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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin’s Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2012 Michigan Spring Race Recap

The Key Moment – On lap 108, Tony Stewart waved Dale Earnhardt Jr. by him and allowed the No. 88 to take the lead. Earnhardt would not surrender that lead except for pit stops for the rest of the afternoon.

In a Nutshell – Junior wins again and all is sweetness and light around the globe. In fact I predict tomorrow we’ll see Romney and Obama sharing a single root beer float with two straws at the local Rexall and deciding the election by thumb wrestling. I predict the Iranians will give up their nuclear ambitions, North Korea will schedule democratic elections, the stock market will rise 5,000 points and the Carpenters “Close To You” will soar back to the top of the Billboard charts. (For you non-88 fans, pssst, I agree, the end of the race was about as boring as it gets.)

Dramatic Moment – For those final 15 minutes the NASCAR nation was holding their collective breaths just waiting for the No. 88 to lose an engine, run out of gas or cut down a tire.

It’s always a little nerve-wracking when Juan Pablo Montoya and the jet dryers are on the track at the same time. (So what happened to the safety cars that were supposed to follow the drying trucks on the track after the disaster at Daytona?)

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

If someone besides Earnhardt was leading when Regan Smith blew a tire late in the race spreading chunks of rubber all over the track, you think maybe NASCAR would thrown a caution flag to make it a more exciting finish?

So if Earnhardt wins every 143 races when is he due to grab another trophy? If the NASCAR Cup schedule remains consistent it would be at Pocono in August of 2016. Good seats still available. Get yours now.

Wow, I thought this weekend’s 24-hour race was supposed to be in France not Michigan.

We had all the makings of the perfect storm; a newly repaved track featuring insanely high speeds, a mid-weekend decision to change the left side tires, questions about engine durability after the additional laps the cars ran in an emergency practice session, heavy rains the day of the race that removed what limited rubber had been transferred to the track, and the resultant two hour rain delay. But a weekend of unknowns left anybody but 88 fans with their minds un-blown.

My normal Friday night reverie was rudely interrupted by an announcement after two practice sessions that afternoon Goodyear was rushing replacement left side tires to Michigan. (Fortunately they had overstock of a tire that was developed after Charlotte was last repaved in 2006.) Apparently the Goodyear folks were concerned about blistering on some driver’s tires after that final practice session and by the results of the ARCA race which was largely determined by blistered tires. (Hoosiers, not Goodyears.) I agree with NASCAR… safety first. In fact safety, first, second and third. But the late night call sure did make a mess of the weekend with many drivers having spent the entire second practice session just scuffing in sets of the original tires to make ready for Sunday.

Saturday many car guys (and gals) must have approached sensory overload. Let’s see, you had the 24 Hours of LeMans (I’ve never understood why they’d name such a famous race after a mid-size Pontiac), IndyCar from Milwaukee, Cup qualifying at Michigan, a Nationwide Series race, the emergency evening Cup practice session, and the Mecum auction of the Salmon brothers’ extensive car collection (on-line.)

In my mind, the 24 Hours of LeMans was the most interesting race of the weekend. There were hybrid cars, diesel-powered entries and Nissan’s apparent tribute to the Batmobile, the Deltawing. Stricter rules have limited the creativity that used to make auto racing so interesting. (Particularly at Indy where they’ve run turbine powered cars, diesels and even some six-wheeled race cars.) Hmmm. How about we switch the truck series entries over to diesel power?

Latest sponsor to hastily withdraw their investigation into sponsoring the No. 51 team… the Australian Vegemite Producers Association.

I’m not sure what that graphic on the hood of the No. 88 car was supposed to be, but it looked like an errant flock of condors had pelted it with bird droppings.

There’s no truth to the rumor Brian France is considering moving all 36 race dates to Michigan next year to boost the sport’s popularity.

GoDaddy.com announced this week they’re no longer going to use commercials which amount to softcore porn. They want to take their marketing efforts up a few notches in maturity. That’s just grand. PeeWee Herman had been out of work a long time.

The Hindenburg Award For Foul Fortune

Ours is a cruel sport. Joey Logano won last week and Pocono and then won again in Saturday’s NW race, his fourth victory in the last five races in that series. But Sunday the driver of the No. 20 car got himself crossed up and wrecked en route to a 35th-place finish. Sometimes you eat the bear and sometimes the bear eats you.

Denny Hamlin seemed to be struggling on Sunday, but his travails didn’t last long. A wreck and a fiery trip down pit road got him to the airport well ahead of most other drivers.

Kyle Busch bought a big piece of the wall early in the race but in the end it didn’t matter. For the third straight week the No. 18 suffered mechanical maladies under the hood. All in all it was a pretty ugly weekend for Joe Gibbs Racing.

Trevor Bayne makes only limited appearances in the Cup series and his on-track time was even more limited on Sunday with his engine expiring before the flag man could get the green flag back in its holster.

