CLICK: Full race results from Michigan International Speedway
CLICK: Updated Sprint Cup Championship standings
Jeff Gordon demonstrated that he's very much the in-form driver this weekend with an impressive drive at Michigan International Speedway to see off threats from Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick on his way to clinching victory in the Pure Michigan 400, his third NASCAR Sprint Cup Series win of 2014 after previous success this year at Kansas and Indianapolis.
To claim the win Gordon had to undergo a gruelling trial by restart, and while he was only away from the front of the race during pit stop cycles he said that the race had been a hard one for him to hold on and win.
"It wasn't easy," he insisted afterwards. "It's never easy to win at any of these tracks, especially when aerodynamics and track position mean so much. I thought we learned a lot the last time we were here on track position.
"I like to go fast [and] this place is really, really fast," he added. "Michigan has always been one of my favourites. I will say when they repaved it, it didn't suit my style as much as the old pavement, but the cars have been getting so much better, and I feel like I've been getting more comfortable here, you know. Today I was able to drive this place the way I like to drive it, have success here again."
Although Gordon had started from pole position, last year's race winner Joey Logano immediately won a first lap side-by-side battle to lead the race before an early caution materialised for Kyle Busch hitting the wall on the frontstraight on lap 4. After the clean-up and restart, Logano continued to lead ahead of Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Jamie McMurray through to the pre-scheduled competition caution on lap 20 that had been arranged to allow teams to check for tyre wear. Ryan Newman and Jimmie Johnson opted to stay off pit road, while Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kyle Larson were left wishing they'd done the same after they made contact during their pit stops that left a big dent in the right-rear quarterpanel of the #88 and which obliged both cars to return to their pit stalls for a health check.
At least it put them away from the scene of the multi-car accident that broke out at the restart on lap 24, triggered by Danica Patrick, Trevor Bayne, Michael Annett, Justin Allgaier and Martin Truex Jr. getting bunched up which also caught up Matt Kenseth and Travis Kvapil, as well as JJ Yeley who was substituting for Ryan Truex who had sustained a mild concussion in a practice accident on Saturday and subsequently ruled out of driving in the race by NASCAR on medical grounds.
"I couldn't really see much in front of me," reported Bayne. "I was following the #7 car or whoever was in front of me and the next thing I know three cars slid down in front of us, I got on the brakes hard and couldn't get it slowed down in time. It wasn't much of a hit but it doesn't take much to damage these things."
In the brief spell of green flag running between the two cautions, Johnson had got his nose in front of Newman to be credited with the lead for the next restart on lap 31 with his biggest challenge coming in the form of Logano who was keen to get his early lead back. He wasn't able to do it by the time the next caution came out for debris in turn 2 on lap 37 and Johnson still had the whip hand over Logano, Harvick, Keselowski, Newman and Gordon, but it was soon time for his deferred pit stop which sent him down to 21st place as the majority of the field opted to stay out, handing Logano the lead of the race for the next restart on lap 40.
The race finally settled down and allowed for an extended spell of uninterrupted racing that saw the majority of the field make its first round of green flag pit stops shortly after lap 60 after which Johnson picked up the lead again from his Hendrick Motorsport team mate Jeff Gordon for a spell courtesy of his off-sync strategy. Despite a broken gear stick, Johnson pulled out more than six seconds over Ryan Newman before he came in on lap 76; Gordon shuffled back to the front ahead of Harvick and Logano two lap later now that all the stops had played out, but Johnson was relegated out of the top 20 again and this time fell off the lead lap while trying to jury-rig repairs on his gear lever.
"Somebody handed me some tools and I didn't have a lot of success getting that fixed," said Johnson. "They had some contraption with a vice grip to try to figure that out, and it fell off before I even got back to pit in under caution. So, once I could get the wire tie busted and get the boot down, I could see what was wrong and we were able to kind of adjust from there."
The extended green flag stint finally came to an end on lap 97 just before the halfway point when Larson got loose and impacted the wall hard in turn 3 and 4; the scary moment for the Cup rookie also provided a text book example of sort of exigent circumstances in which NASCAR's new rules allow the driver to exit the car before the arrival of the safety team, as the #42 caught fire and Larson exited with alacrity.
"Anytime you see flames you want to get out," he said. "I have had fires and stuff, but that is the first time I have ever had fumes or smoke and stuff in the cockpit. That is the main reason why I wanted to get out.
"I let my crew know I was going to get out. I don't know if NASCAR listens to that stuff, but once I got out I stayed as close as I could to the car," he added with reference to complying to the new rules.
Under the ensuing caution the leaders pitted with Earnhardt winning the race off pit road ahead of Gordon, Harvick and Austin Dillon, but Ryan Newman stayed out to lead ahead of Joey Logano and Jamie McMurray who had both pitted just before Larson's accident. Fresh tyres enabled Logano to take the lead straight after the green flag on lap 108, and when Newman eventually came in for his delayed stop on lap 123 he ended up going a lap down on the leaders, as did Carl Edwards with lug nut issues that obliged him to return to pit lane a second time. Jeff Burton - subbing this weekend for Tony Stewart in the #14 - was even further back after being forced to the garage for repairs to the car's broken tailpipe that was filling the car with smoke.
