Toyota's year in the boardroom will be forever defined by the words "stuck throttle," but on the racetrack it's sticking it to its rivals. Sunday's Michigan win by
To earn those bragging rights Hamlin dominated, leading 123 of 200 laps en route to his career-high fifth win of the season. But that victory wasn't without some drama, which leads off the five things we learned from Michigan International Speedway.
It doesn't hurt NASCAR's cause that 13 of 15 races this season have had exciting finishes, most after cautions came out during the last 25 laps, with five of those for something as simple as fluid or debris on the racetrack. That's caused chaos, bunching up the field, which has led to late-race wrecks and frantic finishes -- all of which jumble the final running order and threaten to erase 400 miles of dominance from one car.
Michigan was the latest example. Hamlin was on cruise control by almost 10 seconds late in the race, with victory in hand until a debris caution came out on Lap 182 for a piece of what looked like rubber on the backstretch.
"It was a big piece of debris back there," said
Was it dangerous enough to pose a safety hazard, or was NASCAR looking for any excuse to justify bunching up the field? That's where driver quotes begged to differ, with Hamlin all but calling out officials.
"I understand this is show business," he said in frustration. "I didn't see any debris, if that's what you're asking. I mean, we typically get [a debris caution] every single week. I'm not going to say it's accepted, but what can you do?"
Of all the Cup drivers, Hamlin may have the most reason to be upset, with a victory nearly lost at Pocono one week earlier after a debris caution with 45 laps to go set up a wild finish. So what should the expectation be going forward? Should there be cause for concern?
"Basketball, to me, is the worst sport of all when it comes to bad calls,"
That's what the conspiracy theorists fear NASCAR is risking with what they perceive as a consistent pattern of late-race cautions. More important is that if drivers believe nothing matters until the final 100 miles, they're not going to race hard enough for the first 300 to keep fans tuned in all the way through.
That's put Hamlin back on the level pundits expected earlier this season:
"We've worked very, very hard to get to this spot," Hamlin said Sunday. "We're not going to get complacent."
The key is to hold that confidence as the pressure mounts. An emotional guy, Hamlin's been susceptible to getting down during bad stretches. When that inevitable three or four race slump comes before the Chase -- and it will -- how will the No. 11 team react? That'll show us how far they've come while looking to take the next step on top of the head stage at Las Vegas.
What's wrong? Personnel is part of the problem, as the loss of Martin's engineer,
"Last year, I would say I checked what was going on in the racing world every single day," he said Friday. "I've stopped doing that. It has affected me to some degree. I'm watching less of it on TV and reading less of it on the internet as of right now."
Hendrick Motorsports made clear this weekend it'll be another couple of weeks before 2011 plans come to fruition. But considering how badly Martin is running, it's the sooner the better before missing the Chase wastes 2010.
"I don't take nothing back," Logano said calmly during a crowded Friday presser, responding to Harvick's continued criticism of his behavior. "I'm a man of my word. I said what I had to, and that's it."
"When it comes down to the end of the race, you should be able to race. Why would you roll over and die? You've got to have that fire in your eye."
That passion was evident Sunday, the sophomore holding firm near the front of the pack in finishing a solid 10th. It's a fourth straight run of 13th or better, consistency that leaves him just 107 points from being the youngest driver ever to make the 10-race playoff. The bounceback is similar to last September, when a
Expect that spark to last long into the summer, Logano clearly stealing the firesuit from both Harvicks in coming out of this incident smelling like a rose.
Hard to believe that was only 10 months ago. Heading into Sunday's race, the team had yet to record a top-5 finish since and Vickers wasn't even entered this weekend -- he's sidelined for the season with a blood clotting issue. Replacement
"We're running in the very back of the pack like crap," said Speed after looping around. "And we're going to wreck each other?"
Sounds like a man not too happy with his interim colleague. But the kicker came when Mears came to pit road, running into