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Through the Gears: Four things we learned in Michigan
With all that Jimmie Johnson has accomplished in NASCAR, it’s amazing there are still tracks on the circuit where the No. 48 team hasn’t won. Michigan was the latest checked off the list, as strategy worked in their favor at a place where Lady Luck has typically bit them instead. In the course of a month, the 48 team has won three of the past four events and been reestablished as the team to beat.
So where does that leave us in terms of Johnson’s Hall of Fame career? There are four Sprint Cup tracks remaining where he hasn’t visited Victory Lane: Kentucky, Chicagoland, Watkins Glen and Homestead. All of those are once-a-year visits, tracks Johnson has come close at only to fall short … with one glaring exception. In 13 career starts at Homestead, Johnson has finished second only twice — 2004 and ’10 — while leading just 99 career laps. That’s the fewest laps led for him on any oval currently raced on the Cup circuit, throughout the course of his career, paired with a ho-hum average finish of 14.8.
Will it matter this November, considering Johnson typically ends the season finale playing defense? Perhaps not, as NASCAR’s “Final Four, Winner Take All” Chase format changes the game for everyone. But if others want to find hope, even the smallest sliver that this one’s not in the bag for the No. 48 already, they simply need to look at those numbers. We’ve got a long way to go, ladies and gentlemen, with a final round wiped clean no matter how dominant the early rounds have been. At some point for all athletes, the course of successful history gets changed, and Johnson gets thrown a curveball he just won’t handle as well as the competitors around him. Right?
We’ll leave you to stew on that while working our way up “Through the Gears,” post-Michigan …
FIRST GEAR: Wait and see until September. Or not.
The Michigan race, like so many others the past two months, brought some familiar faces to the front. Kevin Harvick led the most laps (63) only to fall short to Johnson down the stretch. Jeff Gordon, the current points leader, led 36 laps in his own right, but played the wrong strategy cards and found himself stuck in dirty air. But at a horsepower track — and an intermediate one at that (think: five of the 10 tracks this postseason) — Michigan saw the cream of the title crowd rise to the top.
Will the top candidates change much over the next few months? At least one potential Final Four driver seems to think not.
“I don’t really think there is anybody in the wings,” Brad Keselowski said. “I think the way this year’s package has kind of come together, where we’re at now is where we’re gonna be for the remainder of the year.
“You might see some small gains from some teams, but I don’t see anything significant coming. I think right now the Penske cars are probably the best when it comes to balance track-to-track. The Hendrick cars are probably the best anywhere it takes power to run — and these tracks are certainly one of those — and Kevin Harvick, his team is probably the fastest week-in and week-out, so I don’t really see that changing for the duration of the season. I think what you’re going to find in the development cycle has been kind of found by this time in the year.”
Keselowski, like other drivers, went on to mention the dominance of Hendrick Motorsports, whose teams have won the last five races in a row. That’s the first time HMS has done so since 2007, when the title Chase was made into a personal playground for Gordon and Johnson while everyone else stood around and watched. Can anyone shrink the gap at these places, where pure horsepower can often make the difference? A streak of that kind has left many borderline Chase competitors this year rather discouraged.
“Our car was really good all weekend long,” said Clint Bowyer. “It’s just tough to compete with that horsepower they’ve (Hendrick Motorsports) got right now. That’s a pretty distinct advantage when you look at the results on that. Just incredible. That deal cycles, but it sure seems like it’s pretty unfair right now.”
Like anytime in the course of history, the losers in racing are throwing out some bargaining chips to try and get NASCAR to even out the horsepower. Over the last few decades, when there’s been a glimmer of one team gaining an advantage the sanctioning body seems to step in and fix it. But I don’t see that happening here. Hendrick, which took four of the top seven spots Sunday (not counting its alliance with Harvick’s Stewart-Haas program, another four cars, and two-car Chip Ganassi Racing) controls too much of the grid to really be touched. Internally, there’s a grip on the rules package that seems further ahead than what any other team has produced. An information network bigger than anyone else on the grid ensures an ability to stay ahead of the pack, and it looks like that foresight will be respected.
Are we headed towards an all-Hendrick Final Four? Not necessarily. Kasey Kahne, still winless, may struggle to even make the Chase. But a Hendrick-aligned Final Four, involving Harvick or someone else with Hendrick support? That’s a possibility, along with a near-certainty they’ll remain at or near the top of these races between now and September. Parity has taken a back seat to progress under the new rules and the teams with the most money and information have taken that extra step forward.
SECOND GEAR: A rookie takes a step forward.
Speaking of steps, you have to give a call to rookie Kyle Larson. Having lost his rear bumper after spinning out off Turn 2 early in the race on Sunday, it looked like curtains for the No. 42 team and its streak of solid performances. A spin on pit road later in the day could have easily ended the afternoon altogether.