"I started smelling something and then just before we pitted I got a lot of smoke in the cockpit," Burton reported. "When we pitted they could see all the smoke all over the place."
In the meantime Logano's lead over Gordon and Harvick had stretched to four seconds, with Kurt Busch in fourth ahead of McMurray and Keselowski heading into a new round of green flag stops on lap 139. After the stops, Logano struggled to get back up to speed and Gordon duly took back the lead which he held until the next - and likely final - planned round of pit stops on lap 165, but no sooner had Gordon and Logano dived for pit road than interim leader Keselowski ended up hitting the wall in turn 1 to bring out a caution on lap 168 that threw the planning into disarray.
"We had some pretty good adversity there with the blown tyre," Keselowski said after the race. "I am not sure why that happened. We didn't have any indication of it and there was no real reason to. I was about the least aggressive you could be and did a run before that where I was more aggressive and didn't even come close to showing signs of an issue. I don't know. I think we just got a bad tyre."
Logano was back in front for the restart on lap 174 ahead of Gordon, Harvick, Kurt Busch, Paul Menard, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer, Kasey Kahne and Marcos Ambrose, but the yellows were back out almost straight away when Brian Vickers got loose and spun into the in-field apron collecting Alex Bowman on the way. The next attempt to get the race back underway on lap 178 was little better, with Kurt Busch brushing the wall and suffering a tyre failure that left debris on the track which brought out a new caution a lap later.
"I was going for the win," said Busch. "I think we've finished third four times this year, and I didn't want to make that five, I wanted the win. I knew we were in a good position as far as being locked into the chase, so I went for it ... We had a car that I felt was capable of winning, and I went for it."
After a short delay for reported drizzle in turn 4, racing resumed on lap 184 with Gordon diving down the inside of Logano to claim the lead once again. Logano attempted to fight back but only succeeded in opening the door for Harvick and Menard to pass him; Harvick duly set his sights on hunting down the leader, but in the meantime Gordon had taken the opportunity to put a second and a half on the rest of the field and with no further cautions to come he was now out of reach of his rivals as he raced to clinch the chequered flag.
"That last restart was it," said Gordon. "We had the car to win. Our car was amazing. But whoever got out in front had such a huge advantage. I got a good restart and Kevin for some reason, wasn't getting good restarts, so Joey was sort of out there by himself and I was able to get to his quarter.
"When I got to his quarter, I dragged him back and I was able to shoot to the bottom and get by," he continued. "But he made a heck of an effort. I thought he was going to get back by me; he almost did. And I just needed a couple of laps for my tyres to come in and all of a sudden we were out front and setting sail and the chequered flag was waving. This is just unbelievably awesome!"
Logano admitted that the final restart hadn't been his best effort of the day. "I got through the gear box good and had the #24 cleared and I should have pulled down in front of him and got that draft but he got up next to me and pulled me back so hard that I couldn't get away from him.
"He was able to get position on me into one and once he got that clean air I knew I had one more shot. I knew I was really good into one and that was his weak point. I drove it off there and got him wiggled a little bit getting underneath him and cleared him again but he was able to pull me back again off the corner and then I got loose under him trying to maintain what I had and came in third."
And as for Harvick, he admitted that Gordon simply had the better car for the occasion: "The #24 just had us beat today. He had a really fast car. My car handled great all day through the corners, but just seemed like he had a little more speed than we did. All in all a good day for us, we just have to keep clicking them away and keep being consistent and the wins will come."
Michigan was Gordon's third win of the season and his third career win at Michigan among 91 victories in total from 748 starts in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. It was the first time that he's won a race from pole position since Talladega in 2007.
The win at Michigan also restores Gordon to the top spot of the championship standings by three points over his Hendrick team mate Dale Earnhardt Jr., while Brad Keselowski is 80 points further back in third ahead of his Penske colleague Joey Logano. All four have already clinched a spot in the 2014 Chase play-offs by virtue of race wins, assuming that they maintain their eligibility by continuing to attempt to qualify for the final three races of the regular season at Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond.
"Right now I feel like I'm driving smart," said Gordon of his recent run of top form and his prospects for clinching a fifth Cup championship. "Certainly things are going well, no doubt about that. I'm as shocked as anybody else!
"When things go well and you get better, then you keep going down that path. I feel like we started on a good path at the start of the season and we've continued to do that up to this point. I think it will even continue through the next 12 or 13 weeks [of the Chase.]"
Similarly locked-in now are Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Aric Almirola, AJ Allmendinger and Kurt Busch. That leaves just four spots remaining, which could go to any more first-time winners or else will be decided on points, with Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer and Greg Biffle currently winless in 2014 but provisionally making the Chase via that route.
Full race results
and Sprint Cup Championship standings