Joey Logano started the Pure Michigan 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race from pole position and went on to clinch the win 200 laps later, but it was by no means a straightforward flag-to-flag cruise around in the lead for the 23-year-old from Connecticut.
It had proved to be an eventful race with nine cautions including accidents that claimed some of the leading points contenders in the race for the 2013 Chase. In the end it came down to a fuel conservation finish, but even that was more thrilling than it usually sounds as Logano went toe-to-toe with Mark Martin while Kevin Harvick lurked in the background ready to pounce if either fell short.
Logano had led the field to the green flag at the start of the race alongside Kurt Busch while Jimmie Johnson - who should have been on the second row alongside Mark Martin - was sent to the back after he had been forced to take to the backup car following a Saturday practice crash. He was joined there by Jamie McMurray, who had needed an engine replacement.
The track proved loose from the get-go, with Clint Bowyer spinning on the first lap in turn 4, David Reutimann hitting the wall in turn 2 at the restart and Austin Dillon - subbing for Tony Stewart in the #14 this weekend - spinning out in turn 4 after contact with JJ Yeley at the next green. "I apologise to the #36 team and JJ Yeley," said Dillon after the race. "I didn't mean to get into them like that at all. I just grabbed the brakes and locked them down in the rear, couldn't steer out of it."
Finally the race got properly underway on lap 17, and by lap 20 Johnson (with Bowyer in tow) was already back in the top 20. Busch took over the lead on lap 32 as Logano started to drop back, with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Brad Keselowski moving up into the top three heading into the first round of green flag pit stops from lap 40 which briefly allowed Johnson to lead having put in an early appearance in pit lane under one of the initial cautions. Once all the stops cycled through it was Earnhardt who picked up the lead, Busch having lost time and five positions in pit lane with lugnut issues.
Johnson was back on pit road again on lap 57, far too early to be a scheduled stop, and indeed it was clear from the reaction of the #48 crew that there was a serious problem as the car was ushered behind the wall. When Johnson walked out of the garage, his comment was succinct: "The engine broke there," he said, done for the day.
"Coming down the back straightaway I felt it drop a couple of cylinders and knew we were in trouble," he elaborated. "Brought it to pit road and unfortunately it finally broke all the way and locked up. It would be nice to have salvaged something and maybe pulled the down cylinder parts out - you know, the valve train parts out - and get back out on the track, but the engine didn't live long enough once it broke. These things break pretty quick and that was the end of it."
It would be the biggest hit to his championship tally all year and the first time that he has finished 40th or worse since the 2012 Daytona 500. Despite that misfortune, he's mustered such a big lead in the standings to this point that he will still be comfortably ahead in the championship and had already locked himself into the Chase after last weekend's race at Watkins Glen.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. brushed the wall on lap 71 to bring out the next caution which allowed the field to pit under caution, the leaders all opting for two tyres with Earnhardt leading Keselowski, Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards and Joey Logano back out onto the track, although an off-sync Denny Hamlin stayed out altogether to lead at the restart while a baulked Earnhardt lost six places in the shake-out. Hamlin soon slipped back on his older tyres, leaving Busch to take up the lead once more ahead of Penske duo Keselowski and Logano and Edwards settling into fourth for this stint ahead of Kevin Harvick and a recovering Earnhardt.
A debris caution just past halfway on lap 106 allowed for a new round of pit stops, with a mix of two- and four-tyre stops shaking up the running order at the restart and putting Greg Biffle at the front for the restart alongside Kyle Busch, with Keselowski and Logano on the second row followed by Clint Bowyer, Jeff Burton, Martin Truex Jr. and Kurt Busch followed by Richard Childress Racing pair Kevin Harvick and Paul Menard.
Running just ahead of team mate Kasey Kahne, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was the top-placed Hendrick Motorsport driver after Johnson's early exit and handling problems for Jeff Gordon, but the #88's strong run came off the rails on lap 135 when a blown tyre put him into the wall while running in seventh place, impacting his championship hopes as much as the bodywork.
"It's just the tyre we've had a lot of problems with" explained Earnhardt. "I think this is the same tyre we struggled with the last race. It's just kind of frustrating. It's just bad luck. If we keep running like we're supposed to run and like we've been running, we'll get on into the Chase and not have to worry about it. But this bad luck, we need to shake that. We just can't keep having this every week. It's been biting us every week. So we'll just have to see what happens."
That allowed the leaders to come in for their penultimate, mainly two-tyre stops - Logano and Keselowski emerging from pit road ahead of Biffle, Harvick, Menard and Matt Kenseth, with Juan Pablo Montoya into the top ten for the first time after gaining four places on pit road.
Choosing the outside line for the restart, Logano smoothly pulled away at the front but Keselowski got caught up in some buffeting with Biffle and Edwards and fell back to ninth as a result, all of which enabled Harvick and Kenseth to make forward progress into second and third spots behind the race leader which lasted until the next caution on lap 149 for a spin by Bobby Labonte in turn 4. Still around a dozen laps outside the window to make it to the end of the race, this time the leaders stayed out with the highest-placed drivers to come onto pit road proving to be Keselowski from eighth and Kyle Busch from 11th, neither man happy with their cars during this latest run. Busch was even less happy when he spun the #18 into the wall two laps after the restart on lap 155, only narrowly avoiding getting collected in a secondary impact by oncoming traffic.
