NASCAR: Round 24 – Carfax 400, Michigan International – 16 August

After two consecutive weeks of rain delays, NASCAR was looking forward to the clear weather promised by the forecasts. The race duly started on schedule … and ran seven laps before a ninja stealth shower made a direct line for Michigan International Speedway, and dropped its load. It wasn’t a lengthy shower, but it was enough to force NASCAR to throw a red flag and bring the cars in to the pit lane.

Until that point, Mark Martin had been in control of the race, having bested Brian Vickers on the outside line on the first lap. Kurt Busch had followed him threw to take up second, so now Vickers was in third ahead of Jimmie Johnson, Joey Logano and Juan Pablo Montoya. Meanwhile, at the other end of the field, Kasey Kahne, Mike Skinner and Dave Blaney had all been sent to the back of the field for engine changes, and Kahne made quick work of getting through the backmarkers to make up for the damage, working in co-operation with team mate Kyle Busch who had himself started from 39th spot.

So after a red flag lasting a little over 20 minutes, the track was dried and the cars could return to action. A few of the backmarkers opted to come in for a pit stop, including Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon, Marcos Ambrose, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Carl Edwards; 12th-placed Brad Keselowski was the highest-placed car to pit.

And finally, green flag on lap 12: Martin once again commanded from the front, but behind him it was all Jimmie Johnson who quickly established himself in second spot and set about hunting down Martin in the lead. It took until lap 24, but finally he did it, with Martin possibly distracted by intermittent comms problems. Johnson dominated the last race at Michigan and was only defeated by running out of fuel, so it seemed that he had unfinished business here and felt owed one.

Denny Hamlin was having a good stint, moving past Brian Vickers and Kurt Busch (who both came close to brushing the wall on consecutive laps) for 3rd place, with Logano and Montoya in 6th and 7th ahead of Matt Kenseth who was reporting that his engine was “sounding like a tractor” – although his pace remained impressive.

Reed Sorenson heralded the start of green flag stops on lap 38, with most of the front runners in 4-5 laps later. As pit stops cycled through, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon, Clint Bowyer, David Ragan and Carl Edwards all led a lap and gained a valuable 5pts in the Chase in doing so. A rapid pit stop put Denny Hamlin out in the lead, but Jimmie Johnson and Mark Martin quickly teamed up and corrected that state of affairs, taking back the top two spots. Vickers, Logano and Kenseth resumed the rest of the top six positions.

No sooner had the pit stop sequences been completed under green than a yellow came out, after Robby Gordon had a tyre go down and sent his Toyota into a glancing but crunching blow against the wall in turn 1. Surprisingly, almost everyone opted to return to pit road despite only having just been in – the yellow allowed them a longer stop to make adjustments that hadn’t been possible under green, with even the leader Jimmie Johnson reporting handling problems that needed addressing.

Paul Menard stayed out and briefly took the top spot at the restart on lap 58, but of the ‘real’ leaders we had Kenseth, Gordon, Ragan, David Reutimann and Vickers emerging from the pits in front of Johnson, Edwards and Martin. Johnson was quick to move up to take the lead back on lap 65, but Martin was unable to follow him through at the same pace this time. It took until lap 74 until Martin passed Kenseth for second, and Johnson managed to eke out a 3s lead at one point; but Martin continued coming remorselessly, something like the terminator, and at the stroke of the next round of green flag pit stops he passed Johnson for the lead.

The pit stops took place from lap 94 through 98, well short of the 103 lap minimum they needed if they were to make it to the end of the race on one more pit stop – a splash and dash appeared on the horizon for everyone. Johnson had the better pit stop and reclaimed the lead once more ahead of Martin, Kenseth, Bowyer, Vickers and Gordon.

A third caution came out on lap 115 for debris down the backstretch just as Johnson was hitting lapped traffic and finding his lead over Martin getting cut. It also meant that the cars could come in for a pit stop under caution, and only require one more stop after this to reach the end of the race.

Tony Stewart came out of the pits in the lead after taking only two tyres at the stop, jumping up ten spots, but the restart on lap 121 was short lived after David Ragan got spun by the softest of contacts from Kurt Busch. Kurt ended up the worse for it, bumped across the infield into a heavy contact with in the inside wall that did a lot of damage to the blue deuce. While Kurt is relatively safe in the Chase standings in 4th place, it’s not the sort of outing he was looking for at Michigan.

At the next restart on lap 126, Stewart initially resisted Johnson to hold on to the lead but quickly lost it out of turn 4. Stewart fell quickly backwards, and Denny Hamlin also reported vibration problems, and both will have been relieved to see David Ragan sent spinning through the infield for the second time today (this time by Sam Hornish – again, Ragan himself completely blameless) that brought out the fifth yellow of the afternoon on lap 132.

Now the question of whether to pit became acute, with reports of rain heading in proving a critical factor in deliberations, but Stewart and Hamlin obviously needed to come in for fresh tyres to cure their ills. None of the rest of the top 15 came in, but Kevin Harvick, Kasey Kahne and Juan Montoya all came in for fresh rubber.

