Brooklyn — Six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson had the fastest lap in practice Saturday morning at Michigan International Speedway.
Now, can Johnson finally win at MIS?
Johnson, 38, has 68 career wins during his 13-year career with Hendrick Motorsports and is the defending series champion. He has won twice this season, matching the series-high total shared with his teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick who set the track record at MIS Friday when he won the pole at 204.557 mph.
But Johnson is 0-for-24 during his career at MIS, one of five tracks on which he has yet to win.
Johnson didn’t answer questions when getting out of his No. 48 Chevrolet after his run of 202.054 mph in the morning practice, going directly to his hauler to prepare for the afternoon session, in which he was fourth fastest.
Johnson will start Sunday’s Quicken Loans 400 from the fourth row, qualifying seventh at 202.401, more than two mph slower than Harvick of the Stewart-Haas team which also runs Hendrick motors.
While Johnson has been quiet all weekend, Earnhardt talked about how the Hendrick and Stewart-Haas teams are developing a great rivalry with the use of the Hendrick motors.
“The relationship between the two companies is one that benefits both sides,” Earnhardt said. “It definitely appears to be pushing both companies to new heights taking something from a conversation I had with (my crew chief) Steve Letarte. We’re happy about the power plants. We’ve had some real good motors last week at Pocono. We knew coming in here it was going to be a plus for us.”
Hendrick drivers have won the last four Sprint Cup races, starting with Jeff Gordon’s win at Kansas City, Johnson’s back-to-back wins at Charlotte and Dover and Earnhardt’s last week at Pocono.
Johnson finished sixth at Pocono and was running fifth midway through the race when he collided with Martin Ambrose in the pits, losing 18 spots on the track and ultimately ending his chance at a third straight win.
Johnson, who sits fourth in points, has been in contention several times in past years at MIS. His best opportunities for a win on the two-mile superspeedway came five years ago when he dominated the June race, leading 146 laps, including the final lap when he ran out of fuel. He ran out of fuel again in the August race that season with two laps remaining.
Last June, Johnson was running second, just 1˝ seconds behind eventual winner Greg Biffle with three laps to go before a cut tire ended his chances, resulting in a 28th place finish.
Johnson finished 40th in last August’s race, lasting just 54 laps due to a blown motor.
Fifty of Johnson’s victories are on superspeedways.
Keselowski talks season, engineers
Rochester Hills native Brad Keselowski felt confident heading into his home track weekend, and for good reason.
Keselowski, 30, already has a win and is coming off of consecutive runner-up finishes at Dover and Pocono after being winless last season. He sits fifth in points.
That win at Las Vegas in early March is important, especially since NASCAR has put a greater emphasis on winning this year, giving drivers with a win and a top-30 showing in the points during the 26-race regular season a spot in the 16-car Chase field.
Keselowski, the 2012 Sprint Cup champion, qualified sixth Friday (202.908), but was in the middle of the pack during practice Saturday at 199.978.
“I think we’re really rolling here the last few weeks and running strong and in position to win races so I’ve been very, very pleased by that,” Keselowski said. “We’ve been qualifying up front along with that, so there’s a lot to be proud of and I’m just as excited as this summer stretch is really kicking into full swing.”
Keselowski has a number of Canadians working on his No. 2 Miller Lite Ford team for Team Penske.
“It’s probably a larger story in itself that the American engineering pool is very shallow right now,” Keselowski said. “Penske is moving to any other country. We’ve hired multiple engineers from Europe over the last three or four years and we’re pilfering everyone we can in the great country of Canada.
“It’s just very hard to get engineers with the educational background and commitment that we need to be successful at this level from the United States. There’s certainly a shortage, not just at Penske but throughout the garage.”
Biffle eyes fifth MIS win
Roush/Fenway driver Greg Biffle had an outstanding Father’s Day last year at MIS, winning the Quicken Loans 400 for his fourth win at the track.
Biffle is without a win so far this season, sitting 14th in points. He qualified 18th Friday.
“Last year was the best Father’s Day ever, 1,000th win for Ford and to have my daughter there for her first Victory Lane,” Biffle said. “I’m not sure how to top that, but hopefully something spectacular will happen.
“Michigan is one of my favorite tracks. It’s a big, fast place and has lots of room to race. There is always a lot of strategy going on. Fuel mileage and pit stops are very important.”
Biffle is in the contract year with Roush/Fenway, as is his teammate Carl Edwards who owns a win and is seventh in points.
Biffle was 26th during practice Saturday afternoon (195.578) and Edwards, 33rd, 194.663.
“We’re off quite a bit and trying to figure out what it is,” Edwards said.
Young guns looking good
Sprint Cup rookies Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon would be in The Chase if the season ended today.
Larson, 22, and Dillon, 24, have enjoyed solid seasons, but they are still without a victory.
Larson, competing in the No. 42 Target Chevrolet for Chip Ganassi, is 10th in the points with three top-five finishes.
Dillon, running in the No. 3 Dow Chevrolet for his grandfather Richard Childress, is 15th.
“Kyle Larson doesn’t surprise me,” said Matt Kenseth who held the points lead before the race last Sunday at Pocono. “He’s shown a lot of speed in everything he’s driven so he was a sure bet.
“Austin’s interesting. He’s been super consistent all year.”
Larson, who qualified 12th, was fastest during the afternoon practice with a lap of 198.424, followed by Gordon (198.265), Harvick (198.238), Johnson (198.183) and Brian Vickers (197.797).