Looking for the Who, What, When, Where, 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?
It would be easy to give this week’s pat on the back for a non-winning but outstanding performance to Kyle Larson, but the damage from the crash he was involved in likely gave him an aerodynamic advantage when his rear bumper was torn off. Paul Menard had no such advantage, though, en route to his fourth-place finish. Michigan was Menard’s second top-five run of the year, and while he is often maligned for racing because of his family’s money, he’s the only Richard Childress Racing driver with to finish in the top five this year. He’s become the team’s senior driver, and while he’s not likely going to become a Cup superstar or title contender, he’s become a solid driver who can finish races and bring the car home in one piece.
What… beyond the teams’ control affected the action?
While ultra-fast, Michigan’s still-new surface wasn’t conducive to great racing Sunday. Because of the speeds, Goodyear had no choice but to borrow their tire inventory from the prehistoric era, and the little to no tire wear led to little to no tire strategy. Running on softer tires would have been dangerous at the speeds teams saw this weekend, so the decision was the right one, but the hard tires, combined with the aerodynamic dependence that seemed even greater than usual, made passing difficult. Several times drivers got out of the groove, and some even into the wall from simply trying to handle their cars in turbulent air. Going faster doesn’t necessarily mean better racing at the end of the day – just more dangerous and more difficult to overcome the problems the track poses.
Where… did the polesitter and the defending race winner wind up?
Kevin Harvick set a blistering pace on Friday, posting the fastest qualifying lap NASCAR has seen in nearly three decades. He’s had what may well be the fastest car in the field for much of the season, and Sunday was no exception, at least for most of the day. Harvick led 63 of 200 laps, the most of any driver Sunday, but fell short at the end. He may have gained on Jimmie Johnson in the closing laps, but it wasn’t enough to catch him, and in the end Harvick was forced to settle for a bitter second, refusing a television interview and telling media during his mandatory Q&A, “I mean, the car was fast, just wound up on the wrong side of all the strategy. We finished second, and that’s it.”
Greg Biffle had the best finish among his Roush Fenway Racing teammates on Sunday. Based on RFR’s past performance, that should mean Biffle had a great day… but he finished 20th, tying the third-worst finish of his career at MIS. Biffle, who has more MIS wins (four) than any active driver, highlighted just how far behind RFR has fallen in the last year and a half.
When… did it all go sideways?
Early. Think lap one, here, when Brian Vickers got out of the groove and slid into the wall, collecting Travis Kvapil on the way back down the track, peeling the entire side off Kvapil’s No. 32 machine. The race had barely gone back to green-flag racing on lap 6 when Larson got into Martin Truex Jr., putting Truex into the wall and catching Kasey Kahne in the resulting chain reaction. Kahne and Larson were able to recover to finish third and eighth, respectively, but Vickers, Kvapil, and Truex were not so lucky, and they came in 42nd, 43rd and 37th. There was not a completed green-flag lap until the third attempt of the day on lap 12. It was a lucky break that more drivers weren’t involved as the field was bunched up for the start and restart, but the three drivers relegated to the back of the pack didn’t feel any less of a sting because they were the only ones.
Why… did Johnson win the race?
He didn’t have the fastest car all day, though the No, 48 was strong from the start. What Johnson did have was the right strategy call at the right time. Strategy has backfired on Johnson more than once in recent years, but Sunday’s calls proved to be the winning combination. Seemingly snakebitten at Michigan in the past, Johnson and his team were finally able to put together a victory in their 25th visit to the track.
The win, Johnson’s third of 2014 and the 69th of his career, gives Johnson the top seed in the Chase, at least for now. A month ago, the media were asking whan Johnson would recover from an early-season slump and pick up a win. Now, fans are wondering when Johnson will stop his winning ways. What a difference a few weeks can make.
How… did the little guys do?
HScott Motorsports; Justin Allgaier (No. 51 CSS USA Air Systems Chevy): This team showed some signs of life in Michigan, scoring their season best finish (16th) and taking home their first top 20 since Bristol three months ago.
Wood Brothers Racing; Trevor Bayne (No 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford): Bayne scored his second top 20 in his last two races (he was 20th at Charlotte and did not race at Dover or Pocono), finishing 19th. He’s broken into the top 20 four times in six races this year, which is actually a pretty decent number for a team on a small budget and limited schedule. His average finish this year, despite two DNFs, is better than Danica Patrick‘s. It may be a far cry from the Wood Brothers glory years, but the No. 21 is performing well among its peers.
