Date: Aug. 16, 2009
Event: CARFAX 400 (Round 23 of 36)
Series: NASCAR Sprint Cup Series
Location: Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn (2-mile oval)
Start/Finish: 18th / 17th (Running, completed 200 of 200 laps)
Winner: Brian Vickers of Red Bull Racing (Toyota)
For Tony Stewart, Sunday’s CARFAX 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn was less about the finish and more about the start. That’s because the pilot of the No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevrolet Impala SS for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR) clinched a spot in the 12-driver Chase for the Championship by simply starting the CARFAX 400, three races before the Chase begins Sept. 20 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon.
His finish in the CARFAX 400, however, was off by Stewart’s standards, as he came home 17th in the 200-lap race around the 2-mile oval.
“We struggled today and we had a problem at the end of happy hour (final practice) yesterday and didn’t realize it,” said Stewart, who will now be in the Chase for the fifth time in his career. “We had a spring that was out of its bucket, and so we got all of our loads and pre-loads all messed up. But our guys were fighting back and fighting through it today, but we just never got in a position where we could do anything. We just missed it and had an off day.
“It just shows that you can’t let your guard down, especially in something as simple as happy hour like that. We just had one little mistake and it got us behind going into today. So, it just shows that you can’t relax and you can’t lose concentration. You have to stay on top of it.”
Without knowing what the problem was until after Sunday’s 400-miler at Michigan was over, the Office Depot/Old Spice team performed a workmanlike effort to salvage the best finish they could. After starting 18th in the 43-car field, they dealt with a tight-handling racecar for the first half of the race before the pendulum swung the other way and the car became too loose.
But a smart two-tire pit stop called by crew chief Darian Grubb during a caution period on lap 117 allowed Stewart to vault from 11th to first when the race restarted on lap 121, as many of their counterparts opted for four tires.
Stewart’s car still wasn’t perfect on only two new Goodyears, but the two-time Sprint Cup champion got up on the wheel to battle Jimmie Johnson for the lead. The two swapped the top spot a handful of times after the restart, with Johnson finally prevailing before the caution flag waved again on lap 122.
Stewart was in second when the race began anew on lap 127, but he quickly dropped back as the No. 14 Office Depot/Old Spice Chevy was too loose through the first third of the track’s corners.
“I just can’t run the pace these guys are running,” said Stewart over the radio.
When another caution came out on lap 133, Grubb brought Stewart back to pit road for four fresh tires and fuel. It dropped Stewart to 23rd in the running order, but the conventional thinking had that Stewart’s fresher tires would prove beneficial down the road.
When a quick rain shower put the race back under caution, Grubb again displayed his shrewdness by having Stewart come to the pits for a fuel-only stop. The strategy allowed Stewart to leapfrog his way into 12th when the race restarted on lap 153, and thanks to his four-tire pit stop a few laps earlier, Stewart’s tires had virtually the same amount of laps of his competitors, for there had been 15 laps run under caution since the yellow flag waved at lap 133.
However, the No. 14 machine was still an ill-handling beast, and fresh rubber did little to mitigate the car’s handling woes. Stewart slowly dropped down the leaderboard, falling to as low as 20th with 30 laps remaining. But as those in front of Stewart attempted to gamble on fuel mileage, a few lost, and Stewart picked up their positions, rising to 17th when the checkered flag dropped.
Ryan Newman, driver of the No. 39 Haas Automation/U.S. Army Chevrolet Impala SS for SHR, finished 15th in the CARFAX 400 to notch his 13th top-15 result of 2009.
Stewart remains atop the championship point standings, as his 17th-place finish expanded his lead to 284 points over second-place Jeff Gordon. Newman, meanwhile, maintained his ninth-place position in the standings, where he is 655 points out of first and 66 points ahead of 13th-place Brian Vickers.
Vickers beat Gordon by 1.409 seconds to win the CARFAX 400 and score the second victory of his Sprint Cup career, his first of the season and his first at Michigan. It was also the first victory for Red Bull Racing, which has competed in Sprint Cup full-time since 2007.
Finishing third was Dale Earnhardt Jr., while Carl Edwards and Sam Hornish Jr., rounded out the top-five. Casey Mears, rookie Joey Logano, Clint Bowyer, David Reutimann and Denny Hamlin comprised the remainder of the top-10.
There were seven caution periods for 36 laps, with eight drivers failing to finish the 400-mile race.
The next event on the Sprint Cup schedule is the Aug. 22 Sharpie 500 at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway. The race begins at 7:30 p.m. EDT with live coverage provided by ESPN beginning with its pre-race show at 6:30 p.m.