After a week off while we relaunched our new sports-glutton.com, NASCAR Sprint Cup (NSC) coverage is back. Drivers braved the newly paved “Tricky Triangle” at Pocono last week, where the racing surface reportedly is now closer to that of a road course (so say the drivers), and combined with the shortened race length from 500 miles to 400 (Thank You, NASCAR, for not making it a SNOOZER!), this race was one of the better runs in recent memory here. Joey Logano, after his win the previous week at Dover in the Nationwide Series race, managed to get up front and stay there, capturing his second NSC victory in the Pocono 400 presented by #NASCAR. Mark Martin, running strong all day, finished second, followed by Tony Stewart, a resurgent Jimmie Johnson, and Denny Hamlin. Clint Bowyer, Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr, Paul Menard, and Jamie McMurray rounded out the top ten. Some great racing took place on this new track surface and we’re in for even more speed this week at the Michigan International Speedway (MIS) with the Quicken Loans 400 and the fifteenth race of the 2012 NSC season.
With the new asphalt surface at MIS, NASCAR drivers took to the track for a rare Thursday open practice to test out the new racing potential. Speeds for fourteen drivers were well in excess of 200 miles per hour on this 2-mile D-shaped oval, causing concern from those who get antsy when they see speeds that fast, even to the extent of a buzz around the track that brought the question of whether restrictor plates would be required. Drivers were running so fast, that NASCAR officials called for a special additional practice, with the use of a new tire compound from the Goodyear Eagles, in an effort to slow the speeds down somewhat.
Will we see actual race conditions with speeds above the 200mph mark? I’m guessing speeds may hover around 200, but drivers will likely be in the sub-200 mph range under racing conditions.
Coors Light Pole Award winner Marcos Ambrose was clocked at a blistering 203.241, among nineteen drivers who broke the 200mph barrier, so we know these cars are fast. The additional Saturday night practice may be a key indicator, as we’ll find out what the new left side tires from Goodyear will actually do. Either way, the notebooks from years past are thrown out for this race, just like so many other races on newly paved tracks this year. But we’ll see what transpires when the Green Flag waves.
The broadcast day for the Quicken Loans 400 starts Sunday at 10am EDT with NASCAR Raceday Pre-Race show on SPEED, NASCAR Pre-Race on TNT, with the actual race coverage at 1pm EDT. The Army Chorus A Capella group will perform the National Anthem, with Detroit Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard and his father James Howard II giving the Command to Fire Engines for this Father’s Day race. The Green Flag will wave at approximately 1:16pm EDT, with Detroit Lions center Dominic Raiola on top the starter’s tower. It’ll be 200 laps around this oval, with the drivers racing through the 18-degree banked turns. Many favorites out there for this race, particularly with the speeds we’ve seen so far; this track is the site of Dale Earnhardt’s last win now four years ago, and Jr Nation will continue in its hopes that this will be the week to finally break the streak.
Best Bets: One Ford and one Chevy could be leading the field most of the day.
Greg Biffle (#16 3M/RiteAid/NexCare Ford)- The Biff has been strong, and continues to run up front. His two wins, seven top-five, and ten top-ten finishes at MIS, plus his win, seven top-five, and eight top-ten finishes so far this season puts him in one of his best positions to contend for the Sprint Cup in recent years. Unfortunately Biffle’s 24th place finish last week knocked him out of the second position in the points standings. Aside of a 2oth-place finish last fall, Greg has been no worse than fifteenth in the last four races, including a fourth-place finish in the summer 2010 race at MIS. He’ll start behind the Pole-sitter Marcos Ambrose, and won final practice.
Kevin Harvick (#29 Budweiser Folds of Honor Chevy)- Ol’ Harv had posted about the best speeds so far this weekend, qualifying second and running third in final practice. He’s got a win, three top-five, and seven top-ten finishes at MIS, and has gotten three top-five and seven top-ten finishes this season. Harvick’s also pretty evenly-matched with finishes that were no worse than 22nd, and a win in the summer 2010 race here. Happy has finished in the top eight in the last four intermediate track races, and posted a top-four and a win on the last two 2-mile tracks. Might see some good racing between he and Biffle.
Probables: Never count out these two, although I’d give an edge to one.
Jimmie Johnson (#48 Lowe’s Chevy)- Jimmie has gotten back in the groove this season, and has managed to climb his way back in the top five in NSC points. His fourth-place finish last week, despite two Pit Road speeding penalties, tells one that he’s still a force to be reckoned with. Aside of a poor showing in this race last year, he hasn’t been worse than twelfth at MIS. Johnson’s finished in the top-ten on the last 2-mile track races, including two runner-up showings. He’s still scoreless here at Michigan, but has three top-five and eight top-ten finishes. Jimmie’s two wins, seven top-five, and ten top-ten finishes this season put him among the best performers this season. He’ll roll off tenth, and was seventh in final practice.
