Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2011 Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan

Editor’s Note: Matt McLaughlin’s under the weather this week, so our Vito Pugliese filled in. Cross your fingers, send him a get well note and hopefully he’ll be happy, healthy and writing again by Thursday!

The Key Moment: Kyle Busch chose the outside lane on a green-white-checkered restart to keep Jimmie Johnson at bay. He cleared him within the first 10 seconds under green and that was it. The outside line is now the preferred line on speedways, just so long as the car in the right lane clears the inside one before he gets sucked around. Add in a little aero push for Johnson, some horsepower under the hood for Busch and the No. 18 cruised to victory lane.

In a Nutshell: Well, it was typical Michigan. Five lanes of racing, field spread out under green and no real wrecks until the very end when Kurt Busch blew a tire and pile drove his Charger into the wall, rupturing his radiator and collecting Jamie McMurray in the process. When all was said and done, GM, Dodge and Ford all had to suck it up as Toyota dealt them a blow to the solar plexus in their hometown. Ouch, quit it.

Dramatic Moment: The final restart looked to sizing up to be a four-car battle between the fastest four on the track the prior 10 laps between Kyle Busch, Johnson, Brad Keselowski and Mark Martin. That notion lasted until the exit of turn 2, when Busch hooked and booked down the backstretch all the way to his fourth win of the season.

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

Chevrolet had to eat a big crap sandwich on Sunday (Aug. 21), as Toyota won its 100th NASCAR race smack dab in the General’s backyard. Considering all of the hoopla surrounding Chevrolet’s centennial celebration in Detroit, that’s gotta hurt. By the way, that celebration coincided with the Woodward Dream Cruise, culminating with Jeff Gordon and Johnson physically waving the green flag in the back seat of a V-6 Camaro convertible (no SSs or 2012 ZL-1, guys? Really?) for Chevrolet’s participation in the event.

Also of note is the disturbing trend of the new front end of the Sprint Cup cars to collect garbage and overheat instantly, be it grass, trash, or anything else. It looked like Gordon would check out and win the race after halfway, leading a total of 50 laps, then Johnson took his turn at the point for 18 circuits – though the No. 18 would be his undoing. Both the Nos. 24 and 48, however succumbed to the same fate: garbage on the grill. That loosened up their cars, causing water temps to soar past 260 degrees and helped Busch get a little extra edge under green. Trash all over the racetrack, all day; was this Michigan or Fontana?

It was an ugly ending to what should have been a banner day for Ford. The first half of the race looked to be a foregone Blue Oval conclusion, courtesy of polesitter Greg Biffle leading 86 of the first 98 laps. The Pure Michigan Fusion looked to be performing a reasonable facsimile of Dale Jarrett’s 1999 Michigan win, where it literally was a GWC finish – no cautions and five cars left on the lead lap.

Biffle ended up fading to a rather unremarkable 20th-place finish, though in a run which sealed the coffin on any hopes of making the Chase through any way other than a wildcard win. He wasn’t the only one disappointed; despite leading 107 of 203 laps, more than any other manufacturer, no Ford Fusion wound up higher than Matt Kenseth in 10th. The Biff chalked the fade of the No. 16 to what he deemed “a bum set of tires, and then we got off on our adjustments.”

But at least they got all the gas in it this time.

The bad ending was bit coincidental for Biffle; after all, he carried race sponsor Pure Michigan on the hood. That initiative was designed to help spark tourism in Michigan, since nothing is built here anymore, but it didn’t work – the race was attended by an estimated 81,000 fans, a 30% decrease from the June race.

Saturday’s thunderstorms and Sunday’s early morning showers could have prevented some race day traffic from showing up, but that’s not a full explanation. Some ugly traffic routing Sunday morning surely didn’t help those who came, though; NASCAR has to do a better job of making sure fans get in and out smoothly from these rural facilities.

Again, it wasn’t as bad as Kentucky; but if attendance is down 30%, it might make sense for MIS to not block off the main access road and entrance to the speedway. Green Zone barricades set up to dissuade people from entering was puzzling considering the lack of people in the chairs. This is not a knock against Roger Curtis or his fantastic staff at the Speedway, but some rather aggressive traffic mapping and enforcement. And this is coming from a reserve Sheriff deputy.

