BROOKLYN, Mich. — It wasn’t the sentimental favorite and the defending race champion who won the Quicken Loans 400. Nor was it the decorated driver who was in search of his first win at Michigan International Speedway.
Instead, the seasoned driver with a seemingly keen feel for MIS won Sunday’s Sprint Cup race.
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Greg Biffle did it despite encountering early struggles on pit road, earning his fourth career win at MIS and the 1,000th win for Ford in NASCAR’s three national series.
Biffle hit the throttle in the final 10 laps of the Quicken Loans 400 after a charge by Jimmie Johnson, despite the fact that he began to sense mechanical issues in the No. 16 Ford. Then, Johnson fell back in the field.
“We certainly didn’t have the fastest car today, but we kept working on it,” Biffle said. “The 29 [Kevin Harvick] was coming at the start of that last run, and he started to fade, and then the 48 [Johnson] was coming, so I stepped it up a notch and ran as hard as I could. I was matching him lap time for lap time. I don’t know what happened with the 48, but I busted my butt a couple times, just trying to get what I could get.”
Biffle believed his lead could have been bigger; he said multiple run-ins with J.J. Yeley on pit road hampered his efforts to contend for positioning.
“Every time the caution went out, he was coming in,” said Biffle, who passed Carl Edwards to take the lead with less than 50 laps left. “The next pit stop, we hit together, and I ran into him and had to back up. I lost some track position. That’s why we weren’t up there running earlier.”
Still, Biffle led the final 48 laps of a race that had 13 leaders, including Kurt Busch, Jamie McMurray, and Joey Logano, who each led for 21 laps, and 2012 Quicken Loans 400 winner Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who took over after leader Kasey Kahne blew out his right front tire and hit the wall on the 103rd lap.
Earnhardt took over the lead coming out of the caution but began to fade going into the 127th lap, and Johnson passed Earnhardt at the start-finish line to take his first lead.
Earnhardt’s engine died three laps later, ending his chance to defend the 2012 Father’s Day race title. Oil leaking onto the track from Earnhardt’s No. 88 Chevrolet brought out the race’s seventh caution.
“I’m sorry I didn’t make it all the way,” Earnhardt told his team over the radio.
Johnson re-started in 17th and advanced to second after the final caution of the race, then narrowed the gap between him and Biffle to less than a second with four laps left.
Harvick, who was running third at the time, didn’t focus on chasing Johnson for a shot at second, but saw Johnson drop back. Harvick’s goal, with two laps left, was to maintain his pace and not take any frivolous chances.
“I let the 48 go at that point,” Harvick said of the final laps. “That was about the third set of tires that started to shake really bad on my car. But I just backed there and let the 48 go at that particular point. I wasn’t catching the 16 [Biffle]. It didn’t really feel necessary to have a tire failure or an issue at that particular point. Our best bet at that point was the 48 catching the 16, and something happening as those two guys were racing.”
Johnson closed on Biffle going into the third-to-last lap. But Johnson’s tire couldn’t go any further, and his car careened into the wall at Turn 2.
“I hate having that problem at the end,” said Johnson, who leads the points standings (538) but is 0 for 23 at MIS. “I had to run the car really hard to get through all those guys and must have worn through that right front tire with two or three to go.”
That freed Biffle, the seasoned veteran, to drive to his second win in less than a year at MIS.
“He pushed the envelope, and we all do that. I almost did that and he almost busted me. We got him to make a mistake, to falter, we pushed the envelope and that’s part of racing, a part of running hard and being competitive," Biffle said. “I don’t think he was going to catch me, but he made a mistake doing that. We all do that, but today it was him.”
Contact Rachel Lenzi at: email@example.com, 419-724-6510, or on Twitter @RLenziBlade.