The restart was held off as light drizzle made a brief appearance in pit lane, but the rain quickly moved off and the race restarted on lap 141. Almost immediately Montoya had a tyre go down and had the entire field stream past him; he managed to avoid contact with anyone or being sent spinning, and limped back to the pits without bringing out a caution. Johnson was leading, and Kenseth found himself under threat and passed by Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin before the next yellow came out on lap 145 for further light rain. Amazingly, Kyle Busch was now up in the top five for the first time all afternoon despite his 39th position start and a car that at times was handling incredibly loose. Carl Edwards rounded out the top 6, with Vickers 7th and Bowyer still strong in 8th.

It was still too far to go till the end of the race – in June, pitting on lap 151 had seen Johnson run dry before the chequered flag with disastrous results. But nonetheless, most of the cars opted to pit with David Reutimann, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Martin Truex Jr., Bill Elliott, Jeff Burton and Michael Waltrip all staying out to take the top eight spots at the restart on lap 152; Earnhardt then brought the crowd to its feet by taking the lead a couple of laps into the green flag stint.

Further back, Vickers, Hamlin and Johnson were scything through the stay-out drivers and heading for the front, but their charge was suspended by the seventh caution when David Stremme got hit into a spin by the 31 of Jeff Burton. Fortunately Stremme didn’t hit anyone or anything, and as a result everyone now had the chance to top up with fuel if they needed and make it to the end of the race. But Vickers, Johnson, Kenseth and Harvick were among the top 14 leaders to gamble on staying out: would it work for them, or would it be another fuel heartbreak for Johnson at Michigan? Kyle Busch won the race off pit road but he was now back in 15th.

The green flag came out on lap 162 and the race was on, but the leaders needed some laps under caution to stave off disaster. Johnson took back the lead on lap 166 and he and Vickers seemed intent on going for a big lead despite the cost in fuel, while on the opposite strategy Martin yielded 3rd to Gordon and subsequently 4th to Edwards as he opted to focus on saving fuel. But if fuel did prove the decisive factor, it was looking increasingly like Dale Earnhardt Jr. – the top car in 6th spot to have pitted the last time around, and the fastest car on track in its own right – was in the box seats, passing the sinking Martin for the 5th spot on lap 181.

The laps ticked down, and tension mounted; and there was no caution. Surely lightning wouldn’t strike Johnson a second time in succession here? Well – yes it would. With two laps to go, the 48 ran dry and crawled into the pits, defeated. Martin was also to run dry before the chequered flag. But Vickers and Gordon had managed to save enough fuel, thwarting Earnhardt’s hope of a return to form to secure 1st and 2nd place at the end of lap 200.

By making his fuel stretch where the reigning champion had been unable to, Vickers took the win – giving Red Bull their first ever Sprint Cup victory, while also giving his own chances of making the Chase a significant boost at a critical moment.

Race result

FIN ST  CAR DRIVER             MAKE      PTS/BNS LAPS  STATUS
1   1   83  Brian Vickers      Toyota    190/5   200   
2   21  24  Jeff Gordon        Chevrolet 175/5   200   
3   15  88  Dale Earnhardt Jr. Chevrolet 170/5   200   
4   32  99  Carl Edwards       Ford      165/5   200   
5   14  77  Sam Hornish Jr.    Dodge     155/0   200   
6   42  07  Casey Mears        Chevrolet 150/0   200   
7   8   20  Joey Logano *      Toyota    146/0   200   
8   23  33  Clint Bowyer       Chevrolet 147/5   200   
9   31  00  David Reutimann    Toyota    143/5   200   
10  16  11  Denny Hamlin       Toyota    139/5   200   
11  10  9   Kasey Kahne        Dodge     130/0   200   
12  22  29  Kevin Harvick      Chevrolet 127/0   200   
13  20  12  David Stremme      Dodge     124/0   200   
14  25  17  Matt Kenseth       Ford      126/5   200   
15  7   39  Ryan Newman        Chevrolet 118/0   200   
16  9   21  Bill Elliott       Ford      115/0   200   
17  18  14  Tony Stewart       Chevrolet 117/5   200   
18  27  31  Jeff Burton        Chevrolet 109/0   200   
19  3   42  Juan Montoya       Chevrolet 106/0   200   
20  17  16  Greg Biffle        Ford      103/0   200   
21  5   1   Martin Truex Jr.   Chevrolet 100/0   200   
22  13  44  A.J. Allmendinger  Dodge     97/0    200   
23  39  18  Kyle Busch         Toyota    94/0    200   
24  12  25  Brad Keselowski    Chevrolet 91/0    200   
25  34  19  Elliott Sadler     Dodge     88/0    200   
26  35  98  Paul Menard        Ford      90/5    200   
27  30  55  Michael Waltrip    Toyota    87/5    200   
28  29  34  John Andretti      Chevrolet 79/0    200   
29  40  43  Reed Sorenson      Dodge     76/0    200   
30  37  6   David Ragan        Ford      78/5    200   
31  2   5   Mark Martin        Chevrolet 75/5    200   
32  19  26  Jamie McMurray     Ford      67/0    200   
33  4   48  Jimmie Johnson     Chevrolet 74/10   200   
34  11  82  Scott Speed *      Toyota    61/0    200   In Pit
35  26  47  Marcos Ambrose     Toyota    58/0    200   
36  6   2   Kurt Busch         Dodge     55/0    146   In Pit
37  24  7   Robby Gordon       Toyota    52/0    97    In Pit
38  28  09  Mike Bliss         Dodge     49/0    62    Out
39  38  187 Joe Nemechek       Toyota    46/0    40    Out
40  36  171 David Gilliland    Chevrolet 43/0    39    In Pit
41  43  36  Mike Skinner       Toyota    40/0    33    In Pit
42  41  66  Dave Blaney        Toyota    37/0    18    In Pit
43  33  96  Bobby Labonte      Ford      34/0    18    Out 

