Monday August 17th, 2009

Five things we learned on Sunday at Michigan International Speedway:

1. Brian Vickers is coming on.

Vickers arrived in the Irish Hills of Michigan on Friday knowing that he needed a top-10 run -- minimum -- to keep his hopes of making the Chase alive. With four races left in the regular season, he was in 14th place and even he admitted he was something of a long shot to crack the top 12 before the start of the Chase. This meant he was free to do something that other drivers trying to protect their positions in the standings couldn't: gamble.

Then on Friday Vickers won the pole -- his series best sixth of the season. Once the green flag dropped on Sunday, he consistently stayed in the lead pack and flashed impressive speed on the straightaways and handling through the corners. With 51 laps to go, Vickers and the rest of the leaders pitted under the yellow flag. The fuel window for most of the cars was 48 laps, so this meant that the leaders would likely have to make one more stop before the end of the race.

But Vickers -- along with Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and several other drivers -- stayed out on the track when the caution flag came out with about 40 laps to go. Vickers has always excelled at conserving gas, so he felt confident that he could stretch his fuel mileage and make it to the finish. Once the race restarted, he patiently followed Johnson around the track in second place, lifting off the throttle as much as possible to save all the gas he could.

As laps wound down, Vickers continued to bide his time. He eventually reached Johnson's bumper, but instead of flooring it for the pass, he drafted off Johnson, conserving more fuel. With two laps left, Johnson's tank ran dry, Vickers claimed the lead and coasted to a surprisingly easy victory. It was his first win in 87 starts and it was Toyota's first victory at Michigan, which is the backyard track for the Big Three American automakers in Detroit. You can be sure that Lee White, who's the head of Toyota Racing Development (TRD), is a very, very happy man right now.

The victory catapulted Vickers to 13th in the standings, only 12 points behind Mark Martin (more on him in a moment) for the final spot that advances to the Chase. Martin, Matt Kenseth (11th), Greg Biffle (10th) and Ryan Newman (ninth) should all be worried about Vickers, because his No. 83 team is peaking at the perfect time. In his last six starts, Vickers hasn't finished lower than 11th, and over that time he's climbed four spots in the standings.

Vickers has always been regarded in the garage as an uncommon talent. One longtime staffer at Hendrick Motorsports told me recently that the 25-year-old Vickers, who drove for Hendrick from 2004 to '06, is as gifted behind the wheel as Johnson. "Trust me," the source said, "Vickers has what it takes to win a championship. He hasn't always had the best equipment, but it looks like he's getting it now."

Expect TRD to pour all of its substantial resources into Vickers' Toyota over these final three races of the regular season. Because of that -- and because Vickers is on a roll right now -- it says here he gets in. Easily.

2. Mark Martin and Alan Gustafson made a rare mistake.

When the caution flag waved with about 40 laps to go, Martin and his crew chief, Gustafson, elected to stay out on the track and try to stretch their fuel mileage. Turns out, this decision may end up costing Martin a shot at the championship.

If he had pitted for fuel, Martin likely would have finished no worse than 10th and perhaps as high as fourth. Instead, Martin ran out of fuel on the last lap. At least 15 cars passed him as he silently coasted toward the finish line and finished 31st. At one point in the race, as he was running in the top three, Martin was as high as ninth in the standings and looked like he was on his way toward cementing his spot in the Chase. But because of the fuel gamble -- and face it, this was an unnecessary risk to take -- he's now back on the Chase bubble.

I still think Martin will make it in as long as he can avoid getting caught up in wrecks in the next three races, but now he'll be gripping the steering wheel quite a bit tighter because of the miscue in Michigan.

3. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is gaining ground.

Even though Little E didn't snap his 44-race winless streak on Sunday, he authored what I think is his best race of 2009. Piloting a car that his new crew chief Lance McGrew built about a month ago -- it's the same car that Earnhardt qualified second at Indy in July -- Earnhardt made a powerful late surge that recalled the days when he was winning multiple races in a season.

How fast was he? After he pitted during the last caution of the race, he was in 18th with 39 laps left. Eleven laps later, he was up to ninth as he rode the high line around the track. Nine laps after that, he was in fifth. He wound up finishing third, just his second top-five run of the season.

Why is this so encouraging for Little E? Because it shows that McGrew is starting to understand what exactly Earnhardt wants out of his car and how he wants it to handle. This wasn't a baby step forward for this team; it was a giant leap.

4. Jimmie Johnson isn't perfect.

It's taken three years, but now it appears we've found something that Johnson can't do well: conserve fuel. For the second time this season, he ran out of gas while leading the race at Michigan. Why isn't Johnson good at saving fuel? He doesn't know, but considering that several drivers made it to the finish line on Sunday after pitting at the exact same time as Johnson, it's clear that he has a shortcoming in this department.

But this flaw will not prove fatal in Johnson's quest to win a fourth straight title. Because while Michigan is often decided by fuel mileage, Chase races rarely come down to who can save fuel and who can't. The way Johnson dominated on Sunday -- he led a race-high 133 laps -- you still have to consider him the favorite to win the championship.

5. Jeff Gordon is feeling good today.

Six days after crashing head-on into a steel barrier at Watkins Glen, Gordon didn't appear to have any lingering issues with his back, which has bothered him for the better part of the year. He finished second on Sunday and leapfrogged Johnson in the standings to second place.

This is good news for Gordon fans, but his back will be severely tested on Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway, which is one of the physically grueling races of the year. Who will win at Bristol? The pick here is the rapidly fading Kyle Busch. To find out why, check back on Friday.

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