Crunching numbers after Michigan

June, 16, 2009
06/16/09
11:00
AM ET

I found myself pondering Sunday's race at Michigan, as I often find myself pondering the great questions of life. The future, outer space, cartoon characters -- I've always been fond of Huckleberry Hound.

But this week's area of pondering dealt with fuel mileage races, or largely, the recent prevalence of pit-road strategy deciding the winner of a race. By my count, three of the last four races have seen pit-road strategy play a big role, with David Reutimann at Charlotte and Mark Martin at Michigan being evidence of pit strategy and/or fuel mileage deciding a winner.

At Pocono, we saw good finishes ruined by a half gallon of fuel, and drivers gaining several spots after topping off before the green. And at Dover, Jimmie Johnson managed to get by several cars after taking four tires late.

The question is, do you like this all coming into play?

My answer is yes. Let's face it, at Michigan, long green-flag runs featuring Jimmie Johnson leading by a straightaway weren't thrilling. However, this race will be remembered for having one of the more exciting endings of the season when the two lead cars both ran out of fuel on the final lap.

To win in the Sprint Cup Series, especially regularly to the point where you're competing for championships, you have to get it done on every level. Engines, aerodynamics, drivers, crew chiefs, strategy and even some luck. Plus, if it allows for a variety of names to get into Victory Lane, then I'm all for it.

What's the lead?

The all-important lap to lead in the race is the last one. I guess that seems fairly obvious when you just state it as such.

I'm sure Jimmie Johnson would agree with me. The three-time champ looked to be cruising to his third win of the season before his engine decided that the fuel was good to the last drop.

He led a dominating 146 of 200 laps before the dramatics of the final lap, when he lost the lead to Greg Biffle, who, promptly following Johnson's example, ran out of gas, and lost it to Mark Martin. Sometimes it pays to be running third.

That 146 laps is the most led at Michigan by a driver who didn't go on to win.

Most laps led at Michigan by driver who didn't win race
Year -- Driver -- Finish
2009 -- Jimmie Johnson -- 146 -- 22nd
1993 -- Mark Martin -- 141 -- 2nd
1969 -- LeeRoy Yarbrough -- 136 -- 4th
1996 -- Mark Martin -- 135 -- 2nd

Don't get too envious of Martin for winning this one. As you can see, he's been on the wrong side of it twice before.

Trivia break: What driver won that 1993 race in which Martin led 141 laps and finished second?

Start-up cost

Lost in the fuel mileage conversation was that drivers managed to drive from the back to the front, which is even more impressive when you think of the long green-flag run that started the race. Usually it takes some cautions to group the field to be able to make a big move.

Mark Martin started 32nd, his worst starting position in any of his 38 career Cup wins, which, by the way, puts him 17th on NASCAR's all-time list.

Previously, he had won only twice when even starting outside the top 20. At 2002 at Charlotte, he started 25th, took the lead from (guess who?) Jimmie Johnson and led the final 40 laps. Here's the rest.

Worst starting position to win in Mark Martin's Cup career
2009 -- Michigan -- 32nd
2002 -- Charlotte -- 25th
2000 -- Martinsville -- 21st
2005 -- Kansas -- 19th
1997 -- Talladega -- 17th

Jeff Gordon also dropped to the back at the start after changing an engine, and stretched his fuel to finish second.

Trivia break: Before Sunday, what was the most recent last-lap pass for the win at Michigan?

Follow the leader?

It wasn't a good week to dominate your race. First, Kyle Busch led the most laps in the Camping World Truck Series race, 62 of 100, but finished second after a near run-in with a lapped truck.

He changed venues, but couldn't change his luck. The Nationwide race at Kentucky? He led exactly 100 more laps, 162 of 200, but suffered the same fate, another runner-up finish, this time to Joey Logano.

Jimmie Johnson was another story entirely, which I've already told, leading nearly three-quarters of the race, but coming up a gallon short in the end.

Trivia break: Who was the last driver to win a Cup race in which he led only the final lap?

Trivia break answers

1. Ricky Rudd took advantage of Mark Martin's misfortune in 1993, driving the No. 5 car for Hendrick Motorsports.
2. Back in 2001, Jeff Gordon passed Ricky Rudd on the last lap for the Michigan win (two, two Ricky Rudd references while laughing like Sesame Street's Count).
3. Earlier this season, Brad Keselowski led his first Cup lap -- the final lap at Talladega.

Matt Willis has been a studio researcher at ESPN since 2006, working on "NASCAR Now" and "SportsCenter," among other shows. He graduated from Ithaca College in 2006 with a degree in journalism. While there, he worked on ICTV, on shows such as "Ya Think You Know Sports?" and "Sports Final." He also was a member of the IC Comedy Club and figures about half of the jokes he makes in his column are actually funny.

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