Krupa: Drivers overcome rules to put on splendid show

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Brooklyn, Mich. — Well, that was pretty good lemonade!

Handed the sour fruit before the 46th annual Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway on Sunday, the drivers and some of the crews mixed up a fairly tasty race.

Plenty of good driving, in cars that performed less than optimally because of new design rules, provided a competitive, entertaining race.

Some crews, especially the folks working under the wily, old football coach, Joe Gibbs, were able to achieve just enough balance between pace and handling in the cars to make them competitive and controllable.

Winner Matt Kenseth was heroically dominant, especially given the circumstances. Amid all the week's difficulties — and there were many — he managed to finish it by leading for 146 of 200 laps.

Kenseth drove a heck of a race, getting the critical restarts just right, especially the last one with 15 laps left.

"You know, you never like to see late race restarts especially at Daytona and Talladega, and this was almost a cross between that from the restart zone until the middle of turns 1 and 2," Kenseth said. "So, I was pretty worried about the last one.

"I was able to stay alongside Kevin (Harvick) at least, and cleared him off of Turn 2. So that was obviously a big key for us."

The new high drag package of aerodynamic specifications never quite performed as intended, to provide more drafting and return big passes to Sprint Cup races on tracks like Michigan. They mostly served to make the cars loose when they approached others from behind to pass, and in the corners.

But only occasionally did it result in more drafting, almost exclusively on the restarts.

Feeling hot hot hot

Meanwhile, the drivers were competing on a hot, muggy day, while the new design allowed little air to circulate around cars to cool the cockpits.

Several drivers said they had endured worse heat in NASCAR, but they competed in temperatures of 150 to 155 in the cockpits.

In what is ostensibly his last race at Michigan, unless he returns irregularly in retirement, Jeff Gordon sought relief

"I need ice water, ice bags, whatever you got. It's hot as (expletives) in here!" Gordon hollered at his crew chief, Alan Gustafson, several dozen laps in.

And to think some sports fans still think these guys are not athletes.

Make no mistake, all of the drivers and some of the crews bailed out a lot of folks in and around NASCAR Sunday, providing a highly entertaining race when the circumstances might well have dictated disaster.

It did not start well.

With the cars difficult to control in two situations — in traffic and the corners — the first turn of the race was bound to be perilous.

Heading into it, sure enough, David Ragan got loose, spun and the race went yellow right after it started.

"Well, that didn't take long," Roush-Fenway Racing tweeted immediately.

Like many, Jack Roush's team could only anticipate further disaster.

Early struggles

But then some of the best drivers in the world took over, saved a race, and elevated a sport.

It was pretty clear somewhere around laps 25 to 30 that, despite cars being loose loose when running in packs and when approaching to pass, as well as in MIS' dramatically sweeping corners, the drivers were going to prevail despite the circumstances.

Amazingly, only three more incidents occurred because of the squirrelly cars.

It was a considerable accomplishment.

"We had an up-and-down day, that's for sure," said Kevin Harvick, who finished second. "The first half of the race, we really struggled with the handling of the car. The guys did a great job of getting that back.

"I didn't have anything for the 20 (Kenseth) today. But for everything that we overcame, it was still a good day."

Passing remained difficult, despite the best intentions of NASCAR's new design.

Those intentions went so awry, in fact, that more than one-third of the way through the race the lead had changed hands only once via an on-track pass — as opposed to pit stops juggling the race order.

For Kenseth, Gibbs and their team, it was a marvelous struggle, and a win they said they will long remember.

"Well, these are days that everyone in this sport dreams about, obviously," said Jason Ratcliff, Kenseth's crew chief. "Just perfect execution all weekend.

"I think it starts at the shop, obviously, with great race cars and trying to attack this new aero package. And everyone at Joe Gibbs Racing has done that. They've attacked really hard, and it shows.

"A few aggressive and fun-to-watch restarts by Matt, and the pit crew did a fantastic job."

For Gibbs, the winner of three Super Bowls and three NASCAR Cup championships, it was all about the team.

"I know we've got great people," he said, after a difficult week and fine race were over. "That's what I'm really proud of."