Richard Petty's legendary 43: what's up for 2013? Aric Almirola slapped the wall in Friday qualifying at Michigan and was forced to go to his backup
By Mike Mulhern
The future for Richard Petty and his two-car team is up in the air, and even Marcos Ambrose' victory at Watkins Glen may not clinch another major deal with Ford and Jack Roush, at least possibly not at the current price tag.
That's one of the storylines here this weekend at Michigan International Speedway.
Grumbling complaints at the low-budget end of the Sprint Cup garage that mega-teams are ruining the sport and that NASCAR needs to limit owners to just two Cup teams is another story bubbling up.
The new asphalt is another.
The new high-speed asphalt here proved troublesome in June, but this time Goodyear's new tires are working well so far, Goodyear's Rick Heinrich says.
New asphalt is typically a low-wear situation, which can create heat issues, which is what Goodyear is trying to mitigate this time.
Martin Truex Jr., though, says there was little grip on the track for most of the afternoon practice session.
And Goodyear, at NASCAR's request, has released all the race day 400 tires early, so teams can scuff them in Saturday morning if they wish. Scuffing generally hardens a tire, making it more resistant to blistering.
Martin Truex Jr. -- going to the championship playoffs, but still needs a win...and a new contract (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Teams were generally practicing on qualifying setups, because pole runs were in the late afternoon, and final pre-race practice will be Saturday morning. Dale Earnhardt Jr., winner here in June, put 17 laps on a set before going into qualifying mode; no Cup driver ran more laps.
That had crews and engineers looking at Truck practice sessions for better idea of how the tires would work on long runs.
"The Trucks have had a lot of time out there. We've seen one set that had 40 laps and it looked good," Goodyear's Heinrich said.
"We have had no indications of any heat issues or wear problems.
"Everything looks good."
Ryan Newman agrees: "The only issue you could say is they don’t really wear out. But that’s on the safety factor right now with the new asphalt. I talked to the Goodyear guys and told them they were safe. Everything should be good."
Matt Kenseth (R) and crew chief Jimmy Fennig: championship contenders...but they haven't won since February (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Not everyone agrees, like Truex: "The track was really slick (at the start of Friday practice).
"It took really the whole (90-minute) practice to get any kind of grip in the car and track.
"Every time you went out, you're getting a little bit faster. But until the very last run it was just absolutely treacherous.
"Not real sure what was going on there."
And that was after a lot of Truck practice, to put down rubber.
A major 28-team test two weeks ago was held, to check Goodyear's tires.
"When we did the tire test here, and (when) we raced here last time, in practice it was a little bit the same way, but never as bad as this practice was.
"It was kind of strange.
"We never really got a lot of laps on the track today. We went out there and ran a lap or two and then somebody blew up. We had a caution, the track sat, and then that happened again.
"Just took a little while to get some grip in the track. And really until our last two runs, it was pointless to even make laps.
"Hopefully the track will come in... and it finally did."
Juan Pablo Montoya and crew chief Chris Heroy: 22nd in the standings. And most of the teams further down in the points are all sweating the economics of this sport, and looking for some answers -- from NASCAR (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
The balance of power on the Sprint Cup tour seems more unbalanced than ever right now, with Rick Hendrick men dominating.
Yes, Greg Biffle and teammate Matt Kenseth are just a point or two behind tour leader Jimmie Johnson, heading toward next month's playoffs. But Johnson has three wins since Biffle and Kenseth last won, back at the start of the season, and Hendrick men, including Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman, have won 11 times this season to Roush's three.
And until the final lap at Watkins Glen eventual winner Marcos Ambrose was running third behind Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski.
Ambrose' win comes at a particularly crucial moment for the Richard Petty-Jack Roush operation. Petty's two-team contract with Ford is up at the end of the season, and Petty's overtures to Dodge irritated Ford execs.
So what will Petty do in 2013? What can Petty do in 2013?
If Petty were to change brands, first off he would need a big, new shop, and equipment, potentially a $10 million investment for someone. Unless Toyota can find some money like that, Petty would likely have to stay with Ford, though almost certainly at a reduced price tag, with Roger Penske joining Ford.
Richard Petty (L) and Marcos Ambrose: will their Watkins Glen win solidify a manufacturer's deal for 2013? Not yet, and things are looking iffy (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
For Kenseth and Roush there seems to be a very pressing question, especially with the playoffs looming: Kenseth hasn't won since February.
Why isn't Kenseth winning? Why isn't Roush winning?
Kenseth seems to wince.
"There are a ton of reasons why guys don't win races," Kenseth says. "There is a lot of competition and great teams out there.
"We try as hard as we can to win every race I have ever entered in my entire life. It isn’t easy.
"We have to get our cars running a little faster, and I have to do a better job finishing some of them off.
"I feel like we are in position to win sometimes and variety of reasons prevents it.
"At Pocono (two weeks ago) I went home, and it was one of the only times I can remember not winning a race and feeling like this -- we went home and thought about what we could do better next time....and I didn’t know. We had great pit stops, perfect strategy, we had two or three more laps of fuel than Jimmie Johnson, and knew the rain was coming and pitted after he did.
"We had a perfect restarts, had ourselves in position, and did all that stuff right... and still came home with our best car wrecked and in 23rd.
"I didn’t feel there was one thing different that any of us could have done about that.
"I think you just keep working on it and keep racing as hard as you can and try to make your cars faster and hopefully the wins will come."
Jimmie Johnson: this year's NASCAR Sprint Cup championship appears his to lose. And odds are he'll earn number six (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)