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Vickers, Martin, Montoya and Johnson get a leg up on the field in qualifying for Sunday's Michigan 400

   Something's fishy here; Brian Vickers captures the pole for the Michigan 400, but again refuses to talk about the progress of his contract renegotiations with Toyota's Team Red Bull? Is it money...or is a rival team owner, or Detroit car maker, after the up-and-coming North Carolina racer? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   BROOKLYN, Mich.
   Jeff Gordon's back.
   Like, ouch! Where's the ibuprofen?
   Gordon's back won't get better, it looks like, certainly not if he takes a couple more hits like he did last Monday at Watkins Glen.
   But he's getting a little testy about all the questions.
   And Gordon's weak qualifying run Friday, 21st, and far behind front row men Brian Vickers (187.242 mph) and Mark Martin (187.013 mph) for Sunday's Michigan 400, probably won't put him in any better mood either.
   "It's all right…..a couple rough days, but feeling pretty good," Gordon says of his back, which has been a painful issue at least all this season. 
   "It was a hard hit -- and that's an area that I'm focused and working on…as a safety aspect.
    "I feel like we have done a great job with head, neck, shoulders and hips (in general terms of improving safety in NASCAR stock cars). But the last couple hits I have had have really affected my mid-section, especially my back.
    "So it's something we are going to look into. 
     "I took a shot and worked through it the next couple days and I am here, ready to go.
    "You know it's just weird -- because in the old days, with the older car, I worried way more about my neck and head injuries than anything else. 
    "As we have gotten better with the technology of the seats (now formed carbon-fiber) and the belts and how we are strapped in the car…it's created new areas in the car that we have to focus on.
    "What happens as you evolve with engineering and safety and the speeds of the cars and everything, you start to narrow down the weaker links. And right now the weakest link is that mid-section. And we don't have a way of isolating that area."
     NASCAR's new safety director Tom Gideon, the long-time General Motors racing safety expert, was working the Michigan International Speedway garage hard Friday, in part probably considering various possible safety changes to the section of Watkins Glen International track where two serious incidents occurred last weekend, as well as considering in-car issues like Gordon is raising.

    Jeff Gordon: gets testy when asked about his back pain -- "Okay, no more questions." (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

  Martin, who had serious back problems too, and had back fusion surgery, and had to lay flat on his back for eight long weeks, says he doesn't talk much with teammate Gordon about back issues: "Only a little. 
    "His problem is different than mine, that we have determined.
    "So I don't have the world's greatest advice.
    "I'm not an expert about his problem; I'm an expert about my problem.
    "But Jeff is experiencing a problem that lasts years, not months. 
     "And I have been through that. And many other drivers (Ricky Rudd, for example too) have been through that as well."
   Martin won here in June, and he's battling to make the 12-man championship playoff cut. Martin's win was on gas mileage, when leaders Greg Biffle and Jimmie Johnson ran out on the final lap. But then Martin, still with one of the fastest cars in that field, played his strategy just perfectly, showing that even at 50 he's one of the smartest, most savvy drivers in the sport.
   With only four races left before the playoff cut at Richmond, just how much gambling some of these top drivers will be willing to do is debatable.
    But then just how much banging and bruising can a man take in one of these cars, as safe as they are now, and still get up on the right side of the bed the next morning may be an issue too, after Sam Hornish Jr.'s savage crash, the one that also banged up Gordon and Jeff Burton?
     Just how hard are these hits anyway? (Wonder why NASCAR doesn't release some of those G-force hits, to show how good and safe this new race car really is?)
     How much can a NASCAR driver really take?
   "That varies….it varies on the kinds of hits you take," Martin says. 
    Martin, famously, was so badly banged up one time his crew literally had to lift him into his race car…..not quite the safety image this sport really needed, but in order for a driver to get championship points he has to at least be in the car at the wheel for the green….no matter how badly hurt he might be. (That has long been a controversial rule.)
    "For me, you take that shot and you wear that shot for a while," Martin says.  "Some day fortunately that goes away.
    "But the wear-and-tear of just the burnout (over the 10 month season) is actually bigger, a bigger deal than the bumps and bruises. 
    "Some things linger for a long, long time. They last a lot longer, especially the lower back problems.
     "But a lot of the stuff goes away in a month or so."  
    Gordon had some medical injections to deaden the pain and relief the stress on that part of his back a few months ago, but he said that procedure didn't really alleviate things. So he didn't plan to get any more injections.
   The next game plan? Surgery perhaps?
   Gordon doesn't really want to think about that. 
   Especially since he's trying to win a championship right now.
   "I think right now it's just too important to still get bonus points, and chemistry of the team," Gordon says of getting sidelined with more medical procedures. "I think it would take away momentum and chemistry.
    "If I had a diagnosis from a doctor that told me I was in danger of a major injury, then I would consider it, certainly.
    "But I haven't had that.
     "My issues are spasms, or something like that.
     "It's not consistent. I was worse at the beginning of the year than I am now, and I had the whole off-season."

   Michigan 400 Starting Grid



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