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Through the Gears: Four things we learned in the Pure Michigan 400
Sheryl Crow once sang “A Change Will Do You Good.” She’s a perfect example of how it doesn’t always work out that way (see: dating Lance Armstrong). But sometimes, the sporting universe aligns itself exactly right, rotating beautifully where it works for all parties involved.
Joey Logano had worn out his welcome at Joe Gibbs Racing. Four years in, he’d failed to make the Chase and won exactly two Cup races. Not the track record you’d expect from a man Mark Martin anointed the best driver of the next generation. And at 22, he wasn’t exactly the prime spokesperson for Home Depot, which was threatening to board itself up and leave the sport with rival Lowe’s collecting championships like candy.
Matt Kenseth, despite 14 years, one title and 24 wins at Roush Fenway Racing, was struggling to find sponsorship to compete. Big money had been poured into teammate Carl Edwards; Ford executives needed to ensure he was their future. Staying at the No. 17 meant picking up the scraps, then waiting patiently to be bumped aside. After all, owner Jack Roush had 2011 Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne and Nationwide Series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in the pipeline. Both are billed as young, rising stars; Kenseth, at 40, was age disposable.
Say what you will about Kurt Busch, but the man clearly needed a wakeup call. His behavior during the final months of 2011 at Penske Racing was questionable at best, reprehensible at worst. All the wins in the world won’t save you when you’re in the business of turning the gun toward your foot. Sometimes, the best thing a champion can do to reinvent himself is get fired.
Where are these three drivers in 2013? Logano sits in Chase contention with Penske Racing, in some ways outperforming teammate and reigning champion Brad Keselowski. Matt Kenseth is tied with Jimmie Johnson for the series wins lead, taking Home Depot back to the front while enjoying one of his esteemed career’s finest seasons. And Busch, running with single-car Furniture Row Racing, could wind up with his most top-5 finishes in over a decade. Persistence, in reproving himself, is paying off with offers left and right. Sunday night, Stewart-Haas Racing was reported to have thrown a full-time contract on his table for 2014.
Three men, three changes … three success stories? Sometimes, Silly Season really isn’t so silly.
Let’s get down to business and shift through some stories from Michigan.
FIRST GEAR: Penske’s putting itself in position
It’s been a rollercoaster year for the two-car Penske Racing operation. A switch from Dodge to Ford has created more stumbles than expected. The aforementioned Keselowski didn’t help himself by “biting the hands that feeds him” with some high criticism of NASCAR at the season’s onset. But the kicker was a 25-point penalty, plus suspensions, for improper rear-end modifications to both teams in the spring. While some of those penalties were reduced, the loss of momentum lasted well into the dog days of summer. Daytona was the low point; a 21st-place run by Keselowski combined with Logano wrecking and finishing 40th left both teams on the outside of the Chase looking in.
Another 40th-place showing the next week at Loudon should have left Logano, in particular, down for the count. But the team came back from NASCAR’s final off week in a long season reinvigorated. Michigan’s victory on Sunday, collected when Mark Martin ran out of gas with three laps left, was the high point in a run of four consecutive top-10 finishes.
“We kind of decided we needed a win a couple weeks ago,” Logano said Sunday, matter-of-factly. “So we got one.”
On paper, that’s silly to say for a driver that now has just three victories in 170 Sprint Cup starts. But that belies the sense of confidence he has with crew chief Todd Gordon. Ever so quietly, they’re building a chemistry they hope will rival teammate Keselowski and Paul Wolfe. Sunday, it was Wolfe making the tactical mistake, pitting one caution too late and costing his driver about 10 positions at the checkered flag. But both teams, running top 5 throughout the day, suddenly look primed and ready for the postseason.
Can both get there? It’s still tenuous; a Bristol wreck, or one at Richmond or, really anything outside their control changes everything. However, for the first time this team is showcasing the speed it needs to get over that hump and actually compete when things get serious in the fall.
SECOND GEAR: Martin’s big moment Every legendary driver in their final season has a moment they look back on and smile at. For Darrell Waltrip, it was an outside-pole run at Indianapolis followed by a competitive, 11th-place result in an otherwise lost season of 2000. For Richard Petty, it was leading five laps at Daytona with the field seemingly in awe one last time during a 1992 Fan Appreciation Tour that didn’t even snag him a top 15.