Tommy Baldwin Racing; Michael Annett & Reed Sorenson (No. 7 Pilot Flying J Chevy & No. 36 Theme Park Connection Chevy): Annett is slowly turning into a fairly solid driver in his rookie season. Without much in the way of equipment, he’s had some finishes near the top of the small-team class, and he’s finished ahead of his more experienced teammate in 11 of 15 races this year, with an average finish more than three spots better. This week Annett topped the TBR rankings again, finishing 21st. Sorenson came home in 32nd.
JTG-Daugherty Racing; AJ Allmendinger (No. 47 Charter Chevy): After posting back-to-back top 10s at Richmond and Talladega, Allmendinger has cooled off a bit, with Sunday’s 22nd-place run being his fifth straight 21st-30th-place finish in a row. Still, Allmendinger remains at the top to the small-team class in points, 40 markers ahead of Casey Mears.
Germain Racing; Mears (No. 13 GEICO Chevy): While the No. 13 team has struggled to post the finishes that perhaps they should be with RCR equipment, one strength Mears has had is finishing better than he’s started. His average finish is a little over four spots better than his average start, and that means the team is making gains as far as in-race adjustments. Despite finishing 24th this week, Mears gained a spot in driver points, moving up to 24th.
Front Row Motorsports; David Ragan & David Gilliland (No. 34 Taco Bell Ford & No. 38 Long John Silver’s Ford): Gilliland was once again his team’s rock this weekend, finishing 26th without drama, about where his team should be right now. Ragan was running 35th when he spun on his own in turn 3 on lap 104. He didn’t hit anything, and returned to the track, finishing 38th.
BK Racing; Alex Bowman & Cole Whitt (No. 23 Dr. Pepper Toyota & No. 26 Speed Stick Gear Toyota): Whitt had another surprisingly solid run this weekend, finishing 28th. Finishes in the mid 20s are exactly the step this team needed to make right now, and Whitt has provided five results between 21st and 28th in seven races with BK. Bowman, who’s had a harder time adapting to the Cup Series, hit the wall on lap 110; he was already two laps down at the time. Bowman lost the car in traffic and slid up into the wall. He was relegated to a 40th-place finish.
Phil Parsons Racing; Josh Wise (No. 98 Ford): Wise had a decent day, finishing 33rd, but this team, once a start-and-park, continues to race all day, every day. In fact, there was not a single start-and-park effort this week. Is the practice becoming a thing of the past? Hopefully teams like this one will continue to find ways to stretch their dollars into full-race efforts.
Jay Robinson Racing; Brett Moffitt (No. 66 Toyota Let’s Go Places Toyota): Moffitt spun on lap 114 while running a lap down in 24th. He slid through the grass but didn’t appear to have too much damage. Moffitt wound up 34th, right where he started, but he did what any rookie in just his second Cup race needs to do; he shook off his spin and finished the race, logging all but three laps and gaining experience.
Circle Sport; David Stremme & Landon Cassill (No. 33 Little Joe’s Autos Chevy & No. 40 CRC Brakleen Chevy): As far as this team has come in 2014, tracks like Michigan still eat the very underfunded for dinner, and both Cassill and Stremme struggled this week. Cassill fared a little better but never broke the top 30 before coming home in 35th. Stremme finished five laps down in 39th, the lowest position for anyone not involved in an on-track incident.
Xxxtreme Motorsports; JJ Yeley (No. 44 All City Leasing & Warehousing Toyota): Like Phil Parsons Racing, this team seems to be focused on finishing races in recent weeks. With little full-race information to fall back on, Yeley struggled on Sunday, finishing 36th. If the team can continue to run full races, better finishes can come with time, as the team gains experience, but at least they’ve got a start in that direction.
GoFAS Racing; Travis Kvapil (No. 32 Keenparts.com/Corvetteparts.net Ford): Kvapil was collected in Brian Vickers‘s first-lap wreck, which peeled the entire right side of his car wide open and broke the right-front wheel. Kvapil went to the garage with extensive damamge, and while he tried to complete a few more laps, it was clear that the damage was too much. He finished 43rd.