It's not been the best of seasons for Greg Biffle and Roush Fenway Racing so far in 2013, with the powerhouse team looking very far off the pace at times in the opening 14 races of this year's NASCAR Sprint Cup championship. Carl Edwards won at the second race of the year at Phoenix but since then a repeat trip to victory lane has looked worryingly far off.
Greg Biffle set out to change that this week at Michigan International Speedway, a track that the team considers its home venue thanks to its proximity to Roush's operations base in Detroit and their engine supplier Ford Motor Company which has their global headquarters in nearby Dearborn. And that home field advantage really has translated to results for the team in the past: Biffle won the most recent outing here last August, one of three wins and 12 previous top-ten finishes in 20 races at the two-mile superspeedway.
Not that the start of the race had looked particularly promising for the #16 car on Sunday afternoon, as it started the Quicken Loans 400 from a solidly midfield 19th position on the grid while his team mate Carl Edwards led the field to the green flag for the start of the race.
Fellow front row man Kurt Busch immediately took point after of the scheduled competition caution due after lap 20 because heavy overnight rain had washed away the rubber previously laid down by the cars in their practice and qualifying sessions. Sure enough, almost immediately the drivers felt the impact of the changed track conditions with some alarmingly loose handling that left few drivers not hanging on for dear life right from the start. Bobby Labonte was the first to lose that battle as he went for a slow spin in turn 2 on lap 7: Jeff Gordon was unable to get passed him without making contact, the the result was heavy damage to both cars.
"Bobby Labonte lost it off of turn two in front of me," Gordon explained. "It was just such a slow spin that I didn't know which way he was going to go, so I had to guess. I tried to go around him on the outside and that was not the right way. I don't know if I would have missed him even if I went to the inside."
For Gordon, it's another bad stroke of luck in a season that has just refused to go his way right from the start. Although he eventually restarted and ran a few more laps after the Hendrick Motorsports team had done their best with repairs, he still ended up classified in 39th position by the end and took a five-place drop in the championship standings to 16th as a result.
"This season we are having is just unbelievable to me," Gordon shook his head. "We are at times struggling to get the speed, then when we get the speed we struggle to finish because of stuff like this. I thought we were being tested last year, boy we are really being tested this year.
"For years I've always said I don't believe in good luck or bad luck that you make it," he continued. "Just in that instance right there I call that being at the wrong place at the wrong time, but I also know that we contribute to where we started. We started back there and we were moving forward which I'm proud of, but the fact that we are back there - I put as much blame on myself. I really struggled this weekend when we went into qualifying trim. I've struggled all year.
"I'm a pretty patient person, but it's testing my frustration level and my confidence that is the biggest thing," he admitted. "We all know how big confidence is in this sport, any sport really. I don't want to see the team get down and I don't want to see myself get down. I have a lot of fight in me and so does this team. I'm looking forward to going to Sonoma."
The race resumed without him and Labonte and made it to the competition caution during which time everyone pitted for tyres. Kyle Busch also got hit with a penalty for passing on pit road which meant that he was sent to the back of the field; to get back into the top ten where he'd started, he would now have to get past 30 cars on a track hardly ideal for overtaking.
But there was worse news for his brother Kurt, who having led the first 20 laps of the race took the restart in third - and crashed after the #78 broke loose in turn 2. There was a lot of damage to the car and he went multiple laps down while the team worked on running repairs, ending his chances of winning here after looking strong all through practice and qualifying.
"The car just broke loose," explained Busch. "We had a really fast car all weekend and it's a shame that we didn't capitalise on what we had. The driver feels the hurt, the same way the crew and the entire organisation does. But these things happen and all we can do is put this behind us and get ready with the same intensity for next weekend's race."
Like Gordon before him, the pain translates to a five place drop in the championship standings putting Busch down into 20th place, although the former Cup champion was still far from giving up on the season. "We've had these misfortunes before and rebounded," he said. "I don't see any reason why we won't do it again."
Penske's Joey Logano picked up the lead for a short time before the Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing #1 car of Jamie McMurray took over at the front and led for 21 laps. Strong as McMurray was looking, however, there were storm clouds rapidly bearing down on him in the shape of the remaining three Hendrick Motorsport cars still in contention: Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne were all on the move and looking very strong indeed, Johnson duly sweeping in to take the lead on lap 64. Ten laps later, the three Hendrick team mates were running in formation at the front and looked to be threatening a Chevrolet lock-out in Ford's backyard.
A debris caution led to a poor restart for Johnson on lap 81 - although many suspected he might still be making a sharp point to NASCAR about their handling of jump-start penalties against him two weeks ago, as he said he'd jumped off the gas in order to avoid inadvertently overtaking Earnhardt who had spun his wheels at the green flag.
