Race Weekend Central

A “Pure” Michigan 400 – Back To Business As Usual At MIS

Sunday’s Pure Michigan 400 was aptly named. The race was Pure Michigan International Speedway, bringing all of what we’ve come to expect at MIS in August — repave be damned.

Yes, the new asphalt did play a role, to some degree. The formerly multi-groove track used to see cars running four different lines, fanning out in all areas around the 2-mile oval. However, following a repave and a re-tire to keep the speeds under 220mph (at one point, quarter-sized chunks of rubber were coming off from blistering) it has become more of a one-and-a-half groove track in 2012. Speeds, once dangerous are still well in excess of 210 MPH down the straightaway.

But the more things change, the more they stay the same. The names you normally expect to see up front and factors in the race were there. Mark Martin leads active drivers with five career wins at MIS, the last coming in 2009 when – coincidentally – it was Greg Biffle who ran out of fuel on the last lap, while Martin sped past, only to run out of gas a corner later and coast to the win.

This time, it was Biffle turning the tables. Martin had dominated the early laps Sunday, leading 54 of the first 64, surrendering the top spot only during a pit stop cycle. Then, a bizarre wreck occurred exiting Turn 4 on lap 63, when Juan Pablo Montoya had been working to get by Bobby Labonte, both under pressure and about to be lapped by Martin. The No. 47 got plenty of air time last weekend following its smoke show at Watkins Glen; it was about to get some more, for all the wrong reasons.

Labonte got aero loose off the nose of Montoya’s No. 42 Target Chevrolet, causing JPM and Martin to lift and avoid the spinning Labonte. Kasey Kahne was the next to arrive on the scene – ironically – driving his Farmer’s Insurance No. 5 (Martin’s ride from 2009-2011) into the rear of the No. 55. Martin’s car was launched down pit road, and, as he attempted to keep the car from sliding through the pit area behind the entrance to the garage, the car swung back around, impaling it driver’s side into the end of the wall. The concrete penetrated at least two feet into the side of the crush area of the car, striking right behind the driver’s seat into the compartment where the oil tank is. There was a brief fire that started on the right side, but luckily, Martin escaped without injury.

Thank the new Car of Tomorrow, which moves the driver further towards the center of the car, and the newer seat designs which help cocoon the driver offering further protection. However, this wreck does bring attention to obtuse angles and exposed walls that remain in and around tracks that could stand to see either SAFER Barriers or gates installed.

New car, good; old problems, bad.

Following that incident, Montoya continued to be a storyline in the race. His battered, bruised, and torn up No. 42 blew a tire and showered the track with debris, bringing out a yellow flag on lap 143. Littering metal shards everywhere, at speeds in excess of 212mph into the first turn is a dangerous proposition – and begs the question why a car 22nd in points and running 20th or lower in the event continues to play a deciding factor.

Montoya was summoned to the NASCAR trailer after the race, not due to the incident on lap 64 but for not pulling off the track immediately after having a flat tire. “Montoya was also the subject of a controversial incident in the Grand Am race at Indianapolis a few weeks ago, after taking out points leader Ryan Dalziel’s Starworks Racing entry.”:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=foChFtE653Y Can you say lost season… and lost mental focus?

Which brings us to the battle to the postseason. With just three races to go before the Chase starts, those fighting to make it suffered continued struggles, all of which were highlighted by the high speeds, sustained RPM, and how quickly laps click off when you’re posting average speeds knocking on two bills.

Highlighting those difficulties dealt with in recent weeks, Montoya – following his involvement in the Martin accident – got into the rear of Joey Logano, sending him into the wall between Turns 3 and 4. Logano, 18th in points and unsure of his status next year, is now all but out of the Chase barring a win in the remaining races. Jeff Gordon, after the ensuing lap 93 restart then lost a cylinder, eventually sending him to the garage on lap 167. Kyle Busch’s No. 18 team, still smarting from last week’s last lap boondoggle at Watkins Glen, ripped off a 12.5 second final stop with 33 laps to go, a wonderful moment but one that could only buoy him to a semi-respectable 13th-place finish.

The No. 18 Interstate Batteries Toyota was not much of a factor most of the day, crew chief Dave Rogers attributing the lackluster run to putting the wrong shock package under the car. Privately, however, many on the No. 18 team were displeased with Busch’s decision to skip final practice yesterday to run his No. 54 Monster Energy Toyota in Montreal for the Nationwide Race. Bad timing during a year when a scaled-back schedule is supposed to mean tighter focus on the Cup program, right? Busch is currently 14th in points, 11 behind Ryan Newman who also has one win this year. Luckily for Busch, the series is at Bristol Saturday night, where he has earned five of his 24 career victories.

