It was a tough day to be Superman.
No, not the cinematic version -- although his day riding on the hood of Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s car surely came to a premature end as well -- but NASCAR's version of the Man of Steel, who over the past decade has proven capable of leaping just about anything in single bound. One week after reminding everyone of how dominant he can be, Jimmie Johnson suffered a finish Sunday that brought back some painful reminders of last season.
Johnson's hopes of winning at Michigan, a track that's bedeviled him for years, ended with three laps remaining Sunday when he cut a tire and hit the wall trying to run down leader and eventual winner Greg Biffle. On a day when mighty Hendrick Motorsports saw all four of its cars limp back to North Carolina, Johnson withstood a blow which reminded everyone that not even this Superman is indestructible, after all.
For the five-time champion, what a massive swing of emotions over the course of seven days. The week prior he had been untouchable at Pocono Raceway, and left with a points advantage so large he spoke about potentially skipping the regular-season finale in case his wife goes into labor earlier than anticipated. There was no such talk of that at Michigan, when pit-road strategy forced Johnson to rocket up through the pack at the end, getting him within reach of Biffle before the No. 48 wound up in the wall.
It was a scene reminiscent of last year's penultimate event at Phoenix, another race where Johnson was asked to try and squeeze everything he could out of the car, and where he also ended up in the wall with a cut tire as a result. And surely no one has to remind Five-Time of the races that got away late last summer, and the bonus points he left on the table, and how those might have factored into his title clash with Brad Keselowski.
It just all goes to show how quickly things can change on a week-to-week basis in NASCAR's top series, even if the cast of characters dueling for the victory remains the same. At Pocono the focus was on Toyota Racing Development, which retuned its engines for more reliability after a spate of failures, and for the first time all year didn't place a car in the top five. At Michigan it was Earnhardt trailing white smoke behind one of the event's best cars, a rare Hendrick blowup that left crew chief Steve Letarte slamming his clipboard.
No question Hendrick's 48/88 shop is still formidable, as a Pocono event owned by Johnson and Earnhardt might suggest. At Michigan, though, a little of that shine was rubbed off. Now it's on to the road course at Sonoma, where neither driver will be a favorite. This summer in NASCAR is only beginning, and if Sunday in the Irish Hills is any indication, it could be heated in more ways than one.
Trickle-down effect. Danica Patrick enjoyed her best finish in weeks with a 13th-place run at Michigan, and unlike the last time she ran that well -- 12th at Martinsville in April -- this one should have been less of a surprise. Patrick is at her best on wide, fast race tracks, and it seemed only a matter of time before the improvement at Stewart-Haas Racing trickled over to her No. 10 car. Her team owner also continued his roll, with Tony Stewart notching his third consecutive top-five result.
Just gets tougher. Denny Hamlin's hopes of making the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup seem to get a little dimmer with each passing week. Last week at Pocono, an eighth-place run netted him only one position in the standings. Sunday he gave it back in a 30th-place run that included an in-race shock change. Good news: Stewart is now in the top 10, meaning he may not have to rely on his Dover victory for a Wild Card berth. Of course, Hamlin still has to win to have any chance at all.
Slick and sideways. A fast Michigan track that was resurfaced last season had its slick spots, something seen time and time again on Sunday. "Just broke loose on us," Kurt Busch said after spinning out early in the race. And Jeff Gordon's trying season continued when Bobby Labonte spun in front of him, wrecking the No. 24 car just six laps into the race. It was a costly blow for Gordon, who dropped five spots to 16th in the standings as a result.
Jeff Gordon's No. 24 Chevrolet needed a tow off the track following his wreck with Bobby Labonte. Gordon's crew got his car in drivable condition, and the veteran returned for an additional 46 laps to at least gain a couple of spots at Michigan.
Inside the numbers
11. Finishing position of NASCAR Nationwide Series championship contender Austin Dillon, his best ever in a Sprint Cup event. His previous best in seven starts had been 21st, at Las Vegas earlier this season. The Richard Childress Racing driver will move up to NASCAR's premier series next year.
0. DNFs this season by Paul Menard, who is back in the second Wild Card position. Of course, he doesn't have any race wins or top-fives, either, and he returns to Chase position thanks to Stewart moving into the top 10. But Sunday's 14th-place finish at Michigan was a rebound of sorts for a driver who had placed 30th and 20th over the past two weeks.
11. Average finish over the past four weeks for Jeff Burton, whose 10th-place run at Michigan was his first top-10 since Richmond in April. He's finished 12th, 11th, 11th and 10th over the past four events, and improved from 20th to 17th in points in the process.
Paul Menard has no victories or top-fives, but he also has no DNFs. That consistency is enough to put him back in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup ? for now.
They said it
"I feel pretty young still. I feel like I'm in good shape. I feel young in my mind. I feel like I have good energy. I'm not burning out." -- Dale Earnhardt Jr., when asked if he felt his window in which to win races is closing.
"Race car drivers don't work hard enough to be crew chiefs. We don't get up early enough to be crew chiefs." -- Jeff Gordon, when asked why drivers don't become crew chiefs when they retire, like players in other sports becoming coaches.
"I am as careful as I am when I get in a car on a city street." -- Tony Stewart, on his level of caution when competing on a dirt track, in the wake of the fatal crash of NASCAR driver Jason Leffler at a sprint-car event last week in New Jersey.
Related: Standings shuffle in Michigan
Outside looking in. Kasey Kahne's cut tire and crash while leading Sunday dropped him four spots in the standings, and outside the top 10. He's now the leader in the Wild Card standings, by virtue of his victory earlier this season at Bristol.
On the line. After a tremendous stretch kicked off with two near misses at Charlotte, front-row starter Kurt Busch spun and crashed Sunday, knocking him back five positions to 20th in points. The Furniture Row Racing driver needs to stay inside the top 20 if he hopes to use a victory to crash the Chase as a Wild Card.
Fighting back. He may be enduring an up-and-down season, but Martin Truex Jr. continues to fight his way into Chase contention. His third-place finish Sunday gained him four spots in the standings, and he's now 13th. Truex stood as high as ninth in points after Charlotte, but fell to 17th after a tough day at Pocono last weekend.
The road course at Sonoma, Calif., where Clint Bowyer is the defending champion. It's potentially a golden opportunity for a former road-course racer like Marcos Ambrose or Juan Pablo Montoya to grab a victory and insert himself right in the mix for a Wild Card to the Chase.
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