Jumping Jacks Flash

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The finish of Sunday's Michigan race might be described as "Roush Hour" traffic with Greg Biffle leading his teammate Mark Martin to the line and all five of the Roush cars finishing within the top 10. All in all it was a good day for the Fords with the Blue Oval brand leading more than 125 laps. In fact after Jeff Gordon led early three Ford drivers, Biffle, Martin and Sadler combined to dominate much of the race.

For Biffle the new Ford engines introduced early this summer might have come too late. Since Ford has been able to supply all the teams with the new engine Biffle's fortunes have improved dramatically with three top 10 finishes in the last four races. Driving what was arguably the worst looking car to visit victory lane in recent history (magenta and yellow? Who designed that thing, Carson Kressley?) Biffle struck a blow for truth, justice and the American diecast industry with a car that featured almost forgotten superhero "the Flash." At least Biffle, a subdued and stately winner, managed to avoid the worst of the puns especially compared to his teammate Kurt Busch whose constant Superman references this weekend made him sound like he had a head of steel. Is the marketing side of the sport out of control when Gillette Young Guns and members of the Coca Cola Family promote the Justice League beneath an oversized blue bottle of a sports drink in Victory Lane? For much of the race many fans had a hard time determining which car was which with all the "one-race" paint schemes devoted to the health and well being of a faltering diecast company. While it was Biffle's first win of the season it was the sixth win for Roush Racing. Three teams, Roush, Rick Hendrick and DEI have combined to win 18 of 23 Cup races this season. Throw in Joe Gibbs Racing and Penske South and five teams have won 22 of 23 races with Elliott Sadler's win for Yates Racing the only victor from outside those five teams.

Mark Martin finished second and has now finished second of third in three of the last four races. And therein lays the problem with NASCAR's new Chase for the Championship nonsense. Martin has been hot as of late and has been closing in on the top 10 in points steadily. If he were to have thirteen more races to work with it is likely Martin would manage to enter the top 10, possible he could even reach the top 5, and not entirely out of the question he could even win a title. But as the system in place this year works Martin has three more races to enter the top 10 or the best points finish he can hope for is eleventh. Even Biffle has been rallying as of late and while it's highly unlikely he could make a bid at this year's title under the old points system, he too could have reached the top 10. Top 10 points finishes and stage appearances at the New York banquet give sponsors warm fuzzy feelings and entice them to open their corporate wallets just a little wider.

Dale Jarrett finished third, the same position he finished in the June Michigan race. He's now 58 points out of the top 10 with three races left to run before the playoffs, so Jarrett is another driver who is watching a potential top 10 finish in the points go down the drain thanks to the C4C while other drivers like Bobby Labonte and Kevin Harvick who haven't been performing well as of late will probably be grandfathered into the playoffs based on success earlier this season. (Though neither has actually won a race.)

Jamie McMurray had his best run in the last two months finishing fourth at Michigan. That's a decided improvement over his effort's here in June when McMurray cooked and engine and finished 37th.

The 9 team went into Sunday's race with the event overshadowed by the tragic passing of Tom Baldwin Sr., a modified racer of some note and father to the team's crew chief Tommy Baldwin, Thursday evening at Thompsonville. Kahne led the race briefly and it appeared all the stars might be lining up for one of those rare fairy tale finishes but Kahne's engine made like a confused Canadian goose and headed south early on a warm afternoon in August. The finish does move Kahne into the "coveted" tenth place spot in the standings. (Just as NASCAR TV media types can not say "Nextel Cup points" without adding "valuable" apparently now "tenth place" must be prefaced by "coveted". I'm just trying to play along.)

Kurt Busch finished sixth in another car featuring graphics of another member of the Justice League. I forget which. Kurt never mentioned which superhero he was honoring anytime a microphone was within sixty feet of his yap this weekend. He's now left to deal with the aftermath of having found the answer to that age-old question of our youth, yes apparently Batman can beat up Superman butthe Flash can beat them both. Busch may be the only driver who is a Gillette Young Gun, a member of the Coca-Cola family and eligible for the McDonalds Pit crew challenge in addition to running about ten different paint schemes a year. Busch probably won't win this year's title but his accountant ought to get some sort of year-end award.

Jeff Gordon dominated the race early but as his handling tightened up he faded and was never again a factor for the win. One race does not a trend make but it appeared Sunday the Ford teams with their new powerplant might be closing the gap on the Hendrick teams which have had the most powerful engines all season. Things went even worse for Gordon's teammate, former points leader Jimmie Johnson, who lost another engine and failed to finish a race with mechanical problems for the third straight week. That allowed Gordon to take over the points lead for the first time since he won the championship in 2001.

Matt Kenseth seems to be quietly positioning himself for another championship run even under the new rules many feel were implemented in response to his winning the championship but just one race last year. It would be decidedly ironic if Kenseth, who is flying below the radar with the TV pundits right now, were to repeat as champion. But then he does have two wins this year, right?

Tony Stewart is another driver quietly positioning himself for the stretch drive. In the last seven races Stewart has two wins, five top 5 finishes and six top 10 results. That sort of consistency would likely get the job done in the final ten races were it not for the disastrous 35th place finish Stewart endured at Pocono.

In his first career Cup start Carl Edwards finished tenth, a truly remarkable achievement. It appears that the separation between Roush and Jeff Burton will work out well for all parties. Not only did Edwards finish tenth but over the weekend it was announced the 99 team has a full time sponsor for 2005. On the other end of the equation, Burton finished twelfth in his first ride in the AOL 30 RCR car. That was the best finish of the season for the 30 team. And Burton might even have finished better were it not for a pit road blunder. Burton has driven the 99 car during his entire Cup career and was apparently looking for the "99" sign on pit road to signal him into his space.

Three events remain before the Brave New World of NASCAR begins. Enjoy Bristol and Richmond. Think good thoughts about Darlington this Labor Day weekend. Try not to dwell on the increasing commercialization of our once proud sport and the constant marketing barrages we as fans as subjected to whether they are intended to sell toothpaste, razors or diecast cars. Ignore the great soft drink wars for a few more weeks. Forget about another rash of rule changes and the serious problems with the new points system now coming to light. Because come the New Hampshire race next month the sport we knew is headed down Alice's Rabbit Hole and, friends, I don't think it's ever coming back.

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NASCAR Sprint Cup, 2004

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