BROOKLYN, Mich. - In one of the best race finishes in a long time at Michigan International Speedway, Greg Biffle held off Brad Keselowski and Kasey Kahne in a green-white-checker finish to win Sunday's Pure Michigan 400.
More often than not, races at MIS are typically fuel mileage affairs. But not Sunday, as several late caution periods allowed drivers to give it their all heading toward the finish line without worrying about running out of fuel at the end.
The final showdown came on Lap 199, as Biffle, Keselowski, Carl Edwards, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kahne all jousted for the lead. As the green flag flew, Biffle took the lead, followed closely by Keselowski. Even though Keselowski twice drew close in the final two laps, Biffle's car proved too strong, not only winning for the third time in his career at MIS, but also regaining the Sprint Cup points lead.
Keselowski barely held off Kahne for second place, while Earnhardt Jr. finished fourth, followed by Marcos Ambrose. Sixth through 10th were Edwards, Clint Bowyer, Ryan Newman (who raced despite being sick), Paul Menard and Martin Truex Jr.
Biffle's second victory of the season (he also won at Texas in April) was aided by a huge bit of good luck. Jimmie Johnson, who came into the race as the points leader, seemed to have a car that was the class of the field. It appeared that Johnson would win the race going away at one of five tracks on the circuit where he has never won, as he was pulling further and further away from the rest of the field with each passing lap. But then the motor on his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet blew up.
Johnson's motor issue was one of three usually near-bulletproof Hendrick Motorsports motors that suffered uncharacteristic and almost cataclysmic failure during the course of the race.
First, a valve spring issue developed in Tony Stewart's car. Then in Jeff Gordon's car.
But the biggest and most disappointing situation occurred with six laps to go, when Johnson's engine went up in smoke, causing him to take his car to the garage rather than victory lane. Johnson also had engine issues earlier in the weekend, prompting crew chief Chad Knause to change motors at the time. But Johnson looked strong for most of Sunday, remaining in the top 10 most of the day until his day came to a slightly early end.
Even though he's not in competition for the Sprint Cup championship this season (due to his part-time status as a driver in 2012), pole-sitter Mark Martin nonetheless started out like he was indeed running for No. 1. Martin's Toyota looked extremely strong right from the opening green flag, moving at will and holding off all potential challengers.
After Keselowski led for three laps, Johnson took over the lead on Lap 39 during the first series of green flag pit stops. However, Johnson held the lead for only four laps because he was working on a different pit strategy, and Martin regained the edge on Lap 46 after Sam Hornish Jr. led briefly for three laps.
Unfortunately, Martin's day came to a premature end on Lap 64. Coming out of Turn 4, it appeared that Juan Pablo Montoya ran into Bobby Labonte, sending him spinning in front of the leaders, namely Martin and Kahne. Martin's car slid across the infield and onto pit road, taking a vicious hit and impaling itself on the pit road wall, with the left rear tire on one side of the wall and the rest of the car on the outer edge of the wall.
Kahne spun around but barely avoided hitting Martin and was able to continue on. Labonte suffered minor damage but was able to rejoin the race.
"Aw heck, I don't know," Martin said after he was released from the infield care center and was asked what happened. "The 47 (Labonte) got turned around there and we got jammed up and the 5 (Kahne) got in to the back of him," Martin said. "I'm disappointed that we got tore up, but, man, what a hot rod."
Clint Bowyer benefited the most from the crash, taking over the top spot on the restart on Lap 80 to try and pick up the baton from Martin, his Michael Waltrip Racing teammate, as well another fellow teammate, Truex Jr., who eventually went to the front of the pack as the raced approached the halfway point of the 200-lap event.
Biffle, who led the standings for 11 weeks earlier this season, battled Truex for about 15 laps before finally being able to sneak by and take the top spot on Lap 103.
Michigan native Keselowski took over the lead, but finally stopped six laps later for fuel, taking just two right side tires and fuel, yielding the lead briefly to Edwards and again to Hornish, who held on to the point until Lap 174, when he came in also for just two right side tires and fuel (Denny Hamlin and then Paul Menard took over the lead briefly).
When Trevor Bayne slapped the wall to bring out a caution flag, Hornish came back on pit road on Lap 182, changed all four tires and took another splash of fuel after reporting a vibration.
Johnson passed Keselowski on Lap 190, followed by Biffle, and appeared headed toward victory lane 10 laps later, but it was not to be.
MIS had its 2.0-mile surface completely repaved prior to this season. And while June's debut race on the new surface resulted in tire issues for a number of drivers, Sunday's event showed significant improvement, with few tire problems. In fact, as Martin showed, drivers were able to move at will, oftentimes running three-wide on one of NASCAR's fastest tracks on the circuit.
Earnhardt, who won at MIS in June, snapping a 143-race winless streak, wrecked his primary car in practice on Saturday, leading him to start from the back of the field in his backup car. Earnhardt slowly worked his way up through the pack to reach the top 10 shortly after the halfway point and became the top-performing Hendrick Motorsports driver at that point.
Edwards, who has yet to win this season - and as a result his chances to qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup are quickly fading with just three races remaining to make the 10-race playoffs - started from the outside of the front row alongside Martin.
Edwards remained in the top 10 for much of the race and wound up with a sixth-place finish that will help his Chase chances somewhat, but with a caveat. For Edwards, who missed winning the Cup championship last season by a tiebreaker, it's almost mandatory that he must win two of the next three races - Bristol this Saturday night, Atlanta on Sept. 2 and Richmond Sept. 8 - to have even the slightest chance to make the Chase.
Defending Sprint Cup champion Stewart suffered engine problems about one-third of the way through the race and took his Chevrolet to the garage for repairs. He eventually got back on-track, but Stewart's problems seemed to have a domino effect, as Gordon - who also has a Hendrick Motorsports engine under the hood - was forced to the garage on Lap 97 with similar motor problems as Stewart experienced.
Like Edwards, Stewart is also in trouble statistically, dropping to ninth place in the standings, just one point out of 10th. The top 10 drivers after Richmond plus two other wild card qualifiers - typically the drivers with the most wins outside the top 10 - will make up the 12-driver Chase field.