NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2012 Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan

Editor’s Note: For the rest of the season, a rotating cast of characters will be sharing responsibility for Matt McLaughlin’s Thinkin’ Out Loud column, including today’s columnist, Mike Neff.

Key MomentJimmie Johnson had the dominant car once Mark Martin was speared by the pit wall opening in a scary, mid-race crash. But as J.J. was strolling to what would have been his series-leading fourth victory, a valve spring failed with less than 15 miles left to run. That handed Greg Biffle Christmas in August, gift-wrapping him a second victory after a green-white-checkered finish and a pesky push from Michigan native Brad Keselowski.

In a Nutshell – The race doesn’t always go to the swift, but be warned; each race appears destined to be Johnson’s these days when the No. 48 team doesn’t beat themselves. Oh, and cookie cutters don’t always need to be repaved. Michigan makes the old Charlotte levigation experiment look like an award-winning national construction project by comparison.

Dramatic Moment — Johnson’s engine failure itself, considering how Biffle was closing in and trying to make a race of it at the time was the big surprise. But a nice subplot was Biffle making the pass on Keselowski shortly before Johnson’s motor went south. With Biffle having the lane choice on the final restart, he was able to gain the point when the green flag flew on the green-white-checkered and keep the No. 2 car from mounting a stiffer challenge.

As for the rest of the racing? The good: there was more side-by-side passing at Michigan than in June. The bad: it was like going from shooting a 90 to an 85 at the Masters. Nice for your scorecard, but no one’s showing up at the gallery on 18…

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

Johnson pulled his best Kyle Busch impression after he dropped out of the race. We’ve all seen what happens in the cases of Busch “gone bad;” he’s driving a dominant car, headed for the win only for some unlucky break out of his control to butt in and cost him the race. Networks, talking heads and recorder-toting Tweeters chase Busch to his hauler, aching to get a provocative comment for their stories. Then, when Busch comes back with “I have nothing positive to say,” he is raked over the coals for being a spoiled brat. So how was Johnson’s response on Sunday any different? When the No. 48 engine failed he went straight to his motor home, changed, emerged from his palatial rolling apartment, waved at the assembled masses aching for a comment, jumped in a presumed Chevrolet SUV and headed down the road. It will be interesting to see how Johnson’s response is dissected over the coming week.

Editor’s Note: Johnson did post a Tweet after the race expressing his disappointment over the parts failure. But still…

For no one being able to pass, those Hendrick cars have sure been whipping by traffic lately like they’ve been stopped. Both Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Johnson charged from their starting spots at the rear, making mincemeat of their competitors and appeared to have an edge few could claim during the race’s second half. Keselowski was the latest to fuel the fire over HMS’ string of successes, although he didn’t explicitly state the organization when asked what’s causing “the edge” for particular cars in the field. “There’s parts and pieces on the car that are moving after inspection that make the car more competitive,” he said. “Some guys have it, some don’t. There’s a question to the interpretation of the rule. Penske Racing errs on the safe side because we don’t want to be the guys that get the big penalty. Obviously there’s a question to the interpretation that as of right now, it’s legal.” So are the rear ends of the Hendrick cars, making them look like they’re about to snap in two on the verge of getting sent to the trash pile? Remember, Clint Bowyer was docked with an unheard-of 150-point penalty for being outside the templates in the middle of the Chase two years ago; are we headed for round two? More importantly, has NASCAR learned their lesson last time on how to explain “cheating” or postseason rule changes so everyone doesn’t end up confused, angry, and disappointed?

There’s one word to describe Martin’s Michigan wreck: scary. All parties, from pit road to Martin himself should be thankful this morning no one got hurt.

Are the Hendrick engine woes for real? After multiple failures at Michigan, they’re going to have everyone all aflutter about their ability to survive the race distance on intermediate tracks that are tough on RPMs (can you say Chase?). The carnage Sunday, which saw Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart all sidelined by valve spring issues certainly will have the folks at HMS scratching their heads and working plenty of overtime this week. However, postrace chatter labels this one as just another instance of defective materials, coming from a batch of springs that were received from a supplier. It’s not the first time Hendrick would have fallen victim to it; in 2002, during the fall race at Talladega all four cars under the HMS banner dropped out of the race with similar valve spring self-destruction. And if not… know there probably won’t be any issues with HMS parts by the time the final 10-race stretch starts. There’s a reason you work on things in the regular season…

Goodyears once again were a topic of discussion, although this time it was back to the problem that has plagued the series for some time now: no wear. Johnson ran a once-unheard of 130+ laps on the initial left-side tires he had on to start the race. And after the crew took them off the car? They looked still capable of running, almost unscathed another 70 laps to the finish. Safety is certainly important in this racing game, especially at a high-speed track such as Michigan but tires really need to wear out in order for competition to truly improve. If teams had to start worrying about rubber over fuel mileage, consistently you’d see a whole different ballgame at half the tracks on the circuit.