Kurt Busch managed to bring out two of the day’s eight cautions with unaided single car spins. But other than that how was your return to competition Mrs. Lincoln? (Busch is also said to have once again crossed swords with the media after the NW race Saturday. That’s not even really worth commenting on. After a wash a sow returns to the mud, as a dog returns to his vomit.)

After a horrid start to his season it seemed that Kasey Kahne had the wheels re-bolted to his little red wagon. A strong string of top 10s ended last week at Pocono and continued at Michigan Sunday with a wreck and resultant 33rd place finish.

Apparently the boneheaded little kid on his bicycle was uninjured despite several hard run-ins with the fence. Was that lad bottle-fed leaded paint as an infant? Heck, he wrecked more times than Kurt Busch.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award For Fine Fortune

Earnhardt’s day was not without its complications. The No. 88 car was pig poor at the start of the race and he fell back as far as 37th. I’m hearing rumors he finished somewhat better than that.

Stewart was also very unhappy with his car and the tire swap prior to the race but was able to communicate well enough what his Chevy needed to the team to drive on to a second-place finish, albeit a distant one.

An engine swap prior to the race forced Jimmie Johnson to start at the back of the field. Good pit strategy and some hard driving got him up to the top 10 and a reasonable top-five finish despite running out of gas coming out of the last corner on a badly blistered set of tires.

Track promoters for the next few races will probably find a pair of 8s in victory lane means a full house in the stands.

TNT only gets six races a season. What were the odds that Earnhardt’s breakthrough return to victory lane would be at one of them?

Worth Noting

  • As widely noted it was Junior’s first victory in 143 races. He’s finished second seven times in that long stretch back to his last win which was also scored at Michigan on Father’s Day back in 2008. He’d almost made it 144 races without a win. 12 is the square root of 144. Why is that germane? It’s not. I’ve just always loved square roots. None of my plants have them.
  • Stewart’s second-place finish was his best since his win at Fontana, though he has finished third three times in that stretch of races.
  • Three drivers; Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle and Johnson have eight top-five finishes in this season’s 15 points races. Earnhardt has the most top 10 results in those races with 12, as many top 10s as he managed all of last year. Johnson and Kenseth each have 11 top 10s.
  • Kenseth now has nine straight finishes of 11th or better.
  • Jeff Gordon’s sixth-place finish was his best since Texas.
  • Clint Bowyer has now strung together three straight top-10 finishes for the first time this season.
  • Montoya’s eighth-place finish matches his best of the season. (JPM was also eighth at Bristol.) Those are his only two top 10 results this season.
  • Marcos Ambrose’s ninth-place finish also matched his best result of 2012. (He also finished ninth at Darlington.) That ought to be good for a lifetime supply of vegemite… which in my case would be a half gram’s worth.
  • It’s been three races since Edwards has enjoyed a top-10 result. Brad Keselowski is enduring the same length of drought.
  • Jamie McMurray is still looking for his first top-five finish this season. J. Mac’s To Do List for the Week A) Update resume. B) Stop sucking.
  • It’s now been nine races since Ryan Newman managed a top-10 finish. I think it’s time he goes to his team owner and complains that his teammate is getting better equipment than him.
  • Kahne’s 33rd-place finish was his worst since Martinsville.
  • Hamlin’s 34th-place effort was his worst of the season. This marks the first time he’s failed to finish a race since Watkins Glen last August.
  • Logano’s 35th-place finish was also his worst of the season.
  • The top 10 finishers at Michigan drove six Chevys, three Fords, and a Toyota. The top finishing Dodge pilot was Keselowski in 13th.

What’s the Points?

Kenseth maintains his points lead but the gap is narrowing. Earnhardt is only four points behind him.

Biffle holds steady in third, 17 points behind Kenseth.

Johnson and Hamlin swap fourth and fifth spots, with Johnson now holding the upper hand.

The rest of the top 10; Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Stewart, Bowyer, and Keselowski, hold serve.

While Edwards is listed 11th in the standings, if the Chase were to start next week he’d be bumped by wild-card contenders Kyle Busch (12th in the standings) and Newman (13th in the standings.)

Gordon moves up two spots to 20th in the standings. That’s important, because in order to be eligible for a wild car slot a driver must be in the top 20 in the standings. Simply put Gordon and Edwards need to start winning races and preferably bunches of them.

Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans with one being a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic)

For the Junior Nation: A 30-pack of icy cold Bud, served up by a somewhat less scary looking version of Taylor Swift.

For the Rest of NASCAR fans: We’ll give this one four cans of Colorado Kool-Aid. At least they got the race in on the scheduled day, tire issues didn’t ruin the race like the ‘08 Brickyard, and nobody got hurt all weekend despite the scary fast speeds.

Next Up – The series heads west for a date on the road course at Sonoma. (And I’m one of the few writers who doesn’t have to struggle with calling the joint “Infineon” because I never did.) Me, I’m heading for the local car show in either the Trans Am or the Nova. Watching stock cars trying to race on a road course is like watching reptiles trying to sing opera.

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