Bad times for those on the bubble. If it’s any consolation, many teams solidly in playoff contention did not emerge unscathed, either.

Defending Sprint Cup Champion Tony Stewart got things started off on the wrong foot. Reporting a cylinder going south early, that relegated him to a 32nd-place finish, despite efforts to fix the valve train issue in the garage. Stewart’s engine was the first of the three HMS failures on the day, and ultimately the fourth of the weekend. Matt Kenseth looked to be in contention through the halfway point, but a late pit stop, following a flat tire saw him stuck in 17th position and unable to move forward.

And then… there was Five-Time. Jimmie Johnson’s 27th-place finish, courtesy of a blown motor with six laps to go is beginning to look like the ridiculousness of Dale Earnhardt, Sr.’s struggle to win the Daytona 500 after dominating the race for much of two decades. Jimmie Johnson has all but five tracks remaining on his bucket list, with Michigan International Speedway being one of them. Johnson has appeared headed to victory here on a number of occasions; running out of gas with two laps to go in 2009, again in 2010 with three laps left, and getting passed by Kyle Busch in 2011 with 13 laps remaining. This year, his engine started nosing over with seven laps to go, letting loose as he slid to third with five laps remaining. Johnson suffered the same fate as the fellow corporate engine-powered cars of Stewart and Gordon. For Johnson, it was the second power plant failed for the weekend, powering from dead last on the grid to nearly winning.

Michigan: a track producing so much disappointment. Only for Biffle and a handful of “wild card” longshots could the weekend be considering a roaring success.

Marcos Ambrose ran in the Top 10 much of the afternoon, and was every bit the equal of their parent Ford Roush Fenway teammates of Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards, bringing home a fifth-place finish a week after winning at Watkins Glen. Ryan Newman’s No. 39 Wix Filters Chevrolet began to work its way to the front, moving into seventh with 50 laps to go, eventually coming home in eighth. Newman had been ill all weekend, taking an IV before the race started to ensure proper hydration during the 400-mile event. His gut-it-out performance moved him to within 47 points of the Top 10, while Carl Edwards’ sixth-place finish has him 38 points out of 10th.

Edwards desperately needs a win over the next three weeks if he has any hopes of making The Chase, as he and Paul Menard are the only drivers without a win in the 11th-18th points positions. Kasey Kahne, who was involved in the lap 64 wreck, plowing into the No. 55 and yard sailing it through the infield grass, rebounded and brought the No. 5 Hendrick Chevrolet home in third, moving him to within 33 points of the 10th-place cutoff.

The Big Three all put a premium on winning here at MIS – particularly with the Big Three based just an hour away in Detroit. When Edsel Ford is showing up to races and on your war wagon, it’s as Ron Burgundy would say, “kind of a….’Big Deal’…” Jack Roush has always put a premium on performing at Michigan, and with Greg Biffle notching his third career MIS win, the Cat in The Hat delivered again. Roush now has 12 wins at MIS, breaking the tie with the Wood Brothers coming into the race. The Roush cars were dominant in the late 90’s through late 2000s, with Biffle’s win the first since 2008.

So how different are things, really? Exiting off Turn Two can always be a tricky affair, even between teammates. Last year, Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. got together, when Martin drifted up in front of the No. 88 exiting Turn Two. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. later called it carelessness and that it pissed him off. Sunday, Earnhardt, Jr. was in the process of passing teammate Jeff Gordon, nearly clipping him. Gordon radioed his team and said “you can tell the (expletive) he can thank me latter for not wrecking his ass. That was (expletive) stupid.”

Like I said, business as usual.

Also, something that has become a bit of a troubling trend with the broadcasting as of late is the inability to display telemetry of substance when it matters. For a track which has developed a bad rap for having some snoozers the last couple of years, Michigan has legitimately become a 200mph track, seeing speeds that haven’t been registered since the pre-Bobby Allison-into-The-Fence-era. A couple of times during the broadcast, ESPN would show the speed telemetry halfway through a run; Dale Earnhardt, Jr. as high as 213mph and Brad Keselowski at 212mph.

Why not show the speeds after a pit stop on new tires, when there are a chain of 2-3 cars together? The speeds likely would be over 215mph.

Not sure about you, but to me, that’s kind of important and big speed numbers help draw some attention to the sport. It also helps to explain how even with eight caution periods, including one lengthy stretch to extract the No. 55 from the pit wall, how a 400-mile race got over in barely over 2.5 hours.

Next week is the night race at Bristol, which will have a lot of similarities and some new twists following the re-grind performed after the March event. Will it be a return to bumping and banging, a one-groove slug fest that sees helmets hurtled, cars mangled, and outburst of blind rage? At least they have the pit road speed timing and restart rules figured out there.

I think…

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