Key Moment – Greg Biffle outdueled Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, and others on a restart with 27 laps to go. Jimmie Johnson got stuck with bad strategy, bad traffic, and ultimately a bad tire. That allowed Biffle to gain his second straight victory at Michigan International Speedway, perhaps earning his spot in the Chase.
In a Nutshell – The Hendrick Motorsports cars were clearly the class of the field all weekend and all race long. But due to an incredible array of bad luck, poor strategy calls and mechanical maladies, all four fell by the wayside. That opened the door for a variety of teams to capitalize, and it was Biffle’s No. 16 squad who best took advantage of a track position race late in the going, allowing them to cruise to a relatively easy win.
All told, Biffle’s victory was the 1,000th for Ford Motor Company in NASCAR, a huge deal considering that all of their most important executives were in attendance at the race.
Dramatic Moment – Midway through the event, Kasey Kahne was working a three-second+ lead and appeared to be the fastest man in Michigan. That all came to a crashing halt on Lap 104 when Kahne blew a tire in the middle of Turn 1, resulting in a fiery, single-car crash that undoubtedly ranked as one of the most vicious of the year. Kahne quickly got out of the car, unscathed, but you can bet your bottom dollar that he will be feeling that hit sometime tomorrow morning.
The restarts at Michigan, typically three and four-wide started to get that way late as the groove widened on the repaved racetrack. Slowly but surely, the asphalt is starting to wear in.
What They’ll be Talking About Around the Water Cooler
Turns out the second year’s the charm for Michigan’s new pavement job… sort of. Overall, it was a fairly entertaining race, a combination of raw horsepower, difficult handling, and tire question marks keeping fans guessing start to finish. After last week’s snoozefest in the Pocono Mountains, NASCAR desperately needed an interesting event to drum up some momentum, and it got one. The race featured 22 lead changes among 13 leaders, the latter stat being close to a race record. The entertainment and drama of the event stemmed from unpredictability, more than passing as a mix of attrition and pit strategy shook up the field at seemingly every turn.
Unfortunately, for all the drama, it must be noted the race was entertaining in spite of the Gen-6 cars — not because of them. Much like last week at Pocono, having clean air on the nose was way, way, way too important, and only two cars, the Nos. 5 and 48, handled well enough in dirty air to pass at will. Virtually anyone could walk away from the field on Sunday provided they had that all-important aero advantage. We saw it early in the race when Jamie McMurray, who was objectively a 10th-to-15th place car, got to the front via pit strategy and was able to drive off to a massive lead. Clean air was stronger in this race than it has been all season, and had it not been for all of the unpredictable attrition and restarts, which spiced things up, this race could have taken a snoozer of a turn.
After a slow start to the year, Ford seems to have figured something out. The Blue Oval Brigade had perhaps its best showing in Michigan, as three of their ace drivers (Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, and Joey Logano) ran in the top 5-7 for the duration of the race and delivered top-10 finishes. Biffle was especially impressive, as he seemed to have one of the only cars that could make decisive passes in dirty air other than the Hendrick stalwarts. With three months remaining until the Chase, leaving plenty of time for fine tuning Ford has to be feeling pretty good about themselves.
Speaking of teams who have turned it around, add Stewart-Haas Racing to the list of groups who have officially turned the corner. Much has been made the past three or four weeks about their “resurgence;” up until Sunday, I wasn’t completely buying it. I wanted to see at least three straight weeks of high performance out of this squad before I declared they were “back;” sure enough, their results at Michigan have made me a believer. Tony Stewart, in particular has really turned up the wick. His fourth-place finish in Michigan was his third straight top-5 result, vaulting him all the way from 20th to 10th in points in the matter of a month. Even Danica Patrick is showing improvement, as she delivered one of the best Sprint Cup performances of her young career with a 13th-place result. Whatever was changed at SHR has worked, and they are officially on the road to relevance once again.
