BROOKLYN, Mich. — It looked as if the last thing Greg Biffle could or should expect was a nice Sunday drive through the countryside to the finish line.
No, the end of the Quicken Loans 400 figured to be tense.
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To score back-to-back wins at Michigan International Speedway and to notch the 1,000th NASCAR victory all-time for Ford Racing, Biffle was going to have to hold off the No. 48 car, a Chevrolet, and the best racin’ driver in the English-speaking world.
Jimmie Johnson was lurking. He had the fastest car. But would it be the winning car? It never had been before, not here. So, finally?
Johnson had seen the race from about every view on the track on a day when sun followed rain, tires slipped and cars slid, and restarts, some wrapped around yellow flags, shuffled the deck repeatedly and sometimes dramatically. He started 17th, fell to 31st, fought back to lead twice, dropped back in the middle of the pack, and then started picking off car after car as the race lost lap after lap.
And then it was three, Biffle in front, Kevin Harvick in second but his chassis shaking and his bid evaporating, Johnson closing, and the grandstands roaring.
It was the right time, said car owner Jack Roush, for Biffle to “stand up in the seat.”
He stood up and smashed the gas pedal down. Johnson stood up and had his right front tire smash on lap 197. End of race.
“I was kind of taking care of it when they were 25 [car lengths] back,” Biffle said. “Then the 29 [Harvick] was able to run me down to about 10 lengths. I started to push the envelope a little bit harder. When [Harvick] started falling back then they told me the 48 was chasing, I just started doing everything I could, run as hard as I could.
“He was quite a bit faster than we were, it’s obvious. The guy [re-started] 10th and then to be catching me, I mean, that’s a fast race car. But we got him to make a mistake, we got him to falter. That’s part of racing and part of running hard and being competitive, and it makes you feel good when you push the guy over the edge ... when you outsmart him or you beat him at his game.
“He definitely had a fast car. I don’t think he was going to catch me, but we got him to make a mistake today.”
Biffle won for the fourth time at MIS. He also went back-to-back in August, 2004, and June, 2005. The 1,000th win came on the day Ford celebrated its 110th birthday. Biffle can sure pick his spots.
Johnson, who has won five Sprint Cup Series championships and is the points leader again in 2013, has a bit of a different track record here in the Irish Hills.
He is now 0-for-23, and there have been all kinds of close calls. This was another.
“Yeah, it’s just a bummer,” he said. “We had a great race car. … I hate having that problem at the end. I had to run the car really hard to get through all of those guys and must have worn through that right front tire with two or three [laps] to go.
“I’m kind of shocked because we didn’t have any issues. I’m definitely disappointed for this race team. Good news is, we had an awesome race car. I hate to miss an opportunity.”
Hendrick Motorsports may be the best outfit in the business today, but none if its four drivers finished better than Johnson’s 28th place. Jeff Gordon lasted only seven laps before being unable to avoid a spinning car driven by Bobby Labonte, but Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Kasey Kahne all led before misfortune hit.
Kahne was leading by a considerable margin just past the 200-mile point before his front right tire blew going into Turn 2, starting a brief engine fire.
“There was no indication,” he said. “We were just kind of cruising.”
Junior, who led for 34 total laps, took over from Kahne and looked dominant and then, on Lap 131, his engine suddenly blew up.
“That car was just flying,” Earnhardt said. “I don’t know if we had as good a car as Jimmie, but …”
But maybe he did. It sure looked like Kahne did. And Johnson is Johnson.
None of them were standing at the end.
“Sometimes,” said Biffle, the man who was standing, “you’re at the right place at the right time.”
And sometimes it’s easier than you might imagine.
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6398.