Looking for the Who, What, When, Where, Why and How behind Sunday’s race? Amy Henderson has you covered each week with the answers to six race-day questions, covering all five Ws and even the H… the Big Six.
Who… gets my shoutout of the race?
Jimmie Johnson‘s luck at Michigan International Speedway has never been great. He finally got his first win there in June, but Sunday was an up-and-down day for Johnson, to say the least. He and his team fought a bad vibration in the car for much of the weekend, which left them in a hole after qualifying just 30th. The vibration was fixed for the race, and crew chief Chad Knaus played some pit strategy to gain Johnson some track position, pitting before the competition caution for tires and leaving Johnson on track when the rest of the field came in. The move worked out, but the bad luck continued as the shifter handle broke off the No. 48, and the team ultimately lost a lap making repairs.
Johnson got his lap back, and was able to march forward as the race ran on, fighting for a top 10 spot with less than 30 laps to go. There were a few final tense moments as Johnson and Ryan Newman battled, with Johnson twice bumping into Newman’s side and led to a post-race confrontation with an angry Newman. When all was said and done, Johnson took home a ninth-place result, his best run since his finished 10th at Kentucky nearly two months ago. Johnson’s summer slumps are well-documented, but this year’s edition seems less planned Chase testing and more worrisome than other years. If this week marks the beginning of a turnaround for Johnson, it’s coming at the right time as the Chase draws closer.
What… beyond the teams’ control affected the action?
There was a new rule in place this week, and while it didn’t really have an effect on the race other than on the number of drivers who found themselves in a bad situation, NASCAR formalized what’s been an unspoken safety rule in racing, requiring drivers to stay in their cars with their safety equipment in place, until track crews and paramedics arrive and direct them to get out. The rule comes in the wake of a tragic accident last week at Canandaigua Motorsports Park in upstate New York, when Tony Stewart struck and killed Kevin Ward Jr. after Ward exited his car and walked onto the track to confront Stewart after a spin.
NASCAR, as the premier American racing series, does set an example for other series and for local tracks everywhere, and if the rule spawns similar rulings in other series and at many tracks, then perhaps some shred of good can come of what happened last week, some sense can be made of the incomprehensible. Kudos to the sanctioning body for doing the right thing and leading by example.
Where… did the polesitter and the defending race winner wind up?
Jeff Gordon started on the pole and made it clear that he was going to be a force after shattering the previous track record on Friday – and he was, winning the race by 1.412 seconds over Kevin Harvick. As the Gen-6 car evolves, it’s becoming clear that the previous car, the so-called Car of Tomorrow, was as much a hindrance on Gordon’s career as the age that’s crept up on him in recent years. The current car is obviously more to Gordon’s liking, and the driver is enjoying a resurgence that makes him a title favorite and cements his place as the best of his generation.
Joey Logano was looking for a repeat in Michigan, and he almost got it. The driver of the No. 22 Ford was a contender all day, leading 86 laps, the most of any driver. He got the better of Gordon early in the race, but fell just short on the final restart, where Gordon got the race lead and left Logano to battle with Harvick, Paul Menard and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Logano was able to hold off Menard and Earnhardt for third spot.
When… did it all go sideways?
It seems like an eternity ago that Kyle Busch was sitting sixth in points, but it’s been just four weeks. He has seemed snakebitten this month. After finishing second at Indianapolis, Busch has failed to finish better than 39th in the last three races. His 39th place at MIS is his best finish in the last three weeks, and while his Chase berth is secure, Busch needs a 180-degree turnaround to be a title contender. This week, Busch slammed the wall just four laps into the race, solidifying an ugly statistic: the first caution has come within seven laps in every race MIS has hosted since repaving the track.
Danica Patrick was also a victim of the high speeds and aerodynamic sensitivity of the Gen-6 cars this week. She spun in traffic after getting into the left rear of Jeff Burton‘s No. 14 car on lap 25, and collected several in the process, including Justin Allgaier, Michael Annett, Martin Truex Jr., Trevor Bayne, Travis Kvapil and Alex Bowman. The learning curve has been steep for second-year driver Patrick, who has just three top-10 finishes this season, seven fewer than rookie Kyle Larson has so far.
Burton escaped damage in Patrick’s spin, but electrical gremlins bit the No. 14 instead. Burton, who was filling in for Stewart, spent multiple laps in the garage as the team worked in the issue, and though he got back on track, he finished 37th, 24 laps down.
It was hardly a bad day for Harvick, who made the most of a late-race run to take home second place, but there is one statistic Harvick would like to erase: he’s finished second in the last four races at MIS. From a points standpoint, that’s a heck of a run, but it’s frustrating indeed to be so close to the win time and time again.