2000 Cup champ Bobby Labonte is still having an impact on the series — as in causing others to impact concrete. For the second weekend in a row, Labonte’s No. 47 caused the car that probably should have won the race to end its day in pieces. Last week, his Toyota dropped oil the entire length of Watkins Glen, causing Kyle Busch to slip straight into the clutches of Keselowski. This week, his spin ultimately resulted in Martin’s car straddling the pit wall and dumping oil all over Kasey Kahne’s pit stall. JTG-Daugherty Racing can use some publicity to help them in their efforts to attract sponsorship – their funding is still not fully set for 2013 – but that’s not the kind they want.

The surface at Michigan is yet another example of a repave job ruining a race track. Michigan, and its sister track in Fontana, have always been an acquired taste to begin with, built with wide, sweeping turns that cause little contact between cars as the field often spreads out over long, green-flag runs. Some fans love the layout; others can’t stand it. However, the saving grace for years that gave the “lovers” an argument was that there were four or even five racing grooves that allowed drivers to run from the top of the track to the bottom and find ways for their cars to work. That’s not the case anymore. For the second race in a row, the groove is now one car wide with any hope of racing above it a pipe dream for the foreseeable future. While repaving is a necessary evil at all tracks, eventually we’ve seen snoozers one too many times now. Someone, somewhere needs to be calling up those people at Pocono and/or experimenting with chemicals elsewhere to prevent the next track repave from repeating the pattern of “racing death sentence.”

The folks at ESPN might want to look into hiring a new person to man the bad language beeper, or possibly go to a five-second delay. On two different occasions this weekend, people competing in NASCAR events dropped F-bombs that were broadcast to the masses. While the sanctioning body shouldn’t do anything to punish the offenders (see: awful Earnhardt Jr. fine, 2004), the broadcaster might want to at least show us they’re trying to block out the swear words before getting to us.

Gordon has long been the target of derisive comments about manliness. Remember Earnhardt’s comment about being the first “man” to win the Brickyard and the milk toast that Gordon made to him at his first championship banquet? While those barbs were in good nature, it does seem as though the four-time champ has been living up to the reputation as of late. When Earnhardt Jr. went low under Gordon in turn two and slid up in front of him, “Wonder Boy” dropped a few of his own F-bombs and did some quality whining about the maneuver. While he glossed over it in his interview after the No. 24 car blew up, Gordon sounded like a kindergartener instead of NASCAR King of his generation. Could it be that the poor luck season, putting him on the verge of missing the Chase is taking its toll?

The Hindenburg Awards for Foul Fortune

This race looked like pole sitter Martin‘s to lose early; he was leading, but saw Kahne coming in his rear-view mirror as he came upon Labonte and Juan Pablo Montoya battling deep in the field. As the duo fought not to get lapped, Montoya caused Labonte to spin, an accident that enveloped the two leaders. As Martin slid into the pits, he caught a pit road opening and the wall penetrated the side of his car, nearly missing the driver’s side door and taking him out of the race. Considering what could have happened, though it didn’t seem like anyone was too upset…

Johnson, Gordon and Stewart all get a sympathetic pat on the back after they saw their races, and in Johnson’s case a win, go up in mechanical failure due to some faulty valve springs. None of them wound up better than 27th.

Kurt Busch had another rough outing, driving his rear end off once gain resulted in Busch sliding a little too high in the corner and flattening the right side of his car. In the end he did it more than once and had to pack it in for a 30th-place finish.

@TheOrangeCone took a horrific tumble off of the nose of Martin’s car when he slid into the pits but rebounded to complete his assigned duties for the day.

The person who handled the pyrotechnics for the National Anthem had a bad day, launching the rocket’s red glare and bombs bursting in air about five stanzas too early.

“The Seven Come For Eleven” Award for Fine Fortune

Kahne spun out in the same wreck that ultimately killed Martin’s shot at a win. Fortunately for Kahne, he didn’t get mangled against the pit wall, sliding through the grass instead and rebounded back up to third when the pay window opened.

Kahne, Earnhardt Jr. and Ryan Newman avoided the engine issues that plagued their teammates Stewart, Gordon and Johnson. All of them earned top-10 finishes as a reward.

Keselowski had caution flags fall at the right times, Lady Luck resulting in the track position needed to stay up front late. Just getting to the front row on the final restart, side-by-side with Biffle was a victory in itself.

