Dale Earnhardt Jr. wins Michigan shootout
A religious person might call it divine intervention, the skeptic might say it was NASCAR giving "the call", and agnostics might call it fate. However you think about it, Dale Earnhardt Jr. wasn't the fastest car today, but he certainly was the luckiest as he ended a 76-race winless stream.
The weather was an issue at MIS once again this weekend. Qualifications were washed out, and thunderstorms narrowly missed the track at the beginning of the race. However, the sun was out for the green flag, and the darkening skies held off until the race was finished — barely, with storms threatening at the fall of the checkered flag.
On lap 3, Dave Blaney spun when he broke a rear axle. The car was eventually taken back to the garage, and returned to the track on lap 28, some 22 laps down. He finished 39th.
When the green flew again, the crowd roared its approval as Jimmie Johnson took the lead from Kyle Busch. Brian Vickers, however, was setting the fast lap mark, and by lap 14 was in 4th place. Vickers finished 8th at MIS in the August 2007 race, so his strong showing wasn't exactly a surprise. Vickers was disappointed with the end of the race, as he thought he had a car fast enough to win the race. Vickers finished 4th, and led 44 laps. It's obvious that Team Red Bull is no longer the doormat of NASCAR.
For a long time after, the race settled into a long snooze fest, which is not uncommon at Michigan. On lap 39, green flag pit stops started. When the smoke cleared on lap 44, Brian Vickers was in the lead, followed by Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards. The green flag racing continued, and on lap 78, another round of green flag stops left Matt Kenseth in the lead, followed by Brian Vickers and Kyle Busch. On lap 93, the yellow flag flew for debris. By that time, only 24 cars were on the lead lap. When the green flag flew on lap 97, Carl Edwards took the green flag on lap 97, followed by Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, Brian Vickers Jimmie Johnson.
However, cautions breed cautions, and the green flag didn't last long as the caution flew again on 102 for a spin by Kurt Busch. Team Penske had a tough day, as Ryan Newman suffered a broken driveshaft on lap 75. Sam Hornish skipped a pit stop at the end of the race to take the lead on lap 162, but cautions didn't fall his way, and he was forced to take a late pit stop for fuel. Worse yet, he spun on lap 198, setting up the final Green-White-Checker dash. Ryan finished 42nd, Busch 21st (one lap down) and Hornish 22nd.
The green flag on lap 107, with Carl Edwards once again in the lead. Roush cars traditionally do well at MIS, and by lap 114 they were running first (Kenseth), second (Edwards), sixth (Biffle), tenth (Reagan) and 19th (McMurray).
On lap 113, JJ Yeley's miserable season continued, as his motor expired on lap 113. Yeley finished 41st, and remains 38th in owner points.
Perhaps one of the more surprising stories of 2008 is the struggles of Jeff Gordon. Gordon has traditionally been strong at MIS, but something about his driving style doesn't seem to work with the newer style NASCAR Cup cars. On lap 125 he was in 20th, finished 18th, never led a lap, and was never a factor in the race. He is currently 9th in driver points, with no wins this season. For Jeff, that's a bad season.
Caution flew on lap 143, as Bobby Labonte spun into the paved infield section off of turn 2. This bunched up the field for a 100-mile dash, and Michael Waltrip topped up with fuel in hopes of a fuel mileage run to the end. However, as soon as the green flag fell Robby Gordon brought out another yellow when he was slammed into the turn 2 wall by David Ragan, finishing the wreck in turn 3. Gordon finished the race 40th, Ragan 8th, and Waltrip ended up 23rd, the last car on the lead lap.
Most of the field came into the pits in what figured to be a possible fuel run to the end. The fuel window is around 40 laps, but with help from cautions, some teams figured that they'd give it a try, or at least minimize the fuel needed in any later stop. However, Sam Hornish stayed out, and when the green flew on lap 163 he passed Jimmie Johnson for the lead for 1 lap.
