The Pure Michigan 400 offered another moment of pure frustration for Jimmie Johnson at Michigan International Speedway.
MIS is one of only five tracks on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series circuit where Johnson has not won a race in his illustrious career, though he certainly has been close. In 2009, he led a total of 279 of the combined 400 laps in the two Michigan races but ran out of gas near the end of both. Before this past weekend, he had posted top-five finishes in each of his two previous trips to the track. Certainly a victory there is only a matter of time.
It appeared that time was going to be Sunday afternoon, as Johnson easily passed Brad Keselowski for the lead with 10 laps to go and looked to be motoring toward Victory Lane. But with only six laps left to complete, Johnson's engine blew up, prompting the five-time Cup champion to momentarily lose his normal California cool and scream into the radio, "You've got to be kidding me." Johnson quickly left the track without commenting.
The engine issue -- one of three on the day involving Hendrick Motorsports-provided motors -- was a fortunate break for Greg Biffle, who held off Keselowski on the ensuing green-white-checkered restart and picked up his first victory in four months. And it was yet another frustrating finish at MIS for Johnson, who is compiling an ever-growing list of Michigan misery.
"I've been real close (to victory at Michigan) a handful of times. That still weighs on me," Johnson said last month. "I think about how I could be one (track) closer to scratching them all off the list."
Now it will be a long 10 months before Johnson gets another shot at MIS.
Here are five things we learned at Michigan:
This has been a tough season for Ford and the manufacturer's primary banner carrier, Jack Roush. After Ford driver Matt Kenseth won the season-opening Daytona 500, the manufacturer managed only one victory over the next 22 races. In addition, it was announced midway through the year that Kenseth, a former Sprint Cup champion, is leaving Roush at the end of the season, most likely to drive the Toyotas of Joe Gibbs Racing.
Roush is a staunch Ford supporter and takes particular pride in performing well at Michigan, a track located near Ford's headquarters. When the series visited Michigan in June, Ford had only two drivers finish in the top eight, while rival Chevrolet took four of the top six positions. But things went considerably better on Sunday, with Biffle winning the race in a Ford and the manufacturer taking three of the top six positions. It was the 12th career victory for Roush at Michigan, breaking a tie he held with Wood Brothers Racing for the most wins at the track by an owner
"It's important to win in Ford's backyard. It's always important to do well here," Roush said afterward from Victory Lane. "There is an expectation that we really put on our best face here. ... We hadn't run as well as we needed to lately. But our engines were durable today, which was probably the strongest thing."
That last line undoubtedly was a shot at Chevy powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports, which was plagued throughout the race by engine problems believed to be caused by faulty valve springs.
Gordon, whose car was famously pelted with debris by fans at Talladega in 2004 after a controversial win over Dale Earnhardt Jr., has not evoked the ire of Junior Nation in several years. That's partly because the two have been teammates at Hendrick Motorsports since 2008, and partly because Gordon is not the dominating driver he was a decade ago.
But you can be sure that Junior fans will have a few loud (and probably obnoxious) things to say about Gordon in the coming weeks after Gordon made his displeasure with Earnhardt publicly known during Sunday's race. The issue began when Gordon appeared to get off slowly during a mid-race restart. Earnhardt, who was directly behind Gordon, dove to the low side of the track to pass Gordon in heavy traffic, and then cut in front of Gordon as the pack headed into turn two.
Gordon immediately took to the radio and profanely yelled at his spotter, "Tell the (bleeping) 88 he can thank me later for not wrecking his ass. That was (bleeping) stupid."
Gordon must have thrown in a few hand gestures, because Earnhardt could tell from his car that Gordon was upset. So Earnhardt asked his spotter, "What's Jeff's problem now? Does he have a problem with me?" The spotter said that Gordon probably was upset that Earnhardt hadn't stayed in line behind him on the restart, to which Earnhardt replied, "We'll he was going slower than I was."
After Gordon dropped out of the race with one of Hendrick's engine failures, he explained why he was upset with Earnhardt.
"He took me four wide, which wasn't that big of a deal. But then he slipped up in front of me off of turn two and I had to check up or I would have wrecked all of us," Gordon said. "I just didn't think it was the smartest thing to do, especially as teammates. ... I don't care who I'm racing out there, I'm going to show my displeasure if I'm not happy about something. That one was pretty close."
Drivers have been asked over the years to name the one person they would not want to see behind them if they had the lead. Dale Earnhardt Sr. used to be the obvious answer. These days Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson are the popular choices.
After the past two weeks, it would appear that the leader shouldn't be worried about the driver behind him. Instead, it's the car in front of him that should make him nervous. Namely, the slow car driven by Bobby Labonte.
Last week, Kyle Busch lost a shot at victory on the final lap at Watkins Glen when he slid through oil that Labonte's car had leaked onto the track. Then on Sunday, pole-sitter Mark Martin dominated the first 64 laps of the race before getting caught up in a wreck that began when Labonte went into a spin.
It's a shame, because Martin definitely appeared to have a car capable of winning the race. Had he done so, the 53-year-old Martin would have become the oldest winner in Cup history. Harry Gant holds the record at 52 years, seven months, a mark he set 20 years ago at Michigan.
Ever since AJ Allmendinger was pulled from the No. 22 car in early July following his positive drug test, Sam Hornish has been in a weekly audition to take over the ride full time. After a shaky start in his first few races behind the wheel of the No. 22, Hornish finished fifth at Watkins Glen last week and then ran consistently in the top 10 at Michigan. He had to settle for a 12th-place finish when a vibration problem forced him to make a pit stop during a late caution and lose several positions.
Still, it was a good overall showing for Hornish, especially considering that he had been in Montreal the day before competing in the Nationwide Series race. His commitment to his current full-time Nationwide ride prevented him from practicing or qualifying at MIS, meaning he had to start Sunday's race from the back of the field. But that did not prevent Hornish from turning in another solid performance.
"There's a little bit more confidence," Hornish said. "The better that we run on the Nationwide side, the better we run over here (in Cup) and the more that leads me to be confident in my opinions on what we need to change and make better.
"I feel like this is a great team. These guys are used to working together, they know how to win races, they know how to put good race cars out there on the track. They just need somebody behind the wheel who is going to go out there and be smart throughout the day and try to make good choices and help elevate them to the next level.
"I'm glad that I have this opportunity. Hopefully I can at least finish out the year, if nothing than that. The more races I get in this car, I feel there are more opportunities I have to plead my case on why I should be in it full time."
During a year in which there has been much complaining about the lack of excitement in many Sprint Cup races, there were several thrilling moments Sunday at Michigan. And they nearly all took place during the first two or three laps following a restart.
Granted, it didn't take long after each restart for the pack to become spread out and the race to become little more than a bunch of cars going around in a circle. But those few laps were filled with cars slipping and sliding and fiercely battling for both control and track position. Give the fans more of that type of racing, and most of the complaints will quickly go away.