Sprint Cup Standings

The biggest blunder of the day was that of Mark Martin’s team: whereas Johnson is safe in the Sprint Cup standings and could afford to run dry without disastrous consequences, Martin’s very much on the bubble and the fuel gamble could put him out of contention – he’s just 12 pts shy of losing his spot to Brian Vickers.

Kyle Busch’s late race sink down the positions puts him even further out of the Chase especially after the success of Vickers and Clint Bowyer who finished 8th. Kurt Busch’s retirement on lap 146 costs him a couple of places but isn’t as bad as it could have been – he still looks pretty safe with three races still to go.

    +/- DRIVER              PTS     BEHIND  ST  P   W   T5  T10
1   --  Tony Stewart        3500    Leader  23  0   3   13  18
2   +1  Jeff Gordon         3216    -284    23  0   1   11  16
3   -1  Jimmie Johnson      3197    -303    23  1   3   9   14
4   +2  Carl Edwards        2995    -505    23  0   0   7   11
5   --  Denny Hamlin        2986    -514    23  0   1   7   11
6   -2  Kurt Busch          2957    -543    23  0   1   6   12
7   --  Juan Montoya        2887    -613    23  1   0   1   11
8   --  Kasey Kahne         2884    -616    23  0   1   4   9
9   --  Ryan Newman         2845    -655    23  1   0   5   9
10  --  Greg Biffle         2821    -679    23  0   0   7   10
11  +1  Matt Kenseth        2811    -689    23  1   2   4   8
12  -1  Mark Martin         2791    -709    23  4   4   6   11
======== CHASE FOR THE Sprint CUP - CURRENT CONTENDERS =======
13  +1  Brian Vickers       2779    -721    23  6   1   4   11
14  +1  Clint Bowyer        2733    -767    23  0   0   4   10
15  -2  Kyle Busch          2721    -779    23  1   3   5   7
16  --  David Reutimann     2673    -827    23  2   1   4   7
17  --  Marcos Ambrose      2474    -1026   23  0   0   3   6
18  --  Jeff Burton         2459    -1041   23  0   0   2   6
19  --  Joey Logano*        2426    -1074   23  0   1   1   5
20  +1  Casey Mears         2354    -1146   23  0   0   0   3
21  +4  Dale Earnhardt Jr.  2278    -1222   23  0   0   2   4
22  -2  Jamie McMurray      2273    -1227   23  0   0   0   3
23  -1  Kevin Harvick       2251    -1249   23  0   0   2   3
24  -1  Martin Truex Jr.    2217    -1283   23  1   0   0   3
25  -1  A.J. Allmendinger   2206    -1294   23  0   0   1   3
26  +2  Sam Hornish Jr.     2176    -1324   23  0   0   2   6
27  -1  Elliott Sadler      2170    -1330   23  0   0   1   3
28  +1  Reed Sorenson       2087    -1413   23  0   0   0   1
29  -2  Bobby Labonte       2065    -1435   23  0   0   1   1
30  --  David Ragan         2065    -1435   23  0   0   0   1
31  --  David Stremme       1980    -1520   23  0   0   0   0
32  --  Paul Menard         1919    -1581   23  0   0   0   0
33  --  Robby Gordon        1833    -1667   23  0   0   1   1
34  --  Michael Waltrip     1799    -1701   21  0   0   0   1
35  --  Scott Speed*        1600    -1900   22  0   0   1   1
36  --  John Andretti       1571    -1929   21  0   0   0   0
37  --  David Gilliland     1230    -2270   21  0   0   0   0
38  --  Regan Smith          989    -2511   11  0   0   0   0
39  +1  Brad Keselowski      878    -2622   8   0   1   1   3
40  -1  Joe Nemechek         844    -2656   18  0   0   0   0
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