Several drivers needing shots in the arm in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings instead took hard shots Sunday at Michigan International Speedway, with early pitfalls dramatically impacting their rank with 11 races left in the regular season before the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
Hendrick Motorsports, typically up front performance-wise, was first in line for servings of adversity with all four of its entries hitting snags.
Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kasey Kahne, Denny Hamlin and Kurt Busch -- all former Michigan winners -- hoped to capitalize on their experience at the 2-mile track in the Quicken Loans 400. But the quintet was unable to solidify their positioning in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup postseason hunt, and points leader Jimmie Johnson saw his lead shrink significantly after a late-race tire issue.
Gordon was the first to encounter trouble, colliding with Bobby Labonte in just the fourth of 200 laps and smacking the outside wall. His 39th-place finish dropped him a whopping five spots from 11th to 16th in the points as the four-time series champion lost his hold on one of the two Wild Card playoffs spots.
Gordon, a five-time Coors Light Pole winner at Michigan, attributed a portion of his misfortune to starting back in the pack in 29th place.
"For years I've always said I don't believe in good luck or bad luck that you make it," said Gordon, who managed to return to the race after 130 laps in the garage but retired early for his fourth DNF of the season. "Just in that instance right there I call that being at the wrong place at the wrong time, but I also know that we contribute to where we started. We started back there and we were moving forward which I'm proud of, but the fact that we are back there.
"I put as much blame on myself. I really struggled this weekend when we went into qualifying trim. I've struggled all year. Shoot, the last two years with qualifying and I don't know what it is, but we have to get it better. Starting back there you are only putting yourself into those positions to have those kinds of things happen."
Two different problems affected Kahne and Earnhardt, Gordon's Hendrick Motorsports teammates, shortly after the race's midway point.
Kahne brought out the race's sixth caution period after a cut tire sent his No. 5 Chevrolet hard into the turn 2 wall in Lap 102. Kahne was uninjured, but his demolished car relegated him to a 38th-place finish.
The outcome continued a recent slide for Kahne, who was as high as second in the standings after a runner-up finish at Kansas on April 21. Since then, he's gradually slid out of the top 10, with Sunday's crash moving him from eighth to 12th in the points in one swoop. His one victory this year -- at Bristol in March -- does help him cling to one of the Chase wild-card spots.
Earnhardt was the next Hendrick driver to watch his day end early. His No. 88 car slowed dramatically for a lap before trailing a plume of smoke to bring out a 130th-lap yellow flag. Earnhardt finished third the previous week at Pocono Raceway to jump two positions into fourth in the Sprint Cup points; his failure to finish Sunday knocked him back three slots to seventh place.
"Just telling them guys to hold their head up they did a great job overnight getting the car competitive," Earnhardt said of his crew. "We had a first- or second-place car right there."
The lone bright spot for the Hendrick operation was primed to be Johnson for the second straight week, but his No. 48 Chevy slowed with a blown tire just three laps from the finish. He limped to the pits and finished 28th, the first driver one lap down.
The downfall allowed second-place Carl Edwards, who ran eighth Sunday, to chop 20 points off Johnson's lead, closing to 31 points off the top. Clint Bowyer also moved 20 points closer in third place, finishing seventh Sunday to stand 49 points off the lead.
Kurt Busch, who started second and swept Saturday's practice sessions, brought out the yellow flag in the 28th lap with a spin and mild contact with the outside retaining wall. The No. 78 driver had inched up nine places in last eight races, but Sunday's 35th-place finish -- seven laps down -- pushed him from 15th to 20th in points, increasing his urgency to secure a win for his Wild Card hopes.
Hamlin paid tribute to former Joe Gibbs Racing driver Jason Leffler with a special throwback paint scheme. But his long-shot quest for a Wild Card berth hit another setback with a 30th-place finish after a pair of unscheduled pit stops and lackluster performance.
Hamlin, who missed four races after suffering a back injury in a crash at Auto Club Speedway on March 24, needs to climb into the 11th-20th range in points and collect at least a win or two to have a realistic chance at a Wild Card spot. Sunday, he dropped from 25th to 26th in points to stall his momentum.
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