June 17, 2013 at 1:18 am

John Niyo

Greg Biffle victory leaves Jimmie Johnson baffled over bad luck at MIS

Brooklyn, Mich.— On a fitful afternoon of racing — full of stops and starts from start to finish — this was how it had to end.

The chase finally was on Sunday at Michigan International Speedway, with Sprint Cup series leader Jimmie Johnson running down Greg Biffle’s No. 16 Ford over the final 20 laps of the Quicken Loans 400.

And then it wasn’t, as Johnson’s full-throttle chase — “I was running as hard as I could,” Biffle said — led to a blown tire with three laps to go, sending Johnson skidding to a 28th-place finish and allowing Biffle to coast to the victory.

It was Biffle’s first win since he overtook Johnson thanks to an engine failure to win here at MIS last August. And for the Father’s Day crowd at MIS it was just another reminder that life in the fast lane isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

“There’s always something that happens to the fastest car,” said Johnson, who certainly would know, having won a record five consecutive Sprint Cup series championships from 2006-10. “It’s almost a curse. You’re so stoked that your car is fast, but then you’re like, ‘All right, when’s something gonna happen.’ And then it does.”

Over the edge

That’s racin,’ I guess. And this is Michigan, where Johnson — the series’ top driver with 63 career wins — is now 0-for-23 all-time. Michigan International Speedway is one of only five tracks where Johnson has yet to celebrate in Victory Lane. He has just four top-five finishes here, but twice has run out of fuel while leading with less than three laps to go.

“As I was running down the 16, I thought maybe this would be the year,” said Johnson, who already has three series wins this season and holds a sizable lead in the Cup series standings. “Most times we’ve been leading and something happened to us. So I thought, ‘All right, maybe coming from behind is gonna be the difference.’ But something still happened.”

It did, and no one was happier to see it in his rear-view mirror than Biffle, who told his crew over the radio, “I love it when the 48 crashes trying to catch up.” When asked about that after the race, the mild-mannered Biffle, who was among those mourning the loss of friend and former NASCAR driver Jason Leffler, who died in a race in New Jersey this week, apologized for the choice of words, if not the sentiment.

“Let me clarify that a little bit,” Biffle said at his post-race news conference. “I don’t want to see anybody wreck. I should’ve said ‘make a mistake.’ And that’s truly what he did. He pushed the envelope, and we all do that — I almost made a mistake, he almost busted me – and basically that’s what I was referring to, is breaking him. We got him to make a mistake, we got him to falter. … And it makes you feel good when you push the guy over the edge.”

'You had to survive'

All too often it’s Johnson’s No. 48 car driving others mad, or up a wall — if not into one. And just last week it was Biffle running second to another dominant showing from Johnson, saying afterward Johnson was “definitely in a league of his own.”

Even after Sunday’s win, Biffle admitted, “It was obvious that the 48 was a little bit faster than us again.”

But busting that myth is part of the chaotic fun of NASCAR, even at this lightning-quick, two-mile track at MIS. The fastest car doesn’t always win. And that was especially true on a day that featured eight caution flags for 38 laps at one of the circuit’s fastest tracks.

Most notably, it was the powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports team finding trouble. Jeff Gordon was a bystander for a good chunk of the race after plowing into a spinning Bobby Labonte on Lap 7, sending his car to the garage for repairs. Dale Earnhardt Jr., whose last two elusive wins were at MIS, led for 34 laps before running into engine trouble. Kasey Kahne, the fourth member of that team, looked ready to take control of the race as it reached the midway point but blew a tire and slammed into the wall.

“It’s just one of those days that you had to survive,” said Kevin Harvick, who ended up taking second after Johnson’s late charge came up flat.

Even Biffle, whose crew chief Matt Puccia appeared to make all the right calls Sunday, nearly lost it with only daylight in front of him, finding trouble in Turn 1 more than once as he tried to hold off Johnson.

“Wrecking when you’re leading probably isn’t the most prestigious thing to do,” he laughed later. “But I almost did.”

Almost doesn’t count, though. Sometimes, that’s a good thing.


Greg Biffle, driver of the No. 16 3M Ford, steps out of his car after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway Sunday. / Steve Perez/The Detroit News
(caption info) -- Jimmie Johnson driver of the #48 Lowes Chevrolet passes ... (The Detroit News)
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