"He spun his tyres and almost ran into the side of me trying to control his car," said Johnson after the race. "I wasn't going to get burned on that again so I jumped off the gas and got drilled from behind. Then my tyres were off the ground and I can't go.
"It's an interesting scenario," he mused about the vexatious issue of being judged to have 'jumped' a restart. "The distance outside of the restart box to the start/finish line that area is something that needs to be addressed. There is a game to be played there and you can cause a heck of a pile up and take out 15-20 cars if you are trying to give it back."
As a result of this latest restart mishap, Johnson dropped down to 12th place - but there was plenty of time to move back up again, and in the meantime the race was still in the safe hands of his team mate. All was good in the land of Hendrick, Jeff Gordon's earlier plight notwithstanding.
By the halfway point on lap 100, Kahne had taken over the lead and Johnson was back up into third place behind his two comrades to resume the team lock-out at the front. And then the Hendrick dream day started to unravel, as Kasey Kahne suddenly had a right front tyre blow out on him while leading and he ended up in a hard hit with the wall that set the #5 ablaze as he scrambled out to safety, pausing only to reach back inside the car to trigger the fire suppression system.
"Something broke, I don't really know," said Kahne after he emerged from being checked over at the in-field care centre. "I would say it was a tyre that went down, but I don't know for sure. I just was going into the corner and then it 'boom' and turned right went straight into the wall. It was a hard hit."
Denny Hamlin's view was that it had been debris on the track that had caused Kahne's accident. Struggling all afternoon long in an uncharacteristically ill-handling #11 Joe Gibbs Car, Hamlin had run over some debris himself just before Kahne - who at the time had been about to lap him - had suffered his accident right behind him. Hamlin's day didn't improve from this point either, and he finished in 30th place a lap off the pace, his Chase chances surely all but gone as he drops to 26th place in the standings.
Earnhardt led the field to the green on lap 113 followed by Matt Kenseth, with Biffle now up to third place after the field ahead had been cleared of some of the Hendrick cars; Johnson had suffered a sluggish stop and dropped back to seventh during that extended caution for the clear-up for the #5 barbecue. Biffle soon passed Kenseth for second spot, but in turn he was quickly demoted back down again by Johnson coming back strong and on lap 128 the #48 was once again running in second place.
Next lap by, Johnson was in the lead - but not in the way that he or the team wanted. Earnhardt's engine had gone bang, and it was game over for the #88 at Michigan - the third DNF for the team from its four-car squad. If Johnson hadn't been nervous about his chances of making it to the finish already, he surely must have feared that the gods were against him after this latest portent.
"There was no warning at all even after I think we lost a cylinder," said Earnhardt of his demise. "The gauges all looked really good. Flipped all the switches I could flip and nothing was really making a difference. We just had something come apart in the motor.
"That is worse than if it happens when you're running in the back," he said when asked about being the second Hendrick car in succession to be hit by problems while in a dominant lead. "That car was just flying at the end there. I don't know if we had as good a car as Jimmie, but we had certainly made some gains on it, even in the last stop. So, I'm just real proud of my team. I hate to run into trouble. They'll figure it out and we'll get it sorted and we'll be able to come back here and expect to run strong again."
It looked like Johnson's bad luck might just possible have arrived when he dropped 19 spots during the ensuing pit stops under caution for oil spilt from the dying #88: the team had opted for a four-tyre stop when seemingly everyone else had just taken two, a strategic call by the opposition that had clearly surprised Johnson's normally unflappable crew chief Chad Knaus. All Knaus could do was apologise to his driver and assure him that they still had plenty of time to make it up and that it was all still to play for.
With the Hendrick stars fading from the firmament, it was time for others to shine: pole man Carl Edwards took the lead from Joey Logano at the restart, and over the course of the next dozen laps it was his team mate Greg Biffle having restarted from fourth who emerged as the main threat in the #99's rear view mirror, until finally with just under 50 laps to go it was the #16 to the front, rapidly pulling out a three second lead over Edwards.
Edwards had a distraction of his own that prevented him from giving maximum effort in his pursuit, however: some debris had plastered itself on his front air-intake grill and as a result the engine temperatures on the #99 were skyrocketing. Short of a pit stop the only way around it was to use the back of another car to disrupt the airflow to peel the debris off, but Biffle wasn't heeding calls to ease off the pace and back up into Edwards to allow him to do that - something which angered the #99 crew chief Jimmy Fennig.