Sam Hornish Jr. was nearly taken out in the accident that sent David Gilliland through the infield grass, but snuck by and turned that into a 12th-place finish. While Hornish very well could have had a better result thanks to the strength of his run, his maneuver to avoid Gilliland’s spinning car certainly was a fine bit of fortune.

Gilliland went for a slide through the infield but, unlike so many other cars we’ve seen make those slides in the recent past, his splitter survived without damage and the No. 38 car was able to come home with a 18th-place finish. That’s a season best for him at an unrestricted track.

Worth Noting

  • Biffle’s win was his first since Texas in April. For Ford, it was the second win in two weeks — the first times they’ve visited Victory Lane since that April triumph.
  • Biffle’s win at Michigan was the first for the Blue Oval in its stomping grounds since August of 2008.
  • Keselowski came home second for the second consecutive week. He’s finished in the top five in five of the last seven races, run in the top 10 in all seven and butted one Busch out of the way at last count.
  • Kahne (third) scored his fourth top-5 result since the last Michigan race in June. That’s also the last event where he finished outside the top 15 (eight races).
  • Earnhardt Jr. has finished fourth in four of the last seven races. This particular one was probably the most important; it followed his two worst performances of the season.
  • Carl Edwards (sixth) led just his third lap all season outside of the first Richmond race in May. Overall, he’s got just two top-five finishes on the year.
  • Paul Menard (ninth) landed his fourth top-10 finish of the season. He’s got four straight top-15 results, has just three performances of 22nd or worse this season, but hasn’t finished a race inside the top five. Consistency or mediocrity? You decide.
  • Martin Truex Jr. (10th) has four straight top-10 results and, in all likelihood his first Chase bid since 2007 in the bag.
  • Johnson (27th) still leads the series in top-five finishes with 11 while remaining tied for most wins and top 10s.
  • The top 10 at Michigan included four Chevrolets, three Fords, two Toyotas and a Dodge. The track that saw Dodge score their first win after returning to NASCAR, with Sterling Marlin in 2001 closes this era with six total wins in 24 Cup races from 2001-12.
  • Joe Gibbs Racing drivers failed to score a top 10 at Michigan in either race at the track in 2012. Denny Hamlin was the best of the bunch on Sunday in 11th.
  • Stewart has more finishes of 24th or worse (six) than he has wins (three) in 2012.

What’s the Points?

Biffle passed Johnson and took over the top spot in the point standings with three races to go before the Chase. He last led the points after Dover in June. Teammate and close friend Matt Kenseth jumped up to second, while Earnhardt Jr. sits third.

Further back, Johnson slipped from first to fourth in the points thanks to his engine failure. Are the pundits who were ready to crown him champion after Indy having second thoughts? Perhaps a small consolation prize is Johnson remains, along with Stewart and Keselowski tied for the number one seed with three wins.

Speaking of Keselowski, he rounds out the top five in points. Truex Jr. sits sixth, followed by Bowyer, Kevin Harvick, Stewart and Hamlin — unchanged from last week. Hamlin’s gap over 11th-place Kahne now sits at 33, a fragile number considering two of the next three races are short track events.

Whether Kahne catches Hamlin, though, is all but a moot point; his two victories leave him comfortably in the first “wild card” slot. Back in 13th, Newman holds an 11-point lead on Kyle Busch for the second “wild card.” Bristol and Richmond are two of the three races remaining, which are both good tracks for Busch — but the clock is ticking. Gordon, meanwhile is 30 points back and may need a second win to take the spot.

Of note: David Ragan and Landon Cassill have run six more races than AJ Allmendinger competed in this season and are still behind him in points. The series’ top rookie contender, Josh Wise, has “run” 20 of 23 races but sits 66th in the standings. The joy of start and parks…

Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans, with one being a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic) — Coming off a week when the race received a full six-pack of frosty adult beverages, this one was barely a two-can, lukewarm effort. While there were 26 lead changes during the event, only five of them took place on the track and one of those was when Johnson’s motor went kablooey. The allure of Michigan was multiple racing grooves that allowed cars to spread out all over the track and race for a myriad of laps side-by-side without wrecking each other. Now that it has been repaved there is only one way to get around and the resulting parade was mind-numbing.

Next Up
Next on the schedule is the reconfigured Bristol Motor Speedway. We’re going from one single-groove race track to another and it is going to be very telling to see what develops between the initial green flag and the checkers. Fans wanted single-groove, dump people to pass racing. Now that they’re going to get it, they better show up in huge numbers.

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