BROOKLYN, Mich. — race report by Managing Editor Jacob Seelman for Race Chaser Online — photo — 2014 for Jeff Gordon is beginning to look a lot like 2001 did for Jeff Gordon.
That season, of course, was the last time that Gordon hoisted the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (then the Winston Cup) championship trophy. If Gordon keeps racing like he has the last month, he may yet be the one claiming the ultimate hardware at Homestead in November.
Gordon had a stellar restart with 17 laps to go Sunday afternoon and powered to the inside of defending Michigan Cup winner Joey Logano to take the lead after a late-race caution set up the pivotal restart. Logano tried to power back around Gordon in turn 3, but could not hold his car on the bottom and fell back, allowing Gordon to escape and drive away to a dominating 1.4 second victory over Stewart Haas Racing driver Kevin Harvick.
The victory was Gordon’s third of the season and 91st career Sprint Cup triumph. The win was also Gordon’s first victory at Michigan since 2001, the year he won his most recent championship.
An interesting note — the last two times Gordon won the championship (1998 and 2001), he won at Indianapolis and followed that up with a win in the second Michigan event.
An elated Gordon said after the race that despite how it may have looked, he had to fight to get the race win.
“Today wasn’t easy; it’s never easy to win, especially at these tracks where aerodynamics and track position means so much,” Gordon expressed in Gatorade Victory Lane. “You know, I thought we learned a lot the last time we were here, on track position, so Alan called a perfect race. Man, we just kept getting in that inside lane and not getting good restarts, and I knew on that one it was going to get exciting with Kurt and Joey; those two are very aggressive and of course Kurt got loose and we snuck by there. That last restart was it; I mean, we had the car to win — our car was amazing — and when we got out front we just had that huge advantage.”
To Gordon’s advantage, second-place finisher Kevin Harvick could not stay with him at first on the restart. The gap allowed Gordon to fight hard with Logano on the restart.
“Kevin, for some reason, wasn’t getting good restarts so Joey was sorta out there by himself, and I was able to get to his quarter and just drug him back to us and was able to shoot to the bottom and get by. He made a heck of an effort though; I thought he would get back by me and he almost did — but once we had a few laps for our tires to heat up, I was just setting sail and next thing you know, the checkered flag was waving. This is just unbelievably awesome.”
When asked what has made the difference this season for the 24 team, Gordon was quick to point out multiple factors in his resurgent campaign.
“It;s everything this year — Hendrick Motorsports and the job that they do, all of our teammates, engineers, chassis builders, the engines are amazing this year, and then Alan Gustafson and his crew. I mean, this guy is just such a great leader and I knew that he had this in him and he’s been showing it by bringing great race cars every weekend. Today was more than just a great race car, it took the whole team effort and great calls and I had a good restart again. This is just fun, I’m enjoying it so much this season.”
Kevin Harvick’s second-place effort was his fourth straight runner-up result at Michigan, tying a record in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Dale Jarrett finished second in four straight races at the Rockingham Speedway from 1996 through the end of 1997.
“We just didn’t have enough for the 24 there; we could fight with the 22 but couldn’t keep up with Jeff,” Harvick said post-race. “Gotta thank all these guys at SHR though; they’ve done a great job giving us fast cars the past couple of weeks.”
Logano fell to fifth with 15 laps to go, but rallied back to finish third.
“We were battling pretty hard on those restarts and basically used every trick in the book on these restarts, and just had one too many,” Logano lamented. “I know the 24 (Gordon) was laying back pretty hard and you know, every game that could be played was being played. I was clear on that last one and should have pulled down, but he had enough momentum to pull up to my quarter panel and pull me back and from there he had position on me.”
Logano also commented on the failed move to retake the lead after the final restart.
“I had that one final shot at him going into three and he just pulled me back so, all in all, we’re doing everything we need to do to contend for this championship and you know, just wish that last caution hadn’t come out.”
Paul Menard and three-time winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. rounded out the top five. Clint Bowyer finished sixth, followed by Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski, who rebounded after losing a tire while leading the race past halfway. Jimmie Johnson also charged up to finish ninth after having shifter issues early in the race. Four-time Michigan winner Greg Biffle completed the top ten.
At the onset of the race, polesitter Gordon led the field to the green flag after a blistering 206.55 mph qualifying run, but it was Logano taking the lead to the inside by the time the field hit turn 1. Unfortunately, the trend of early-race cautions since the 2011 track repave continued as Kyle Busch pounded the wall in turn 2 after a flat tire to bring out the race’s first caution at lap 3.
Due to rain early in the morning, a competition caution was thrown at lap 20 and saw Logano leading Gordon, Harvick, Keselowski and Jamie McMurray. Johnson and Ryan Newman stayed out to gain track position, and Johnson snatched the lead on the restart.
However, immediately following the restart, Danica Patrick got loose in turns 1 and 2 and spun into traffic, collecting Trevor Bayne, Michael Annett, Matt Kenseth, and Justin Allgaier in the chaos to bring out the third caution.
Johnson received heavy pressure on the restart from Logano, but held on to the lead until he pitted at lap 37 under a debris caution, handing the point back to Logano.
The battle for the lead heated up again at lap 56 when Jeff Gordon surged to the inside of Logano while the two were splitting the lapped car of J.J. Yeley to lead a lap, and the two traded the lead in consecutive laps before Gordon took the lead convincingly on lap 58.
Pit stops began on lap 61 when Brad Keselowski was the first of the frontrunners to pit, but Gordon waited until lap 63 to drag most of the leaders hit the pit lane. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson led a handful of laps during the exchange, but following the cycle of pit stops, Jeff Gordon re-assumed the lead on lap 80.
Jeff Burton retired to the garage area with an electrical issue on lap 82 as Gordon extended his lead, but when Kyle Larson burst into flames and pounded the wall in turn 4, the caution came out just prior to halfway at lap 97. Larson would finish the day 43rd and drop from inside the Chase Grid to 19th in the seeding, more than 20 points out of a Chase berth.
After a lengthy cleanup, Logano restarted at the front of the field and darted away with Newman, Earnhardt Jr. and Harvick giving chase. Another long green flag run would see an additional round of green flag pit stops around lap 130, with Newman starting the chain and Kurt Busch ending it at lap 142. With a lightning-quick pit stop, Gordon would take the lead away from Logano as the stops cycled all the way through.
As the green flag run wore on, a second round of green pit stops was sparked inside of 50 laps to go, with Logano forcing the hands of most of the leaders when he pitted at lap 165. However, his Penske teammate Keselowski hammered the turn 1 wall when he lost a tire three laps later, drawing the race’s sixth caution at lap 168 and cycling the race lead over to Logano after the rest of the pit stops cycled through under caution.
Yellow fever struck again on the lap 173 restart, with Brian Vickers looping it around in turn 3 and drawing the race’s seventh caution. Just before that, Kurt Busch and Paul Menard were making gutsy moves on the restart to try and advance inside the top five, with the duo fighting three-wide with Gordon for second just before the yellow.
Kurt Busch lined up alongside Logano for the restart at lap 178, but while racing for the lead in turn 2, Busch got loose and chased the car until it smacked the outside wall coming onto the backstretch; the right rear on Busch’s Stewart Haas Racing No. 41 Chevrolet exploded a half lap later and drew the caution at lap 179, taking Busch out of contention for the win and setting up the race-deciding restart.
With his victory, Jeff Gordon reassumes the NASCAR Chase Grid lead with three races to go before the regular season cutoff.
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series continues their 2014 season Saturday night at the Bristol Motor Speedway with the annual IRWIN Tools Night Race.