"We just might have a header crack or a tailpipe crack ... We have to thank our teammate for that." fumed Fennig. "He ain't our teammate."
But Biffle was unrepentant when asked about the incident after the race: "This is a competitive sport," he said. "It would be different if he was eight car lengths back.
"When I looked up in the mirror and he was 25 car lengths back, and they said, Carl has got something on his grill, I said, I can't help him, not in this, not right now," he explained. "This is my chance to win today, right here, and the #48 is coming. I don't know if you know that or not, but the #48 is coming."
The #99's problem was finally taken care of by the last round of pit stops, which for Biffle and Edwards was just before the last caution of the race triggered by former race leader McMurray spinning at turn 1 after a tyre went down.
Biffle led at the restart from Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth, while Jimmie Johnson took the green flag in tenth but was rapidly moving forward - retroactively validating Biffle's paranoia about what the #48 was capable of doing form here. Unfortunately Biffle didn't have his team mate around at the front to help him anymore, as the round of pit stops had dropped the #99 well down the running order and Fennig's prediction of engine damage from overheating appeared to be coming true. Edwards was left to nurse the car home the remaining 26 laps as best he could, finally earning himself a creditable eighth place finish but one you feel might come with a side order of dead-eye glares at their stable mates.
Johnson kept coming - and coming. With eight laps to go to the chequered he passed Harvick for second spot and set his sights on Biffle who was doing all he could to maintain his slender lead of less than a second. But Johnson had the edge and inch by inch he reeled in the #16, determined to sweep away the problems that the rest of his team mates had suffered and bring home some silverware to salve their wounds.
Instead, it turned out that even a five-time champion can try too hard: with just two laps to go, the #48 went into the wall after an over-stressed tyre failed on him. The #48 limped back to the garage under its own power meaning that NASCAR could finish the race under green, with Biffle winning ahead of Harvick and Truex - and Kyle Busch, who having laboured all afternoon to salvage fourth place following that costly lap 20 competition caution penalty finished in fourth ahead of Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth.
"We cut a right-front tyre there at the end," said a disappointed Johnson. "I guess just running that hard trying to get through traffic and get to the #16 we wore through the right-front. I'm kind of shocked because we didn't have any issues; the #5 had some problem, but that was kind of a weird thing to happen there."
If if hadn't been for the Hendrick hard-luck horror show at Michigan then it's unlikely that Biffle and Roush Fenway would have emerged victorious, but that's simply how motorsport goes sometimes. Biffle was certainly no less overjoyed with the victory, and after heading the final quarter of the race there's no reason why he shouldn't feel very proud of his latest Cup win.
"It wasn't easy," he said. "I kept working on this car and working on this car. The guys did a great job. The pit stops were flawless. You know, we beat the #48 today and that says a lot. He was really, really fast. Once we got out in clean air we could match up fairly well with the #48, [then] he made a small mistake trying to catch us."
As a result of the late-race drama, Johnson's Sprint Cup championship lead over Carl Edwards has been reduced to 31 points, while Biffle moves up two spots into eighth place in the standings. But perhaps more meaningfully than any talk of Cup points this weekend was the little slice of history that it delivered to the Ford Motor Company in their own 'home' NASCAR event, since Biffle's win represented the engine manufacturer's 1000th NASCAR national-level victory across the Cup, Nationwide and Truck series competitions.
"It's definitely a special day," Biffle said. "Just super-excited for Ford and sure excited to be number 1000!"
"I have been with Ford Motor Company and they have been supporting me for almost 50 years now and we expect to be at our best when we come to MIS and I am glad we could pull it off," said Roush Fenway Racing team owner Jack Roush. "I was a little nervous for a minute there, but I am glad it worked out and glad we could give Ford their 1000th win."
"What a great moment this is," said Jamie Allison, the director of Ford Racing. "Thanks to all the Ford teams and Roush Fenway, Penske, the Wood Brothers, Germain Racing, Front Row Motorsports and Richard Petty Motorsports and all those that have accumulated these wins throughout the years.
"We couldn't be prouder to have this moment come here today at Michigan in front of so many of our Ford friends, what a great race and a great day for Ford," he added. " We are celebrating the 110th birthday of Ford Motor Company today, and I can't think of a better birthday present than this win here this afternoon."
It certainly seemed that someone upstairs was looking out for Ford this weekend, while taking every opportunity to stick pins into effigies of the Hendrick cars throughout race day. But usually that just of ill-fortune makes Johnson and his team mates even more determined next time around - which should make for a very interesting road course event next weekend at Sonoma Raceway at Sears Point, California.Full race results
, interview with the race winner
and Sprint Cup Championship standings