BROOKLYN, Mich. — The surest way to preserve a paint job at Michigan International Speedway is to avoid the 200-mph game of Frogger in the middle of the pack.
Stay in front, stay out of trouble.
At least that’s the idea. Tell that to the line of big names who wrecked, burned, and blew out while at or near the front of the 43-car field during Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Quicken Loans 400.
Kasey Kahne, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Jimmie Johnson, and Kurt Busch all spent time in the lead, then plunged out of contention with one single-car incident after another on a day littered with yellow. The afternoon featured eight cautions for 38 laps.
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“Just a bummer,” Johnson said.
It was a battle of attrition in which the narrative seemed to veer by the lap — and often with no warning.
Busch led the first 21 laps, then lost control and hit the wall on Turn 2 of Lap 27. Kahne and Earnhardt had their rides give out while in the lead midway through the race. And Johnson, the Sprint Cup points leader who led at two different junctures, was in second and gaining on race-winner Greg Biffle when his tire cut with three laps remaining.
Many felt Johnson, Kahne, and Earnhardt had the three best cars. Problem was, none had the fortune to match.
Kahne went from on fire in the sporting sense with a lead of three-plus seconds to just plain on fire when his Chevrolet blew a tire, thumped into the wall, and burst into flames on Lap 103.
For the one-time Cup challenger, it was an all too familiar blow. Kahne has fallen from second to 12th in the points race over the last three weeks — a string that has included two wrecks and a shot transmission.
“I just was going into the corner and then, boom, it turned right and went straight into the wall,” Kahne said. “It was a hard hit. We had a great [car]. Things were working out. I thought it was going to be between myself and Jimmie [Johnson]. We both had two really fast cars.”
“It would have been a shootout,” he added.
Earnhardt also left wondering, “What if?” Searching for his first win since last June at MIS, Earnhardt led 34 laps and called his car “awesome.” He was in the lead on Lap 131 when his engine faltered.
“That car was just flying at the end there,” said Earnhardt, who finished the day seventh in the standings. “I don’t know if we had as good a car as Jimmie, but we had certainly made some gains on it.”
Ultimately, though, not even Johnson would finish, as the right-front tire of his fast-charging No. 48 blew out on Lap 197.
“I guess just running that hard trying to get through traffic and get to [Biffle] we wore the tire,” said Johnson, who finished in 28th. “I’m kind of shocked because we didn’t have any issues. That was a weird thing to have happen there.”
As for whether hanging back was perhaps the best option on this ill-fated day, Jeff Gordon proved that didn’t work either. He was in 22nd early when he couldn’t steer around the out-of-control car of Bobby Labonte.
“I just can’t believe the way this season is going for us,” said Gordon, who did not finish and fell to 16th in the Cup standings. “This team just continues to have to face adversity, and I appreciate how strong they are during it, but I just wish we didn’t have to [be] tested quite this much.”
DIGNITARIES: Detroit Red Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall served as the race’s grand marshal, while Les, Seth, and Ashley Gold of TruTV’s Hardcore Pawn were in the event’s pace car.
Kronwall is known for his thundering hits in hockey, but said there is comparison between going into the wall at MIS.
“I was thinking about it in the pace car this morning,” Kronwall said. “We were going around around 140 [mph] and you realize the guys driving in the race are actually up at 200 mph and they’re just a few inches away from each other. One mistake can be not very good for anybody."
TRUEX DELIVERS: Martin Truex, Jr., finished third for Toyota Racing Development, a team that has endured issues with its engines, including two engine failures two weeks ago at Dover International Speedway.
“It was definitely better than last week, but it wasn’t what we had a few weeks ago at Delaware,” Truex said. “We’re hoping to have back what we had there in the next two weeks. Not Sonoma, but I believe the race after that. Today, it felt fine. We were very competitive, horsepower-wise.”
“The engine issue had nothing to with us not winning. We just missed it on the car a little bit today.”
Blade sports writer Rachel Lenzi contributed to this report.
Contact David Briggs at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6084, or on Twitter @ DBriggsBlade.