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Through the Gears: Four things we learned in the Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan
Greg Biffle’s 19th career NASCAR Sprint Cup victory Sunday brought him into a tie on the all-time list with Dale Earnhardt Jr., the man most pundits claimed was supposed to win in the Irish Hills. It was like “Opposite Day” come to life, considering the two couldn’t be more different. Earnhardt, revered through his personality and last name, is the sport’s most popular driver. The whole grandstand shakes the second they see him in position to lead a lap.
Biffle? He’s a forgotten man. Despite winning titles in both the Nationwide and Truck series — putting him in an elite category of drivers who have done both — most NASCAR fans wouldn’t recognize him if they passed on the street. Even within his own team, a cloak of invisibility exists. Carl Edwards, who never met a camera he didn’t love, is the more charismatic driver at Roush Fenway Racing; Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is dating that GoDaddy girl. That leaves Biffle as the guy in your group who shows up at the bar every Friday night, watches the game at your table but you don’t remember a thing he said — just that he seems to know his stuff and he’s friends by association.
That’s not to say the man doesn’t try. The wry, sarcastic sense of humor is there, it’s just that good friend and longtime teammate Matt Kenseth does it better. The rare time Biffle utters a quote worth using it seems Tony Stewart or someone else goes off at the same time and his words get buried on page 3C.
But at age 43, maybe it’s time we appreciate some of what the Washington native has done in the Sprint Cup Series. He’s now won in nine of the last 11 years on the circuit, has made five of the last six Chases and finished top 5 in points three times in his career. There’s not many drivers who can say that.
Is it a Hall of Fame resume? No. But for a guy who’s a likely lifer with Ford after showcasing a decade of loyalty, there’s no better person to bring home the Blue Oval’s 1,000th NASCAR victory, of which Biffle is responsible for 55.
Good luck getting people to realize it, though. Here’s what else we learned Sunday as we go “Through the Gears” …
FIRST GEAR: Hendrick’s horror story
Turns out the oft-referenced horseshoe stuck up Jimmie Johnson’s … well, you know what … fell out sometime before the green flag at Michigan. Maybe it was replaced by kryptonite? The four-car Hendrick Motorsports fleet, hoping to be led by Johnson and Earnhardt Jr.’s Superman-themed No. 88, was the class of the field. But to finish first, you must first finish … and none of them were able to do that effectively.
Jeff Gordon was first to fall, a victim of a lap 7 crash where Bobby Labonte spun in front of him. Then, Kasey Kahne, running a spirited race to win for fallen friend Jason Leffler, blew a tire while running up front. His day ended in a ball of flames on Lap 104. That left Earnhardt seemingly in control, positioned to win his first race since this same event a year ago. But his engine erupted shortly before the 300-mile mark, leaving him sitting 37th in the garage.
Three down, one to go; Johnson was left with a car that might have been the fastest of the four. The problem, surprisingly, was the inability of crew chief Chad Knaus to call proper strategy. Taking four tires when others took two, then putting an extra can of fuel in while others did not found the No. 48 buried in 11th when the race went green for a final 27-lap run to checkers. It took all Johnson could muster to fight up to second, but the aggression took its toll; a flat tire and contact with the wall — not necessarily in that order — with three laps to go left him limping to the pits and a lap down in 28th.
That’s right, four Hendrick cars, zero drivers on the lead lap. It was the first time since Sonoma in 2005 that the entire fleet ran outside the top 25 at race’s end. Will it hamper HMS over the long-term? Yes and no. Johnson, who still has a 31-point advantage in the championship standings should have won each of the last three weeks. He’ll be fine. Kahne, now pushed back into “wild card” territory still has a Bristol victory and is a top-5 car on every intermediate the circuit runs. His Chase position, along with an additional win or two this summer, is a near certainty.
For Gordon and Earnhardt, the picture is less clear. The former is winless this year, sits 19 points outside the top 10 and has seemingly suffered through more bad luck in one season than Johnson has in an entire career. History says he’ll win one before Richmond, as always, to secure a spot — but you never know.
As for NASCAR’s Most Infamous Enigma, Michigan marked just the third time all year that the No. 88 has been out front, which is encouraging. But challenges in the form of Sonoma and Kentucky await. Add in a potential Daytona “Big One,” and suddenly this team, sitting 30 points inside the Chase cutoff, is scrapping with about 14 others for one of the final three playoff spots via points. That’s not a chance they want to take, because Junior hasn’t won a race away from Michigan since Richmond in April 2006.
SECOND GEAR: And it’s Ford for the steal!
With Hendrick down for the count and Toyota down on power — its big guns failed to lead a lap for the second straight week — the Michigan race was there for the taking. And Ford was more than happy to step in. Aside from winner Biffle, Joey Logano led 21 laps and ran a solid ninth, his fourth straight top-10 result. Polesitter Carl Edwards was one position better, and would have been higher if not for an ill-timed yellow while pit stops were under way that trapped him deep in the field.
It was a big moment for the Fusions, still a step behind and needing to take advantage of situations like Sunday’s to stay in the game. Now with Biffle holding a victory, it’s almost certain he and Edwards will be in the postseason field.
Surprisingly enough, while you’d think Penske Racing would be in better position, the momentum within that camp is tilting towards Roush Fenway. There’s no guarantee Logano or even reigning champ Brad Keselowski, who ran out of gas and came home a frustrating 12th, will even make the postseason. Keselowski, who was in the news last week for comments made about why Penske and RFR are struggling to work together, has to cut the chitchat, which got Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing infuriated over claims they’ve stolen employees. Instead, he must use his newfound street cred to continue the push to share information — the teams met extensively last week — because they’re going to need it.