When Denny Hamlin went behind the wall late in the going, many were nodding their heads and saying in unison, “The only thing missing from TRD engines Denny and Mike Ford is “U!” Not the case; Hamlin suffered suspension damage after plowing into the wall. Meanwhile, the Joe Gibbs Racing, Mark Cronquist-assembled engines was pulling everything the Big Three could throw at it in the closing laps. Hiroshima isn’t hurting for horsepower on the big tracks, that’s for sure.

It seems that Dodge makes a resurgence in motorsports every 10 years or so: is 2011 the year they finally surge towards a Cup title? With Keselowski suddenly the poster child for Pentastar power, it is fitting since his father Bob helped to usher in Mopar’s return to circle-track competition in the early 1990s when Chrysler fielded the not-legal-for-NASCAR LeBaron (which is French for, “The Baron”) in ARCA, which set the stage for their NASCAR redux in the Truck Series for 1995.

Keselowski is the wildcard to watch right now with two wins and three top-three finishes in three weeks – though at his current pace, Keselowski will likely be inside the top 10 by Richmond. At least Hamlin and David Ragan hope so.

Another race weekend, another sub-top 10 run by the No. 88 team as Dale Earnhardt Jr. struggled simply to finish 14th. The last race at Michigan saw Earnhardt Jr. enter the weekend third in points, while everybody was salivating and dusting off their old No. 8 Budweiser gear, heralding the Junior renaissance and the age of enlightenment. That race also marked the downward trend of the No. 88 the last few months, looking more and more like the team that preceded the midseason turnaround that awoke Junior Nation from their slumber. Take heart No. 88 fans; your man is still safely inside the top 10. That is, until his former protégé Keselowski in 12th mows him down.

If all of the teams and Big Three get so pumped about Michigan, then how come Toyota keeps handing them their head on a platter? ‘Yoda won four out of the last five, they have.

Considering how the last few oval-track races have played out compared to the road-course races at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, Watkins Glen, Road America, and Infineon, is there really any question as to whether or not we need switchbacks in the Chase – let alone a couple of more on the schedule? And spare me your North Wilkesboro emails; there are weeds growing out of it right now like a dilapidated Soviet air base.

The two F-16 Fighting Falcons performing the pre-race flyover must have gotten their timing off, since sporting events in Michigan include playing Canada’s National Anthem as well. First they taunt us with their exchange rates and duty free shops, now this?

The Hindenburg Award for Foul Fortune

If you missed the entertaining radio chatter from the No. 22 of Kurt Busch last weekend at Watkins Glen, you’ll probably get an earful from this weekend. Kurt’s car was decent for 15 laps then, as it has through most of the speedway races this year, got too tight and slowly faded backwards into obscurity. A brush with the wall early in the going set the stage for a proper wall-job with two laps to go courtesy of another blown tire.

Considering the Penske car’s penchants for blowing tires this year – from Keselowski at Las Vegas while leading on the last lap to New Hampshire in Cup, Kurt last week at the Glen and now Michigan, whatever makes them go fast must also be stretching those Goodyears to the limit.

Rough day at work for Carl Edwards. The hood went up on the No. 99 early in the going, then was seen backing down pit road to go to the garage area for what Edwards believes to be electrical related. While the Penske cars seem to have problems blowing tires, the No. 16 can’t get it full of gas, while the No. 99 has more than its fair share of ignition issues.

Remember the debacle at Charlotte back in 2008? Edwards’s car would shut off for no apparent reason, and it ended up costing him the championship; today’s 36th-place finish would have done so again had it happened in September or October.

Marcos Ambrose set the stock car racing on its ear this week, winning two races in six days: his first Cup win at Watkins Glen and again in Montreal in the Nationwide Series yesterday. Then he comes to Michigan, gets wrecked on pit road, nerfs it into the wall and winds up 27th. Maybe Kevin Harvick can buy some Jimmy John’s to make up for it?