Instead, it turned into motivation. While the lack of a bumper actually served as an aero advantage, it also changed the handling of the car and gave Larson a new set of circumstances he managed flawlessly. An eighth-place finish lifted the rookie to eighth in points, second-best among the season’s winless drivers, and he remains in a class of his own for Rookie of the Year. More importantly, Larson even slid out front for two laps during a cycle of green-flag stops to give him experience on the point for the second time in two weeks. To learn to win races, you must first lead laps and Larson is making slow, steady progress in that direction.
“I didn’t think you could pass this many cars at Michigan,” the rookie said. “We just fought hard all day long. All-in-all, a good day. Another top 10 for us. Go on to Sonoma next week. Home state, so I will hang out with some friends, and see what we can do there.”
More than ever, it looks like those “feel good” quotes will soon be coming from Victory Lane. Larson is poised to become the first freshman to make the Chase if this streak holds since Denny Hamlin in 2006.
THIRD GEAR: Kevin Harvick’s “tough” stretch.
On the stat sheet, nothing appears wrong with Harvick and the Budweiser Chevy team. The team has run second in three of the last five races and led well over 300 laps. The problem is, those runner-up showings could have been wins if not for pit road or strategy mistakes. Harvick, who came to Stewart-Haas Racing to have the type of dominant run Johnson enjoys on a yearly basis, has seen a lot of missed opportunities.
As a veteran, you would think the driver would take the lead here; it’s a new team, essentially building through its near-misses. But Harvick, at age 38, has been continually frustrated in front of the press, calling out the crew while being snarky at times during media availability sessions. It’s a weird attitude to have while every other competitor (see above) is labeling you the fastest car on the track.
Right now under NASCAR’s new system, what happens has little impact on September through November. Harvick has made the Chase and has months to work out the kinks. But you wonder if this motivational tactic, designed to toughen up his team, will tear it apart between now and then. A five- or six-win season is still possible … as long as everyone keeps from going mental.
FOURTH GEAR: A look at Michael Waltrip Racing now.
Perhaps the most memorable Michigan accident came when Brian Vickers, a top-10 qualifier, lost it on the first lap of the race. The No. 55, which slid down the track and was t-boned by Travis Kvapil, finished dead last, his second run of 42nd or worse in three races to drop the team from eighth to 18th in points.
“It’s frustrating. I wish I knew,” Vickers said of what went wrong. “The car just came around going into (turn) three. I was trying to back the corner up and was taking it easy and just got loose and it just came around from me. I saved it all the way up to the wall and I thought I had it saved and ultimately it just came around and I lost it.”
Breezing by Vickers up the standings is Clint Bowyer, 10th at Michigan and now hanging onto a Chase bid by the skin of his teeth heading to Sonoma where the No. 15 team won two years ago. But it’s becoming increasingly clear both cars need wins in order to feel safe down the stretch. What a clear shift from two years ago, when Bowyer was second in the standings and MWR was a team on the rise. Its former driver, Martin Truex Jr., was a part of that steady build, but was released in the wake of last fall’s cheating scandal. Now, he’s also struggling to gain footing with his new team, Furniture Row Racing; they were wrecked after a streak of top-10 finishes in early June seemed to set a rhythm.
Could MWR, in an expanded Chase, get shut out altogether? Bowyer’s momentum tells me no, but it’s also still possible — which is shocking considering how much work they put into earning respect on the circuit. Instead, nine months after one of the sport’s biggest scandals, it’s clear everyone at the heart of starting it still hasn’t fully recovered as one wonders how long — or if — the healing can ever be completed.
Certainly, rookie Austin Dillon has been running better, but who would have thought the best Richard Childress Racing driver this season would be Paul Menard? Snagging a second top-5 finish Sunday (fourth), he’s the only RCR driver to earn one and is on track for a first ever Chase bid. With eight top-10 finishes in the first 15 races, he’s already one short of a career high in that category in mid-June. … Darrell Wallace Jr. became the first African-American driver ever to win two career races in one of NASCAR’s top three series, taking the checkered flag at Gateway Motorsports Park on Saturday night. Will he continue to gain support from Kyle Busch Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing going forward? With Carl Edwards rumored to a fourth JGR team for 2015 there would be no more room at the inn at that program and thus, no real reason to keep “development drivers” in the fold with no one retiring anytime soon. It’ll be interesting to see what happens as Wallace’s stock, and NASCAR’s internal preference for him as a diversity candidate, both continue to rise. … For all its high speeds, Michigan’s many wrecks knocked just two cars out of the race: Alex Bowman and Kvapil. It’s a testament to the safety of these cars that they can go over 210 mph down the straightaways, take a lickin’ and keep on tickin’. With that said, isn’t it a bit hypocritical when NASCAR says, “Hey, you can go 200-plus at Michigan but anything close to that at Daytona and Talladega and we’re reining you in with restrictor plates.”
Follow Tom Bowles on Twitter: @NASCARBowles
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.