NASCAR at Michigan 2014: Winners and Losers from the Pure Michigan 400

Brendan O'MearaFeatured ColumnistAugust 17, 2014

NASCAR at Michigan 2014: Winners and Losers from the Pure Michigan 400

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    The heat is on as summer winds down.

    And at Michigan International Speedway (Round 2), restarts reigned supreme, with none more important than the one Jeff Gordon won with 17 laps to go. He bested Joey Logano in a total war to reclaim the lead and rode it all the way to Victory Lane.

    The Pure Michigan 400 was full of friction and fire as Gordon won his third race of the year, tying him this year with Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski.

    There was “normal Ryan Newman stuff,” a Target car on fire and more yellow flying around than Big Bird in a fighter jet.

    Read on to see the winners and losers from the Pure Michigan 400.

Winner: Jeff Gordon

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    What a season the No. 24 Chevy is having this year: top five in points and now tied for first with three other drivers with three wins on the year.

    Gordon was masterful at Michigan and came through in the clutch yet again on a Lap 183 restart where he slipped past Logano to secure the win. Gordon also used a restart with 17 laps remaining to win the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis. Gordon said afterward during the ESPN broadcast:

    It wasn’t easy, it’s never easy to win. I kept getting in that inside lane and couldn’t get good restarts and I knew it was going to get excited when Kurt (Busch) and Joey (Logano) those two were very aggressive. That last restart was it. We had the car to win. Whoever got out in front had a huge advantage. I just needed a couple of laps for my tires to come in and all of a sudden we’re out front sailing and the checkered flag is waving.

    There were many times this season where certain drivers looked unbeatable. At times it was Jimmie Johnson, other times Keselowski. Through it all, steady as he goes, was and is Gordon.

    He promises to be a force in The Chase and a heavy favorite heading into the fall.

Loser: Kyle Busch's Early Troubles at Michigan

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    Derik Hamilton/Associated Press

    Race fans got to see about three clean laps of racing at Michigan Motor Speedway. Part of that excitement saw Joey “Sliced Bread” Logano take the lead from pole-sitter Jeff Gordon on the first lap.

    Then Kyle Busch hit the wall.

    When the yellow flag went up, ESPN dropped a graphic that stated this: A caution flag occurred in the first seven laps in every race since 2011.

    It wasn’t a terrible caution that took several laps to clean up, but it still sent Busch to the garage, where it took a few minutes to get him back out onto the track 25 laps down.

    Nate Ryan, writer for USA Today, tweeted during the caution, “Busch’s last six finishes entering Michigan: 2, 28, 2, 2, 42, 40. Now headed to the garage with damage.”

    Busch has had one of the more up-and-down seasons, but with one win and three seconds this year, he is safe for The Chase.

Winner: Restarts

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    With so many cautions a topic of early discussion at Michigan International Speedway, the restarts became a huge time for drivers to jockey for position. They were the race within the race. They happened early and often and, in one case later in the race, consecutively. 

    Dustin Long of the Motor Sports Network wrote of Gordon (who had the greatest restart of the day), "Jeff Gordon had arguably the best car. While his restarts have been questioned in the past, he again delivered a race-winning restart late—just as he did at Indianapolis."

    Restarts received the lion's share of the attention in the coverage. In the end, it was a restart that won the race. With 17 laps remaining Gordon out-muscled Logano for the outright lead.

    The sheer size of MIS's two-mile oval can spread these guys five- to six-wide while they look to move up.

    “Restarts are an opportunity to pass a lot of cars,” Rusty Wallace said during the ESPN broadcast.

    They’re also a time to lose some serious ground. Danica Patrick spun out during a restart; so too did Brian Vickers. When the flag went green after the seventh caution of the day, Kurt Busch, making a push for the lead, fishtailed and left black paint on the walls.

    Restarts affected several drivers in different manners. That made them a win or a loss depending on position. They were a winner for fans watching the race because anything could happen and you could see how hungry certain drivers were when the flag changed from yellow to green.

Loser: Jimmie Johnson's Vice Grips

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    Dave Frechette/Associated Press

    Yeah, nothing like a pair of vice grips to fix your car's gear shifter. It’s not quite as good as duct tape, but don’t tell that to Jimmie Johnson.

    Once his gear shifter broke, the No. 48 had one of the more interesting pits on Lap 79. He experimented with two different vice grips to shift his car into gear.

    His crew pushed him down pit road for a good 10 yards while Johnson eagerly tried to grip the shifter. It was almost as bad as texting and driving, and he was entering Turn 1 on the racetrack.

    Johnson tossed one pair aside and grabbed another. Nothing appeared to work. Once he got going on the track, he managed to rip into the 200s. The real question became, could he manage it for the remainder of the race? Johnson lost a lap, and Chad Knaus, Johnson’s crew chief, told him to abort.

    Dustin Long of the Motor Sports Network reported a quote from Knaus via a tweet: “We’ve lost our lap. We’re done.”

    Eventually his crew needed to settle in through the right side and weld on a new handle.

    The Lowe's Chevy was set to make a comeback after what has been a lackluster summer. The past few races have been sub-Johnsonian. When his car was on at Michigan, it was on. A simple gear malfunction was the difference between a serious run at the top or a footnote.

