Dropping The Hammer: A Preview of The Carfax 400 at Michigan

Rob TiongsonSenior Analyst IAugust 15, 2009

BROOKLYN, MI - JUNE 14: Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe's Chevrolet, leads the field during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series LifeLock 400 at Michigan International Speedway on June 14, 2009 in Brooklyn, Michigan.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Jimmie Johnson was like the teenaged boy who was having about the most perfect date on a summer night with the cutest girl in the neighborhood when the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series last competed at Michigan.

We'll call this boy Jimmy just so we won't confuse the two men from their experiences (and perhaps expose a story about Mr. Johnson himself!).

He wore a really nice outfit, said the right things, took her to a wonderful restaurant, promised to buy her Beatles: Rock Band, and got ready to take her back to her house.

Suddenly, his car ran out of fuel at a place far from the nearest gas station in the town, and you could pretty much start the sympathy game for this poor young chap.

Shannon got upset at Jimmy because she would be getting home late from their date, prompting her to dump the young man right on the spot.

From the most wonderful night of his life to the most abominable of experiences, Jimmy would move on from that date, becoming a successful musician and the manager of a illustrious rock band.

And life was fine afterwards...

The end!

Well, in the case of Johnson, he was dominating the Lifelock 400 two months ago, just three laps away from capturing his third win of the 2009 season.

Despite leading for a race-high 146 laps, Johnson's No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet ran out of fuel, sputtering to the finish to a disappointing 22nd place result.

Since that heartbreaking race at the Brooklyn, Mich. facility, Johnson has averaged a seventh place finish, including a victory at Indianapolis.

Along with Denny Hamlin and the No. 11 FedEx Toyota team, Team 48 has been the consistent threat on the tour, showing flashes of the group that has won the past three Sprint Cup championships.

While some drivers are vying for a spot in the Chase, Johnson and his crew will be seeking for redemption at MIS in the Carfax 400 (Live, Sunday at 2 p.m. EDT on ESPN) .

In his previous 15 starts, the El Cajon, Calif. native has collected two top-fives and six top-10s at the two-mile speedway.

Besides the road courses and Bristol Motor Speedway, it is safe to say that Michigan
"owes" one for Johnson.

His story is one of 42 that will be followed all weekend long from the lucious Irish Hills at this beautiful facility.

How will Jeff Burton, Jeff Gordon, and Sam Hornish Jr. fare following their grinding, tremendous crash at Watkins Glen?

Will Tony Stewart continue his summer streak with win number four on Sunday?

What about the drivers on the bubble, from seventh place Juan Pablo Montoya to Matt Kenseth, who sits in the 12th and final spot in the Chase?

Is Kyle Busch going to bounce back from his summer of discontent with a strong finish?

All those, along with the typical fuel mileage drama, are some off the storylines to watch with this Sunday's Carfax 400.

Drivers To Follow

Mark Martin has got to be thrilled that the circuit is heading back to Michigan, having won the June race after teammate Jimmie Johnson fell out of contention with a sputtering gas tank.

Other than his win at Chicagoland, it has been an inconsistent seven race stretch for the best driver never to win a championship.

Martin has fallen from a comfortable top-ten position to suddenly finding himself on the cusps of losing a chance at the glorious Cup trophy.

That said, their summer skid should end at Michigan with a strong run and finish, as the No. 5 Kellogg's Chevy traditionally performs well at this wide, smooth track.

The ageless wonder leads all active drivers with five wins, giving him the "Next Best Pick" for you Fantasy Racing owners and players out there.

There's a reason why Michigan is called the "House of Roush," as his drivers have combined to win six times in the past decade.

You cannot go wrong with Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, and Matt Kenseth, who are customary frontrunners at the manufacturer's backyard.

Biffle and Edwards might be more apt to go for the win, whereas their teammate Kenseth might opt for the conservative, safe top-10 finish to solidify their chances for the Chase.

Tony Stewart may have only one win at this track, coming back in June of 2000 in a rain-shortened 400-miler, but he is a consistent frontrunner, logging in nine top-fives and 14 top-10 finishes in 21 starts.

With his Chase seed locked up, the No. 14 team can experiment with any element of their set-up before the games really matter come mid-September.

Perhaps this Sunday's race as well as the month-finale race in Atlanta will serve as a barometer to Smoke's performances down the stretch.

Why so? Because Michigan and Atlanta are quite similar to the other tracks comprising the Chase like Charlotte (Sorry, Lowe's), Texas, and Auto Club Speedway.

Other dark horses include Kasey Kahne, who has that June '06 victory to his credit, along with Brian Vickers (another driver that Michigan "owes" a win to), Martin Truex Jr., and Juan Pablo Montoya.

Rob's Rant...

Anyone fed up with the way Mother Nature has played a role with this year's races? I don't know about you, but having races on Mondays is about the biggest tease since Monday Night Football. Way to go, rain, way to go!

Kidding aside, I was a bit shocked that NASCAR did not opt to utilize the rain tires.

Yes, the results at Montreal last year were an utter disaster, but with more exposure to the tires and paraphernalia necessary to run in the rain, these competitors would probably have the driveablity out there like us road warriors.

While I am not the biggest Dale Earnhardt Jr. fan, I was quite pleased to see him taking a stand against the powers of NASCAR.

Arguably the face of the sport, despite his limited success in recent years, his comments serve notice to how mind-boggling and mediocre the races have become with the Car of Tomorrow.

Like I said in my article a few days ago, I applaud NASCAR for building and implementing the COT with its safety features.

It quite possibly saved the lives of Jeff Burton, Jeff Gordon, and Sam Hornish Jr. at most, and at the very least, spared them from serious injury.

But as Earnhardt Jr. pondered, perhaps NASCAR should allow the teams to tweak up their cars such as the case with their predecesor vehicle.

And yea, I'm going to put on my DuPont Motorsports cap on here, but for those who think that Gordon ought to retire, reconsider your thoughts and statements very carefully.

Danger is a part of the game and the risk of death is possible at any given moment Four-Time climbs into his DuPont Chevrolet, be it a practice session, qualifying round, happy hour, or the race itself.

That said, every great driver has that "Slumpdog Millionaire" of a struggle during the season, lasting from a race to perhaps a five race portion. It is during this period where we find out just how talented and resilient a team is under adversity.

If any team out there knows how to handle the highest of times and the lowest of moments in NASCAR racing, it's that No. 24 crew and Gordon.

Enjoy the race, wherever you are!


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