Fuel mileage again dictated the end of the LifeLock 400 at Michigan International Speedway on Sunday, as 50-year-old Mark Martin found Victory Lane for the third time in a Hendrick Motorsports Chevy this year.
While it wasn’t one of NASCAR’s most exciting races this year, the drama at the end provided for a decent finish.
Here are a few things Surprising and Not Surprising from Sunday’s race.
Surprising: Mark Martin Wins on Fuel Mileage
One year after Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. coasted his No. 88 AMP Energy Chevy to Victory Lane, Martin did the same.
As the white flag flew, it was Martin’s other teammate—Jimmie Johnson—who was leading the way.
Johnson had dominated the field all afternoon and sprinted past Greg Biffle in the closing laps—appearing to be on his way to a third victory this year.
Coming off Turn Four, however, Johnson slowed and Biffle and Martin took over the top-two spots.
Martin—who was in fuel conservation mode—was racing for points and appeared headed towards a runner-up position.
“I went for the points man,” Martin said in Victory Lane. “I thought those guys were running too hard for us to save gas. I couldn’t do both—save gas and run with them. When Jimmie ran out, I said ‘we’re this close, I’m gonna run hard.’”
On the backstretch, Biffle ran out as well and Martin coasted to his third in 2009.
The win moved Martin up five spots in the championship standings to eighth-place—he entered in 13th, one point outside the Chase.
Not Surprising: Another Boring “Cookie-Cutter” Race
NASCAR’s “cookie-cutter” tracks are the reason non-fans say racing is not a sport.
Sunday was 400-miles of follow the leader—who, for most of the race, happened to be the No. 48 of Jimmie Johnson.
With only three cautions for 14 laps, NASCAR’s return to the D-shaped tracks was less than stellar and provided minor excitement.
In fact, if it had not been for the fuel problems at the end, fans would have been in for watching Johnson pull away to a couple-second lead and collect another win for Team Lowe’s.
Of the three cautions, only one had validity—a crash by David Stremme on Lap 150.
The other two were the infamous “phantom debris” cautions that NASCAR has become known for throwing when things aren’t going their way.
After exciting races the past few weekends, fans were reminded of the bad times ahead.
Luckily a road-course is on deck next weekend.
Surprising: Jimmie Johnson Runs Out of Gas for the Second Week in a Row
Is it just me, or does this guy never seem to have bad luck?
Sure, he ran out of gas last weekend as well, but still coasted to a seventh-place finish.
Sunday, Johnson was not as fortunate, as his fuel gamble cost him a win and dropped him to 22nd-place in the running order.
The good news for Johnson is that while he lost a shot at another win, he remained third in the championship standings—a comfortable 240 points ahead of 13th-place David Reutimann.
The bad news for the competition is that Johnson is on a roll—as usual—and appears to be in tip-top shape to contend for a fourth-consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship.
Not Surprising: Scott Speed Continues to Struggle
It’s got to be hard watching your teammate win poles and bring home top-five and top-10 finishes each week while you struggle to finish in the top-35.
Speed has not had the type of year anyone expected.
The former open-wheel driver crashed the NASCAR brigade full-time in 2009 and many thought he would at least be competitive some weeks.
Speed continues to battle with the No. 34 team for a spot in the top-35 and a guaranteed starting spot each weekend, but continues to fall further behind.
On weeks the No. 34 car struggles, Speed struggles more.
In Michigan, John Andretti brought the No. 34 car home a disappointing 33rd, but managed to gain valuable points on Speed, who finished 37th.
The good news for Speed is that when you finish that far back in the pack, you don’t gain many points anyway, and he only fell another 18 points behind Andretti.
The bad news is that unless things turn around, Speed may be looking at finishing the season outside the top-35, and could find himself on the outside of another spot come 2010—the No. 82 Toyota.
Surprising: Final Chase Spot Competition Heating Up
Typically, by this point in the season, NASCAR’s “playoff” field is all but set—but not this year.
With 11 races left until the cut-off, there are four drivers (Reutimann, Juan Pablo Montoya, Kasey Kahne, and Clint Bowyer) all within 100 points of 12th-place, which is held this week by Richard Childress’ Jeff Burton.
Once thought of as a long-shot to make the Chase, Brian Vickers remains in striking distance, only 136 out of 12th-place.
A few solid runs by Vickers, combined with a couple bad runs by those in front, and he could be sitting in the Chase come September.
It won’t be easy for any of the drivers outside of the 12-man field, however, as those inside will do everything possible to stay there.
Remember, those in front have an easier task ahead, than those behind.
Not Surprising: Roush Fenway Finished Strong
If Biffle had just another half-gallon of fuel, he would have been hoisting the trophy in Victory Lane instead of the 50-year-old Martin.
Roush Fenway has always been strong at MIS, and again flexed their muscles on Sunday.
While Biffle was forced to lay off the gas in the waning laps, he proved he could not only run with Johnson, but stay in front of him as well.
Along with Biffle, Carl Edwards finished in the top-five (fourth), and teammates Jamie McMurray (11th) and David Ragan (15th) finished in the top-15.
Matt Kenseth was the only RFR car to finish outside the top-15, bringing home a 20th-place finish.
Although RFR didn’t visit Victory Lane on Sunday, you can bet on them to take home a win this fall.
In the past seven years, RFR has won at least one of the MIS races, and a total of seven of the last 14 races there.
On to road-course racing.
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