Matt Kenseth (#17 Ford EcoBoost Ford)- Matt took over the top spot in NSC standings last week, following Greg Biffle’s issues. He’s been a top performer here, recording two wins, eleven top-five, and sixteen top-ten finishes. No worse than fourteenth in the last four races at MIS, he’s recorded top-ten finishes in three of the last four 2-mile track races. Kenseth has been really strong this year, with two wins, seven top-five, and ten top-ten finishes. He and Johnson will likely be going door-to-door quite a bit like Biffle and Harvick. Kenseth will start sixth, and was tenth-fastest in Happy Hour practice.
Dark Horses: Dark could be the right color this weekend…
Denny Hamlin (#11 FedEx Office Toyota)- Denny has been plagued with multiple engine issues this year, yet has still managed to put up two wins, five top-five, and six top-ten finishes. He’s got two wins, five top-five, and seven top-ten finishes here in Michigan, and is riding a streak of three wins in a row here for the Spring races. Those engine issues, coupled with the problems teammate Kyle Busch has encountered, only puts him in a DH position for me this week, although I know he has the consistency and talent to place well. Could this be a bit of luck, since Hamlin’s starting eleventh and was eleventh-fastest in final practice for the number 11 car? We’ll have to wait and find out if the black FedEx Toyota can get, and stay, up front.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr (#88 Diet Mt Dew/The Dark Knight Arises/National Guard Chevy)- Jr is sporting a paint scheme that was selected by his fans, commemorating the upcoming release of the newest Batman movie. Jr’s been the most consistent driver this season, with five top-five and eleven top-tens despite not scoring a win. This weekend will also be the anniversary of his last win, right here at MIS in 2008. He’s scored that one win, ten top-five, and eighteen top-ten finishes at MIS.Just one win, four top-five, and eight top-ten finishes, doesn’t make Jr the top pick, but one can’t help but wonder if HE is really Batman. While he only starts seventeenth and was twenty-fifth in final practice, he was second-fastest in the first practice session. Jr’s ready, Jr Nation is ready. We’ll have to wait and see what “Mr. Consistency” will do.
I’d also keep an eye on Carl Edwards, but he had engine issues and didn’t even complete a qualifying run on Saturday. He may have to start at the back of the field with an engine change, but he may be a factor. Kyle Busch is in the same position, having suffered a couple blown engines this year.
“Tall Cotton” no more: Cotton Owens, NASCAR pioneer and newly-elected NASCAR Hall of Fame Inductee, passed away this past week at 88. It’s a shame that while he was voted into the HoF, he will not be present when he’s inducted next January. Brian France, NASCAR Chairman and CEO, commented, “NASCAR has lost one of its true pioneers…people like Cotton Owens are the reason our sport thrives today — and can look forward to a promising future.” (Pete Pistone, CBSSports.com)
Speed Demons: It may be true that NSC drivers were hoping for some good speeds at MIS, but last week’s Pocono 400 busted a lot of them. There were a record 22 pit road speeding penalties doled out to 14 drivers last Sunday, with the majority of them from drivers exiting Pit Road too fast. This gave rise to a flurry of questions and concerns about the new timing lines at MIS. Robin Pemberton, NASCAR vice president of competition, tried to dispel the concerns: “All of our inputs were correct. The dimensions (of the pit road segments in which cars are clocked) were correct. We go out of our way to not penalize — contrary to popular belief. We’ll go back and make sure if, for some strange reason, something went wrong, but we haven’t seen that.”
These penalties came as a surprise to many of these drivers, including Jimmie Johnson (busted more than once). One item of note–while there is a posted speed limit on Pit Road, there is a 5mph buffer for the drivers before they’re busted for a penalty, plus the drivers typically have a light that will illuminate in the cockpit of their cars when they’re exceeding the speed limit. Driver and crew chiefs alike look to take advantage of every opportunity they can during a race; if one is busted speeding, they probably deserve it. (NASCAR Wire Service)
So we’re off again in the Irish Hills of Michigan. Tune in to your local Motor Racing Network affiliate, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio (Channel 90), or to TNT for all the action. I will be traveling back to the east coast from a quick business trip to Las Vegas; I hate to say it, but I’m actually hoping that the 60-70% chance of rain will delay the race just long enough for me to get back to Atlanta and in position. But even if it does rain, MIS will have eight jet dryers on hand to get the track surface dry again. If it does rain, expect all that rubber laid in over the last few days to be washed out, NASCAR to throw a competition caution early in the race (probably lap 20), and some serious adjustments to be made by the teams. I’ll be on Twitter (@speedglutton) as I’m able to get to the computer.
Tomorrow is Father’s Day, and in what one would consider “fitting”, we have a race to watch. To all the fathers out there, including my own, thanks for all that you have done, and continue to do for your children. Anyone can be a father, but it takes special men to be Dads.
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