Tony Stewart should slowly revert back into Old, Temperamental Tony should be continue his stretch of mediocre runs and fall out of Chase contention. Today’s nondescript ninth just won’t cut it; and as Danica Patrick questions commence, with the impending announcement of her move to NASCAR full time in Nationwide, expect the owner/driver to simply get more testy until the press conference considering SHR’s Cup connection to the deal.

Teammate Ryan Newman is solidly in the top 10 in points with three races to go, but it might take a bit of the former cranky, surly Stewart to do the same for the No. 14 the next few weeks. The Summer of Smoke has simply not come to fruition as so many had believed.

The “Seven Come Fore Eleven” Award for Fine Fortune

Johnson seems to have located that elusive horseshoe. After nearly missing his pit stall, Johnson was among the first to pit when the caution flew following his final stop. That left him on the lead lap, with a free pass to stay out and inheriting the track position he lost earlier in the race to run second.

Mark Martin posted his second-best finish of the year with a strong fourth-place result, among the fastest cars on the track the last 30 laps. Martin dominated the Camping World Truck Series race Saturday, only to be collected while battling for the lead with Harvick and Parker Kligerman. A lot of people have been down on Martin this year, but it’s not as bad as it seems. He’s essentially driving the No. 88 car that Earnhardt drove last season, yet is one position higher in the points than Junior at this same time a year ago.

Bobby Labonte brought out the second caution on lap 57, a single car spin between turns 1 and 2. But Labonte rebounded to finish 15th, his third-best of the season. Labonte earned his third career win 16 years ago at this same race from the pole, driving the Interstate Batteries No. 18 JGR entry which, naturally, won today as well.

Worth Noting

  • Kyle Busch’s win was his 23rd Sprint Cup Series victory, tying him with his brother Kurt and Ricky Rudd. The win also clinches at last one of the two wildcard spots in the Chase and was the 93rd win for Joe Gibbs Racing.
  • Keselowski (third) recorded his first top-10 finish in five Cup races at his home track at Michigan International Speedway. It was also his third top-three finish in a row.
  • While Fords captured the front row and three of the first four positions, they only had one car in the top 10 at MIS Sunday (Kenseth in 10th).
  • Johnson is still winless at MIS, but his second-place finish is now his career best at the track that continues to taunt and tease him.
  • Jeff Gordon led 50 laps in Sunday’s race; he had led just one in the previous seven MIS races. Gordon ended the day in sixth.

What’s the Points?

Kyle Busch’s win, while locking him into the Chase gives him a 10-point lead over his closest competitors. As of now, Busch would also be the top seed for the second time in the past four years entering the postseason.

Johnson sits second, 10 points behind Busch but armed with just one win – that’ll hurt him for seeding purposes. Harvick’s 22nd-place effort left him third, 39 points behind Busch and tied with Edwards for the spot. Kenseth rounds out your top-five in the standings, followed by Gordon, Newman and Kurt Busch. All those drivers cannot fall out of the top 10 after Bristol and, with three races left are virtually guaranteed postseason spots of their own.

Keselowski vaulted to 12th in the standings, 52 points out of 10th. Keselowski can make it into the top 10, but will need some help from Stewart or Earnhardt to get there; they’re the only points-eligible Chase drivers who appear vulnerable at this point. Further back, Hamlin is currently ranked as the second wildcard driver, needing to win a second race and eclipse Keselowski in the standings to move. Hamlin trails Keselowski by seven points while remaining just 18 in front of the next one-win driver, Paul Menard.

Overall Rating (Using Matt McLaughlin’s scale of one to six beer cans, with one being justifiable suicide and a six-pack ESPN Classic material): I’ll give this one two cans. Being at the track, I couldn’t really fire my shirt off in the media center and Stone Cold a pair of PBRs, but it probably would have given me instant street cred and a heroic mention on Jayski.

Next Up: Bristol! Racin’ The Way It Oughta’ Be! Thunder Valley! Though after the reconstruction of the track in 2007, it’s kind of been muted more into Rumble Gorge. Either way, short-track racing in a big concrete bowl in Tennessee at night in August… if you have a problem with that, then we’re not friends anymore. I’m de-friending you on Facebook and I want my CDs back.

About the author

Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.

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