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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2011 Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan

Who… gets my shoutout of the race?

It’s always the quiet ones. Sunday was no exception, as one of the quietest performances of the day was also one of the most impressive. Mark Martin hasn’t made a lot of noise to speak of in 2011, but he reminded the crowd at Michigan why he’s one of the best ever to grace that track with his fourth-place run on Sunday. Martin, now in the twilight of a stellar career, drove like a young man, getting all he could out of the No. 5 and gaining two points positions as well. He’s got an outside Chase chance if he can eke out a win by Richmond.

What… was THAT?

Sometimes you watch something unfold and the only thing you can think is, “Really?” It was kind of like that at the end of the Nationwide race on Saturday when Patrick Carpentier’s crew chief went up to Steve Wallace after the race, reached into the racecar, grabbed a chunk of Wallace’s hair, and pulled. Jerry Baxter was understandably upset with Wallace, who wrecked Carpentier in his last professional race (Carpentier announced that he would retire following the event) in rather typical fashion. However, the hair pulling was a little… um, strange, though it probably hurt. Actually, my next thought after the “Really?” was “Dude, you fight like a girl.”

Where… did the polesitter wind up?

2011 has been a disappointing season for Greg Biffle, but it looked like this week would signal a turnaround when Biffle grabbed the pole on Friday. The No. 16 looked strong in the early going, but by the end, faded to 20th. That’s a bitter pill to swallow for the Roush Fenway team, whose sponsorship is up in the air after 2011. Really, it was a disappointing day for Ford teams in general, with just Matt Kenseth able to score a top-10 finish at the end. This after the manufacturer and their new FR9 powerplants looked to dominate the intermediate tracks earlier this year.

When… will I be loved?

There was no villain in Michigan. Heck, there was barely a driver who looked sideways at someone. But there was a dirty little race stopper in attendance. Questionable might be the nice way to describe the debris that brought out most of Sunday’s caution flags. Reports from MIS were that nothing was even picked up off the track under those cautions, which leaves only one alternative: NASCAR was using them to manipulate the race. That’s not cool; if there is a caution-free race and a huge margin of victory because there are no legitimate cautions, so be it. The race will work itself out. The late yellow-flag periods on Sunday for Dave Blaney’s powerless car and Kurt Busch’s hard smack of the wall were legit, and really, that would have been enough. Note to NASCAR: if it’s close to a pit cycle and even the drivers are saying there’s no debris, there’s no debris. Just go with that.

Why… isn’t there a road course in the Chase, anyway?

No matter why there isn’t it doesn’t change one thing: there darn well should be! One problem with the Chase determining the champion is that it doesn’t have a road course, and road racing isn’t a skill that some contenders have as good a handle on as oval racing. I’ve hear some minor rumbles of replacing Talladega in the Chase with a road course, and I’ll admit I’m torn on the prospect. Talladega is too much a crapshoot for a championship to be decided there, where it really is generally better to be lucky than good, but restrictor-plate racing is also a skill that should be tested in the championship battle. If it were up to me, I would replace one of the 1.5-mile tracks with a road course (Watkins Glen is stunning in the fall) and put the plate race first in the Chase. And I’d move that one to Daytona, which, of the two plate tracks, demands more skill from the driver and team because handling is a bigger factor than at Talladega.

How… is the Chase field shaking down with three races to go?

The picture is becoming clearer this week. While only Kyle Busch has officially clinched a spot, it’s pretty safe to say that the top eight will be in the show. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is in good shape in ninth; 11th-place Clint Bowyer is 30 back and would need to beat Earnhardt by an average of 10 positions a race. Tony Stewart is the driver on the edge, and if he can maintain his 24-point advantage over Bowyer at Bristol, he’ll be in good shape. Bowyer, meanwhile, needs to win, and could be distracted by ongoing contract talks.

Brad Keselowski is on a tear, and with his two wins and 12th-place standing, should be fine. Denny Hamlin is still hanging on to a spot after Michigan, but not by a tight enough grasp that Paul Menard couldn’t take it from him if he’s not careful. Hamlin has the advantage, though, in the form of a certain ¾-mile D-shaped speedway in his hometown of Richmond, where he has been dominant in recent races. Though he’s never gone there with this kind of pressure on his shoulders.

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