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Tony Stewart out, Jeff Burton in for NASCAR weekend in Michigan


Each week, Geoffrey Miller’s “Five Things to Watch” will help you catch up on the biggest stories of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ upcoming race weekend. This week, as the circuit hits Michigan International Speedway for the Pure Michigan 400, Tony Stewart will sit for second straight race, rule changes under caution take effect, Jimmie Johnson looks to sweep and Roush Fenway Racing looks to rebound.

Tony Stewart remains out as Jeff Burton fills in

Jeff Burton will race Tony Stewart’s No. 14 Sunday at Michigan International Speedway, marking the second race in a row that the three-time series champion will have stayed on the sidelines.

You know the story. You know exactly why.

Is it the right move for Stewart to continue to stay away from the intense heat that his return (and we’re assuming he does return) will bring to major auto racing? It’s truly impossible to know. There just isn’t a playbook for this. There aren’t points on the line in tragedy. 

The situation merely demands doing everything with the best intentions in mind, and a cognizant awareness of how every move will be perceived. And it’s about doing the best thing possibly that encourages the most healing.

Kevin Ward Jr.’s family is still grieving. That’s a pain that will never cease. The sheriff’s office in upstate New York is still investigating. They hope to wrap everything up within the next 10 days. And Stewart? Who knows how he is faring? It’s probably a decade’s worth of Daytona 500s from anything resembling the emotion of fine.

All of this creates a paralyzing situation for Stewart because no amount of charity, generosity or “business as usual” will make anything better. Even logging laps in his (or any racing drivers’) most cherished space — that spot right behind the steering wheel — is no longer sacred. The reminders are too fresh, the memories are too real.

Stewart won’t race this weekend. He may not for the considerable future. In the meantime, the sport will continue its attempts to churn on — dragging an eight trillion-pound gorilla along with it.

Post-crash rules could introduce massive gray area

In the wake of last week’s gut-wrenching tragedy, many short tracks across the country adopted immediate rules barring drivers from getting out of crashed race cars until safety members are on the scene — with only an exception granted for life-threatening situations like a car fire.

NASCAR, in a scheduled press conference Friday morning at MIS, announce something similar.

On their face, the rules seem smart. They aim to prevent the exact thing that happened Saturday night when an angry driver lost his life in the name of expressing rage toward the driver in another moving vehicle. Tracks are threatening fines, expulsion and suspension for offending drivers.

They make sense, and they seem to the logical next step.

But they also introduce a litany of gray area in the rulebook to a sport already preoccupied with governing complexities at every level. Who makes the judgment call about when a car is and isn’t safe to get out of? How can it be applied evenly? Will drivers then simply wait to show anger and aggression once legally out of the car? Or will that element be banned, too? Should a sport derived for entertainment purposes make that call?

And what if a driver simply wants to emerge from his car, far from harm’s way and without ill intent? Just imagine if NASCAR’s new Chase system was substantially changed when a driver with a blown engine exits the car too early in the view of officials, but in a completely safe manner. It won’t go well for any group.

Certainly, something needs to change. You have to think the disaster is in the front of every racer’s mind in North America, if not the world. Drivers will naturally change and hopefully gauge reactionary situations in a much safer way.

Jimmie Johnson can bookend his summer slump

Just like the period between the green and checkered flags last weekend at Watkins Glen, talking about NASCAR stories and trends not related to the New York tragedy will feel a bit awkward for all involved this weekend.

But of course, the sport is continuing on. As it does, Jimmie Johnson is one guy hoping that he may have inadvertently flipped some magical switch in Michigan’s victory lane in June — back when he won his first career race at the track. Since then, the finishes of his No. 48 have fallen drastically.

The June win was Johnson’s third of the season and third in four races. Since, he has but one finish better than 10th (he was seventh at Sonoma) and has three DNFs in the seven-race span.

“We have had some really bad luck these past few weeks,” Johnson said in a team release this week. “I’m looking forward to getting back on track this weekend. The team needs a good run and I really like the track in Michigan – it’s in Chevrolet’s back yard – and it would be nice to get a sweep.”

Watch early-race pit strategy for late-race impact

The still-new pavement at Michigan has led to high speeds and a conservative approach by NASCAR’s tire supplier Goodyear with its rubber selection. As a result, changing four tires has become more rare during MIS pit stops as gas-only and two-tire stops have come in vogue. The varied pit road selection led to substantially different strategies early in the June race.

Take, for example, early race leaders Joey Logano and Jeff Gordon. Combined, the two led 65 of the race’s 100 laps but when the end of the race neared both were off sequence from Johnson and others based on a mid-race decision that saw the No. 22 and No. 24 cars take two tires while many other leaders took fuel only.

Gordon and Logano were then stuck back in the pack, amid the dreaded dirty air, and simply never made a the full rebound. 

“In June, we qualified well, ran well and had a strong car,” Gordon said. “But it was all about track position, track position, track position. We lost it, and it was tough to get back.”

Gordon wound up sixth and Logano finished eighth.

Roush-Fenway expecting better “home” track run

The roots of Jack Roush’s motor racing operations came not far from MIS in Livonia, Mich., outside of Detroit. A segment of his business still resides there despite the entirety of the Roush-Fenway Racing operation now being housed just a few miles from Charlotte Motor Speedway in North Carolina.

For whatever reason, the former proximity long seemed to play a role in Roush’s teams having success at Michigan. Perhaps it was a sense of local pride and increased effort from the shop. Maybe it was a top-level demand in order to impress Detroit executives who would stop by NASCAR’s closest race to the automotive hub. Or maybe it was just a setup discovery that led to a long-term advantage.

No matter the reason, things are different now. RFR has struggled heavily in 2014 and they came to a head in June at Michigan when the best RFR finisher was Greg Biffle in 20th, just ahead of the soon-to-be departing Carl Edwards in 23rd. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was 27th.

The poor finishes led to RFR opting for a full-team test in late July at the two-mile track to both sort handling issues and to hopefully get closer to that former edge on the competition. All three team drivers participated in the test that — should it work to perfection — could suddenly vault Biffle or Stenhouse to the Chase if a strong car manufactures an unexpected win.

That’s probably more of a pipe dream than anything, but at the very least the team will expect improvement come Sunday. It’ll be interesting to see if it can find it.

Follow Geoffrey Miller on Twitter: @GeoffreyMiller

Photo by Action Sports, Inc.