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Sprint Cup in the Irish Hills of Michigan – random observations

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So I have finally gotten down to commenting on my experiences at the Cup race in Michigan last weekend. The Michigan International Speedway, is the closest big oval for Toronto-area fans and the promoters claim that despite some fall-off in the total number of fans in attendance the numbers of fans coming from Canada continues to grow. They expected Canadians to make up about 20 per cent of the crowd for this June race.

Crowd estimates are always a bit suspect and subject to differences of opinion. The official crowd count was 100,000 for race day. My best estimate was that at least two-thirds of the seats were filled. If you accept their count that there are 135,000 seats and discount their claim of 10,000 in the infield (2500 would likely be high) you are still looking at better than 80 or 90 thousand in attendance – not too shabby in these troubled times.

The wide track with its long sweeping corners produces high speeds but it allows the drivers to take a number of different lines, letting them race side-by-side through the corners. While this can produce some exciting battles between evenly-matched cars, it can also produce a somewhat processional race with few caution periods. This race gave us more like the latter with the first caution coming near half-distance, the first of only three cautions. The final caution came on lap 151 of the 200-lap race, setting up a fuel economy run to the end.

Jimmie Johnson and Greg Biffle had been strong runners throughout the race and as the race wound down to the end, it looked like Johnson was going to hold off Biffle, but Johnson ran out of gas with two laps to go with Biffle running dry on the next lap. This let Mark Martin inherit the lead and, even though he too ran out of gas coming off the final turn, he coasted across the line to take the win – his third win this year.

If we awarded the championship based on race wins, Martin would have stood tied with Kyle Busch for the lead in the championship standings. That sounds fair to me.

As is often the case, the action in the supporting races may have been more interesting that the Cup race. On Saturday, Kyle Busch was again dominant in the truck race but young Colin Braun, driving a Roush truck, was also fast and, with 23 laps to go in the 100-lap race, Busch went low to go around a lapped truck while Braun went high. Busch was pinched off a bit and Braun come out of the three-abreast formation in the lead. And he had enough speed to hold off Busch the rest of the way under green. Up to then, Busch had been in command and had led most of the race laps.

As is usual for Kyle, he did not accept defeat gracefully, but he did accept that the loss was his fault. Moodily he predicted that he would again finish second in his next race, the Nationwide race to be run later that evening.
Busch flew off to the Kentucky Speedway and got there early enough to qualify the car. He put it on provisional pole but he was beat out by his teammate Joey Logano. In the race, Busch again demonstrated his dominant style, leading the most laps. But Busch’s pessimistic prediction came true: teammate Logano proved to be faster in the end and he powered past him after the final restart leaving Busch with another sour-grapes second-place finish. On Sunday, Busch never figured in the Cup race and he wound up with a 13th-place finish.

Most drivers would be overjoyed with the results Busch has achieved in any one of the three series this year – but Busch’s obvious talent has created high expectations, leaving him desolate when he fails to close the deal race after race. Unless Busch’s emotions get the better of him, he still could be champion of both the Nationwide and the Cup Series this year. The key to the Cup championship is a string of ten good, solid finishes in the Chase and Busch may be able to pull that off.

The speedway has had a number of improvements made since my last visit and they proudly announced plans to replace the suites and pressroom complex behind the pits with an upgraded, “green” version. This race saw the introduction of a new scoreboard in the centre of the infield. Unfortunately, just because something’s newer and more complex with more bells and whistles doesn’t always mean it’s better. The new scoreboard is a case in point. The function of a scoreboard is to tell you which lap the cars are on and the race order. The ideal is one like the one at the Indy 500 which lists all 33 cars in the field – and displays this all the time so you can get the information instantly in a glance.

The new MIS scoreboard almost totally fails to provide this information in a useful fashion. The creators have decided that the race fan wants a whole array of different graphics in rotation. One part of this rota is the race order but they only display about five car numbers at once. So, if you want to see where your favourite driver is – or check the running order after a series of pit stops – you have to concentrate on watching all the video graphics as they rotate through until you finally glean the information you were looking for. Meanwhile, your attention has been diverted from the racing action. It would have been a lot cheaper to duplicate the scoring pole at Indianapolis or Daytona - but, then they would not have been able to sell all those advertising graphics that clutter up the display.

This was the second race under the new double-file-restart rule. Unlike Pocono, you go a lap down if you pit under green so the strategy of getting back on the lead lap by not pitting under caution proved to be pretty much useless because, not long after the restart you have to pit under green and give back the lap you picked up from the wave-around. Given that the track is so wide, the cars are easily able to run side-by-side so the restarts went off without much fuss. Restarts on the Sonoma road course promise to be something else ...

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