Dale Earnhardt Jr. finally gave his fans something to cheer about, though not for something he did on the track.
Friday at Michigan International Speedway, Earnhardt said what a lot of NASCAR fans have been screaming about for months – if not the last few years – that the sport isn't as exciting as it used to be.
"NASCAR could probably be a little more urgent in improving our product, where the ultimate result is great, exciting racing that the fans will enjoy, that the drivers enjoy, so everyone is happy," Earnhardt said.
"Where that comes from is the double-file restarts – the spark that that really put into the racing," he continued. "I think all the drivers enjoy it. I think the fans love it. We need more of that. The double-file restarts give us that opportunity to be exciting for only a moment. We need to figure out how we can maintain that throughout the entire race."
Before double-file restarts were implemented in June, Earnhardt said, "the races to me were very poor, and we almost depended on a late caution to save the day to make somebody race side-by-side for a couple of laps. … It was very frustrating because 95 percent of the race wasn't worth the price of the ticket.''
Earnhardt is right. Double-file restarts have infused some excitement into the sport, but they are only a temporary fix, because after a few laps of action the racing settles back into parade mode.
This will be on full display in Sunday's Carfax 400 at MIS – a huge, 2-mile track that hasn't produced a lot of the tight, side-by-side racing lately.
Earnhardt levels most of the blame on the Car of Tomorrow, implemented full time last season, and NASCAR seemingly turning a blind eye to a deterioration of competition everyone else has noticed.
"I feel like the teams are in a box," Jeff Gordon said. "We've gotten it better over time, but I still don't think we're ever going to get to where we really need to. The double-file restarts have definitely created a lot of excitement, but if we don't have the cautions, it seems like we're back into the same box."
Gordon added that he's "anxious" to see how the Nationwide version of the Car of Tomorrow, which is being phased in next season, races. So far, the Nationwide version has received positive reviews, and Gordon is hopeful the Sprint Cup version could adapt some things from the new Nationwide car.
"There's not just one thing that's going to fix the issues that everybody's talking about," Gordon said. "So, it really comes down to whether NASCAR and the team owners really commit to wanting to make a change and what those changes would be."
Here are five other storylines to watch for in Sunday's Carfax 400:
1. Will they be racing Monday? After two straight rainouts, that's the fear. But Sunday's forecast in Brooklyn, Mich., calls for a zero-percent chance of rain. That's right, zero.
Two straight rainouts have stirred up discussion that start times on Sundays need to be moved up to allow for more of a cushion in case rain does come. Both races the last two weeks and Sunday's race at Michigan were or are scheduled to start around 2:15 p.m. local time. Had they started earlier, the thinking goes, NASCAR would have more time to dry a track before darkness comes into play.
"I think we need to start the races early enough so that you can have a rain shower, you can get the track dryers out to dry the track and go back racing and have a chance to complete the event," Jimmie Johnson said Friday.
An earlier start time probably would not have mattered two weeks ago at Pocono, where rain fell through the morning. However, the race at Watkins Glen could have started earlier and gotten in enough laps to eventually finish after rain fell (around 2:30 p.m.) and the track was dried.
"I was thinking the same thing when I was sitting in my bus knowing we were going to go to our second Monday race," Johnson said. "I think that, yes it's great to target the perfect time zone, the perfect viewing audience, and I understand those factors given a perfect situation. But when you race as often as we do and all around the country and weather being an issue, I guess my point of view is from living it just like you do from week to week, we should have raced on Sunday and been home on Monday. So that’s where my point of view is leaning right now.”
2. Is Brian Vickers finally ready for a breakthrough? Week after week, Vickers proves he has speed. He's collected a series-high six poles, including another on Friday, his third straight at MIS.
But while he's proven to have the speed to start up front, he has yet to actually finish there.
Brian Vickers collected his series-high sixth pole of the season on Friday.
Vickers hasn't won since Oct. 8, 2006, at Talladega, which is also his only victory in 194 career Cup starts.
He's led laps in eight races this season, but his best finish is a trio of fifths.
"I was just talking to Robin Pemberton [NASCAR's vice president of competition] and we were just talking about the poles this season and I told him, 'You know, you never wish a good thing away, but I would probably give up every one of them for a win,' " Vickers said.
Vickers says bad luck and poor pit stops have kept him from getting to victory lane.
"There's been a lot of races that we've been leading at the end of the race or contending for the win at the very end of the race and come in the pits and then lose seven spots," he explained. "That's difficult and it's a challenge."
3. Is Kyle Busch in trouble? Driving a brand new car, rolled out specifically to challenge the Roush brigade that always runs well at MIS, Kyle Busch qualified … 39th.
Busch is locked in a tight battle with Roush drivers Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle, along with Hendrick's Mark Martin, for the final spot in the Chase. Going into Sunday's race, Busch trails Kenseth by 58 points, Martin by 89, Biffle by 91.
With only four races left before the Chase field is set, Busch's primary goal every week is to finish ahead of each of those three drivers, an objective made more difficult when starting at the back.
Busch's uphill battle only gets steeper when considering Vickers, who sits just 38 points behind him in the standings, will start on the pole.
4. Will fuel be a factor? Rewind back to the final two laps of the June race at MIS. Jimmie Johnson was leading the race, followed by Greg Biffle. Neither wound up in victory lane.
Johnson ran out of fuel just before taking the white flag, coasted around the 2-mile oval, stopped in his pits for a splash of gas and crossed the finish, on pit road mind you, in 22nd. Biffle ran out gas, too, on the backstretch, and was able to limp his car home in fifth.
Their loss was Mark Martin's gain.
While Johnson and Biffle pushed each other to drive hard over the closing laps, which forced them to use more fuel, Martin had turned his attention to saving gas. He laid back, content to leave with a third-place finish. As it turned out, his conservative approach proved to be the winning one.
5. Will Jeff Gordon's back be an issue? Immediately after last Monday's crash at Watkins Glen, Gordon said he's glad Michigan is next on the schedule, not Bristol Motor Speedway, which follows Michigan.
MIS isn't a physically grueling track, which should provide a few days of relief for his ailing back before heading to the bullring that is Bristol.
"I took a shot and worked through it the next couple days and am here, ready to go," Gordon said. "It's alright."
Gordon said the sport has made tremendous safety strides in regards to protecting the head, neck, shoulders and hips, but the one area lacking protection is the core of the body.
"You start to narrow down the weaker links and right now the weakest link is that midsection, and we don’t have a way of isolating that area,” he explained.
Gordon will start 21st.