I’m taking the week off. Racing stock cars on a road course is like racing garbage trucks in a gymkhana.