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From the Marbles

Hot/Not: Edwards is right about NASCAR’s downforce problem

Geoffrey Miller
From The Marbles

Denny Hamlin made his first trip to victory lane, winning the Heluva Good! 400 at Michigan International Speedway to become the 10th different winner in 2011. And that in just 15 races. Here's what is on my mind as the circuit left Motor City:

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HOT: Carl Edwards hit spot on with NASCAR's biggest ailment these days. No, it's not Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s winless streak, and it certainly has nothing to do with Danica Patrick.

NASCAR's biggest issue?

Passing on downforce tracks has become, at times, nearly impossible.

"I just hope NASCAR takes the opportunity to look at this race and take some downforce away," Edwards said. "Track position shouldn't be as important as it is. It would be nice to race cars instead of downforce."

In terms more eaiser to understand, Edwards is saying that because the cars have so much downforce, they remain stuck to the track and are likely easier to drive. As a result, most teams are extremely equal in how their car handles — meaning a 20th place car can run laps within one-tenth of a second of the leader's times and make absolutely zero progress.

Then, when the leader assumes the top spot (especially after a restart when the pack is bunched up) the leader has the huge advantage of clean air. Why is clean air so important? Simple: it means more downforce.

The result? Cars in the middle of the pack can't pass due to the dirty air and the lead car suddenly handles that much better because it takes full advantage of the downforce available. It allows drivers like Denny Hamlin — no disrespect intended — to jump out to a lead and have a hefty downforce advantage to hold it in a late-race sprint.

It's only a problem at some tracks — namely the intermediate tracks. Problem is, those intermediate tracks make up a significant portion of the Cup schedule. So when NASCAR bills itself as the series with close, side-by-side racing, it's not always producing what it preaches.

NOT: NASCAR's caution inconsistency is getting maddening, isn't it? I'm not a guy who likes to dive in to conspiracy theories — especially when they revolve around calls like yellow flags that have more variables than a Wal-Mart does customers. {ysp:more}

But why did Robby Gordon's early brush against the wall bring out a caution, while Kevin Harvick pounding the wall did not? It's a question I can't answer, and it seems like NASCAR's non-explanation explanations are only making things worse.

NOT: TNT had such a great outing last weekend at Pocono that it felt like television divinity was close for racing fans. Then came the Sunday's race at Michgan (commercial) International (commercial) Speedway.

Twice TNT went to commercial during the late green-flag stages of the race when business, as they say, was picking up. Finally, TNT left Michigan earlier than its broadcast window allowed and opted to avoid several a post-race interviews.

They were bad moves all around, and too often are systemic ones that might be a big reason for NASCAR losing its television appeal.

HOT: Again, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. deserves some high marks for his ratcheted-up performance in the Nationwide Series. The Mississippi driver now has 11 top 10s in 15 races in 2011, including top-5 finishes in four of his last five races.

Stenhouse was leading Sunday at Michigan until teammate Edwards passed him for the win late in the race. Still, Stenhouse led 38 of 125 laps and finished second.

NOT: Jeff Gordon tried to explain his team's late call to go with four tires during the final pit stop via Twitter, saying two tires had previously not allowed the car to handle well. OK, fine — if you're trying to be conservative and consistent, that's an understandable call.

But remember Gordon, now twice a winner in 2011, is all but guaranteed a lock to this fall's Chase. Why not gamble some more with so few laps left? Instead, Gordon finished 17th — 10 spots lower than where he entered the pits during the final yellow.

NEUTRAL: Paul Menard, big sunglasses and all, took his first top 5 since NASCAR visited Texas in April. In the spanning seven races, he had a best of 12th at Talladega coupled with a stretch of four races when he didn't finish higher than 22nd.

Menard, fourth Sunday, now sits 16th in points — likely just about or slightly above where most would expect him at this point. Shockingly, he's still very much outclassing his Richard Childress Racing teammate Jeff Burton. Burton finished 24th Sunday — he's still yet to have a top 10 this season — and is 25th in points.

NOT: Michigan, to the surprise of no one, continues to battle attendance problems for the Sprint Cup races. It's certainly not for a lack of effort, as the MIS staff has made year-by-year gains in overall fan amenity while pushing an interesting marketing approach that invokes the track as NASCAR's very own national park.

However, I'm still hesitant to firmly believe economic woes are the largest contributing factor to Michigan's decline. Yes, life isn't all roses in the Great Lakes State, but in fairness many of track's markets and demographics across the nation say tough times are prevalent. Could it be that fans just don't feel they are getting enough value for the ticket price these days?

Michigan could be a poster child for that scenario, as 400 miles at the 2-mile track proves to be one of the fastest Sprint Cup events each year. Sunday's race lasted 2 hours and 36 minutes, and three of the past four races have ended in roughly the same amount of time. Perhaps Michigan — much to the chagrin of NASCAR's traveling media corps — should think about expanding to 450 or 500 miles?

Such a change would put Michigan just over the typical three-hour threshold that many sporting events entail. It's just a thought, but it might work.

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