Certainly, Mark Martin has been much more competitive than those two this season, running third in the Daytona 500 at age 54. Currently without a ride for 2014, he hasn’t said he’ll retire yet; today, he’ll be named a substitute driver for Tony Stewart at Stewart-Haas Racing. But the reality is, those 2014 opportunities are going to be few and far between for someone who truly wants to run about half the schedule ... in a car capable of winning. That’s why Sunday’s late-race drama, in which Martin paraded at the front of the field with a fuel tank running on E, was such a moment. Here’s a man who’s done so much in this sport, a likely Hall of Famer with five runner-up point finishes, and everyone from the pit box to the stands is thinking, “It could be his final shot to win a race — ever.”
It didn’t happen as, much to everyone’s chagrin, the gas tank ran dry. But maybe the momentum from this run, in a season where the veteran hasn’t performed as well, could lead to a boost for the last few months while driving the No. 14. It’s certainly a moment to remember, one he may look back with fondness down the road if 2013 really does become the final year on the resume.
THIRD GEAR: Earnhardt’s missed opportunities
Hard to believe, but for Dale Earnhardt Jr. his only victories over the last seven seasons on the Cup circuit have come at Michigan. That’s why the two-mile track is so important for his resume; for a driver (and crew chief) who specialize in “having a solid points day,” capitalizing on his strength here could lead to Victory Lane and locking up a Chase bid that’s tenuous otherwise.
Instead, in 2013 Junior did the opposite. To be fair, factors were outside his control; in June, it was a blown engine followed by a tire failure Sunday. But the end results don’t care about excuses, as a 36.5-average finish at Michigan puts him in dangerous territory. Just 20 points ahead of 11th-place Kasey Kahne, there’s no victories in sight (or on the resume) and a pack of hungry drivers are peaking at the right time. With just one top-5 finish in his last nine races, a handful of top 15s down the stretch – a conservative plan crew chief Steve Letarte always likes to put in effect this time of year – might not be enough to earn that postseason bid.
Earnhardt, who’s led just 114 laps this year, has to step up his game, and quickly. Can he do it?
FOURTH GEAR: The price of speed
In some ways, Michigan was far from a boring race. Different pit strategies combined with hair-raising restarts kept shuffling the field and putting new names in position to win. Some of the sport’s best drivers, from Earnhardt to Kyle Busch, fell victim to the track’s high speeds, approaching well over 210 mph entering Turn 1. With three cautions in the first 14 laps for wrecks, it’s clear that all 43 drivers were running on the ragged edge.
So what was missing? ESPN’s Andy Petree said it best: “One thing we really haven’t seen is someone drive up to the front.” After a few laps, the grid was stuck in place, passing impossible as they were racing the track more than those around them. Goodyear’s tires didn’t help, either. According to most teams the left sides were so rock hard they could have been left on for all 400 miles.
Let’s see. Everyone runs the same speed throughout a run while racing the track and the points system more than one another. Passing then suffers — except for the frantic first few laps after a restart. The number of green-flag passes for the lead, due to the dreaded “aero push” on top of it all, becomes a number you can count on one hand.
It’s a refrain sung all too often this season. The Gen-6 car, while filled with potential, has to be slowed down for 2014 so tracks like Michigan can be spiced up that much more. If Fontana, the most competitive race on intermediates this year, is the exception rather than the rule there’s a major problem.
Paul Menard, who ran fourth Sunday, was part of a three-car Richard Childress Racing effort that finished inside the top 10. Kevin Harvick, who ran second showed muscle while Jeff Burton ran a solid eighth. For Menard, it’s just his second top-5 result since winning Indianapolis in July 2011. … Jeff Gordon was a puzzling 17th Sunday, one week after a Watkins Glen wreck put his Chase chances in critical condition. Still, there’s hope: Gordon led 66 laps at the next race on the schedule, Bristol, in the spring before a tire failure took him out of contention to win. … Denny Hamlin, who ran 20th Sunday, now has a career-worst nine straight races without a top-15 finish. The short tracks, where he shines, are up next; if he can’t pull off a solid performance at Bristol or Richmond, then you really start to question what the No. 11 team should do the rest of the year with his ailing back.