Did you happen to catch the Nationwide race on Saturday? If so, you missed one hell of an event. The series staged arguably it’s best competition of the season, with Regan Smith taking home the checkers after withstanding a hard charge from Kyle Larson. The slower speeds of the Nationwide cars, coupled with the grip of the new Michigan surface led to some incredible draft battles and great side-by-side racing throughout. If this event wasn’t evidence that slower speeds lead to better racing, I don’t know what is. Take a hint, NASCAR.
Undoubtedly, the loss of Jason Leffler was evident throughout the weekend. The tragedy that is Mr. Leffler’s death hit the Cup garage hard, causing the drivers and teams to honor the fallen 37-year-old’s life in a variety of fitting ways. Chief among them was the “LEFturn” decal that adorned the roofs of a myriad of cars. Joe Gibbs Racing even re-wrapped Denny Hamlin’s No. 11, FedEx Toyota to the scheme driven by Leffler in 2005 during his short stint at JGR. It was a touching tribute, albeit one that ended unceremoniously as Hamlin struggled for most of the race. However, the most poignant example of the love held for Leffler in the Cup garage came during Kasey Kahne’s post-accident interview. Instead of dwelling on how good his car was, or the misfortune of his cut tire, Kahne quickly shifted the discussion towards Leffler and how much he missed his fallen friend. It was undeniably touching, and served to highlight just how close the NASCAR community is.
The Hindenburg Award for Foul Fortune
While a number of drivers suffered misfortune on Sunday, none perhaps suffered worse than those of Hendrick Motorsports. HMS driver Kasey Kahne had perhaps one of the best cars he’s had all season long, only to see it lost on lap 104 after careening into the wall at upwards of 200 mph. All told, the wreck left Kahne with a 38th-place finish and a four-position drop in the series standings. Ouch.
Jeff Gordon was yet another Hendrick pilot whose day was ruined by a hard crash. Bobby Labonte (who, ironically, was driving a Hendrick-powered car) spun directly in front of Gordon, sending both hard into the Turn 2 wall. The No. 24 team managed to get the car repaired, following a lengthy stint in the garage but a 39th-place finish was not what the doctor ordered.
With Kahne and Gordon mired deep in the 30s, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Jimmie Johnson were the last hopes for HMS. But Earnhardt Jr.’s day ended not long after Kahne’s, as the No. 88 car’s engine expired on lap 130 while Junior was in the lead. Johnson then appeared primed to battle for the win, despite a number of puzzling pit calls by crew chief Chad Knaus that left a fast No. 48 buried back in traffic. (Knaus actually apologized, on the radio to Johnson after the race as the team lost more than two dozen spots in the pits all day). Fighting hard just to get second, he was closing on Biffle until he, too cut a tire and wound up finishing 28th.
On the non-HMS front, the slumping continued for reigning champ Brad Keselowski. Michigan’s favorite son was running deep inside the top 10, late in the race, but due to a gamble made on an earlier caution, his No. 2 car ran out of gas roughly half-a-lap from the finish. That left Keselowski with a disappointing 12th-place result… and wondering what might have been.
Kurt Busch found another way to foul one up. His Furniture Row Chevrolet was one of the fastest cars all weekend, but any hope of victory for the small Denver-based outfit came undone when Busch backed the car into the wall, on his own early in the going. On a weekend in which he had an opportunity to score big points, Busch brought the car home to a heart-wrenching 35th-place finish.
The “Seven Come for Eleven” Award for Fine Fortune
Kevin Harvick captured yet another top 5 Sunday, and he did it in true Kevin Harvick fashion. Harvick quietly ran around the middle of the top 10 for most of the day, but due to some good pit calls and a quiet intensity on restarts, he found himself battling for the win with 20 laps to go. The W didn’t quite happen, but he delivered a solid second-place finish for a team that is slowly establishing itself as one of the most consistent in the garage area.
Clint Bowyer slammed into the back of Trevor Bayne on the first lap of the race, then was subjected to running in the deep 20s as his team tried to reshape the front end of his car on pit stops. Ultimately, his team came through for him, and he clawed his way back to seventh with a car that needed about 50 Hours of Energy to look somewhat drivable.
