By Jeff Wolfe
Greg Biffle thinks he would have had something for Jimmie Johnson.
But in the end, he didn’t need anything for the five-time NASCAR champion on the way to winning Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Michigan.
Johnson, who was looking for his first victory at the track, appeared to be in prime shape when he passed Brad Keselowski for the lead with ten laps remaining. But as had been the case with some other Hendrick Motorsports engines on the day, Johnson’s motor went bad with six laps to go, opening the door for Biffle to win for the third time at Michigan.
“It was going to be a great race no matter what,” said Biffle, who won his 18th career race in front of an estimated crowd of 83,000. “I felt like I could catch him, but we’ll never know. Passing him might have been a different story. But I certainly think that with seven to go, I probably could have pulled up close to him.”
Biffle had contended for much of the day. He led three times for 26 laps and was fifth in the final restart with 14 laps to go. Keselowski took the lead on that final restart, before surrendering it to Johnson.
Biffle’s crew chief, Matt Puccia, liked the chances for the No. 16 at the end, even before Johnson’s engine blew.
“I just told him basically when we restarted fifth, we’re not out of this,” Puccia said. “I knew we had a fast car. We were capable, if we could get to him, to get around him. What happened to Jimmie there, I think we had a good enough car to catch him and pass him normally. But when that happened, we took advantage of it and got around him.”
Johnson and his crew chief, Chad Knaus, may have suspected there could be an issue with the Hendrick Motorsport engines. Knaus elected to change engines after qualifying, which put Johnson in the back of the pack to start Sunday. And that theory may have held some water as first Tony Stewart, who uses Hendrick engines, and then Johnson’s teammate Jeff Gordon, each saw their engines lose cylinders before the halfway point of the race. The early diagnosis for each of those issues a bad valve spring.
Johnson and Stewart were each looking for their fourth victories of the season and Gordon was needing a win or a good finish to help his wild-card chances to make the Chase for the Championship, NASCAR’s version of the playoffs.
”The 48 (Johnson) has the most speed and the best history as far as the Chase is concerned,” Keselowski said. ”We caught a lucky break that was unfortunate for Jimmie. He definitely deserved to win the race. Just didn’t play out that way.”
Two Hendrick cars that did last the entire race were the No. 5 of Kasey Kahne, who was third and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in fourth.
“I just felt really good about our speed,” Kahne said. “Our car has been really fast. We’ve been pretty consistent as a team. We want to make it to the Chase. That’s a big part of our season, something that we’re really shooting for. I think our team has done a great job of that.”
Kahne was also fast early in the race, and had a view of an accident that could have been tragic, but fortunately was not.
Pole-sitter Mark Martin was dominating the early part of the race when he caught lapped traffic. Martin, who led 54 of the first 64 laps, caught Juan Pablo Montoya and Bobby Labonte. Montoya, was fighting to keep from going a lap down was behind Labonte when Labonte spun. Martin and Kahne were immediately behind. And while Kahne spun and escaped with minimal damage, Martin spun onto pit road and slid sideways into an end of the wall that is open for cars to come and go from the garage area. I t was also next to Kahne’s pit box, causing his crew to scramble as Martin slid toward them. Luckily, there were no injuries.
“Mark was held up so bad by the two in front of him,” Kahne said. “Mark must have been tired or loose or whatever, but he was really struggling to get to the inside or outside of those guys. I got there and I thought I would try to pass Mark. About that time the 47 (Labonte) just got loose from what I could see. I don’t know, maybe the 42 (Montoya), I’m not sure if they touched or not, but the 47 started spinning, then we just all tried to miss it.
“I slid through the grass and didn’t injure it too much. Just right front damage. Mark took off towards our pit stall, exploded into that wall.”
And while NASCAR has made several safety improvements over the years, from the stronger built Car of Tomorrow, Safer Barriers and HANS devices for drivers to wear, Martin’s accident was a reminder that it’s still a dangerous sport.
“Over the course of time, we always get complacent and think that we’ve hit all the buttons on the safety side,” Keselowski said. “Then you see something like that. It shows you why you have to never quit working at making these cars and tracks safer because that could have been a lot worse, whether it was for Mark or for the crew members or anybody.
“So it’s just one of those moments where you realize you might think that you have safety covered in this sport, but you never do.”
Following Earnhardt Jr. to round out the top-10 were Marcos Ambrose in fifth, Carl Edwards, Clint Bowyer, Ryan Newman, Paul Menard and Martin Truex, Jr.
The Sprint Cup cars will be in action again at 7:30 Saturday at Bristol on ABC, leaving just three races left before the Chase for the Championship begins.
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