    The fact that Johnson came back to seal a top-10 is a victory in and of itself, but the gear shifter kept him from completely turning around his recent slump on the circuit.

Winner: Four Seconds in a Row for Kevin Harvick

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    Kevin Harvick finished second for the fourth consecutive time at MIS. He’s like the Buffalo Bills of Michigan motorsports. His streak started back in the 2013 renewal of the Quicken Loans 400 and is alive through Sunday's Pure Michigan 400.

    Ever since registering 30th in the Camping World RV Sales 301, Harvick has notched four top-10s and two runner-ups. He’s seen a lot of ups and downs this season, but as The Chase looms, Harvick appears to be in fine shape heading forward. Harvick said on ESPN:

    Our car handled great all day we just didn’t have the speed the 24 had. I felt like we could race with the 22 just not the 24. All in all, it was a good day. We’ve been very consistent for the last month. That’s what we’ve been looking for. Speed is still there. We’re making headway.

    The restart on Lap 17 turned Harvick’s day from a third-, fourth- or fifth-place finish into second place.

    “I didn’t have any trouble with my car sticking today,” Harvick said during the ESPN broadcast. “I could be real aggressive with the car through the corners. The 24 and the 22 got jammed up a little bit. I was going to stay on the throttle one way or the other.”

Loser: Kyle Larson

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    Kyle Larson had a chance to put NASCAR’s new rule for post-accident conduct into effect at Michigan International Speedway.

    He blew a right front tire that skidded him into the wall. His car lit up like a bonfire, which allowed him to pull down his netting and safely exit his car onto the track. He stood by his car and waited for the safety crews to arrive and extinguish the flames.

    Larson, who has finished third, fourth and seventh in three of his past four starts, sits on the fringe of the Chase in points. A win would guarantee him a spot in September’s Chase.

    “We’re up there in the points battle,” Larson said during the ESPN broadcast. “It just makes it harder to get into The Chase. I thought I had a car capable of winning the race.”

    Larson bruised the front left bumper of his car when he hit Dale Earnhardt Jr. on pit road. That put his “capable car” on the fritz and puts more pressure on the Target Chevy to win at Bristol. All in all, it was a sloppy day for No. 42.

    As it stands, he is now out of the top 16 for The Chase and has to be sharp to climb back in.

Winner: Joey Logano

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    Logano led 86 laps and was the leader heading into the final restart with 17 laps to go. Gordon beat him to the punch, yet Logano still battled. The fact of the matter is Logano was the car to beat all day, and he made Gordon beat him. If ever there were a moral victory in racing, this was it.

    That back-and-forth cost Logano second place, as he dropped behind both Harvick and Paul Menard. At that point, he could have folded, especially with Earnhardt breathing down his spoiler. Logano would put Menard behind him to finish third, but Logano's reaction after the race said it all.

    He stood outside of his car with his elbows on the roof, his head in his hands, looking broken and defeated, which he was. Gordon schooled him on that restart. Experience won out. Logano said on the ESPN broadcast:

    We were battling these restarts pretty hard. I used every trick that I had. The 24 was laying back really hard. I had the run and I was clear. I should've pulled out in front of him and got the draft. I had one more final shot to get him on Turn 2 and once again he pulled me back. It's close. I wish the last caution didn't come out. I'm going to live that in my head for the next two weeks.

    Logano won this race a year ago and was the car to beat all day. He led the most laps and couldn't close the deal when it truly mattered. But this is the type of loss that an athlete will tack up on his mental cork board. Logano is a strong driver for Team Penske, and with a wingman like Keselowski, Logano could make some waves in The Chase.

    Pete Pistone of the Motor Sports Network wrote, "Logano sits fourth in the points standing but he has two wins and a spot in the Chase. While third place is nothing to be ashamed about, Logano knows the new championship format means first place is by far the most important goal."

    It will be interesting to see how this loss affects him. Next week at Bristol is very important to the No. 22 car. This win will fuel him going forward as The Chase launches in four weeks.

Loser: 'Normal Ryan Newman Stuff'

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    In the pre-race coverage of the Pure Michigan 400, ESPN ran a feature on Logano. In that feature, there was a scuffle between Logano and Ryan Newman. (Logano looked like a little puppy trying to stand up to a pit bull. He was, to put it mildly, an unconvincing threat to Newman. But that's not the point.)

    The point, to get back on track, was that it was a foreshadowing to what would happen later in the race. With very few laps remaining, Newman and Jimmie Johnson wrestled hard for the 10th position. They even traded a little paint. 

    Newman desperately needs points to get into The Chase. Johnson has it locked. After the race, the pair of them stood nose to nose bantering back and forth. Johnson, with his makeshift gear shifter, climbed into the top 10 to finish ninth. Newman ended up 11th. 

    No one knows what Newman was saying because he declined an interview. Perhaps we can speculate it was something to the effect of, "Why do you have to put me at risk when you're already in The Chase! Help a brother out! I need the points! You don't!"

    Johnson told ESPN afterward, "It's just normal Ryan Newman stuff. Anybody that's been in a race car out there understands the frustration that comes along with racing Ryan. Just normal Ryan stuff."

    Newman is, in essence, in panic mode. He came into Michigan 14th in The Chase grid, and his 11th-place finish puts him perilously close to exclusion. The next three races for Newman will have to be his best to lock up a spot in the final 16.