"We were just off all day," said Busch, who won at Michigan in 2011. "Our car was tight early in the race and it just kept getting worse and worse in traffic. We tried to pit for four tyres there and get the handling better, but it put us back too far in traffic and we were just too loose coming off the corner, and I couldn't hold onto it and backed it into the fence. We just had to try and hold onto it from there since we had too much damage to go anywhere."
This latest caution put the cars now just about in reach of the end of the race given a following wind, some committed fuel conservation and a few caution laps, and so the leaders duly filed on to pit road for what they hoped would be their final stops of the day. That meant that Keselowski benefited from his earlier stop by picking up the lead in a four-wide restart ahead of Mark Martin, David Ragan and Aric Almirola with Harvick down in fifth ahead of Logano.
Another spin for Kyle Busch brought out the ninth caution on lap 173, helping those on the knife-edge of fuel but doing nothing for race leader Keselowski who was too far outside the window to hope to make it home on the current tank of gas even with a few caution laps. It did, however, enable the #2 to recover from soaring engine temperatures that had the pit crew concerned, and car owner Roger Penske himself came over the team radio to rubber stamp the call that discretion was the better part of a successful Chase campaign and that they should use the opportunity to head to pit road for more fuel and general check-up.
That set Keselowski back to 17th place but with fuel to burn for the remaining 23 laps, and left Mark Martin in charge of the restart alongside Kevin Harvick, with Logano, Kurt Busch, Menard and Ryan Newman comprising the remainder of the top six when the green flag came out on lap 178. Once again the inside man on the front row was at a disadvantage and Harvick was squeezed back to fourth while Logano and Busch staged a thrilling battle over who would take second which went in favour of the current #22 seat holder while Busch ended up losing third to the recovering Harvick.
Logano and Harvick were both being warned that they might be half a lap short on fuel, but the man most at risk of running dry was Mark Martin who was being counselled by his Michael Waltrip Racing pit crew to do everything possible to save fuel, having been one of those to stop earlier than the other leaders. Could the 54-year-old pull it off, in what many are speculating could be his last outing for Michael Waltrip as rumours swirl that he could be in line to take over the #14 Stewart-Haas Racing car for the rest of the season in place of the injured Tony Stewart, potentially opening the way for Brian Vickers to take over the #55 ahead of his recently confirmed full-season appointment in 2014.
There was no question of splash-and-dash moves now, everyone was all-in on their current strategy, and on Martin's car gasped its last fumes three laps shy of the finish. That gifted the race lead to Logano, who had enough left in reserve in the tank to cross the line a second ahead of Harvick and Kurt Busch holding on to third place ahead of Menard, Bowyer and Ambrose.
"That is pretty cool," said Logano after claiming his first win for Penske Racing after his move from Joe Gibbs Racing at the end of 2012. "I am pretty stoked right now. It means so much and so much to get Ford in victory lane here at Michigan. To win with RP [Roger Penske] here, that means so much too. I know he is running around here somewhere."
I just mistimed that last restart there," said Harvick. "I was rolling pretty good on the #55 and going to beat him to the start/finish line, so I had to check up and that allowed the #22 to kind of make it three-wide and get under me and then we had to fight back from there. But all in all it was a good day and we tried a lot of different stuff today and it seemed to run pretty good."
Kasey Kahne ended up the top Hendrick car in seventh place ahead of Burton, Biffle and Edwards, while Montoya just lost out on a top ten finish but was still ahead of Brad Keselowski, whose need for that late fuel stop saw him finish in 12th place after he got caught up in traffic and unable to really put that extra fuel to optimal use while his young team mate went on to clinch the race win.
"It is the same deal every week," signed Keselowski. "The yellows fall exactly the wrong way to screw up our strategy. That can't keep going that way. Its like Black Jack, you aren't going to keep turning 15 or 16 on every hand. Eventually you are going to turn a good hand. We just didn't catch it today."
In the championship standings, Johnson's lead over Bowyer is slashed from 75 to a still-resounding 41 points with just three races remaining to the Chase cut-off. Earnhardt's poor finish in 36th drops him down a spot to seventh place, but Kyle Busch had enough in hand to maintain fifth place ahead of Joe Gibbs Racing team mate Matt Kenseth despite being classified in 31st in Michigan.
Kurt Busch proved to be the biggest gainer from the events in Michigan, his impressive third place finish boosting him into ninth place in the standings and into a provisional Chase place - which would be a phenomenal achievement for the one-car Furniture Row Racing team if it were to come about. The margins are very tight - a drop of seven points would be enough to put him back outside the all-important top ten - but given that many had felt that Michigan could put an end to his Chase hopes it's significant that it did nothing on the sort, but instead inched the Las Vegas native even closer to his dream ambition for 2013.
"We've got three to go and we're in the mix," said Busch, who did well to recover from that early lugnut fumble on pit road. "At the end of the day, we have our weaknesses and pit road and restarts are one of them. It's just like our Achilles Heel, but to be in position to win at the end, we had it, we just didn't have the speed.
"But here we are talking third place and that's what's awesome about our effort today to bounce back from where we were at the first Michigan and what we've learned since June to be where we are now," he added. "Teams have to move quick to find technology and this little team keeps continuing to do that. Call these guys a big team, Furniture Row Racing. This is awesome. Thanks to them and everybody that keeps putting their hand on this car to put us in Chase position."Full race results
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