Friday, August 15, 2008

Sprint Cup Drivers Invade Michigan's Irish Hills Looking for a Leprechaun's Pot of Gold at the Checkered Flag

Four Races To Go Before The Chase Is Set

If there’s such a thing as getting back to normal in Sprint Cup Racing, that’s what’s in store for the Chase Chasers and the rest of the field as they set up shop in the Irish Hills area of southern Michigan about 74 miles west of downtown Detroit, the Motor City, the hometown for Ford, GM, and Chrysler where in decades past one would face ridicule for daring to drive a Japanese automobile. But all that’s turning upside down when Toyota Camry’s are built in Lafayette, Indiana, just the next state down, and Georgetown, Kentucky. The Dodge and Chevy entries are made in Toronto suburbs in Canada. In the land of Henry Ford where do the 'blue ovals" come from? The Fords, well..they’re built in the south, way down south, as in Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico!!! Confused, the American cars aren’t made in America and the Japanese are, and some folks still call NASCAR racing “stock” cars, YEAH RIGHT!!!

So what is normal? At Michigan International Speedway, there are no left turns, no tunnel turns, and no diamond grooved pavement, none of the crazy stuff from the last three events. Michigan is just a great big two mile “D” shaped oval with 18o banking. Since this is the template for the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, CA, and the tracks in Chicagoland and Kansas are essentially smaller versions, how normal can it get?

Past performance at Michigan might not be helpful as this will be only the second COT race at the Speedway. The trend that the Michigan races tend to be fuel mileage pit strategy races should still hold true. Michigan had been a track that favored Fords and Dodges in recent years, but that fell by the wayside with Dale Earnhardt Jr. taking the checkered flag in the first Michigan race in June. Each manufacturer was represented in the top four. How democratic can you get?

In the “Chase for the Chase,” there appears to be little chance of any driver surpassing Kyle Busch’s massive lead. Between his lead in points and victories, he has all but clinched the top position after the top ten is scrambled into chase configuration. Of the remaining drivers all but locked in, Dale Earnhardt Jr. could be the driver with the most to prove as he had been maintaining the second spot but fell back to fourth after poor driver/crew chief communications once again soured the #88 car’s results. Those kind of mistakes not being in sync when to pit and burying the car deep in the field cannot happen in the chase as the stakes are high and the impact of mistakes lethal in full-blown championship contention. Tony Stewart still has not won a race. His second half performance is stronger but he has yet to come on like gangbusters which is typical Tony Stewart second half style. Carl Edwards has been strong all year, but a handful of disastrous finishes has cost him higher positions. Jeff Gordon, wow, a commentator was actually wondering if Gordon was starting to show signs of slowing down due to age. The kid is getting old. Really? It’s been a difficult year for the #24, though posting eight top 5’s, accidents and mechanical problems have taken their toll. One sign of Gordon getting older, he doesn’t get the booing and sneering that used to be routine on most Sundays. The Gordon haters have found new drivers as targets for their wrath and when has there been a driver fans love to hate like Kyle Busch. Gordon is now something like the elder statesman of NASCAR, the kid, we’re talking about. Meanwhile, Jeff Burton has hung right in there dazzling no one, but quietly staying at the higher end of the hunt.

The real contest for the chase is from Gordon at #5 in the standings 126 points ahead of Matt Kenseth in 12th place and 148 points ahead of Clint Bowyer in 13th. David Ragan’s shot at the Chase 89 points behind Kenseth were pretty much vanquished by his performance at Watkins Glen. The action for the Chase has a 215 point spread between Jeff Gordon and David Ragan, but realistically, it’s becoming a matter of who can Clint Bowyer possibly knock out of the way with four races to go before the Chase is set. Denny Hamlin, Greg Biffle, Kevin Harvick, and Kenseth are within 100 points of his reach.

The other contest is for the bottom feeders trying to stay with in the top 35 to be assured of a starting spot the following week hoping to be at 35th or above as that position determines who’s assured of starting at Daytona and the first four races of next year. Looking at the “hot seat” contestants, Michael Waltrip holds 33rd at 1682 points, Roger Penske’s #77 car driven by Sam Hornish stands at 34th, the final car assured of a starting spot is the #84, A.J. Allmendinger driving with 1669 points. Just eight points down in the “go or go home” club is the #00 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota which will be handled by veteran driver, Mike Skinner through Richmond when rookie, Michael McDowell will reassume the ride. Haas Racing #66 is two spots out in 36 with Scott Riggs currently at the controls, 1638 points. After the 37th spot, there is a long stretch in points down to the Gillett/Evernham #10 car piloted by Patrick Carpentier one of this year’s open wheel rookies. From that point on there is even more ground to be made up fort the rest of the field with the Wood Brothers and a revolving cast of characters attempting to race the #21 Ford in 42nd place with only 1241 points.

With almost half the field having a lot at stake, conditions are ripe for a very significant race on Sunday. The drivers are still learning how the new car manages the Michigan asphalt. There is no room for the kind of inexperienced driver fool play like what was going on between the #00 and the #28 at Watkins Glen. Michigan is not known as a track that sets the stage for “the big one” but given so much at stake, many inexperienced drivers, and a new car in its second race at the track, all bets are off.

And then there were four…..

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