By lap 180, there are two schools of thought on pit road. Some are starting to pit for fuel: Hornish is first, followed by Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Tony Stewart, Biffle, Edwards and Kenseth pit by lap 190. That left David Ragan in the lead, followed by A.J. Allmendinger, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kasey Kahne and Jamie McMurray, in what was arguably the slowest race for the lead in recent MIS history.
Allmendinger was forced to pit on lap 193. AJ enjoys a new status in the NASCAR garage, as his 5-week "vacation" while Mike Skinner drove his car ended up vindicating Allmendinger. Skinner had the same complaints, and same failures, as AJ. Even more impressive was Allmendinger's willingness to "play the game", refusing to complain and showing his support for his team during this period, while learning from Skinner how to describe a bad car to his crew in a way that leads to a solution. The team now is much improved, and today's 19th place finish shows that they are now a solid mid-pack team, albeit still out of the top 35 due to early struggles.
All of the fuel mileage gambles seemed to go out the door when Hornish spun on lap 198. After the pit stops, there were still 2 schools of thought — Dale Earnhardt Jr. was leading after rolling the fuel mileage dice, as was Mark Martin in third. When the race restarted on lap 201, Mark Martin immediately started to run out of fuel. Martin had lurked quietly all day, working his way up to the top 5, and his 25th place finish is no indication how strongly he ran. Then again, the nice part about being semi-retired is that one can take gambles like this on fuel — "We almost pulled off the top-five finish, but I guess it just wasn’t meant to be" concluded Martin.
By contrast, Dale Earnhardt had enough fuel to run to the white flag as his competitors sorted out the order behind him. In the confusion, Patrick Carpentier got punted into the front stretch wall, bringing out the caution and sealing a very popular win for Earnhardt. Earnhardt made it back to take the checkered flag, but lacked the fuel to even get to Victory Lane via the wrong way route on pit road. In other words, he probably would've run out of gas on the last lap under power if the caution hadn't come out. The crowd didn't mind the lack of a burnout, as they roared their approval as he climbed from the car. "We didn't have enough," commented Earnhardt. " We run out coming to the white, stumbled off the straightaway so we were close. We were going to stumble to the finish, probably not win the race but the caution saved us. They can write what they want but we won one."
- NASCAR's next stop is in the wine country of Sonoma, at Infineon Raceway. Unofficially, Kyle Busch (12th today) keeps his points lead going to California, followed by Jeff Burton (15th today) and Earnhardt.
- MIS spokesmen admitted to 28,000 unsold seats at MIS. At one time, MIS sold out 30 consecutive NASCAR races, with seating capacity growing from 50,000 to 137,243 (reduced to 136,384 in 2007) during that time. The last sellout race was in August, 2005. The local camp grounds had noticeably light business compared to previous years. While track officials blame high fuel prices, perhaps the real story is the net loss of 500,000 jobs in Michigan since 2001, many of which coming from manufacturing, particularly the auto industry.
- Scott Riggs will have to get into the next race on time, as his car fell to 36th in owner points, joining his team mate in that situation. Both cars suffered a 150-point penalty levied due to improper wing placement last May, and their crew chiefs remain on suspension. AJ Allmendinger will also have to qualify to get in, but he gained slightly on 35th spot. With their finishes today, Sam Hornish and Michael Waltrip are back in the top 35. Dario is in 39th spot, some 235 points behind the 35th-place car, and JJ Yeley remains in 38th spot.
- If MIS is all about horsepower, the Dodge boys seem missing a few stallions. Kasey Kahne finished second, and his team mate finished 9th, but those were the only Dodges in the top 20. Six of the bottom 13 were running Dodges. In Happy Hour practice, those same 2 Dodges were the only Mopars in the top 15. One wonders why Penske — which has Ilmor at its disposal, and is slated to produce engines next year for NASCAR's truck and Nationwide series — finds itself short of horsepower. There were, however, a large number of the new Challengers (with a Hemi!) in the parking lot.
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