Looking for the Who, What, Where, When, Why and How behind Sunday’s race? Amy Henderson has you covered each week with the answers to six race-day questions, covering all five Ws and even the H… the Big Six.
Who… gets my shoutout of the race?
For some drivers, a sixth-place run would mean that their team had just missed having a car that could contend for the win. But for Jeff Gordon and Company, a top-10 finish without strife was a victory in itself. Gordon has had just four top-10 finishes in 15 races this year, and sits 20th in points after Michigan in what is easily the worst season of his 20-year Cup career. Gordon is the only member of the Hendrick Motorsports stable without a win this year.
Gordon has had winless seasons three times before; but even as a rookie, he finished the year 14th in points. What has to be most frustrating for Gordon, though, is how this season has gone wrong, through nothing so much as terrible luck. Gordon could easily have had at least three wins this year; he had one of the best cars at Dover two weeks ago before a cut tire relegated him to yet another mid-pack finish. Gordon was strong again this week, and was finally able to seal the deal without a stroke of bad luck knocking him down.
What… was THAT?
After qualifying speeds broke the 200 mph barrier for the first time in a quarter-century after getting faster and faster in Thursday and Friday’s practice sessions, NASCAR was left wondering how to slow the cars down to a speed at which the SAFER barriers and other safety devices are a proven commodity. The sanctioning body wanted to avoid restrictor plates at all costs; the plates aren’t meant for use on a flat oval and make passing nearly impossible (the last time plates were used on a track of less than 2.5 miles, Jeff Burton led every lap in what would become an exercise in frustration at New Hampshire). Tires were also a question mark early in the weekend, as several teams had issues with them blistering.
NASCAR spoke with tire manufacturer Goodyear, and the tire company shipped a truckload of new left-side tires from its North Carolina headquarters. Teams were given an additional practice session to work on the cars with the new tires and, although it did the trick in reducing both speeds and blistering issues, it also did a number on the race teams’ setup notes. This particular tire had been in storage since 2006; although the teams did have notes on it from when it was used, there was one more problem: it had never been used on the current Cup car. Still, they figured it out and the race was run safely. NASCAR sometimes gets a bad rap, and sometimes it’s deserved; but this time, the sanctioning body made the right call in slowing the cars down without taking away teams’ ability to race.
Where… did the polesitter wind up?
Although he is pretty much a lock for a top-10 run next week at Sonoma, Marcos Ambrose might not have been on a lot of fantasy teams this weekend. But Ambrose was able to continue the momentum for Richard Petty Motorsports, which also had the pole three weeks ago in Charlotte with Aric Almirola. Ambrose led laps early and showed that he’s not just a road-course specialist, running in the top ten all day and bringing the no. 9 home in ninth.
Although nobody would call RPM one of NASCAR’s elite teams, Ambrose and Almirola have been quietly solid this year. Each has a pole; between them, there are five top-10 finishes to brag about. Ambrose is looking like a threat to win on an oval for the first time in his NASCAR career. Should he sweep the road courses, he’ll be in posision to make the Chase as a wild card. Ambrose is ahead of Gordon, Burton and AJ Allmendinger in points; all three of those drivers have teammates solidly in the top 10 in points. Although RPM isn’t at that top-10 level, the team is also a far cry from the one that nearly shut down a year and a half ago.
When… will I be loved?
There was no driver really feeling the heat for doing something he shouldn’t have, but that doesn’t mean that there was no villain at Michigan on Sunday. Some might call it a gremlin, some might call it bad luck, some might even call it karma, but whatever bit Joe Gibbs Racing on Sunday chomped down hard. First, Kyle Busch suffered his third straight week of engine woes with a problem that cost him 43 laps and left him to scrounge a 34th-place finish. Joey Logano went from hero at Pocono to zero at Michigan in traffic, when the No. 20 got loose and slammed the wall, collecting David Gilliland and Kasey Kahne. Just seven laps later, Ryan Newman tried to take it four-wide underneath Denny Hamlin. Hamlin got loose and spun into the grass, igniting fluid under the hood of the No. 11.
Whatever you want to call it, it’s a safe bet the JGR crowd is calling it something worse. All three JGR drivers are in Chase contention: Hamlin is sitting solidly in fifth with a pair of wins, and Busch and Logano have a win a piece in the running for wild card spots (and Busch could climb back into the top 10 by Richmond). However, the team doesn’t look like a championship contender at this point. There’s plenty of time to change that, but they need to get that gremlin to move on in a hurry.
Why… does Chad Knaus need to hit the office supply store on Monday?
Knaus may be known for his meticulous attention to detail on race weekend, but he may want to consider getting a new calculator after Jimmie Johnson ran out of fuel for the fourth time in a Michigan race. This time, it wasn’t terribly costly, since Johnson ran out in the final turn and was still able to finish fifth. But in 2011, Johnson was a lap short in the spring race and wound up 27th. In 2007, he came up dry a whopping seven laps short, and the tank also ran dry during a 2010 contest. MIS has never been particularly kind to Johnson anyway. In 21 races, Johnson has just four top fives, a career-worst for Johnson at tracks where he’s raced at 11 times or more — and it’s one of five tracks where he hasn’t won. Every driver has one track that is his Achilles’ heel, and MIS is Johnson’s. Still, the number of miscalculations is something that needs to be looked at; it’s not a mistake a championship-caliber team can afford to make time after time.
How… does winning Michigan boost Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s championship chances?
There’s no longer a question of whether a driver who is winless in the regular season can win a championship; Tony Stewart answered that one last year. On Sunday, Earnhardt finally answered a question of his own, dominating much of the day and leading five times and 95 of the 200 laps at Michigan before taking his Batman-themed No. 88 to victory lane for the first time in four years and 143 races. Earnhardt left no questions after cruising to a 5.393-second victory over the defending Cup champ.
But for Earnhardt, this win looks vastly different from the last one. Instead of having one good week, Earnhardt is putting together the kind of season that champions have. After an abysmal 2010, Earnhardt and crew chief Steve Letarte had a monumental task ahead of them. They have done it exactly right, one step at a time. In order to build consistency, the team first had to find small successes. They did that in 2011. But in order to be winners, they had to find consistency at the front of the field. And in 2012, that’s exactly what they have done, turning that consistency into a series-leading 12 top-10 finishes. And as happens when a team finds that kind of consistency, the first win came this weekend. It will be a surprise if it’s the last. The win gives Earnhardt valuable points when the field is reset for the Chase; as of today, he’d enter the Chase sixth in points instead of seventh, and there’s plenty of time for more.
Not only has Earnhardt been performing well, but so has teammate Johnson, and the two teams share information extensively. Earnhardt is no slouch behind the wheel when his head is in the game; mediocre drivers don’t amass 19 wins in a career. Earnhardt has the same number of Cup wins as Carl Edwards and Hamlin, both of whom have been recent title contenders. It’s still early to be choosing Chase favorites, but Earnhardt and Johnson are certainly looking like they could make it a Hendrick 1-2 year… and this year, who’s number one is far from a foregone conclusion.
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