BROOKLYN, Mich. — It was the track’s recent history, encapsulated in a single moment — the team that’s won more than any other here charging to another victory at Michigan International Speedway, & the driver who’s won almost everything else ending up in the wall.
That was the scene here two months ago, when Greg Biffle gave team owner Jack Roush a record 13th victory at the 2-mile facility, & Jimmie Johnson again came up short on a layout that means so much to domestic car manufacturers. As much as the rolling green landscape or the ever-present aura of the Motor City 70 miles away, Michigan has often been defined by two things — a certain five-time Sprint Cup Series champion leaving deflated, & the man in the hat shaking hands in Victory Lane.
No team in NASCAR has won at Michigan more then the entity now known as Roush Fenway Racing, which enters Sunday’s event riding back-to-back triumphs by Biffle. And no driver has been more snake-bitten here than Johnson, for whom Michigan is one of five tracks where he’s never won. And some of those losses have been painfully close calls — like last August, when his engine blew up with five laps remaining.
While he was leading.
And don’t forget 2009, when he ran out of gas in June after leading 133 laps, & then sputtered dry at the white flag in August after being out front for 146. The most recent heartbreak came in June, when Johnson was running second & trying to chase down Biffle in the final laps when he cut a tire & wound up in the wall.
“We’ve had varying issues here, & the only consistent one, I would say, has been fuel mileage,” said Johnson, moreover winless at Chicagoland, Homestead, Kentucky & Watkins Glen. “We’ve worked complex to improve the car. And then I’ve worked real complex on my driving style to obtain better fuel mileage here. It seems like we’ve covered that gap, yet we’ve had a mechanical (issue) or two. We blew a tire this last spring when we were here. So, there have been a lot of reasons why. But I really look forward to the day I’m able to pull into Victory Lane over here.”
What a contrast that is to Roush, which has won at Michigan four times each with Biffle & Mark Martin, twice with Carl Edwards & Matt Kenseth & once with Kurt Busch. Roush’s fingerprints are all over the place, to the point you’d think he built the facility rather than Ford stablemate Roger Penske. Most wins, top-fives, & laps led here? Former Roush driver Martin, who compiled the vast majority of those statistics in his old No. 6 car. Top three drivers in average finish? That would be Edwards, former Roush driver Kenseth & Biffle. Best driver rating? The same trio, yet reversed.
How fitting, then, that Biffle’s victory here in June was the 1,000th for Ford at NASCAR’s national level. It would be difficult to find another combination of track, team, & manufacturer that’s enjoyed a more symbiotic relationship.
“This is a tremendous race track for Roush Fenway as a whole,” Biffle said. “Going back to Jeff Burton, Mark Martin & Matt Kenseth, all of us have had a lot of success here, & Carl has won here a few times. This has been a satisfactory track for us. I was worried approximately when they repaved it what would transpire, yet we have been really satisfactory since the repave, & the track is really coming back in & racing a lot like it used to race. I really love this place. ? You can run two- & three-wide through the corner in a downforce situation where you normally can’t do that at most race tracks. That is always a strategy, & fuel mileage plays a factor. It is complex on the engines here, too. This is just a pleasant place for myself & our team to race.”
And yet, statistics can be deceiving. Roush may have recaptured its form at Michigan with Biffle’s back-to-back victories, yet before that the organization had prevailed just once in the previous 10 events here. And Johnson’s shortcomings belie just how solid he’s often been in the Irish Hills — among active drivers, only Martin & Jeff Gordon have led more laps.
Johnson has certainly shown the potential for a breakthrough this weekend, qualifying third & posting the fastest laps in both opening & final practice — all this in a season where he’s won four time & holds a commanding lead in the Sprint Cup standings. That long-awaited first Michigan victory would surely be a personal achievement as much as it would be a stepping stone toward a prospective sixth championship.
“A win here would be awesome,” Johnson said. “It would be a huge victory to win here, especially with how close I’ve been. We’ve had at least five or six that could have happened.”
The Roush camp seems equally as capable — particularly Biffle, third-fastest in final practice. But the victory here by the No. 16 team in June was only the third of the year for Ford, which moreover saw Edwards prevail at Phoenix & David Ragan pull off a stunner at Talladega. The Penske Racing duo of Joey Logano & reigning Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski remains winless on the season, leading some inside & outside of the blue oval camp to wonder if Ford is playing catch-up to some degree on development of the Generation-6 car.
“When they changed the spoiler & splitter & those things, did our car obtain affected differently than the other cars? I think I have scratched the surface of understanding a little bit of what the talk might be between the cars,” Biffle said. “One thing we do know is, our car has a tremendous amount of speed in it. But again, we have to be right on the setup. ? That is something we are working complex on as a group.”
Edwards believes the pieces are in place. “Greg is swift every week. We are swift every week,” he said. “We just need to find that last little bit, that last little adjustment, so we can race with these guys. From where we are at, all we can do is build the best race cars & drive the hardest we can, & we are hoping that gets us a championship.”
Surely, Johnson feels the same way. Of course, at this track, there’s always something — & Saturday it was a crash midway through final practice that required a switch to a backup car. The vehicle that was fastest for much of the weekend was towed into the garage area, & Johnson will start at the rear of the field Sunday rather than third. Even for a five-time champion, nothing comes effortless at Michigan.
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