Why… did Gordon win the race?
Gordon clearly had a fast car all weekend, but restarts again proved tough on the veteran driver…until the last one, where he drove around a charging Logano and held him off, eventually pulling away and winning handily for his third victory of the year and the top Chase seed, at least for now.
Gordon sets the standard for the modern era driver, and he’s staring down the barrel at 100 Sprint Cup wins, a mark that just two drivers have met in the sport’s history, both of them running the bulk of their careers during a time when competition at some races was sparse. Gordon would be the only driver to run his entire career in NASCAR’s modern era to touch triple-digit victories should he meet that mark. While it’s unlikely he’ll match the championship numbers of Petty, Earnhardt or even his teammate Johnson, Gordon has driven this season like he found the fountain of youth along the way, and reminding fans and foes why he’s the greatest NASCAR driver of his generation. He’s a title contender, and a serious one
How… did the little guys do?
JTG-Daugherty Racing; AJ Allmendinger (No. 47 Kingsford Chevy): A week after winning at Watkins Glen, Allmendinger was somewhat brought back to Earth by a track that’s never been easy on underfunded teams. The Dinger was still able to score a top-15 finish, coming in 13th, and gain two spots in points to lead this group in that category as well.
Germain Racing; Casey Mears (No. 13 GEICO Chevy): Mears fought a bad vibration mid-race, but his team was able to fix it with fresh tires, and Mears drove the No. 13 to take his third top-20 finish in a row.
Front Row Motorsports; David Ragan & David Gilliland (No. 34 CSX Play It Safe Ford & No. 38 Love’s Travel Stops Ford): This team has shown some real improvement in recent weeks. Gilliland was again the strongest of the FRM teammates with his 21st-place finish, but Ragan wasn’t far behind in 24th. These finishes in the low 20s are an important step for this group.
BK Racing; Bowman & Cole Whitt & JJ Yeley (No. 23 Dr. Pepper Toyota & No. 26 Iowa City Capital Partners Toyota & No. 83 Burger King Toyota): The weekend started out with a driver change in the No. 83 after Ryan Truex crashed in practice and was subsequently diagnosed with a concussion, forcing the team to find a replacement driver in JJ Yeley. Once the race began, Whitt showed why he’s this team’s top driver in points, finishing a team-best 25th, but not by much, as Bowman finished 26th. Yeley wound up 30th, not a terrible finish considering he had little time to adjust to the car and crew and considering the car usually runs in that area.
Tommy Baldwin Racing; Annett & Reed Sorenson & Dave Blaney (No. 7 Allstate Peterbilt/Pilot Chevy & No. 36 Chevy & No. 37 Accell Construction Chevy): Sorenson carried the team flag this week with his 27th-place result. Blaney came in 33rd, while Annett was collected in Patrick’s lap 25 spin and suffered damage that relegated him to the back of the pack before a vibration finished him off in 40th spot. This team is showing some improvement this season, as finishes in the 30s have often turned into finishes in the 20s. They’re headed in the right direction.
Phil Parsons Racing; Josh Wise (No. 98 Ford): Wise came home a quiet 28th, avoiding trouble and keeping his car in one piece. For what’s essentially a first-year team in some ways, that’s important—there’s not a fleet of cars waiting back at the shop for this group.
Circle Sport; Alex Kennedy & Landon Cassill (No. 33 Little Joe’s Autos Chevy & No. 40 Carsforsale.com Chevy): Cassill, who’s quietly having an outstanding season in badly underfunded equipment in the Nationwide Series, also had a decent day in his Cup ride, avoiding problems and coming home an unassuming 29th. Kennedy, in his first Michigan Cup start, finished 34th.
GoFAS Racing; Kvapil (No. 32 Skuttle Tight Ford): Kvapil had minor damage from the lap 45 scuffle, but was able to finish the race and wound up four laps down in 32nd. That’s still six spots better than he qualified.
Jay Robinson Racing; Joe Nemechek (No. 66 Land Castle TitleToyota): Nemechek saw it through to the end in a car that was never up to speed. He finished 35th, a spot and a half better than his 2014 average.
Wood Brothers Racing; Bayne (No 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford): Bayne was collected and the No. 21 heavily damaged in the lap 25 pileup. His team was able to make some repairs, but Byane was the last car running when it was over, finishing 41st.
HScott Motorsports; Allgaier (No. 51 Brandt Chevy): Allgaier was also collected in Patrick’s spin on lap 25 and suffered the brunt of the damage. He turned a few more laps after his team attempted repairs, but could not get up to speed and was forced to the garage early, recording a 42nd-place result.