Austin Dillon surprised many on Sunday with his sterling 11th-place performance, myself included. I personally called out Dillon in my Four Burning Questions column this past Friday to step up his results in the Cup Series, and he did just that. His team was able to get track position early in the going, and Dillon did an admirable job of hanging with the leaders for most of the day.
Much like Dillon, Trevor Bayne had one of the best days of his Cup career as well. Making a rare appearance for the Wood Brothers, Bayne averted disaster with that Bowyer stackup, settled in and methodically worked his way up to 15th.
- Greg Biffle’s win on Sunday was the 19th of his career and his fourth at Michigan International Speedway (the most for him at any Sprint Cup facility). With four victories in 21 starts, Biffle wins races at Michigan at a solid 19% clip.
- Biffle’s win was the 1,000th NASCAR victory for Ford and the 45th Sprint Cup Series win for the company at Michigan.
- Biffle posted an impressive 127.7 Driver Rating in his winning performance, which was the best of any driver in the race.
- Hendrick Motorsports had all four cars finish outside the top 25 for the first time since the 2005 road course race at Sonoma. The best result for any of them was Jimmie Johnson in 28th.
- Kyle Busch’s fourth-place result was his seventh top 5 and ninth top 10 finish of the season. He is now tied for the series lead in both categories.
- Joey Logano (ninth) earned his seventh top-10 finish of the season Sunday. It was also his fourth straight.
- Jeff Burton (10th) now has four straight finishes of 12th or better.
- Danica Patrick (13th) was the Sunoco Rookie of the Race. She has won the award three times in 2013.
- Kurt Busch (35th) has three top-2 starting spots in the last seven races and has led 144 laps. But he only has one top-5 finish, during that span to show for his efforts.
- Carl Edwards won the pole for Sunday’s race. It was his first pole of 2013 and the 12th of his career.
- Denny Hamlin 30th-place finish on Sunday essentially ended any shot he had at the Chase. He is now 85 points out of 20th place and a distant 118 out of 10th.
What’s the Points?
Jimmie Johnson is still your championship leader, but the 51-point advantage he enjoyed a week ago has shrunk to 31. Carl Edwards continues to plug along in second, ending Sunday’s race in eighth and it appears he and his team have finally shaken the demons haunting them since the 2011 Chase. Clint Bowyer is holding serve in third, 49 points out of the lead followed by Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth.
Sixth place in the standings belongs to a resurgent Kyle Busch, who has returned to a comfortable spot inside the top 10. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. fell to seventh, after his engine failure, and he is now only 32 points ahead of the 10th-place postseason cutoff. Greg Biffle, on the other hand improved his Chase chances Sunday with a victory and now sits eighth, 28 points ahead of 10th. Brad Keselowski and Tony Stewart (who is in the top 10 for the first time all season) round out the final two spots with 430 and 417 points apiece. As for the “wild cards,” Kasey Kahne (who is 12th in the standings) holds the first spot on the strength of his Bristol victory, while Paul Menard holds the second based on his 11th-place standing in points. Martin Truex, Jr., Joey Logano, and Aric Almirola are 13th, 14th, and 15th in the standings, and all are very much in the hunt.
Overall Rating (On a scale of one to six beer cans, with one being a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic) – The race was full of drama and had plenty of exciting moments on the various restarts, but the pervasiveness of the clean air advantage held this one back from being a thriller. We’ll give this one three cans of ice cold Mountain Dew (no beer for me) and hope that teams clear up the aero issues by the time the series returns to the track in August.
Next Up — After months and months of “cookie cutter” sameness, the series will take a much-needed trip to a road course next week for the Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway. The Cup boys have become adept road racers over the past decade and, as such, the events on these tracks have been utterly fantastic. Expect lots of beating, banging, and close competition throughout for an event that starts on TNT or your local MRN radio affiliate Sunday at 3 ET.
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