Monday June 15th, 2009

Five things we learned on Sunday at Michigan International Speedway:

1. The stars aligned for Mark Martin.

Mark Martin is the most hard-luck driver in NASCAR today. This year alone he's blown more engines (two) than any of his Hendrick Motorsports teammates. But use a longer lens and look at his entire 25-year Cup career, and you'll see he's finished second in the final point standings a record four times, a fact that is thrown at him at least once a week. Less well known is this: Late in races while holding the lead Martin has ran out of gas -- or been forced to pit because he was on the cusp of running dry -- more than any other NASCAR driver of the last 30 years. (To read more about this, check out SI this week.)

Which was why Sunday's win was especially gratifying to the 50-year old Martin. With two laps to go in the LifeLock 400, he was in third place. Then Jimmie Johnson, the race leader, ran out of gas. Then Greg Biffle, on the final lap, went dry. This opened the door for Martin, who hadn't led a lap all day. He blew past both of them on Lap 200 of 200 to win his third race of the season. He moved from 13th to eighth in the standings.

In fact, it was Martin's position in the standings that enabled him to reach Victory Lane. While Johnson and Biffle raced each other hard and, in the process, burned valuable fuel, Martin eased off the throttle and spent the last 30 laps of the race trying to conserve fuel. It worked. "It was important to me to finish this race," Martin said. "If we were in the top five in points, I would have run out today because I would have went after it ... I just had to let them go do their thing. I couldn't save gas and run that pace that they were trying to run."

Martin is now tied with Kyle Busch for most wins in the Cup series. Expect him to take at least one more checkered flag before the Chase starts.

2. Jimmie Johnson continues to be, well, Jimmie Johnson.

It's almost as if he toys with them, the way that Johnson can overpower the field seemingly whenever it strikes his fancy. How good was he on Sunday? He led 146 of 200 laps. By lap 25, he already had a five second lead. Even though a Chevy driver had only won once in the last 15 Cup races at Michigan, Johnson had this race in the bag pretty much after the fifth lap.

Ok, so he didn't win. He ran out of gas on the penultimate lap and finished 22nd, but that was almost beside the point. Before his tank went dry, Johnson's lowest running position all day was third. "I'm trying to look at the bright side of things because we had such a dominant car," Johnson said afterward. "I will take being fast and lose some every now and then on fuel mileage."

Here's what should be most concerning about Johnson's performance to the rest of the garage: Johnson, as he's done for the last three years, is performing his best this season on tracks that are either in the Chase or possess similar characteristics to venues that are in the Chase. Michigan is nearly a carbon copy of California Speedway, which is Chase race No. 4. Three weeks ago Johnson won at Dover, which is Chase race No. 2. And earlier this year he won at Martinsville (Chase race No. 6), finished second at Texas (Chase race No. 8), and wound up fourth in Phoenix (Chase race No. 9). In other words, Johnson is still very, very much the man to beat for the championship. And as of right now, Johnson and his No. 48 team have every reason to be feeling like a fourth-straight title is theirs to lose.

3. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is -- slowly -- gaining speed.

I had a lengthy chat with Junior on Friday afternoon inside his No. 88 hauler, discussing numerous subjects for an upcoming feature in the magazine. What struck me was how upbeat he was. Even when we talked about his well-publicized struggles this year, Earnhardt was adamant that his team had turned a corner, that its slowest days were behind them. His reason for optimism? The speed with which he has clicked with his new crew chief Lance McGrew, who replaced Earnhardt's longtime crew chief, Tony Eury Jr., three weeks ago.

"I'm feeling more and more comfortable in the car," Earnhardt said. "There wasn't one problem we were having before, it was a bunch of little things. But we're getting those worked out and things are finally starting to look up."

On Saturday at Michigan, Little E was second on the speed chart during final practice. Then, after starting 30th on Sunday, he calmly worked his way up through the field and by the midway point he was in the top 10. He finished 14th and climbed from 20th to 18th in the standings. Can he make the Chase? Well, Junior has 11 races to crack the top 12. As Rick Hendrick told me on Sunday morning, "Don't count Earnhardt out just yet. Trust me, don't."

4. Manufacturing support -- across the board -- is evaporating.

This weekend word spread through the garage that GM has decided to cut back on its support of the Nationwide and truck series next season. What about the Cup series? Nothing definitive has been announced, but it stands to reason that GM, as part of its restructuring and belt-tightening, will also reduce the amount of money it spends to support its Cup teams.

How will this effect the on-track performance of the GM-backed teams such as Hendrick Motorsports next season? Very little, I think, especially given that all of the manufactures are reducing their motor sports outlays. Toyota has cut its NASCAR spending by about 20 percent and Ford has done roughly the same. Obviously, these are tough times for car companies, but in the end, I don't think this will have a dramatic impact on the competitive balance of the Cup series. But stay tuned. This will be a key storyline in 2010.

5. Juan Pablo Montoya is going to win on Sunday in Sonoma.

Just a hunch. I'll be writing more about this later this week.

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